Imagine looking out over a beautiful valley punctuated with a flowing river running through the center and seven layers of mountains rising around the valley. There are no lights to be seen except the occasional car winding around one of the far peaks as it weaves its way to the base of the mountain. Now imagine deer grazing lazily, swallows diving past, and fireflies lighting the dark as you look down from your balcony. The temperature is 77 degrees during the hottest part of the day and a wonderfully cool 55 degrees at night. I have just described the scene that I enjoyed all week at the Pipestem Resort in Ghent, West Virginia.
Thursday we left the lodge and drove to White Sulphur Springs to tour the Greenbrier Hotel and the cold war bunker that was completed in the hotel in 1962. Because of the threat of nuclear war, Eisenhower had the bunker started in the 50's to house all of the U.S. Congress and their senior staffs. For 30 years the bunker was kept stocked with food, water, oxygen, medical supplies, physicians, technology personnel, etc needed in the event we were bombed. Think about this...all of the necessary items to accommodate 1200 people for 60 days were kept at the constant ready for 30 years!!! Even the furniture and decor were periodically updated and it was NEVER used! The expense of 30 years of daily upkeep for 1200 people and it was never used! (Of course, it's good that we were never that close to a nuclear threat!) And it was such a secret that the public never knew all of the secrets about the bunker until 1992 when it was exposed by the Washington Post!
One of the most spectacular sights at the Greenbrier is the interior decor which was decorated by the renowned designed Dorothy Draper (1889-1969). She designed long, sweeping hallways that practically burst with color. She was quite heroic for her time. She was born into a wealthy family and was married to a wealthy doctor. However, she wanted to make a name for herself. When her husband divorced her, she began her decorating business in earnest. She used bold colors of red, blue, coral, green, aqua, yellow to accent black and white. All of her patterns are huge and not easily forgotten. She went against all of the decorating norms of the oppressive Victorian era and created light, airy, wonderful spaces for people to enjoy. I loved seeing her designs and I am so glad that even 50 years after her death her designs live on in the company that bears her name.
After Greenbrier we visited a coal mine in Beckley, WVA. You can't imagine the difficult life of a coal miner until you are actually in the dark, damp, rat-infested mine and hear the stories of 12 hour days with men laying on their sides in the wet mud using a pick ax to extract coal. The life was hard and many men died in the mines. My family comes from a long line of miners and we have always heard the stories of the difficult lives of miners. However, the tour was eye-opening to reveal the reality of life in the mines. I loved the tour and we had a colorful character, Marvin, as our guide. However, I was ready to surface when the tour was over. The constant 55 degree temperature was nice, but the dark and the damp air was a little scary.
This vacation occurs every year for a Lilly-Mitchem family reunion. The Lilly family was one of the original settlers in West Virginia and was given land on the frontier in West Virginia in payment for their service during the Revolutionary War. Three years ago, the Lilly's made the Guiness Book of World Records by having the largest family reunion in the world at their original Lilly land in West Virginia. Much of the Lilly land was taken by eminent domain to form the Blue Stone lake and Blue Stone Dam. There are still monuments to the Lilly family throughout the Southeastern part of West Virginia.
This year I attended the reunion with my mom Betty, step dad Doug, sister Lora, and nephew Joshua. We had a big time riding bikes, taking nature hikes, playing cards and watching fireflies. As you may know, we don't seem to have fireflies in South Georgia any more. One theory is that the same pesticide that kills Boll weevils kills fireflies. Sad for me because I love to watch fireflies at dusk. My nephew and I ran into the bigger wild inhabitants of the park when we inadvertently rode the bikes right onto a large black bear. Both of us were terrified. We saw the bear at the same time and stopped our bikes immediately. I told Joshua to turn around slowly and head back to the cabin. That sweet baby couldn't get back on the bike fast enough and his only words to me were "Aunt Tina don't you dare leave me!" Of course, I wasn't going to leave that sweet baby. I would have fought that bear to keep it away from Joshua, but I was certainly glad that the bear ran back into the woods and I didn't have to fight it! Later that night I also saw a coyote running through the park and we saw tons of deer every day. If you love bird watching, you should definitely plan to stay in Pipestem. The birds are magnificent.
On the same day as the bear scare, Joshua, Lora, and I were hanging out at the Blue Stone River Gorge when the Beckley, WVA Channel 59 news team came on the scene to talk to vacationers about the greatness of the WVA parks. Minnesota closed all of its state parks during the 4th of July weekend due to budget restraints. When the reporter asked me if I wanted to be interviewed, I hopped right up there and declared the wonderfulness of West Virginia. I looked like a tourist with my hair pulled back, sunglasses, and my camera at my side.
Once again, we had a wonderful West Virginia vacation and plan to attend again next year (Lord willing). If you have never visited Virginia or West Virginia, you should. The land is the birthplace of democracy for the United States and is full of patriots. The terrain is the most beautiful I have ever witnessed and I leave a little part of my heart in that cool, gnat free, low humidity state every time I visit!
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