This guest blog by Mercedes Walters, ‘mastermind’ behind the MVP Protest Run of April-May 2021, will take you down memory lane and reinvigorate you for the fight ahead. Enjoy!
Wednesday, April 28th:
We woke up to a coffee fiasco – the coffee pots in our rooms were not working and the hotel lobby coffee would not be ready in time for our departure. So my partner Issah quickly ran to Starbucks for our caffeine needs. Once we coordinated securing the coffee, Katie and I lost our phones simultaneously and the group spent 30 minutes breaking down the van and hotel rooms searching for them. It was just that kind of morning for us, luckily we had established a no stress vibe. We all laughed off the rough start, said goodbye to Issah, and headed out to start working the roads.
The weather was stellar that day, with the sun shining and a nice crispness to the air. The plan was for Maury Johnson to meet up with us around 9 AM along Route 20, so the three runners and Matthew Pickett, who was documenting the MVP Protest Run, kicked off the day. The roads were relatively tame to start, but as we progressed down the route, it became increasingly sketchy with no shoulders and tons of large vehicles whizzing past us. The runners were staring down the front of a semi truck every couple of minutes, watching it barrel towards us as we braced for its passing. What startled me the most was the violent gust of wind that engulfs you one second after a truck has passed. At one point, I had to jump into the van so the team could transport me a couple miles past a really dangerous section of road. Of course Maury foresaw this hazard, and had planned out an alternative route that would get us off of the busy roads and on some gravel backcountry goodness. He went out of his way to create his own route for us, and he and Sarah had spent hours on the phone the night before coordinating and mapping out his plan. A large hurdle in this project was mapping, especially in West Virginia, where we had only paper maps with road numbers to refer to. We were so lucky to have his support, knowledge, and passion behind us and this project.
Right as the busy roads started to wear on us, we came across Maury, parked on the side of the road and flagging us down with his Yellow Finch Strong bandana. As we pulled off the road, Maury explained that this was the turn off and we would follow him for some glorious gravel road running. We were thrilled to be off pavement and thoroughly enjoyed the laid back tone of the rolling backcountry gravel roads.
Along the way, Maury made sure to teach us all about any landmark locations we passed through. Once we wrapped up our running portions for the day, Maury drove us over to the location of several wetlands that had recently been temporarily protected from destruction by the MVP due to the loss of the USACE water crossing permits. While in West Virginia, we learned about the blanket permit that EquiTrans utilized to get pipes across waterbodies, which had been revoked. This meant they now had to apply for different types of permits — at FERC to bore under waterbodies, and at the US Army Corps of Engineers to cut across them and bury pipe. We were learning so much about the harms to waterbodies from prior construction, and the prospect of stream crossings would have compounded the sediment damage to streams and fragile wetlands. The water crossings were proving to be one of the biggest obstacles of the pipeline project – especially through the wetlands.
Next Maury took us to meet up with Neal Laferriere – a local organic farmer living off the grid with his family. We followed Neal up a couple miles of secluded steep gravel road and as we turned a corner to reach the top of the mountain we entered a clearing, fully lumbered, roped off, and flagged with markers. This was the 50 foot right of way (ROW) crossing intersecting Neal’s driveway road to his home. The ROW, we learned, is created as an area for the pipeline to be installed. We exited the van and immediately started asking Neal questions about the ROW and the proximity to his home. Neal explained that the ROW was located only a quarter mile from his front door, which placed his family within the incineration zone. The incineration zone, we learned, is the distance at which there is a significant risk of incineration that could result in severe injury or death if the pipeline were to malfunction. The MVP had laid pipe in the ground coming from both directions but had stopped because of the small creek that flowed adjacent to their driveway. This creek had prevented MVP from continuing construction because of the requirement of a water crossing permit that MVP had failed to obtain. Neal then offered us a close up look at the pipes that were above ground and sitting on the ROW. As I walked next to the gigantic section of pipe, I dragged my hand along the outside, and when I turned my hand to look at it there was a thick gray residue that had coated my fingers. I asked Neal how he felt about the pipes being on the ROW, driving past this scene daily coming and going from his home. Neal explained that the pipes are coated with a protective layer that prevents deterioration while they are buried in the ground and when the pipes are exposed to elements above ground, like these pipes were, the protective coating begins to deteriorate. Neal went on to share that he had been driving past these pipes above ground for the last two years, each time a stark reminder that these damaged pipes might someday be placed in the ground and would carry millions of tons of gas past his family’s home. My heart broke for Neal and his family as I could only imagine the emotions they are having to endure.
At that point someone said something about food and we realized how late it was. Neal offered to help us set up our tent and said we could sleep right on the ROW. We jumped at the opportunity of both of his offers and began to unload the van and set up camp.
Neal and his family offered to take us out for pizza and a swim at the local swimming hole and we could not say no to cheesy carbs and a natural shower. While hanging out with the Laferrieres they shared their story of how they came to own their current property. Neal and his family had lived and worked all over the country in jobs requiring him to work long hours and be away from his family for long periods of time. Once they saved enough money he and his wife decided to start looking for land to start an organic farm. They searched all over the country to find property and ultimately landed on West Virginia. Their dream came to fruition when they found the land that would come to be Blackberry Botanicals Farm. Within weeks of closing on their property, Neal came to look it all over and found marked stakes wedged in the ground along the driveway. Those stakes catapulted him into his now seven-year fight against the MVP.
After a wonderful evening at the local swimming hole we made our way back up the gravel hill to the entrance of their home. The plan for the evening was to finish up our route planning for the next day. Neal offered to take a look at our map and offer insights, which proved to be challenging. He did note that if we wanted to get over Keeney Mountain, we would need to take a pitted gravel road that was rarely maintained. Neal suggested that we would be unable to travel this road with the van due to lack of clearance and would have to drive it around. We did however have Matthew, our photographer, with us who would drive his pickup truck that could tolerate the road. We decided that Matthew would crew (aka transport + assist as needed) Katie and Sarah up and over Keeney Mountain, while I would drive the van around the mountain and meet the group on the other side. Neal offered to take a runner up the Keeney Mountain Road for a scouting mission that evening and I volunteered.
We hopped in Neal’s truck and took off down his very steep hill, traversing the valley, then up another steep hill to top out on Keeney Mountain. The change in elevation and grade became significant, and Neal had to kick it into 4 wheel drive to prevent sliding down the gravel hill. I illegibly scribbled down and repeated directions as Neal guided us up. We rumbled along with views for miles and the sun setting on the horizon and I could see why Neal and his family had come to love this land.
When we returned to camp it was pitch black dark out with the stars and the moon providing the brightest light. We thanked Neal for all his effort and support of this project and for being open to sharing his story. I debriefed Sarah, Katie, and Matthew as we mapped our routes and coordinated a timeline. Tomorrow would be the first time one of us was separated from the group, and we needed our plan to be on point.
Thursday, April 29th:
In the morning, I remember waking up to a symphony of song birds. And at one point a bird came under our tarp and landed on Katie and Sarah’s tent offering a natural alarm clock. We broke down camp completing the usual routine – break down camp, make coffee, and review the day’s plan. As we waved goodbye to part ways I felt nervous, and anxious leaving the team and navigating West Virginia highways and roads solo, – truly – solo. Cell service was a lost commodity, so paper map navigation was going to be an adventure and require good timing.
When I arrived at the meetup location along backcountry roads after traveling along the highway, I drove up steep winding hills to the base of the mountain. There I came across Maury who had arrived a couple minutes earlier. Then, 5 minutes later Grace from POWHR arrived at the same location. Seriously great timing! The team came down the mountain to be united with the caravan and we traveled down to the Greenbrier River. Here we were surprised by a community welcome led by Ashby Berkley and Summers County Residents Against the Pipeline. This group of people, a few of whom had traveled nearly two hours, gathered to show their support for the MVP Protest Run. It was a humbling experience to feel the dedication these people have for the fight against the MVP. Ashby showed us the bank of the Greenbrier River on his property, and the location of the water crossing for the MVP. He described to us how in the spring bald eagles would nest in the trees on the opposite side of the river and could be spotted fishing in the river. This water crossing by the MVP was set to disrupt not only a main water source for the area, but also the ecosystems that benefit from it.
Later that day, as we cruised down a hill into Monroe County, we were once again gifted with a warm greeting in the Indian Creek Valley near Greenville by land owners and advocates with a huge sign, blue water flags, and gallons of Peter’s Mountain water – which was the best water in the world. At first I thought they were being facetious, but Maury went on to explain that the water siphoned off from Peter’s Mountain was sold to buyers across the US and the world because of its outstanding quality. This water and the livelihood of the owners is threatened by the MVP with a high risk of contamination. Maury also educated us about the blue water flags that had “WATER IS LIFE” written on them created by Reni Fulton, that were placed at every water crossing the MVP could traverse.
At this juncture, Katie alternated in to crush the last section of the day through the Indian Creek and Hans Creek Valleys. While we were switching out runners Maury took off down the road, telling us he would be meeting up with us a little ways down as we entered the Hans Creek Valley. As I drove the van down Hans Creek with Katie not far behind we came to the first farm house and pulled off to wait for Katie to come through. Suddenly Sarah, Grace, and I heard a tractor rumbling coming down the road and that’s when we spotted Maury with a huge grin on his face, riding his newly purchased and beautifully restored 1968 Massey Ferguson red tractor he had named Red the Pipeline Fighting Tractor (a tribute to his friend Red Terry from Bent Mountain VA who took to the trees to protect her family farm). He had decked out his tractor with a MVP protest run sign and his big blue water flag. He used the tractor to escortKatie down the length of Hans Creek Valley. Katie and the caravan ended the day at the bottom of Peters Mountain near the Jefferson National Forest where we would rest for the next two nights in preparation for our next scheduled section along the Appalachian Trail.
We were graciously housed by Becky and Roger Crabtree at their beautiful home tucked into the foothills adjacent to the Jefferson National Forest. By the time we arrived at their home we were exhausted and ready to crash. We hit the hay early and looked forward to a “rest day” of festivities planned for the next day.
Friday, April 30th:
We planned to meet up with Maury at 11am for a tour of Hans Creek and the surrounding area so we took advantage of some extra z’s. We caravanned with Maury to multiple historical locations, and met several local residents that were fellow pipeline fighters. The location that stuck with me the most was when Maury took us to his property and showed us a 400yr old oak tree on his property that had almost been cut down to clear the ROW for the MVP. Maury had been monitoring the construction of the MVP on his property and spoke with the tree cutter from the company contacted to complete lumbering of the ROW. The tree cutter foreman examined the tree and stated that he cuts down a lot of trees for a living but he did not want to cut down that tree because of its age and significance. Because of the foreman, not wanting to destroy this ancient tree and also partly because of Maury’s objections, MVP decided they could avoid the tree and so it still stands beside the MVP access road.
We returned to the house, rested, did more mapping, and then hung out for a backyard gathering/BBQ that brought all the local pipeline fighters together. We met so many pipeline fighters that had not been able to join together in a group since COVID hit. Being a part of this gathering made me realize how much bigger this project was than just three women running the length of a pipeline. There was an army behind this movement and I know we all felt so lucky to become a part of it.
Towards the end of the evening Maury took us out to see the famous pipeline fighting pinto. In 2018, Becky Crabtree had locked herself inside of a Ford Pinto that was placed on wooden blocks, about three feet in the air,directly blocking the construction of the MVP. The Crabtrees had saved the pinto and it is currently on display in their sheep meadow not far from the MVP ROW across their property, so naturally we had to get a picture. We didn’t get to spend as much time with all the new people we met as we would have liked, we had to keep on movin’ on. We were very excited about getting our feet on dirt and to traverse beautiful sections of the AT the next day.
This project gave me more than I could have ever given it. After a long year of struggling, this project fed and replenished my soul. Yes it was exhausting, but in an invigorating way. I have found my people, people who were not only passionate about the environment but also about each other and their communities. For some reason this felt novel to me, and it replenished my hope and faith in people. I am so fortunate to have connected with such an amazing group of people that have enriched my perspective, challenged my perception, and embraced myself and my teammates without hesitation. I consider this experience a life-changing journey and it could not have happened at a more pivotal moment in my life. I will be forever grateful to each individual who supported me, my team, and this project. We are pipeline fighters and WE WILL WIN!