“Montani Semper Liberi,” Latin for “Mountaineers are always free,” is West Virginia’s state motto.
In January of 2006 we enter into a land full of nature’s frozen mysteries. Autumn leaves lay trapped in time within iced lakes and pine trees sagging with the overbearing weight of snow. Yet beneath a frozen surface, life thrived, waiting to crack through its shell and be exposed to this world. I am surprised at how unique and resplendent the land is. I have never considered West Virginia a vacation spot, and knew little about what was hidden here. One of those mysterious secrets is a “Lost River,” which even with a map, we are unable to find. However, what we do find are several amazing sights that lay right off the roadside. One of them is called Seneca Rocks.
As we drive through the Monongahela National Forest, we look up to see a jagged wall of rock. Near the center, it appears as if someone has taken a bite out of the steep cliff. While asking around, we discover a native legend that surrounds the masterpiece. It is of a Seneca princess named “Snow Bird,” the only Indian to ever ascend the vertical bluffs. She challenged seven men in search of her hand in marriage to follow her in the climb. The one that was successful would become her husband. We don’t climb the icy cliff, but admire it from afar before ascending in our vehicle up to the highest point in the state. Our tires slip and spin in the snow, and my born and raised Florida husband has his first experience with digging a car out of a ditch. Thankfully we slide away from the cliff’s edge.
At Blackwater Falls, we encounter a couple people crazy enough to drive the un-plowed mountain roads. Since there was only one path of tire tracks, the road is narrowed to one way, and passing means an attempt to clear a foot of pristine snow. This isn’t as difficult for our four wheel drive, but the low car passing us twists off the rail so we hop out to help the sweet couple steer back down the mountain.
In each little town we talk with West Virginian locals, but always feel as if they are keeping something from us. They are cordial by all means, but a bit mysterious. I begin to feel as if the residents consider West Virginia their personal playground and aren’t sure about letting us “outsiders” in on the beauty.
I run through a list of galleries four times. My calls are in vain. I am working in a hotel parking lot from the passenger seat. I hope it is the holiday that leaves the phone ringing, but only 5 states in, I wonder if this concept will work. Will we be able to recruit all 50 states to join this vision of uniting a nation through art…will there be a “Nomadic Project?”
Finally. we drive into Morgantown and step into Appalachian Gallery. Here, we meet two very nice women who share our love for travel, art and adventure. After talking with them for a bit, we realize that as welcoming as they are as they embrace the work, they too have a very quiet, almost humble, disposition. We leave West Virginia having still not cracked the mystery of this alluring state, but will always hold tight the many treasures that we experienced along the way.