I’ve hung my hat in Richmond, Virginia for the last 3 months. Well, actually, I don’t wear hats, but assuming I did, it would’ve been resting on a hat rack in Richmond every night. And it would’ve been a fedora, or maybe a beret.
Now I’m back in Detroit for about 2 weeks. Well, a little over a week at this point, at the end of which I’ll pack my bags – including my imaginary hat – for Waterloo, Iowa, global headquarters of John Deere.
Why? The short of it is, I’m riding the coattails of my fiancée, Molly, as she moves about the country as a traveling occupation therapist. Yes, it’s quite an opportunity, to travel with your loved one across the country in the prime of your life. Hell, I never really thought I’d leave Detroit. Sure, I’d toyed with the idea, made snobby comments about the superiority of other cities and continents.
But I always figured that when it came down to it, I was a lifer. Look, I’d spent over a year obsessively reading and writing about Michigan whenever I had a spare moment. The archives tell the sordid story.
That’s why I’m lucky, unbelievable fortunate to have this opportunity to travel the country. I want to be John Steinbeck, Henry Miller, or Jack Kerouac. A ridiculous, impossible goal, but I’m betting what little youthful bravado is left in my 26 year old heart that maybe – just maybe – I can shoot for the stars, and if I’m lucky, land on the moon.
I know that’s not how the quote goes, but a bum told it to me that way once and I thought it made more sense. If you shoot for the moon and miss, I think it’s more likely you’d just burn upon reentry into the earth’s atmosphere, the hapless victim of a clumsy metaphor.
The ride back to Detroit from Richmond was an event. I decided to take the old U.S. and state highways, inspired by William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways. Y’know, roads like Route 66. Except, well, my route was decidedly a bit less sexy. VA 711. US 250. US 50. OH 60. US 23. Roads that passed through forgotten towns, that took fanciful, hairpin turns through cow pastures. And not one Bob Dylan album title in sight.
I’m sure it added hours to the trip – especially when they closed of OH 60 for miles around McConnelsville, which led us to attempt several ill-advised detours – but my girlfriend graciously agreed to the zany gambit. She wanted to really “see” the mountains, and you don’t see much from the freeway.
The trek through Virginia was familiar from our visits to Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia. We entered the rolling hills of the legendary Piedmont east of Richmond on 711, then headed north on 522 to 250. We passed through towns that, truthfully, are towns in name only, born out of the necessity of needing centralized locations for county courthouses and schools. The small town Main Streets of the Northeast and Midwest are seldom found in Virginia, a legacy of the state’s rural history. The Southern aristocracy was happy on their vast country estates, a sentiment that can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson and his plantation home, Monticello.
Goochland, Virginia. Ain’t much doin’ here. The architectural style is an obvious homage to Thomas Jefferson. (Edited. Original photo by Doug Kerr.)
Outside of Charlottesville, we stopped at Michie Tavern, an white building with long, pillared porches. It’s an honest-to-goodness historic tavern, with big thick logs with chinking for insulation and short doorways you have to stoop under. And, of course, the fireplace. For our convenience, the tavern was hauled in from its original location about 20 miles away to Thomas Jefferson Parkway, down the road from Monticello.
The fare was billed as an “authentic” 18th century buffet. Food was plopped on faux wood plates, soft drinks poured in tin cups. The waitresses wore period clothing, iPhones tucked in their aprons, or maybe under their bonnets. I’m not sure how historically accurate the fried chicken was, but it was tasty, and the mashed potatoes definitely weren’t of the instant variety.
At one time, Michie Tavern was the epicenter of a local culture. Today, it’s a tourist trap. (Edited. Original photo by Roger Wollstadt.)
We took a break in Staunton only about half-hour later for coffee, a beautiful mountain town at the foothills of Appalachia. Though the “real” Blue Mountains are out in Oregon, there’s no doubting the blue hue of the mountains on the horizons here. Throw in the region’s lush green forests and the abundant brown and red brick downtown, and you have a world ghostly beauty. It’s almost unfair to states like Michigan.
But then again, they don’t have lakes. Particularly Great Lakes.
Staunton. Quintessential South. (Edited. Original photo by Doug Kerr.)
It was short drive on 250 from Staunton into West Virginia. My ears popped, and I don’t know if I was suffering from altitude sickness, but I think we even drove up the summit of THE Appalachian Mountain. Assuming it exists. We barreled down roads with frightening grades next to trucks, passed speeding Tahoes on narrow cliff roads. One poor logger resigned himself to pulling over whenever a car approached from behind and waving the driver on to pass.
West Virginia is known as one of America’s worst performing states economically, and it appeared that the men had compensated for their reduced spending power by forgoing an item most would never leave home without: shirts. Yes, that’s right, even in busy commercial areas, it’s not uncommon for a guy to walk around bareback. Try that in Downtown Royal Oak, Michigan and they’d bust you for indecent exposure. Though, looking at my physique and the physiques of other Michigan males, that’s probably for the best. When beach season is a few weeks, you don’t worry about a spare tire. In fact, you’ll need it come winter.
With an image like that, what’s left for me to write? Why, they’ve got dairying, shipbuilding, forests. and a town called Gassaway. (Edited. Original image by Noé Alfaro.)
Once, West Virginia was a booming industrial state, with major logging and mining operations. And then it’s if that state was launched into another dimension around the ’40s. Neighborhoods are frozen in time. Main Streets still have old-fashioned markets with the Coca-Cola signs you usually only see on Springbok puzzle boxes. You half expect to see shirtless men in bowler hats and women in full-length skirts.
Predictably, however, everyone wears the latest fashions from Walmart.
It’s not that West Virginia lacks industry, or that its resources are no longer exploited. If anything, it’s worse than ever before. The problem is our country’s megacorps are constantly accomplishing more with less people. Not that the life of a miner or logger was glamorous, or even enviable. But our economic model depends on people working, quixotically or not.
(Edited. Original image by treewoman8.)