Profile: Came for the outdoors, stayed for a lifetime
West Virginia attracts a unique type of transplant.
Being born a mountaineer is one thing, but folks who move here settle in because they’re called to our mountain adventures and welcoming communities.
Meet 3 of these mountaineers-by-choice, and learn what drew them to the wild, wonderful Mountain State:
John, a Pennsylvania native, migrated to the New River Gorge to become a raft guide for Wildwater in 1973.
Rafting was unpredictable then, since many of the now-routine routes were still being discovered. The Keeneys, some of the most notorious rapids found on the New River, were John’s favorites because of their big waves. High water generally meant unexpected kicks in those days.
“There was one trip, I think the water level was 10 or 12 feet,” he said. “A bunch of us got in a raft and went down the river. It only took over an hour to get from Thurmond to Fayette Station, about 16 miles. It was quick.”
John worked on and off as a raft guide for about 5 years. In 1977, he decided it was time to put his Criminal Justice degree to use and applied to the West Virginia State Police Academy.
“I liked the area so well and I liked the people so well I wanted to stay,” he said. “That’s why I applied for the state police.”
He served in the force for 26 years until retiring recently, at several duty stations throughout his career, including Summersville.
Though his rafting days are long behind him, John still finds time to enjoy the outdoors, particularly with his family.
“I hardly go a day without going for a little hike in the woods somewhere,” He said. Living in Fayetteville gives him easy access to iconic trails like Endless Wall, Kaymoor Trail and Nuttallburg.
John credits one thing for his decision to build a life in the Mountains State: the people.
“They just made me feel at home and welcome, even though I was considered an outsider at that time,” he said. “I think West Virginia is a unique state in that you are part of a big family. Being from Pennsylvania, I didn’t see that. Wherever you go, if you meet someone from West Virginia, you can always start up a conversation.”
Sometimes life takes you down paths you never imagined. JoLynn Powers’ path redirected when she met a farm boy from the Mountain State while overseas.
“I’m from Colorado and Tom was from West Virginia,” JoLynn said. “We met actually in Germany in the military and ended up coming back here specifically to farm and have a family and live the outdoor lifestyle.”
JoLynn and her husband briefly moved to Colorado for a couple years, but missed the West Virginia pace of life and accessibility to the outdoors.
“We moved back to West Virginia and have not left our 2 counties, Upshur and Lewis, in 25 years.”
Their family is very active in hunting, fishing, hiking and even foraging. They spend a lot of their free time exploring state parks, national forests and backroads searching for natural foods and good places to hunt and fish. JoLynn makes everything from elderberry jelly to paw paw bread, and uses wild greens and mushrooms in the family meals.
“Fall and winter is hunting, spring is foraging and fishing, and then by summer it’s mostly mushrooms and greens, while later summer is berries and apples.”
Although JoLynn focuses a lot of attention on raising her family and maintaining their farm, she recently started a new venture to use her skills to give back to the community. She’s volunteering with Americorps, developing programs to boost economic redevelopment in downtown Elkins.
JoLynn believes the people who come here and stay love the land, the terrain and the geography. Enjoying West Virginia is enjoying its mountains, weather and outdoors. Newcomers often trade city-life comforts for a stronger connection to the environment.
“I stayed because I was finally able to live off of the land and live a very natural life,” she said. “You can have adventures. You can have fun. You can eat well. You can breathe clean air and get tons of exercise. You can’t always do that everywhere.”
West Virginia has earned a reputation for world-class rock climbing, which attracts climbers from all over the country. Like Joe DeGaetano, a native of the Washington, D.C. metro area, who now calls Fayetteville home.
“I first came here in 2000, and lived at the old climber’s campground for a year or so,” Joe said. “I had been climbing for a few years before that, and it was always a big part of my life.”
As an avid climber since 1997, Joe has completed thousands of routes, with nearly 1,000 just in the New River Gorge, going up to 5.13c on bolts and 5.12+ on gear. In 2008, he and his wife, Tracy, saw that there were jobs open nearby and decided to take a leap of faith.
“It was just like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ ” he said. “I had already taken her up here to go rock climbing, and I was coming up like once a month from the D.C. area.”
Joe and Tracy are both teachers. He teaches history and geography at Fayetteville High School, and 4 years ago, he co-founded the school’s Outdoor Adventure Club, which lets him share his passion for the outdoors with his students, and get them active and exploring the outdoors.
But there is only one true answer for why he stays.
“Because I’m such a fanatic when it comes to rock climbing!” laughs Joe. “Honestly, that is the reality. This climbing is so darn good. I spent summers climbing in Yosemite while I was teaching. It’s great to do that type of climbing when you’re not working full-time, but for a normal, 9-to-5 person with a family, the climbing is super accessible here. This is probably the best place in the country. There’s super steep overhanging climbing, there’s really technical climbing, there’s crack climbing. Plus, it’s affordable.”
Joe and Tracy make sure the next generation will value adventure in West Virginia and beyond, too. Their children, Jack and Ella, are no strangers to the outdoors.
“I remember bundling them up and bringing toys, a portable baby crib and bouncer to the crag on many occasions,” Joe said. “In fact, Jack and I did an overnight bike, camp and fish trip this summer in the Cranberries. As low key as it was for me, it ranks up there with some of my favorite backcountry trips ever. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they have done a lot of growing up outside.”
Even though days along the cliffs have evolved into family bike rides after work, Joe wouldn’t trade these times for anything.
“We’re lucky to have a place to expose our kids to all the great things found in the mountains.”
Can you resist the call of Wild, Wonderful West Virginia? See for yourself:
This post was last updated on July 29, 2020