Almost Heaven

“I feel no need for any other faith than my faith in the kindness of human beings. I am so absorbed in the wonder of Earth and life upon it that I cannot think of heaven and angels.” –Pearl S. Buckley

Elixir. Metal Flowers. Ben Buzzard. Ground Himalaya. Radio Silence. Engine Village. Cranberry Pearl. Legends. Secret. Ancient Connection. Coal Trains. Capitol Shave. The Bird. Mountaineers. Rumpelstiltskin. Washington’s Bath. Charles Town Chew. Shape. Reading. Recipe. Gratitude.


There was no need to think of heaven or angels, they were here.  I stood outside my van and allowed my thoughts to shape themselves around the sounds of morning:   birds, forest, sunlight, meadows, pines and the vague whisper of wind and water. My breath flowed into the mountain air, my vision melted into the spring sky. The woods were a haze of soft shadows and light and the moment seemed to elongate into the fabric of dream. Had I been here before? I walked into the forest and slipped into the nearly perceptible conversation between the trees. Stopping at a fence, I watched misty apparitions abandoned by the night float in the fields, to be dispersed by the sun and hungry cows.

The Chief and I were driving through one of the most beautiful mornings in one of the most beautiful areas I’d ever seen; it was like the birth of the world. Shimmering milk chocolate creeks braided the lime hills and curved around mountains the color of deep watermelon. The sky, garnished with a lemon sun, was really an inverted crystal blue lake with sugared trees that dripped into it like candy stalactites. The morning was a deliciously sweet elixir.

Between sips, I was reminded of the real world by logging trucks with hungry grills. They straddled the narrow two-lane, barreling down on us from behind, riding the Chief’s rump like libidinous bulldogs. I pulled over and allowed them to blow by in a great growl of engine and wind, perhaps looking to mount another hapless romantic gawking at the scenery.

Metal Flowers

As the sun drifted deeper into day, we passed a handful of small towns like Dunmore, Frost, and Greenback. Each hamlet was adorned with a small sign demurely announcing its presence; each town announcement was underlined by an even smaller squeak “Unincorporated”. I later learned this meant “without a mayor.”

It must have been election season, local politicians and their boosters had arrayed the roadsides with quaint bushels of colorful metal flowers that proclaimed local candidacies:  Jonese for Sheriff;  Friel for Assessor;  Srode for Magistrate; Rode for Judge, Herndon for Comptroller, Saffer for Prosecuting Attorney. These were offices I realized, as a member of a democracy, I was woefully unfamiliar with. Jefferson may have been right, it seemed small towns and rural areas were the most able participants in a republic. They took their politics seriously.

Also interspersed among the breaks in trees were barns for hay and animals, guarding grids of grass that carpeted the valleys. Among these, making scattered guest appearances, were farmhouses and homes adorned with decks. Neighborhood spectators sat on the stoops, viewing their own version of the Today Show, watching a real-life commercially-clear version of Good Morning America.

Ben Buzzard

One of these audience members waved to me from his porch. I pulled over in front of a curious hand-painted sign he’d tacked to a tree:  I Collect Hats. His name was Benjamin Buzzard, a Bartholomew Cubbins all grown up and then some, with a long white beard and sparkling eyes. Leaping up from his rocking chair, he was already gesturing to the back yard before I’d even exited the van. His bespectacled wife yelled a hello from the screen door and told me she was on her way to dialysis. She waved her cane, motioning me to follow her husband. I asked if Benjamin was allowed to keep his hats in the house, she shouted back, “No way!”

I skirted the stoop decorated with rows of deer heads and met him at a rear trailer, noticing the neat color coordination of his blue jeans with blue suspenders and a blue shirt. A crumpled old black cowboy hat with a few shiny pins squatted on his head. Sunlight flared over his shoulder as he eagerly lead me to a small trailer in back. Before we entered he told me, cocking his head, that he owned 6564; he’d been collecting them for 4 years. Inside the trailer, every available surface was covered with hats. They were hanging from the ceiling, piled on the floor, and nailed to the wall. Slightly deaf, he chuckled when he couldn’t hear me. I decided to give him the cowboy hat I wore in the desert. His wife said thank god, she was tired of the other one. When I pulled out, they waved good-bye, but glancing in the rear-view mirror I realized, they may have been beckoning in the next potential donation.

Grounded Himalaya

Not far up Deer Creek I stopped to plant some apple seeds. Partially-eaten apples managed to collect under my driver’s seat until there was no more room. When they rolled against my feet I knew it was time to pull over and deposit them in the dirt with my little trowel. This was a perfect place for apple trees, so I parked on the grass to bury an armful of cores in the fertile Appalachian soil.

Appalachia comes from a Spanish interpretation of a Native American word. It’s now applied to one of the oldest mountain ranges on earth, and one of the tallest, having once reached higher than the Rockies and Alps, some say even higher than the Himalayas. Time and weather eroded them to their present stature, which at its highest, Mount Mitchell, was not much higher than my home town of Albuquerque. The mountain range extended all the way from Alabama to New Foundland in Canada, on a line stretching close to 1500 miles, and considered a geographical border between the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard. I’d already encountered the Appalachians many times, first as the Ouachita in Arkansas (once part of their range), then as the Smokies in Tennessee, in Georgia around Dahlonega, and again as the Blue Ridge of North Carolina. Now I was in the Alleghenies, smack dab in the middle of enchanting Pocahontas County.

Located entirely within the Appalachian Mountain range, West Virginia had the highest average elevation of any state east of the Mississippi. The relatively high peaks and Monongahela National Forest, almost 100 million acres, helped create a micro-climate similar to what one might expect in New Hampshire, Maine, and eastern Canada. The native forests varied with hardwood forests of oak, chestnut, maple, beech, and white pine, with willow and American sycamore along the rivers and streams. Almost the entire eastern half of the state, bordering Virginia, was parkland and national forest.

Radio Silence

Within this forest, within these mountains, I stumbled on a massive radio telescope towering over the trees. It seemed startlingly out of place. Grabbing one of my guidebooks, I learned it was part of the National Radio Observatory. I rolled into its parking lot, opened up the back of my van and made myself some breakfast waiting for its museum to open. Usually, I forgot to eat, but since I had some time, I made myself a small feast. Cold oatmeal soaked in water and flavored with honey. A shake with three-day-old unrefrigerated milk, protein powder, and honey. A grapefruit. And another apple, whose core I tossed under the driver’s seat. Meanwhile I peered at the numerous enormous telescopes that dotted the facility. When the doors opened I stepped inside. The bemused girl at the front desk said she saw my van pass her house several times that morning and wondered what I was up to. When I told her, she suggested I talk to Sue Anne Heatherly, in charge of the center’s education program.

Framed by huge windows, Ms. Heatherly described how the U.S. government set aside the region with a mandate to provide a state-of-the-art research facility.  We were in the middle of an enormous radio quiet zone, provided to ease interference for the telescopes. Astronomers applied for their use and then, if accepted, were scheduled in with about a 6 month waiting period.  On the way out, Anne took a picture of the Chief and me outside and offered a few tips. She suggested I take Highland Scenic Highway and make a stop at Cranberry Glades on my way down valley. I should also pass by Pearl S. Buck’s former home and museum, a famous West Virginian author.

Engine Village

The Chief and I dodged more trucks as we continued on through the Monongahela to Cass, an old logging town astride the Greenbrier River. It was now a tourist stop with a Scenic Railway where powerful timber trains carrying wood hauled tourists instead. I walked over the blackened railroad ties and past rusted buildings to the train repair shop, where two of the original steam locomotives were being prepared for the busy summer season. I was told these engines were specially built for the difficult terrain of the mountains. They said the station was closed, but if I came a few weeks later I could ride one of the trains, and stay in one of the company cottages that once housed logging families. Instead I had the vast parking lot to myself, and a shuttered General Store that provided a few windows for me to press my face against.

I pressed my forehead to the front windshield of the van, urging it over a steep winding road to Snowshoe Mountain, a ski resort and mountain bike destination. We made the ascent hoping for views and weren’t disappointed. Right now, like Cass, it was abandoned. At an empty condo complex, a young woman with gorgeous green eyes gave me a pile of brochures and directed me to the village.

Chairlifts dangled motionless over the rocky ground as a chill wind blew over the summit. I strolled the snowless ski runs that led down to Shaver’s Lake, and walked around the resort village, complete with sports stores, restaurants, and nic-nac shops.  On the way back down, the Chief’s gears growled and the brakes complained. I rewarded him at the base with gas and grabbed a box of Milkduds.

Cranberry Pearl

We aimed south into Greenbrier County to check out a famous resort. An indirect route allowed me to skirt along the Highland Scenic Highway, modeled after Skyline Drive in Virginia. Spring was still creeping into these elevations and the scenic overlooks provided views of spruce that melted into the hardwood forests far below. The Highway unwound like a black spool of thread, weaving its way through the changing texture of forest. Not another soul was on the road. I had the day all to myself.

At Cranberry Mountain visitor’s center I bought a book on birds and plants then drove the short distance to the glades, an island of primordial tundra climate trapped by circumstance and the mountain range. It reminded me very much of the sodden bogs I traversed in Finland and Norway. I knew the mosquitos must be horrendous when the coolness lifted. I was lucky; I hit the area at the perfect time…no bugs. Sunlight streamed onto the wooden walkways; signposts posted in the muck pointed out curious vegetation, some carnivorous and others over 12,000 years old.

Dropping elevation and into Greenbrier, the road crossed a series of gorgeous green valleys tended by farms. The sky was blue with a few fluffy white clouds overhead, dappling the fields with shifting shadows. Following Miss Heatherley’s final tip, I stopped at the home of Pearl S. Buck, now a small museum. It was closed, so I sat on the porch and read up on her. She’d envisioned the little house would become “a gateway to new thoughts and dreams and ways of life.” Pearl’s life on the property was brief; her missionary parents whisked her off to China at 3 months old. Growing up in Asia she formed ideas on discrimination, sexism, racism, and other issues which later galvanized the public through her writings. During the Great Depression, her book The Good Earth, was one of the most popular in America, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, followed by the Nobel Prize for literature.


I located a Walmart in Lewisburg, and settled into a local McDonald’s to order my usual 6 piece chicken nuggets, a side of ranch, fries, and a cheese burger. A buddy on Facebook put me in contact with friends that lived there; in the morning I peeked into their store.  A pair of friendly policeman on the sidewalk outside told me Lewisburg was recently voted one of the most livable towns in America. In the hills to the south was the home of Jesco, “The Dancing Outlaw”, a mountain dancer, Elvis impersonator, and local character who gained notoriety some years ago. More importantly for me, Lewisburg was also near the location of John Henry’s legendary death.

The Legend of John Henry is an American folktale that ranks up there with Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. I remember sitting on the floor of my family’s snug A-frame cabin in Colorado and listening to the story’s narration pour from a single-speaker record player. It told of the greatest driller on the C&O railroad, when crews were needed to punch tunnels through mountains. Big John Henry was a steel-driving man, the strongest, and a slave freed by the Civil War. When its construction arrived at Big Bend Mountain, the bosses decided to tunnel through it with a new steam-powered hammer. John Henry, to save his job and those of the men, proposed a contest with the drill, which he narrowly won. The men cheered as John Henry raised his arms in triumph, only to crash to the ground dead. A blood-vessel had burst in his head.

He became an icon of working men against an increasingly modernized world.  He was a symbol of racial tolerance and solidarity, of masculine power and stamina. Still, the tunnel took almost three years to build and cost nearly a thousand lives…maybe they should have stepped aside for the machines.


Certainly these men never saw the luxury of a place like Greenbrier Resort, one of the most prestigious in the country and famous for its springs. The Shawnee believed the waters had powerful curative powers.  Built decades before John Henry ever swung his hammer, the hotel housed such notables as Davy Crockett, and 26 U.S. Presidents. Situated on 6500 acres, with 3 championship golf-courses, the hotel contained 803 rooms and a 40,000 square foot spa. The property supported a staff of over 1800 to pamper and woo its clientele like royalty. Indeed, President Eisenhower chose this location to build a series of bunkers, complete with House and Senate chambers, living quarters and cafeterias, as a top-secret relocation facility for the U.S. government in the face of catastrophe. It remained so until the Washington Post broke the story in 1992. Now the bunkers were used for tours.

The resort town was White Sulphur Springs, whose streetlights were adorned with banners announcing a Dandelion festival. I found myself by the railroad tracks, poking through an ornate store entirely devoted to Christmas. I played with the idea of stopping by OakHurst Golf course, one of the country’s first, but was eager to move on, plowing through a light drizzle to Fayetteville and the bridge over New River Gorge.

Ancient Connection

A New River it is exactly not. In fact it’s considered the second oldest river in the world after the Nile.  More ancient even than the ancient Appalachians, it flowed opposite most other rivers, from south to north, delving a gorge almost a thousand feet deep.

The Gorge Bridge is the second highest steel arch in the United States, and at nearly 2000 feet, it’s the longest steel arch bridge in the world. This attracts all types of humans eager to prove the nuttiness of their species by parachuting and bungee jumping off its narrow span. On Bridge Day at the beginning of October, audiences convene to watch these daredevils in what’s become the state’s largest single day event, hosting over 100,000 people.

I stood on one of the viewing platforms, happy that the rain and season allowed me to experience the spectacle blissfully alone. Over my shoulder and across the chasm was the arch of the bridge, artificially connecting edges of land unconnected by millennia. Bridges like this are marvels, allowing us to cross efficiently from one place to another. But it seemed to me that bridges also loosen our connection with the rivers. The bridge is a metaphor for our ability to transform the world and to walk over it, to pass above nature and experience it at a distance. We trade convenience for connection.

My eyes swept over the primeval forest down to the water, white with rapids. There, far, far below was that connection. Even from this vantage one could feel the river carry the world’s memories in its waters and long forgotten stories under its slick stones. Historically, rivers provided us with food and fresh water, carved trade and communication routes, inspired poetry and song. Rivers claimed us and captured our souls, what would happen then, when we had captured all the rivers?

Coal Trains 

I rode the groaning Chief down the curving roads into the gorge, along tributaries that were here before and would be here long after we’d disappeared. The waters broadened into a bold metallic, and the lush hillsides were a perfect contrast to the smooth expanse of platinum sky. Skirting its course were railroad tracks laden with coal-trains, burdened with black heaps scratched from canyons to power our iPods and microwaves. In the 19th century, the Gorge produced more coal than anywhere else in the world. Indeed, West Virginia coal is credited with fueling much of our Industrial Revolution. The trade-off? Massive environmental damage and some of the bloodiest strikes in U.S. history.

I slept in a parking lot by the river, but the water’s sound was muffled by the trains. A John Henry nightmare, they moved like blind black centipedes, unloaded by what appeared to be unmanned conveyor belts and pulleys. Then, with empty stomachs they returned to the mines for more, as another took its place in line.

Capitol Shave

The Chief and I sat in a line ourselves the next morning, near the gold dome of the State Capitol building in Charleston. It was another grey drizzly day and I’d decided to find a coffee-house and write, settling downtown at one that doubled as a bookstore. I kept my eyes averted from the books as I walked through the shelves, already feeling their desperate tug at my wallet. By the front windows, I sat down with my Oakley backpack and two laptops to catch up with my online journal.

Not long after, a pair of elderly men shuffled in. “Well I’m glad you’re not in my chair,” one said to me. “This is my chair. I moved it to this corner here so I could see out the window, and still see what’s happening inside too. People keep sittin’ in it cuz it’s the best place. I’m sure glad you aren’t sittin’ in it.” Then he pulled up his overalls and winked. I smiled and tried to concentrate on writing, but somehow their conversation slipped under my fingers:

“What’re you doing, Quentin?”
“Well my wife’s getting a perm at 12:15, then I’m going over to the church. I’m on the Christian Formation committee.”
“So you’re just goofin’ off…Well, I’m glad it’s raining, my garden needs it. So when are you going away?”
“What’s today, the 17th?”
“The 18th.”
“Well, my watch seems to be slow. Is today Thursday or Wednesday?”
“I never know; I just don’t have any sense anymore.”
“I’m one day behind. I keep telling myself I’m going to wind my watch, turn it around, but I never get around to it. Anyway I’m leaving either tomorrow or the next day.”
“Are you packed?”
“About halfway. I gotta lot of stuff on the rack.”
“I got my haircut. At least I got that done on my list for the week.”
“I need to shave. I showered last night.”
“I’m skipping shaving sometimes; I’m just tired of it. I’m not shaving. My friends can say I’ve just gone to pot, but I don’t care.”
“Me either…but I need to shave.”

The Bird

When the heavens cleared, I was lured to the shining gold dome of the State Capitol building, moored along the banks of the Kanawha River. Several construction workers asked me about the van and what I was doing. They took me inside and gave me a tour. I was surprised by the lack of security, we just walked right in and poked around; I didn’t even see any guards. When I mentioned this, one of the workers said their Capitol building was for the People, anyone could walk in.

School children certainly did, forming sinuous chains as they echoed through the halls and accumulated in small groups around their guide. Since it seemed I was making a habit of eaves-dropping I listened in and learned a few things. The state of Virginia split in two during the Civil War, in effect, succeeding from the succession. West Virginia was the only state formulated by a Presidential decree, under Abraham Lincoln. We were told the first brick street in the world was laid in Charleston, and it was the first state to institute sales tax. I also learned that this small state would be bigger than Texas if they flattened out their mountainous terrain, or so they said.

One of the construction workers proudly returned with a pamphlet full of colorful pictures for me to look through; also packed with arcane architecture terminology. I stood under the giant central chandelier with the two of them peering over my shoulder and pretended to make sense of it. I understood that the outer dome was covered in gold leaf, but from there I got a little lost.  It turned into something like this: the outside walls were constructed of Indiana select buff limestone, the interior floors and walls from Tennessee marble and Imperial Danby Vermont Marble, including Belgian black and gold, Italian brown, Pink Georgian marble from France, and Verd Antique. Massive marble columns supported some kind of rotundas where there were bronze doors outside Corinthian columns and caps. Doric vestibules had something to do with ornamental terra cotta trimming around distinctive stone carvings below more columns at the base of the dome. There were bronzes, sculptures, and doors framed in classical fretwork, cupolas, symbols in frieze, old brickwork, carved walnut desks, and more doors, this time of quartered oak. Words like portico, entablature, dais, balustrade, architrave, tympanum, parapet, guilloche, and plinth all seemed to run together. When I finally got to the part about the outer arches, and how they were carved with the mythological figures of Mercury, Jupiter, and Minerva, I felt I was back in my element.

According to the architect quoted in those pages, “Public buildings, and especially the State Capitol, constitute the best evidences of the character of material, success and solidity, culture and civilization of a state.” When I closed the book I glanced up to find one of the construction workers flipping me the middle finger. “What’s this?” he said grinning. At a loss, I shrugged. “It’s the shape of our state.” We all smiled; he was right.


It’s impossible to avoid a beautiful drive through West Virginia. With John Denver’s Mountain Mama competing with the shout of my van’s wind tunnel, I made my way up towards the state’s thumb and middle finger to Morgantown. The sun had come out and I exerciesed at a local park, before walking around the campus at West Virginia University. The picturesque grounds clung to a hill overlooking the river. Home of the rowdy Mountaineers, the University was known as one of the top party schools in the country. With the possible exception of its sibling Arkansas, West Virginia was the most college-obsessed state I’d encountered so far. There wasn’t a store I entered anywhere, whether they sold comic books, lingerie, omputers, or food, that didn’t have “WV” paraphernalia for sale or displayed. From Pocahontas County to Greenbrier, Fayetteville to Charleston, to the roadside stops and gas-stations and restaurants, the Mountaineers reigned over every route.

And here I was, at the very epicenter. The Student Union was strewn with KONY2012 posters, and on the grassy commons above, Greek Week was well under way. Circled by cheering student crowds, and scored by music blaring from giant speakers, fraternities and sororities battled it out by jumping on each other, throwing each other, and climbing over each other, while attractive young women swiveled their hips, and young men flexed in kooky costumes. I knew I was witnessing a modern rite of passage and important example of Americana. These kids were our future.


In contrast, the next day at Cooper’s Rock, birds charmingly chirped the sun up the forest rim.  Light stirred the leaves into notes that scattered to the ground like paper chimes, echoing down the valley. I climbed onto a precarious rock pillar and felt the cold stone and warm light. Balancing over the drop, I watched the shadows recede from the valley, snagged by tendrils of sun. I was alone again, not lonely, just alone. I didn’t know the proper word for it. It seems that sometimes solitude allowed us to tap into what’s true and pure, to realize with less static an important lesson…that we’re not alone, not really, not ever. It’s easy to lose sight of this in a world we’re wired into, networking through, busy fulfilling relentless demands and obligations, constantly stewarding each other’s feelings and needs. Sometimes these feel like huge responsibilities, and turn into pressures that can render us hopeless, lonely, confused, and overwhelmed. Here, in the ever-shifting light, there was peace. I turned my head, voices wafted through the trees.

Ambling from the forest, I was greeted by a pair of elderly men outside their car. Each carried a McDonald’s bag and coffee cups; one was gnawing on an egg-Mcmuffin. They were Rotarians, in town for a meeting and interested in seeing some beauty for breakfast. One man, from Texas, commented that West Virginia was not what he expected, it was amazing, a hidden secret. I agreed. The other gave me a small State Rotarian pin; I couldn’t help seeing the thumb and middle finger in its shape. I was about to comment on it, but they were already down the trail towards Cooper’s Rock, ready to enjoy its solitude together.

Near my van I noticed a giant figure, with a velvety green beard reclining against a tree. As I approached, I realized it was sculpted out of leaves and sticks, bark and moss. He was an oversized Rumpelstiltskin, probably constructed by visiting students on a field trip. His eyes were closed, but he didn’t seem to be sleeping, he seemed to be listening. There was only the wind. He would listen to the wind until the wind, someday, blew him away.

Washington’s Bath

Near Cumberland, I picked up another hitchhiker, a musician who moved out this way to take care of his mother. I was curious what sort of conversation he would offer. Leaning close, he told me about Edgar Allen Poe’s death in the streets of Baltimore, where he was pummeled into the cobblestones by a mob drunk with campaign spirits. I admitted I hadn’t heard that version. When I dropped him off, he flagged me down again and knocked on my window. Unrolling it, he leaned in and said his brother lived in LA and gave me his number.  “If you ever need a job, give him a call.” Then he pointed me in the direction of Berkeley Springs and disappeared down the street.

Berkeley Springs was America’s original spa town, located in a valley of sandstone cliffs. As a young man, George Washington surveyed the area, and would return for the mineral waters that became a popular destination for Virginia’s Colonial elite. I walked streets lined with small stores selling crystals, Tibetan beads, and local art. Spas and small hotels offered the services of massage therapists, homeopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists, and various other practitioners beyond my budget range. A pretty central park contained the bath where George was reputed to have soaked. I took off my shoes and dropped my feet in, feeling the cool soft moss on the bottom, and tried not to think of George Washington nude.

Charles Town Chew

That evening I spent sitting at a Charlestown bowling alley. This was my big Friday night. I’d walked along the dark freeway with the intent of splurging on a $2.50 beer. But once there, I didn’t feel like drinking. I was content to rest on my elbows, cup my chin, and inhale the deodorants that masked people’s foot odor. I’m not a bowler, but I’ve always found something comforting about the lanes – listening to the balls echo down the wood, watching them return abruptly, regurgitated by the machine; the teams conversing, grumbling, cheering, flirting; and the shadow hands writing scores on overhead displays. A half-hour was enough; I headed back to the Chief to sleep.

Morning found him carrying me through rolling hills and farmlands on the way to Harper’s Ferry, my last stop in West Virginia. I stopped to take a picture of a barn painted with an ad, “Treat Yourself to the Best, Chew Mail Pouch.” I later learned these signs were created by the Block Brothers in 1908, who originated the concept of outdoor advertising. We have them to thank for all the billboards that grace our roads and highways.


Harpers Ferry resides below a shale bluff at the confluence of the Shenandoah and the Potomac Rivers. More famously, this was the site of abolitionist John Brown’s failed armory raid, a raid which ignited the Civil War. Brown was from Charles Town; and it was there he was tried for treason and hung, probably not far from the bowling alley.

Harpers Ferry is now a National Park composed of beautifully restored buildings in a steep dale. The first successful U.S. railroad was built here, the first industrial production of rifles using interchangeable parts occurred here also. Washington, Jefferson, Lee, and Lincoln all walked its cobblestone streets. They probably watched the rivers like I did out at the point, seeing the first wedge of sun on the waters, feeling the cold charge of wind. Below at their confluence, the waters merged gray with fingers of jade and lavender where the steep hills cast their reflections. It was no wonder Thomas Jefferson called the view one of the most “stupendous scenes in nature”.

Indeed this comment could be applied to the whole state. I withdrew the Rotarian pin the old man gave me at Cooper’s Rock and considered its shape. I thought about the construction worker flipping me the finger, backed by a wry smile. There was something in this. Maybe the state’s shape represented a light-hearted warning:  to stay away, for those unwilling to love it, and to those who did, to continue to keep its secrets. Not everyone could fit into heaven, only those willing to open their hearts and take the trouble to get there.  Here, absorbed in wonder, I listened to the pearly sounds bucking off the waters and knew it was the world’s memories being whispered. Now I too was part of that memory.


Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina; West Virginia: A History by John Alexander; Billy Creekmore by Tracey Porter; Dogs of God by Pinckney Benedict; Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-21 by Lon Savage;  Still Life with Plums by Marie Manilla; Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickam; West Virginia Ghost Stories by Jonathan Moore; The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls; When Miner’s March by William C. Blizzard;  Highway Robbery by John W. Billheimer


The pepperoni roll is an unexpected little West Virginia specialty that was reportedly invented in Fairmont in 1927, and was often used as a miner’s lunch in early days. It’s a soft bread roll with pepperoni baked inside, yielding a moist and spicy snack; variations include slices versus strips of pepperoni, the inclusion of cheese (pepper jack, mozzarella or provolone), tomato sauce and banana peppers. They’re popular throughout the state, ubiquitous in convenience stores, and can be found from small family bakeries up through local eateries.


  • 1 cup warm water (100 degrees F/40 degrees C)
  • 1/2 teaspoon white sugar
  • 1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 1 (8 ounce) package sliced pepperoni


  1. Dissolve 1/2 teaspoon sugar in 1 cup of warm water in a small bowl. Sprinkle yeast over the water and let stand for 5 minutes.
  2. Mix flour, 3/4 cup sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Stir in the yeast mixture, beaten eggs, and melted butter. When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes.
  3. Lightly oil a large bowl, then place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a light cloth and let rise in a warm place (80 to 95 degrees F (27 to 35 degrees C)) until doubled in volume, about 1 1/2 hours.
  4. Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease a cookie sheet.
  5. Punch down the dough, and divide it into 20 equal pieces about the size of a golf ball. Using your hands, flatten each piece into a small rectangle about 4 inches square. Place 3 slices of pepperoni down the center of each dough square, overlapping the slices. Place another row of 3 slices next to the first. Roll the dough around the pepperoni slices, pinch the edges closed, and place the rolls on the prepared cookie sheet.
  6. Bake the rolls in the preheated oven for 14 to 16 minutes, until the bottoms are lightly browned and the tops are barely golden.


Benjamin Buzzard his hats, Anne St. John for lunch and helping me at Harpers Ferry, Sue Anne Heatherly for the travel tips and info, Shy Little Churchmouse for always being there with the friend recs.

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