On the Road Summer 2021 Days 1& 2 New River Gorge, Indian-Celina Recreation Area

Days 1 & 2: New River Gorge National Park & Indian-Celina Campground

It was twenty miles past Covington, Virginia before the thick, nauseating odor of the paper mill town at last lessened. Its smothering stench had enveloped the valleys and its yellow smog all but obscured the dense green forest along Interstate 64. My spirits lifted as the smog rose. My short-term memory no longer railed against our criminally lax air quality standards. I was again besotted with the beauty of  Earth, lush forests carpeting the rugged Appalachians, smiling broadly as I crossed the state line. It truly was "Wild, Wonderful West Virginia."


It didn’t take long however, my car swinging up and down the steep hillsides, hemmed in by high-speed traffic, one and all driving entirely too fast for the wicked bends and hairpin turns…it wasn’t long at all before the wonders of its wildness waned. There is wild and then there is reckless, and these yokels were reckless. Rods protruding from the hubcaps of tractor trailer trucks spun perilously close to my tires. As though caught up in tornado winds spinning up the mountainside, two out of three drivers passing and two out of three I passed swerved into my lane. All that swaying metal was unnerving.

I had nearly a month until the wedding in Stanley, Idaho. I glanced at the clock. Only two hours into my trip. And yet, my agitation reported that it was a perfect time for an idyllic hike. I mean, this was ostensibly a vaca.

Interstate 64 actually runs through southern portions of the newest of our National Parks. I’d been there before: the easily accessible Grand Rim Trail offers breathtaking views of the New River Gorge. Far below the deep cut canyons, the wide, rapid river snakes around lush ancient hills, its fury pushing over boulders, indiscriminately carrying with it fallen tree limbs and daredevil kayakers. Take binoculars if you want to witness the terror on their faces. The trailhead is off I-64 mile-marker 129, and a short nine miles up Highway 9 North a/k/a Grandview Road. Well worth the few minutes to get there. The trail is a bit over two and a half miles from the Main Overlook Trailhead if you take it clear to the Turkey Spur Overlook, but if you don’t want to return the same way or walk down Turkey Spur Road back to your vehicle, you can still get stellar views of the 1400 plus foot drop at Main Overlook, North Overlook and several built-out balconies along the rim on a self-designed shorter trek.

On a Friday in early August, I passed only a few others on the trail, which is how I like it.

The New River is not new at all but is in fact one of the oldest rivers in the world. It is a new national park and preserve however, only being awarded this status at the very end of 2020. It has become critical to protect biodiversity hotspots across the world as the earth’s life cycles are failing and the guess is that the web of life cannot maintain these critical processes with so many holes in the web.  The forest surrounding the New River is one of the most biodiverse forests remaining on our planet, a compelling case for preserving the area. The three rivers it encompasses are the New River, designated a National River in 1978, the Gauley River, part of a National Recreation Area established in 1988 and the Bluestone National Scenic River, designated as such in 1988. I point this out because there is a hierarchy of protection for national monuments, national recreation areas, national scenic rivers, and national forests, the national park status being the gold standard for protection from development and preservation. The national preserve status allows regulated hunting, fishing and trapping but the National Park Service can shut down those practices if needed.

Calm and at one with the world again after walking among glossy rhododendron and delicate wildflowers, breathing in the deeply-oxygenated mountain air and gazing deep into the gorge at rocks 330 million years old, putting the shenanigans of mankind in its proper relatively meaningless perspective, I pulled back onto the highway, westbound. The human species would come and go. There was precious little I could do about it, so why trouble my mind cursing the rural ignorant and selfish each time I passed a racist flag and political banner?

Sections of I-64 in West Virginia are a bit disconcerting to drive due to the engineering of the road. You have probably come across this design here and there: the one where the road is built with thirty-foot sections separated by a seam, which jolts your car at regular intervals, sounding unmistakably like a flat tire flapping against the concrete. The genius who came up with this idea is probably dead so no reason to waste time wishing him further ill. I was actually grateful to pay tolls for a better road. Though do be apprised that if you don’t have their EZ Pass, you’ll need cash. Why are so many turnpike toll booths operated so archaically? Who carries cash anymore?


As ruggedly beautiful as West Virginia is, I was relieved to enter Kentucky. Almost immediately, it felt less reckless, less incendiary.  A sign indicated I was driving through the Daniel Boone National Forest. Daniel Boone was a folk hero to me from a television series when I was a child. I was all about crossing America dreaming of folk heroes. The trick however is to not delve too deeply into historical facts. Better not to know for example, that Daniel Boone was indeed a real man who owned real slaves.


I-64 only passes through the northern tip of the forest, which further south boasts the Red River Gorge and other temptations. But I was on my way to Caitlin’s wedding in Stanley. Soon the terrain became less rugged. Unconsciously, my shoulders relaxed; I felt calmer passing soft green rolling hills, thoroughbred horses and sign after sign marking bourbon distilleries. Images of bony, grizzled old men staggering out of the woods and onto the road chugging from a mason jar of moonshine were replaced with those of genteel women in rocking chairs on wrap-around porches sipping mint juleps in their satin dresses with ridiculous bows and fancy hats bedecked with flowers, their sweet daisy heads saturated with bourbon.


Feeling less on edge, I began looking forward to passing through Louisville. If not for COVID, I’d stop and explore as the last time I was there, it had enviable culinary, art and theater scenes for a population just over half a million. As it was, I was content to see the magnificent Ohio River out my car window while imagining that it is not in fact the most polluted river in the US. In Louisville, I saw a sign for E P Tom Sawyer State Park. Tom Sawyer? I consider myself fairly well-versed in the capers of Tom and Huck and didn’t recall any stories of exploits on the Ohio River. Turns out, that the park is really named after a Jefferson County Judge Erbon Powers “Tom” Sawyer, father of news anchor Diane Sawyer.


From Louisville, I dipped down to the Scenic Byway 62 in Indiana heading toward Indian and Celina Lakes where I hoped to find a campsite for the night. I hit the section running along the Ohio River around sunset and pulled over to watch the sun’s bright orange reflection shimmering on the wide, laconic river from the parking lot of the Overlook Restaurant in Leavenworth.  Their expansive porch would have been a pleasant place to dine that time of evening, but I wasn’t planning on eating out on this trip, having packed my trusty mess kit with the piezo ignition and a fair selection of tasty organic Maya Kaimal vegan Indian dishes as well as organic Tasty Bite Madras lentils, the latter available dirt cheap at Costco. Breakfast would be oatmeal with granola and honey and of course, organic coffee. I emphasize organic because if it’s not, chances are that it doesn’t qualify as nourishing food, being heavily laden with pesticides, herbicides, preservatives and colors, none of which are healthy. The less I ate out, the longer I could afford to travel and generally, the fewer belly aches I would sustain. I wanted to get to my campsite before dark, so I pulled back onto Highway 62.

Insidious advertising. This charming barn side in central Indiana is as American as ice skaters on a Norman Rockwell pond. While cigarette smoking is declining, smokeless tobacco use is actually increasing among young people in Indiana and across the United States. According to Quit Now Indiana, 11% of Hoosier boys chew. I’m not sure why the stats only cover boys. My female Hoosier cousin chews. Smokeless tobacco contains 28 cancer-causing chemicals.


Passing through the suburban neighborhoods with their manicured lawns and absence of political signs was oddly comforting. Picture perfect. A throwback to less complicated days. Logically, I know that these monoculture expanses maintained by herbicides and synthetic fertilizers are not healthy for the earth, nor is the unnecessary fossil fuel expended to maintain them in such impeccable condition, but their orderliness evokes a sense of cohesion, a sense that all is well in the world, that the US is not imploding under the weight of conflict and hatred and a pandemic we can’t slow because people are refusing to get vaccinated. I take comfort too in the long line at the ice cream parlor, families out on a warm summer evening, their most pressing decision: the flavor of ice cream to choose. I am nine and hear the clear glass tinkle of the chimes on the back porch of my best friend’s ranch house in a neighborhood just like these; we play kick the can in her driveway until dusk. A simple innocent peace long ago, now lost in a tunnel sealed off. Have these Hoosiers somehow been spared life’s scarring tragedies? I pretend there is such a place, and I am there this evening.


The Indian-Celina Lakes Recreation Area is in the Hoosier Forest just a couple miles south of I-64 off Indiana 37. It has two fishing lakes, a day-use swimming area with clean, relatively spacious changing rooms, a playground and a historic site. The swimming beach is roped off from fishing boats, which can either be non-motorized or have electric motors, preserving the commendable clarity of the lake water. Reservations for a campsite can be made in advance on recreation.gov, but it costs more than if you just show up and I didn’t know whether I was going to make it that far, so I tossed the dice. I have my Subaru Outback set up with a comfy foam insulated inflatable mattress, soft sheets and a fluffy comforter along with my two favorite pillows, so actually it didn’t matter where I stopped to sleep as long as it was safe. I also have four black mesh window shades for security and air flow sans mosquitoes, as well as a shade that nicely blocks glaring street lamps and fits securely above the dash and under the visors, is easy to open and folds up like a small umbrella to fit in the car door pocket. The back and rear windows are all tinted pretty darkly so I imagine that I am in fact invisible, and a potential intruder pictures me large, armed, maybe even hairy like a wild beast and poised to pounce. You never know what creepers might be lurking at a rest area, or anywhere for that matter, so a good campsite with sane neighbors out of sight but within shrieking distance is a plus. I got a good vibe in my campsite, Number 16 in the North Face campground, on a non-electric Loop. The parking space was paved, and the campsite, screened by tall pines had a table with benches, an in-ground grill and a good level space for setting up a tent. All in all, the campground, run by gofindoutdoors.org was inviting, clean and well-maintained.  Darkness was quickly descending, so I scrounged around until I found my towel and soap and then scurried into the shower house. Imagine: the shower was designed so that the bench where you set your clothes doesn’t get sprayed by water. No hair clogging the drain, the water was hot and the pressure hearty.  It’s the little things. I felt like a princess.


I fell asleep to the flashing of fireflies luring mates in the comforting chirring cadence of the forest. I woke only once and to total silence. I forced myself to stumble out of the car to see the sparkling sky. The world was not only safe, but outrageously beautiful. Benign and embracing. At that moment, even the crickets were dreaming. Their dreams passed through me.


I woke to the loveliest of mornings and decided on a swim.  I headed down toward the fishing lakes.

The wetlands at the water’s edge stole my attention. I am a sucker for beautiful tall grasses and these ones captivated me with their multiple exquisite hues of gold and green.

Still, I don’t care to swim in sharp or slimy grass. If someone does, I don’t want to meet him. I gazed out at the Indian and Celina Lakes from the weathered wooden walkway. A couple fisherwomen were unloading tackle from their truck in the parking lot and a young man was leaving with his catch: green sunfish. Green sunfish! How romantic! I asked how he would prepare them. Why with oil in a skillet of course and smothered with a spicy, vinegar-based ceviche sauce, a recipe from his native Jamaica. He confirmed that no one swam in these lakes and directed me to the park exit, then turn right and “go down the road a piece.” I’ll know it when I see it. That direction never fails to trouble me. How can a stranger possibly know that “I will know it when I see it?” Still, I smiled. I liked him. He was going to make a mean ceviche sauce for his green sunfish.


The concessionaire at the tollbooth told me that my campsite tag entitled me to free entry at Tipsaw Lake and there was a lot going on down there because it was Smokey the Bear’s birthday. A celebration at Tipsaw beach! Imagine my delight! What were the chances I would be there on Smokey the Bear’s birthday?


I pulled my car into the lot and marched right over to the pavilion where the action was. Or should have been. Perhaps it was my duty to liven up the less-than-animated staff setting up for the party. Clearly, they had not had two cups of strong coffee as I had. I could not at first understand why they were lagging. The party should have started an hour ago and they were still setting up. I was curtly apprised that we were in fact in Central Standard Time, not Eastern. Well, I could roll with that. I offered to help put up the banners. I was then advised in a dour tone by the largest woman that there would be no banners. What? No Happy Birthday Smokey banners? I shrugged this disappointment off and pretended to look very carefully through the party favors they were laying out on a long table. I felt they were behaving unnecessarily curmudgeonly when I indicated that I would in fact like a Smokey the Bear bookmark. Two fat women scowled at me. Those were for the children. It wasn’t like I asked for the crayons or stickers or had cut myself a piece of cake before anyone else arrived. I didn’t even take a pencil though I could have used one. They had a million bookmarks, and these would not even interest the smaller tykes. As I was picking up one anyway and slipping it into my pocket, I tried to turn things around by making light conversation, asking in a perky tone how they knew it was Smokey’s birthday.

 This was met by a confused silence all around. Finally, someone offered that other parks were celebrating it today. A couple of the others nodded. Not the most imaginative group I’d encountered.


I suggested a group photo! Surely, they wanted documentation of this memorable event. A camera can provide a transforming experience: I was actually able to elicit some smiles. I might note that for the entire duration of my swim, an hour and a half out of their three-hour party, I didn’t see anyone else show up. Not even Smokey. Good: Let them pack all those stinking pencils and bookmarks back up.


I had an absolutely delightful swim. The water was soft and shallow enough to touch the sandy bottom but deep enough to swim back and forth in, which is exactly what I did. Back and forth. Back and forth. It felt fantastic to shimmy my body without taxing my crippled ankle. The outer perimeter of the beach had very slimy grass, which I stepped down into a few times, cringing each time and shooting back to the beach interior. I appear an awkward swimmer as I get terrible earaches when my left ear is submerged, so I just alternate my doggy paddle, frog, butterfly and back strokes to adapt to my infirmity. Whilst it may appear to an observer that I am in fact struggling desperately to stay afloat, in my mind’s eye I am sailing through the seas with the alacrity of a mermaid and couldn’t feel more wonderful. Refreshed, I gathered my towel about me and headed for the changing room with my traveling clothes.


I didn’t have time before checkout for another shower, so I hit the road smelling like lake water.