Weird and wan­der-ful in the moun­tains of West Vir­ginia

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY AMY ORN­DORFF

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.

ACE AD­VEN­TURE PARK

There are enough in­flat­a­bles to bring out ev­ery in­ner child at the wa­ter park at Ace Ad­ven­ture Re­sort (which also has lodg­ing) in­Min­den.

AMY ORN­DORFF

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.

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