As often as I return to Stephen King’s work, my respect for his ability to take twenty-six letters of the alphabet, toss them in the air and produce indelible tales meets resistance with the recollection of his words, “Small towns harbor small imaginations.” With all due respect to a master storyteller, I would encourage the author to visit his choice of small towns in rural America and find out that just the opposite is often true. In fact, a number of his stories take place in these very so-called unimaginative places. 

Most recently, his words echoed in my mind as I read about the proposed development of a thirty-mile section of the Midland Trail, which runs along Route 60 in West Virginia, from the small town of Malden in Kanawha County east to Gauley Bridge in neighboring Fayette County. Past and present, there’s plenty of imagination to be found in this slice of rural America.

Small Towns, Big Adventures

When my family moved from St. Louis to rural Fayette County in the late ’60s, I recall a moment of deafening silence in the car, as we left Charleston and proceeded to travel farther east along Route 60, passing one unincorporated town after another, until we reached the United States Post Office in Charlton Heights. At that time, the mining of coal was unprecedented and my father had recently acquired a position as a metallurgical engineer for Union Carbide, one town west of our new home in Alloy, West Virginia. While the area greeted us with the unparalleled beauty of soaring mountains on both sides of the highway and a roiling river in the middle, we weren’t yet aware of the myriad outdoor adventures it would tempt.

The Midland Trail is a 180-mile highway that runs from Charleston to Sam Black Church in Greenbrier County, West Virginia.  Along these miles are numerous opportunities to gaze and wander, explore and taste, and let loose “ahhh’s” and “oooh’s,” among so many other exclamations of wonder.  Add to that the area’s state parks, particularly Hawks Nest State Park, offering broad vistas and striking history, and the recently-designated New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.

Some of the stops along the Midland Trail, including Charleston and Sam Black Church on the ends, and Malden, Alloy, and Gauley Bridge in between.

Even those many years ago, there was hiking and biking, boating and rafting, kayaking and fishing, and camping too, though not glamping, which wouldn’t come until later. We would explore them all, our exploits over time becoming more finely-tuned and more adventurous.

While these opportunities for wandering and wonder remain available to all, the area has seen a vast reduction in population and job opportunities over the years, beset by crumbling infrastructure, poor broadband services, and myriad other ills. Still, the beauty here remains intoxicating today, inspiring the imagination, helping us not only dream big dreams but find ways to make them come true, as folks so often do in rural America.

RElated Story

Imagining and Dreaming

Certain visionaries looking to re-invent the span of the Upper Kanawha Valley that runs from Malden to Gauley Bridge are investing a great deal of time and resources toward developing the area into a vibrant tourist destination, complete with boat and kayak access in various towns along the way, as well as welcome centers and lodging. 

The plans in Malden, for instance, would offer the Salt Works Boat Ramp and the Dickinson Welcome Center. Additional boat ramps would be located in towns east along the Midland Trail, with a kayak access point in Charlton Heights. I’d be among the first to launch my kayak in the water. The imagined Glen Ferris Campground, meanwhile, would offer cozy lodging alongside majestic falls. 

Some of the sights of the Midland Trail, captured on recent trips to the area (Photos by Kathleen M. Jacobs).

Each artist’s rendition is more than a dream.  To them and to each of us anticipating this dream come to life, it’s very real. With close proximity to Columbus and Pittsburgh and Lexington, the draw could also prove irresistible for those city dwellers longing for a bit of natural beauty and rural refreshment.

At least once a week, I make this journey east from my home in Charleston, and I am consistently, continually refreshed by the cascading falls at Glen Ferris and the breathtaking drop of Cathedral Falls. I’ve seen each more times than I can count, and I never grow tired of their respective invitations to sit for a spell and dream. Here dreams do come true, when we hold tight to what we can imagine and eventually turn it into reality. In this corner of rural America and others like it, all it takes is some imagination, vivid and expansive, and time, which will be well-spent.

Kathleen M. Jacobs writes books for young readers, was the Runner-up Best Author of West Virginia in for 2020, and lives in Charleston, West Virginia.

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