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.

Sky Rock: Morgantown, West Virginia

Sky Rock. It sounds like what it is: a Native American name given to a large, protruding rock that is stacked high into the sky. I had heard about Sky Rock in passing when I went to visit my family in West Virginia. I had passed the road that led up to the rock several times and yet never lifted my turn signal to make that left. But my last trip to West Virginia was different. My father had just been hospitalized again and the outlook seemed bleaker than ever before. My husband and two dogs joined me in my van and we drove 30 hours from Austin, Texas, to Morgantown, West Virginia. My father has been struggling with his health for years now, but my trips home prior to this one broached the subject more gently. I would ask to cook dinner for the family, but never really insist. By the same token, I would ask my father to join me for walks or hikes, but always leave the request open-ended and optional. This trip was different.

%Gallery-161128%I first saw my father and mother in the hospital room, with the hospital’s lead cardiologist hovering over my father’s bed, explaining his prognosis with as much sensitivity as he could. I was exhausted from the drive and hardly able to combat the dizziness that accompanies this specific sort of stress. When the doctor left the room, I spoke firmly and with authority to my own parents.

“I’m in charge while I’m here. I’ll be cooking every meal. No questions asked. I didn’t drive 30 hours for questions.”

Once he was discharged from the hospital, I went to the grocery store and stocked up on the kind of food we simply never had around growing up: fresh produce. I prepared every meal with pleasure, relishing in the lack of resistance I faced in doing so. On my second day there, just one day after my father had been released from the hospital, I decided to finally visit Sky Rock for sunset.

“You guys should come,” I announced, unsure on whether or not my father was actually in any condition to walk along anything other than a straight and smooth path.

My parents surprised me when they agreed. We led our two dogs and their two pugs, into the car and went on our way. We parked the car at the bottom of the Sky Rock hill, known also as Dorsey’s Knob. A beautiful wall outfitted with mosaic art was the first thing we saw to our left. To our right rolled a steep drop leading to a pond surrounded by lush Appalachian greenery. We began the journey up the hill. My mother was nervous at first and instructed us to continue up the hill without them; she said my father’s heart couldn’t take the stress. He, however, was feeling restless after having spent a week in the hospital and he insisted on following us up the hill. As a friend recently pointed out to me, I might have inherited my streak of perseverance from him.

Once at the top of the graffiti-clad boulder, we lounged alongside our joyful dogs and consumed the expansive beauty of the colorful West Virginia sky at sunset. The West Virginia sky smears pastel-like colors across its canvas on every clear night. This is one of the things I love about West Virginia – the fact that the glowing sky at sunset is inspiration enough for a man like my father to climb the path to Sky Rock just one day after his release from the hospital.