Along with discussing driving, weather, bike clubs and The View at the Hermitage, we also talked a little bit about West Virginia. The bikers were just passing through on their way north for Memorial Day weekend, so none of us had really spent any significant amount of time in the state before. One woman asked a question that I think a lot people in the United States might ask about West Virginia: “I mean, we’re driving through these little towns, there are like two streets, I don’t see any companies or anything- what do these people do??”
I found three examples (four if you count “run the Hermitage Inn”) that provide an interesting, and possibly surprising, cross section.
What do people DO in West Virginia?
Activity 1: Hang out in national parks beneath unbelievably blue skies and picturesque mountainsides.
While some American teens might flirt out of car windows in front of the Dairy Queen or blast Nickelback while driving slowly down main street, this scene in eastern West Virginia has been transplanted to more natural surroundings. I was passing a little rest area in the park when I heard the unmistakable whine of “Rock Star” calling me through the trees. Compelled to follow, I turned in to find a completely full parking lot. At first I thought it was one big family reunion or party, but after awkwardly hanging on the outskirts of different groups and eavesdropping for a while, I realized this was not the case. One side of the parking lot held teens leaning on cars trying to impress each other, another end had younger kids skateboarding badly, down by the water was a young couple holding their water-winged toddler’s hands as she waded suspiciously into the creek, and up by the picnic tables there were three different families having cookouts.
I sidled up to one group by the picnic tables, and they ended up showing me one of the rest area’s main attractions. Feeling shy about asking to take video, I decided instead to record them in secret:
Ethically questionable? Yes. The song was “Slewfoot” by The Half Bad Bluegrass Band.
Activity 2: Golf, make wine, and work maybe two days a week.
The man who owns the West-Whitehill Winery was my Week 3 New Friend of the Week. (What ever happened to those weekly recaps anyway?) An update on the West-Whitehill Winery story is that I had the four bottles of wine that I bought in a box in my car until I recently realized, “You know, now that I think about it, that car gets pretty hot, and I’m pretty sure that’s not very good for wine.” Basically, I’ve been boiling my West Virginian wine on a daily basis for the past few weeks, so I’ll let you know when I find out what that does to a nice white.
Activity 3: Unlock the secrets of the universe.
I was driving on an otherwise long-empty road through West Virginia’s mountains, when my radio began to fuzz out, and my cell phone lost all service. I tried changing the station to get music back, but everything was static. It was then that I rounded a corner and suddenly came face to face with a massive, creepy steel structure trying to fade nonchalantly into the hillsides and wildflowers surrounding it.
Awkward, right? What are you doing there satellite dish? I can see you, you’re not fooling anyone, and you’ve made me really nervous. I followed the road until it brought me to the Green Bank Radio Astronomy Observatory.
It turns out that giant thing is the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world. Just, you know, plopped in the hillsides of West Virginia, much as you might expect. In case the scale hasn’t come off in the picture, here are the facts about the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope:
Apparently the GBT is so sensitive that cell phone signals, AM and FM radio waves, digital cameras and even someone using a microwave miles away can distort its readings. That’s why they’ve designated the entire area a “radio quiet zone” and shut down all the signals they can control. Even modern day car engines are a problem, so to get around the massive observatory campus, resident scientists use these ragged baby blue diesel vehicles. (Some look like hearses?)
EVEN BETTER: The Green Bank observatory was originally set up as part of the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute, so while none of the telescopes are conducting work for SETI anymore, this means that at some point in our history there were a group of scientists huddled in the mountains of West Virginia driving baby blue hearses around and keeping an eye out day and night for signs of alien life.