- Barely Runnable
One week after record rainfall burst the riverbanks of southern West Virginia, destroying homes and roads and ending twenty-six lives, I gawked at the destruction I passed on the two-lane highway. Downed trees, culverts washed away, sheds knocked cockeyed. Hundreds were still displaced, [End Page 48] many more still without electricity. It was mid-summer. Hot, cloudless, and bright. I was headed to Fayette County, near the heart of the damage, to spend the weekend at an “adventure resort.” There, I would be paid 400 dollars to write a short narrative promoting their main attraction—whitewater rafting on the Gauley River.
I wasn’t to be rafting, though. The Gauley was too flooded to raft. But there were deadlines to make, promos to release. Therefore, as the marketing company explained to me, “the story will require research and some imagination.”
What they meant was that they wanted a fake narrative they would publish as travelogue, as truth. They wanted “vivid and colorful” language. Something picturesque, majestic, fulfilling, resplendent, etc. They’d hired me, in part, because my CV showed I was “also a fiction writer.” But name a writer who doesn’t tell a little fiction.
Big blue resort signs pointed me—like I would be otherwise incredulous—down a county road with ditches still choking on flotsam. The road wound through a little town where all the once-identical company houses had turned different shades of haggard, like the place where I grew up. Past town, the resort’s entrance appeared: a billboard, fresh blacktop, and a pond the color of a peacock.
At the log-faced Welcome Center, the tattooed hostess surprised me with the news that I’d be rafting The Gauley after all. And instead of the usual summer current, we’d be rafting at 9,000 cubic feet per second—the highest flow that they would take guests on, per industry policy. “You’ll be on the first trip since the flood!” she told me. “There’s no real way of telling what you’re gonna find out there.”
Across a parking lot, I found the resort’s bar & grill, a structural twin to the Welcome Center. It was called The Lost Paddle, and inside it looked like Applebee’s had tried to [End Page 49] launch a chain of dive bars. At a barstool, two free beers later, I googled Gauley River. Google read my mind, suggesting “Gauley River Deaths.” I stopped myself from reading the statistics. Instead I found a site that provided up-to-the-minute gauges of the river’s height. In bold red letters, it said the river was “Not Runnable.” Good, I thought. Maybe this was official. Maybe I could just drive home and imagine the whole piece.
The Lost Paddle was running a special: one dollar from the sale of every West Virginia-made beer would be donated to flood relief efforts. Drinking my charity beer, I listened to two dreadlocked bartenders discussing the flood. One person—one body—was still missing. They seemed shaken-up and rightly so. This was their community. But they still had to sell T-shirts and rent cabins and take people down the river, riding the same water that’d done the deed.
I checked the site again. In electric green it read, “Barely Runnable.”
The backside of the bar opened to a veranda overlooking the “Wonderland Waterpark”—a two-acre lake crowded with zip lines and giant inflatable pool toys. Some were shaped like ships, others like castles. Kids and shameless adults climbed the toys and jumped headlong into the water. The resort staff milled around the lake after their shifts, smoking and discussing work. I found a circle of grimy raft guides and told them I was a travel writer, not mentioning that my five stars had been pre-paid. I asked about the flood. With kayaks and rafts in tow, they said, they’d driven the swamped valleys, searching for trapped people and animals.
One guide, the only one dressed like a soccer dad, told me about an old woman who’d died. Howard’s Creek, one county [End Page...