West Virginia: The Quiet Life

West Virginia has rugged beauty and a simple, 'what you see is what you get' sort of charm, discovers Katherine Doyle

The waitress in Monterey's tiny diner confided to me, "I've only been here for three weeks, and I've already put on 30lb." This bronzed young Floridian had fallen for a blue-eyed West Virginian and made the long trip north; for our part, we had driven for hours from Washington, DC, as the West Virginia highway rose higher into the mountains with every switchback we traversed. Then, finally, there they were: the seemingly endless peaks of Appalachia's Blue Ridge mountains.

At a gas station, we'd picked up a John Denver CD, which we played over and over as we wound through little mountain communities of trailer homes and broken-down cars, where some families still do not have running water.

It seems that not every part of America is intent on turning their countryside into one endless strip mall. West Virginia has somehow remained largely untamed. It has valleys rushing with some of the best white-water rivers in the US, and mountain scenery that has changed little since the first settlers pushed west into unexplored "Indian country". Don't come expecting fancy restaurants – but at a time where there seems to be a Starbucks at every major intersection, it is a welcome break to strike out for some home cooking.

We found ours in Monterey, an idyllic-looking town in the high Alleghenies, part of the vast Appalachians, which run for 500 miles from Pennsylvania, through Maryland and West Virginia. The diner menu was full of West Virginian favourites. Dana, our mahogany-tanned waitress, assured us that the ribs were the house speciality. Looking at the white-bearded mountain man in the corner, his plate loaded with brisket, we decided to take her at her word. Dana soon came over to my bar stool to fill me in on an agonising decision: whether to stay with her unemployed West Virginia beau through the bitter winter, or head back to the warmth of the Florida keys.

"Sure, he's cute," she said. "He's even got steel-blue eyes. But there's not much for a computer guy to do in West Virginia. Matter of fact he's out cutting wood for the winter today." This is West Virginia: an unvarnished, what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of place. I wanted to hear more but late afternoon was approaching, and we wanted to avoid a long mountain journey in the dark.

As soon as we left Monterey, we found ourselves deep in the landscape described by Thomas Jefferson in his Notes – right at the majestic confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers: "The first glance of this scene hurries our sense into the opinion that this earth has been created in time, that the mountains were formed first, that the rivers began to flow afterwards, that in this place particularly they have been damned up by the Blue Ridge mountains."

Jefferson believed that a huge ocean of water would burst through the mountain. The forces of nature at work here were so powerful and catastrophic that he believed America's future lay beyond the peaks, where he saw "a small catch of smooth blue horizon" inviting people on. There, beyond the tumultuous landscape of history, was the harmonious landscape of America's future. But the peaceful expansion into the North American interior that he envisioned led instead to terrible wars with the Native Americans.

The Indian Removal, as it has been called, cleared pretty much all the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi river in order to create a continental empire. In 1820, there were 120,000 Native Americans living here. By 1844, there were only 30,000, many of the rest forced to migrate west.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the pioneer settlers of West Virginia broke with the Confederacy: a huge betrayal in the eyes of slave-owning Virginians to the east. Over time, the social and cultural differences between the two sections of Virginia grew extreme. A few "old" Virginians still point out, somewhat fancifully, that the Supreme Court has not yet ruled as to whether West Virginia had the legal right to declare itself a state; they even harbour notions of a reunion.

On one particularly treacherous bend on the tight, winding mountain road, we found ourselves suddenly loomed over by a "tractor trailer" – a huge articulated truck, all screeching breaks and silver smokestacks. We pulled over to compose ourselves – at what turned out to be a spectacular viewing area.

Before us, about eight miles south-east of Cheat Summit fort on US Route 250, was a Civil War gun emplacement built of huge boulders, a defensive wall for cannons that once blasted down the valley. Some of the first actions of the Civil War occurred along the Staunton-Parkersburg turnpike, which Union and Confederate forces needed as a transport and supply route. Soon we encountered the train tracks that run through the little town of Cass in Pocahontas County, once home to the Virginia Pulp and Paper Mill, a symbol of economic power hinting at a past in which steam railways snaked through the state, linking the cotton-producing south to the Great Lakes ports in the north.

In summer, the Cass Scenic Railroad runs for 11 miles up the mountainside through a series of switchbacks. One of the excursions takes you to the abandoned site of the ghost town of Spruce, once known as the coldest, highest town east of the Rocky mountains.

Things are quiet in Cass: it's a pitstop on the road to more upmarket destinations such as Snowshoe (our final stop), a small ski resort which caters to visitors from the Carolinas, Maryland, Virginia and DC. The mountains provide a natural buffer, a fortress that is as appealing in peacetime as in war, and which somehow defines West Virginia – and the individualism of West Virginians.

STATE LINES: WEST VIRGINIA

Population: 1.8 million
Area: 3 times the size of Wales
Capital: Charleston
Date in Union: 20 June 1863
Flower: Rhododendron
Motto: "Mountaineers are always free"
Nickname: Mountain state

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting there
Charleston is the main gateway to West Virginia. You can connect in Cleveland with Continental (0845 607 6760; www.continental.com).

Staying there
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, Cass (001 304 456 4300; www.cassrailroad.com). Restored houses, cabins and cabooses are let as rentals, starting from $46 (£24) per night.

Visiting there
The Cass Scenic Railroad runs day trips to Whittaker, Bald Knob and Spruce. Fares start at $16 (£8.40), one way.

Snowshoe Mountain (001 877 441 386; www.snowshoemtn.com).

More information
www.wvtourism.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home