Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Road Trip 2016 # 8

I was back on Interstate 77 rolling south nicely.  I probably shouldn’t have put Boz Scaggs in the Buick’s CD player.  He has a voice like a muted trombone.  It’s mesmerizing, distracting even.  I don’t know as much about these musicians and their music as you might think.  I look them up in Wikipedia so I can fill us both in.  Here’s the Boz Scaggs story.

His Dad was a travelling salesman who ended up in Dallas Texas.  Boz met Steve Miller there in high school.  They both went to University of Wisconsin at Madison and played in bands together.  Boz left school and went to Sweden where he developed a good solo career.  He recorded an album that was a bust, became discouraged, and came back to the U.S. where he hooked up with Steve Miller again and became guitarist and lead singer for the Steve Miller Band’s first two successful albums in 1968.  He left and went out on his own again, this time successfully.  His best selling album, Silk Degrees, made it to Billboard’s #2 in 1976 and ended up a Platinum album many times over.  Boz never looked back.  He’s been recording ever since.  Not that his life has been easy.  He lost a son to drug addiction.  If you detect a certain sadness in his voice it’s genuine.

Someone copied and gave me a collection of songs he recorded in 2008, Speak Low, that I’d never listened to properly. To listen to albums or CD’s properly you don’t talk.  You listen closely and think about the music.  Concentrate on different instruments, consider the lyrics, put everything else out of your mind.  That’s why these solo road trips and music go so good together.

Speak Low would probably be considered in the smooth jazz category by people who like categories.   There’s a very good stand up bass player in there, a marimba, a great tenor sax, piano and electric piano, a good drummer who uses the brushes a lot.  But by far the best instrument on the CD is Boz Skagg’s then 64 year old voice.  You should hear him if you haven’t yet.

I was way far into a song called “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me” as the sun set on North Carolina.  There was some but not much traffic on Route 77, I was in the left lane, the Buick had never run better, and life was good.  I was in Iredell County, at least that’s what the ticket said, just past Mooresville Exit 36, making great time, going with the flow I thought.  So I was quite surprised when blue lights flashed in my rear view mirror.  I looked around to see what may be going on, slowed, and tucked into a spot in the right lane to get out of the squad car’s way.  When I pulled over the squad car pulled in behind me.  He was after me.  I pulled over and put Boz on pause.

I rolled down my side window, plucked my registration and insurance from the visor, and was waiting for the policeman to appear when there was a knock on the passenger window.  I rolled it down and received a warm greeting from a policeman with a fleshy face under a smoky the bear hat.  I flashed on Boss Hog from the Dukes of Hazzard, but only for only a second.

“Good evening sir.  Officer Jones here.  Do you have any idea why I pulled you over?”

“I’m not sure but I’d guess you may be thinking I exceeded the speed limit.”

“I believe you did.  Yes.  Do you have any idea how fast you were going?”

“Again I’m can’t be sure about this, but I think it had to be less than 80.”

“Well you passed me handily, and I was going the speed limit, which is 70.  You passed me like nothin’ and I was in a very well marked squad car.  That doesn’t happen often.  And to make it worse after you passed me you went on to pass two more cars ahead of me.  Before passing the second car you flashed your headlights at it.  Was there a reason for that?”  He looked at me intently.

“I thought the driver was going too slow to be in the left lane.”

“I see.  Is there a reason you can give me for being in such a hurry?”

“None that are substantial really.  I was caught in a snowstorm in West Virginia yesterday and I’m trying to make up time.  Plus I was listening to music and not paying attention as I should.”

“What were you listening to?”

“Singer named Boz Scaggs.”

“Never heard of him.  Any relation to Ricky Skaggs?”

“I don’t believe so.”

“Can I ask where are you going with such speed?”

I knew he would ask that.  “Florida.”
 
He paused.

“Do you live in Illinois as your plates indicate?”

“Yes I do.”

“This is not the route Illinois folk normally take to Florida.”

“I know officer I just wanted to see this part of the country.”

“Can I have your insurance and registration please?”

“Yes I have it right here.”  I handed it to him.

“I’m going to run this on my computer in the squad car back there. Before I do that can you tell me what I might find in the way of a driving record for… let’s see….David McClure?  That still your correct address?”

“Yes, still my home address.  You’ll find no speeding tickets since I retired three years ago.”

I corrected myself.

“Well you will find one from Tennessee at about this time last year but I swear there was no town and no reduced speed limit where that citation was written.”

“Let me guess.  On your way to Florida then too?”

“Yes.”

“May I ask what type of work you retired from?  Not that it makes any difference understand.”

“I ran a non-profit child welfare agency.  Counseling, foster care, day care.”

“Is that right?  I spent some time in foster care myself.  So’d my sister.  Social worker?”

“Yes.”

I’ve found admitting my profession to be something of a crapshoot.  If a person knows child welfare intimately, as former foster children do, with a perspective I don’t have, it typically goes one of two ways.  Either they see agency employees like those at YSB as people whose decisions ruined their lives, or as people who, by their actions, saved their lives.  And oddly there is little middle ground.

Despite Officer Jones assuring me my occupation made no difference, I figured my getting a ticket depended on which way he felt about the help his family received.  It took him a while to return.  I assumed he was writing me a ticket.  As he walked back to the window I thought I should have told him I was a plumber.

“Mr. McClure I’m going to give you a warning ticket.”  He paused.

“Thank you very much.”

“The warning is this: slow down during your time on our North Carolina roads.  Although I did not clock your speed I venture to say it was well over eighty.”

“Thank you again Officer Jones.”

“You see Mr. McClure when we, and when I say we I’m talking about all us law enforcement officials down here, when we see cars with Illinois plates passing squad cars and flashing their lights aggressively at North Carolinians driving carefully and minding their own business we think to ourselves ‘angry Yankee.’  And we do not hesitate to pull those drivers over and ticket them.  So it is unusual that I am not writing you a ticket.  Do not, I repeat do not, count on the next member of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol considering you merely a distracted uh,…music lover.  To the contrary, another term like music lover, similar beginning and ending, same number of syllables, more often springs to mind when we encounter drivers behaving as you did.”

“I understand completely. Thank you again.”

“Please slow down Mr. McClure.”

“I will.”

“And Mr. McClure I know firsthand how difficult your work was and I appreciate those who do it.  My family was helped greatly by people such as yourself, especially my mother.  In fact we were able to get our family back together because of the risk a social worker was willing to take on her behalf.”

“I’m glad of that.  Thank you again.”

“Enjoy the rest of your trip Mr. McClure.”

I pulled back onto the expressway carefully, set the Buick’s cruise control on 72, and kept in the right lane.  I am now batting .500, one for two, in road trip speeding tickets in two years.  If it was baseball I’d be an MVP.  Not quite as accomplished when it comes to driving.  I have to not get carried away and slow down.  That’s my goal.

I drove through the rest of North Carolina, moving slowly through the darkness, the Buick just another barge floating down a river of headlights and taillights.  I concluded it was best to leave the state.  The closer to Florida the more opportunity I had to slow down, get off the interstate, enjoy the country, and relax knowing I’d meet my wife on time.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Officer Jones.  It’s rare that anyone divulges such personal information during a short encounter.  On first seeing him I thought of a stereotypical southerner, and he called me an “angry Yankee.” Yet we connected in another way.  Such a big country we have, so much geography and tradition to make us think differently of one another, and yet if we look closely we see quickly how much we have in common as Americans.  Why do we forget that so easily?

I made my way around Charlotte, crossed into South Carolina, and started looking for a cheap motel.  I like to get away from big towns.  I almost went too far.  Northern South Carolina, just past Charlotte, gets pretty sparse.  I was looking for billboards guiding me to the ultra cheap lodging.  It was late and I would take off early.  All I needed was a bed and running water.
 
I’ve yet to stop at a Scottish Inn, which advertises $29.99 rooms.  Hard to believe that price, but I should just for curiosity’s sake.  I saw none in that area anyway.  Near Richburg there were a couple of motels.  I chose a modest and unassuming option, the Best Western for $49.95 with “air conditioning and color TV.”   I would hope so.  I mean it is 2016.  I chose the Best Western, though it looked older, over the nearby Super 8 because there were more cars at the Best Western.  Maybe they knew something I didn’t.

At the desk the young man running things gave me a plastic key card, telling me it was a new one, not a recycled version, and should work well.

I drove to the back of the motel and parked by the door with my room number on it.  The door opened onto a narrow room with a single queen bed.  Stretching from the single door in front to the bathroom in the back was brown print carpeting flecked with yellow and red.  The room was cold and dim.  A single heating/cooling unit was under the only window to the left of the door.  When I turned the unit on it blew the drapes away from the window. Heavy gold panels of rubber backed fiberglass cloth billowed and rolled side to side after filling with hot air from a noisy blower.  I realized I needed a drink.

I walked the distance of the motel back to the front desk with the little ice bucket and plastic liner in search of ice.  The boy at the desk informed me I’d walked past it on the way there.

“Where’s breakfast?”

“Right here sir.”

He swept his arm toward two tiny tables and a counter in the cramped room.  On the counter was a coffee set up, a juice machine, and two see through hoppers of cereal. One contained nondescript brown flakes and the other held what looked to be fruit loops.  They seemed faded, the colors having lost their brilliance somehow.  Maybe I could splurge on a restaurant breakfast in the morning.
 
I walked back to my room, got ice on the way, and poured two big fingers of Bushmills over rocks in a plastic glass from the bathroom.  It had been quite a day.  As I sipped whiskey I looked at my laptop and decided against writing.  I thought about the kindle in my backpack and my nearly finished John Irving novel, but thought better of that as well. I got under the covers, turned out the puny light, and finished my drink.  One more night and two days and my solo trip would end.  I went to sleep to the constant hum of the noisy heater, dreaming of the ocean.

Richland, South Carolina
Elevation             280 feet
Latitude               34.51 N
  Longitude             80.98 W

Friday, February 12, 2016

Road Trip 2016 # 7


I was in a little notch, a bump in the border between the two Virginias that can’t be ten miles across and ten miles high containing but two little towns, Rich Creek and Glen Lyn.  Below them, out of the notch in Virginia proper are the towns of Narrows, Petersburg, and Pembroke.  There are no doubt explanations for anomalies like this in border making and map drawing but I sense such stories if not lost are now hard to find.  Maybe a big farmer, or a person with some other ancient and forgotten clout owned land there and insisted on remaining a Virginian.  The border similarly goes around Peters Mountain, to the Northeast up the border line, leaving that patch of steep land in West Virginia when a straight line would have placed it in Virginia.  There are things I wonder about that aren’t worth the time it takes to figure them out.  Those are two.

I stopped at a very general store.  It had gas pumps, Marathon if I remember correctly, that weren’t accepting credit cards.  I went inside and the young woman behind the counter apologized profusely for the pump’s failure.

“They just come yesterday and reprogrammed those pumps and now they aren’t working worth a dang.  We’ve had nothing but trouble since, I’ll tell YOU.“

She said all this slowly but that last line she said slower and louder with a lot of emphasis on the YOU.

“I can either charge an amount on the card that it will take up to, won’t charge you if it’s less, or you can leave the card with me and come back in and we’ll ring it up.  Once again mister I’m really, really sorry.”

“It’s OK.  Keep the card I’m coming back in anyway.”

I smelled food and it smelled good.  I filled up, parked off the gas lane, reentered, paid for my gas, and perused the hot food menu.  There was a middle aged very blonde woman in a black Harley tee shirt working the small kitchen just past the food racks.  It was equipped with deep fryers, a commercial stove, the whole deal.  I could smell chicken frying.  There was a line. When it was my turn I ordered the hot dog with everything, not knowing what everything was.  I like surprises, especially when it comes to hot dogs.

I watched her put it together.  She was fast.  With giant tongs she pulled a dog from a pot of steaming water on the stove.  She slid it into in a skinny warm white bread bun from the oven below.  “Everything” at the gas station/general store/restaurant in the Virginia notch, in terms of hot dogs, went like this: on one side of the wiener a line of yellow mustard, and on the other side a much thicker load of what looked like mayonnaise.

 ‘Jesus Christ’ I thought, ‘that’s way too much mayo.’

In the middle of those two lines she spread a nice amount of chopped raw onion, and to top it all off a small ladle full of thick and meaty no beans chili.  She wrapped it in waxed paper and put it in my outstretched hand.  It was hot. She looked at me and gave me a big smile.

“There you go sugar.”  Hot food, a smile, and a flirty address all in one motion.  I blushed. God I love the South.

That thick white line on the hot dog was not mayo at all but the most pulverized and mushy cole slaw I had ever eaten.  In combination with the chili, mustard and onion it was absolutely delicious, sweet and tangy all at once.  The wiener had not only flavor but snap.  The snappy dog combined with creamy slaw and smooth chili felt good in my mouth.  I chewed it slowly.   It hit the spot.   If it wasn’t so far away I’d go back today for lunch.

I figured out why the little store was so crowded.  It was Power Ball drawing day and the jackpot was something astronomical like a half a billion dollars.  That and they sold discount cigarettes.  It was Virginia after all.  As I waited in line to pay for my hot dog I pondered whether to buy a ticket.  The odds were ridiculously slim.  Like getting struck by lightning twice I’d heard.  In the end I paid for the hot dog and a $2 quick pick ticket.  The skinny woman ahead of me gave the cashier a handful of pre-selected power ball orders.  With it she put a loaf of bread and a pack of cigarettes on the counter with a coupon, three tens, a bunch of ones, and a whole load of coins.
    
The cashier printed off the power ball tickets, rang it all up, counted the money carefully and announced

“You’re $2.89 cents short.”

She looked frazzled.  I thought of paying the balance but heck, it was mostly cigarettes and gambling.

“If I put back the bread will that work?”  She was keeping the cigarettes and putting back the bread.   That did it.

I followed her out.  A man was sitting on a picnic table waiting for her.  She handed him the cigarettes and sat across from him.  They both lit up.

“You mind if I take the other end of the table here folks?”

“Go right ahead,” the man said.  “Nice day int nit?  Cain’t get no worse than yesterday though.”

“We couldn’t get out at all yesterday.  Thought we’d go crazy in that apartment,” the woman chimed in.

“Yeah I drove through West Virginia yesterday in that snowstorm.  Wasn’t any fun.”

“You driving that car with the Illinois plates?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah you look like you been through some stuff all right.”

I looked back at the Buick parked a few spaces behind us.  Normally a light green, it was absolutely white with salt.  I had to get it washed.
 
We were overlooking a little valley.  It was still cold but the sun felt good.

“We just gotta win that powerball,” the woman said to no one in particular, or both of us.  To me she said

 “Did you get a ticket?”

“Yeah I got one.”

“One?  We got as many as we can afford.  We got the kids’ birthdays, our anniversary, all the lucky numbers in there.  We need that money bad.”

“How many kids do you have?”

“Four,” the man answered.  “Two of hers from before and two of ours.  Her first husband don’t help none.  We really do need that money.”

We talked a while longer.  They talked about each other, and their kids, but mentioned no one else.  I got the impression that besides themselves they didn’t have a lot of people in their lives. Maybe they have all or more than they need.  I hope so.  I know I shouldn’t but I worry about those families.

They got up to leave, we said our good-byes, and they walked over to a big old Chrysler New Yorker, the year the New Yorkers had the straight up rear window and the big square side panels.  The windshield was cracked clear across and the vinyl dash was faded almost white.  A black garbage bag served as one of the rear side windows.

“Good luck on that Powerball,” I said, just knowing they wouldn’t win.

“Good luck to you too,” the woman said.  “Hey maybe we’ll both win.”

Two winners in line at the same time at the same store?  It was hopeless.  No it wasn’t.  I’m wrong.  She had hope.  Maybe that’s what the lottery is really about.  But it’s a rigged game.  They prey on our hope, faint for some, desperate for others.

I got the Buick back on the road, route 460, and promptly drove back into West Virginia.  I was following a two lane highway southeast parallel to the border.  As I drove I thought about the trip so far.  I was behind schedule.

I loved to think I didn’t have a schedule, but in the end I did, loose as it admittedly was.  I was to meet my wife at her brother’s house in Tampa sometime Friday, and Saturday travel with them to Sarasota where we would meet up with her older sister, the bunch of them,  each with their spouses, and take off together for the Keys.  It was Wednesday.   I had spent the better part of two days in West Virginia.  At some point I was going to have to zoom.  Make up time.  I had places to go, people to see, and things to do down the road.  As much as I hated to admit it, I was going to have to get on the interstate and get myself south more quickly than I’d bargained for.
 
Virginia seemed as good a state as any to zoom through.  Those eastern states with the Atlantic on one side are bigger by the ocean and skinnier in the hills.  Virginia narrows down pretty well as it stretches west.  By doing a little reconnoitering on my smart phone I figured I could be in Mt. Airy North Carolina for dinner.  So that’s what I did.  When I hit Interstate 77 I turned south, put the Buick on cruise control, got out the CD’s and kicked back so to speak.

I fished out the Beatles White Album.  It came out in 1968 but I listened to it most in Manchester Hall at ISU in the fall of 1969.  A long haired blonde kid from Tinley Park played it over and over two doors down.  He knew everything about the Beatles, or pretended to, and talked about them incessantly.  I just wanted to hear the songs.  I ended up buying my own album.  I thought I’d worn the grooves out on that double vinyl album in college but when I dug it out of the attic, after getting a turntable for the shack, it sounded amazingly good.

I put the first disc of the Beatles White Album in the CD player.  There’s some filler on that album.  You have to wonder why they included the song “Rocky Raccoon”, though I love it and know every word.  Same for “Bungalow Bill.”  But at the same times there are gems.  I listened to it all twice, turning it up loud on the best cuts.  It’s good traveling music. 

I cranked up “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” so loud I had to open the windows to protect my ears. Like other George Harrison songs it wasn’t the lyrics but the guitar licks that I was intent on hearing.  The story on the white album was that the Beatles wrote most of the songs while they were in Risikesh, India studying transcendental meditation.  George Harrison, who had been primarily learning and playing sitar in India, brought only an acoustic guitar on the trip, and thankfully picked it back up.  He wrote WMGGW on it originally.  It was later recorded in England.  When Harrison tried to recreate what he’d written acoustically on electric guitar he couldn’t get the sound he wanted.  Rather than abandon the tune he brought Eric Clapton into the studio to play that terrific guitar part in the middle.  I didn’t know that for a long time. The blonde kid never told me that.  It may be the best guitar playing on the album, no offense to the Beatles.

Virginia was a snap.  I drove from Rocky Gap to Lambsburg, from the West Virginia border to the North Carolina line, in just under an hour.  Somewhere in there, near Bland, I crossed the Appalachian Trail with little fanfare.  It is beautiful country but viewing it at 75 miles an hour plus detracts from the experience.  All the hills and valleys are made tame by the engineers who build the highway.  No sudden turns, nothing unpredictable, hardly ever a let up in the pace.  Interstate highway travel is made for speed and that’s what you get.  Try as I might it got monotonous.  I listened more than looked.  I zoned out.  Sorry Virginia.  There’s always a next time.

The next song that made the volume increase was “Blackbird.”  I get sentimental when I hear that song A sixteen year old boy I once knew had just learned this song, worked so hard and long to do so, only to die unexpectedly and tragically soon after.  Songs and people and times in our lives get all wound up together.  Music from long ago can evoke emotion that feels like yesterday.  That’s the way it is with me Blackbird, with its haunting lyrics and simple but beautiful acoustic guitar.  The essence of that song is how I want to remember both that boy and the music of Lennon and McCartney.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to be free
              
Mount Airy North Carolina is farther from Interstate 77 than they would lead you to believe.  You go quite a ways, through a little town called Toast, where I washed the Buick, and then you’re there.  Commerce steadily picks up the closer you get to Mt. Airy.  You soon realize that Mt. Airy is the mythical town of Mayberry, site of the Andy Griffith show.  I wanted to stop there just because I remembered hearing Andy talk about Mt. Airy on the show.  I thought there might be a connection.  There is more than a connection.  Mt. Airy has wholly embraced the identity, frozen in black and white between the years of 1960-1968, of Mayberry.  There may be an actual Mt. Airy there somewhere, but what you see is the town of Aunt Bee and Gomer Pyle, Floyd the daffy barber and Ernest T. Bass, and yes Barney Fife the epitome of small town self importance, his boss Sheriff Andy, and of course Opie.



Somewhere a real town with its own past and present beyond a TV show exists.  Mt. Airy has 10,000 people and a history.  Mt. Airy is the former home of Chang and Eng Butler, famous Siamese twins joined at the chest. They were buried together in the Baptist cemetery not far out of town in 1874.  Each year Mt. Airy also hosts the Mt. Airy fiddler’s Convention which features bluegrass and old time music in the local “Round Peak” style.

But by and large the community is one big rerun of The Andy Griffith show.  The Andy Griffith museum draws 200 people a day.  There is a modern Andy Griffith theater with bronze full size statues of Andy and Opie (above).  The annual five day Mayberry Festival in late September, now in its 27th year, brings an estimated 250,000 attendees and brings $5 million to the local economy.  60’s Ford Galaxie squad cars sit outside the old police station.  Floyd’s Barber Shop is still there.  You can drive by Aunt Bee’s house. At another location you can eat at Aunt Bee’s Barbeque.  I was hungry, and I always liked Aunt Bee because she reminded me of old women in my family, but I remember her for her pies.  In no show do I recall Aunt Bee smoking a whole hog with hickory off the back porch.

Instead I went to Little Richard’s Barbeque by the mall at the edge of town.  It’s not the only Little Richard’s BBQ in North Carolina but it had four stars on Yelp and Aunt Bee’s had one.  I’m all for Aunt Bee but I was going for the flavor.

Little Richard’s Barbeque was underwhelming.  Why go into detail about uninteresting food?  I may have had my last hush puppy there.  It wasn’t all that warm.  Can someone tell me the difference between a lukewarm hush puppy and fried dough?  A down on his luck nearly starving former client from a failed adoption  once shared fried dough with me he’d made in a hot pot in a cheap hotel.  I got him out of there, bought him a good meal, and promised myself never to again eat flour and sugar cooked in hot oil again.  So can you tell me why we’re eating hush puppies?  OK, maybe Little Richard had a bad batch.
 

I got back on 77 South as afternoon was ending and it crossed my mind that I could zoom through North Carolina the way I did Virginia.  I got back on and decided to push it.  That I did.  As night began to fall the Buick and I were still on the road.  

Friday, February 5, 2016

Road Trip 2016 # 6

Unlike my wife who shuts hotel blinds and curtains tightly to ward off the morning light, I leave the window uncovered when I’m alone and let the light wake me up early.   When I woke up in Weston it had stopped snowing.  The sky was bright but still cloudy.  I packed up my few things and went down to the lobby.  Breakfast was on.

It’s amazing how good those relatively untended hotel breakfasts can be.  This spread had not only make your own waffles but hot biscuits and a tub of sausage gravy.  I don’t generally order biscuits and gravy in a restaurant, but when it’s right in front of you, when you can feel the heat coming off the gravy and the little plastic tongs are inches from the biscuits, it’s sends a powerful message to that part of my brain that loves food.  I took two biscuits apart, making four round wheels of tan wonderful on a Styrofoam plate, and smothered them with thick sausage gravy.  It steamed, and carried a delicious smell up to my nose.  Life can be good early in the morning on the road.   I put the plate down at an empty table and surveyed the rest of the buffet.  To appease the muted, barely perceptible practical part of my brain that cried out for healthy eating I filled a bowl with fresh cut melon, got a couple of hard boiled eggs, grabbed two cartons of white milk and a black coffee.

TV is so prevalent everywhere you go in America.  I was one of three persons in the dining area and the other two had their eyes glued to Good Morning America.  I had purposefully not turned the TV on in my rooms on the way down to make my escape from home more complete.  But in nearly every public space I entered, TV was there, shooting bright images across the room, often with both subtitles and loud audio.  I never watch morning TV.  I was amazed at how happy the announcers appeared.  They were absolutely gleeful in contrast to the morning breakfast eaters at the Holiday Inn Express in Weston.  My two fellow travelers looked absolutely glum.  But then they were mostly likely working.  I forget about work sometimes.

“Excuse me, but I came in last night in the dark.  Where do you suppose you get the road to Elkins from here?”

I said this to one or both of them, hoping to break either’s TV induced trance.  The dressed up woman on my right responded.  The young guy on my right just stared at the screen and slowly ate one spoonful of instant oatmeal after another.

“You go down to the main road and turn left.  I came up past Elkins last night.”

“Nasty drive in the snow?”

“Yeah, but the road is fairly flat. “

“What’s the weather look like today?”

“They say that storm is past us.  Cold though.  7 degrees right now.”

That was apparently all the human contact she could handle.  Her eyes went back to the TV and stayed there.  Donald Trump was on the screen making a pouty face.  I went back to my biscuits and gravy, which were surprisingly good.

The road to Elkins, Route 33, was more well travelled and flatter than I was looking for, but the trip went quickly.  Past Elkins in Mill Creek I picked up Route 219 South, a two lane road which put me on the edge of the Monongahela National Forest in the Allegheny Mountains.  My Rand McNally atlas named the mountains I was near.  On that morning I would pass by Cheat Mountain and Gauley and Yew.  I loved the names.  I loved being off the main road.  I had made it to where I wanted to be.
 
The roads were snow packed in places but the plows had been through to clear them.  And though they salted the pavements heavily, salt stops working effectively, that is melting ice off the road, somewhere around 15 degrees.  I figured it was only a matter of time till it warmed up, the ice started working, and the pavement cleared entirely.  There was no wind and little traffic.  I started feeling like I was the only car out there.  This day had promise.
 
I was following a small river or a big creek in a valley that widened.  As it did little farms with barns began popping up.  Around them were pastures with beef cattle.  As I looked at the cattle dotting the now white grassland the clouds above them, which had been gray for two days, whitened and began to crack apart.  In the cracks between the clouds was a beautiful blue.  The weather was turning.  I rolled down my windows and put my arm out.  I could feel the air warming.  Then the sun came out.

You don’t know how much you miss the sun till you see it after a couple days absence.  I reached for my clip on sunglasses.  Light bounced off the snow in the pastures.  Trees threw shadows on the pavement.  I was in West Virginia on a day that was becoming bright.  That’s what I’d been waiting to experience.  America at full volume.  Country roads on a beautiful day.   Sometimes life is just good.

I’d been saving a CD you likely have not heard of for this moment.  Way back in the shack I’d figured a nice day in the hills of West Virginia was the perfect time to break out the Irish folk music.  I picked up a collection of music at a private party in Chicago by a group called bohola.  Just three Chicago guys playing a handful of instruments:  accordion, fiddle, viola, baritone fiddle, dordan, and a bouzouki of all things.  I slid the little silver disc in the dash and immediately the Buick was filled with the jigs and reels the Irish brought to the states which, along with Scotch and English tunes, became the American Bluegrass music we know today.  God I love it.  I rolled down all the windows to let it out, like bringing it back home.  They played Redican’s jig, the Merry Old Woman jig, John Doherty’s March, Peacock’s Feather, Graf Spey, Rolling in the Hay, Colonel Rodney, Irishman’s Heart to the Ladies.  All the old Irish tunes.  My heart swelled.

I went through Mill Creek and Huttonsville, each little towns with a store or two, usually a Family Dollar and something similar, with a tiny church.  At Monterville I began to climb into the mountains and the flat space for towns thinned out.  There were clusters of small homes cut into the hills.  As I navigated the turns and climbs I could first smell and then see wood smoke coming from chimneys.  Modest little homes, with stacks of wood in the yard, or trailers, flanked by old cars and pickups.  I made it to Mingo, then after a long slow drive Slaty Fork.   Except for a ski facility on Snowshoe Mountain, that looked out of place and seldom used, there was little there but hardwood forest and scattered homes.  Just like those that live there like it I supposed.  I want to go back in the summer.  I want to be there again and feel those hills wrapped around me, the next time green and warm.  Maybe it’s because I grew up a flatland farmer from Central Illinois, but the hollers and hills give me a kind of comfort I rarely feel.   The earth and rock close around you, the sky high and away above.  Like being in the canyons of Starved Rock.

Past Marlinton and Buckeye I encountered Hillsboro, where signs directed visitors to the birthplace of Pearl S. Buck, writer of The Good Earth, the novel set in China which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1932.  It made sense to me, seeing the quiet and beautiful place where she formed her earliest memories and knowing the smooth and simple style that later marked her fiction.
 
The pavement was wet in here and there but the sun and warm air warmed the road even in the shadiest of places.  The turns were banked well and well maintained.  The Buick and I climbed through the switchbacks, then dropped, again and again.  Despite the ups and downs it seemed like we were steadily going higher.  No towns got in our way.  It was beautiful up there.
 

  The Buick and I came upon the unincorporated village of Droop.   Unassuming little place.   Past the buildings is the entrance to a state park marking a civil war battle ground.   A civil war battle way up here on this pretty mountain?  Yes.  A hell of a battle as it turns out.

On November 5 1863 Union General W.W. Averill attacked the Confederate army led by General John Echols at Mill Point (which I passed earlier in the day) driving them to the summit of Droop Mountain, where they were joined by other confederate forces.   Even though the confederates held the high ground, and their artillery guarded the highway, Averill attacked again on the 6th sending dismounted Union cavalry in a frontal assault against them.  After a violent battle the confederates fled, scattering down the mountain in all directions, throwing their weapons behind them.  Echols rallied a few remaining troops but retreated to Virginia, virtually ending confederate resistance in West Virginia.  Confederate dead from the battle are buried in a cemetery in nearby Lewisville, down the road where I was headed.

I drove into the state park for a look around.  If blood had soaked the ground on Droop mountain, and men had lost their lives, you could never tell it today.  Tall trees stood waiting for spring.  Birds landed in them and sang.  It was quiet.  One fateful day in history 153 years ago and the mountain I stood on was marked forever for the violence that took place there.  History can sneak up on you when you’re wandering around America.  I went back to the Buick and drove off.

West Virginia state route 219 stayed pretty as I drove down the valley.  At Lewisburg I almost stopped at the heavily advertised Jack Links Beef Jerky Outlet Store but carried on through Falling Spring, Frankford, and Maxwelton.   Caldwell, Pickaway, Union and Lindside greeted me warmly as well but I pressed on.  And then, West Virginia ran out.  A sign told me Virginia was under the Buick’s wheels.  I hadn’t seen it coming.  I pulled into a gas station to get my bearings.  West Virginia had ended so abruptly.  Just where the hell was I anyway?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Road Trip 2016 # 5


When I pushed through the door of Amy’s Candlelight Fine Dining and Sports Bar and stepped into the parking lot it was snowing harder than ever.  I got out my scraper and brushed snow from my windows, headlights, tail lights, and off the roof.  I didn’t think it could snow any harder, but it was.  I pulled back onto Route 2 and headed South once again.  Only this time slower.

Ruts were still visible in the right lane, but the left lane and the shoulder was impossible to see.  Luckily I was able to pull out as a truck passed, so I could keep its tail lights in sight.  There would be no passing on my way to Parkersburg. 

How do they measure visibility anyway?  When the weather man says “visibility is down to a quarter mile in some places” how do they know that really?  Is there a guy set up in a flat field somewhere with flags every hundred yards in front of him, like a golf driving range?  Does he sit there and wait for calls from Tom Skilling and other weathermen on his cell?  How would that go?

“Frank, how’s the visibility out there?”

“Pretty damned good Tom.  I can see clear across the road and beyond.  I’d call it unlimited if I were you.”

Or conversely, “the fog’s rolling in and I can’t see but a hundred yards.”

Then there’s the ultimate “Jesus Christ Tom, I can’t see my hand in front of my face.”

Someday when I have nothing else to do I’ll report on how the visibility thing works.  All I know is on that day, I could see the tail lights of the truck in front of me and that was about it.  The Ohio River was on my right, always within 50 to a hundred yards, and I could see it all wide and dark.    I had stopped seeing the hills on my left because of the low clouds, fog, or snow.  I kept those red lights about the same distance away all the time, so that if he stopped I could stop.  

Occasionally, something huge would loom out of the whiteness, a giant smokestack, a vast building, a mammoth pile of material.  That stretch of the Ohio River Valley is home to a number of industrial sites, power plants, coal loading operations, God knows what.   The names on the signs, when I could read the signs, told me little or nothing of what they actually were.   By one plant entrance fronting a jungle of gray concrete buildings, smoking chimneys, railroad cars and giant yellow loaders was a sign with a snazzy logo proclaiming it to be “Blue Racer.” 

I crept through Paden City and then Sisterville.  I’m sorry but I can’t tell you much about either.  Friendly was next, right before Ben’s Run, then Raven Rock and St. Mary’s.  Just me, the Buick, and the truck ahead of me, slow and steady.  I almost pulled over in Ben’s Run.  Snow was hitting the Buick as if kids were pelting it with snowballs.  Sheets of snow, waves of snow.  It was incredible.  At least the wind wasn’t blowing.  I was driving through a carpet of snow but there were no drifts.

At about St. Mary’s, a little town with but a few businesses, I realized how cramped up I was.  I had been hunched over the steering wheel, peering forward, my eyes close to the windshield, for hours it seemed.  If I thought I could tail another truck I would have pulled over.  But as far as I knew it was just he and I on the road.  I couldn’t see far behind me and nothing passed me.  I was tired, but more than that I was stiff.  This was not the carefree drive through West Virginia I had planned.

Then I remembered my yoga class.  I straightened up.  I consciously pressed my sitting bones down on the seat while extending my head and neck as far as I could toward the roof of the car.  I thought about stacking my vertebrae one on top of the other and making a very straight line from my ass through the top of my head.  It felt good.  On top of that I decided to play a CD.  I’d forgotten all about the music I had at my fingertips in that brown paper bag.

I needed a wakeup call, so I reached out to Steely Dan for help.  There’s nothing like loud but complex rock and roll to brighten your day.  I have four Steely Dan albums, two early ones on vinyl and two on CD.  I put in Countdown to Ecstasy and turned up the volume.  If it wasn’t snowing so damned hard I would have rolled down all the windows.  That album starts out with the hard driving beat and great drums of a song called “Bodhisatva.” 

One of the nice things about Steely Dan is you don’t have to ponder the lyrics.  Donald Fagen would at times admit they’re not terribly meaningful.  Sometimes you get a few poignant lines, maybe a whole song’s worth, but mostly it’s the music.  The lyrics are catchy, I know them all, but they are largely nonsense.  I began belting them out.

              Bodhisattva

Would you take me by the hand

              Bodhisattva

Would you take me by the hand

              Can you show me

              The shine of your Japan

              The sparkle of your China

Can you show me

Bodhisattva

Bodhisattva

I’m gonna sell my house in town

 

When the lyrics faded and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter launched into that long and terrific guitar riff, my mood was lifted.  You have to work through these things on a solo road trip.  I found myself feeling good, speeding up, and gaining on my guide truck.  I had to slow down.  It was not the day I’d imagined on the back roads of West Virginia but it still wasn’t bad.

Near Belmont something huge loomed ahead of me, above the Buick, that literally made me duck my head.  The biggest smokestack yet, as wide as it was tall it seemed, rose out of the snow and fog.  The white smoke or vapor coming out of it lazed upwards and formed a giant cloud.  It was like that giant alien spacecraft in the movie Independence Day.  It seemed to fill the whole sky.  A sign on the chain link fence surrounding that plant proclaimed it “First Energy Mondova.”  Whatever they’re doing in that part of the river valley, I say it no longer qualifies as an environmental paradise.   I’m not sure I’d eat many fish out of that stretch of the Ohio River.

Once past Waverly I made it to Parkersburg and turned left onto Route 50 towards Clarksburg.  Even though I was going east the road stayed fairly flat.  I was tempted to stop but my trucker had made the same left.  If he can keep going, I thought, so can I.  The snow may have let up some. Then again maybe not.  I went through Ellenboro, Greenwood, and Smithburg.  You couldn’t see the sun, but the afternoon was getting on and the clouds were getting brighter in the West.  I told myself, and assured the Buick, that I sure as hell wasn’t going to drive in the dark on that day.  I snuck a peek at the atlas.  If I could make it to Weston I’d be happy.

I moved on to Steely Dan’s Aja album, maybe their best.  Jeff Baxter had left the band and Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were doing all the writing in 1977.  Tim Schmit from the just broken up Eagles played bass and sang backup vocals.  I couldn’t pick a favorite among those seven songs if I had to.  “Peg” comes the closest I guess.  Produced flawlessly, it has in addition to guitars and percussion an electric piano, a synthesizer called a lyricon, and a clavinet.  The lyrics mean nothing without the music and very little with it.  But together it’s a sweet crisp song.  I’m happy to report it goes perfectly with snow and a long drive.  It’s a song, and a whole album, that keeps you going.

              I got your pin shot

              I keep it with your letter

              Done up in blueprint blue

              It sure looks good on you

             And when you smile for the camera

              I know I love you better

              Peg

              It will come back to you…

              It’s your favorite foreign movie.

 

I turned south onto Route 19 in Clarksburg but my truck, the Buick’s symbiotic pal, turned north.  It had been a great run, but it was over.  The snow was slowing down and the temperature was dropping.  The flakes were smaller.   It looked like the snow plows were beginning to get ahead of the storm down here.  I passed through Goodhope and Jane Lew, ignoring gas stations and bathrooms, to make it to Weston before dark.   I hadn’t come that far since Columbus Ohio but the day turned out to be a long one. 

 

It’s a good feeling when the road sign marking your destination becomes clear in the distance.  I immediately looked for motels, spotting a Holiday Inn Express first.  A little pricey for my taste normally, I turned in immediately and got their last room.   I parked the Buick, gave it a little pat for a hard days work, grabbed my backpack and went inside, not asking about nearby restaurants.  All I wanted was to go to bed.


Weston, West Virginia

Altitude              1,026 feet

Latitude              39.04

Longitude           -80.47