I Hear A Train A Coming

Sunday morning and we set out with no particular place to go. On the journey to Clifftop yesterday we had passed through many small towns and got a real insight into the day-to-day life here. Some of these towns are barely even that. They have no footpaths, lights, or anything much of what you’ld consider necessary to a modern conurbation. Instead the small wooden houses sit just off the road, with their lawns coming right up to the tarmac, unfenced.

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Occasionally we see tiny shacks no bigger than a garden shed high up in the mountain hollows, slanted at weird angles because of the slope, but obviously inhabited. But there is a strong sense of community. All the churches we pass are well attended, and community boards announce fetes, charity drives, recruitment drives for the firebrigade, support for the troops abroad. Most of the houses sport a strange and pretty five-pointed metal star above their doors. Occasionally this is made out of wood. When we ask nobody seems to know its significance. We’ve seen its design in some of the quilts sewn locally too. In other places, the communities are better off. The wooden boards of the houses are freshly painted, gardens beautifully kept. It’s hard to get a bead on what makes the local economy tick. There doesn’t appear to be any obvious sign of industry as everything is subsumed in a sea of green. The huge mining industry here, which must be a large employer, is nowhere to be seen. And the large service industry (McD’s, Wendy’s etc.) isn’t as evident here as elsewhere.

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For the first time on our trip we pass a large number of catholic churches. And a road sign announces ‘Irish Mountain’ up to our left. No prizes for guessing who settled here then. Up in front of us, a deer scuttles out into the road, freezes momentarily and then bounds back into the green.

We’re heading for the New River Gorge, one of the only rivers here that flows north, due to the way the Appalachian mountains have risen further south. When we arrive we’re certainly not disappointed. It’s the Grand Caynon of the east. A huge steel bridge spans it and we take the old road down to the river and under it. Along the way an audio CD tells us the history of this area and the mining industry here. We eventually bottom out in a wide river basin crossed by the old railway bridge. The river is full of white water rafter guides taking tours of screaming teenagers down the rapids further ahead. We spy a spot for a swim and head there. The water here, unlike further south, is warm and welcoming. We join a group of about ten people and swim out into the huge river. Then in the distance a mighty squall howls down the valley. That iron horse is coming and the ghost of Johnny Cash croons out ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ in my head: ‘I hear that train a’coming, It’s rollin’ round the bend…’ Two more blasts, growing even more deafening as it approaches, and then a huge beast of a goods train charges past the riverside. We count forty, fifty, sixty carriages but give up after two or three minutes. It just keeps on coming. And then it’s off, snaking away into the distance like an adder you’ve disturbed basking in the mid-day sun. We hang out, drift, swim, watch the canoeists and rafters pass by; basically channel the spirit of Huckleberry Finn for a few hours. Time seems to have rolled back to an earlier time.

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We eventually move on, and stop in a small local town called Fayetteville to grab lunch. We eat in Gumbos, the town’s celebrated Cajun restaurant. We’ve struck Louisiana gold here; those shrimps and grits taste like they’ve been whipped up sometime in the 18th century deep in the bayou and delivered fresh and steaming to our plate. Across the way we spot a sign ‘Jango’s Guitar Pull – All Welcome’. We’re at a loose end so why not? Half and hour later we arrive outside a small house nestled on the lee side of a steep shady hollow. People are gathered casually around various tables and chairs chatting and drinking and kids are racing around making hula-hoops out of water hose. “Hey guys, is this the guitar pull?” (we don’t know what a ‘pull’ is, by the way). “Sure come on in”. The only thing is, no one seems to have a guitar. We grab a seat anyhow, retrieve our bottles of Red Stripe from the ‘trunk’ and join in the chat.

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Most of the guys here work for ACE, a rafting company that brings people down the river on graded white-water rafting trips. They’re from all over the States; Florida, New Mexico, and they take jobs like this seasonally. One of the guys has spent five years in the marines and he’s a tactical genius; not once in all the time we’re there does he have to get up off his seat to grab a beer, but somehow the supply keeps coming. The girl running the ‘pull’ lives locally and she loves it here. Two of her friends call and they share the same love of this dark, beautiful spot. It’s a sentiment we’re heard often here. We can’t stay long, so say our goodbyes and start the drive back to our motel. On the way we call at McBee’s, a new Irish bar in town. We meet new friends, share a drink or two and then we’re on the road again into the night.