Rediscovering the Mid-Ohio Valley
It's been 25 years since I was last here. The occasion was my college graduation from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Athens was my adopted home for four years as a student in this Southeastern Ohio hamlet.Life for me and thousands of others was in a bubble in what is known as the Mid-Ohio Valley region of the state. As students, we buckled down within those hills to study for our own fields of dreams. For me, it was about exploring my interests in the media world which to me, was wide open at the time. Sure, I wanted to become a filmmaker, but I had many other interests. So, I didn't go to school to become a huge film director or even a TV anchor likefellow alum Matt Lauer or even a slick politico like another fellow alum Roger Ailes, who by the way, spoke at my graduation. I just wanted to be me.
After witnessing Mr. Ailes' speech in June 1989, I received my diploma on that warm afternoon, went to an after party at a local house with my family and then headed out of the hills for the last time - gone from academic life. The years slipped away as I embarked upon a career, engaged in all-things-suburbia and in the blink of an eye, entered middle age wondering how in the world it all happened.
Building a life for myself seemed elusive in 1989 when I finished my post high school education honestly not knowing how it would all allow me to enter the real adult world of going to a job, paying taxes and developing my own world far from the Buckeye State. At the time, it all seemed overwhelming. As so many who just graduated from school in today’s job market, I'm pretty sure they all know that advice on what to do with oneself after finishing college and looking for a job opportunity comes from all quarters. It's frustrating. Believe me, I've been there. It's easy for anyone on the outside of any situation looking in, but when one is on the inside, it can be quite maddening. I was there over 25 years ago with feelings of accomplishment for finishing education mixed with feelings of despair when thinking about the future. Some may say that the chips all fall into place, but the fact is that the world has changed and those chips are never guaranteed like they were decades ago.
All of those feelings came rushing back to me when Cami and I recently visited my alma mater. We were in awe as we strolled down the town's brick main thoroughfare known as Court Street. Some things stayed the same after all these years, many things changed and other things are getting a face-lift and/or additions. The entire scene not only made me proud, but impressed Cami. Cami, a graduated of nearby Marietta College, grew up in this region with stints in Parkersburg, West Virginia and Athens attending middle and the early part of high school in this college town.
After all this time, I'm proud to say that I attended the school that is home to the Bobcats football and basketball clubs as well as a premier marching band. Oh, there is so much more to rave about this university including an awesome student welcoming center complex and so many notable structures such as Memorial Auditorium where I saw music legend Stevie Ray Vaughan over 28 years ago. We drove around campus seeing the dorms that I made home during my time at Ohio University and the houses where Cami lived in Athens. Most memories were good for both of us.
We continued on our tour of the region by heading back to Parkersburg, about 50 minutes from Athens. Parkersburg was a getaway for many Ohio U students when I was there. After several weeks of studying, going to classes and spending time uptown on Athens' Court Street, sometimes we needed a change of scenery. We treated ourselves to "real food" at the city's Sebastian's restaurant or strolled their Grand Central Mall. Little would I know that I would meet someone from this area years later and not only make a return visit to Parkersburg, but also got to see so many nooks and crannies to the town that I never knew existed. Cami took the wheel of her car throughout this excursion showing me everything from the affluent to the depressed neighborhoods tucked away along the Ohio River. There are pockets of revitalized neighborhoods just as much as there are areas that are in need of improvement.
It’s no secret that places like West Virginia have become the butt of ridicule in America over the years. I understood that fact after growing up in the Cleveland, Ohio metro area. I confess that I too joined in on the ridicule not realizing that it’s all quite unfair. It’s sad that being the butt of jokes can cloud a community’s assets. Both Parkersburg, West Virginia and Marietta, Ohio are situated on the Ohio River. In short, their views on this part of the Ohio are spectacular. From Marietta, I gazed out on the Ohio, watching a ferry navigate its way down the waterway while the birds were singing overhead. On the Parkersburg side, I noticed how they balanced the idea of flood control measures with a wall along with an improved park along the river. For an even greater view of the region, Cami drove up the hills to Fort Boreman Park. Visitors are spoiled with a panoramic view of the Parkersburg/Marietta area with the winding Ohio, Blennerhassett Island, the Little Kanawha River and more. Rich in history, Fort Boreman Park was built as a fortification during the Civil War.
Even though I spent a lot of time in this region when I was a student, I never noticed the beauty of West Virginia’s mountains and expansive views. That beauty is juxtaposed with industry. Chemical plants and trains hauling coal festoon this part of the Mountain State and the southeastern portion of Ohio. There’s no better example of this stark contrast than in nearby Charleston, West Virginia, the state’s capital. While traveling through the western half of the Mountain State, one can see how communities settled within the gaps. Certainly good, hard-working folks settled here for jobs within the state’s industries which have struggled yet many survived over the years. Lately, fracking jobs have been increasing in the region. Pick-up trucks with layers of West Virginia mud are a common sight around these parts.
Both Parkersburg and Marietta are far from being backwater villages. In Parkersburg, all the usual suspects are offered up including a Sears, Penny’s, Belk, an Olive Garden, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Ruby Tuesday as well as local joints like Don Emilio’s and Jimmy Colombo’s. Marietta is home to a quaint downtown which includes the Schafer Leather Store and the historic, well-preserved Lafayette Hotel. One of the highlights on this type of a trip must include a trip to nearby Vienna, West Virginia, home to Holl’s Swiss Chocolatier, possibly the best selection of chocolates east of the Mississippi.
Beauty knows no bounds when it comes to architecture in this area. From The Castle in Marietta to the Julia Ann Square district in Parkersburg, you will be awestruck. As Cami was driving back to our places in the Atlanta metro area, I was awestruck by the Mid-Ohio Valley’s beauty. I do hope to make a return visit one day.
Blennerhassett Island State Park
Julia Ann Square