From the moon and back again to Greenbrier County: Katherine Johnson

Greenbrier County is a cultural gemstone. Since colonial times, folks have travelled here for mineral spring cures and spiritual renewal. It’s a hospitable place, too. There’s a fabled resort more than 200 years old, plus historic towns and grand annual events.

Greenbrier’s residents are an impressive bunch, too. Ever heard of Katherine Johnson? Her role in America’s early space program is no secret to many astronauts and scientists. Yet most of us are just learning about this lady’s accomplishments. After inspiring “Hidden Figures,” a book and movie, she earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. And this year, on August 26, West Virginia will create a day in her honor.

Aiming high

From the time she was little, Katherine Coleman Johnson was mesmerized by numbers. She counted everything. Math — so often a stumbling block for kids everywhere — was her defining talent. It was her ally, too. Born in 1918, she faced numerous barriers as an African American. But the precocious youth had what most people don’t: a gift for solving complex equations.

The Coleman family realized they had a prodigy on their hands. In fact, by the time young Katherine was 10, she was already in the 8th grade. That was enough for her father. He decided to move everybody from their home in White Sulphur Springs to Institute, which had more schools.

Johnson dove deeper into mathematics. At West Virginia State University (known at the time as West Virginia State College), she graduated at 18 with 2 summa cum laude degrees: one in math, one in French. Johnson then enrolled as a graduate student at West Virginia University, but later withdrew to raise a family.

Several years passed. In 1952, the Greenbrier County native took a chance with NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Her affinity for math was exactly what the agency wanted. At the Langley Research Center in Virginia, Johnson worked as a “computer,” or someone who made precise calculations. She was so adept that supervisors relied on her to make flight trajectories for space missions.

Johnson worked during NASA’s most important projects. Astronauts like John Glen and Alan Shepherd grew to depend on her unerring accuracy. She also helped during the hair-raising Apollo 13 mission, which nearly ended in disaster.

Today, folks scratch their heads and wonder why Johnson’s story has been hidden for so long. The retired scientist doesn’t see it as a mystery. Always modest, she claims that NASA didn’t care about race — just results. Her efforts were routine. Sure, some days were thrilling. But at the end of the day, Johnson was a mathematician and physicist.

Still, her story is pretty compelling. People started to hear about the humble scientist, especially when “Hidden Figures” hit box offices in 2016. Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, the film tells the story of African American “computers” at NASA. President Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well. Suddenly, everybody wanted to know all about Johnson.

Behind the scenes at White Sulphur Springs …

If you’re Johnson’s newest fan, consider visiting her home city! Renowned for its curative waters and peaceful surroundings, White Sulphur Springs has much to offer.

First and foremost is The Greenbrier resort. Initially famous for its mineral springs, the iconic landmark now boasts championship golf courses, spa treatments, and Bunker Tours of a congressional Cold War fallout shelter. It’s a known vacation spot for celebrities and political figures, too.

Still, you don’t have to be a president or royal family member to get personal service; The Greenbrier emphasizes courtesy above all else.

“Everyone knows your name,” marvels an online reviewer on Tripadvisor. “From the minute you walk in, you feel transported to a true oasis in the mountains.”

The resort also draws visitors for a completely different reason: summer golf tournaments. Every July, the prestigious Greenbrier Classic merges with Independence Day. It’s a multi-day celebration with eye-popping fireworks, fun prizes, and gourmet cuisine.

What’s more, the Classic is “One of the few tour stops where the players bring their families along and mingle with the guests,” enthuses another online reviewer.

Previous celebrity appearances at the Classic include Phil Mickelson, Shaquille O’Neal and “Duck Dynasty” cast members.

Not far from The Greenbrier is another gem: The Salt Cave and Spa. It’s a man-made cavern, set into the hillside like a hobbit hole. Inside, the curvy retreat gets even more appealing. Candles illuminate the earthen lobby. Most striking of all is the cavern itself. Himalayan salt glitters the walls and pads the floor, while soft lights glow.

Not bad for therapy — halotherapy, to be exact. It’s an ancient form of alternative medication. By inhaling salt, some people believe they receive benefits like reduced inflammation and improved respiratory health. Is it a placebo? Until a decisive medical finding happens, take any claims with a grain of salt. But one thing’s for sure: salt therapy is relaxing. No doubt about that!

In fact, a 45-minute cavern session is equivalent to 3 days of beach bumming. It’s far more affordable, too, at $15 per session. Just sink into a recliner and meditate! The Salt Cave also has an entire suite of spa treatments. Get massages, facials, aromatherapy, reflexology, foot cleanses and more! Even if you’re skeptical about halotherapy, just come for relaxation. The soothing atmosphere more than pays for itself.

Greenbrier County

In this Southern West Virginia valley, wild woods and Old World refinement merge. It’s a place of clear rivers and historic towns, quiet trails and classy restaurants. Greenbrier County, says the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, is “where farm-to-table was born.”

Lewisburg makes good on that claim. Hailed as the Coolest Small Town in 2011 by Budget Travel magazine, the chic city traces back to 1792. In the historic district, you’ll find quality eateries and boutiques. Stardust Cafe charms visitors with fresh gourmet sandwiches, imaginative entrees, fair-trade coffee and artistic salads. Other popular restaurants include the sophisticated and historic Livery Tavern, Food & Friends and The French Goat.

Greenbrier County also showcases a fine selection of historic buildings. Only 4 Carnegie Halls exist in the world, but you’ll find one in Lewisburg! Dating to 1902, the Greek Revival structure hosts annual shows, events and classes all year. Mt. Tabor Baptist Church, James Withrow House and the Supreme Court Library Building also give the city a pleasing patina.

It’s a great place for outdoor recreation, too. Walk or ride along the Greenbrier River Trail, a 78-mile journey past state parks, valleys and atmospheric train artifacts. Lost World Caverns is another highlight. Take guided tours through enormous chambers and marvel at odd rock formations. Or, sign up for a “Wild Cave Tour.” You’ll go where most tourists don’t— like narrow passages and remote corners. It’s a muddy thrill!

Greenbrier County also has enormous annual festivals.  One of the best is TOOT, or Taste of Our Towns. It’s a culinary celebration that — for downtown Lewisburg — happens in October, when you can sample top dishes from local restaurants. Try The General Lewis Inn’s famous pecan pie or exclusive treats from The Greenbrier.

Lewisburg is also home to the State Fair of West Virginia. Rock bands, carnival rides, animal shows, entertainers and hundreds of vendors gather here every August. It’s like something from “Charlotte’s Web”! The West Virginia Craft Brew Festival in late April can’t be ignored, either. Come for the best Mountain State craft beer, plus comfort food and live music. You can take workshops and meet local brewers as well.

Another delicious experience is the Lewisburg Chocolate Festival, which takes place every spring. Local businesses have gourmet tasting opportunities, while chocolatiers showcase their creamy wares by the dozen. Other popular events include a bake-off, chocolate brunch and chocolate-inspired meals at nearby restaurants.

No doubt about it: Katherine Johnson’s home turf has variety and creativity. It’s always using natural gifts to full advantage. Whether that’s expressed as a culinary art form, fresh from the fields, or world-class hospitality, Greenbrier County finds a way. Just like the “human computer,” who made it to NASA.