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The Capital of Cool?

And a whimsical tradition of doling out free refreshments on hellish days.

Do they really do that? we wonder. "Yes, they do," says Verona Steward, whose husband, Andy, runs a psychological counseling service in the Old City Hall. "Cheerleaders set up on the sidewalk and serve free lemonade."

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For some strange reason, the visitors center is not manned on weekends. But since Andy Steward is seeing a few clients on this Saturday afternoon, the door to the Old City Hall foyer is open. We walk around the cavernous building and discover a huge vault where the municipal money was once stored. Now it's just a junk closet the size of a small coal mine. We also find a kiosk of brochures that includes one for a self-guided walking tour of Bluefield.

Like a ghostly hostess, Verona Steward appears and speaks for a moment of more glorious days gone by. "I remember when there were long lines in front of the theaters," she says. "The population of Bluefield today is about half of what it was in the early '50s."

This was the home of John Nash, the Princeton University math professor and Nobel laureate made famous by the biopic "A Beautiful Mind." And this was the home of Pulitzer Prize winner John Shively Knight, a primogenitor of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain.

Most of Bluefield's grandiose buildings were constructed in the 1920s. The cornerstone of Old City Hall, for instance, reads 1924. Behind the city hall is the Summit Theatre, in the old police car garage. And behind that, built into a steep hill, is Ramsey Elementary School. According to the visitors bureau brochure, the 1926 red-brick schoolhouse was once recognized by the Ripley's Believe It or Not! folks for having seven entrances on seven levels.

Down Bland Street is the great old newspaper building that once housed the Telegraph, which has been published daily since 1896. One of the town heroes, Hugh Ike Shott, was publisher and editor of the paper for more than 50 years. He served two terms as a U.S. representative and two months as a senator.

As we turn onto Princeton Avenue and walk north, we are aware of the seemingly endless line of coal cars strung together like black pearls on the train tracks west of town. And by the never-ending breezes that stir the trees on the distant hill.

Completing the loop, we see a once-grand opera house, a 12-story hotel and the federal building named for Elizabeth Kee, a member of Congress. Between 1932 and 1972, three different Kees -- Elizabeth, her husband, John, and their son, James -- held a seat in the House.

Back in the car at 4:36 p.m., the thermometer reads 91 degrees. We drive around a little, but don't see any cheerleaders on the sidewalks pouring lemonade from frosty pitchers.

"We call them Lemonade Lassies," Marc Meachum, president of the Bluefield Chamber of Commerce, tells us in a later conversation.

When the National Weather Service thermometer at the local airport, which is higher and cooler than the bank thermometers downtown, reads 90 degrees, the chamber sets up half a dozen locations around Bluefield.

"But we haven't had a 90-degree day since 1999," Meachum says. For the record, the lemonade is store-bought.

On the way back to Pipestem Resort State Park, we settle for some tea. With lots of ice. And a single, piddling slice of lemon.

But we have to admit, as we climb into the gondola and slide downward into the blue-green valley and watch the orange sun set over the central Appalachian range, we're feeling pretty darn cool right about now.

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: To get to Bluefield, W.Va., and Pipestem Resort State Park, take Interstate 66 west from the Beltway. Go south on I-81 toward Roanoke. Bear right, going west, on I-64. At the Sandstone exit (No. 139), take Highway 20 south for 30 miles to the state park. Pipe- stem is just over 300 miles from Washington, so it can take five or six hours to drive there. The beauty can slow you down a little, too. Info: 800-CALL-WVA, www.pipestemresort.com.

STAYING THERE: The coolest place to stay, Mountain Creek Lodge, is also the most basic. The lower of Pipestem's two lodges, it's open May 1 through Oct. 30. Double rooms are $77 or less. Be sure to call ahead. Occasionally the tram is down for repairs, but there is a road to the top for use in emergencies. McKeever Lodge, on higher ground, has fancier rooms. A standard is $77; an executive suite with a wet bar and a king-size bed can set you back $160. If you want to take the whole family, you can rent a cottage by the week.

BEING THERE: Nothing may be the best thing to do at Pipestem. If you must move around, you can hike the nature trails or play golf or tennis. Appalachian BackCountry Expeditions (888-642-3474, www.appalachianbackcountry.com) is about a half-hour away in Sandstone, W.Va. For $125 plus tax, you and a few folks can take a four-hour float fishing trip on the New River. There are area festivals throughout the year, including the West Virginia State Water Festival in Hinton in early August.

EATING THERE: We took most of our meals in the state park. The Bluestone Dining Room, open all day, is in the McKeever Lodge. So is the Black Bear Snack Bar, which offers pizza and fried things. There's a sports bar in the clubhouse not far from McKeever Lodge. If you're staying at Mountain Creek Lodge (304-466-1800, Ext. 387) -- or even if you're not -- be sure to take the tram down one evening as the sun sets over the mountains and have dinner in the riverside restaurant. Reservations are recommended for dinner.

INFO: Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-221-3206, www.mccvb.com. Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce, 304-327-7184, www.bluefieldchamber.com.


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