“Good Lord, I can’t believe this is even legal,” I thought to myself, as I down shifted from fourth to third gear on the borrowed Kawasaki four-wheeler my dad had loaned me for the day and entered the city limits of Northfork, West Virginia, via the hard topped major highway of U.S. Route 52.
Since my childhood, I had been familiar with the many McDowell County communities that dotted the map on the way to grandma’s house – towns such as Maybeury, Northfork, Keystone, Kimball, Welch and Iaeger were notorious for their 25 mph speed traps which seemed to appear out of nowhere, lurking just behind a sharp corner along those winding West Virginia roads – if your vehicle had an out-of-state license plate, it was a common understanding that you had better keep it under 18 mph for good measure… and expect to be followed by the lone police car to the town limits, where the officer tasked with creating revenue, erhh, I mean, patrolling the next hamlet, would pick you up!
Those days may be coming to a close in “Mack Dowell” County, however, as local leaders are beginning to realize that they may have been missing out on a cash cow by not rolling out the red carpet for those pesky out of staters – which is exactly what they’re now doing.
Signs professing, “We’re ATV friendly,” now greet tourists in many communities in West Virginia’s southernmost county and that policy is paying off.
With the Mountain State’s cool breeze blowing in my face, I was still careful to keep it under 18 mph (old habits are hard to break!) as I passed the bright red Northfork Fire Department and made my way down the town’s main street en route to the famed restaurant known as “The Dinner Bucket.”
A fairly sane guy who went by the name ‘Wild Willy’ had recommended it.
Anyone remotely familiar with McDowell County is aware of the tragic decline ‘the county’ has experienced over the past half-century: while the world’s population has increased by 4.5 billion people, McDowell County’s present population is roughly 20% of what it was in 1950 — putting that into perspective, it means 4 out of 5 people have moved away from this once thriving coal community.
Due to this major drop in population, buildings are abandoned, partially collapsed and economic activity is at a standstill.
Parking the ATV in a dusty spot beside a bus stop, I stepped off the four-wheeler, removed my helmet and crossed the road to try out this new restaurant I had never heard of – though I had driven through Northfork hundreds of times before, this would be the very first time I ever made a purchase in the community (previously, I had always hoped to simply make it to the town limit sign without seeing the blue lights!).
Opening the door, I was pleasantly surprised at how nice the place was.
To my left were some grainy, out of focus black and white photos of the hard working men who mined coal back in the days when soldiers on the front lines of heated battle enjoyed better survival rates – these were real men who stood larger than life, were strong as an ox and fought for what was right; the type of men this nation could use right about now.
“Proud to be a coal miner,” proclaimed a sign underneath an American flag.
Across the room, West Virginia decorations adorned the walls.
Though the décor was great, I hadn’t entered the building to admire their decorations, I had spent the entire morning spinning tires, shifting gears and having the time of my life on the Hatfield McCoy ATV Trail – I was covered in mud, my socks were soaked and I was hungry!
A real hamburger, tasty order of French fries and a Mountain Dew later, I was out the door – feeling guilty that I had never stopped and gotten to know the great people of Northfork sooner; our waitress was a genuinely nice lady who personified the rich heritage of McDowell County perfectly.
Firing up the four-wheeler, I followed my uncle north on US-52 and headed to the neighboring community of Keystone, where we stopped at a gas station.
Still in awe of the fact that we were actually legally driving our ATVs down US-52, I snapped a quick picture with my cell phone of a four-wheeler in our group with a parked police car in the background.
Our group filled up with gas, purchased a couple drinks and snacks for the road and just like that, we headed back through Northfork only to disappear into some unnamed mountain along the Hatfield McCoy ATV Trail – leaving hundreds of our out-of-state dollars down below, along the banks of the Elkhorn Creek.
Little could the average local leader in southern West Virginia have realized what the Hatfield—McCoy Trails would blossom into when the first 300 miles opened in October 2000.
Today, the trail system covers +700 miles of off-road trails in seven West Virginia counties – and every square inch of them are open 365 days a year to ATVs, dirt bikes, and utility vehicles (UTVs).
A lot has been said about the many problems affecting southern West Virginia, and in deed the people have their work cut out for them; however, I think it’s important that we also recognize the many things the place has going for it as well – the trail system is the second largest off-highway vehicle trail in the world and is successfully competing with places such as Panama Beach, Las Vegas and New York as a vacation destination for individuals, families and groups.
A recent economic impact study of the trail system revealed that the trail is responsible for more than $22.2 million in total economic output – with nearly $19 million being attributed to the spending of non-local visitors.
Bottom line is this – Southern West Virginia has discovered that rolling out the red carpet and allowing those from across the state line to experience the “Wild and Wonderful” side of West Virginia is big business!
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