When I do get around, I write about it. If you want to read exclusively about my visits to United States presidential sites, you can do that over here.
Travel: West Virginia
You really owe it to yourself to visit the happiest state in the union.
West Virginia State Wildlife Center
September 26, 2014
Zoos are a hit-or-miss proposition. In their early days, their design was essentially perfect: Exotic animals were put in small cages, and people could get very close to those cages. For a nominal fee, excited visitors could pelt the jewels of God's creations with corndogs.
Some uptight hippie decided that this was inhumane, so zoos rethought their presentation. Animals are now kept in enclosures where they have room to walk around and interact with things that vaguely resemble nature. If you don't visit at the right time of day, you mostly see obscured slivers of the jewels of God's creations as they sleep behind logs and trees.
It stands to reason that a West Virginia zoo could go either way. Parts of the state are modern, and other parts have been unspoiled by cultural or economic development. I got to check one out in September 2014. My wife and I met my brother and his wife in Weston, for the purpose of touring a haunted asylum. But that was a nighttime event, so we needed to kill time.
That's not the easiest thing to do in central West Virginia, if you aren't planning on hiking, boating or smoking crystal meth in the woods. Fortunately, the state puts out a guidebook which has wide distribution in the lobbies of Super 8 motels, and it suggested a visit to the State Wildlife Center. We went 12 miles east of Weston to Buckhannon, the thriving metropolis of 5,500 people. After a late breakfast and some antiquing -- small-town America is perpetually eating itself -- we went 12 miles south to a zoo in the middle of nowhere.
For our purposes, nowhere is Upshur County.
The property was originally used as a solution to a problem: West Virginians' love of killing. Game animals were raised there, but it was soon discovered that the creatures raised in captivity were soft and weak. After a while, the state converted it to a haven for animals that appear naturally in West Virginia. For good measure, they threw in animals that West Virginians enthusiastically eradicated from within their borders.
It's actually very cool. The animals are kept in cyclone-fencing enclosures along a paved 1.25 mile loop, and for whatever reason most of them don't care about hiding. They weren't exactly putting on a show, but they did hang out down front, or in plain view. Even cooler, there were hardly any kids there. Children are a great joy to their parents, but in my many visits to the National Zoo, I have mostly wished that the visiting children could be kept in cages. Preferably the same ones with the tigers.
Among other things, we saw:
All of these animal encounters came at the price of $3, making the West Virginia State Wildlife Center one of the finest entertainment bargains in the greater Buckhannon metro area. If you're ever wandering aimlessly through central West Virginia, and it's not the winter, you really should stop by. If it is the winter, I guess you can smoke crystal meth in the woods. That's a year-round activity.
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
September 27, 2014
Being married to me is a waking nightmare, but my wife still enjoys the supernatural. We watch a lot of television featuring ghosts, demons, vampires and zombies. She believes she met a ghost on a trip to New Orleans -- and unlike most people in New Orleans, she was not in an altered state. My wife also enjoys tragedy. Each night, she falls asleep by watching "murder" shows on the Investigation and Discovery Network. When she listens to audio books, they're usually about serial killers.
In short, it's clearly in my best interest to keep my wife as happy as possible at all times. While Christmas shopping in 2013, I stumbled on a delightful gift that speaks to all her interests. I bought her a ghost hunt at a lunatic asylum.
The facility is known as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. When construction started, it was in Weston, Virginia. Then the Civil War happened, and ownership amicably shifted to the new and prosperous state of West Virginia. The asylum closed in 1994, so there's more than a century of psychic residue dripping off the walls.
Ghosts or no ghosts, it's a cool building. It was designed under the "Kirkbride Plan," a philosophy developed by the guy who ran the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane. Thomas was a few decades ahead of his time, taking a "form follows function" approach -- he thought hospitals could be built in such a way that the structure enhanced the treatment of patients.
Dozens of Kirkbride hospitals were built in the 19th century. A large central structure is flanked by two long wings. Each wing has an "echelon" alignment: it is broken into two or three long hallways. The end of the first hallway has a passage leading to the start of the second, and so on. Supposedly, the long hallways gave patients room to wander, while the divisions provide more privacy. Also, by designating each hallway as a "ward," doctors can more easily organize patients according to gender, age or malady. Some of the hallways have social areas, where patients can play games or sit in the sunlight.
And lunatics weren't the only residents at the hospital. Originally, it was expected that doctors and nurses would live on the premises, sometimes with their families. Wards were set aside as apartment space, and the central structure had nicely furnished social areas and offices for the medical professionals. Your children would wake up each morning to the screams of the insane, but you couldn't beat that commute. The Weston building also has a big community room in the middle of the third floor, which the town used for dances and meetings -- prom might have been a few feet away from the rooms where people were getting electroshock therapy during the day.
This was all very noble, and by modern standards also very stupid. Amazingly enough, playing checkers with a paranoid schizophrenic won't cure your bipolar disorder. People were demonstrably dumber in the 19th century -- homeopathic medicine and patent medicine were also really big at the time. They used to institutionalize people at the drop of a hat. People were put in Trans-Allegheny for suppressed masturbation, deranged masturbation and political derangement.
But at least they tried, right?
Setting aside the soundness of Kirkbride's theories, the hospitals ultimately weren't used the way he envisioned. Trans-Allegheny is a ridiculously huge building designed to hold fewer than 300 patients. Modifications (like the removal of doctors' quarters) increased the capacity, but at its peak the building held more than 2,000 patients. If you think your roommate drives you crazy, imagine being crazy already, then having to share a room with two deranged masturbators. It's not going to help your state of mind.
To my knowledge, there are no functioning Kirkbride hospitals in the United States, but enormous Victorian buildings have a way of sticking around. The Weston hospital decayed for a few years, but eventually it got a historical preservation listing, and someone decided to operate it as a tourist destination. They came up with the brilliant idea of doing ghost tours -- because if you believe in ghosts, then they pretty much have to live in a place like the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.
Our ghost hunt started at 11:30 p.m., but we made sure to swing by the building in the afternoon. For insurance purposes, I wanted to have some nice bright photos of the place where I might descend into madness. We came back in the evening -- Allyson and I were joined by my brother and sister-in-law -- and after a brief registration period, we reached out to touch the eternal void.
We were put into a group with about six other adventurers, and our guide started us on the first floor. Zach walked us around the wards and told us what they were used for. (Cheerily, we started out on the pediatric wing.) He related the encounters that other ghost hunters had experienced over the years, which gives you a sense of what to expect:
Once we had the information we needed, we were set loose on the first floor. No one in our immediate group had "ghost hunting" equipment, aside from digital cameras and $2.50 flashlights purchased at the Weston Walmart earlier that day. So for us, touching the eternal void meant sitting on a dirty floor in the dark for 45 minutes. This attracted very few ghosts, so we got smarter as the night went on. On the second floor, we had Zach show us his ghost hunting equipment, and on the third floor we had him conduct a session with us.
We went to the end of one wing, far from other ghost hunters, and sat in a dark room. Zach decided to go with the "Rem Pod," an EMF field detector built just for ghost hunters. It's a small canister with a stubby antenna in the middle, and four different colored lights around the antenna. Once the pod gets a baseline reading, it lights up like a "Simon" console and makes noises whenever there's some deviation from that baseline. Apparently, all life is energy, and when you die your energy can float around in the atmosphere, or soak into the porous stone of certain kinds of buildings, or cause my wife's bed stand alarm clock to gradually speed up over time. There's no other explanation.
Zach set a pack of cigarettes on top of the pod, then we all sat around while he asked questions of the spirit world. If you're wondering what to ask while hunting for ghosts in the privacy of your own home, try these:
The Rem Pod didn't go off, and Zach conducted another session -- this time with most of the tour group -- on the fourth and final floor. This time, he put the pod at one end of a hallway, while we sat at the far end. He once again used cigarettes as bait, because apparently the spirit world has a serious nicotine problem. There was a nice undead-worthy fog going outside, the building was as cold as it was going to get for the night (there's no heat) and everyone was starting to get punchy, because it was 4 a.m. Everything was set to cross the blurry line between dimensions.
And then, 10 minutes into it, the one weirdo who was traipsing around by himself all night decided to clomp down the hallway with his flashlight and ruin the mood. Spirits want everything to be just perfect before they commune with the living; if anything is a little bit off they say they have a headache and change into flannel pajamas for the evening. The biggest problem with ghost hunting, as in most activities, is the living.
The upshot is that we saw no ghosts, despite the many horrible things that happened in that building -- suicides, patients murdering other patients, children wasting away, awkward high school slow dancing. It wasn't for lack of trying. I'm a skeptic, but the asylum crew did a great job presenting the hunt in a straightforward way. They don't promise anything dramatic, they ban the majorly hokey things (like Ouija boards), and they offer a lot of legit history. When we were sitting there in the darkness waiting for the EMF meter to go off, I didn't think it would. But I really, really wanted it to.
March 1, 2010
I'm a big fan of bathing; I try to do it at least twice a week. But in this day and age, with our high-falutin "running water" and "indoor plumbing," we forget that bathing was once an event.
But they don't forget at Berkeley Springs! That fine West Virginia town (est. 1776) was the Vegas of the late 18th century, only with fewer hookers and less organized gambling. It's billed as America's first resort town. Water comes out of the ground at a delightful 74, so they slapped some spas on the main drag and let people revel in the sumptous, vaguely sinful experience of not smelling like sweat and horses for a few hours. It was an experience enjoyed by no lesser a man than GEORGE WASHINGTON.
We've all heard the stories about the Father of our Country being impervious to dirt and stains, but they might have been farfetched: George definitely took a soak. They even have his favorite bath marked!
The word you're looking for is "underwhelming." Your eyes do not lie; it is a small ditch, just a few feet deep, with a sign attached. There's no way George fit in that thing on horseback, and he wasn't doing snuff off any busty wench's bosom while the jets worked his lumbar region. They don't even have jets. There are minnows swimming along in February (courtesy of the warm water), but there's nothing to truly capture the majesty of an 8'3", mostly naked and glistening George washington emerging from the waters, trident in hand. You know, history.
George first came to the region as a young surveyor, and he returned several times in part for the alleged healthful benefits of a hot soak. He might have been onto something. Me and three intrepid friends tried out the Roman Baths on Saturday: you enter the bathhouse, pay the teens at the desk, and they fill up a 6 1/2 foot Victorian-style bathtub (the water is heated an extra 28 degrees to 102). Then you "let the magic happen" for about half an hour. I was skeptical at first, but in only 30 minutes my sore knee, dry skin, heart disease, social anxiety disorder and financial illiteracy were totally, completely gone. It's science! From the Berkeley Springs web site, here's the mineral content of the water and my general understanding of what each mineral does.
That stuff works wonders, I tells ya. We had some photo documentation of the whole magical event. That's because we, as beautiful people, were singled out by a reporter and photographer of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
They cropped the case of Cristal out of this shot, because it's a family publication. Oddly enough, my bathing was NOT the newsworthy event of the day. The reporters were just fleshing out their story about the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting, where the elite meet for discreet water treats. It's an annual showdown to determine the best-tasting water in the known universe, and it involves a bunch of judges sitting at a table, drinking water for a few hours. You're thinking: no WAY you got into this event, Chris. It's too high-profile and exciting, even for a high-roller like you. Guess again, chump. We totally rocked the municipal water tasting event. What's more, we even TASTED WATER! They had samples of the aqua fina from a wide number of place, and you could just go right up and ask for it! They were giving away water LIKE IT WAS WATER!
I don't have a refined palate, so I can't tell you what makes for good-tasting water. But I can tell you that everyone on Long Island, New York, would be perfectly justified doing their laundry with Dasani. That water was disgusting, and it almost made me and my friends gag. There's no way it could have made it to the finals without the help of mafia bribes. You want to think that the world of competitive municipal water tasting is pure, so the very presence of that foul swill upset mea great deal. Still, my opinions don't count on a tasting contest (Hamilton, Ohio was the winner). They DO count on the people's choice award for bottle design:
I was particularly drawn to the bottle for Bling H2O, which sells at $50 a pop. But then again, I am the kind of guy who wants people to know that I can pay $50 for water. The only thing missing from their stunning packaging is some kind of siren on the cap, to draw the attention of anyone in the room who did not realize I was paying $50 for water. And who won the bottle design contest? Bling H2O. The rich get richer. As a Republican, that's what I'm all about.
I have but two regrets for the day. First, that we could not stay to see the awards ceremony (no one had packed formalwear). I really, really want to know what a municipal water award acceptance speech is like. I hope someone thanked Jesus and their agent. Second, that while browsing a local antique shop, I did not pull the trigger on either the "Archie Bunker's grandson" doll with its anatomically correct peeing action, or this fine-looking book:
Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine
May 17, 2011
Anyone who'd marry me clearly has a taste for adventure, so for Christmas I got my wife a gift certificate for West Virginia.
It's an adventurous state. Vast swaths have been carefully spared the ravages of economic development. It's culturally Southern, which means that the people are really nice and the beer is substanially cheaper. And thanks to the work of the late Robert C. Byrd, the entire state is accessible by huge ribbons of pristine interstate highway with NO TRAFFIC.
A few weeks ago we cashed in that certificate, and we started with West Virginia 101 ...
Even if your job sucks, you probably spend most of your shift above ground with the option of standing upright on coffee breaks. For a lot of 20th-century West Virginians, their day was spent crawling into utter blackness, staying in the utter blackness, and breathing in enough dust that their insides became utter blackness. Sometimes it's hard to wrap your noodle around how your grandparents lived without Twitter, or Hot Pockets; it's almost impossible to imagine how coal mining could be a way of life for a whole state.
That's less the case these days, since they now have machines to knock out the work of hundreds of coal miners, right down to fathering and raising a family of 12 semi-literate children. So the Beckley mine is meant to recapture the glory of an early 20th-century industrial compound. You enter through the company store, tour the supervisor's house and check out a school. They have a bachelor's shanty ($2 a month rent to the company), a family man's home ($4) and a church where you could worship the company god for a reasonable fee.
And after that, it's into the mine! Thanks to advances in goblin-fighting technology, modern mines are usually three to five miles below the surface. But the Beckley mine, operational in the early 20th century, was basically guys digging into a hillside to rip out a coal seam. For the tour, they put you on a little rail car and haul you into give some demonstrations of what the job might have been like. In a word: craptacular.
Carrying in all your gear and food, you weren't coming out into daylight for at least 10 hours. You were paid by the amount of coal you loaded, and if you had the parental wisdom to pull your kids out of school, any coal they loaded would go onto your total. Plus, you were constantly running the risk of suffocating on methane. Or having coal shards embed in your face when they dynamite the seam to free up the coal. Or having a roof collapse on you. Plus you probably couldn't stand up straight the whole time, and you were working in by the light of a tiny lamp that might blow out any second.
So your cubicle isn't really that bad.
The real thing about mining: it's a culture. The guides at the various camp structures (they were authentic buildings, relocated to Beckley) that we talked to were the kids of coal miners. One lady grew up with her six siblings in a two-room rental house; the lady in the school house went to a coal-camp school, as did her 11 siblings. The guy on the mine tour was an electrician who had spent 29 years working in mines.
Go Stand in the Corner
A fun little pickup at the coal camp school (almost no students past 8th grade) was a replica of a disciplinary "menu" -- the number of lashes with a switch a kid would get for various violations of school rules. Being rude to girls: 10 lashes. Gambling in school: 10 lashes. Drinking booze in school: 8 lashes.
Like I said, it's a culture.
Burning Rock Outdoor Adventure Park
May 18, 2011
I got my wife an ATV tour for Christmas. It seemed more personal than perfume.
Plus, we both get to enjoy it! The truly fun thing about ATVs is that they're definitely going to kill you. Jerry, our terrific guide at the Burning Rock ATV park, told us that they'll roll over "in a heartbeat." If you're riding along the side of a mountain, had a big breakfast that morning and aren't leaning into the hill, there's a 60 percent chance that you'll end up pinned under a few hundred pounds of Japanese craftsmanship. And according to some very persuasive shows I've seen on the National Geographic channel, if you're alone and no help is on the way, wolves will attack the instant the sun goes down.
So you can see why it's enjoyable. Burning Rock has 100 miles of trails. A lot of the area used to have coal mines (hence the name), but as various seams dried up, they needed something to do with the land, as moonshining and making out with your cousin isn't really economically viable on a large scale. They took dirt from mountaintop-removal mines, dumped it in some valleys, let the forest grow for a while, and BLAM! Instant ATV park. The logging and mining roads were perfect for ATVS, plus they keep adding trails. And how expensive can maintenance be? You want crappy roads when you're on an ATV.
We were booked for 8 a.m. on a Sunday, and it was just us and Jerry. They got us some ridiculous looking helmets, had us sign a piece of paper indicating that our deaths would be our own fault, and dumped us on some monster Suzukis. There was a light rain. Now, you're probably thinking that you need a lot of training to ride an ATV in the rain. They have that covered: they have you drive around in a circle on flat ground for two minutes. That qualifies you to sit on top of a mechanical pony that gets up to 50 mph and gun it up the side of a mountain.
Some things we learned on the way:
There are 10 distinct colors of mud, including gray mud, dark brown mud, really dark brown mud, really really dark brown mud and black mud. The Suzuki ATV handles about the same through all of them.
West Virginia is haunted. First off, you're dealing with the ghosts of meth addicts who were crushed under their own ATVs or burned in still explosions. But the much creepier thing is the haunted ruins. Coal companies built whole towns for their workers, and when the mines closed, they didn't exactly tidy up. In the middle of the woods, we came across the partially collapsed ruins of a church. Camps were segregated, and this was a black church. I'm not sure you can get more haunted than the ruins of a black segregated church without setting fire to a school bus.
Robert C. Byrd is sort of a big deal. Burning Rock's trails cruise past his home town and the spot where his high school used to be. Plus every restaurant in the area has a signed photo (circa 1970) on the wall. The main road in Sophia is Robert C. Byrd highway. If you get lost on the trail, you can pull out your pocket copy of the Constitution, say his name three times, and his ghost will lead you to the nearest spending earmark that he arranged for West Virginia. Like I said, West Virginia is haunted.
Even though the machine does most of the work, your back will feel some serious guilt for free-riding and sieze up the next day.
Riding in nice weather is the most amazingly fun thing ever. I base this observation on the fact that we rode through a cold drizzle for four hours, and all the water dripping off my helmet and rain coat was soaking my crotch, and I still had an excellent time.
We had a "full day" tour, which Jerry told us no one has ever successfully completed. We stopped at around 1. But Jerry, being the greatest ATV tour guide ever, felt that we deserved a little more adventure. So he hooked us up with a ride on the Burning Rock zip line. Now, the Burning Rock zip line is half a mile long. It descends 300 feet and you can get up to 60 mph if you have a tailwind. There are two lines, so you can race your friend. And naturally, with all that factoring in, my 100-pound wife ran out of gas 9/10 of the way down.
New River Gorge / Mystery Hole
May 19, 2011
For most people, five hours of straddling an engine would count as a full Sunday. But Allyson and I were getting our money's worth from West Virginia, so we took some of the truly awesome highways north that afternoon (thanks, Robert C. Byrd!) to visit the most iconic symbol of that great state:
My travels had already taken me to the Mystery Spot in St. Ignace, Michigan. That fine establishment (spoiler alert) is a shack built on the side of a hill, so that the floor is at a serious angle. All the walls have boards in a clear vertical pattern, set up to creat optical illusions. Once you're in the room, they give you demonstrations of water running uphill and that sort of thing. Your inner ear gets into a pissing contest with your eyes, and as a result you usually have a headache about five second into the demonstration.
The Mystery Hole is different, in that the guy who runs it has a moustache. The great mystery here why you paid money for this kind of thing, but I'm not the one to answer it. I now own a Mystery Spot t-shirt and a Mystery Hole mouse pad.
We had pretty much exhausted everything interesting in central West Virginia, but on the way back to the rental cabin, we had to cross the New River Gorge Bridge. It's a tourist trap -- not at all like the Mystery Hole -- but we stopped anyway.
That's the biggest single-arch steel bridge in America, if you're into that sort of thing. Aside from its general aesthetic elegance, consider the technological leap: before the bridge, the most common way to cross the gorge was liquoring up your mule with homemade moonshine until in had the courage to swim you across.
May 20, 2011
From 1961 to 1992, if nuclear death were about to rain down on Washington, the first priority for Congress would have been a lovely West Virginia vacation.
It would just be a matter of hopping on a CSX train at Union Station, then riding west to the Greenbrier. That railroad-owned luxury resort, just over the state line, was a playground to the rich going back to the 1800s. People hoping to "take the waters" (bathing was a big deal in an era where everyone smelled like feet) flocked to the natural springs, so some bright guy slapped a spa on the property. That way you could work up a sweat before you bathed, maybe by horseback riding, or hiking, or conspiring with your fellow rich people to grind the masses under your bejewled boot heels.
Over the years the hotel became stunning, with eye-popping decoration, refined luxury and a few world-class golf courses. In short, it was the perfect place to wait out the incineration of the East Coast, especially since the mountains and prevailing breezes would keep radiation clouds away. So Dwight Eisenhower -- probably motivated by the golf -- worked out a deal with the head of CSX. The government would pay $17 million to build a new wing on the hotel. They would hide the money by padding its usual payments to the railroad. And as part of the construction, the government would install a secret fallout shelter that could hold the entire Congress.
Somehow they pulled it off. Vague instructions and non-disclosure agreements were enough to keep the local laborers quiet; they had their suspicions but it was plausible that they were just building a hotel wing. Super-secret areas were accessed by doors that said "Danger: High Voltage," which kept the public away for 30 years. A handful of people in the know kept generators tested and operational, and the food supply was freshened up as needed. And -- here's the genius part -- they let the public use parts of the bunker. Huge blast doors were hidden in the open position behind false walls, so thousands of people had no idea that the hotel's "convention center" could double as office space for a post-apocalyptic Congress.
It was all blown to hell in the early '90s by an investigative reporter, who pieced together enough speculative evidence for a story on the bunker's existence. Since ICBMs had replaced the bombers of the early 1960s, divluging the location of the shelter made it completely useless. The government pulled up stakes, and CSX repurposed parts of the bunker as a secure data storage facility.
But the rest is yours to tour! You can't take pictures (because of the secure data storage angle), and mostly you're just seeing linoleum floor, utlity rooms and concrete tunnels. But it's a pretty damn awesome tour. Me and the superfriends definitely enjoyed the trip down horrible Cold War memory lane. Some fun Greenbrier Bunker facts:
John Tyler Slept Here
One of the other fun stops at the Greenbrier (assuming you can't afford the golf, the off-road driving lessons or hunting the unemployed for sport) is the Presidents Cottage museum. Since presidents have often been men of great wealth, distinction and bathing, it should not be surprising that many of them stayed on the property for a while.
The house itself is nothing spectacular. It has a nice spot on a ridge, but aside from a few neat murals inside there's no ass-grabbing artifacts. They converted the upstairs to a museum of all the famous faces that visited the resort over the years. But you should know that five presidents stayed overnight at the Greenbrier before the civil war, INCLUDING a honeymoon visit by John Tyler.
Now, John Tyler is not a man of any great distinction. But he did manage to set the presidential record for hip breaking, with 15 children. If he was there on a honeymoon, it's an even bet that I stood in a room where John Tyler conceived a child.
And man, that's a yucky feeling.
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