Deep in West Virginia the forest comes to an abrupt halt at the lip of the New River Gorge, a V-shaped canyon that drops 876 feet into churning waters. The slopes are lined with sycamores and river birch, whose tightly packed branches make them look from afar like broccoli florets, but it is the canyon's upper section, of splendidly flawed sandstone, that has made the area a magnet for young people with chalk in their bags and rock on their brains. The growing popularity of the gorge mirrors the larger transformation of this verdant state, with its rumpled topography, into an adventure-sports wonderland for climbers, rafters and bikers and made it worthy of the moniker the West of the East. But while that change has been a boon to many, not everyone in the Mountain State has welcomed it.
To understand why not, consider the town that serves as a gateway to the gorge—Fayetteville (pop. 2,754), a community warily weaning itself from its traditional way of life. Today, rock jockeys and river rats are embedded in the former coal mining town like a bolt into granite. They gather at the Cathedral Caf� on Court Street, in the belly of what used to be the old Methodist church, to eat egg-white omelets and play guitar. Up the street at the Water Stone Outdoors store, they meet to trade stories. On the counter at Water Stone sits a copy of Climbing magazine that rates the gorge as one of the top five climbing spots in the U.S. On closer inspection the sinewy, dark-haired young woman on the cover looks suspiciously like the sinewy, dark-haired young woman behind the counter. Mention this to Rachel Babkirk and she blushes. Bragging, you see, is not part of the culture here.
Despite the rafting outfitters and stores like Healthy Harvest and Hard Rock Climbing Services, much is unchanged from the town's hardscrabble past. Parking costs a dollar per day downtown, the theater has seasonal plays on Court Street, and the American Legion Hall has a sign out front that advertises ALL NEW BINGO EVERY SA. 7 PM with an illuminated arrow in which only two of the seven bulbs are working. You can buy a two-bedroom place within walking distance of the gorge for about $30,000, and a basement apartment under Healthy Harvest runs $100 a month.
Men like Kenny Parker and Gene Kistler, the co-owners of Water Stone, came for the climbing in the mid-'80s and stayed for both the rock and the community. "Once you get here, you spend a lot of time figuring out how not to leave," says Kistler, who moved from Virginia with his wife, Maura, and whose home near the gorge is a climber's hangout. "The town fought us all the way, but we're what's keeping this place going."
In the beginning it wasn't the gorge that brought people to the Fayetteville area but rather what was beneath it. In 1873 C & 0 railroad laid tracks along the length of the New River, providing easy transportation for the deep veins of "smokeless" coal, so called because it was clean-burning and free of most impurities. By 1905 there were 75 mines tearing into the coal seam 700 feet above the water, and more than two dozen towns had sprung up along the banks of the New.
The profits were extraordinary but so was the human cost. Mile-long coke ovens churned out soot and sulfur, clogging air and lungs alike, and explosions, cave-ins and gunfights thinned the miners' ranks. More West Virginians lost their lives in mines than in all our country's wars.
Eventually the coal dwindled, and the nation turned to oil as its primary fuel source. By 1960, most of the mines along the New had closed, and when the money left, so did the people. Fayette County's population fell by 25% in the 1950s, 20% in the '60s and 17% in both the '70s and the '80s. As the area atrophied, Fayetteville seemed as though it might become a ghost town.
But as the miners and their families moved away, rafters and climbers moved in, drawn by the Class V rapids of the New and the untouched rock. Cheap housing allowed men like Parker and Kistler to settle in, and the vacant storefronts in the town center were easily converted to outdoors shops and businesses catering to tourists. That's not to say Fayetteville greeted them with open arms. Many longtime residents resented the Teva-clad kids' taking over the town and fought them. New restaurants had to jump through hoops to get liquor licenses, and there were battles over school consolidation, the creation of a historic district and the police force's tendency to give speeding tickets to out-of-state visitors. On a mailbox not far from downtown there's a sign that depicts a man relieving himself on the word tourists.
The struggles in Fayetteville were played out across the state. West Virginia has long been caricatured as a land of moonshine and hillbillies, and more than a few residents are distrustful of outsiders. (Not that the state hasn't contributed to its image: In 1998 the West Virginia legislature passed a bill that allowed citizens to collect and eat roadkill.) Adapting to the influx of adventure-sports enthusiasts has been a challenge.
Despite the strains the state is being transformed. People are now drawn to West Virginia by what lies above the ground rather than under it: the wonders of the gorge, the rapids of the Gauley River, the mountain-biking terrain of Slaty Fork and the camping of the Allegheny Highlands. Blond and blue-eyed, with the climber's telltale ripped physique, Shawn McCauley of Roanoke, Va., has been coming to the gorge almost every weekend for 10 years. At 26 he's in his last year at Radford University in Virginia, majoring in urban and rural planning, but he's already decided that when he graduates, he's moving to Fayetteville to work at Water Stone full time. "I pretty much decided that the first time I came here," he says with a smile.