West Virginia: Girl Meets Wilderness
Today I walked twenty-one miles from Blowing Springs, VA, to Marlinton,
WV. I breakfasted in Virginia and ate lunch in West Virginia.
My last stop in Virginia was the Mountain Grove Volunteer Fire Department.
One of the volunteers there filled me in on the local wildlife –
mainly, that there are indeed bears in this forest. He assured me, though,
that “Those big teddy bears are way more afraid of you than you
are of them.” Then he did a startlingly good imitation of a bear
snuffing around in the woods. It made me laugh until I imagined it coming
from outside my tent at 2 AM.
The firefighter gave me a bag of potato chips and a Dr. Pepper left over
from the cookout the night before. “Too bad you weren’t here
then,” he said, and described his method for rib roasting until
I begged him to stop lest my salivary glands get overworked.
For lunch, I sat on the guardrail with one leg in Virginia and the other
in West Virginia. A monarch butterfly floated by me. From the corner of
my eye, I noticed a few more – like fairies dancing in and out of
sight. Then I turned to see a cloud of yellow and black wings floating
down the road. It was as if hundreds of butterflies had studied a map
of Northern Virginia to plan their annual migration and decided that Highway
 was the best route. None of the little wings touched me as they passed
inches from my face. I could easily have reached out to touch them, but
I remembered catching butterflies as a child — how many butterflies
we rendered flightless with the oil on our fingertips as the color on
their wings came off in a fine dust. I sipped the still-cold soda and
watched the fairy caravan disappear down the road.
A pickup truck approached and slowed. It took me a second to recognize
the woman who jumped out as Trish Hunter, the same woman who had offered
me crackers in the Warm Springs library two days ago.
“I thought I might find you here,” she said, and introduced
her husband, Lin. She said she’d been telling all of her friends
about me. One of them had e-mailed her a list of the people he chats with
online that offered to put me up for the night. Unfortunately, few of
the towns on the list are on my route.
I am quickly realizing one distinction between the kinds of people I meet
on this trip — those who give advice and those who give aid. Unfortunately,
the former type far outnumbers the latter. I can’t believe the luck
I’ve had; meeting people like Trish just when I’m beginning
to wonder if I really want to camp by the side of the road for the next
several months. This is exactly how I was hoping things would develop
but didn’t dare assume they would.
I stopped again at the West Virginia Visitor’s Information Booth.
A baby bat had wriggled its way between the plexiglas and the state map;
it appeared to be sleeping. I tried to pull the plexiglas away from the
wall and give it a little more breathing room, but it didn’t seem
to mind being where it was.
I pointed the bat out to a leather-clad couple who had pulled over on
their Harley to look at the map. I winced when the man pressed hard enough
on the glass to make the bat squirm. Then, turning to me with the same
look of pointed interest, he asked “What are you about?”
“I’m walking to California.”
Without batting an eye, he looked me and my pack over, wished me luck
and turned to go. He gave me a big sunburned thumbs up as they pulled
away. It’s the first time anyone’s taken my answer so casually.
Is it the motorcycle mentality? I felt an odd kind of pride at his nonchalance
– here’s one guy who’s not going to lecture me about
the dangers of the road.
Further down the road, I found a phone booth outside the Huntersville
general store and called Maryland collect. Today was the annual Labor
Day cookout at Grandma’s. This was the first time I’ve ever
The whole family was there. Of course, the phone got passed around to
all the relatives:
“Hi Nik! How’re you doing out there?”
“Helloooo, daughter-of-mine. Ready to come home yet?”
“Hey Cous’, sorry I missed your graduation. Maybe I’ll
drive out to see you. Where are you?”
Aunt Sandy came on and told me again how proud of me she is and how she
knows that the Lord will protect me on my journey. About halfway through
that conversation, the first tear spilled out. I stood there smiling and
crying, missing everyone. I wished so much that I were there sandwiched
between cousins on a picnic bench with a heaping plate of Grandma’s
chocolate icebox cake instead of leaning against the glass wall of a hot,
dusty pay phone 300 miles away. Grandma said she’d freeze me a piece
of cake ,“For when you get back alive.”
My hunter-orange poncho got its first use today during a drizzle. With
it thrown over my pack, I imagine I look like a giant orange ghost puppet.
After walking as fast as my tired feet would carry me to beat the rain
and darkness, I made it to Marlinton around seven o’clock,.
Rule #2: No walking after dark. That’s a good, safe rule to stick
to. I don’t have any reflective clothing and walking on these back
roads at night would be spooky. Plus, I’m not completely over my
childhood fear of the dark; it’s a safe bet that I’ll get
over it during the course of this walk.
Signs for a ranger’s station pointed up the last hill of the day,
but I found the station closed and locked. For some reason, I envisioned
ranger stations as 24/7 operations — a place where rangers keep
constant vigil over the forest’s safety. Too tired to walk back
into town, I knocked on the door of a house nearby. The new cream-colored
siding and children’s toys scattered in the yard seemed friendly
and I heard voices inside, but no one answered. I worried that the people
inside had seen me and gotten scared by my odd outfit. I left a note:
To Whom it May Concern,
I am hiking from Virginia to California. I knocked on your door in search
for a place to spend the night because the ranger station is closed. I’m
going to camp next to it. I hope you don’t mind, I’ll only
be there for the night.
I am a wimp. Here I sit, in the Cranberry Mountain Wilderness, so nervous
that I can’t write three words without whipping my gaze around,
sure that a hiker-eating bear has crept up on me.
I had forgotten the firefighter’s bear-snuffling impression and
the accompanying nervousness until a ranger at the Cranberry Glades Wilderness
Center started talking. Apparently, those “teddy bears” that
the fireman assured me were harmless have gotten bolder lately what with
all the tourists leaving their Memorial Day picnics around. As much as
I’d like to think that the warnings are just the ranger’s
idea of a good joke – getting one over on the tourists – something
tells me that thinking is too wishful.
“No one’s been attacked, yet,” said the ranger, “but
if a bear comes into your campsite, I suggest you leave it for a while.”
Black bears are smaller and less temperamental than their grizzly cousins
in Colorado. They’re, just as capable of violence if provoked or
frightened, however, and trying to deter them from sharing your food can
be considered provocation. I listened to the ranger’s warning and
assured him that I’d take the proper precautions: Whistle or sing
as you walk to alert bears to your presence – the last thing you
want to do is surprise a bear; camp away from water sources and trash
receptacles, and keep all food out of your tent. There is some debate
about whether you should run from a bear or play dead — both methods
have worked well and failed miserably at different times. The method I’ve
decided on is to back away slowly until you can’t see the bear anymore
and then run like hell just to be safe. Bears can climb trees just as
well if not faster than people — only cartoon characters climb trees
to escape a bear.
I stalled for more time indoors at the gift shop, growing more nervous
at the idea of leaving its four walls every minute I stayed there. Finally,
after scolding myself for fearing the outdoors when I’m going to
be spending a lot more time there in the near future, I bought a slim
paperback copy of Thoreau’s Walking and went in search of a camping
Today was supposed to be a relatively easy fourteen miles – “relatively”
being the key word there; a year ago I would not have considered a fourteen-mile
walk easy. I thought that “Cranberry Glades” meant bog, low
ground. I was right about the bog, but wrong about the low ground. Instead,
I ended up climbing a 3,988-foot mountain and am sleeping near a swamp.
The ranger station was at the mountaintop. I tramped down the backside
of the mountain feeling exhausted both emotionally and physically. I figured
I’d collapse at the first camp spot, but the more I thought about
bears (whistling loudly all the while), the less sure I was of any location’s
safety. Suddenly, I wanted human company, and lots of it.
Everyone goes home on the Monday night after Labor Day, leaving no trace
except their garbage bags stacked three deep around the dumpsters and
trash cans. I was impressed with how little human presence remained; not
one campsite was still occupied. I stifled an urge to call out, knowing
that the answering silence would spook me even more. I pulled out the
free map that I’d picked up at the Center. I walked twenty feet
down what I thought was the Pocahontas Trail and promptly lost my way.
After spending several minutes in the bushes, I discovered the path again
and plunked my pack down smack in the middle of it.
After dinner, I made up my first bear bag. To make a bear bag, you divide
all of your food and anything at all scented (toothpaste, sweaty socks,
dirty dishes) into two equally weighted bags. You tie the bags to the
ends of a length of rope, then toss one bag over the highest tree branch
you can find that’s also a reasonable distance from camp. Then you
take a stick and push the lower bag up so that the bags hang at the same
height and hope that the bear isn’t tall enough to reach them. I
chose a fairly low branch with the hopeful thought that any bear near
my campsite would be a small bear.
I am now sitting on a boardwalk that runs over a particularly swampy part
of the bog. I feel safe here, despite what the ranger might say about
being so close to a water source. At least I’ll see the bear from
a distance if one comes here to drink. I have no idea if bears are good
swimmers. I am seriously considering sleeping on the bridge instead of
in my tent, which is only five feet from the marsh’s edge itself.
No, I need the walls of the tent around me.
I am not going to get much sleep tonight. I was going to take tomorrow
off — hang out wherever I’d camped and read all day —
but I’ll probably move to the next town instead. If my body holds
up, fear may speed me through West Virginia way ahead of schedule. I hiked
approximately twenty miles today.
I read a lot of books about hiking and camping while preparing for the
trip, but being in the forest is a lot different from learning about it
in a library or a lecture hall. You can’t raise your hand and ask
the trees which path is shortest. Or you can, but the trees won’t
answer. I remind myself that one of the reasons I took this trip was to
learn things you can’t learn anywhere but here.
The trouble began when I left the blacktop. To my credit, I did ask the
ranger about the condition of the paths yesterday. He said that there
were a few rough spots, but that things were mostly clear. I guess I ran
into one of the rough spots.
As I’ve said before, I never hiked in my life before this trip.
I have a vague memory of weekend trips to the woods as a Brownie and I
went camping with friends a couple times in high school, but I never took
on anything like the Monongahela National Forest. Monongahela –
the name sounds monstrous. Godzilla v. Monongahela. Niki v. Monongahela;
to say that I came out the victor because I came out at all is stretching
things. I was schooled in the Monongahela National Forest.
Blazes are brightly colored marks that the rangers put up to tell hikers
that they’re still headed in the right direction. The blazes on
this trail were bright blue pieces of plastic nailed to trees along the
path at about every fifty feet or s. The first time I lost sight of the
next blaze I knew intellectually that I should look for the last one and
backtrack. Instead, I kept walking on what looked trail-like enough to
me until I came to an overgrown area and looked up to see trees,; just
trees – I literally didn’t know where in the blue blazes I
The forest floor now looked the same in all directions. I should have
gotten my bearings, checked my compass, checked the sun, looked for my
footprints. Instead, I walked in one direction, then another, until the
only thing I knew for sure was that I’d gotten lost.
I had a useless cell phone, a whistle, enough food to sustain me for a
couple of days, various bandages, a compass, and a map that obviously
needs updating. Fortunately, it was early in the day so I didn’t
have to worry about night falling. I blew ceaselessly on the whistle as
I stumbled up and down hills covered in a carpet of leaves several inches
thick. I tried whistling a Beatles tune:
“Help! I need somebody.
Help! Just anybody.
Won’t you please, please help me.”
My whistle only has one note.
I walked south, figuring I’d hit the highway eventually if I went
that way. I fell twice, twanging my ankle enough the second time to scare
me into slowing down. I imagined wit gruesome detail the dangers of a
broken ankle or a copperhead bite should I step on one of those poisonous,
cleverly camouflaged reptiles: the pain, the panicked thrashing through
the undergrowth, dehydration, darkness, cold, gangrene ...
Half a second after that thought, I slipped again and looked down to see
what may or may not have been an actual snake blending in with the leaves.
I screamed and jumped backwards, down the hill.
I landed hard enough on my tailbone to still feel it twelve hours later
and got a wet-leaf wedgie as I slid several feet downward head first.
At the bottom of the hill I found a stream. I immediately pulled out my
map to see if I could identify it. It could have been several streams,
but I chose to believe that it was the one between the path I’d
been on and the road. I tried to walk across some wobbly rocks and slipped,
dunking my boots.
I found the logging road I’d hoped for just over the next hill and
followed it out of the wilderness. Thank goodness and Nicole for the Tevas
— I wore them for the rest of the day while my boots dried. Lesson
learned: Take your boots off before you cross a stream, especially if
you’re so worn out that it’s the last thing in the world that
you want to do.
My abilities as a wilderness trekker have been tested and found lacking.
“Needs practice” would be the kindest assessment. Today, what
should have been a seven hour, eighteen mile hike, turned into a ten hour,
twenty mile hike — most of it in circles, I’m sure. Next time
I’ll think twice before trusting even the most seasoned-looking
ranger when he or she tells me that the trails are “mostly clear.”
Next time I’ll think three times before hiking in the wilderness
at all, at least alone.
A mile outside Richwood, a man with long gray hair tied back with a red
bandanna jogged past me on his way out of town. Ten minutes later he hailed
“Passing on your right” as he ran back. When I reached the
first building in town, the Four Seasons Lodge, he was leaning on a car
in the parking lot — not winded, just waiting.
“Where you headed?” my new friend asked, and introduced himself
as Shawn. He said he knew the owners of the lodge and arranged for me
to camp by the river. He said he’d give me a tour of Richwood tomorrow,
when I will be taking a much-needed day off. I thanked him with all the
enthusiasm I could muster, exhausted as I was.
I am so very glad to be near people again. I pitched my tent within listening
range of the river’s low rapids. A couple of trout fisherman who’d
come down to assess the river watched me set up. They introduced themselves
as Harry and Joe and offered to take me to breakfast in town tomorrow
if I wake up early enough. It would definitely be worth getting up early
for my first hot meal in a week. Dinner tonight is the last of a bag of
trail mix and some jerky. I’m just glad it’s not me as bear
All the logging trucks that thundered past me these last few days were
on their way to Richwood. As the name suggests, Richwood has always been
primarily a logging town. Since the state put the new highway on the other
side of the mountain, however, Richwood is slowly losing its business
to towns over there. Now everyone in town is trying to get comfortable
with the only thing that might save their economy— tourism. Richwood
must turn its remote location from a bust into a boon or face extinction.
I could feel the town’s collective anxiety mixed with hopefulness
– the lodge’s pine beams are still pale in their newness.
Wishful thinking, that – though it is prime trout fishing season,
less than half the rooms are booked.
There wasn’t much commuter activity downtown at 7 AM, when Harry,
Joe, and I drove to the C&S Restaurant. We found the owner and the
waitresses at the C&S were unconcerned about the town’s current
state; the place was packed.. Every town needs a gathering place, especially
during bust times when the townspeople gather to commiserate and hopefully
plan their renewal strategies. The C&S must be gossip central for
We could smell the greasy goodness a block away. I ordered a large OJ,
six slices of french toast, two sausage links, and hash browns, and downed
every bite with gusto. When my hosts set off in search of the day’s
catch, I walked over to the Foodland Grocery and strolled blissfully pack-free
up and down the slippery linoleum aisles. I bought nuts, dried fruit,
sunflower seeds, and cereal for GORP mix and a blueberry yogurt for lunch.
Then I went back to my tent, ate the yogurt, and passed out while still
holding the spoon and empty container.
I woke up disoriented by so much rest and slumped up to the lodge lobby
to be indoors for a change. Shawn found me there soon after and took me
for a drive around town in his black Miata. We drove to the iron bridge
at the far edge of town and back – a trip of about three miles.
The “grand tour” of downtown consisted of a few blocks of
mostly abandoned shops.
The last place on our tour was a restaurant just west of the Four Seasons.
Shawn bought, fixed up, and sold the restaurant in less than two years
– the same amount of time it took him to gain and then lose faith
in the town’s chances for recovery. We sat at the bar made of a
wood as dark as our coffee and he spoke with love about every hand-selected
timber in the place. I listened and looked and commiserated as best I
could, telling him truthfully that what I’d seen of the town thus
far made me think Richwood a town worth saving.
I guess there are a lot of towns like Richwood, tucked away just far enough
from the highway that only those tourists seeking an authentic escape
will find them. My thought is that Richwood could easily market itself
as such — focus on the proximity to the Cranberry Wilderness, the
Monongahela Forest, and the trout-filled rivers, declare an annual festival
that would pull in carpenters and other woodcraft artists. I wondered
if, as with any other tourism-dependent population, the townspeople might
not regret the change eventually. Then I met Mayor Rose.
Mayor Jeromy Rose is a twenty-eight year-old graduate of West Virginia
University and the University of North Carolina, where he studied and
then mastered in art. When Jeromy returned to his hometown in hopes of
settling down with his fiancee here, the town’s decline shocked
and saddened him. Instead of going elsewhere, however, he made a decision.
“As an artist,” he said, “I take the materials I’m
given, figure out what I want to create with them, and end up with something
in between. I saw what Richwood had become, and what it could be, so I
did what seemed like the fastest way to change things, I ran for mayor.
I had no political aspirations at all, but the people in town were obviously
ready for a change. They elected me, even with hair down to my butt.”
Mayor Rose, who has since cut his hair to a more “sensible”
length, invited me to join him and some friends for dinner. I put my pack
in a bare room upstairs among the other backpacks and sleeping bags there.
The bags belong to the group of Jeromy’s friends who recently descended
on the town to paint a mural on the wall of his newest brainstorm —
a sculpture garden in the center of town where an old hotel recently burned
down. Then I took a hot shower for the first time in six days. That heavenly
experience, combined with the company, the food, and the day off, made
for a euphoric evening.
The house is no mayor’s mansion yet. From the outside, it looks
no more grand than the other two-story houses that line the street. That
he paid less than the cost of a new economy-sized car is what amazed me
first. What got me second was how much space and potential the house has
I found Jeromy sitting in his high-ceilinged living room in front of the
big flagstone fireplace. I admired the beautiful oak staircase with its
wide banister that begged for sliding and the sun porch — every
inch of counter space packed with tomato plants and herbs and cuttings.
Most of the house is still being renovated. The only finished room so
far is the dining room. “Next is the master bedroom,” Jeromy
said, “I want it perfect before I carry my fiancée in there
as my bride.”
The dining room is just big enough for a simple but massive hardwood dining
table with room for the four mural painters, Jeromy, Shawn, three neighbors,
and myself to sit comfortably. French doors and tall windows face the
back yard. The walls and ceiling of the room are a lemon yellow as cheerful
as the company.
We ate astoundingly well for a group of starving artists: Green beans
with maple syrup and bacon, just-baked rolls, zucchini-squash-carrot ragout,
herb and butter chicken, salad, and brownies with butter-pecan ice cream
for dessert. Mayor Rose may be dollar-poor, but he is definitely rich
with friends. Every night, one of the neighbors that grew up and remain
friends with Jeromy provides dinner for the entire group. Kimberly was
the hostess tonight — her husband owns the new wilderness outfitter
store up the street.
When you eat this well this infrequently, it becomes a real event, and
with company this good everyone celebrates. We all shouted, “Yay!
Cheap Beaujolais!” when Shawn presented his contribution to the
evening. Though we were all beat, we stayed up well past midnight listening
to jazz records and talking through the day’s events. I could’ve
stayed in that room forever.
The group broke up when alcohol and nostalgia pushed Shawn beyond teary-eyed.
We all hugged goodnight. Jeromy moved my clothes from the washer to the
dryer and gave me a GQ article about Eustice Conway, a modern-day Daniel
Boone, to read before sleep. I’m writing this entry snuggled in
my sleeping bag on the floor just outside the kitchen. The dryer and the
cats outside are my night music.
Lesson learned: Driving anywhere that you eventually plan to hike is a
bad idea. You don’t see everything while driving, but you see enough
to make you wish you hadn’t already seen it when you’re walking
that stretch the next day. What took a few minutes in Shawn’s speedy
Miata took two hours to walk. No more car rides for me.
Today was pretty much the epitome of what Mom predicted this trip would
be: hot (though thankfully not very humid), lots of truck traffic, not
much of a shoulder to walk on, lots of road kill, and very little scenic
anything. I walked twenty-four miles and have collapsed here at the Summersville
Music Campground, which is almost empty on a weekday.
What made this day of schlepping even worse was how ideal last night was.
This morning, before I left, the group of us gathered for pictures at
the mural-in-progress and Jeromy presented me with the key to the city
of Richwood. The key is heavy brass, but I’ll carry it with me for
a while before sending it home to Mom. Richwood weighs heavy on me with
its own brightness.
Nostalgia is definitely a determined wanderer’s enemy. If you are
reading this and thinking fondly of some similarly pleasant memory, do
what I’m doing right now and promise yourself that you will make
new warm memories soon.
The mayor of Richwood gave me the key to his city. His sister gave me
a can of pepper spray. I’m sending the key to you because it’s
too heavy. Don’t worry, I don’t think I’ll be needing
the pepper spray, but I figured that you’d be happy to know that
I have it.
The energy bars were surprisingly good. I hear that Clif bars are the
best. The rice cakes were a bit bulky. I’ll be out of West Virginia
soon so, well, call me and we’ll figure out where’s best to
Ten days of walking, being lost in the forest, and being on the road close
to dark with no civilization in sight couldn’t break me. No, but
a librarian broke me in no time — the librarian at the Summersville
It wasn’t her fault, really. She was just following protocol when
she begrudged me twenty minutes on the library computer to check my e-mail
from friends and family. She couldn’t have known what that communication
meant to me. She only knew that there is just one computer with internet
access and that it is reserved “for library patrons only,”
even if none of the patrons are in line to use it. I needed more time,
but I couldn’t ask for it. I picked up my pack and walked out with
tears in my eyes.
“Tears as stubborn as I am,” I thought. “For leaving
everyone I love so far behind and then finding new people to love and
leaving them behind too.”
“You’re just homesick,” another thought replied. “Think
about all the other wonderful people on the road ahead.”
Sure enough, some of those wonderful people were just around the corner,
at the Kroger Supermarket, to be exact. My association radar was in overdrive;
I saw the Kroger here and immediately thought of the one in Charlottesville.
Grocery stores have always been comfort zones for me. During my summer
in Chicago, I’d walk to the co-op on the corner and hang out in
the frozen foods section to beat the heat. Some weeks, nodding to people
in the produce section was my only social life. Every Sunday, I’d
get a free Tribune from the guy promoting them on the corner and spend
part of the morning doing the two crossword puzzles and the other part
looking over the grocery store sales flyers for meal planning ideas. It
wasn’t glamorous, but it was relaxing in its own way.
In Charlottesville, my friends and I would always make trips to the store
a big event — piling into someone’s hatchback, staging cart
races in the aisles, loudly debating the merits of low fat versus less
Today, I treated myself to a package of mini Snickers bars (10/$1), two
bananas, and some yogurt for lunch. Yogurt has become a standard get-it-when-you-can
item. I’ve got to tell my friend Josh that I’ve been converted
to a yogurt lover like himself. The cashier asked where I was going and
when I told her I suddenly sensed her attention level as well as the interest
of the cashier and the customers next to us rise sharply. She offered
to get me a spoon for my yogurt. I couldn’t express how gratified
I was by that simple act. Her kindness, after the librarian’s utilitarianism,
meant more to me than she will ever know.
I sat outside the Kroger eating my yogurt lunch and talked a little to
the customers who had heard my story while waiting in line. I watched
moms put their toddlers up on the twenty-five cent mechanical pony ride
five feet away and felt better about the world. When you’re as starved
for stable human interaction as I am, every limited connection becomes
I met June Datson as I was walking through the town square. She was carrying
a massive stack of papers; the heavy load on my back and the one in her
arms begged for comment.
She asked where I was going and I said, “California, eventually.”
She then asked “Why?” four times in stunned succession before
she could process my answer.
I gave her four different answers: “Because I wanted to take a road
trip and my ride backed out ... I graduated from college and felt that
I had learned enough about institutional education, but not enough about
the world ... I love to walk ... Why not?”
June has two sons and four grandchildren. She has lived in Summersville
all but one year of her life -- her family moved to Ohio for a year when
she was five. I asked why she’d never left Summersville. Did she
She just got a divorce after thirty-five years of marriage. She made the
usual comments about the sadness of a broken home. Then she told me about
her knee replacement surgery and about the $2,000 she spends on various
medications every year.
I was thinking, “Are those excuses, or valid reasons? Are there
any valid reasons not to experience as much of the world as possible?
Will I ever get to a point where I’ve got too many reasons not to?”
June wants to go to Alabama; that is her dream. She’s not sure she
can afford it, but this fall she’s got plans to visit a spa that
claims they can wean people off of medications and where she can lose
some weight. She said the part about losing weight several times. Then
she had to rush off to her lawyer’s appointment. She scribbled my
mailing address down on one of the many papers in her arms and hurried
into a nearby office building. She said she wouldn’t forget me.
I said the same.
I got the impression that June’s life, while certainly in turmoil,
may be changing for the better. Sometimes, turmoil is just what we need
to get us moving in the right direction. The trick is to see the change
as change for the better.
I hiked sixteen miles of blacktop today, the last long stretch of which
had railroad tracks and low bushes on one side and a sheer white cliff
wall on the other. The heat beat down from all sides. I started early
and arrived in Dixie around 3:30. I ate lunch under the first patch of
shade I found there and studied the next stretch of road with much trepidation.
A sign on the west edge of town warned not to pick up hitchhikers -- the
state prison is located halfway to the next town. That was enough to persuade
me to knock on the nearest door and ask about safe places to stay the
night. Mrs. Parsons invited me in immediately. We swapped stories –
I told her some of my experiences so far and she gave me the history of
every tree and shrub on the property.
Mr. & Mrs. Mack M. Parsons (so she wrote it on my address list) have
lived in Dixie for forty-seven years; they’ve insisted that I be
their guest for the evening. Mr. Parsons is a “retired” farmer,
though as any farmer will tell you, there’s really no such thing.
He’s got an olympic-pool sized garden in the backyard and he’s
out there every night until it gets too dark to see the dirt. At dinner,
Mrs. Parsons scolded him for working so hard.
He nodded and grumbled, “I’ve even got flowers out there for
her. So much work for somethin’ you can’t even eat.”
Mrs. Parsons beamed and informed me that “if we live ‘til
August 12, we’ll have been married 58 years.”
During the evening, I met almost the entire family. Their daughter Barbara
lives across the street, and their son Mackie was here to help with the
yard work. Their 27-year old grandson, Bobby Mack, is a competing weight
lifter. He asked the most questions about my trip and seemed the most
awed by it. A minute ago I heard him say to Mack, Sr., “ I’ll
bet she’s in twice the shape I am.”
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to compliments that high.
My brain is reeling from all this domestic tranquillity. The modernist
in me cringes sometimes, but meeting people like the Parsons does make
me realize that there are many kinds of contentment. Simplicity is beautiful
in all its forms.
The population of abandoned furniture and overflowing garbage bags in
Mammoth is higher than the resident population. I’ve noticed that
in West Virginia you know you’re approaching a town when you start
seeing trash bags full of dirty diapers.
The Parsons family heaped food on me until the very last minute. Barbara
filled every spare inch of my pack with bananas, mints, and oranges the
size of small grapefruits. After four hours of carrying the giant citruses,
I sat on the steps of a church in Mammoth to peel and eat them.
A woman who lived next door to the church saw me and invited me in for
a ham sandwich, cookies, soda pop, and all the hard candy she could fit
into my pockets. Suddenly, I’m trick-or-treating People ask me how
much weight I expect to lose. At this rate, I’ll have no weight-loss
problem. Still, it’s somewhat amazing to me that I hardly ever feel
full. It’s a good thing I did eat so well today because I walked
twenty-eight miles from Dixie to Malden.
Originally, I only meant to walk to Cedar Grove today -- it’s where
the little back road I took through Pond Gap, Mammoth, and Ward meets
Rt. 60. I got an early start, though, and made it to Cedar Grove by 2
PM. The funeral parlor owners who I asked for directions assured me that
I could easily get to the next town by dark.
Of course, they didn’t know that I’d already walked eighteen
miles. How could I even have communicated to them what seven hours of
walking with a 50 lb. pack does to a body? Then again, my energy level
varies greatly from day to day. Despite the monster oranges, I think yesterday’s
heat got to me more than I want to admit.
Lesson learned: “Just up the road” to most people means a
short drive. The Malden exit was ten miles away. Mayor Rose had given
me the name of someone who would put me up in Malden, and a place to stay
is powerful motivation. I continued on past Cedar Grove. I regretted doing
so very much three hours later when the ache in my feet became a steady
throb. The new Shillings Bridge with all its interstate signs and the
shopping mall with its Kroger and Shoney’s shining out their beacons
of civilization recharged me a little. At every curve in the road, I repeated
my latest mantra: “Don’t think about the place, don’t
think about the time, think about the sign.”
The sign I was looking for was the ‘Malden, Next Exit’ sign.
As the sky grew darker and the scent and speed of the wind threatened
rain, I pulled out my cell phone. The display icon indicating full range
was immensely satisfying. I dialed information to get the number for Mayor
Rose’s acquaintance, and listened twice to the operator message
that the number had no service. I glared at the display now, damning it
for showing that I’d dialed the number correctly.
I was starting to feel the cold on my sweat-soaked T-shirt but I didn’t
think I’d be able to put my pack on again if I stopped to take it
off and dig out the poncho. Just when the idea of just sitting down blocked
out all other thoughts, a man on a bike rode up the highway toward me.
“How far is it to Malden?” I asked, and dreaded his response.
He said it was about a mile, and since he was on a bike I figured I could
trust his judgment more than the funeral parlor owners’. I set my
sights on the next corner, willing that sign to be there. It was: MALDEN
I stumbled down the exit ramp into the first open shop. When the clerk
heard who I was looking for, she immediately dialed several numbers from
a well-worn list. She explained that James and Karen were probably staying
at their “lake cottage” – the only one of their four
houses that doesn’t have a phone. Fortunately, that house was only
a couple of blocks away, so I wobbled over on pain-hollowed legs. A note
on the door read “Will, We should be back by 10:00. Feel free to
help yourself to anything in the kitchen.” Apparently, the Thibeaults
had other guests.
James Thibeault (pronounced “T-bow”) is the founder of Cabin
Creek Quilts, a quilting co-op made up of many of the elderly ladies in
Malden quilting circles. The ladies would be quilting with or without
his intervention, but now they make a monetary profit from their work;
I saw one all-white wedding-band quilt with a $1,000 price tag.
Thibeault once took two grade-school students and a Booker T. Washington
look-alike for a three-week walking tour down all of Route 60, also known
as The Midland Trail — Booker T. Washington’s path to emancipation.
It was 8:45, so I sat on the garden bench to wait. I leaned on my pack
and tried to keep it from falling into the goldfish pond as I dozed off
again and again. I worried that Mayor Rose hadn’t called, that Mr.
Thibeault would see me as an inconvenience when he had other company.
Mostly, though, I was indescribably happy to finally be seated.
I awoke to a woman’s voice. “James, I think there’s
someone in your garden.”
After a moment of confusion, both the Thibeaults and their guests welcomed
me. They sat me down with a ham and cheese sandwich and a glass of water
and demanded stories of my travels thus far. The group was wide awake
and talkative, thanks to a pitcher of margaritas at dinner, so they kept
me up another half hour before I made it to the shower and now pass gratefully
June began idyllically. I found Karen already awake when I padded into
the kitchen this morning. We chatted quietly over cereal, coffee, and
toast with homemade strawberry preserves.
In my semi-comatose state last night, I didn’t recognize how gorgeous
James and Karen’s house is: Natural slate floors with floor-to-ceiling
windows on three sides; the other wall is bright yellow with hand-painted
ivy vines. There’s lots of open space and, of course, quilts everywhere.
None of my relatives quilt, but the feeling of sleeping beneath a heavy
hand-made quilt is unmistakably that of home. The best quilts, in my opinion,
are heavy ones; you can feel the time and attention it took to craft that
quilt anchoring you to sleep. I slept under such a quilt. The quilt hanging
on the wall above me is too pretty to ever fold away -- a patchwork collage
of bright velvet and bold stitches.
Something of a circus, but a fairly pleasant one, began when the rest
of the house awoke and invaded the kitchen. James joined us for his morning
yogurt-and-cereal breakfast, preaching the benefits of such a meal like
a 50s radio announcer. Then Karen and I went to make the rounds at one
of two retirement homes that she runs in town and she introduced me to
some of the retirees.
Martha and Llewellyn Cole who were once teachers and are now the town
historians. They showed me Daniel Boone’s very own powder horn,
let me hold it, and gave me a certificate certifying that I’d done
so. I then met were Brownie the dog; Edgar, who spends most of his retired
time wandering around town; and Helen, is what one might politely call
“an avid conversationalist.” Among other things, she informed
me that her son designed two of the major shopping centers in Charlottesville.
They were all very sweet to me. I concluded my stay in Malden with an
interview for the local paper in the reconstructed Booker T. Washington
Cabin -- authentic in every detail, right down to the pigs in their pen
outside. My plan for the rest of the afternoon was to head toward Institute,
West Virginia, home of West Virginia College, but once again those plans
Walking through larger cities is more draining than walking along the
road or the small towns: More traffic, more buildings, more congestion
in many ways. Charleston is a beautiful city with its two-tier River Walk
and historical brick buildings. I walked through at the two o’clock
hour and it was odd because there were very few people on the streets
and yet the place still seemed busy. The population here must be must
be at least three times that of most other West Virginia cities I’ve
The temperature hovered around ninety-five degrees as I reached the west
side of town. Why is it that the west end of cities is traditionally the
poorest part? Do the city planners start east and run out of ideas when
they get that far? I’ll be interested to see if the trend is reversed
on the western side of the country.
I passed a couple and a young child sitting in their front yard, which
was just large enough for a patio table and four chairs. The fence surrounding
it was chain link - no pickets here. I nodded a hello in passing and the
woman called out, “Where are you going with such a heavy load?”
“California,” I told her. She invited me to sit at the table
for a moment while she ran to get a notebook for me to “autograph.”
With the notebook, she brought out a big glass of iced tea and a jar of
sugar in case the tea wasn’t sweet enough. The little girl asked
me to write other things in the notebook for her, so I wrote her name,
“Rasheeda,” and the letters of the alphabet as she recited
them to me.
“This is my great granddaughter,” the woman said. The man
boasted that he had sixteen children. I was suitably impressed; they certainly
didn’t look old enough to be great-grandparents.
As always, I got their address to send them postcards as thanks for their
hospitality. “I’ll frame them all,” said the women.
I’ve heard people say that “project” is just another
word for experiment. If so, the Parker family are the kind of people who
give hope that the experiment might work.
I opened the gate to leave and ran straight into one of the people who
seem out to prove that projects are for rats.
“I’m gonna walk with YOU,” said the man who was probably
younger than his grimy exterior indicated. He was obviously under the
influence of something - probably alcohol. When I had the misfortune to
attract his attention he was meandering down the road yelling unintelligible
expletives at everyone. Still, I saw no harm in walking with him for a
few blocks as he babbled about his new white Reeboks. He showed me the
receipt for $53, and roared that he was a millionaire.
Suddenly his head snapped around as if he were seeing me again for the
first time. Before I could back away, he shoved me against the fence we
were passing and shouted, “You’re no friend to me! Who’re
you? I don’t know you!”
Fortunately, my self-defense training paid off; when he reached for me
again I grabbed his wrist and twisted it up behind his back.
“I think you’d better continue on without me,” I said,
trying not to sound as shaken as I was. He shook his face at me, blinked,
and nodded. I let him get several blocks ahead before I continued, scolding
myself for getting within his reach in the first place. One of the first
things they teach you in self defense is to keep your distance at all
In Dunbar, the city before Institute, a woman on her way to work at McDonald’s
kept pace with me. She didn’t seem as interested in my destination
as she was just glad to have some company. She walked fast and chain-smoked
as she told me her story of coming to Dunbar to take care of her mother
No one I meet wants to be where they are. This woman wants to go to Arizona
with her 5 year-old daughter as soon as she saves the money. Her parting
advice, as we reached McDonald’s, was that you can get all the free
ice water you want there, and then sit at a table and drink it.
“Take your time,” she said. She suggested that I ask for the
32oz. size, which I did.
I walked across the street on my way out of town to the Aldi, a low-priced
supermarket that Stacy suggested I try. As I stood in line with my granola
and fruit chews, the woman next to me asked about my pack – she
thought the drinking tube for some sort of IV. Soon after I explained,
she introduced herself as Ruth Zika and asked if I needed a place to stay.
Ruth strikes me as a very strong woman; I have no doubt that she could
walk cross-country too if she got it in her head to do so. On the ride
to her place, she told me about her post-graduation drive cross-country
- sleeping in her car and at the occasional KOA. I saw what I think was
a picture of her at that age - beautiful in that healthy, poised way that
makes you think she spent many afternoons practicing archery or horseback
riding. I’m not sure who I flatter more when I say that I see many
similarities between us.
Ruth is a hospice nurse. Her husband David is a retired policeman. He
insisted on giving me a stun gun, which is a very intimidating piece of
hand-held self-defense. I can’t imagine ever having the guts to
use it and don’t want to imagine a situation in which I might have
to do so. With that and the tear gas I am now well armed.
I’m sleeping out in the camper that Ruth and David bought long ago
but haven’t used nearly as much as they planned. I could tell that
Ruth was trying to give me as much space as possible when she asked if
I “might want” to use the bathroom in the house. I quickly
assured her that my policy is “the more human contact, the better.”
So she invited me in for dinner. She’s a vegetarian, he’s
diabetic; we had steak, pita bread with humus, and canned peaches.
Twelve miles today, and a lot of ups and downs.
I’m on the front cover of the Charleston Gazette today! Not only
that, but the reporter who wrote the story said that the Associate Press
picked it up. As much as I am adamant about this trip being for my personal
fulfillment and not for attention, it’s hard not to be excited about
Breakfast was bagels heavily slathered in butter and honey and all the
yogurt and granola that I could consume.
Ruth dropped me off at the Dunbar library, where a sign with the hours
read that it would closed until 10 AM. I was going to sit with my belly
full of bagel and wait, but Ruth coughed and mentioned that it’s
16 miles to my next destination. No rest for the weary.
Tonight I am at the Tri-County Mission in Hurricane. It was a long hot
day punctuated by a thunderstorm. The two things that I was looking forward
to both fell through. A package that Nicole sent to St. Albans hadn’t
arrived yet; I forwarded it to Kenova, the town just before the West Virginia/Kentucky
border. Thibeault’s friend Greg Carroll said he’d put me up,
but I forgot to get his phone number and, like Thibeault, it’s unlisted.
When calls to Greg’s office failed too, I turned off the main road
in search of a phone book.
The first door I knocked on belonged to Martha Carroll — no relation,
that would have been too easy, but I did wonder afterward if it was more
than a coincidence. The universe has a funny way of pointing you where
you need to go.
I chose Martha’s house because of the open front door open and the
yard — so lush and colorful that I knew whoever lived there must
have a large capacity to care for living things. I didn’t see Martha
at first, though she was sitting on a sofa less than ten feet from the
door. She was knitting what looked like an afghan and my first thought
was that she needed more light for such careful work. The room was dim
with all the curtains pulled shut. She seemed distinctly uncomfortable
approaching the door with me at it. My second thought: “It must
be her husband who takes such tender care of the yard.”
I had already deduced that the answer would be no, but I asked to use
the phone anyway.
“I’m sorry,” she breathed. “I don’t usually
let people in.”
She inhaled. “You understand,” she said, and continued peering
at me through the dimming light.
I said I did and turned to go, but her stillness made me pause. After
a breathless moment, in a voice muted with pain, she explained that her
husband had just died of cancer.
She said, “I don’t know how to drive — he always drove.
I don’t know how to pay the bills — that was his job. My job
was to take care of him, and now he’s gone. I suddenly find myself
incapable of doing so many things — things that involve letting
people in. You understand.”
As she said this, Martha moved closer, both physically and emotionally,
until she was sitting on the porch with me. I don’t think she was
conscious of the move; she seemed surprised to find herself there when
she’d finished talking. She stood again as quickly as propriety
and her confusion would allow, and said that she did want to help me.
She got the cordless phone and the phone book so that I could look up
the nearest mission, under “Churches.” She hugged me good-bye
quickly and stoically, though I could’ve sworn there was a second
when she considered not letting go. She said that she would pray for me.
Later, when I’d gotten settled in the mission, Martha surprised
me again by calling. She said she’d borrowed a paper from her neighbor
to read about me when I left. She gave me her address for postcard updates.
“I’ll worry about you until I know you’re safe,”
she said. Again it occurred to that while so many people have helped me
on this trip, I’ve helped a few people too.
Sixteen miles today.
Everything at missions is donations. Much of it is grocery-store rejects
— things like unlabeled canned goods that look as if they have been
the used for batting practice and odd test-market foods like banana-flavored
raisins. Some of the mission directors I’ve talked to say that it
just makes things more interesting — every night is Mystery Meal
night! I packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some low-fat Tasty
Cakes (if that’s not an oxymoron, I don’t know what is), and
the banana-raisins for lunch. I’m walking the fine line between
nutrition and sugar crash.
All eight of the mission residents came out to greet me last night.
“A hero’s welcome from some of those most in need of a hero,”
I thought, and wondered yet again if I shouldn’t be trying to champion
So many people waved as they passed by me today. I guess they read the
paper yesterday. One man, who obviously didn’t see the article,
drove by three times before he finally stopped. I would’ve been
suspicious if not for the awestruck look on his face.
He said, “I drove by the first time and thought ‘That’s
a woman!’ Then I drove by again and said, ‘Yup, that’s
a woman all right.’” I didn’t know whether to be flattered
He said he’d be terrified if one of his four kids did what I’m
doing. He gave me five dollars, which I used to buy insoles at the Rite
Aid. I can feel the weight of my pack flattening my feet as I walk —
literally. It doesn’t hurt a whole lot, but every day I feel a little
less spring in my instep and a little wider in the ball of my foot. I
wonder if I’ll be shorter after this walk.
Today was primarily a good workout — 25 miles. I am exhausted, but
not nearly as much as I was after the 28 miles I did last Sunday. Maybe
it’s because the temperature managed to stay below 80 degrees all
day. Maybe it was the two Pepsis that Jim Judson, one of the mission residents,
gifted me with on his way to and from the city. Maybe I’m just getting
used to this.
Already I can see serious changes in my physique. Last week I looked drained
— hollowed out by walking all day instead of three hours a day;
too many cellophane-wrapped packages of bright orange crackers with the
peanut butter filling, not enough meals. I used to really like those crackers.
If you offer one to me one now, my gag reflex kicks in.
This week, I’m smoothing out a bit and, for better or worse, my
leg muscles look more like those of girl’s field hockey player than
a gym-going co-ed. I’m proud of my body for being so adaptable.
I’m proud of my college all-star soccer-playing dad for giving me
such hardy genes.
Tonight I’m at the Huntington City Mission Women’s Ward with
quite a cast of characters. Joanne feeds me defrosted pizza rolls and
stories about wetting her pants the first time she ever rode a roller
coaster (in her mid-thirties). Erika is thin, harried, and looks way too
young to be the mother of the three astoundingly beautiful little ones
— John, Michael, and Autumn — that she tries unsuccessfully
to juggle on hip, countertop, and in sight. Shawn chain-smokes and listens
as if she’s gorging herself on everyone else’s words. Tomorrow
I’ll see Kentucky for the first time.