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The Capital of Cool?

Tiny Bluefield, W.Va., guarantees a break from summer heat. Or the lemonade's on them.

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2004; Page C02

After discovering fire many many millenniums ago, humankind went looking for cool. The search continues today, especially in the scorchingest, muggiest months of summer.

On a recent sweat-wetted Washington weekend, we light out on our own quest for cool. Destination: Bluefield, W.Va. Even the name bespeaks coolitude.

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Actually, there are two Bluefields -- one in West Virginia and one in Virginia. With 11,000 residents, the former is about twice as large as the latter. Like Kansas City and Texarkana, the twin towns sit side by side, straddling the state line. But the West Virginia city is the dominant force.

Billing itself as "nature's air conditioned city," Bluefield, W.Va. -- a morning's drive from Washington -- is so certain of its low summer temps that since 1941 it has been ladling out free lemonade on days when the thermometer hits 90 degrees. We close our eyes and wonder whether it's homemade or store-bought.

Being fans of West Virginia's stellar state park system, we book a room at Pipestem Resort State Park, about half an hour from Bluefield. We ask for a nonsmoking room, but are told that the park is nearly full and the only space available is a smoking unit in Mountain Creek Lodge.

The park, as it turns out, is a way cool place to be in its own right and our unit is indeed, as Jim Carrey would say, smohhhh-kin'. Not in a smelly way; in a cool way. Unless you need special assistance, the only way to get to and from Mountain Lodge is to take a tram down into Bluestone Canyon. The dangly ride in the Zurich-built gondolas along some 3,500 feet of cable lasts only six minutes, but as we descend from an altitude of 2,639 to 1,520 feet, we feel farther and farther from the District.

And all around us, the world becomes cooler and cooler. There are steady breezes and swaying trees galore. A noisy stream with rapids and waterfalls runs beneath. The cars glide up and down all day, except when there are heavy winds and/or serious thunderstorms.

At the bottom, the lodge sits on the shady banks of the Bluestone River, an ice-cold wild and rushing thing. Our room is cozy, with a sliding door onto a deck overlooking a swatch of grass and the river beyond. At river's edge a fisherman makes a cast and a half-dozen Canada goslings bathe in shallow backwaters. We play badminton on the sward, watching out for goose stuff.

This is pretty cool.

The 4,023-acre state park has three golf courses -- a full-length 18-hole, a par-3 and a miniature. Other diversions include a nature center, riding stables, a lighted basketball court, a video arcade, two swimming pools (indoor and outdoor), two groups of tennis courts, two shuffleboard decks and two ping-pong tables. We prefer the indoor blue table; the outdoor green one has too many dead spots.

Near our room is an excellent restaurant where we enjoy a delectable dinner of steak and grilled chicken with a palette of vegetables: orange carrots, green snow peas, red cabbage, blue potatoes. At tables in the corner, a large group of tipsy guests sings an off-key rendition of "Delta Dawn." Even that is kind of cool.

That afternoon we venture into Bluefield; the car thermometer registers 84 degrees.

We follow small brown "Historic Information" signs and wind up at the Old City Hall, a three-story yellow-brick building. Out front, a monument consisting of a gray flatbed locomotive and a yellow coal car piled with shiny black coal commemorates Bluefield's commercial claim to fame. As headquarters of Norfolk and Western Railroad's Pocahontas Division, the town was for a long time a humming hub of West Virginia coal mining.

There are still signs of coal's dominance, but many of the railroad-baron mansions have been diced up into apartments, and here and there businesses are shuttered. Marks of the town's coal-fired prosperity remain: It has a minor league baseball team, the Bluefield Orioles; a television station, WVVA; and a daily newspaper, the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.


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