By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
I had the privilege this weekend of getting a sneak peak at the beginnings of Southwest Virginia’s new Spearhead Trail system by getting to see the first leg of the ATV trail at its trailhead in St. Paul, Va.
Every year, my grandfather’s family gathers in the old one-room school house on Sandy Ridge, about 10 miles and 30 minutes above the town of St. Paul on the Wise County side. Even though I only go through St. Paul about once a year or so, I have always identified it as a sleepy little town. Even back in the old days, my grandfather said his family was more likely to go north to Coeburn for supplies because it had more amenities than the smaller St. Paul.
Apparently, ATV tourism has changed things. The town isn’t much different than many around here. It has a beautiful downtown but unfortunately many of the buildings are sitting empty. However, there were signs of life, especially as we got closer to the trail.
We were at the gas station in Hansonville when we saw the first indication of how the Spearhead Trail has already begun to remake this quiet coal town. There was a couple with two ATVs on a trailer filling up next to us who said they have been coming up to St. Paul every weekend to ride on the newly opened trail. I was a little surprised to find that St. Paul was now a tourist destination.
When meeting with family, I had heard a lot about the new tourism industry cropping up in their community. I was informed that ATVs were pretty much everywhere on the mountains, but the new trailhead had concentrated them in St. Paul. What many of my older relatives seemed surprised about was how much money these ATV visitors were spending in their community. Of course, my younger relatives are the ones out on the ATVs every weekend and seemed happy to have another place to ride.
Some of them were a little concerned about what this would mean for their small communities, but when they heard about towns like Bramwell and Ashland, they suddenly became a little bit more industry friendly.
Many of my Virginia relatives have long worked in the coal industry and are now seeing mines idled or closed. The area has depended on coal for quite a long time and during the coal bust of the early 1960s, the majority of the family headed to Ohio in search of work. I know a lot of the older folks would appreciate having an industry for the area to fall back on, an industry that would make sure their children had a job in the local area and not break up families.
After the reunion, we drove up the steep hill that is third street to the new trailhead. It had been raining for a good portion of the day, but there were still a dozen or so trucks with trailers hauling multiple ATVs up on the mountainside. There were a lot of license plates from Virginia but also from Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio in the parking lot.
Today, you can’t go to Bramwell or the Ashland area any time between Thursday and Monday without the area being crawling with ATVs and their riders. I have yet to hear a bad thing about what ATV tourism has done for the area from anyone in these communities. The sheer number of new businesses that have opened around Bramwell in the past year attest to what this new form of recreational tourism can do.
As a result, it’s no wonder that Tazewell County is working toward its own branch of the Spearhead Trail or that the people between War and Gary in McDowell County are seeking a Hatfield-McCoy Trail of their own.
A good deal of my grandfather’s family are McDowell County expatriates as well and they were excited to know that this industry could turn around the county they grew up in, the place they still hold near and dear to their hearts. They all hoped that this would bring a much-needed economic boost to the county, especially since many of them were forced to leave during a period of economic downturn.
Tourism, whether it be on the back of an ATV, mountain bike, horse or hiking trail, seems like the perfect industry for this area. Even as a kid I was always in awe of the mountains when we came to visit, the lush green trees and spiraling fog rolling off the hillside. Even though I wasn’t born here, it always felt like I was coming home.
There is an unparalleled beauty to the two Virginias that should be shown off to the outside world. People pay thousands of dollars to trek through the rainforests of South American and the icy wonderlands of Alaska, so why shouldn’t we encourage them to do the same in our home, which is just as beautiful and breathtaking?
We in the two Virginias are already known for our hospitality, so doing this tourism thing well and doing it right shouldn’t be hard. We have so much to share with the world and it’s time we did just that.
Kate Coil is a reporter for the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at email@example.com.