I changed my oil in a thunderstorm saturday night, belatedly draining the nasty dinosaur-derived engine pollutant that most people use in their cars because they just can't grasp the basic concept of "pay now or pay later." As the heavy storm clouds rolled in, I fed three quarts of fresh synthetic into my valve cover, feeling the hard spats of the coming rain, then jogged back into the house as the rain broke, feeling smug at having completed all the items on my weekend "to do:" list in a single day. I lolled around the house, watched a DVD, and was blissfully asleep by ten.
I beat the clock sunday morning, waking a full hour before the five a.m. time I'd set, staggered into the bathroom, showered, attended to morning things, then staggered back out for tea. By a quarter after five, I was at the wheel of the greenbean car with the radio playing the lyric sound of a bluegrass rendition of "City of New Orleans," a song dear to my dad and a good starting point for a whirlwind trip into West Virginia. I paused at my ATM, picked up three crisp twenties, then trundled onward and outward, picked up the northbound ramp to I-95, and accelerated to as substantial a fraction of lightspeed as I was likely to attain in a tiny-engined economy car.
The wind was wild even in my neck of the woods, and my lightweight car was pitched around like a low-flying kite as I buzzed down the highway. I flew through the monotonous, insanely overbuilt regions of the county on autopilot, listening to belgian pop music on cassettes and feeling all the usual twinges of anxiety that a trip to my tragic cabin provokes--Will it still be standing? Has someone broken in and ransacked the place? Has a tree come down through the power lines again? Is the well pump going to work? Is the roof leaking?
I fret by nature, but having an unreachably distant (with my old car, that was) property always poised on collapse fed the fires like nothing else.
I forcibly took over the administration of the place while my dad was still alive, finding the notice of its impending sale for tax deliquency in his trash can and driving out to Morgan county in my old Citroen to redeem it after the sale. I've kept up the taxes and utilities, letting the phone service lapse, but haven't had the money to do much in the way of maintenance, and every trip I made out there became less of a retreat and more of a "so what's wrong this time?" fact-finding mission.
By the time my VW headed into glorious senility, I'd stopped going up at all, the last visit in 2001 marked by a vicious wasp sting on my upper lip, endless cleaning to remove the residue of the mouse jamborees that begin the second I drive away, and the crowning moment, where I fell off the roof after being chased by paper wasps while trying to re-tar the seams of the roofing over the bathroom--not just fell, in fact, but fell
, sliding over the edge while flailing desperately for a handhold, grabbing (purely out of desperation) the power line and then swinging down and into the side of the house like George of the Jungle.
The place is an endless exasperation in a lot of ways, but it's the last of the family places, the last survivor as people died and houses were sold and every place I had special ties to fell under new ownership, so I cling to it in spite of the logistical disasters that often make trips up there into the opposite
of a vacation, always optimistic that I'll eventually get it under control again and be able to go there with friends and family and enjoy the "nowhereness" of it all.
The trip is 121 miles, 99 of which are highway miles between Laurel and Hancock, and the highway part went smoothly as I got a feel for how to drive my little car at speed. It's oddly reminiscent of my smaller, two-cylinder Citroen, which would cruise at amazingly high speeds for a 602cc car, as long as you never let yourself lose your momentum
. On the trip westward, it was easy--I was literally the only car on the road for most of my trip, with nothing in the rear view mirrors and nothing at the horizon. I zipped along, listening to the books-on-tape version of Cold Sassy Tree
, a book with nice resonances for those of us with Georgia heritage, just zipped along, eating miles and watching the skies opening out and turning three-dimensional as I crested the low mountains past Frederick, Maryland.
I'm always amazed by the variety of landscapes available within a short drive in Maryland, and I think it's probably why I'll never live far from here, content to explore my little state that's like a dollhouse version of the country, excluding only the parts I'm not interested in, like the deserts and the brash, boastful Rockies. I passed Frederick and watched the valleys open up and out, watched the farms spread out and cover the landscape with grass and red barns and the scattered punctuation marks of cattle slowly grazing and looking like the stones in a zen garden. The clouds opened up into stunning, layered paintings, all in shades of blue in the early morning, and I had the amusing thought that the only place in my town where you can still see those sort of skies is in the parking lot of the shopping center where Wallace was gunned down back in '72.
I drove in a pleasant daze, starting to feel a bit tired and hungry, pulling into the town of Hancock around seven. I passed the truck stop, was annoyed to see that even the shredded ruins of the old drive-in theater were gone, headed down the main drag to the Hardees fast food place, and pulled in for an egg sandwich and coffee. The Hardees in Hancock is pretty much the only one I know of anymore, a nearly-global mass extinction event that is, for once, completely justified, but breakfast food is pretty hard to wreck and being there always brings back the memory of my late grandmother, who was convinced that Hardees made the best fish sandwich in the world. I sat in the empty restaurant, quietly eating my breakfast and watching pickup trucks pass by every minute or so.
Back in the eighties, you could still go to a nice restaurant on the main drag that was run by a pair of elderly spinster sisters who'd never been out of the county. The food was decent enough, essentially diner fare, but the place's main appeal was the peculiar art collection assembled by the sisters. Every time there was a fire in town, they'd get pictures of the inferno, often from a number of angles, then make plaques out of the pictures, gluing them to slices of tree trunk and then polyurethaning them until they were entombed like flies in amber, scenes of fiery destruction in aspic. I used to like to sit under one they'd made into a clock, the time passing by over the red and orange tongues of flames consuming the old post office, just chatting with my family and watching the sisters work the counter.
They died in the nineties, one following almost immediately after another, and eventually their restaurant was razed, burned down as a training exercise by the local volunteer fire department, and I can't help but wonder if the sisters were frustrated in their afterlife, wishing for one more plaque to complete the set, one more insanely shiny image of their old place, once and for all combining all the scenes of fiery denouement into a final exclamation point on the long, simple story of their lives. I finished my Hardees meal, disposed of my garbage, and headed off again.
On the bridge over the Potomac, I watched the river overflowing its banks in the railroad sidings on the Maryland side of the river and wondered what it'd be like upstream. The roads between Hancock and Berkeley springs have the demonically-high speed limit of 55, which always shocks me, as the road, though pork-smooth (Senator Byrd does very, very
well by his constituents) is spaghetti-twisty, with lots of steep ascents, precipitous descents, and switchbacks, so I play it safe and go 45, hoping not to be rear-ended by an F150 or battered Mercury Monarch. The scenery there is majestic, so lush and green that I'm in no hurry anyway.
I passed the sprawling facility of US Silica, the immense sand mines that extract the famous Tuscarora sand from the hills there, and as usual, found it scenic and beautiful in spite of myself, the giant circular copper-blue sand-washing pools pretty under their scaffolding. The plant itself is pure cinema, sitting deep in a valley and looking so darkly industrial in a Victorian mode that it brings Brunel instantly to mind--it should be ugly, this gigantic, sooty monstrosity, but it isn't, at least not to me. It's helped by the fact that it sits in the midst of what I sometimes imagine to be the biggest lawn in the whole world, a miles-wide rolling plain of perfectly-manicured grass always marked with the those subtle mower tracks, and yet I've never seen a mower working those acres and acres of turf.
The next way-station is the old town of Berkeley Springs
, a town famed for its ostensibly therapeutic warm springs and visited by luminaries of the last american age. Surprisingly, I've spent little time there, and though it's a lovely place, it's a lovely place that's well-known, and well-patronized, so I prefer to stay off the beaten track, except for the little strip of shops where the 7-11, the dollar store, and the "Whale of a Wash" laundromat stand at the intersection of Uniontown Road. I skipped the usual 7-11 stop and headed back into the hills, past the stone spectacle of Berkeley Castle
, and on towards Great Cacapon.
The road out of Berkeley Springs heads almost straight up for a while, opening out to the Prospect Peak overlook, a stunning view of the valleys below. I almost always stop there, even after all these years, because the immensity of the green valleys and sparkling river below just grabs you, just makes you stop and say, "wow," in spite of yourself. I stopped and tried to take a picture of the greenbean looking out over the valley, where the shadows of an incoming storm looked like the map to fantasyland against the farms and fields below.
The wind picked up and I drove off, gripping the wheel tightly as I drove along the section of the road I always think of as being like a Roadrunner cartoon, where the edge of the road has a low barrier, then a sheer cliff for hundreds of feet. In a bigger car, you can't see the rail, which makes for a nervous trip down, but in my car, the gusty wind kept sweeping down from the peak above and blowing me out from the center of the road. I touched bottom, metaphorically-speaking, and drifted into the little town of Great Cacapon with a smug sense of having cheated death, rumbling over the rough roadbed of the green truss bridge there and along the quiet main street.
People waved to me as I drove by, and I waved back, enjoying the banal pleasantries that go unused in the more urban quarters of the country. I'm hopelessly a small-town boy in this respect, which gets me a lot of hissed "what are you doing
?" queries when I'm walking around with friends in Manhattan, smiling and saying "hello" to passing strangers. I guess this kind of interaction could be seen as a sort of veneer over the real fabric of rural life, a facade of generosity masking a core of distrust, but I don't care--it costs nothing to be civil, and I'd rather try and fail to be friendly than just be in my own isolated world.
I left Great Cacapon and took a series of turns onto ever-smaller, ever-twistier roads, ending up on Orleans Road, which curls through the mountainside like an amusement park ride for snakes. The road winds up, up, up, until you reach the ridge of Sideling Hill
, the old mountain on which my cabin perches, and then down, down, down, down to the train tracks and to the town of Orleans Crossroads, a microscopic rail town that I think would even be dwarfed by ruralrob
's charming "Nanookville." There's just a single paved road through, maybe fifteen houses and the old abandoned rail office house, and I head for the gravel rail crossing feeling a bit sad to notice that Clyde's old house is boarded-up and empty.
The rest of the trip is rough and rocky, a bumpy mile along the gravel service road for the railroad, and it's muddy after a month of rain, the black mud (stained by the residue of a century of steam locomotives) splattering the sides of the greenbean even though I drove as slowly as I could in the face of reaching my destination. I rumbled on, waving to the retired DC lawyer working on his garden, then passed Light's Farm and found my cabin peeking through the trees. I parked in the tall weeds beside the service road, careful not to go beyond the raised gravel edge and down the steep incline to the floodplain below.( around the bend )
Standing there, I felt a bit of trepidation, as I always do, cheered by the sigh of the cabin still standing, but always worried that I'll find the back door bashed in. I have to remind myself that there's little worth stealing there, but it still triggers a nerve, a creeping sense of my insecurity and the ease with which my place could be laid open to the elements. I looked for trains, strode across the tracks, then climbed the overgrown railroad-tie steps to the drive and the exuberantly overgrown lawn of the cabin.( the palatial mountain estate in question )
I climbed the steep hill, rolling my eyes at the apparent squalor of the place, thinking "ugh, what a dump
," chuckling at the sight of the bizarre, multiplex foundations to the old place that are visible underneath like the pilings holding up Venice against the waves. I reached the back deck, the overbuilt back deck my father put on, and was happy to see that the back door was securely locked. I looked for wasps, turned the key, and opened the door, grimacing in preparation for the vicious bear attack I always think is imminent when I first open the door. I went in, noticing the evidence of a two-year uninterrupted mouse jamboree, hoping to avoid getting hantavirus as I switched on the power at the main box, bringing the grim interior into sharp focus. "Well, it ain't much," I mused, "but it's mine."( the grand interiors of the gentried playgrounds )
I headed back out to check the water at the outdoor well head--yay! The bathroom wing still seems to be intact, although the jerry-rigged toilet drain setup I put together is as appalling as ever--getting the septic tank finished and hooked up is one of my first priorities. I walked around the place, doing a visual inventory. The markers I'd placed around the foundation seemed to be unchanged, a pleasant surprise, and I looked over the collapsing front porch with an engineer's eye, planning my approach in dismantling the section of the cabin most likely to kill someone. Assuming that my finances stay on a moderate uptick, I'm planning to dismantle the front porch, convert the tiny second bedroom into a screened porch (and new entrance into the cabin), get the plumbing back in order (the pipes all broke some years back from not being drained properly), and making the bathroom safe again for pointers and setters.
I strolled the grounds, surveying, and felt a lot better about the place than I've felt in years, took some pictures (the rest of which posted at the end), then locked the place up to walk around the "neighborhood." The "Blair Witch" house (reminiscent of the one scary scene in an otherwise mostly unscary movie) up the tracks was looking a lot better--the new owners have been renovating, the cute vintage green trailer house was as tidy and well-kept as ever, and the bus-house (pic after post) was as squalid/majestic as ever. I walked down to the Potomac, which was rain-swollen over the low banks and churning alarmingly, and looked forward to swimming there this summer while Paul fishes in the little pools and hollows in the bend. I couldn't get out far enough to see Cleveland Rock (a spider-infested rocky promontory in the river) or the rapids, so I headed back to the car, wiped the black mud from my shoes in the weeds, and headed for home.
All told, I left at 5:15a, got back at 11:07a, and felt oddly exhilarated by the fact that I'd taken the trip so casually, and that it all had gone by so quickly that it was almost like I'd teleported there and back, and that I knew it wouldn't be long before I was up there again, working, cleaning, building, recovering something special from beyond the brink, and I smiled more or less consistently for the rest of the weekend.( more tedious imagery )