Deep in West Virginia the forest comes to an abrupt halt at the
lip of the New River Gorge, a V-shaped canyon that drops 876
feet into churning waters. The slopes are lined with sycamores
and river birch, whose tightly packed branches make them look
from afar like broccoli florets, but it is the canyon's upper
section, of splendidly flawed sandstone, that has made the area
a magnet for young people with chalk in their bags and rock on
their brains. The growing popularity of the gorge mirrors the
larger transformation of this verdant state, with its rumpled
topography, into an adventure-sports wonderland for climbers,
rafters and bikers and made it worthy of the moniker the West
of the East. But while that change has been a boon to many, not
everyone in the Mountain State has welcomed it.
To understand why not, consider the town that serves as a gateway
to the gorge--Fayetteville (pop. 2,754), a community warily
weaning itself from its traditional way of life. Today, rock
jockeys and river rats are embedded in the former coal mining
town like a bolt into granite. They gather at the Cathedral Cafe
on Court Street, in the belly of what used to be the old
Methodist church, to eat egg-white omelets and play guitar. Up
the street at the Water Stone Outdoors store, they meet to trade
stories. On the counter at Water Stone sits a copy of Climbing
magazine that rates the gorge as one of the top five climbing
spots in the U.S. On closer inspection the sinewy, dark-haired
young woman on the cover looks suspiciously like the sinewy,
dark-haired young woman behind the counter. Mention this to
Rachel Babkirk and she blushes. Bragging, you see, is not part of
the culture here.
Despite the rafting outfitters and stores like Healthy Harvest
and Hard Rock Climbing Services, much is unchanged from the
town's hardscrabble past. Parking costs a dollar per day
downtown, the theater has seasonal plays on Court Street, and the
American Legion Hall has a sign out front that advertises ALL NEW
BINGO EVERY SA. 7 PM with an illuminated arrow in which only two
of the seven bulbs are working. You can buy a two-bedroom place
within walking distance of the gorge for about $30,000, and a
basement apartment under Healthy Harvest runs $100 a month.
Men like Kenny Parker and Gene Kistler, the co-owners of Water
Stone, came for the climbing in the mid-'80s and stayed for both
the rock and the community. "Once you get here, you spend a lot
of time figuring out how not to leave," says Kistler, who moved
from Virginia with his wife, Maura, and whose home near the gorge
is a climber's hangout. "The town fought us all the way, but
we're what's keeping this place going."
In the beginning it wasn't the gorge that brought people to the
Fayetteville area but rather what was beneath it. In 1873 C&O
railroad laid tracks along the length of the New River, providing
easy transportation for the deep veins of "smokeless" coal, so
called because it was clean-burning and free of most impurities.
By 1905 there were 75 mines tearing into the coal seam 700 feet
above the water, and more than two dozen towns had sprung up
along the banks of the New.
The profits were extraordinary but so was the human cost.
Mile-long coke ovens churned out soot and sulfur, clogging air
and lungs alike, and explosions, cave-ins and gunfights thinned
the miners' ranks. More West Virginians lost their lives in mines
than in all our country's wars.
Eventually the coal dwindled, and the nation turned to oil as its
primary fuel source. By 1960, most of the mines along the New had
closed, and when the money left, so did the people. Fayette
County's population fell by 25% in the 1950s, 20% in the '60s and
17% in both the '70s and the '80s. As the area atrophied,
Fayetteville seemed as though it might become a ghost town.
But as the miners and their families moved away, rafters and
climbers moved in, drawn by the Class V rapids of the New and the
untouched rock. Cheap housing allowed men like Parker and Kistler
to settle in, and the vacant storefronts in the town center were
easily converted to outdoors shops and businesses catering to
tourists. That's not to say Fayetteville greeted them with open
arms. Many longtime residents resented the Teva-clad kids' taking
over the town and fought them. New restaurants had to jump
through hoops to get liquor licenses, and there were battles over
school consolidation, the creation of a historic district and the
police force's tendency to give speeding tickets to out-of-state
visitors. On a mailbox not far from downtown there's a sign that
depicts a man relieving himself on the word tourists.
The struggles in Fayetteville were played out across the state.
West Virginia has long been caricatured as a land of moonshine
and hillbillies, and more than a few residents are distrustful of
outsiders. (Not that the state hasn't contributed to its image:
In 1998 the West Virginia legislature passed a bill that allowed
citizens to collect and eat roadkill.) Adapting to the influx of
adventure-sports enthusiasts has been a challenge.
Despite the strains the state is being transformed. People are
now drawn to West Virginia by what lies above the ground rather
than under it: the wonders of the gorge, the rapids of the Gauley
River, the mountain-biking terrain of Slaty Fork and the camping
of the Allegheny Highlands. Blond and blue-eyed, with the
climber's telltale ripped physique, Shawn McCauley of Roanoke,
Va., has been coming to the gorge almost every weekend for 10
years. At 26 he's in his last year at Radford University in
Virginia, majoring in urban and rural planning, but he's already
decided that when he graduates, he's moving to Fayetteville to
work at Water Stone full time. "I pretty much decided that the
first time I came here," he says with a smile.
Where else in the U.S., he asks, can you live such a life? On the
average day, he says, "We all get up pretty early, though you
don't have to because everything's five minutes away. We get
together at someone's house and chug some coffee. Then everybody
grabs their dogs and splits into cars. Climb all day and repeat."
Once a month or so, everyone gathers down at the Kistlers' for
homemade bagels or chili. People filter in and out all night,
talking in the clipped, adjective-laden lingo of climbers. Most
of them need an ampersand in their job description: teacher &
climbing guide, writer & rafting guide, and so on.
On the south side of town the locals gather in a roadside tavern
called Charlie's. It's the kind of smoky place where foam trucker
hats are stapled to the ceiling, 75 cents will buy you a Stroh's,
and camouflage suspenders are a popular fashion statement. At the
bar one can find men like Sib Weatherford, 36, who grew up in
Fayetteville. He's a part-time whitewater guide now, one of the
longtime locals now involved in the tourist business. "There's a
divide between the outdoorsmen and the rest," he says while
sipping a Coors. "The old crowd with money don't want change, but
there's less animosity than there used to be.... I think they
figured out that the tourists bring in dollars." He smiles. "And
everybody likes dollars."
Perhaps the most encouraging symbol of change in Fayetteville is
in the heart of town. Built by a coalition of locals, climbers
and rafters in 2002, Play-itville is the town's new playground.
Visit on a warm summer day and you'll see children who are
happily ignorant of whether their playmates are the sons of
rafters or the granddaughters of coal miners. From afar
Play-itville looks like most any other playground, a miniature
skyline of swings and slides. Look closer, however, and you'll
see something unique: There are two textured climbing walls,
rising like twin tributes to the gorge that made them possible.
For more about sports in West Virginia and the other 49 states,
go to si.com/50.
than there used to be. People figured out that they bring in
dollars. And everybody likes dollars."