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West Virgina Travel Should (Could) Be Amazing

Courtesy of city-data.com

Update: I found something amazing in West Virginia.

West Virginia should and could be one of the coolest states in the country.

Surrounded almost entirely by mountains, this state has virtually no excuse for being one of the most obese in the country. Yet the state ranked as third most obese by WebMD continues to defy logic. It’s as if West Virginians are surrounded by beautiful, scenic treadmills and StairMasters, and somehow find a way around them.

Obesity is a problem in much of Appalachia. But West Virginians have the worst excuse of all for succumbing to the epidemic. After driving through with a stop in Charleston on my way to the Great Smoky Mountains, I’ve determined Charleston and the whole of West Virginia should be one of the coolest, outdoor-inspired places in the country — drawing adventurers, writers and artists from around the world.

The beauty of Appalachia first hits you in southeast Ohio before crossing over the Ohio River into West Virginia. But it’s in the Mountain state where the scenery truly begins to absorb you. And with the leaves beginning to turn, it was the perfect time of year to be in West Virginia.

I’ve heard many scoff at the mere mention of West Virginia, especially New Yorkers and others in the Northeast who simply can’t imagine why folks think they’re snobbish and elitist. Truth is, I went in an optimist. I expected (hoped for) small, walkable towns featuring street musicians, farmers markets and outdoor-inspired stores, selling locals anything and everything to prepare them for the adventures that lie within a mile of their front door. Essentially everything I found in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and would later witness in Asheville, North Carolina (more on that later).

Unfortunately, reality struck.

Homes adjacent to downtown Charleston were tattered and worn. The streets themselves were virtually empty of pedestrians, and the people, indeed, were rather large. That may not be politically correct, but to paint it any other way would be like calling a nuclear war roughhousing amongst friends.

Rob, fellow traveler and photographer, and I attempted to visit the Bluegrass Kitchen around 9am on a Monday to try something local. It was closed, forcing us to a damned chain for breakfast.

Our limited interaction with locals left me thinking Charleston is a friendly town, and the Why West Virginia Should Be Awesome - JoeBaurbrief time we spent walking around Summers Street between Quarrier and Lee showed the potential for a kickass town. There were red brick sidewalks with old looking, black street lamps I see in films depicting the early 20th Century. Though some buildings or shops were empty, the infrastructure is there for the right businesses to open that can begin harboring that creative, outdoorsy atmosphere that makes towns in the Pacific Northwest and Southwest the awe of every adventure traveler.

One drive certainly is not enough evidence to diagnose a town, state or entire region. But the plight of Appalachia is well documented, so I feel safe in assuming the town I expected in West Virginia doesn’t exist.

But it could. Charleston, surrounded on all sides by mountains with the Kanawha and Elk Rivers crossing through, puts the city of 51,400 in the best position to be a mecca of recreation, creativity and adventure. Hopefully residents and regional leaders agree, solving the surrounding area’s struggles with poverty and obesity in one — admittedly grandiose — blow.

And I’ll be more than happy to return.

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  • Thanks for visiting Charleston and having hopeful things to say. Visit Lewisburg, Fayetteville, Davis, Harper’s Ferry and Berkeley Springs – great small towns in West Virginia.

  • Shawn

    Yeah… you need to come back and let us show you around a little. You obviously missed a bunch. Certainly you missed out on some good breakfast opportunities. Your 9AM arrival didn’t help – we’re a sleepy town! I love Asheville, too and we have a lot of what they have, just not as much of it condensed into the downtown area.

    Surrounding towns – Fayetteville for one – has a lot of what you mentioned and give Charlestonians other options that are just a short drive away: rock climbing, whitewater rafting, ziplining, hiking and mountain biking are primo within an hour from the center of our downtown.

    Hey, but thanks for visiting! Ya’ll come back now, hear?

  • Joe

    Thanks for reading, Mike and Shawn. I’ll look into Fayetteville, since you both mentioned it.

    Cheers!

  • Hey Joe! I want to personally invite you to come stay at our Country Inn while you check out a few of our cool little towns; we are 50 minutes from Fayetteville, and around the same distance from a super cool little village, Helvetia. Our Inn is in a turn of the century town with a main street 6 blocks long. we are right on the Elk River Water Trail. check our website out and come see us! Ask for Melody and I’ll show you some cool outdoorsy and artsy stuff! we are at http://www.cafeciminocountryinn.com

    • Joe

      Melody – Thank you for the generous offer. I’ve sent you an email.

  • ” I expected (hoped for) small, walkable towns featuring street musicians, farmers markets and outdoor-inspired stores, selling locals anything and everything to prepare them for the adventures that lie within a mile of their front door.”

    We do have all those things, just not at 9 AM on a Monday. 🙂

    Visit my blog for a small sampling of what happens in this town on a regular basis.
    http://blogs.wvgazette.com/popcult

    • Joe

      Rudy – Fair point. But I spent about the same amount of time in Asheville and sensed they’re doing more with less than what Charleston has to offer in the way of natural amenities. There simply seemed to be more of a critical mass of independent shops, restaurants and artists filling the streets. I think Charleston could be doing as well if not better. I’ll check out the blog.

  • Wen

    You need to visit the greatest college town, Morgantown. From a more demographic side, please note that the population of West Virginia is aging accounting for much of the health problems in the state, but we have a progress medical prgrams in a hope to turn things around.

    • Joe

      Wen – I’ve been to Morgantown, although it’s been quite some time and certainly worth a return visit. Regarding demographics, I’m aware of West Virginia’s struggles, which is why now is the perfect opportunity to realize the state’s potential and draw creative individuals into your cities to build the artistic, outdoorsy havens young people are searching for.

  • As a 20 year old West Virginian, you’ve just perfectly described the predicament of the West Virginian condition. Although there’s a good amount of what you’re after (and what I’ve spent most of the last few years pushing for) in this beautiful state, there’s an oppressive amount of bad, too.

    The root of the problem has always been exploitation. When we split from Virginia during the Civil War, we did so after years and years of being ignored and under-represented in their government. Forming our own state did little to help us though; the exploitation had only begun.

    First by the timber industry, then the railroad, and finally (and currently) the coal industry, we were tempted into using our natural resources for a quick profit. West Virginia became a monocrop economy (in a way of thinking), dependent on the industry of the day to survive. Unfortunately for us, all of this industry giving us jobs was based outside the state; we became a dependent economy.

    We’re basically stuck in this system right now. We’re underdeveloped. Our cities are little more than support centers for dying industries based outside WV.

    In Huntington, right on the Ohio River at the junction of KY, OH, and WV, the situation is similar to the one in Charleston minus the (relative) influx of cash from the state government. The only real industry are the hospitals which specialize in fighting heart disease and the other diseases that plague our region — byproducts of underdevelopment and overdependence on relatively nasty industry.

    The future of West Virginia is tied to how well we can learn to diversify our economy, our people, and our infrastructure.

    Thanks for coming to West Virginia. Although this state is a mixed bag of good and bad, I hope you’ll come back and find something worth seeing.

    I would recommend Lewisburg and surrounding Greenbrier Country — that’s a really gorgeous part of the state.

    • Joe

      Thanks for writing, Kuyler. I’ll look into Lewisburg and here’s to hoping West Virginia finds its way out of the rut sooner rather than later.

  • Come visit Berkeley Springs and soak in our healing waters and get a great massage after all that outdoor adventure. We’re into pleasure, art and good food here with three times as many massage therapists as lawyers and WV’s only James Beard rated chef. Berkeley Springs is a hot bed of the local food movement with two local restaurants as the only ones in the state to receive the Slow Foods award. We were George Washington’s favorite getaway and have been doing it ever since. As a bonus, we’re only 90 minutes from DC/Baltimore. We’d be happy to have you come be a media judge at the world’s largest water tasting competition right here in Berkeley Springs every February. Drinking our magic water (from every tap in town) keeps us all young, beautiful and famous!

  • Hey, Joe: I think you’ll dig a meal at the Bluegrass, but man, give it’s front door a pull at a better time than 9 am Monday. Meal’s on me, if you come back to town. Try and do so on the third Thursday of the month when the Charleston ArtWalk takes place in galleries, displays and in the downtown streets with people and musicians everywhere. Pretty cool and if you squint your eyes, it looks like a cool Boston weekend street scene except with mountains in the distance.

    Here’s a web magazine I do on life in the West Virginia hills andurban Appalachia that communicates some of the state’s ongoing coolness:
    http://westvirginiaville.com

    Best time of all to come would third week in June for FestivALL Charleston:
    http://festivallcharleston.com

    And pick your entree from the Bluegrass Kitchen menu.
    They have a fair wine list, too.
    http://bluegrasswv.com/

    Write onwards,
    Douglas Imbrogno

    • Joe

      Thanks to your recommendation, we had a pit stop at the Bluegrass Kitchen on our way back north from Hilton Head, South Carolina. Check out the latest post for more!

      Cheers!

  • PS: Some creative things are going on across the state to tackle the obesity issue, which is just a more saturated Instagram of what’s going on across America. Some of the people in West Virginia wrestling with the issue are ahead of the curve nationally in trying to tackle it. My colleague Kate Long’s ongoing series in the Charleston Gazette, The Shape We’re In, paints some of those efforts:

    http://theshapewerein.wordpress.com

  • Bluegrass Kitchen was closed? Should have tried Thelma Faye’s, Frutcake, or First Watch. I hope the chain was at least our local biscuit franchise, Tudor’s, so maybe you understand why our locals are so, as you put it, large. BTW, fat-shaming people has never led to weight loss, but I guess it’s an easy way to fill up some copy.

    • Joe

      We ended up at First Watch, but we were hoping to try something local to Charleston. It’s good eats, but I’ve been to First Watch restaurants across the country.

      Portland, Oregon has Voodoo Doughnut, yet is considered one of the healthier cities in the country. Blaming accessible, unhealthy food for a region’s weight problems is like suggesting the availability of forks and spoons is to blame for the food finding their way into the body. People need self-control and to take care of themselves. Considering the number of opportunities to engage in outdoor exercise in West Virginia, it should be one of the healthier states in the country. It’s about changing the mentality of the region. And I wouldn’t say I was “fat-shaming” by repeating what I saw. I thought there were a lot of smokers in Asheville, but I wouldn’t call that smoke-shaming or lung-shaming. I just happened to see a lot of smokers in Asheville.

      Nor would I say it was about filling up some copy. It was about commenting on what I see as an anomaly. An anomaly I sincerely hope begins to correct itself sooner rather than later.

  • Hello, interesting read and quite accurate I am afraid though there is a lot more in West Virginia to see! I see some other great reccommendations in the posts and I hope you give us a second chance in West Virginia. I live in Fairmont and own a business making pottery, I left you a link to my site to have a look when you get the chance. Anyway, my girlfriend and I just took a few days to travel down to Pocahontas County. If you have the opportunity to go there then please do. We stayed very inexpensively and enjoyed 2 days of hiking at Cranberry Wilderness in Monongahela National Forest, saw the historic trains moving in and out at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, and enjoyed the breathtaking views during our early dinner at Snowshoe.

    I exhibit my work weekly at Bridgeport Farmer’s Market in Harrison County and we have the best locally produced veggies,fruit, and meats in the area. There is live music weekly and hot food. I invte you to attend any Sunday between 10am-2pm but bring a jacket! We will be outdoors until the end of October when we will move indoors at the Bridgeport Conference Center one Sunday each month until Spring. I couldn’t possible tell you all of the good things we have to offer in West Virginia in a few paragraphs but I hope you come away more informed! See you soon!

    • Joe

      Michael – Thank you for the kind words and further information on where to travel in West Virginia. It sounds like I could spend a good couple of weeks exploring based on everyone’s suggestions. I’ll certainly keep yours in mind!

  • Heather

    Fat, happy, active and guaranteeing I have more fun than you allow yourself!

  • Speaking of natural tread mills and stair masters and an awesome small town . . . Fayetteville is definitely a place you need to come visit. The surrounding New River Gorge National Park compliments the off-beat historic town and our most popular breakfast spot opens at 7:30am, even on Monday! So if you happen to make it to southern WV be sure and drop us a line. We’d be happy to show you around.

    • Joe

      Sounds great. Just sent you an email. Cheers!

  • interesting article I’m sure that their are many people who come to West Virginia walk around in early morning see what you saw , we got to fix that. ,West Virginians are not farmers and 9 is early here. That being said , its important to note that ,everything people wrote you is true, and do come visit Sutton, but what they left out is that these people in West Virginia are worth taking time to know. At first when i moved here I saw the same you did then i saw opportunity we built a thriving business and are raising an autistic child in a small town , its really quite nice place to retire in also thru our cafe ,restaurant and art studio we have met many travelers and they have seen a differant side of West Virginia.
    We are three blocks before Cimino country inn ,( Melody Urbanic sold us our building) .
    Perhaps has the astute writer you are, you owe West Virginia a second chance and come write about those of us who have taken the opportunities that WV offers and are making it this a friendly fun place to visit Also since many of West Virginians are an older median age we do get chubbier it hides the laugh wrinkles we acquire going to all those festivals and great restaurants we have!
    visit our websites http://www.townsquaremarket.net
    and http://www.controled excentrics.com
    MOST OF ALL VISIT US UN SUTTON WEST VIRGINIA! look forward to meeting you
    sincerly yours
    Tamara,Bob,and Dom

  • Laura Walkup

    I don’t know how I only just saw that you had this post…

    Come to West Virginia when I’m actually home sometime and I can show you all sorts of cool places!

    I highly recommend Morgantown, Lewisburg and Fayetteville (among others). And lets not forget the attractions of Pocahontas County, my personal favorite (okay, yes, I AM biased since I grew up there)!

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