Weird and wander-ful in the mountains of West Virginia
I was thrilled whenmy husband told me he had bought us a lake house. Less so when he set it up in our living room. The six-person tent, he argued, could be erected by a lake and — ta-da! But wait, he said, there’s more! (There’s always more) . . . It doubles as a beach house.
Once I came around to accepting the freedom of our moveable house as a kind of blessing, I set out to christen it near the most amazing lake I could find. Ace Adventure Resort inMinden, W.Va., fit the bill, boasting a five-acre lake-turned-water-park with inflatable jungle gyms, giant slide and zip line that ends with a splash, as well as an expansive campground.
Our trip toWest Virginia would be a quintessential (albeit abbreviated) American summer road trip. We’d splash around in a soupedup swimmin’ hole. We’d visit the kitschiest wonders of the world. We’d explore the wildest mountains and gape at the New River Gorge Bridge, a feat of engineering that saves folks from driving all thewaydowna mountain only to go back up again. Did I mention it’s taller than the Washington Monument with two Statues of Liberty stacked on top? ’Murica!
After five hours of driving up, down and around mountains, we arrived at the resort well after nightfall and found our way to the Lost Paddle Lounge, where Bob Marley was
playing through the speakers and a handful of young folks were relaxing and shooting pool. The dining room had closed for the night, so we each ordered a beer and headed outside where a tent sheltered picnic tables, a small stage and cornhole sets.
Beers downed, we made our way to our campsite. The resort has a dozen cabins, as well as sites that fall on the nicer side of “roughing it” — think tents on wooden platforms. But we were there to spend a night in our new house, so we were bedding down in the rustic neighborhood. The scene was humble: grassy area, picnic table, small fire pit and a trash can. Nearby a communal bathhouse (with individual shower/sink/toilet rooms!) provided a bit of light. By the glow of the bathhouse and our car headlights we pitched our “lake house” and settled in for the night.
The quiet hours are midnight to 8 a.m., which is considerably liberal by campground standards. Neighbors pushed that curfew, singing off-key renditions of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” late into the night.
The sun came up shortly after our neighbors went to sleep, and we finally had our first look at the lake. A 15-foot-tall iceberg climbing wall lorded over the other inflatables, including jungle gyms, trampolines and wobbly-looking Saturns. But the big three — a 40-foot-tall water slide, zip line and blob trampoline — were the ones I was eyeing. After donning my mandatory personal flotation device I chose to enter the water via the slide.
What followed was a couple hours of what I imagine the ideal childhood summer is like. I climbed to the top of the iceberg, bounced on the trampolines and glided down the zip line. The water was the perfect temperature of cool, and the air the perfect temperature of warm. With every ear-popping elevation change we had left Washington’s hazy, hot and humid climate behind.
While there were plenty of splashing families in the water, more than once I took a minute to just float calmly and appreciate the steep mountains that surrounded the lake and the blue sky spotted with cotton-candy clouds.
Getting out was a struggle, but I follow two philosophies of travel: Schedule what you really want to see and leave plenty of time for unexpected detours. The other thing I had on the itinerary for the weekend was a stop at the New River Gorge Bridge that’s minutes from the resort. The longest steel span in the Western hemisphere beat out about 1,800 entries (including one for the legendary figure Mothman) to be showcased on the back of West Virginia’s quarter.
The bridge towers 876 feet over the National River, a playground for whitewater enthusiasts. In addition to being a pretty thing to look at, it has a catwalk under the bridge that visitors can strap onto for a walking tour and, for the more adventurous, B.A.S.E. jumping (it stands for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth) once a year. We chose to view the mammoth structure from the safety of the overlook near the Canyon Rim Visitor Center.
After a morning of swimming and bridge gawking, we chose to eat at the first place we could find — Mackie’s Biergarten. Across the road from the visitor center entrance, the food-truck-size stand has a bar and picnic tables. The limited menu includes local brews, brats, fries and (a top seller) Korean BBQ sliders. After filling up we had to politely decline the invitation to return for live later that night — we had wanderlusting to do.
The art of wanderlusting is something passed down to me from my dad. By his definition, it means driving around aimlessly and, when you see something worth stopping at, making it your “destination.” We had picked up two brochures at the campground and, with a vague understanding of where we were going, headed to see what is claimed to be West Virginia’s only working lighthouse.
Erected in 2012, the white tower does sit near a body of water (Summersville Lake) and is an aid to navigation (planes, not boats). Mostly I saw it as something built to get $7 from tourists. Still, I gave up my cash willingly to have a guide lead me up the 122 steps to the top and tell me a little more about the landmark.
But it wasn’t the gimmick I had gleefully anticipated. The busted windmill was repurposed, students from the nearby Fayette Institute of Technology built the spiral staircase inside and a nearby airport donated a vintage Fresnel lens. It was more a story of a small town coming together to build something iconic, and from the top I could appreciate the vision.
Our next brochure-inspired stop was the Mystery Hole. If UNESCO World Heritage Sites honored kitschiness, the Mystery Hole would be a top destination. The brochure lured us in with all the skill of a carnival barker: “UNBELIEVABLE — an experience that will intrigue you the rest of your life.”
The building that houses the spot where “the laws of nature are defied” features a gorilla on the roof, a vintage VW Bug crashed into the side and an eerie-looking clown over the entrance. It was enough to hook me as well as about a dozen or so other people who lined up for one of the 15minute tours.
Inside, as the brochure promised, we felt our balance upset. The “hole” is really a room under the building that seemed tilted at a 45-degree angle, but some of the tricks (if that’s what they were) were still difficult to explain. I tried not to overthink it: Just enjoy the feeling of vertigo.
The next morning, we headed for another brochure-driven outing, to the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine. As the great-great-music granddaughter of a coal miner, I was eager to see the museum dedicated to the men who have done this dirty job. The tour includes a ride through a nowclosed mine. Even though the ceiling has been raised from what the miners would have worked in, and lighting has been added throughout, the cool, damp and dark passage felt claustrophobic as the train carrying me and 35 or so other visitors trundled along.
Two guides shared tales of what life was like miles underground. From the funny (putting Grandma’s false teeth in your water pail to ward off thirsty thieves) to the cringe-worthy (rats were harbingers; if they started running, miners followed and tried to get out fast), they gave a comprehensive look at life in the mines. It felt good to feel the sun on my cheeks as the tram pulled out of the tunnel.
Also among the brochures I had collected was a cave that claimed to have been the home of Bat Boy. If you didn’t go to a grocery store in 1992, you might have missed Bat Boy’s coverage in the now online-only black-andwhite tabloid the Weekly World News. The story went that the government had found and captured a boy who was raised by bats and had taken on odd features, including oversize pointy ears, razor-sharp teeth and ghoulishly big eyes. The tabloid followed his escape, exploits and eventual military service; a younger me believed every bit of it, and was terrified.
I decided to face my fear of the creature by visiting his turf, Lost World Caverns in Lewisburg. Flashlights in hand, my husband and I headed down a tunnel for a self-guided tour around what turned out to be home to magnificent stalactites, stalagmites and other intricate formations.
Upon exiting, I understood why Bat Boy would want to call West Virginia home. It is a very wild, very wonderful and very, very weird place.
There are enough inflatables to bring out every inner child at the water park at Ace Adventure Resort (which also has lodging) inMinden.
InMount Nebo, visitors can climb the 122 steps to the top of the 104-foot lighthouse at Summersville Lake Retreat, which claims to be the state’s only working one.