The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

April 1, 2013

Fayette couple recognized for volunteer work

FAYETTEVILLE — Just like the Nuttall Sandstone cliffs that brought them here, Maura and Gene Kistler have become solid anchors for the outdoor and climbing communities in Fayette County since they arrived here over 20 years ago and found their true home.

Their commitment to place, their community-building work, and their many volunteer projects over the years have not gone unnoticed.

The Access Fund — which works to protect climbing areas nationwide — recently awarded the Menocal Lifetime Achievement Award to the couple for their stewardship efforts, work with land managers, organization of the New River Alliance of Climbers (NRAC), and creation of the New River Rendezvous, “one of the most popular grassroots climbing events in the country.”

“Their energy and commitment to the climbing community has inspired many, and their work protects one of the country’s most important climbing areas,” says a statement from the organization.

Garnering the attention of a national organization like the Access Fund is the outgrowth of years of on-the-ground outreach and organizing, much of which has taken place at their store in downtown Fayetteville, Waterstone Outdoors.

“Opening the store has been this hilarious way to plug into the community, and I’m always excited to see what’s next,” says Gene. “This place has always been a kind of laboratory.”

The experiment continues. In their time here, the Kistlers have watched the outdoor community assimilate increasingly into local life. And their own relationships to the New River Gorge region, as a place and as a home, continue to evolve.

In many ways, the Kistlers are the mama and papa of climbing in the New River area, nurturing newcomers and seeing to it that the community grows up strong.

“My temperament is very den mother, and has always been that way,” says Maura.

The couple cultivates an air of unpretentious fun that has attracted friends among both visitors and locals alike.

“From the day we moved here, we had a house full of vagrants,” says Gene, meaning the constant stream of climber refugees who showed up at their home in search of a couch or porch to surf for the weekend.

Some of those “vagrants,” like the Kistlers, fell in love with Fayette County and never left. Finding acceptance from locals has been a slow, gradual process.

One of the first articles Gene ever saw about climbing in the Fayette Tribune was a letter to the editor that complained of climbers who changed their clothes by the side of the road, thinking that “no one lived here.”

“Well, people do. And that was so offensive. The people doing it were really unaware,” he says.

The climbers’ organization he helped found, NRAC, not only tries to make climbing sustainable, but they also try to educate climbers about how to be sensitive to their surroundings.

The “outdoor recreation subcommunity,” as Maura calls it, began with a few rafters who began wintering over in Fayette County. She has watched people gravitate to the area for its outdoor recreation and discover something compelling enough to keep them here year-round.

“It’s grown to the point where we are a force in the area, a force for change and growth and good. ... I think when us not-from-heres are dropping roots and having children and supporting community projects, it’s helped the assimilation,” says Maura, who has taught in the Fayette County school system.

“We’re in the trenches with local people making this place better, and we have a track record at this point with skate parks, playgrounds, and civic contributions.”

“Actions speak louder than words,” adds Gene, who has served on the Fayette County Planning Commission and the board of the Plateau Action Network.

The relationship between “from-heres” and “come-heres” in Fayette County hasn’t always been harmonious, but Gene sees some irony in how the outsiders were often characterized as renegades.

“In coming here, we recognized that this was a place that had never been messed up. So while we’ve been seen as outsiders trying to come in and change things, it’s actually been about preservation. It wasn’t the carpet-bagger paradigm where we’re here to take all the money,” he says.

The couple’s first out-of-town date was a visit to the New River Gorge. They moved here from Virginia in 1991 and bought a house on Lansing Road, where they still live.

Gene was fascinated with the social and economic history of the area and says he came here with a romantic view of Appalachia.

“Appalachia and jazz music are two things that you can truly say were born from America. A lot of other stuff boils down to commercialism. I found it much more interesting to live in a place like that than Boulder, Colo., or Charlottesville,” he says.

He had a great deference for locals and spent a lot of time with them. He says 20 years of working here has taught him that many locals feel disempowered from generations of social and economic exploitation, a condition that he says threatens to hold the area back from progress.

Maura says she came with preconceptions about uneducated people that were replaced by an appreciation of locals’ sense of place, history, rootedness, and familial structure.

“I had lived so many places, but I had never had a gut-level affinity for a place until I moved here,” she says.

In 1993, the Kistlers purchased Blue Ridge Outdoors, a Virginia outdoor gear shop. They opened a branch in Fayetteville the following year. In 2001, they sold the Virginia stores and kept the Fayette County location, renaming it Waterstone.

The shop — which they own with Kenny Parker — is a hub of information for climbers and outdoor sports enthusiasts, many from out of town. But an account with the Boy Scouts has also drawn locals to the shop.

In 1997, the Kistlers helped found NRAC, an organization that works to keep climbing areas open and conserve the climbing environment around the New River Gorge.

The motivation for founding such a group goes back to a park management planning process at New River Gorge National River that began in the early ’90s. Climbers realized the need for an advocacy group that could work to plug into the management plan.

The organization has committees for outreach and education, advocacy, trails, and anchors and raises money for projects that keep climbing safe and accessible. They build trails, scrub chalk from the cliff face, and clean up trash.

“Prior to the Arrowhead trails (built with the help of the Boy Scouts of America), I would bet you climbers built more trail than any other group in the New River,” says Gene.

That includes one of the most beloved in the park, The Endless Wall Trail.

Most recently, NRAC has worked with the American Alpine Club on a new climber-friendly campground and with Wild Rock on securing easements for access to the Bubba City climbing area.

Gene and Maura are looking ahead at how the county may be changing and developing due to the new Summit Bechtel Reserve.

He hopes U.S. 19 doesn’t sprawl, that housing can be kept affordable, and that the county’s waterways can be cleaned up. She hopes that the area can “stay true to its roots while at the same time broadening its base.”

“The lack of pretension was one of the reasons I’ve loved it here from the get-go, and it’s a defining characteristic of the local population. I think the outdoor recreation community picked up on that, and we’ve reinforced it in the climbing ethos of the area,” says Maura. “Ultimately, that is one of its strongest calling cards.”

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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