Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

January 14, 2014

We must’ve looked like moonshiners in that van

Tim Preston
The Independent

ASHLAND — Eddie Riffe and I sometimes get ahead of ourselves, although it all tends to work out reasonably well.

In our adventures together on the road last year, Riffe and I ended up playing a few songs for the people in Clay, W.Va., during the Elk River Days Festival in the summer. It was a quick trip in and out of a pretty little town with a pristine river running right through the heart of it. We played our songs and the friendly people made us feel welcome, but I didn’t remember much about the place other than I wanted to come back and go fishing or canoeing in the Elk River.

When news broke last week about a major chemical spill in the Elk River, I actually had to shoot a note to Riffe confirming it was the same stream we had played beside last year. Riffe, who has actually waded major sections of that river while catching multiple fish, was even more upset about the news than I was, and it didn’t take long before we were asking what we could do to help.

Before I knew what was happening, it was the next morning and I was standing at a sink watching photographer Tom Worden assist Riffe and Tal Callihan as we filled and capped water jugs donated for the effort by Captain D’s General Manager Scottie Smith. Callihan could have assigned the tedious task to one of his staff, but seemed highly motivated by his own recent experiences without water services and carried the final filled jug out to the van, which by that time looked as if it were a star vehicles for the TV show “Moonshiners.”

With a little bit of gas money kicked in from The Independent’s Mark Maynard, we set out for the mountain town of Clay with no real idea of what we were going to do when we got there. Worden, who had never before experienced the reality of a few miles on the interstate with Riffe behind the wheel, had the front passenger seat for the first few miles and after a quick stop somewhere along the way, graciously offered up the “shotgun” position at every stop for the rest of the journey.

As a veteran van rider with Riffe, I almost didn’t catch what was happening until our friend the photographer emitted an involuntary squeak from the back of the van when our driver unfolded a newspaper and went searching for a story while navigating a barricaded one-lane stretch of interstate at 89 m.p.h., while drinking coffee.

In Ed’s defense, (historically speaking) he’s driven many more thousands of miles without a life-threatening incident than I have. I told Tom you have to adopt the philosophy of an old-school Samurai (or maybe the acceptance a kidney-stone patient), to appreciate a long ride with Eddie.

Something about his shaking hands as he tried to light a smoke at the end of the ride tells me he was not quite able to capture that Zen-Master spirit, although he did volunteer to go back if get to make a return run.

Once in Clay, it didn’t take long to realize there weren’t many people out and about on the cloudy Saturday afternoon, and we were most happy to notice a couple of people coming and going at the Clay Senior Center, not far from the town square where we had played a last summer. Upstream of the spill, the folks said they were more concerned about their friends and family in nearby areas, and they quickly made a call to the senior-center director to ask if it would be OK to accept the water jugs we’d hauled from Callihan’s American Pub & Grill. As Riffe, Worden and Scotty Parsons hauled the jugs in, the mother/daughter team of Christina and Cheyenne Belt told me about their near-miss with the spill, including the nine-month-pregnant daughter’s consumption of a potentially tainted glass of tap water.

There was a heavy line of ominous-looking fog clinging to the Elk River as we wound along through Clay seeking a good angle for photos and hearing about every fish Eddie and his buddy Sammy had ever caught from it.

We each also noticed the remnants of an overgrown railway which meandered alongside the river, and got a lesson in local history including the railroad’s role in the area’s legacy when we stopped at sort of rifle range and wildlife station and had a sit-down chat with 71-year-old Stephen B. Smith. I confirmed his middle initial was “B as in Boy?” and he smiled and said, “B as in Bad.”

I’m not sure how long we sat there shooting the breeze taking about everything from the chemical crisis at hand to fishing and the horrible murder of two state troopers nearby. Worden, who had remained strapped into his seat in back of the van after surviving the twisting, turning road into and out of Clay, managed to find his way inside and was instantly charmed by Smith, who had a special way of illustrating his speech using his hands which seemed to hypnotize our visually-oriented friend.

Discussing the sudden nature of the chemical spill, Smith made a great point when he said people like himself and his neighbors who had access to decent streams would likely be fine through such an emergency, “but downtown, you don’t stand a chance.”

A reporter in our newsroom Monday morning confirmed the chemical spill which left an estimated 300,000 of our neighbors without water was passing by on the Ohio River as I typed this, and it had been flowing along our portion of the big river since roughly 3 a.m. — less than 24 hours after we had left the spill behind in West Virginia and Riffe aptly observed we weren’t at all far from home before adding, “That’s the scary part.”

Officials in West Virginia are closely monitoring the situation and those of us downstream seem to have a genuine understanding of just how lucky we are to have missed out on such a disaster — the cost of which can’t yet even be calculated.

Eddie reports local residents have already dropped off “enough to fill up the back of a van,” including donations of disposable plates, canned food, water, soft drinks and “easy-fix meals” to the collection point at Callihan’s in the Kyova Mall at Cannonsburg, and we’re planning to hit the road with it as early as this morning.

TIM PRESTON can be reached at tpreston@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2651.