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White Water West Virginia

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There's nothing better than watching the sunrise at Long Point. (Photograph by Ben Long)

By Ben Long

My Zimbabwean river guide’s eyes lit up when I told him where I was from. “I dream of going to West Virginia,” he blurted out. When he finished his rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” he told me he’d always wanted to raft the Gauley River. I would’ve inquired further, but I was quickly dumped into the foam of a class V rapid on the Zambezi – the mecca for whitewater enthusiasts around the world.

I survived the river that day, but was left wondering why a river guide in Central Africa would want to visit my home state.

The ability to view places and cultures objectively is one of the unexpected byproducts of traveling — and something that lingers in you when you get home. And, so, after spending fifteen months falling in love with the rest of the world, I returned to West Virginia to find that most of what I loved about other places had been right in front of me all along.

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Yup, people base jump from this bridge. (Photograph by Ben Long)

When people ask me how I’m coping with being stateside, they expect me to return a forlorn look. But I just smile because I haven’t stopped traveling.

Even though my travels are confined to West Virginia at the moment, I find exploring these hills and hollers all the more fulfilling because they are mine.

My love affair began in Lewisburg, my hometown, a place recently voted the “Coolest Small Town in America,” but I couldn’t get my African river guide’s dream out of my head.

So I turned my sights on Fayetteville – the home of the Gauley River.

Fayetteville is a small town filled with paddlers, bikers, hikers, and climbers — a place where adults morph into Lost Boys, rekindling their youthful spirit on a playground of rock faces, trails, and rapids.

Adventure towns have an excitement that’s hard to describe. And, during Gauley Season, when whitewater enthusiasts from all over the world descend on Fayetteville, that excitement is multiplied tenfold.

While most rivers are only navigable during the spring and summer, the Gauley is dam-released for six weeks in the fall (starting tomorrow, September 7), creating one of the most challenging whitewater courses in the world.

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Pick your poison. (Photograph by Ben Long)

With river folk, climbers, and adventurers all thrown into the same pot, the “play hard, party hard” mantra is taken to the extreme.

Rafting companies host great bands each weekend and the town bookends the season with two festivals: Gauley Fest (the world’s largest whitewater festival) and Bridge Day (the biggest extreme sports event in the world where base jumpers leap off the 876-foot New River Gorge Bridge) on Saturday, October 20.

It’s the last hurrah of the whitewater season and everyone is determined to go out with a bang.

When I went last year, I was filled with a bizarre mix of pride that West Virginia — a state that is all-too-often made the butt of a joke or the setting for a backwoods horror film — plays host to something so unique, and shame that I was just now discovering it.

Lesson learned: Your backyard can be just cool as far off exotic lands.

Here’s my recipe for a dream day in Fayetteville:

Sunrise on Long Point

This is definitely the best nature moment I’ve found in West Virginia. It’s an easy two-mile walk to the lookout from the parking lot. Grab a map at the park ranger’s office.

Breakfast at the Cathedral Café

After sunrise, head to this converted Methodist church, with original stained glass windows for great coffee and to-die-for sweet potato pancakes.

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Try the Cathedral Cafe’s sweet potato pancakes. (Photograph by Ben Long)

Let Your Inner Kid Run Wild

Whatever your poison — rafting, zip-lining, hiking, biking, climbing — you can’t go wrong. A plethora of tour companies can lead the way to great adventures, but if you’re looking for no-frills relaxation, take the winding Fayette Station Road to the bottom of the gorge and jump in the New River.

Dinner at Pies and Pints

There are loads of great restaurants in town, but this one has a great craft beer selection and unique pizzas that satisfy any adventurer’s appetite.

Dance and Camp at Cantrell’s Pub

This joint has great live music on the weekends and a big open field where you can set up your tent (call ahead to reserve your spot for $10 a night), which eliminates any worries about drinking and driving. And its proximity to the Long Point parking lot (about a mile) will make your sunrise commute much easier, too.

Ben Long is a writer and photographer who grew up on a cattle farm in West Virginia’s Greenbrier Valley, and is currently finishing up his law degree at WVU. See more of Ben’s photos on Flickr and follow his story on Twitter @benlongtales.

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