Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fire Under the WV Hills

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On Tuesday, I and some friends from in and around Winifrede WV drove over 30 miles of trails on our four wheelers (I am still having to borrow one, but am hoping to buy my own in the near future). The trails are left over from when the mountain tops were strip-mined in decades past. The fact that they have grown back up into fully-wooded, peaceful, wild-life inhabited hills is a testimony to the fact that coal mining and the beauty of WV ecosystems can coexist. We borrow from them for a time to make a living, but eventually, they return to their former beauty. Regardless, the land is here for us, and not we for it. Lives and a living come first.

We drove through the brush, cutting trees that had fallen across the trail, avoiding some mud holes, plowing through others, climbing in and over fearsome holes and rises in the path. Some of the obstacles looked to my inexperienced eyes to be unpassable. But with the encouragement and example of my friends, I have discovered there is very little that a four-wheeler cannot overcome. A little more experience and my fear of those obstacles will hopefully turn into the pure thrill of conquering a challenge tempered by healthy respect.

After 24 miles of trails, we stopped underneath a remote cliff face. I was amazed to see smoke seeping from gaping crevices in the rocks, welling up from deep underground, miles away from any civilization. My companions explained that under our feet was a coal mine, abandoned long ago, that had been burning for the last 20-30 years. I have never seen such a thing! It was spell-binding to think of the furnace below, burning for decades, miles from nowhere, unextinguishable, alone and unaided, forgotten by the world. It seems like there ought to be a story about it, only there is no ending. I am lucky to have seen something so unique and mysterious. I drove a few hundred feet further and came upon a second set of venting rocks. I stopped and took this picture. Eventually, I would like to go back and learn more about it.

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