For many months after I was transplanted from our nation's capital to Charleston--West Virginia's small-town capital--I glumly defied the bromide "Find beauty in your own back yard." Finally, dubiously, I embarked on a get-acquainted road trip through the southeastern hills of my new home state and returned a changed woman: Call me Mountain Mama.
I met unabashed characters, saw unspoiled scenery, discovered secret waterfalls, and became a fair enough crafts queen to recognize old-fashioned quilt patterns and honeysuckle vine baskets, and to identify the work of local artisans and painters. I enjoyed the best meals I'd eaten in ages and slept peacefully in an airy mountain B&B, in a great country inn, and in a room that (so help me) was once a cell in a women's prison.
The journey begins at Charleston's Capitol Market, a renovated train depot filled with food and flower vendors. Plan a picnic and grab a latte for the road. It's 10 minutes down U.S. 60 to the Malden Historic District and the pink and teal wooden Hale House, where three generations of women (and one nimble-fingered husband) in the Cabin Creek Quilts cooperative sell meticulously handsewn goods. I thumbed through dozens of muted pastel and strikingly bold-colored quilts hung from the high ceiling like puffy area rugs, in traditional patterns like Flying Geese or the co-op's exquisite original tribute to an early patron, the Jackie O.
In the graceful, shaded Booker T. Washington Park across the road, I dutifully studied the memorial and was unexpectedly moved by the up-from-slavery story it told. Pensive, I returned to U.S. 60. Despite National Scenic Highway designation, the next 20 miles of the Midland Trail--a centuries-old Indian and stagecoach trace that is today mostly two-lane road--was unappealing. Industrial and impoverished towns rolled indistinguishably by.
At Boomer, something unusually adroit about the painted foaming mug announcing louie's cold beer made me slow down. I'm glad, or I would have missed the scale replicas of the Washington Monument, Boston Light, and other landmarks painstakingly constructed on the house-trailer lot next door. When I stuck my head into the dim interior of Louie's, the habitués warmly told me about Ed Welch, Boomer's premier sign painter. The frothy mug outside was his handiwork; the miniatures were his hobby. Though I'd barely left Charleston, I'd already discovered a roadside folk artist!
Soon, around Falls View, the trees thickened, the road wended docilely upward, and streams trickled over rock outcroppings. If you do as I did and stop at the historic Glen Ferris Inn, chances are you'll be as disappointed with the food as I was. Wait until Fayetteville to eat, or picnic at the next scenic spot--perhaps the hidden 40-foot Cathedral Falls and swimming hole three miles farther at Gauley Bridge.
Beyond the falls, the road ascended in steep S-curves. Cool air carried 30-year-old memories of childhood trips to the Great Smokies in the back seat of a Chevrolet. Carsick and doped on Dramamine, I nevertheless always adored roadside souvenir shops. Daddy and I would have loved the log cabin Country Store at Chimney Corners. It stocks the authentic stuff he tried so hard to interest me in--toys whittled from soft white wood, blue-speckled Robinson Ransbottom crockery--and the kiddie kitsch I coveted, like the politically incorrect plastic Indian squaw doll with Twiggy eyelashes.
At Hawk's Nest State Park, I took a short path to a stunning panoramic view of the New River Gorge, 600 feet straight below. New River whitewater is supposed to be the main attraction at Fayetteville, my next stop, but for me the lure was a handful of new downtown restaurants and shops, begun by savvy young rafters and rock climbers who came to work as guides, and stayed. My crafts schooling continued here, amid Court Street Gallery's pottery and paintings and the glasswork and jewelry of Gorgeous Goods.
But it was in church that I gained a full appreciation of West Virginia's cottage industry. In the loft of the Cathedral Café and Bookstore--a newly restored, deconsecrated 1905 Methodist sanctuary--Trillium Crafts owner Julia Cassells has lovingly gathered a small, intriguing collection of baskets, woodwork, jewelry, pottery, whimsical hats, and Florentine patterned silks. In far-flung garages, sheds, and studios around the state, Cassells has met and photographed each artisan: her portraits and stories afford the same satisfying sense of provenance you have buying a work from its creator.
Downstairs, in the multicolored light of two-story-tall Gothic stained-glass windows, I savored the café's trademark, a juicy meatloaf made with turkey and pine nuts. The next morning, energized after a comfortable night in the spacious, craftily decorated White Horse Bed & Breakfast (the owner collects antique quilts), I strolled back to the Court Street headquarters of George Edward Bennett: consultant. opinions expressed. "But not mine. That's boring," Bennett said. So anyone can plunk down on the sagging couch and gab in the pseudo-office this retired school principal opened because "I needed a place to loaf in my golden years."
Sufficiently relieved of my opinions, I retraced my steps to U.S. 60, and continued to the charming chaos of the Midland Trail Gallery, David and Cherese Weaver's pottery and painting studios. Hand-thrown bowls, pitchers with braided handles, carved fish plates, tea and honey pots, and mugs crowded display tables. In the sunshine, daughters Rachel and Anna ran through the grass like children's-book characters, chasing a tiny toad and an incredible pink and yellow moth.
Just before the trail starts up thickly forested Big Sewell Mountain a sign warns, bad curves next seven miles. Believe it. I lollygagged so slowly that a roadside deer didn't even startle when I passed. The hills flattened into the agricultural landscape called the Big Levels around the Greenbrier County line. I took the day's last 30 miles at a comfortable clip, until I crested a modest hill and found myself looking straight down the picturesque main drag of Lewisburg. Stay in the first-class General Lewis Inn, don't stray far from Washington Street, and you can't go wrong here. Simple on the surface, Lewisburg has the underpinnings of sophistication and prosperity I hunger for in Charleston. That night in chef Stephen Jackendoff's au courant little restaurant, Julian's, I feasted on scallops laced with smooth honey and white wine, and tangy chicken stuffed with tarragon and local chèvre.
The next afternoon, I headed west alongside the Greenbrier River. When I checked into my room at the Pence Springs Hotel, I was aghast. From the glossy brochure and an owner named O. Ashby Berkley, I expected dainty print bedspreads and, well, Laura Ashley. Instead I got ersatz Danish modern, wall-bolted motel headboards, and two bedrooms linked by a common shower. The layout--deluxe when the hotel first opened as a spa in 1918--today evokes the deserted women's prison the building had become until Berkley bought it from the state 10 years ago.
"Oh, it's just tacky!" Berkley laughed, admitting he had begged, borrowed, and bought furnishings from friends and the Sunday flea market he runs on the old hotel polo grounds. The Pence Springs is a labor of love by a local man who grew up hearing tales of its glory days. I relaxed and fell in love with it, too. That evening, fireflies rose from the broad lawn in a glowing yellow mist. I sat on the veranda and longed for a jar to capture them.
The next morning I bumped into Berkley at the sprawling market. It's a delight, offering the usual bric-a-brac and an astonishing array of rural exotica, including cages of rabbits, ducks, kittens, and hens. "Look what I found," he said, displaying a tinted lithograph of FDR that some New Deal West Virginian had treasured since the Depression. "It's a first edition."
My last stop was the state's new multimillion-dollar crafts and foods showcase, Tamarack. It's rather lovely once you get inside, though on my first visit, I thought it resembled an overgrown, upscale airport gift shop. This time my newly attuned eye singled out special objects: the Weavers' pottery, raw-silk woven basketry I'd seen at the Trillium Craft Shop, the loop-the-loop design of a Double Wedding Ring quilt.
Giddy with discovery, I ordered a bowl of beans and corn bread rather than the more highfalutin Greenbrier Hotel fare available and had a nice chat with the woman at the neighboring table.
It felt just like being in my own back yard.
C. J. HOUTCHENS writes about personalities and travel for the Washington Post and other publications.