He said he got stuck in an office building in Charleston.
"They had absolutely no idea what to do with me, hated the fact I was there and gave me absolutely nothing to do," he said.
So, he decided to find something to do. He started going to weekly meetings of social workers. He decided to be a social worker. But for whom?
Rockefeller met Gazette newspaperman Don Marsh, who he called a "creature of Cabin Creek," the eastern Kanawha County mining community. The two wandered around and found their way to Emmons, an unincorporated community that straddles the Kanawha and Boone county line.
"It was perfect, so I started my long trek to try to make myself credible and serious in Emmons," Rockefeller said.
For the first six months, nobody let Rockefeller into their house.
Rockefeller said he understood why he wasn't accepted at first in Emmons. A similar reticence covered the whole state and thwarted his first and unsuccessful run for governor years later.
"They, like West Virginia, didn't accept me, until after I lost to Arch Moore and got up not sulking but smiling," Rockefeller said, segueing from his early setbacks in Emmons to the loss he suffered in the 1972 governor's race.
"I think I knew in my gut I had to lose a big election - not secretary of state or House of Delegates."
After that loss, Rockefeller - who had already been a state legislator and secretary of state - stayed in West Virginia and took the position of president of West Virginia Wesleyan College. He pulled off a political comeback in 1976 and served two terms as governor before joining the U.S. Senate.
In Emmons in the mid-1960s, Rockefeller said he eventually got the ear of the community and decided West Virginia was home.
Rockefeller's anecdotes about Emmons can sound like a comedy of errors were they not somewhat tragic.
He started a baseball team. It lost every game.
But he and others involved a guy, a near hermit who lived in a block building all by himself, to coach the team. Rockefeller said that gave happiness to the last 10 years of the man's life.
He sent an 18-year-old with "all the right instincts" to interview for a job at Union Carbide.
The teen had never been to Charleston and never had dealt with red or green lights or an elevator.
He made it to his meeting on the third floor of an office building but was seated facing the sun. Rockefeller said he went to draw the blinds but they were Venetian blinds, which he never had encountered. In desperation, he started tugging on the bottom slats and ended up so humiliated he couldn't give his name.
"He was just done in," Rockefeller said.
Rockefeller tried to extend running water to Emmons. He did - in summer 2000.
"It took 30 years," he said. "I was governor, I was senator and all this stuff. Didn't make any difference. It took 30 years."
But the experiences informed his policy and makes Rockefeller, in his own words, easy to predict on some issues.
Rockefeller said what he does in Washington reflects problems he found in Emmons.
For instance, he said his fight to make sure insurance companies provide dental care harkens to a time when he drove kids in his Jeep from Emmons to a free dental clinic in South Charleston.
He stays in touch with people he met in Emmons. Some were among the rare few who received calls in advance of his announcement he would not run again for Senate.
One of them - an "absolutely quip smart school teacher" who made unbelievable pies, Rockefeller said - is now 85 years old and the sole person taking care of her husband with Alzheimer's.
Rockefeller said he's tried to improve long-term care in the country. Once he snuck a provision into a bill while the late Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter "was taking a bathroom break."
"As I look at my life, it's not that complicated," Rockefeller said.
He said he wanted to be "pushing the rock up the hill - can't take your hand off either side, unless you and the rock go into the canyon."
But suspicion remains that Rockefeller came to West Virginia with a plan to run for office. Some of his detractors still reflexively call him a "carpetbagger."
After all, his uncle Nelson was a New York governor and his uncle Winthrop was an Arkansas governor.
But both Rockefeller and Peters say Rockefeller did not plan to ascend the political ladder in West Virginia, at least not when he first came.
"Oh my God, no, there was none of that," Peters said.
Peter said he sensed Rockefeller would make a career in West Virginia.
"I had a sense that he had the makings of an outstanding person," Peter said.
But it was not, he said, something the pair talked about at first.
Peter said Rockefeller's "desire to run for office in West Virginia, that hadn't happened yet to him - in the back of mind it was there, but not something he talked about."
Rockefeller said he clung to the idea of becoming an ambassador for a while after arrival.
(He dreamed of eventually serving as ambassador to China - an interesting choice since the United States didn't actually have diplomatic relations with the country until President Richard Nixon formally broke the silence in 1972).
"I didn't necessarily plan on staying in West Virginia," Rockefeller said. "I mean, my going to West Virginia was not a commitment to West Virginia; it was a commitment to being an Action for Appalachian Youth Worker/VISTA later on."
But stay he did. Throughout his career, he cited what he found in Emmons as the foundation of his public policy and, at times, an experience that touched his soul.
"I came to Emmons - as Sharon broke the news to you - as an untrained social worker, a VISTA volunteer, back in 1964," Rockefeller said dryly during his retirement announcement after his wife had spoken. VISTA is a national volunteer program.
"Frankly, I was in search of a clear and powerful purpose," he said during the speech at the Culture Center in Charleston.
"It was that simple. I wanted something that was so compelling and so obsessive that it would just fill me out completely. I didn't necessarily want it to be complicated, but I wanted it to be hard."
As he prepares to leave the Senate, he said he does second-guess his decision not to seek reelection.
Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he came out of a recent meeting of the panel energized by "wonderful" public policy discussions.
"The effect of it was, I don't want to leave, and I'm totally at peace with my decision, but it's harder than I thought, even though I've still got two years in front of me, it's still so interesting up here," he said.
"You always second-guess, 'Well, maybe I could have done another term,' " Rockefeller said. "But, no, it was exactly the right time."