My traveling the roads of West Virginia a week ago, on Friday.
A little tired, a little sweaty, I pulled into the driveway of my house and then just sat in the car for a minute to just take in the moment. Sort of absentmindedly, I took off the ballcap I got from the Mothman Museum in June, tossed it into the backseat and smiled.
“Well, OK,” I thought. “I did it.”
I did what I set out to do, see and spend a little time in all 55 of West Virginia’s counties, without somehow driving my car into a ditch. I’d managed to road trip without breaking down, without ever once having to sleep in my car and without getting food poisoning.
I hadn’t really gained any weight.
These were all things that had worried me. None of them came to pass. I never broke down, never wrecked. The closest I came to ending up in a ditch was in Fayetteville, when a guy in red pickup swung out of his lane on the other side of the road while coming around a curve.
I scattered a little gravel on the shoulder, swore loudly and with great vigor, but nobody got hurt.
The thing about my weight was good news, too.
Through the summer, I ate an embarrassing amount of road food, fast food and just food designed to put meat on your bones. Somehow, I’d managed to finish the summer with the same pants size I started with.
It was an amazing summer and all along, people have regularly asked me what I liked the most, where did I go that I thought more people should see and who has the best cheeseburger?
That last one I can’t really answer. My belief is that there’s always a better cheeseburger out there. You never stopped looking, but the rest is somewhat easier to answer.
My favorite night was at Allegheny Echoes in Pocahontas County. The people made me feel welcome and the old-time music was as fine as I’ve ever heard played anywhere.
They also fed me like a pirate king. We ate boiled clams, ham, venison, and cake.
There might have been a vegetable in there somewhere, but I doubt it.
My favorite view was at Cranny Crow Overlook at Lost River State Park in Hardy County.
I remember how I grumbled and groused all the way up the mountain, but at the top, stood in wonder of the view –and then was delighted when a couple of jet fighters scrambled past.
They seemed so close, like I could wave, and the pilots might see me. The noise was like standing in a thundercloud. I could feel it in my bones.
Berkeley Springs was amazing, partly because of the hot, mineral water bath I got at the state park there. I needed a good wash, but the bath also eased the aches and pains collected from a long hike the previous day, followed by an anxious night spent trying to camp.
I don’t know that I could have managed the rest of the day without that soak. I was a long way from home on that trip and had a lot of ground to cover.
I’ll also remember Berkeley Springs in Morgan County for the Give Purrs A Chance cat rescue. I’d never met so many friendly cats in one place and I came within a hot minute of taking a cat with several extra toes home with me, but I still had miles to go before I’d make it back to Charleston and I hadn’t discussed the topic with my two dogs.
I’m a sucker for animals and probably would have driven to Preston County to Hovater’s Wildlife Zoo just to feed carrot sticks to a giraffe. That was my favorite thing in Preston County. The State Wildlife Center in Upshur County was my favorite thing there, though I have mixed feelings about French Creek Freddie, the state’s official groundhog.
Part of me hopes that he resumed his residency at the wildlife center and continues making dodgy predictions about the end of winter. Part of me hopes he’s broken out for good, changed his name to Dave, and is working as a blackjack dealer in Atlantic City.
There are plenty of places I wished I could have spent more time in.
I didn’t see nearly enough of Wheeling. I probably could have spent a week just trying out different restaurants and I would have loved to have caught a concert on the waterfront.
I could have spent more time in Tucker, Pendleton, and Grant Counties. I probably will find my way back sooner rather than later to see Seneca Rocks, Dolly Sods and Blackwater Falls.
I think I’d like to see them again when the leaves turn. By then, Big Timber Brewing’s taproom in Elkins should have their fall beers out. That seems like a good place to stop on the way back home.
My favorite beer this summer, incidentally, wasn’t at Big Timber, but was at Charles Town’s Abolitionist Ale Works in Jefferson County. Some of that was the brown ale I had, but a lot of it was the company.
The bar and restaurant was a lively lunch spot and brewer Rob Ciszek was a great host.
I was pleased to rediscover Mercer County, see how much it had grown since I’d left, and finally visit historic Bramwell.
It’s funny how you can live somewhere for so long and not see all of its best known attractions.
I saw a lot of good things, this summer, but also some not so good things.
Driving around, you can’t miss the empty buildings, the weedy lots, or the hollow-eyed people walking alongside the road. The roads, no surprise, could use some fixing and for a state that desperately wants to attract new people and new industry, we could probably do with less Confederate flags flying in front yards.
I’ve heard “Heritage not hate” for years, but just because that’s what it means to you, that doesn’t mean that it’s what it means to anybody else and they’re not going to bend on this point.
Take that from a man whose last name is Lynch, which is Irish and related to someone who thatches roofs.
No one remembers Lynch as a word used to describe honest work. The think of it as the root word describing a means of murder.
I’m proud of my family and my name, but I’ve come to learn to be more cautious about how that name is put to use.
We could replace those worn-out Confederate flags with WVU or Marshall flags. That’s about as much division as West Virginia needs, anyway.
During my travels, people were always kind to me.
In Keyser, “the friendliest City in the USA,” a woman opening her shop for the day stepped out of her door to tell me I didn’t need to worry about feeding the parking meter. It was Saturday and I could keep my quarter.
In Webster Count, Michelle Krompecher, one of the owners of Camp Holly, paid for my country fried steak dinner after I left my wallet at camp.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said.
And of course, everybody in Mingo County called me, “baby,” which they meant in a friendly way.
At least, I think so. Nobody asked for my phone number.
Finally, I end this project with deep gratitude. All throughout 55 in 55, readers have been very encouraging, supportive and from time to time, forgiving.
In the rush to get it all done, mistakes were made — not too many — but some happened. Thanks for cutting me some slack and letting me apologize.
It was a long, weird, surprising, exhausting, and amazing summer. I saw so much and barely scratched the surface of the state I’ve called home now for 30 years. I love West Virginia more now than I ever did before.
Thanks for coming along with me and I have no idea how I’m going to top this.