It was still cold and grey. I’d had some hope that maybe yesterday’s awful weather would break this morning, and we’d get a brilliant late-fall sunny day in the central Appalachians. As it was, it appeared that on this Sunday I would have to settle for “at least it’s not raining like it was yesterday”. Warm under the covers of a bed in the Marriott, thanking my lucky stars that my hangover wasn’t as bad as it could have been, I was inclined to take it.

It was Sunday, November 13, our last day in West Virginia before returning back to DC. A hotel as fancy as this had to have a really nice breakfast, especially if it was included in the tab. Once Elizabeth had exhumed herself from bed and I’d taken a third steaming shower in the last 24 hours, we set out downstairs to link up with everyone else for some grub and to plan an abridged days’ activities. The day was going to be even more abridged than the brief fall daytime would have allowed, because it turned out that while Marriott offered free breakfast, they weren’t able to offer it to all of their patrons without running out of plates and utensils. It was an annoyingly hungry 20 or 30 minutes before we were seated in front of a smorgasbord of delicious continental foods. Those helped take the edge off of any hangovers/hangry-overs that may have been developing within the group.

Gianna and Jordan had to leave pretty much right after breakfast, since they didn’t have the ability to miss work on Monday like Elizabeth and I obviously did. Since the route back to Richmond is slightly different than the route back to DC, it didn’t make much sense for them to join us on the last stint of Elizabeth’s Great Birthday Surprise Weekend up at Cooper’s Rock State Forest off of I-68. They went back upstairs and got packed up. It felt sort of quite soon since the adventure had begun, and we were already ending it, which was sort of sad for me. And that wasn’t even my best friend! Elizabeth did remarkably well and didn’t cry at all (I think) as we said our good-byes outside the hotel. One last selfie for the road, and then they were gone.

I feel like Elizabeth is leaning away from me in a lot of pictures.

As for the other four of us – well, there was still a day to go. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and we all had a will to see a little bit of Morgantown on a less-awful day before heading out. It turned out that if you took this road (University Avenue) back toward downtown and went a few blocks to the right, you could see High Street, looking eerily quiet on a Sunday morning. But if you took High Street even further away from the hotel, it narrowed out and became residential. Frat and sorority residential. The residue of a wild Saturday night showed up all along this steep drive – shoes strung over telephone poles, bottles near houses, signs hung up declaring undying loyalty to (insert 3 Greek letters here). This is when I realized that OU is a sedate Greek life school – people behave a lot more like a Big Ten school in Norman, where things generally stay in line and PG-13. Not Morgantown. Morgantown does their shit hard-core.

High Street tops out just below the crest of a very tall hill, but if you wind three ways around a circle you can end up parked in some frat’s official parking area overlooking the entire city. It’s not an insane view, but it was definitely worth the drive and definitely, definitely unexpected.

It also wouldn’t be much of a trip to another college without spending an inordinate amount of time in the bookstore. My shopping experience lasted all of 3 minutes. I hunted down a basic pin with the WVU logo on it, went up to the cash register while quite self-conscious of my very red sweatshirt (Boomer), and bought the pin for $7. *Some* people needed a bit longer. And *some* people not only needed a while to shop for themselves, they also needed to shop for Gianna’s Christmas present, which took even longer. I’d punched the inflatable Mountaineer in the far back of the bookstore like a dozen times by the time Elizabeth said she was ready to go. And then, to add insult to injury, the bookstore was connected to a coffee shop, where everyone else got the chance to fill back up on caffeine and all the things that make them go in life. I was actually sort of concerned about having enough daylight for my hike by this point (it was after 1:00 way out on the eastern side of the eastern time zone).

Fortunately, Cooper’s Rock State Forest is just outside of Morgantown. The day was definitely moving in that deceptively fast fall way from “early” to “late afternoon” by the time we got off of I-68 up in the mountains. A light coating of snow had picked up on all of the elevated surfaces as Winston gained altitude up the ridgeline. Had it really been *that* cold to where a few hundred feet would have meant snow? I guess so. The winter wonderland didn’t ease up inside the state forest, either. In fact, the road followed the top of a ridge where snow was now plainly visible on the ground. The start of our hike through this wanna-be winter wonderland was delayed by a snowball fight that ended with Pam pegging Elizabeth right in the back.

Today’s trail in question was the Raven Rock Trail; by accounts I had read, this was the best trail inside the park.

And it wasn’t too difficult or with too much elevation gain, so I thought that maybe it would be a good thing to do with Pam and Winston. Perhaps I didn’t read enough AllTrails accounts, because you can even see in the picture above that the melting snow had turned the trail into one of many creeks draining the mountainside. At times the water was shallow or got diverted into the more permanent creek to our left; at times it was a rushing torrent of water several inches deep. Elizabeth and I could have wandered through it as happily as a pair of sheep through clover with our hiking boots. Winston and Pam were less prepared for the elements with much less waterproof shoes. For them, it was a matter of carefully picking their way through elevated portions of the trail to stay as dry as possible. One thing that was undeniable about the Raven Rock Trail on an afternoon like this: it was insanely quiet. There weren’t other hikers, there was no wind, and the wildlife must have decided to pack it in for the day and wait for warmer weather. It was the kind of “first snow” quiet that reminded me of back home after a big snowstorm. You could marvel in the fact that the only sound around was the splish splash of our footsteps.

The trail bottoms out near the fishhook about 2/3 of the way through before winding back up onto the abutment of rock that the Raven’s Rock lies on. After a mile or more of just ambling down a steady slope, the sudden, sharp uphill was a bit of a culture shock. It wasn’t anything that couldn’t be managed in a couple of minutes, though. Loudly singing songs to scare away any black bears, the four of us managed to get onto level ground and work our way south on the outcropping. The thick, mossy forest that had been a constant around us began to thin away into some shrubbery and bare rock. And finally, it was just us and some high-tension telephone wires. This must be the Raven Rock. Far below, the Cheat River wound through its canyon in a muddy brown stripe.

I’m not gonna come out and say that I was blown away by the view from the Raven Rock. It’s possible that you could be blown away a few weeks prior before all of the leaves had fallen off of their trees and left a bare brown skeleton surrounding the canyon. It’s possible that on a sunny day, this view would be stunning. It’s probable that if I’d never been to the Rockies, this view would take my breath away. But as a well-traveled individual, I think I had a more measured view of it. It was pretty and very worth hiking to. The snow line came halfway up the canyon, which was an interesting prospect. And you could see a hell of a long way down either side of the river valley.

As it may look from that selfie, it was indeed quite exposed and cold and windy on top of the Raven Rock. Also, Elizabeth gets pretty nervous about steep drop-offs, which abounded along the sheer cliff face. So I don’t think she was too sad to turn back around and head back toward the cover of the snowy trees. It hadn’t been anything insane, but it was a pretty neat little spot to hike to. The return trip uphill surprised me in how quick it was – I thought we’d have to slog uphill on the inundated trail for a lot longer. Time flies when you’re having fun. There was still just enough daytime left for us to get back to the front of the park, get on the Interstate, and find a Cracker Barrel further to the east in Maryland to feast at.

A big thank you to Winston for driving the entirety of the way to Morgantown and back over the course of two days, as we arrived back into Alexandria at a pretty reasonable time that night. It was a nice way to finish off the weekend. Elizabeth got to spend another night with her family members before heading back on Monday, and it didn’t cost me any annual leave at work which is always a plus.

I sincerely hope that this was, if not one of the best birthdays of Elizabeth’s life, at least a pretty good one. I know the weather and Oklahoma football both sucked for the game that I had chosen for us to visit, and there’s a decent chance she would have rather gone to a national park (Canyonlands was my number two choice for her birthday celebration). But the opportunity for her to see family and her best friend, and for us to get to stay with her family (cutting costs!) was all just too much to pass up. So, too, was the knowledge that with OU’s imminent departure for the SEC this would be the last chance to visit what is often considered the best tailgating environment in the Big 12. It was a really fun weekend. What do you think, Elizabeth? Next year, we do something big for my birthday again and make it an annual switch-off?

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