Highland Profiles is a series highlighting West Virginia’s exemplary outdoor adventurers, business owners, and community innovators. If you’ve got someone in mind worthy of a profile, drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I walked into Water Stone Outdoors in Fayetteville as a budding climber way back in 2010 to buy a harness and my first pair of climbing shoes. New to both the climbing scene and Fayetteville, I was instantly enamored with the hip little town and the cool gear store in which I stood. I was greeted by an athletic woman whose personality stood far larger than her svelte frame. She was stoked that I was there; she was interested in my background. But more importantly, she made me feel like I belonged.
Little did I know that this woman, Maura Kistler, part-owner of the store, was a local celebrity in more ways than one. This interaction marked the beginning of my love affair with rock climbing and the New River Gorge, a place I spent the next decade visiting constantly, even spending one year living in a tent while working as a climbing guide. During this period, I, like so many others, formed a great friendship with Maura and her husband Gene. They were kind, welcoming, and still somehow possess endless positive energy.
Maura and Gene were some of the first outdoorsy folks to set roots in Fayetteville and, along with other dedicated visionaries, poured their hearts and souls into cultivating the unmistakable flavor of the “coolest small town.” While they built their business and fomented what Gene calls “subversive positive social change,” they raised two wonderful kids and had a hand in the personal and professional growth of countless other folks of all ages.
The Kistlers, along with business partner and local climbing hero Kenny Parker, recently sold Water Stone Outdoors to new owners. Maura and Gene are now heading into the adventure of retirement, undoubtedly marking the end of an era and the start of a new one. I’ve been wanting to profile Maura for a long time and thought this transition marked the perfect opportunity to have a wonderful and inspiring discussion about her long, strange, and fantastical trip through life in West Virginia. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your coming to WV story?
I had Midwestern roots for sure. I was born in the North Side of Chicago. I lived in Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky. I graduated high school in Miami (Florida) and ended up at the University of Virginia, where I met Gene in my fourth year. Gene introduced me to rock climbing, though I had already firmly identified as an outdoor girl. We started climbing here in 1985. We were living in Charlottesville and going to Seneca Rocks almost every weekend.
Do you remember your first time climbing at Seneca?
Oh, I remember all my moments at Seneca because they usually involved crying. I’ve cried on every belay ledge at Seneca Rocks. I remember being on the second ledge of Ecstasy, I am 1,000-percent safe, but I’m in a panic and it’s freezing cold and I’m bawling. I didn’t take to climbing easily; I had to earn all my comfort. And Seneca is great for that, of course. I still call Seneca my home crag; I just love that place.
How did you discover the New River Gorge?
Bruce Burgin, an early climber from Beckley, had taken a series of 8×10 black-and-white photos of the New River Gorge. He put them in a notebook and left it on the counter of the Gendarme and said, “You guys need to come down here to look at this shit.” It was an endless wall of climbing routes, basically an appetite whetter, and we started going to the gorge and camping under the bridge. It was nuts! At first, I was reluctant on the idea of switching to the gorge because I missed Seneca and hanging on the Gendarme porch. I was less motivated by first ascents and more motivated by hanging out, and there wasn’t a social scene at the gorge yet.
Do you recall your first visit to the New River Gorge?
What I remember was that prelapsarian aspect to the deep woods that seemed very raw and rugged and new and fresh. I remember it feeling really wild. We would go hang out on the bridge. We’d sneak out underneath it and crawl all through it. That was our entertainment. Fayetteville was shut down and boarded-up. There was the Western Pancake House and the Okay Corral and Ben Franklin—that was it. There wasn’t a year-round outdoor community at all; the only year-rounders were the raft company owners.
But I don’t want any of what I’m saying to be seen from the vacuum of the outdoor community because the power of this area is in the mix of people. I don’t want any perception that Fayetteville didn’t have it going on before we showed up to “make it happen.” It was essentially a moribund economy in an area that was hibernating before this slow reawakening to another economy and another way for this area to grow and succeed.
When did you decide to set roots in Fayetteville?
We moved to Fayetteville full-time in April of 1991 when friends asked Gene to build their house. We rented this big old house in downtown Fayetteville right next to the mayor. It was so fun to have a place that could absorb a lot of people and be part of creating a platform for a scene to develop. It was a blast; I never know who I’d come downstairs and find in my kitchen. I raft-guided from 91 to 95; it was my first job outdoors. There weren’t many employment options, and I was really excited about the whole whitewater culture. I knew that I’d probably be able to get a teaching job eventually, but knew it might take a while. Working at Class VI for three seasons was a ball and gave me a lot of confidence. I was really fortunate to be trained by Joy Maher. There were really strong women who were at the forefront of the whole thing.
How did Water Stone Outdoors come about?
We realized we loved it here and we didn’t want to leave. We bought Blue Ridge Outdoors (not the magazine! – editor), which originally was an outdoor store with two locations in Virginia, where I had worked. Gene got the idea to buy the business, and immediately got Kenny Parker involved to come here and open the third one. We sold the other two in Virginia and kept this one and Kenny became a 50/50 partner with us on this store.
How was running the store in those early days?
My God, it was so dead for so long. We still laugh about it. Our first employee would just sit upstairs and smoke cigarettes and drink beers all day long. We made no money; we had pitiful salaries. Gene and I didn’t know jack about retail, and we would be nowhere without Kenny. I can’t emphasize enough that it was all built on Kenny’s back, especially in those early years.
But the cool thing is we had all this fun shit to do while we were building the business. It just finally started getting going in the last couple years. The crux for us, and what we’re most proud of, is we were careful businesspeople who stayed within our means. I was recently on a Zoom call with a bunch of new women entrepreneurs. I said number one: pace yourselves. Be in it for the long haul. Be patient. You’ve got to find the fun because growing a business takes time; it took us forever!
“I love the West Virginia grittiness and toughness. I think that’s in short supply in the world and I’m glad we have a deep well of that.”
You’ve sold the store to new owners and are retiring—can you reflect on your career at Water Stone?
It has been so much fun reminiscing these last few weeks. I can’t even tell you how satisfying and rewarding it’s been. I’m so proud of Kenny and Gene and our genuine partnership. To be partners with somebody for 28 years and love and respect them even more than you did at the beginning is just amazing. I’ve been pondering the serendipity of what happened with the new buyers, Chris and Holly Fussell. We’re lucky because Water Stone is central to the community, and they want to carry that forward.
What are your plans for retirement?
My plan is to play more and to drive around the country in our Eurovan, which is my happy place. It’s been really shocking to me how many people hear that you’re retiring and ask if you’re going to move. I cannot imagine leaving my community. Right now, I’ve kind of shucked off every single commitment that I have. Our goals are to play more music and to stay involved in our community and continue to be out and about having fun.
What changes or developments from over the years stand out the most?
That slow, gradual growth from 20 years ago, where we were absorbing people and the outdoor community was growing, allowed our community to gel as a friendly, wacky, welcoming place that never got hijacked by sudden out-of-town interests. Now, we’re in a pressure zone because we completely underestimated the impact of the New River Gorge National Park redesignation. What I like about our slow, steady growth prior to that is we were ready for it, although certainly not in terms of our infrastructure. But our identity was very set in this town. That is our superpower.
What do you think of the National Park designation?
My personal feelings have really vacillated. At first, I was a pretty enthusiastic supporter, but then I felt like with the [National Park Service’s] ongoing inability to deal with some of our infrastructure problems, I became really frustrated and not as supportive. Now that we finally got our moment to be in the international spotlight, I feel like we were ready. But people notice that it’s different. Now people are talking about how AirBnB is ruining the community, about how town is blown out and the parking lots are full, how the good old days are over. Now that we’re dealing with the challenges of growth, it can make us nostalgic for the old days. But the New River Gorge extends from Beckley to Summersville. This boom is elevating the New River Gorge region; it’s about more than just Fayetteville. And what we’re seeing now is that Oak Hill is rising; Summersville is rising. There’s a lot going on, and the concept of the outdoor economy, which is what we’ve been beating the drum on, is the answer—not tourism. Tourism is just one part of the outdoor economy. We believe deep down that the outdoor economy is a critical part of West Virginia’s future. We’re starting to see more areas understand that and get the grants for trails and river put-ins and access, and all of this is going to help West Virginia out. Once we get people here and they see for themselves what we have to offer and what we’re all about, their perception changes. We have a marvelous thing to share. If the national park designation is bringing us more people who are leaving here going, “Oh my God, I had no idea that that was West Virginia,” then I’m all about it because we deserve respect. Now that it’s happened, let’s get it right so that we can shine with that spotlight on us.
What do you love most about West Virginia?
I saw a different way to live my life here. I’ve never had a sense of place like I do in West Virginia. I love the West Virginia grittiness and toughness. I think that’s in short supply in the world and I’m glad we have a deep well of that. There were so many things that spoke to me and Gene on a deep level, and I knew pretty quick that this was it and that I never wanted to leave this place. Every time I come back from an adventure, and I drive across the bridge, I’m just so stoked. I’m still totally enamored by this place.
What do you want to see for the future in West Virginia?
I’m gonna keep believing that we are going to get somewhere not just as an area, not as just as our little bubble, but as a whole state. I’m so encouraged by the folks that are moving here and their willingness to be part of that change. I remain excited because I have so much confidence in West Virginia and what an appealing package it is right now. We know now that what we as human organisms need above anything else is connection, and West Virginia provides that.
3 thoughts on “Highland Profiles: Maura Kistler”
Hi to Maura! I share your sentiment about the sense of place in West Virginia, and the ongoing importance of the outdoor adventure economy! Feeds our soul. West Virginia has been good to so many of us, thankfully. We have a strong bond and camaraderie.
Maura is a great role model. Building mental strength at Seneca. Then climbing El Capitan. Being a loving mother of two. Then running marathons. Then being featured on Nat Geo , as a honorary Tsunami Ranger. Sea kayaking thru dark ominous ocean side caves. Wearing full face helmet, elbow pads and chest protector. In case the tide surges and the you and the sea kayak happen to get slammed into the ceiling of the caves. She’s living her best life. Cheers!
My dear sister, Mo, has shared her love of the NRG with many many folks; most importantly with our parents; Tom and Claire Hamilton, who completely caught the Lansing/Fayetteville fever. They fell in love with this community, and peacefully died in their home right there next to the gorge. Thank you Maura for being the game changer in all of this!