West Virginia, August 2007
Mary Wade's article originally ran in the August 29, 2007 edition of the Times West Virginian in Fairmont, W.Va.

By Mary Wade Burnside 
I finally got to see The Greenbrier again, and all I had to do was stand sideways, defy gravity, hike through the New River Gorge, explore a Cold War bunker and attend a Confederate-oriented Civil War re-enactment. 

Actually, the Civil War re-enactment was the focal point – for my friend, Lisa, anyway -- and everything else was just icing on the cake. It also goes to show that the journey is as important as the destination and that West Virginia is full of both. 

In just a couple of days in two counties, we saw living history, birds of prey, the architectural wonder of the New River Gorge Bridge, the grandeur of The Greenbrier and the secret bunker completed in 1962 that would have housed Congress in case of a Cold War catastrophe.
It all started with the Battle of Dry Creek. Lisa is from Charleston but lives in Los Angeles. She’s had a hankering to attend a Civil War re-enactment, which are not exactly ubiquitous in La La Land. Last year, we went to Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and she was deeply disappointed when an encampment at Fort Necessity National Battlefield had cleared out by the time we finished touring Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece. 

Leaving nothing to chance, Lisa actually scheduled her annual visit home to coincide with the Battle of Dry Creek (redux). Tour guide Lisa and her boyfriend, Ken, who chronicled the trip in photographs on his Web site, www.elevenshadows.com, like to take the scenic routes. So we set out on old U.S. 60, once lined with numerous roadside attractions. Winding our way into the New River Gorge, we found one -- the Mystery Hole -- alive and well again after its original creator died in the late 1990s. 

For the uninitiated, the Mystery Hole (www.mysteryhole.com) is near Hawk’s Nest at Ansted in Fayette County. There, according to ads, one can “See the Laws of Gravity Defied!” If you pass the gorilla-topped, colorful Quonset hut with a VW Beetle crashed into the side, you’ve gone too far. 

Enter the Mystery Hole and you will be able to stand at an angle generally considered unnatural above ground, watch water and a ball travel uphill and feel queasy all in a short, 10-minute tour. I’ve now seen the laws of gravity defied twice, and I can feel at peace that I’ve completely explored the attraction’s, uh, mysteries, and move on. 

We also hiked a trail in the New River Gorge, where we saw a vulture up close and heard two guys climbing the vertical rock across from the one on which we stood. Then it was on to White Sulphur Springs, where we stayed in the shadow of The Greenbrier at a motel down the street. 

I had been to the magnificent resort a few times in my life, but following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the hotel was closed to anyone who was not a paying guest. I thought I would never lay eyes on the pink and green Dorothy Draper-designed splendor again, but after the renovations, The Greenbrier opened back up this spring to riffraff like Lisa, Ken and me. Knowing that our outfits -- and wallets -- were not up to snuff to partake of meals in the main dining room, we settled for a round of $12 drinks and the sunset from The Greenbrier¹s back porch. Preparing for a Civil War re-enactment is tough and we needed all the refinement we could get. 

As it turns out, earplugs also would have been helpful. Have you ever been to a Civil War re-enactment? As the narrator noted, the Battle of Dry Creek featured foot soldiers with rifles, artillery and the cavalry. Bottom line: horses -- good, cannons -- bad. The fellow observers did not flinch but I did as I wondered how safe firing off something that big -- even without a cannonball -- really is. 

I also did not realize it would be so visitor friendly. I figured there would be a lot of walking around and following the action, which would stretch out in real time -- kind of like a golf tournament but a lot louder. 

I was wrong. Re-enactors condense the action and provide bleachers and a narrator. Once the ammo runs out, so does the action.
The Battle of Dry Creek resulted in a Confederate victory and I felt a bit uneasy among the crowds cheering on the South. Born 100 years after the Civil War ended, I was never as interested in it as my parents and just accepted my Union roots without much thought. I mean, slavery is wrong and the North won the war, right? 

Still, I could not help to think of my two Union general forebears; another one that did time in Libbey prison; and my great-grandfather, William Sherman Burnside, born in the 1860s. Especially when one of the Confederates shouted, “We’ll show you what Andersonville is really like!” 

After the gunfire subsided, we spoke to a re-enactor who took on the part of a Confederate surgeon. He actually grimaced when I told him my last name, which I share with a fairly well-known Union general. He noted that a lot of the “Union” soldiers actually were Confederate re-enactors who donned blue for historical accuracy. He did not think he could do that. I understood -- sort of. 

I left the re-enactment knowing that we had lost the battle, but that we would win the war.
We got to contemplate more history with a private tour of the formerly secret bunker at The Greenbrier that President Eisenhower organized. The bunker features rows of bunk beds in the bowels of the building, hidden by luxurious surroundings upstairs. An investigative Washington Post article ended the bunker’s usefulness in 1992 and now visitors can tour one of the vestiges of the “duck and cover” era. 

And I left Greenbrier County knowing that I would be back to explore more of its unique mix of history and the wars -- from Civil to Cold -- that have helped shape the area and the country. 

E-mail Mary Wade Burnside at mwburnside@timeswv.com

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