washingtonpost.com
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

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.

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.

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."

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.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company