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Telling the Story of Small-town America, without Donald Trump

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Photo: David Bernabo

When two Minnesota writers busted a star reporter for German magazine Der Spiegel for skewering their town with fabrications, it affirmed the worst stereotypes about condescending city journalists wading into the heartland.

But you don’t have to make stuff up to worry about how your reporting on small-town America is going to be received. Since the 2016 election, the tension on main street between storyteller and subject has polluted public discourse and trust during a difficult and vulnerable time. Getting the story exactly right is always hard.

That’s why I was so nervous a few Fridays ago, when filmmaker Dave Bernabo and I drove 75 minutes southwest of Pittsburgh, to Moundsville, W.Va., for the premiere of our feature documentary about the town.

The movie, which is available online, will debut in New York on Jan. 14 and in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Museum of Art on Jan. 17. But the Moundsville performance was the one I was nervous about. For the first time in my two-decade career in journalism, on publication day, I would be facing my sources.

Small town

Dave and I were two city intellectuals, blue dots floating into a red town, and we’d committed to answering questions from the audience after the movie.

Our goal with “Moundsville” was to tell the economic biography of a classic American small town— a place out of a Jimmy Stewart movie — and show how it had changed and how it was coping, in a way that illustrated this moment in American history.

Moundsville, pop. 8,494, was the perfect fit. Its industrial boom included dozens of factories, including the Marx toy plant, which made the Rock’em Sock’em robots. Now it enjoyed a typical service economy, anchored around a Walmart, a hospital and a prison. And in the middle was the Grave Creek Mound, a prehistoric burial site left behind by hunter-gatherers who roamed Appalachia thousands of years ago, and a sure mark of time’s insistence on change.

Moundsville is the seat of a county that had voted 73.1 percent for Donald Trump in 2016, compared to 22.1 percent for Hillary Clinton, so, yes, maybe we’d reveal something deeper about the Trump phenomenon, but that wasn’t the primary goal.

Instead, we wanted mainly to tell the truth about the past, present and future of an iconic small town in a way that avoided nationalist nostalgia or liberal condescension. By focusing on shared history, without getting distracted by Washington politics, we’d show that Americans can still have common reality-based narratives that lay the groundwork for healthier debate.

We spent almost a year reporting, filming and editing. The approach we developed was to select the most thoughtful residents we could find, and let them tell the story. Our characters included a waiter, an archeologist, a paranormal collector, a toy historian and the poet laureate of West Virginia.

When we asked about politics, the answers were almost always clichés, copied and pasted from cable news. We made a decision: No Trump.

When we finished in November, we got an offer from Phil Remke, one of the main characters in the movie, and now the mayor of Moundsville: How about premiering at the Strand, that boxy red-brick theatre at the end of Moundsville’s main street, Jefferson Avenue?

The Strand opened in 1920 and seats 400. When Moundsville flourished, it hosted traveling plays and vaudeville acts. These days, it welcomes everything from bluegrass concerts and musicals for kids to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and stand-up comedy. It also hosts birthday parties and dance recitals.

We booked a Friday night and set ticket prices at $5, and then worried if anybody would show up.

Fulfilling the code

Media coverage of post-industrial towns tends to focus on economic poverty. This plant closed. This number of jobs were lost. Less discussed is the loss of culture. Factories with good jobs attract educated people with disposable income. An economy based on service jobs at the Walmart, the prison and the hospital offers less of a base to support theaters, museums and bookstores. “People have less money to spend, and it’s mostly older people,” Sadie Crowe, the young part-time general manager of the Strand, told me.

As soon as I got to the Strand on opening night, an hour before the show, I knew we’d be OK. There was a line.

We sold 146 tickets, mostly to people in their 50s and older. The box office tally “blows any other movie we’ve had this year out of the water,” Ms. Crowe told me later.

John W. Miller, a Pittsburgh-based writer and former Wall Street Journal reporter (pictured), has made a feature documentary about the town of Moundsville, W.Va. with Pittsburgh filmmaker David Bernabo. Photo: Matt McDermit/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The audience went quiet with concentration when the movie started. We got some laughs.

Then came a scene where a young Latino man talks about “racism in Moundsville.” A hush. Later, there was another conspicuous silence when Bill Wnek, a retired teacher, blames plant closures on capitalism. Local factories are bound to close “if you can get it cheaper somewhere else,” he says.

I was worried when the lights went up and it was time for the Q&A.

Suzanne Park, the director of the shuttered West Virginia State Penitentiary, now a tourist attraction, took the microphone. “Thank you for not making this political,” she said. “We didn’t know if we could trust you, because, you know, big-city journalists,” she said. “But you were balanced, and we appreciate that.” Others raised their hand. They had all liked the movie.

After the premiere, I discovered that we had fulfilled a code developed by some anthropologists. Presenting a finished work to the subject “is about respect, but it’s also about interaction, collaboration and growth,” University of Pittsburgh anthropologist Loukas Barton told me.

For example, native communities that Mr. Barton has studied in Alaska “have used my work in negotiations with other landowners,” he said. “Self-knowledge can give a community political power.” There’s a long history of outsiders “using and abusing the history of a place for their own purposes, and you’d don’t want to do that,” he said.

Shared history

I called a handful of locals for more conversation.

Like Ms. Park, others thanked me for not making the movie about Mr. Trump. It didn’t bother them that we had presented Moundsville’s decline, as well as problems with the gas industry and Walmart. They know things are hard; they just don’t like being lectured to, they explained.

“We all have opinions about politics and history will judge,” said Rose Hart, founder of a charity called Appalachian Outreach. “But both parties are so dysfunctional it’s better to stick to reality.”

By offering a shared history, the movie “makes it easier for us to talk about how to improve the town,” said Steve Hummel, a collector of haunted objects.

Gene Saunders, the town’s first and only African-American mayor, has a key role in the movie, explaining the discrimination he grew up with in the 1950s. “A lot of people here didn’t know Moundsville was segregated,” he said. “Your movie told them.”

Mary Britt moved to Moundsville six years ago to accompany her husband, who got a job at the local hospital. “I just liked learning more about the town,” she said. “You told a lot of stories that even people here don’t know.”

And she, too, thanked us, for avoiding the T word.

“I bet 90 percent percent of the people at the premiere voted for him,” said Ms. Britt. “But they don’t want an outsider telling them about it.”

A few weeks after the premiere, Ms. Crowe, the Strand’s manager, emailed to say people in town liked the movie so much that the theater will screen it twice more, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m on Jan. 19.

And on Facebook, one town resident declared she was downloading “Moundsville” — as a Christmas gift.

This story was originally published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Culture

W.Va. Hunters Return To Historical Roots

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Larry Spisak shoots a Flintlock rifle. He has been making rifles for over 40 years. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

West Virginia’s Mountaineer Heritage Hunting season began January 9, two weeks after most hunting seasons have closed. It is the second year since its conception, and most notably, it is limited to primitive weapons – like flintlock muzzle loader rifles.

The season is meant to memorialize the state’s settlers, using similar hunting techniques and weapons. 

Muzzle loader rifles are long guns, easily four feet. Hunters load black powder into the muzzle — the end of the gun — to fire. It takes an experienced person just under a minute to reload. That means that for hunting, you typically have one shot to kill an animal.

“Literally these are not high tech. These are primitive weapons. There’s nothing high tech about them,” Gene Wotring, a Morgantown-based rifle maker, said.

A New Generation

As of last spring, Gene started making the WVU Mountaineer rifle — the signature piece for WVU’s Mountaineer mascot. His father, Marvin Wotring, made the rifle for over 40 years prior to that. Marvin made 949 muzzle loaders in his life, and Gene is on number nine. It takes him about 80 hours to make one rifle.

Handmade rifles in Gene Wotring’s shop outside Morgantown. Wotring, who recently took over his father’s business, made the most recent Mountaineer mascot’ rifle. WVU replaces the Mountaineer rifle every five to six years. Because the rifles are shot at least a dozen times per WVU sports game, depending on scores, they wear out quickly. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Inside Gene’s shop in Morgantown, five rifles were mounted in front of a rugged, cotton American flag. The rest of the shop was in a bit of disarray — Gene is still going through all of his father’s tools, which he inherited. But the rifles on display stand out. He made them all this year.

“A lot of frustrating hours in that gun and I had to put it up for a little bit. So then I built this one and made out of completely scraps from his shop,” Gene said.

One of the rifles Gene made in 2019. It is made out of a rare patterned maple, called Birdseye. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

They all have a glossy wooden shine to them. Two have a hand-carved gold emblem in the shape of W.Va. Another is made out of Birdseye Maple, which gives it a distinct, patterned look and is decorated with a metal bear paw.

Building It For The Challenge…

Gene said the knowledge of how to build muzzle loaders, and even how to shoot them, is dwindling. He said it is easier to hunt with modern rifles because they are easier to load, can shoot a longer range and can shoot multiple times within a matter of seconds.

But, he said, black powder hunting is almost a sport of its own.

“There’s a challenge to it. At some point, honestly it’s pretty easy to kill an animal with a modern rifle, you want to make it a little more challenging.”

And that is a big reason the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources advocated for the Mountaineer Heritage Hunting season. In a 2018 DNR survey of hunters, data showed that almost half of West Virginian hunters intended to take part in the season. 

And Gene is one of those people. He made his first muzzle loader at 11 years old, but he had stopped building the rifles in adulthood. 

…And The Legacy

When Marvin passed away unexpectedly, Gene felt like he needed take over his father’s legacy. WVU needed a new rifle right away, and Marvin had a list of other customers orders dating back to 2010. Gene said as Marvin got older, he could not keep up with the demand.

Gene was left with a stack of worn papers, big and small, that Marvin liberally scribbled names and phone numbers on.

Gene inside his shop. After his father’s unexpected passing, Gene inherited a lot of rifle-making tools, as well as a long list of orders. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“There’s 98, plus all the ones on the side, plus the ones on the top. He ran out of room. But some people are finding me,” Gene said.

For as long as Gene can remember his dad was making muzzle loaders, so Gene said he did not realize how special of a craft it is. 

“I’ve heard comments where my work is just as good as dad’s, but when I look at it I think it doesn’t even match up – completely different category,” he said.

Building It For The History

Larry Spisak is another West Virginian who builds muzzle loaders. 

His shop is down a windy turnpike outside Morgantown. It sits on several acres of forested land that he hunts on. Larry is retired and devotes much of his time to studying and interpreting the practices of our Appalachian ancestors.

Larry Spisak on his property outside of Morgantown. All of the tools pictured he or his friends have hand made. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“The ability of dressing in period clothing, firing period weapons, hunting and experiencing the woods as our ancestors did 200 years ago, even with today’s modern technology, for me and many others, that’s the closest as you can come to time travel,” he said.

Over 40 years he has made dozens of rifles. Larry prefers to make flintlock rifles, which are a type of muzzle loader, and are one of the oldest firearm technologies dating back to the 1500s. 

“Ready To Fire”

With a flintlock, one pulls the trigger, and a piece of steel hits the flint, which is just a very hard rock. It creates a spark and ignites the black powder.

“First thing I do is take my powder horn and I’ve got my powder measure right here and that’s from a wild turkey leg bone,” Larry said.

Larry puts some black powder into the barrel of the rifle. He can load a Flintlock in under a minute, which is relatively fast given the several hundred-year-old technology. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

All of his supplies are handmade. A friend made the turkey powder measure and Larry made the leather bag carrying the rifle and round lead ball, which serves as the bullet. 

Larry wrapped the ball in a small piece of fabric, or a patch, before putting it into the barrel of the gun.

“The patch acts as a seal and it also allows the rifling to grip the ball better and put that spin on the ball,” Larry said. “Alright now we draw the ram rod and drive it home.”

He used the ram rod to push the black powder and bullet into the bottom of the gun, back by the flintlock. 

“Alright it’s on the charge. Ready to fire. Put it on full cock and we’ll go,” he said.

The gun made a bellowing sound through the woods.

Historical Roots

The rifle is a large part of Appalachian history, Larry said. Early settlers had to hunt for food, and muzzle loaders were the way they did it, Larry added that West Virginians today still embody their ancestors. 

Larry preparing to shoot his Flintlock. He hunts with his handmade rifles every year. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“A large percentage of the population lives in the mountains, and maybe not realizing it, they are, in their everyday activities in their farming and hunting, they are living a bit of the life that was commonplace 200 years ago,” he said.

And that is why Larry still makes and hunts with muzzle loaders. He likes to feel connected to the settlers who paved the way for us in Appalachia.

The 2020 West Virginia Mountaineer Heritage Hunting season is January 9 to January 12.

This story was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting and is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.

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Ohio Valley Outlook: Expect a Slower Regional Economy in 2020

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Photo: Becca Schimmel/Ohio Valley ReSource
Photo: Becca Schimmel/Ohio Valley ReSource

This piece was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The Ohio Valley’s economy could see slower growth in 2020 amid continued anxiety about trade, and possible downturns in both energy and manufacturing, according to analyses and forecasts by regional economists.

Michael Hicks directs the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University in Indiana where he forecasts the health of the manufacturing sector. Hicks expects manufacturing to slow down, and he blames the tariffs levied under President Donald Trump’s administration. Hicks said the costs imposed by the trade war are playing out in markets across the region and he predicts the Ohio Valley’s economic growth to slow dramatically in 2020.

“You will see layoffs certainly, lower hours, less generous bonuses both this year and next year, less demand for power which is going to be important particularly in Kentucky and West Virginia, as manufacturing firms both use less metallurgical coal and less coal for electrical power,” Hicks said.

‘One tweet away’

A report Hicks co-authored shows the impact of manufacturing employment on the overall health of the United States economy has diminished. Production is still a large share of the economy. But, he said, the economies of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are heavily dependent on exports, which is why the trade war has and will continue to have a large impact.

Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

The Trump administration has made some recent moves to improve trade relations. The United States Mexico Canada Agreement or, USMCA, would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement or, NAFTA. USMCA has passed the House and is still pending in the Senate. But Hicks said that trade deal doesn’t offer much assurance.

“The USMCA passage is essentially for your typical manufacturing firm it improves the confidence that we’re not going to have a trade war with our big partners in Canada and Mexico,” Hicks said. “But to just speak candidly, we’re always one tweet away from a new adversary in the trade war.”

He said if European firms are less interested in buying higher-priced American products it’s enough to cause a significant decline in the demand for goods produced in the U.S. Hicks said that could have a bigger effect in the region than in the country as a whole.

“Which is enough to push Kentucky and West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois into a localized recession,” he said. “It’s not enough for a national recession, but it’s enough to give us the feel and taste of what a recession would be like.”

Of the three states, Ohio’s larger economy is also more diverse and follows national trends more closely. Zach Schiller is an economist with Policy Matters Ohio, an economic research institute.

“Ohio is not an island, you know, our economy is closely integrated into the national and international economies,” Schiller said.

Schiller said the largest employers in Ohio are either national or international companies and he expects any change in the state’s economy to be similar to what happens nationally.

Still Recovering

In Kentucky, manufacturing plays a significant role in the state’s economy. Jason Bailey director the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. He said manufacturing has grown in large part because of the auto industry, but carmakers are seeing a slowdown.

“We’ve lost a lot of manufacturing over the last couple decades across the state and industries like apparel or furniture manufacturing or computer parts manufacturing, that has often been to cheaper locations like China and in Latin America,” Bailey said.

Bailey said Kentucky still hasn’t fully recovered from the last recession and it’s facing a tough year ahead with state budget cuts likely.

West Virginia is in a similar position with even fewer signs of economic recovery. West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics is predicting the economy will expand by about point two percent annually for the next five years. The Executive Director of the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy Ted Boettner said that’s the lowest growth rate WVU has predicted for the state in the past seven years.

“You know since our last economic recession that began in 2007, West Virginia has seen less than a 1 percent increase in job growth over that time,” Boettner said.

Pipeline stacked in Morgantown, West Virginia. Photo by: Larry Dowling/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Boettner said the state’s economy has always been on a “roller coaster ride” based on energy markets. The downturn in coal has hit hard, of course, but that was somewhat offset recently by a boost from natural gas and pipeline construction work. Now, however, one major pipeline project is complete and some others have been halted by legal challenges. Boettner said that focus on natural resource extraction can hamper other kinds of growth.

“A lot of other industries, especially ones based in the knowledge-based economy don’t really want to be around extractive industries,” Boettner said. “They don’t want to be around a lot of pollution, and things like that. So you really are choosing one over the other in some sense.”

Boettner said the state has never had big urban centers to build a diversified economy around, but he thinks investment in education could help with that.

“I mean, unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where I think the only way that West Virginia is going to really thrive, potentially thrive, over the coming decades will be unless there’s massive federal investment in the state,” he said.

Deficits Despite Growth 

The U.S. is in the longest period of economic recovery in modern history. Hicks said normally that would mean the country would be running a budget surplus and could start paying off debt or taking on big projects.

“We would have made some long term investments in infrastructure, highways, roads, particularly with transfers to local governments that are, you know, facing a lot of aging infrastructure,” Hicks said.

Instead, Hicks said, the federal budget has a deficit of more than a trillion dollars after tax cuts and what he calls unsustainable federal spending, including the trade bailouts for farmers. And he said those economic policies are not having the degree of stimulus they should, largely because of the negative effects of the trade war.

A report from Ball State notes the Trump administration’s 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was meant to spur private, non-residential investment. But whatever effect could have been expected was muted by a similarly large tax increase due to tariffs associated with the trade war.

“We are running a budget deficit of $1.1 trillion, which is considerably more than the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” Hicks said. “That was Obama’s large stimulus package passed in February 2009. That was only $856 billion”

As economists across the region watch for signs of the next recession, they also look to infrastructure investment as an area for potential growth. The Ohio Valley has massive funding needs for its roads, broadband internet access, and aging water systems.

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The Evolving Culture of W.Va. River Guides

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Guests of Adventures on the Gorge float down the lower New River. Along with the Gauley River, the New River is one of the top destinations for white water rafting in West Virginia. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Just about any search on Google for “best white water rafting” includes West Virginia. Around 150,000 people commercially raft a West Virginia river each year, mostly on the New River and Gauley River, which are near Fayetteville, West Virginia. At one point there were just less than 30 rafting companies in the area. Today, they have consolidated into six adventure businesses. 

Taking many of the people down the river is a raft guide – someone who is professionally trained to know water, but also to know people. The concept of a river guide in West Virginia started to form in the late 1960s, creating an entire guiding community culture. It is one that has been passed down for decades and is developing more each year.

Every guided raft trip provides guests with a taste of the culture. Especially with experienced guides like Ray Ray, a senior river guide for Adventures on the Gorge – a river guiding outfit in Fayetteville.

It Is In Your Blood, Or It Is Not

On this day, Ray Ray guides eight guests down the lower New River. The water is warm. The canyon surrounding them is tall and covered in thick green trees. Birds are chirping, there is a slight rain drizzle. The arch of the New River Gorge Bridge glimmers in the distance. 

Ray Ray paddles a raft down the lower New River. He has been guiding since 1992. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It’s the best job in the world. I actually have two college degrees I’ve never used a day in my life,” Ray Ray says.

Roger Wilson, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge, says all the guides have a deep love for the outdoors. 

“There’s something that happens when that first wave hits you. White Water rafting is either in your blood or it’s not. And when that first wave hit me, I was addicted,” Roger says.

He says guiding is not for everyone, as there is a large social aspect. One must be able to read people just as well as one reads the water.

Dave Bassage, who has been guiding since 1984, says there is a close, mutual respect between him and the customer.

“I really love the dynamic of having a crew of different people every day and introducing them to what I think of as the dance with moving water,” Dave says. “We’re just one of its partners, and we’ve got all these other partners in the raft.”

Roger Wilson (left) and Dave Bassage in front of the main Adventures on the Gorge building. Roger started guiding in 1975 and he took Dave on his first raft trip – Dave later started guiding in 1984. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Being a river guide can be a nomadic lifestyle, as the season goes from March until October. Jay Young, media manager for Adventures on the Gorge, says many of the river guides work at ski resorts in the winter or they continue guiding in South America. 

“Those people, everything they own fits in the back of their truck or car and they’re off to the next destination to whatever’s in season,” Jay says.

“Ya’ll Ready?”

The guide leading the boat on this day has made a career out of the industry. Ray Ray has guided in West Virginia since 1992, and he has worked on dozens of other rivers across the world. 

On this trip, there are four other rafts with guides in the group, but Ray Ray is the trip leader. He consistently checks in with the other guides.

“Ya’ll ready? You ready Caveman?” he asks.  

All the river guides have nicknames. One man with shoulder-length blonde hair goes by ‘Caveman.’ He got the name because of where he lived for about eight months — the span of a full rafting season.

“I was looking around through the woods one day and found this cool little rock house overhang and just made it into a house,” Caveman says. “I actually had an endangered species of salamander living with me – it was pretty neat.”

And Ray Ray’s nickname is a bit of a mystery, but Jay has a theory. 

“Ray Ray is Ray Ray because he’s twice the fun,” Jay says.

Ray Ray gives the raft paddling commands. 

“Forward and back, forward and back, don’t use your arms,” he says.

Rafts floating down the lower New River. Today, guides are in almost every commercial raft; however, in the 60s, 70s and 80s that was not as common. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Pubilc Broadcasting

There are long stretches of calm, scenic floating. Ray Ray explains the history of the area, and he tells stories, like how different rapids and obstacles in the river got their names. There is Greyhound, Flea Flicker, Meat Grinder, Old Nasty and Miller’s Foley. 

“A kayaker named Miller got stuffed up underneath that rock over there. He was trying to run a real gnarly line, but he swam out alive, which was a million to one shot,” Ray Ray says. “He needed to go buy himself a lottery ticket.”

Ray Ray’s skin seems to be permanently tan. The fine lines on his face are of a person who has worked outside all of their life. When he sits on the back of the raft, paddle in hand, he is in his element. 

Mostly he jokes in a playful voice with the guests.

“Remember I told you if I don’t bring you back they’re gonna dock my pay. So, you better make your swim,” he says.

But in serious moments, Ray Ray exudes confidence. His voice booms, his commands are clear. 

Danger Lurks 

In the rapid sections of the river, the raft pushes itself through the raging white water. Everyone gets soaked, but Ray Ray guides the entire time.

“Forward go – go! Keep going guys,” he says.

Some of the guests scream from a mix of fear and excitement.

After the rapids, Ray Ray pauses to check on the other rafts in the group.

We’re approaching an obstacle called ‘Meat Grinder.’ 

“It’s a collection of undercut rocks where water goes under and through it,” Ray Ray says. “We say water goes through and bodies do not.”

Some people are thrown out of their raft in the rapid above Meat Grinder. They are not part of Ray Ray’s group, but he immediately springs into action. The possibility of something catastrophic happening is low, but ‘Meat Grinder’ is one of the more dangerous areas on the river.

The guides react quickly, and Ray Ray shouts to the people bobbing in the white water, trying to save their raft.

“Leave the boat. Swim – swim!”

Everybody is fine, but it is because Ray Ray and the other guides on the trip are experts on reading the water and reading each other. Something Jay Young, the media manager for Adventures on the Gorge, says is just part of being a professional guide.

“If you were to hang out at the guide camp or even a bar on a Saturday night, you wouldn’t think these guys are the professionals that they are,” Jay says. “But when the poo hits the fan on a river, there’s nobody else I’d want out with me, because they rush into action; they all know exactly what to do, and it gets done fast.”

Passing the Paddle Down

Guides have always had their own language, whether it is hand signals on the river, or talking about water depth or names of rapids. Ray Ray says it has evolved over time. 

“We’re gonna be running one down here called ‘Flea Flicker’ that a lot of old-timers used to call ‘Last Kick in the Pants,’” he says. “For the most part over time, it’s evolved and it’s just a way for us to communicate, it’s our language. It’s like speaking river guide or speaking hippy.”

Guests that were a part of Ray Ray’s group. There are typically eight people to a raft. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcast

And it is the senior guides, like Ray Ray, that teach this new language to the up and coming guides. People who might not have prior rafting experience but are brought together through their love of the outdoors. 

Claire Hemme, a former Inside Appalachia intern, is a first-year river guide. She took the job because she wanted to be paid to work outside.

“It’s just this wonderful eclectic mix of everyone from everywhere who just want to be outside,” she says.

The Glory Days

River guides have always been adventure-seeking people, says Roger Wilson, the Adventures on the Gorge CEO. He started guiding in 1975, and he says the concept of the commercial rafting industry was still new.

“Every rock wasn’t named, every route wasn’t ran. There was still that point of discovery,” Roger says. “We were developing an industry – developing something new that no one had ever done before.”

Today, safety is a top priority. Before getting on the river, everyone signs a waiver, and guides ask each person about specific health issues.

But that was not always the case. Charlie Walbridge guided on the Cheat River in northern West Virginia from the late 1970s until the early 1980s. He says there was not a guide in every raft, people did not sign a waiver and guests were often treated like friends rather than a paying customer.

“If somebody fell out of the boat, we’d certainly go help them, but we’d laugh at them,” Charlie says. “There were all kinds of slang. When I first started the guests were turkeys, and then carp and then geeks.”

Charlie Walbridge with his kayak at his home in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia. After trying out for the U.S. whitewater rafting team in 1975, Charlie started guiding on the Cheat River. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

These days, guides are almost always in every raft, and there is more respect between the guide and customer. Roger says guiding has become a way to share the love of the sport. 

“It evolves to watching these new guests hit these rapids for the first time and watching the smile on their face,” Roger says.

Don’t Watch Life Go By 

Back on the New River, in the raft with Ray Ray, the trip is almost over.  

For most of the guests in the boat, it is their first time down the rapids, but Ray Ray has done it thousands of times. He will be out again the next day, likely guiding more guests down the same rapids, but he still has a big grin and excitement for the river. 

Guests on the bus after four hours of rafting. Buses transport guides and guests to and from the river. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Thanks ya’ll very much,” he says. “Ya’ll played super hard today. I told you that was going to be a fun ride today – that was a rowdy ride.”

On shore, all the rafts are deflated and loaded on a trailer.

All 32 people in the group load up on a bus, where cold beer and soft drinks are waiting. Ray Ray has one last message.

“Guys, keep getting off your couch and living your life. Don’t watch this go by.”

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting and is part of a recent Inside Appalachia episode exploring some of Appalachia’s most unique destinations, on the water and beneath the water. 

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