By Stephen Smoot
“I haven’t slept in four days,” said Jedediah Smith, organizer of the 24 Hours of Appalachia road event that raised thousands for Children’s Home Society. He added that “this morning when I saw everyone pulling in, it made me cry.”
More than a hundred people and 75 vehicles gathered at Seneca Rocks on a cold, but sunny, Saturday morning to commence a drive across the state of just under 600 miles. Vehicles came in from up and down the East Coast, from Pennsylvania to Georgia to take a crack at a planned route that promised “gravel, mud, dirt, snow” and also some pavement.
Participants came together first at Yokum’s Grille and enjoyed a breakfast put together especially for them. After signing waivers, they went to the lower lot of the Seneca Rocks Discovery Center to hear a final list of instructions before returning to Yokum’s for an organized departure.
A broad range of vehicles showed up for what organizers said was “not a rally or a race,” but an endurance test of man and machine. These included a number of new and modified pickup trucks and other sport vehicles designed to take a pounding. Others drove everything from newer model Jeeps, Fords, Chevrolet, Toyota and Dodge pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles to rusty and scarred, but still classic, “redneck battle trucks.”
Pride in one’s vehicle make is nothing new to a state that revels in the ancient, but ever ongoing, “Ford versus Chevy” debate.
Mike Julian of Reading, Pennsylvania, brought his 1989 Toyota Land Cruiser. He said, “I follow the Back Roads of Appalachia because they do a lot of motor sports.” Julian hoped for “nothing too crazy” to challenge his “35-year-old vehicle,” but was excited “to see a lot of areas I’ve never been to.”
Though he has run his vehicle in Moorefield area events, he added that, “I’ve never off-roaded this way, so it will be all new.”
Pride in vehicle make was front and center with many drivers. Brent Kayser of Charlotte, North Carolina, was joined by Aaron Justice of Beckley. They proudly drove a green Subaru 4X4 with Kayser touting its advantages, saying that their vehicle’s superior suspension won’t “get our teeth rattled out of our heads.” He praised the car’s “low center of gravity,” saying, “you won’t roll it over.”
Some seemingly unlikely vehicles, such as “Leon the Neon,” owned by Peyton Owen Barnes of Walton (New York, not Roane County) donned large off road tires to prove the endurance of the plucky little Plymouth.
Leon’s owner chronicled the sport sedan’s saga on social media as it climbed narrow dirt roads with a mountain on one side and a cliff on the other. It also barreled through snow still laying thick in the roads of the highest elevations.
At one point, participants stacked rocks in a creek rushing around a flattened culvert to help Leon get through on the long journey to the finish line, set at the Mothman statue in Point Pleasant, only two blocks from the Ohio River.
Local emergency management officials and first responders made safety the first priority. Units on the scene in case of emergency included Pendleton County Office of Emergency Management, represented by Rick Gillespie. Also present were Pendleton County Emergency Rescue North Fork EMS standby, the Pendleton County Emergency Rescue Tactical Skills Team, along with training officer Mike Alt, West Virginia State Police, the Seneca Rocks Volunteer Fire Department, and a Monongahela National Forest officer.
Smith gave a 10-minute safety talk before releasing the drivers. He explained that “we have to be careful how we act, how we conduct ourselves.” Smith also reminded drivers to “be respectful of hunters and their dogs.”
He also urged drivers to remain respectful of each other, to not tailgate, to pass each other respectfully and safely, and “if you see one of your brothers at the side of the road, please stop and help.” Back Roads of Appalachia also deployed 10 recovery vehicles in case of drivers in distress.
All vehicles required 31 inches of clearance to overcome the sometimes large obstacles in their path.
He implored drivers to appreciate their surroundings, saying, “You’re going through some of the most beautiful parts of West Virginia. Take it in.”
Smith then turned the “stage,” the back end of a pickup truck, to Gillespie who said, “Thank you for coming to West Virginia, on behalf of everyone representing the first responder community.”
He added that “we fully support what you are doing. Be safe and enjoy our beautiful state.”
Though not a race, the event did have a winner in Children’s Home Society. Back Roads of Appalachia raised more than $16,000 for the West Virginia based social service organization. “It’s the first time that we’ve been part of an event like this,” said Chris Freeman, who directs communications for Children’s Home Society.
The organization just celebrated 127 years of service, having been founded in Charleston in 1896. They currently operate eight emergency child shelters, 18 community-based service programs, and a total of 28 locations serving all 55 counties. Children’s Home Society works at the front lines of West Virginia’s foster care crisis.
On any given day, the organization serves between 300 and 400 children in foster care.
“All funds raised,” Freeman shared, “go to our foster care program statewide.