This past January, my first ex-wife and I observed our 50th wedding anniversary, but also 47 years of divorce. Between that rupture and last year, we hadn’t talked or seen each other.
But about a year ago, we reconnected and agreed to drive with each other to see our son in Austin, Texas. That trip proved so agreeable, that she suggested a longer trip. I offered that we drive to Maine to visit our college friends, Sandro and Mu, who live in Sullivan, Maine, north of Mount Desert Island. And so, we made plans.
When I was young, I thought nothing of driving six- or seven-hundred miles in a day. But my old bones cannot take such treatment anymore, and so we decided not to drive more than two hundred miles in a go. That limit was tested several times during the trip.
We figured it would take about six days to make the 1200 mile drive.
“What do you want to do when we go?” I asked.
“I’ve got three things: I want to eat lobster,” she said. “And I want to visit Mount Desert Island; and I’d like to see West Virginia. Is that on the way?”
“It can be.” Before Anne got here, I made an itinerary that would take us through West Virginia. Originally, I had thought to drive the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, but I rejiggered the route. It added some miles to the trip, but I wanted to show her the state; I love West Virginia, although maybe for the wrong reasons. I love the decay and the dreariness of those parts I knew best — coal country, with its tipples and meth labs, the nearly empty towns of old brick and service stations.
And so, the departure date was set and on Wednesday, Oct. 9, we packed up Anne’s car — which she has named Evelyn Angelina Buick — and sidled onto the BRP and headed north.
Not everyone names their cars. When Anne and I were married, four decades ago, we owned a maroon Chevrolet the size of an aircraft carrier that I named Vanessa Redgrape, for a cluster of polyethylene grapes hanging from the back window. Our friend, Hank, owned a green VW beetle that he named Gigi, or G.G., for “Green Gonad.” If you don’t own a dog or cat, you can always pet your automobile.
Evie, as Anne nicknamed the car, is a 2014 Buick Verano the vaguely silver color of pewter that Anne calls “car colored.” Half the cars on the road these days are “car colored.”
It is a cyborg of a car. It screams at you if you drift out of lane; it beeps if you are backing into someone; it tells you your gas mileage by the second; it has a key that folds up like a switchblade; and a camera in the rear bumper so you can see front and back at the same time. It also has cruise control, which is, for me and my right foot, a miracle.
I don’t think we could have made the trip if we were driving my own Kia Forte, which is admittedly a very well made car, but a very badly designed one, and with an engine in it with just enough power to start it moving forward on a flat surface. My legs and feet would have cramped up within a few hours of starting out. We took her car.
Almost immediately as we started the fog closed in, and we kept driving in and out of obscurity, up and down the mountains and looping around the tight corners. About 20 miles on, at Craggy Gardens, where we stopped, we were above the mist and the view was pure Caspar David Friedrich, with the sun glaring in patches off the clouds underneath us, as bright as fluorescent lights. To the south, fog filled the valleys, but to the north it was uninterrupted whiteness, with two or three peaks poking through like islands in the sea. It was very like flying above the clouds.
Normally, from the turnout at Craggy Gardens, you can look to the southeast, back toward the towns of Montreat and Black Mountain and see civilization: houses, warehouses, highways and fast-food chicken franchises. But with the white blanket, that was all hidden, and you could have the fresh look one imagines early settlers had on utter wilderness.
At Altapass, we made the obligatory stop at the orchards. It was too late in the season for many apples in the store, but Anne found a jar of preserves she wanted to take to Mu in Maine.
We continued north and exited the BRP in Ashe County. I used to live there, many decades ago, in a house on a bluff above the South Fork of the New River. A back porch cantilevered out over the hillside drop, about 200 feet down to the water and gave a similar sense of flying. We took a side trip to Obids to see the old house. Time and the river have both flowed on.
We drove up the drive to the old house, which is now occupied by a family that, while I didn’t see any cars up on cinderblocks, managed to give that impression anyway.
Beside that, it had all changed. It used to be that the land around the house was all grass. We could see the hills on the other side of the river and Mount Jefferson to the north. But now, four decades later, trees have all grown up around the house and the view is blocked in all directions. The house was closed in, but so, I felt, was I.
I had been feeling deeply nostalgic. But I also realized that however much I might like to travel back to the places of my younger days, I would also need to be able to travel in time as well as in space.
We drove into West Jefferson for lunch and found the town busier and healthier than it was back then. Stores were open rather than storefronts with rent signs in them. When my late wife Carole and I lived there, there were two restaurants in the whole county — a breakfast cafe and a pizzeria. Now, the joint is jumpin’ with nice places. We had barbecue for lunch and moved on north, through Galax, Va., and into Hillsville, where we found a motel and, tired from the road, a Chinese buffet across the road.
“Look out, there’s something in the road!”
“I see it.” A lump in the middle of our lane. I slowed, it began to move.
We got up close to it and it began to waddle across the road. It was a badger. I’d never seen one in the “wild” before.
The roads in West Virginia are notoriously bad, with patches and potholes. But things may be changing. As we drive up along U.S. 219, miles and miles have been resurfaced with rubberized macadam. It’s like magic. All road noise quiets down and the ride is perfectly smooth. As we drove along, I kept looking for more of it and was tickled every time we found another few miles of the stuff.
Driving has been fun for me, but not so much for my passenger. Western West Virginia is all Ridge and Valley Province, and the road constantly climbs up the mountains and down the far side, and to do so they are twisty. More than twisty, they are carefully banked, so that speeding downhill, it’s like the 24 hours of Le Mans. I felt like a Grand Prix driver, banking hard to the right or left as we rounded the hairpins. But it just made Anne carsick. We pulled off the road a few times so she could calm her belly.
Despite that, she loved the countryside, although I was disappointed. I had never been to this part of the state before and it turned out to be notably devoid of coal tipples. Instead, it was rolling farmland interrupted by breadloaf mountains.
The early morning gave us more low-lying fog dropped into the hollows and coves and for about 10 miles, the ridge to our east was lined with wind turbines. They were a constant presence on the horizon.
We spent the night at Elkins, WV, home of Davis Elkins College, which by the look of it serves as the safety school for those whose first choice was Elon College.
Elkins did not impress us. We took the concierge’s recommendation for dinner and went to Maggie CG’s. Walked a few blocks to get there. The place was cavernous and dark, and we stood at the hostess podium for about 5 minutes and not a peep from anywhere in the joint. I grabbed a couple of menus from behind the podium and we sat down. Nothing. One other couple was eating already at one table and a very large man was seated by the front door, obviously waiting for something. But nothing. Not a sound, not a person, not a waiter, not a hostess. We sat at our table for another 5 or 10 minutes and decided to leave.
Went across the street to Beander’s, which was clearly the college dive of Elkins and a hot spot for college students, who, by definition, tend to be loud and rowdy. No hostess again. We again grabbed menus and picked a table. Eventually a waitress came by. Menu was notably unimaginative, but the food was adequate.
It’s been a long day. We drove 305 miles. Didn’t mean to. Left Elkin at 8:30 a.m. and took U.S. 219 north into Maryland, past a town called Accident. (Internet says people who live in Accident, Md., are known as “Accidentals.”) Picked up I-68 to Cumberland and U.S. 220 north to the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Bedford. Took that to I-81 at the notorious Carlisle, home of the infamous Indian boarding school. The plan was to get a hotel in Harrisburg. We stopped and discovered there were no rooms in the whole town. A giant car show had them all booked.
So, we kept going on I-81 till we got to Frackville and got a room at the Holiday Inn Express. I don’t like Holiday Inn, but after 300 miles and traffic you wouldn’t believe, we had to take what we could get.
Anne really seemed to enjoy the countryside. Lots of long low mountain ridges with barns and silos, with cows and cornfields. It looked like something out of a calendar photo. Right from Central Casting.
The Turnpike is a toll road and when we got off in Carlisle, the tariff was $12.45. A bit more than I had expected. I paid the man in dollar coins. I don’t know if he gets to see many of those.
Dinner tonight at Cracker Barrel. Again: All that was available.
Tomorrow the plan is to drive up the Delaware Water Gap and maybe get to Bear Mountain on the Hudson River.
To be continued
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