When I set out for West Virginia this past June, I imagined random groups of top-notch musicians on every streetcorner–maybe settin’ on bales of hay–tuning their fiddles, banjos and mandolins and just waiting for me to show up so they could launch into some insanely great version of “Highway of Sorrow” or “Footprints in the Snow.” I pictured striking up conversations with such folks. I pictured making friends.
One day soon after landing in Spencer, a town of 7000 in the northwest part of the state, I read in the local paper of a covered-dish potluck at the nearby Community Center.
That Friday night, I made a batch of deviled eggs, mentally reprised some of my best stories, and set out.
Otto turned out to be about 25 winding—actually, that’s redundant; every road in West Virginia is winding—miles outside of town. The hollers were blanketed in wildflowers and overhung with tall, old-growth trees. When I arrived at the potluck, there was an intriguing casserole of sliced hot dogs and cream of mushroom soup cloaked with a thick layer of cornbread. There was a dessert that combined graham crackers, Cool Whip, strawberry jello, sour cream, strawberry pie filling and canned walnuts.
There were twenty or thirty people who managed to be simultaneously totally accommodating and totally, TOTALLY uninterested. I liked them tremendously for this.
At first, I was afraid maybe my black jeans (and muscle shirt, and Pumas, and belt) had marked me out as Wiccan. But then I realized I’d made the exact same mistake people make when they watch TV and form the stereotypical opinion that every Los Angeleno spends his or her life being randomly killed by landslides, earthquakes, freeway pileups, snipers, and rioting minorities. These folks didn’t need another friend. They had friends. They had families, by whom they were surrounded. They weren’t remotely fired up to have an existentially tormented, spiritually conflicted, temporarily homeless person in their midst.
Happily some other people were, and is so often the case, they were the clean and sober drunks, junkies, potheads, crackheads, and meth freaks in town. One such character introduced himself to me on the steps of a local church as Dane. “Dane?” I asked. “No, Dane.” “You mean Dane? D-A-N-E?” “No, DANE.” “Oh, Dean,” the light finally dawned.
Dean held forth on the deleterious effects of home-brewed corn liquor on the human esophagus, and Ernest told the story of how someone had once snitched on his moonshining friends back in Tennessee and they’d drawn lots to see who’d shoot the guy. I took in the 4th of July parade (pronounced PAY-rade). I ate biscuits, quote unquote, a local delicacy which consisted of two thick globs of doughy bread, split, with about 10 slices of bacon in the middle. I attended the Mountain State Arts and Crafts Fair, watched a metal forger for awhile, and bought a very cool 11-dollar key chain made from a spiraled-out piece of twisted metal which I promptly took off, threaded through a piece of leather cord, and made into a necklace.
But mostly I hung out with LaDean and Annie. I loved these gals. They toted around their own personal giant thermoses of coffee, they smoked like fiends (LaDean rolled her own, from tobacco bought in bulk from the smoke and beer shop), and their purses were stocked with fistfuls of Hershey’s Kisses and Smarties. One night we decided to take a field trip to Parkersburg. Annie drove, LaDean rode shotgun, and I sat in the back so as to be able open both windows and, it was to be hoped, avoid asphyxiation.
LaDean immediately pulled out a purple plastic lighter, torched up, and passed around a Tupperware container of candy. Annie took a meditative drag on her Marlboro Light 100 and mused, “We could go Route 14, but that damn road’s crookeder ‘n a dog’s hind leg.”
With Annie as tour guide, we went to Fort Boreman, a Civil War site overlooking a stunning view of the Little Kanawha and Ohio Rivers, a couple of charming bridges, and Blennerhassett Island. We toured Parkersburg’s historical section with its Victorian and Queen Anne mansions. We wondered if Starbucks was open—Spencer had no decent coffeehouse of any kind—but it was past 9 and everything was closed.
I’d planned on staying in Appalachia a couple of months, maybe even three. But I’d been on the road, specifically in small, somewhat remote towns, since January. I could totally get behind shopping at Dollar General and Wal-Mart. I didn’t mind driving to the Spencer Library every day to check my e-mail.
Living in a cabin with the shower in the bedroom, a small snake problem, and the only shelf space for my makeup above the kitchen sink didn’t faze me. What did was that I began to feel that if I stayed much longer, I wouldn’t be “on pilgrimage anymore,” I’d be hiding out. I’d gone on the road partly as a money-saving measure, and partly because I’d felt called to an extended period of solitude and silence.
But I’d had my silence, and I began to realize it was time to to take what I’d learned or absorbed or pratfallen over and return to the world. In one way I hated leaving “so soon,” and in another, I was itching to head home.
Our goodbye get-together convened at the Spencer MacDonald’s. Annie and Linda, a big-hearted, big-voiced Texas gal who would have given Ann Richards a run for her money, drove over the 25 miles from Ripley. I picked up LaDean. We sat in a corner booth, drinking coffees and Diet Cokes, and I’m still not sure how it happened, but somehow we ended up taking 15 or 20 minutes apiece and telling–we’d already shared bits and pieces of our stories–what it was like when we drank, and how we got sober. I don’t want to violate anyone’s privacy but I think I can safely say there were enough booze-related accidents and injuries, enough across-state-lines statutory rapes, marriages, and divorces, enough broken limbs, broken promises, and broken hearts so that all four of us felt right at home. And there were also enough hard-won family truces, reparations made, and tiny glints of hope to give me, for one, reason to persevere one more day.
LaDean presented each of us with a small talismanic rock she’d hand-painted with various shades of nail polish, sanded down, and glazed. The three of them gave me a beautiful card signed with love and good wishes.
Afterwards, we went outside and sat on the curb in the shade so the gals could smoke. Part of the sadness of travel is the sense of the alternate lives we could have lived, the day-to-day relationships we could have formed, the community in which we could have participated and that, because we live in real time and real space and are going to die at the end, we are never, this side, going to be able to. But along with that goes the sense that the people whom we do meet this side are fellow travelers; that in some other realm we have been ordained to know and to be sustained, however fleetingly, by each other’s faces and voices and light.
Finally, there was nothing left to do but nose little pebbles and squashed-out cigarette butts around on the MacDonald’s parking lot asphalt with the toes of our shoes.
“I wish you could stay.”
“We loved having you here.”
“I loved being here.”
“God sent you to us,” Annie said.
I looked out over the smoked-blue hills of West Virginia. And even though I was the one poised to start a 2500-mile drive the next day–I was pretty sure God had sent them to me.