Free Will: Fayetteville, West Virginia

Fayetteville, WV
Courtesy of Random Michelle on Flickr
On a rafting trip, Will learned that there is more to West Virginia than meets the eye.


I hear the rapids, but cannot locate them when peering down the river’s corridor. I jut my head out from the shoreline to observe what is the beginning of our 13-mile rafting adventure down the Gauley River, with only the shimmer of the flat water within view. I want to get to know the river, learn its intricacies, understand its power, find out what it takes to conquer this corridor of rapids.

I can’t see them, so I acquiesce and simmer down my expectations.

Without an immediate, intimate view of the river’s force, I wait along with the rest of my boat in anticipation. The river, nestled in the locus of southern West Virginia, has been stroking its way through the state for many millennia, and now finds itself looking up from the valley floor it carved out.

Rapids I-V, each class indicative of an increasing speed and robust energy, dot the Gauley. Before we embark on this journey, our awareness is heightened, our senses engage, for we don’t know what lies down the river. We only know it’s there.

My vantage point affords me the opportunity to soak in the images. A sun-kissed sky, formations of rock reaching up to the trees and above, the leaves of autumn — yellow, red and everywhere in between — falling down gently on the water. They drift downstream toward our destination, getting the first look at the rushing turbidity.

If the only view of West Virginia was from the freeways above the river, then we would all misinterpret the true beauty of this state. Rural to the core is the Mountain State. We made our way to the launchpad of our journey with views of rural poverty. Houses completely empty and broken, glass windows and wooden porches destroyed: the scene of a once vibrant community, now dispersed and lost.

If I yelled loud enough, if I howled like a wolf, no one would respond. My voice would carry toward the void created by the desolation. All I would hear is my echo.

I mull over the landscape, the emptiness of the streets, the destruction of rural poverty. West Virginia, from my seat looking out the window, appears to be barely standing on its own.

But this isn’t West Virginia, and just passively observing through a car window will never conjure a feeling like freely floating down the aqueous byway of the Gauley River. Those who call it home light up when describing their favorite aspects of this state, specifically the Gauley. For many, this river is the vein of life, running with vigor through their livelihoods.

Down at the shoreline of the river, we are immersed in the river culture before we begin our drift toward the circus. I familiarize myself with our guides, trying to understand their intricacies and their love of the Gauley. I want to know what brings them back to the rocky shore and the chaos of a Class V rapid.

The only way I can begin to understand is via the river and the stories it has kept for visitors like myself. So we sojourn, following the river’s path until we meet our first rapid.

And it’s a big one.

Our boat smashes into the first wave and bends to a 45-degree angle. The river establishes its might, imposing upon us its strength. But we continue. There is a series of rapids that require an accurate amount of paddle strokes. One stroke too many and the boat goes off its path and into a dangerous, undercutting swell. We listen for the guide, his words our map of this river, and when prompted to paddle, we do so:

“Let’s go left side forward two, right side back two. Remember to put your hips into it. Full body motion. Dig in now, we’re almost out.”

His commands are a poignant reminder not to fight the river, but rather embrace it. Accept the tailwhips, the jerky movements, the feelings of fear – because the river is your map as well.

The first series of rapids proved to be demanding for all of us in the boat. We are drenched in the spray of the river, some of us visibly rattled by the experience.

Onward we go into calmer water. A necessary break from the push and shove of these rapids.

When we hit a stretch of flat water, our guide tells us that we are allowed to jump in. I drop my paddle and spring for the water, a cold rush vibrating up my spine the moment I make contact with the river.

I find myself seated with the river at the bottom of this valley, seeing through the eyes of this river and those who have made the journey down it. On this resplendent day, West Virginia isn’t as dismal as the roads might tell you.

Through the eyes of the Gauley, beauty abounds. In my head, I can hear the river sing.

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