Our original plan was to find a hotel in Clarksburg, an old town of about 16,000 people in north central West Virginia. From the highway, it jumps into view like a forlorn oasis of civilization in the untamed mountains, a poor man’s Angkor Wat. It served as the birthplace for no less a man than “Stonewall” Jackson. There’s a downtown you can window shop in, with stately brick and stone and buildings that date back over 100 years. Indian burial mounds – haunting reminders of the past – loom at the town’s edge.
America is a country with more cars than people. (Original photo by Jon Dawson.)
This, to me, is America. Not New York City. Not L.A. Not the strip mall. Maybe I have a fetish for “ruin porn”, photography of urban decay. Maybe it’s because I like to glorify a past that never existed. I don’t know. But I can’t deny the way places like Clarksburg make me feel. Like an American.
Not that the heavy-handed symbolism made Clarksburg a happening place on a Sunday afternoon. The town was dead. Like post-apocalyptic dead. I Am Legend dead. You could’ve heard a pin drop, except there wasn’t a soul around to drop one. The only restaurants we found, except usual suspects like McDonald’s, was a pizza joint and a Chinese place. We went with the Chinese, a bland but predictable standby. At this point in her life, I think Molly would rather starve than willingly order a pizza. Which is probably a shame, since it ends up Clarksburg has a strong Italian heritage.
Not that I necessarily blame her. 2004, the year Little Caesars introduced the $5 “Hot-N-Ready” pizza, was an especially dark moment in Michigan culinary history. No one should ever have to eat as much cheap pizza as we did in 2004 ever again. That’s when, for many of us, pizza was transformed from a welcomed indulgence into an exercise in endurance. For the first time in human history, “Thanks for the pizza!” doubled as a sarcastic phrase.
Seriously, fuck Little Caesars. I wish we’d publicly steamroll boxes of Hot-N-Ready pizzas like we did disco records in the ’80s.
Kmart and Little Caesars. An apt pairing. (Original photo by Nicholas Eckhart.)
But enough ranting. Back to the story.
Clarksburg’s somnolent, depressed atmosphere motivated us to give Blennerhassett Hotel in Parkersburg a try for the night. About on hour west on US 50, Parkersburg has about twice the population of Clarksburg and is located right on the legendary Ohio River. We figured it’d be a bit livelier, a laughable assumption in retrospect, made worse by the torrential downpour experienced en route. Turns out there was a tornado watch. I didn’t even think tornadoes happen in the mountains, but apparently, it’s frighteningly possible.
Yet we made it to Parkersburg unscathed. Downtown was interesting in the sense that it was a healthier mix of old and new. There was even a glass low rise from the ’70s. And, of course, scores of empty lots. Say what you want about the urban travesty of empty lots, it’s arguably preferable to have an excess of dilapidated buildings. Now it’s easy as an armchair urban planner to tell struggling cities to play the long game with urban decay, to wait for gentrification, but sell that to local residents. They want progress. Maybe a new bank and a 7/11.
Imagine, if you will, that the turret explodes into pure light. That’s why it’s cut off. (Original photo by Richie Diesterheft.)
The Blennerhassett Hotel, however, was a wonderful window into the past, a Queen Anne style brick building from the 1890s with a turret, pyramidal gabled roofs, and pediments. In other words, a hodgepodge of bad ass baroque shit. The lobby was airy and classy, the room solid except for one quibbling detail: a drop tile ceiling. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to ruin the illusion of timelessness. It was almost ingenious. But hey, there was a Keurig and two bathrobes. The TV was in the closet, so you could close the doors and pretend it wasn’t there.
The hotel bar was closing when we checked in, and the streets were quiet, a play of dark shadows and car lights. We escaped to our dreams.
Morning was overcast and chilly. We ate breakfast at Crystal Cafe, a prototypical Midwest cheap diner. It was a meal you could forget, and that’s not always so bad. Coffee cups with the names of customers filled a shelving unit, and old pictures of downtown Parkersburg lined the wall. Seniors crowded around small tables discussing medication, politics, and retirement funds. The jokes had a studied, practiced air, guaranteed to generate an easy laugh. People knew each other from streets in the old neighborhood.
Our intent was to take US 50 out of Parkersburg into Ohio, but somehow we ended up taking WV 681 into Belpre, Ohio. One quick trip through a low density, one-story Ohio town later and we were on OH 339, well on our way to a rural stretch of OH 60. The flat farmland of Ohio, stretching endlessly in tidy rows, is almost unnerving in its perfection, its mastery of order. The freshly painted homes and barns, almost simple to a fault, are reflections of the environment.
We hit our first snag in McConnelsville. A sign warned us that OH 60 was closed, both ways, for dozens of miles just north of town. Of course. At first, we took the suggested detour east on OH 78, but quickly lost our nerve at the prospect of delay and tried several desperate alternate routes through unmarked dirt roads. But for all of our desperate effort, somehow we ended up on OH 60 -again – right before the closure and had to backtrack to McConnelsville and take a bridge to a road on the western banks of the Muskingum River.
Ah, the mighty Muskingum. (Original photo by Mike.)
The ride to Zanesville on OH 669 and 555 was like a small reprieve of West Virginia, with sharp turns on hilly roads. Soon enough, we were in town, an old industrial city with shotgun houses and a stone courthouse modeled after the European palaces of the 19th century. They don’t make ’em like Zainesville anymore.
Not that I had much time to look around. The mess on OH 60 had us jonesing for the interstate and its beautiful simplicity. No stoplights, no pointless runarounds. The engineers behind the interstate were willing to drill through mountains and destroy entire neighborhoods to give us the most direct path possible. And as much as we may decry their unfeeling, steadfast dedication to efficiency, I’ll be damned if it didn’t accomplish the goal.
I-70 it was.
Hungry, we hit up Dirty Franks Hot Dog Palace in Columbus, Ohio since it serves up soy dogs, from tofurkey to imitation bratwurst. Molly is a strict vegetarian – she’d eat pizza before she’d eat meat. The hot dogs are pretty creative, too, with toppings like tater tots, “Greek relish”, sweet-hot cabbage, and crushed Fritos. And truthfully, how can you go wrong throwing random good shit on quality hot dogs?
The atmosphere of Dirty Franks can best be classified as ‘hipster caricature’. The wait staff wears glasses with funky colors! There are ironically bad drawings of pop stars and athletes on the walls! They have a figurine collection! SRIRACHA EVERYTHING, HOW CRAZY!
Are you hipster enough to handle this? Or are you just a middle-aged office drone looking for a way to spice up your life with zany hot dogs? (Original photo by Betty B.)
Dirty Franks is a fairly accurate summation of Columbus. It has a good product. It tries hard. But it’s still Columbus, land of suburbs and bland skyscrapers. The city sold its soul to the gods of modern development, and the few historic remaining historic districts are unlikely to conquer the homogeneous forces long ago unleashed upon its streets by cocksure architects. You can’t help but wonder why Ohioans can’t focus all of that energy currently channeled into making Columbus a cosmopolitan urban wonderland into fixing Cincinnati and Cleveland instead.
Fuck if I know. That said, I’d be happy enough living in Columbus, though it’d never be one of my top choices.
(Original photo by Stephen Wolfe.)
Our last stop, near I-75, was Findlay. The FLAG CITY USA signs on the freeway overpass always caught my eye whenever my family took trips down to see our relatives in Lima. I imagined a Main Street lined with American flags, an entire populace dedicated to spreading the gospel of patriotism through hard factory work.
The reality was a bit less grand, but still satisfying: a college town with a nice downtown strip, surrounded by a mostly upbeat suburban fringe. Walking down the real Main Street, the breeze had a coolness I hadn’t felt in a long time. It gives you the feeling, even when it’s 75 degrees out, that winter is waiting. I’d escaped the endless heat and humidity of Virginia.
I was already home. I didn’t need to see the embattled skylines of Toledo and Detroit from I-75. I took another sip from my spiced apple chai tea (Molly’s idea) from George’s Coffee House and smiled. This was it, alright.
Cue the P. Diddy. I’m coming home! (Original photo by Nicholas Eckhart.)