August 10 is a date we will not forget. It rained hard all night. The bridge deck protected us from it overhead, but I wondered how well we had chosen our site in the dark. At around two in the morning, I noticed some leaks in the corners of our tent. I decided I’d better check outside. I stepped out of the tent and into ankle deep water.
“Uh, Claire, we have a, uh, little, uh, problem.”
“Huh?” She rubbed her eyes and rolled over.
I got our bike light/flashlight, and squished around the field looking for a drier spot for our tent. We had done well in locating the tent. It was deeper everywhere else, knee deep in places. I could only hope our site was not about to become part of the mighty Ohio River, which had been 100 yards away before dark.
By the time I got back, Claire was very awake, and the tent was loosing it’s battle to keep out the water. The water in the field wasn’t moving, so we didn’t seem in immediate danger. There was nothing we could do, no place we could go. So we just spoon-snuggled tightly on our thin air mattresses and went to sleep in an inch or so of water. It sure helps to have a snuggle-buddy sometimes. At least the water was fairly warm.
We were up packing at first light. The sky was clear and it was going to be a hot one. Everything that could absorb water had done so, and Zippy had become very heavy. I was glad we would be in Huntington that night under Dave and Susan Peyton’s roof, so we could dry everything.
The 18 hours of storms was just about too much for Claire. She was lower than I’ve seen her on this trip. I said a few encouraging words and was met by a sort of glaring pout. Sometimes it’s best to keep quiet. I know how she feels. With me it is day long headwinds that turn me into a grump.
The clothes we wore dried by the time we arrived in Greenup, and we began to feel a little better. We stopped at a Hardees for breakfast for lack of a real cafe. Like so many small towns since we left the Great Plains, we have nothing to choose from but fast food restaurants. Plastic food served by underpaid post-pubescents “Next please.” We miss Nebraska’s cafes.
The headline in the morning paper informed us that some people had drown in flash floods not far from were we’d camped. Our immediate area had received six inches of rain during the night. After all the rain earlier in the day the soil was super-saturated, and there was nowhere for all that water to go.
After we’d eaten, we rode a loop south of town through W-Hollow where Jesse Stuart lived until his death several years ago. Jesse was Poet Laureate of Kentucky. Dave Peyton introduced me to him, and his wife Deane when we were in college. We spent a number of memorable Saturdays riding around his hill farm in his pickup, listening to stories of his boyhood, and sharing our cigarettes with him; he wasn’t allowed to smoke after his heart attacks. I doubt the few we gave him hurt, but he sure loved putting one over on Deane and the doctors. Or so he thought.
Jesse was special to me and I wanted Claire to see a small piece of my past, if only the meadows and split-rail fences where we wandered. A small pilgrimage.
Jesse planted the seed that perhaps I could be a writer. “Write what you know, that’s all there is to it.” It took me 30 years to believe him. Now he’s planted in the Plum Grove Cemetery, among the stones where he found inspiration, and he’ll never know I’ve finally taken his advice. Then again, maybe so.
We stopped back in Greenup and Claire visited the Conservation District office. Very nice people, but they seem to be just holding on, not doing much education or writing grants for restoration projects. Claire sees the Conservation Districts as perhaps the best hope for getting balanced environmental education out to the public, but many of the offices we visited need to work on their public interface.
After leaving Greenup we rode to Huntington, taking a short detour across the river into Ohio and back into West Virginia.
It was strange to see Huntington’s skyline after so long. The several years I spent here were a growing time, particularly my jobs at the Herald Dispatch and at WSAZ television news. The city has changed a great deal since I moved on, but the skyline was still recognizable, and little seemed to change about the Dispatch building where we stopped to see Dave Peyton. He still works there; writes editorials, my once-upon-a-time dream job. Dave and I both always had strong opinions, still do, on just about anything you’d care to ask us; now he gets paid for it.
Dave was out and we waited at his desk for him.
The newsroom is in the same room and the desks look the same, but: The manual typewriters are gone, and reporters don’t rip stories out of them and run to the city desk. Typesetters no longer bring proofs smelling strongly of wet ink.
And the noise. The clatter of teletype machines and typewriters, the city editor loudly complaining to the room about my spelling; all gone.
Now everything is done on computers much more efficiently. Less running around, less noise, no smelly printers ink… Sigh.
A voice made me look up. I saw that familiar bearded face, bouncing and smiling across the room as if it were 30 years ago.
Dave has a couple of defining physical presences: the gray beard (which I remember as black) he strokes thoughtfully, and the limp he’s lived with since childhood. One leg is shorter than the other, and causes him to sort of bounce through life. To those who love him, many more people than he knows, it is an endearing part of the whole man. It’s probably not so endearing to him; it is painful I know, and will ultimately necessitate a hip replacement.
Having pedaled more than 4,000 miles to see him, on very strong legs, I feel, well, a little strange. It’s almost like an affront to him, a flaunting of my good fortune. I might see it that way were I in his shoes, but Dave wouldn’t.
I remember when we worked together on the Marshall University student newspaper; we wrote progressive, often satirical, editorials on the social issues of the 60’s. Consequently we were given nick-names by campus reactionaries: Mad Dog and Limp Along, Mad Dog was a source of pride for me at the time, but Limp Along was simply cruel and ignorant. I never asked him if that hurt. I guess I knew.
We have stayed up as late as 2:30 am every morning, talking with Dave and Susan, and they have to go to work.
Dave is passionate about West Virginia, its problems and potential. He alternates between pessimism and high expectations.
The state has always sort of been the nation’s bastard child, exploited for cheap labor and resources. For years, it exported coal and corporate profits, and imported black lung and water pollution.
Things are much better now, but West Virginia still has a ways to go to overcome an identity crisis. Due to it’s geographic location, it is neither Midwestern, or Eastern, or Southern. It is the sole completely Appalachian state, and as such, carries a disproportionate burden of the image of poverty and backwardness, real or imagined, associated with the region.
When I moved to the Northwest 20 years ago, it wasn’t long before I gave up saying I was from West Virginia, because so many people asked, “Which part of western Virginia?” Their ignorance, but West Virginia’s loss.
In his Herald Dispatch column, he presents some excellent ideas about how the state can improve it’s image and attract clean industry. But, he feels no one is listening, that he’s not getting through.
At least his dog, Fred got 100 write-in votes when Dave ran him for Governor a few years ago. Claire now sports a Fred For Governor t-shirt, with Fred’s picture on the front. And we can say we have shaken paws with a former candidate for governor; also scratched his belly and pulled his ears. I can think of many politicians who could benefit from such attention.
They have also been catching me up on lots of folks I remember from years ago, some that I have forgotten. Life has been hard on some, people who need Prozac to cope, and good to others, successful and happy. Why some and not the other? Nobody ever said life was fair.
Dave is a fine traditional musician. He played his autoharp and sang one night. We watched videos of mountain music festivals he’s participated in, and one of a West Virginia snake-handling service. All of this was new for Claire. I guess they didn’t do much snake-handling in Maryland.
We also got advice on places to go when we pass through Cajun country in Louisiana this fall. They lived there for six months some years ago while Dave worked on a grant, doing a comparative study of Cajun and Appalachian cultures. Can’t wait.
Dave and Susan woke us just before they left for work Monday morning, and we prepared to ride the short 40 miles to St. Albans, my home town. Hated to say good-by. At least we’ll be keeping in touch by e-mail.