Late fall in West Virginia is probably not the best time to be here. I get the feeling I'm not seeing the Appalachian states in their prime: everything is brown and leafless, soggy, and deserted. This is, though, pretty much how I'd imagined West Virginia would look -- there are even broken down houses with yardfulls of wrecked cars. One of the best houses I've seen was an old school bus surrounded by years of plywood lean-to add-ons to create a great, rambling conglomeration with one yellow, windowed side. The thing I did not expect to find here were the large upland plains: plateaus at about 4000 feet with climates and vegetation resembling that of Michigan's upper peninsula. They're very nice and much appreciated.
I often wish when traveling that I'd written down my expectations of places before getting there. West Virginia, since it conforms pretty much to my preconceived notions, is not a problem, but everywhere else I go the reality is sufficiently different from my notions that the notions are erased from my memory and I'm unable to remember what I thought it would be like. I know that Iowa, for instance, was nothing like I'd expected, but without a written record of what I expected I can't tell you exactly how it's different. As soon as I pass through a place, my real memories supplant my imagined ones.
One exception, though, is Istanbul: I remember both what I expected and what it was really like. We arrived in Istanbul direct from New Delhi, and, perhaps because of the astounding...well...everything of New Delhi, we assumed Istanbul would be a crowded, dirty tangle of noisy beggars and stealthful pickpockets. And in fact Mark was pickpocketed there, but the city was so out of character with our expectations that we didn't really care too much. Istanbul, it turns out, is a sleek, cool, thoroughly European, and altogether beautiful city. We walked around in a daze for a week, drinking coffee, eating bread and meat, and actually shivering a bit with the cold. It was wonderful!
Flying was one of the advantages of my previous traveling technique: it produces some rather drastic changes that can jolt you out of any boredom you might feel. Every couple weeks there was a new language to learn, a new cuisine to experience, and a new exchange rate to comprehend. This time, driving around, things change very slowly -- there's no way, especially on the geologically geriatric East Coast, to produce a drastic change and respark my interest in my surroundings. Marijuana is an adequate catalyst, but I'm out of that.
I knew it would be like this when I started out, and I told myself that I'd have to think of this trip as an exercise in developing my appreciation for subtlety. And make no mistake about it: I've certainly seen things change. Remember the discussion on "Deer Crossing Signs of the World"? (By the way, New Jersey's is a beaut: it has three legs and is kowtowing to the left. Come to think of it, they all go to the left. Why is that?) Lately, I've noticed the vegetation changing: the trees are all different and huge rhododendron bushes have sprouted up. The accents, too, have changed drastically since leaving New York. Even residents of Eastern Pennsylvania have a slight drawl, and I might as well be in Louisiana now for the way West Virginians talk. And the brands change, and banks change, and the gas companies change...but what's really weird about the rural Appalachians is the lack of chain stores and restaurants. How many small towns do you know in California without a Denny's or a Dairy Queen? They're everywhere out West, and here they never stray more than a mile from the Interstate.
There are some things, though, that permeate across any barrier, to all the nooks and crannies and broken down school busses in all the cinder-block towns tucked away in all the little one-road narrow canyons in the country. This morning at breakfast, in a town of a thousand or so, I was sitting in a little diner -- sorry: THE little diner -- just sipping my coffee and munching my biscuit. At the next table over was a couple, 35 or so, chewing the fat over their hot cakes and sausage: she about as plain and beautiful as they come, with smooth and toneless flesh and long straight hair parted directly over her broad face, a vision from the early 70s; he a wiry logger-type in flannel and denim, fingers bruised and cracked, beard, shaggy hair, and round spectacles all topped off by a dingy baseball cap. As he smoked and drank and ran on a meandering monologue to her smiling silence, he came to a cusp, a climax in his discourse and said: "Kind of makes you go 'Hmmmm...'" To this misty backwoods logging town of coffee, cigarettes, and Ford pickup trucks has come Arsenio Hall, the evangelist of LA ego-hip. The message, it seems, is evidence of the medium.
No Simple Highway:
Monongahela N.F., WV
Last modified: Mon Dec 10 16:06:30 2001
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