Coopers Rock: Morgantown, West Virginia

I have lost count of how many times I have been here. I started coming to Coopers Rock State Forest in Morgantown, West Virginia, when my family first moved to the town, which was seven years ago. The 12,000-some acres of beautiful hiking trails begin just a couple exits down the highway from my parents’ house. No matter which trail I plan on hiking, I always start off by taking in the view at The Overlook – imagery that simply never gets old. The hills of the Appalachian Mountains fall sharply into the tumultuous Cheat River at the bottom of the country crevice that The Overlook overlooks. Boulders stand in all postures throughout the grounds below and behind me, looking as if they’d been dropped into their place from the sky. The haze of the horizon distracts me in scenic areas like this one. No matter what type of landscape unfolds around me, I return to that indigo blur at the back of the frame every few minutes as if to contextualize that which is before me. I do this at The Overlook of Cooper’s Rock. I do this every time.

%Gallery-190472%I wonder about the man who was the park’s namesake, the fugitive who hid out near this very overlook to escape the police more than 150 years ago. He happened to be a cooper by trade and he continued honing his skill and doing business with the communities surrounding Coopers Rock while hiding out for many years. The story is legend in these parts and it’s said that no one knew the cooper’s name, but if I had to guess, he hid out in this forest somewhere between the years of 1836-1847, since he purportedly survived by trading his handcrafted barrels for food at the worksites of the five furnaces that were on the grounds at the time. The biggest and most famous of those furnaces was the Henry Clay Iron Furnace, which employed around 200 people and, although completed in 1836, stopped operation shortly after in 1847. No one knows where exactly the cooper lived, but legend has it that he lived near The Overlook and many speculate that he lived in the cave right below The Overlook.

But there are countless caves and cracks and crannies throughout this park. That’s part of the reason I keep coming back – I discover something new each time.

The mountain air is fresh and reliably rejuvenating. I swallow it in a hurry with a thirst that can only come from living in a populous concrete city. My 6-year-old niece is with me, as well as my husband and my two dogs. As for my niece, this is her first time ever hiking. She says she wants to climb rocks and so I let her. I carefully explain some of the basic free climbing principles to her and instruct her to apply the focus she’s learned from practicing yoga with me toward this new activity. She does so masterfully, making me smile with pride as I stand beneath her, watching her every flinch and waiting for what I perceive to be the inevitable fall. She never falls. Instead, upon conquering each boulder, she requests a go at a bigger boulder and we move on in a perpetual search of “bigger.”

I return the following day and take the dogs through a portion of the park I’ve never explored on the opposite side of Highway 68. We meander along a stream on the Glade Run Trail until it leads us to a pond wherein one of my dogs spends the next 30 minutes swimming, furiously and fastidiously retrieving flung sticks time and time again.

When I make it back to the car on this second day, on this numberless departure, I am struck with the recognition that it’s a special thing to so deeply treasure a place so close to home, to not be lost in its familiarity but rather stricken continually by its treasures hiding and awaiting my discovery, to always seek and find its newness. I’m grateful for this and promise myself to try to remember this lesson for all places, though not all places were created equal.

Appreciating Winter in West Virginia

West Virginia is about as Appalachia as Appalachia gets. For those of you who don’t know, Appalachia isn’t just a mountain range… it’s an adjective that describes the culture of this sliver of a region in the USA. And of all the states the Appalachian Mountains pass through, West Virginia is the only one enveloped completely by these rolling hills. It’s a small state. It borders several other states and isn’t too far from big East Coast cities (my folks live just 3 hours from DC), and yet I get this ubiquitous sense of aloneness in West Virginia that I don’t easily find in other places. Maybe that’s why I like it.

Being raised in a section of Appalachia close to West Virginia, southeast Ohio, I learned early on to appreciate the enchanting beauty of this region. Bluegrass is big, just like you’d imagine, and even Moonshine has its place. But the outdoors are the bigger attraction in this area of Appalachia. Rock climbing, caving, snow boarding, skiing, hiking, white water rafting… the options are exhausting. Even on my most languorous days, I find the scenery to be inspiration enough.

Although it is believed the Appalachians were once the highest mountains on earth (It’s said that they were higher than the Himalayas during the Ordovician Period, about 466 million years ago, when they connected to mountains in Morocco), they’re much more humble highlands these days.

%Gallery-112317%The area my family calls home is part of the Appalachian Plateaus, one of the thirteen provinces that make up the mountain range. Generally speaking, the Appalachian Mountains act as the geographical dividing line between the eastern seaboard of the USA and the Midwest region, so generally speaking, I grew up in Ohio but not in the Midwest.

My family relocated to West Virginia after I’d moved out and on to New York. So while I don’t regularly visit my hometown anymore, going ‘home’ still looks the same… rugged hillsides and sprawling valleys contrasted against stunning sunsets–at least most evenings. There’s something especially beautiful about this area and people I meet who have spent time there seem to agree… something about the landscape just stills you. This area in the winter is particularly magnetic and eerie, quiet and calm. Take a look at the photos from my most recent trip and see if you can catch a glimpse of what I mean.

[photos by Ben Britz]