It’s hovering around 10:00PM and although the sky has seceeded into the most navy of blues, the heat and humidity of a clear, July afternoon still hovers about, sticking to our foreheads. I’m sitting on the railing of the wooden balcony that wraps around the reception hall in which two of my very best friends have just gotten hitched—my feet dangling high above the ground which, looking now, is much farther down than I initially realized. As a native Houstonian, I’m not used to structures on steep slopes like they have here in West Virginia as part of regular geography and especially not when I’m on my third glass of champagne.
Two or so dozen feet in front of me is a line of thick, dark, towering trees and twinkling endlessly in their shadows are thousands of dancing fireflies. Their sparkling song seems endless—over and over the darkness pops with glittering yellow and green flashes and as I struggle to fully exhale the smoke from a long drag I’ve just taken off of a celebratory cigar (I don’t think I even know how to properly smoke a cigar, but I had to try on this night) it dawns on me that this is one of those experiences I’ll remember for the rest of my days.
I’d gone to West Virginia three days before this—before the wedding, the cigar, the balcony and the fireflies—because one of my dearest friends (who I will henceforth refer to as Mountain Mama) asked me to be the Maid of Honor in her wedding. Having never been to West Virginia or really, any of her surrounding areas, I’d arrived with absolutely no expectations—a clean slate ready to be filled with whatever the wilderness held for us. In typical Mountain Mama fashion, we forewent a bar-crawling, explicitly decorated bachelorette party and opted to take her brother and soon-to-be sister in law on a hiking / white-water-rafting adventure in and around West Virginia’s New River Gorge.
The four of us, Mountain Mama, her brother (The Frenchman) and soon-to-be sister in law (Hannie B) set out across the state at seven in the morning to be the early birds catching the worms on the hike out to The Endless Wall and lucky for us, we caught that scenic worm with hardly another hiker in sight.
There were several small paths which veered off the main trail, each leading to jagged-rock ledges overlooking the valley and each one of those roads-less-traveled was worth exploring. Each careful step closer to the edge tugged at my gut and at my heart so hard that words, thoughts, worries, and cares about anything escaped me. In other words, the views from The Endless Wall Trail were literally breathtaking.
We did this for several hours, the four of us, hiking through the wooded paths high above the river. Rhododendron bushes were in full bloom pouring over from the edges of the trail and even sometimes hanging down from above our heads—their light pink and white flowers delicately sprinkling our path…nature’s flowergirl.
After our souls were fully saturated in the views from way up high, we ventured down low to see the gorge from a much quicker moving perspective—that of the raft.
Of the four of us, only the Frenchman had been white-water rafting so as we geared up and rode down to the take-off point, our nerves and the weight of what we were about to do started to settle in our stomachs. Neither Mountain Mama or I could think of what to say so until we were successfully out on the water, we just giggled nervously.
Lucky for us, we had two other adventurerers ride in our raft: the Miller’s out of Ohio, who, first time or no, did an amazing job rowing on down the river—better than the rest of us most of the time. And we also had the most excellent of tour guides who was completely responsible (and successful!) for keeping the six of us alive on that river. (If you’re ever looking to raft the New River Gorge, might I suggest booking with Adventures on the Gorge. You’ll be especially lucky with Chris as your guide. We sure were.)
This three hour ride down the river was thrilling for two…well….actually three reasons:
- When approaching the rapids, no matter how many you’ve gone through, there’s that moment seconds before you steer into the crashing, whitecapping waves surrounded by jagged rocks that you think, “there’s no way I’m getting out of this right now,” and so you clutch your paddle, wedge your feet, and row like your life depends on it—because it does.
- The banks and the scenery lining this river in which we rafted were stunning—there were massive rocks (which, according to Chris, are often named based on their shapes) that you could swear have been around since dinosaurs have. Wild flowers peeked from the trees and weeds and birds soared about between the mountains. Not to mention, when you come around the curve and see the New River Gorge Bridge, you can’t help but be humbled by the skill and hands of the humans who built it.
- You make friends with your raft-mates. That’s the thing about adrenaline junkies—you commune in potentially life-threatening situations and, I’m not sure if everyone does this, but I look around the raft (or plane, or boat, or rockwall, or whatever the particular setting is) and think, “well, these could be the last people with whom I share breath” and suddenly, you kind of love them. It’s a connection like no other.
That night, after the rafting and a few drinks with our newly acquainted friends, Mountain Mama, The Frenchman, Hannie B and I drove down into the woods to set up camp. The sun had gone down by the time we made it to our site, and so, using the headlights of our vehicle to light our way and keep clear of stepping on slugs, we quickly set up our tent and settled in for bed. I’ll cut this part short, but, due to a few unforeseen circumstances, we had to pack up our tent in the middle of the night and rush back across the state instead of being able to complete our night of camping. I will say that, thankfully, everyone was fine and really, driving across West Virginia and through the mountains at 2:00AM was quite an adventure in and of itself. So many stars. So many deer. So many odd car conversations.
The following day, we hiked more—this time on the other side of the gorge, down the Long Point Trail. This hike made for much better viewing of the bridge and even more of an opportunity to be stunned and humbled by nature’s beauty.
From there, we traveled even farther east to Mountain Mama’s tiny hometown where we romped in hidden waterfalls and forgot what it felt like to move so quickly all the time.
This led into Sunday which was the wedding day and all I can say is that it was perfect. I’ll not go into further detail, for it’s not my story to tell but, spoiler alert: I suspect the couple will live happily ever after. They are a couple who redefine what it means to love someone and I am so honored to have been a part of it.
Which brings me back to this railing that I’m perched upon among the chorus of well-wishing fireflies…where I’m choking up because I leave first thing in the morning. I try to take another drag off of the cigar, but I cough lamely and decide to focus my breath on the air that, realistically, I’m not sure when I’ll have the chance to breathe again. I imagine this West Virginia air swirling into my lungs and around my spine in a glittering, white light. It illuminates all the darknesses lurking in my anxious body and as I exhale into the now black night, I’m left cleansed.
I imagine in this moment that a glowing piece of my heart breaks off with my breath and floats on into the wild and wonderful air—that a little piece of my glowing heart floats away leaving a dim, glittering trail tangled with fireflies and settles itself upon the banks of the New River Gorge where it’ll wait for me to come back to retrieve it. It’ll glow, even when the water and the rocks cover it up with the rising tides. It’ll be there, pulsing dimly in the dirt, that piece of my heart that never wants to leave ole’ West Virginia. That little piece of my heart that fell in love and would be damned to leave. It’ll wait there with the ghosts that linger in the mountain mist, waiting for me to return…and I will…someday.
Until then, stay wild and wonderful, West Virginia. Take care of my Mountain Mama and her betrothed…and of that little piece of my heart that’s stuck there. I’ll be back to get it.