Almost heaven, West Virginia: Driving country roads in search of America today

I traced John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley" rural path from New York to San Francisco, along Route 50

Published July 6, 2018 5:00PM (EDT)

Keyser, WV (Shutterstock)
Keyser, WV (Shutterstock)

Excerpted with permission from "Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck's America" by Bill Barich. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

In the summer of 2008, Bill Barich stumbled on a used copy of John Steinbeck’s "Travels with Charley" in Ireland, where he’d been living, and it inspired him to explore the mood of the United States as Steinbeck had done almost a half century before. With a hotly contested election looming, and in the shadow of an economic meltdown, Barich set off on a 5,943-mile cross country drive from New York to his old hometown of San Francisco via Route 50, a road winding through America’s heartland. The following account from "Long Way Home" details Barich’s path following Steinbeck’s footsteps.

* * *

Illuminating facts emerge out of nowhere on the road. If I hadn’t stopped in New Market along Route 259 on the way to West Virginia, I’d never have learned about the Rockingham County Baseball League, founded in 1924 and the second-oldest organization in continuous operation after the majors.

The Shockers, New Market’s home team of amateurs, tackle the likes of the Shenandoah Indians and the Clover Hill Bucks at Rebel Field every summer. In their five years as a franchise, they’ve yet to post a winning record, though. Smokey Veney, the club’s manager, had a big­ league excuse for the press. He blamed the lack of pitching, but he hoped to correct it next season.

New Market looked spruced up, as if it anticipated a visit from the cousins over in Timberville. Flags billowed on Congress Street, where the oldest houses, elegantly restored, date from the colonial and federal eras. This was a Stars and Stripes sort of place, with a Norman Rockwell veneer.

For ten bucks you could go on a walking tour of “An All-American Town,” or opt for “Boys, Bugles, and Skirts,” a survey of the Civil War years. The docent affected the garb of the 1860s. Another tour focused on the exploits of the Scottish immigrant Jessie Rupert. As an outspoken abolitionist, she had earned the enmity of her Confederate neighbors. It might still be a little risky to praise the Union Army in New Market.

Rockingham County produces nearly one fifth of Virginia’s entire agricultural output. Chickens, turkeys, dairy cows, and beef cattle are the primary sources of income. The poultry plants and farms hire many Hispanics, so New Market has taquerias now, it has chimichangas and shops selling jalapenos and votive candles. Even more isolated than Page County, it’s more conservative, too, with Bush carrying 75 percent of the vote in the 2004 election.

On I went to Timberville, incorporated in 1884. At the Plains District Memorial Museum, there was plenty of history on show. History’s become a commodity in these far-flung towns, almost a living, breathing entity that threatens to erase the present and deprive it of any meaning.

The first drugstore, the first tannery, the first saddle and harness shop, it’s life as a quaint daguerreotype. Why can’t life be so simple and orderly in 2008? As for the future, don’t even go there.

To the west of Timberville I saw the ridged Appalachians, a panoramic view. At Fulks Run Grocery, I could smell the forest outside the store, but inside, a mouth-watering aroma of ham prevailed. The grocery doubled as Turner’s Ham House, largely a mail-order business. Shopping carts were piled with hams in nylon nets, each sugar-cured with a secret recipe.

These secret recipes, like history, seemed to be everywhere. It tortured me to see the packets of boneless ham and realize I could be frying up a slice with some eggs and hash browns if only I possessed a skillet and a flame.

Then I crossed over into West Virginia, a state I associated with an old friend who fetched up in San Francisco during the hippie heyday and captivated everyone with his stories. He came from a poor coal-mining region of the Appalachians — only Arkansas and Mississippi are poorer per capita than West Virginia — and told folk tales with a twang probably never before heard in the rarefied precincts of Berkeley’s English Department.

He stretched out every syllable of every word, so that time itself slowed down and expanded, and he played a hammered dulcimer, too, and made us all want to board a psychedelic bus and explore his home ground. And now I’d gone and done it, although in a Ford Focus.

The boundaries between states are artificial, of course, but West Virginia looked different from Virginia, more frayed at the edges, with a greater distance between the towns on Route 59. A billboard for the World Famous Smoke Hole Caverns in Petersburg, faded and peeling, could have been a Walker Evans photo from the 1930s. One might assume the caverns had crumbled to dust by now, but they’re still open to the public.

Mathias is so dinky it would be the last spot on earth where you’d expect to find a strip club, but there it was — Paradise City on Crab Run Road, its doors shut tight against the daylight while the gals indulged in their beauty sleep.

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Out of curiosity, I checked my laptop and discovered an online guide that rates the strip clubs of West Virginia. To win five stars, a club must meet all five of Jack Corbett’s exacting criteria — employ fifteen or more dancers per shift; host a Web site (a no-brainer, Jack says); present featured entertainers; price the drinks at six dollars or less; and serve some food.

Jack’s verdict on Paradise City? A half star.

I kept climbing into the foothills. At an elevation of about fifteen hundred feet, the landscape became less scrappy and more densely forested. To the east, trees ascended a flank of the Appalachians and again made the air smell fresh and clean.

The road passed through Lost City, once known as Cover, on the Lost River and then through the actual town of Lost River, where I asked about the stream’s mysterious name at the post office. Though the woman on duty could not be described as busy, much less overburdened, I must have interrupted her reading of Dan Brown or otherwise identified myself as a pain in the butt because she responded curtly.

“It disappears,” she snapped.

“Just goes away, does it?”

“No, it comes back again.”


“Somewhere. I can’t precisely say.”

I found the river on my own — more of a babbling brook in October — not far from the post office. It does disappear for a couple of miles, then resurfaces as the Cacapon River. It’s a sweet little stream ideal for a picnic on the grass, or lying on your side in a pose of Keatsian languor while you draft a sonnet.

Nearby stood a lovingly renovated barn, with two wagon wheels propped against it and a vintage tractor out front. The barn, more than 150 years old, houses the Lost River Artisans Cooperative, a collective whose members practice such traditional crafts as caning, basketry, weaving, quilting, and woodworking, although painters, potters, and artists in stained glass and other media also belong to it.

The barn’s divided in two. On the lower level there’s a museum, naturally, while a shop upstairs sells a wide variety of goods, some produced by the co-op but all indigenous to West Virginia — cookbooks, Mason jars of locally preserved jams and jellies, ceramics, jewelry, and wine.

From a bin of CDs I plucked "Old Songs," a compilation that ranged back to the Civil War. Ralph Hill and Wayne Strawderman, who performed the songs, looked as though they’d mastered their chops when they were boys at the knee of a musically inclined uncle. They both wore tractor caps, and Wayne relied on a pair of suspenders to hold up his blue jeans. He played mandolin and fiddle, while Ralph played guitar. They’d be no strangers to the high lonesome sound.

At the shop’s counter, I met Brooke Baumann. Bright and articulate, she’d been a co-op member for a long time. In her flannel shirt and denims, she might have been a relative of Wayne’s, but she grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and reached Lost River by way of Tacoma Park, Maryland, searching for a more supportive environment for creating her art.

Brooke designs floorcloths, or mats, and paints them in colorful acrylics under the name Goat On Roof. The mats often feature woodland critters — crows, pileated woodpeckers, barn swallows, lizards, and tree frogs. What attracted her to Lost River, aside from the area’s beauty, was the cost of living, downright economical in contrast to Tacoma Park. She owns a house with enough land for her animals — Jupiter the goat and Ginger the dog — and pays only six hundred dollars a year in property taxes.

At first, Brooke wondered if West Virginia would suit her. It suffers unfairly from a hillbilly image, she thinks, in part because of "Deliverance," even though the movie was shot elsewhere and James Dickey’s novel isn’t set in the state, but she gets along fine with her neighbors.

“They’re interested in who you are, not what you are,” she declared. If she has a problem, she can count on some help — fixing her car, say, or shoveling snow from her road. Four guys felled a tree on her property not long ago in exchange for a hundred bucks and four beers. One neighbor brings her brook trout fresh from a lake and ready for the pan.

Lost River has become a popular retreat for people from Washington, only two-plus hours away. They buy or build second homes, and use them on the weekend or for a summer vacation—lobbyists, government workers planning to retire in the foothills, CIA operatives. Nine out of ten houses around Brooke’s are vacant during the week.

“Must be pretty unsettling having the CIA next door.”

“Not as scary as the bears,” Brooke countered.

“You get a lot of them?”

“We do. Virginia dumps the troubled ones in our forest”

“Troubled? As in psychologically?”

“That’s right. Bears who’ve attacked campers, or are proficient at raiding campgrounds.” For a brief few seconds, my walk in Shenandoah National Park returned to haunt me.

Another reason for Lost River’s popularity with Washingtonians, I discovered, is The Guest House, a sixteen-room inn that’s friendly to gays and lesbians. The inn has a pool, a Jacuzzi, and a strikingly tranquil setting, and the chef acquires his ingredients from local sources. The words “organic” and “free-range” are frequently invoked on the menu. Except for the location, you could be in any sophisticated district of the capital — or America, for that matter. Lost River is a unique sliver of West Virginia, an island apart where the urban meets the rural in apparent harmony.

Beyond Lost River and Baker, the forest began to thin, and there were broad views of the mountains. I fiddled with the radio, looking for some country music, and hit on a station that mixed Faron Young, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and other classics with public service announcements. One advertised a church group’s all-you-can- eat breakfast — tubs of grits and vats of red-eye gravy. The doors opened at 5:30 a.m.

The Baptists rule in West Virginia, where the population is almost entirely white. They claim about one third of all churchgoers, while other Protestant sects account for most of the rest.

In spite of the conservative thrust in religion, West Virginians have been politically liberal until recently, preferring Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan in 1980. They even chose the ill-fated Michael Dukakis in 1988, and Bill Clinton won twice, but the Republicans reversed the trend in 2000, and again in 2004, by a wider margin. Some attribute the switch to the waning power of labor unions.

Arkansas, Rio, Delray, and High View amounted to a string of tiny, unincorporated places, each with fewer than two hundred residents and no special attractions. Capon Springs does draw visitors to Hampshire County with its medicinal waters, though, first discovered around 1765. When West Virginia seceded from Virginia to side with the Union in 1863, it stole the hot springs, but they were deemed so valuable the state was forced to make restitution during the era of Reconstruction.

At Augusta, I swung west to join U.S. 50 again, crossing the Potomac in Romney in the Eastern Panhandle. I planned to stay the night in Keyser, the only city of any size for miles around. It had stoplights, paved sidewalks, and drinking fountains, a regular paragon of civilization, but I couldn’t find a motel.

Keyser bills itself as The Friendliest City in the USA—an outlandish boast, perhaps, but West Virginians do seem friendlier than normal. The shoppers at a central mall were very solicitous when I started asking questions, first of a young cashier in a bulletproof gas station kiosk who couldn’t direct me to a motel and acted embarrassed about it. She urged me not to interpret her response as definitive.

“Don’t worry, somebody else will set you straight!” she shouted through her squawk box. I thought she might cock a finger and add, “Just follow the Yellow Brick Road!”

Another friendly woman offered to let me use her cell phone. Only then did I remember my own cell, so I checked for motel listings in Keyser and came up snake eyes. The quest now refined itself. Where would I sleep tonight? My ultimate benefactor, a rail-thin, stiff-backed gent, solved the riddle. He must have been in his sixties, but he appeared to be much, much older. A lifetime of hard work had worn him down to the bone.

“I’m looking for a motel,” I said with an invisible hat in hand.

“Motels are over yonder.” The sentence took a lot longer to be uttered than you might suspect. He spoke as slowly and teasingly as my old pal in California, stretching out the syllables like taffy. "In Cumberland." Pause. “Off the interstate.”

“In Maryland?” I’d already been to Maryland and wanted no part of an interstate.

“It’s not too bad of a drive.” Pause. “Where you from?"

“New York.” That seemed the simplest reply.

“Fixing to stay long?”

“Just overnight.”

“You ought to go see the ball eagles.” Pause. “‘Fore you leave.”

“The ball eagles?”

“Out at the Trough." He clarified this painstakingly over the next few minutes. The Trough is a gorge on the Potomac where bald eagles nest.

“Train from Romney’ll get you there.” Pause. "It’s a sightseeing train.” Pause. “You could go in the morning.” Pause. “Be a shame to miss it.”

He pointed me toward Cumberland. It wasn’t too bad of a drive. The pastures in Fort Ashby and Short Gap were wonderfully sweet-smelling. I’d never smelled grass as sweet as West Virginia’s.

Early in "Travels" Steinbeck bunks at an auto court in Maine and rages against the sterility of it.

“Everything was done in plastics — the floors, the curtain, tabletops of stainless burnless plastic, lamp shades of plastic,” he protested. He hated the water glasses wrapped in cellophane and the seal over the toilet seat, so he kicked it in and tried to soothe himself with some vodka and a hot bath.

We’re too inured to mediocrity to object to it now, but the motel in Cumberland still demoralized me. I borrowed a page from Steinbeck, poured a healthy shot of Kopper Kettle, and popped "Old Songs" into my laptop. Almost immediately, I felt better and less alone. The room, deliberately antiseptic, filled with a warm, human glow. A fiddler and a slug of whiskey might be the prescribed cure for anybody’s blues.

The songs were unfamiliar to me, but they wouldn’t be to most West Virginians. If you heard “The Wreck of Old 97” just once, it would stick in your mind forever. The rousing tempo matched the lyrics about an out-of-control mail train determined to reach Spencer, Virginia, on schedule.

Though the stoker threw on more coal, the engineer lost his air brakes at the seventy-five-foot-high Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, and Old 97 plummeted to earth and killed nine people—a true story. The engineer was found in the wreckage with his hand on the throttle. He’d been scalded to death by steam.

That number got my blood pumping. I poured another shot, bit into a Virginia Gold apple—still as crisp as ever—and listened to “Faded Love,” a Bob Wills song. The lyrics weren’t a patch on Old 97—“I miss you darlin’ more and more every day/As heaven would miss the stars above”—but if you blocked them out, the melody was catchy.

My favorite was “The Legend of the Rebel Soldier,” an anthem for those who’d like to fight the Civil War again. In a dreary Yankee prison, the rebel confronts his mortal fate before a parson. He asks but one question, “Preacher, will my soul pass through the Southland?” after which he lauds Georgia, Alabama, and the rest of Dixie.

The sympathetic parson will reassure him, we think, but that’s not what happens. The last line goes, “Then the rebel soldier dies.” He never gets his answer. Life is unfair, it seems, even for a Confederate with a cause.

A fresh start, that’s another American anthem. In a rush to return to West Virginia the next morning, I slapped "Old Songs" into the car’s CD player for some extra energy. Wayne and Ralph were more bracing than caffeine. In my atlas, U.S. 50 ran almost straight from Burlington Junction to Parkersburg on the Ohio border—a piece of cake, I thought, but that was another oversight in planning.

They don’t call West Virginia the Mountain State for nothing. The highway imitated a roller coaster. It dipped and climbed at abrupt intervals, and swerved and twisted at will. On most roads, you can safely ignore the posted speed limit, but on this stretch of U.S. 50 you’d go the way of Old 97 if you did.

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By Bill Barich

Bill Barich is the author of numerous books, among them "Big Dreams: Into the Heart of California" and "The Sporting Life." He has written extensively for the New Yorker, as well as Playboy and Sports Illustrated. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow in fiction. Barich lives in Dublin, Ireland.

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