That Time We Froze to Death in the Hills of West Virginia

The whole gang (minus our photographer Khai Yin!)

The whole gang (minus our photographer Khai Yin!)

Ah, the beginning of March, that wonderful time of year when madness descends upon the world of college basketball; when we're limping along through the last stretch of winter; and when one thing reigns supreme on the minds of school-aged Americans all across the country: spring break.

Though I left the hallowed halls of learning for (what I believe to be) the final time nearly two years ago, even now, as an old man, I remember those days fondly. And I remember, especially, the first big spring break trip I took as a college student.

We didn't go to Florida or Mexico or California or anywhere else sunny and warm. No, we — eight other students and I, that is — crammed into two university vans and headed to southern West Virginia to perform a community service project through the University of Michigan's Alternative Spring Break program.

Now, I know what you're thinking: "Oh great, he's about to prattle on about how generous and selfless it was of him to go out and volunteer during his spring break."

Well, friend, let me be the first to tell you that I don't plan on doing anything of the sort — we don't need your eyes rolling out of your head, after all. Plus, during the week that we were there, only half of the time was truly spent at the community center in Bluefield that we were helping restore to operational status. When we weren't chipping paint or hauling heavy objects from one place to another at South Central Educational Development, Inc., we had plenty of time for sightseeing and general shenanigan-ery, in fact.

A view of the App South complex looking west, with the Hosea Hudson Library in the foreground

A view of the App South complex looking west, with the Hosea Hudson Library in the foreground

Pulling Into Pipestem

It was Saturday, March 1, 2014, and at the end of our eight-hour drive from Ann Arbor we pulled up to what would be our home base for the week: the Don West Dorm at the Appalachian South Folklife Center, an educational and cultural heritage learning center about a mile and a half south of Pipestem, West Virginia. Our cheery host, Shelli, ushered us inside our temporary digs, which I conveniently described in a journal that I was keeping at the time:

"The floor is made of some faux wood material and it is very cold. There are two slightly decrepit couches in the living room area, as well as a fireplace thingamabob that periodically lights up and then simmers down again.

"There are about 14 beds in the entire place; each room has a shower curtain for a door. Electrical outlets are at a premium. The curtains on the windows are brown with green, cabbage-esque flowers covering most of them. There is one bathroom, which I have yet to really take a look at. The walls and the ceiling are an off-white color, and old-school classroom light bars are above our heads. Overall, the place is a tad chilly."

Boy, just how chilly it would be while we spent the next six nights there, let me tell you we had no idea. After the first two nights, we gave up on sleeping in the various bedroom areas and decided huddling together as one giant nine-person mass in the living room next to the fireplace thingamabob was the only way to carry on.

Just look now, there we are, snug as bugs in a rug:

Inside the Don West Dorm, cabbage-esque flower curtains and all

Inside the Don West Dorm, cabbage-esque flower curtains and all

Before we get to sightseeing and other ditties, a few more lines from my journal that it would be a sin not to share:

"Shelli also introduced us to the dining hall and kitchen areas. The dining room had a somewhat pleasant appeal; the kitchen is a little primeval but it’ll be just fine. My first impression upon arrival was that we had entered a place akin to Camp Crystal Lake from the Friday the 13th series. I mentioned this to José [one of the two students in charge of our group], and he jokingly told me not to say things like that, lest he become frightened."

The Seeing of the Sights

Our very first stop outside of the App South center was at Pipestem Resort State Park on a rainy and fog-filled Sunday. Rain be damned, we made our way around the park's various trails, trekking all the way at one point to the Bolar Lookout Tower in the southeastern section of the 4,050-acre park.

The lookout tower is not the only spot offering panoramic views in the park, however. There is also a nifty overlook outside the gift shop area (where I happened to purchase two little bottles of West Virginia coal which are sitting somewhere in my parents' basement to this day). From said overlook, visitors can use the aerial tramway to head down into the gorge, where sits one of the two hotels located within the park.

More scenic views were in store on Tuesday when we made our way to an overlook of Sandstone Falls along West Virginia Route 20 after a brief day of work in Bluefield. At 600 feet above the New River, which the falls cut across, the overlook provides a pretty terrific glimpse of not just the falls down below but also of the surrounding countryside.

After taking in the view from above, a stop at the Sandstone Falls boardwalk down below was pretty much obligatory. The only problem? The overlook and the boardwalk are on opposite sides of the gorge. That meant we had to embark on a 40-minute excursion that led us south to Hinton, where we could cross the river, and then back north once we'd reached the other side.

Sandstone Falls, up close and personal

Sandstone Falls, up close and personal

As the photo above probably indicates, however, the drive, which is scenic in itself anyway, is pretty well worth it. Once we got down there and out onto the boardwalk, many, many photos were taken, in fact, including a senior-portrait-type shot of every member of our group — just for the sake of doing it, you know?

Later in the week, we ended up visiting the town where the man in charge of South Central Educational Development Inc. — the community center we were helping fix up, as you might recall — was living at the time. I do not remember which town it was specifically, only that it was in McDowell County, one of the poorest counties in West Virginia.

It was like nothing I had ever really been exposed to before and I remember it leaving a lasting impression on me, so much so that it was one of the things I made a point of including in my journal even as I got lazy about keeping track of events during the latter part of our trip:

"The buildings in the downtown stretch are chalked over with a black dusting from the coal industry," I wrote after we'd already returned to Michigan, "many of the houses on the mountainside have been abandoned and are literally falling in upon themselves..."

Seeing that made our work at the nearby community center, which offers many programs and other kinds of assistance to the surrounding areas, seem that much more poignant.


Final Stops

Once the following Saturday morning rolled around and we'd done our part to spruce up the South Central community center, our weeklong adventure in West Virginia was nearly at its end.

But because we were so close and it was only a slight detour from our route back up north, I was not about to let our group leave the area without first making a pitstop at the John Henry Monument just outside the community of Talcott. I probably just about made José's ears bleed with the number of times I asked him if we could please make the little excursion to see good 'ole John Henry.

And what is it that they say? Ask and you shall receive? I think that's the one, and just look at how happy I am in John's strong, burly arms over there. If you're not familiar with his tale, first of all: shame on you. Second, he just so happens to be an Appalachian folk hero who helped preserve the jobs of railroad workers by defeating a steam-powered drill in a contest to see who could make more progress carving a tunnel out of a mountain in a shorter period of time. As the legend goes, after giving his all against the machine, he later died as a result of the contest.

My moment with John, who stands immortalized in front of the Great Bend Tunnel, the purported site of his heroic efforts, came and went and it was time for us to head north again at last. We had one very final stop in store before we'd make way for Michigan in earnest, though: Pies & Pints Pizzeria on Capital Street in Charleston, the capital of West Virginia.

As my journal recaps: "The pizza was superb; I believe we ordered six different kinds, including Sriracha shrimp, chipotle chicken, eggplant-something-or-other, margarita-something-or-other, a Thai-themed specialty, and another chicken-based selection. In a manner of speaking, we went out with a bang."