How Odd is West Virginia?

Very Odd as you will see. You have already seen the Governor displaying a dog’s butt in answer to a constituent’s question, but let’s go deeper, into the State that is, on a visit to Odd itself. As one might say, “It’s thisaway”.

Are you feeling saved yet?

As with all good adventures, getting there is more than half the fun, so let’s begin at the beginning.

Many years ago the Weazel and Dr. Ann first met at a hot tub in the hazy hills. The occasion was an annual gathering of cave explorers from around the world known as the Old Timer’s Reunion. The first of these epic gatherings took place 72 years ago, and they were held every year thereafter until Covid put an end to all such frivolity in 2019. Silliness was set to resume in the year of our pandemic 2021, so needless to say we had to go, come hell or high water.

High water came first. As we drove north at the beginning of September Hurricane Ida hugged our left shoulder. We were not to be deterred by a mere category 4 storm that was predicted to pass directly over the poorly drained mountain valley where the party was to be held, but as we crossed the North Carolina/Virginia line a friend called to tell us that the Old Timer’s had been cancelled due to a resurgence of the most recent variant of Covid.

The local hospital in Elkins WV, the nearest city, was overwhelmed, and the authorities could not imagine how more than a thousand cavers could possibly party naked during a hurricane without someone being injured, so they ordered an emergency closure of the event just as people were pouring in from around the world.

We weren’t about to turn around and go back, and the campsite we had reserved in the Jefferson National Forest had also been closed by emergency decree, so where to go and what to do?

As Governor Justice (he of the dog’s butt) is eager to say, West Virginia is the butt of many jokes, but such jokes generally pertain to those who live in southern and western West Virginia, which is to say coal miners and their kin, and whoever didn’t have the wit or gumption to leave.

The average intelligence in West Virginia is much higher in the east than in the west because of a counter cultural diaspora that took place in the 1970s. Back to the land Hippies purchased remote farms all over the beautiful eastern part of the State where the mountains are tall and green, and where no extractive industries have marred the landscape and lowered the IQ . Many of my friends did just that, they moved to the hills to raise their families, and some have continued to live there in genteel poverty until this very day.

One such high minded fellow is my friend Andrew. After working with me for several years in the mid 80s as a skilled laborer, during which time he was known as the “Prince of Tedium” for his attention to detail, he took his meager savings and went to law school in Morgantown WV. Thereafter, he established a law practice, first as a public defender, then later as an administrative judge.

All was going well until he issued a ruling in favor of a plaintiff against a powerful coal company. That was a big mistake. Justice be damned. Anyone who rules against a coal company in West Virginia will be shown something far worse than a dog’s ass. He was disrobed as a judge, then hounded into practicing law in the absolutely worst parts of the State, those communities that had been left to rot after the coal seams ran out and the coal companies conveniently went bankrupt. His clients were the human detritus that couldn’t find their way out of the hollers, inbred losers who turned to opioids out of desperation.

With such a clientele, and very few local friends, Andrew has kept his high mindedness, but has developed a less than cheerful outlook on life. The Weazel, like Andrew, is a defender of all that is right and good, so I will not suffer my friends to mope. I will show them a good time if it kills them!

So it was that we took refuge against Hurricane Ida in Andrew’s remote cabin on the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere in southern West Virginia.

The tiny community of Odd was as far south into the coalfields as I had yet ventured, so I proposed to Andrew that we start there, and with him as our fearless tour guide make our way even further south into the pit of Hell, which is to say to pay a visit to Welch in McDowell county which is the epicenter of opioid abuse in North America. We packed a cooler full of beer and headed out into the storm. The twisting mountain roads were gloriously empty. There were no coal trucks because Mr. Peabody’s coal train done hauled it away.

Despite the culpability of his clients Andrew retains the exquisite sense of injustice that typifies all do-gooders; so, after nodding at Odd, we headed for a small community called Bramwell. I could tell by his bitter smirk that something was up. Either Andrew had a point to make or the beer was kicking in.

Bramwell was idyllic but appeared to be completely uninhabited. There were beautiful homes and formal gardens, all well tended, but nobody was around. Only the church and city hall were abandoned and unkempt.

As close as Dr. Ann is likely to get to a church

City hall has moved to temporary quarters.

Gone but not forgotten

So why did everything else look so spiffy even if no one was home? Because at the previous turn of the century Bramwell housed up to 19 millionaires, the greatest concentration of wealth in any small town anywhere in America at that time, all because of coal.

Andrew scowling at the thought of all those millionaires making off with the loot.

Bramwell was a veritable Potemkin village, A model town served by a convenient railhead where wealthy investors could tour the coalfields without ever seeing an actual grubby coal miner. I suggested to Andrew that perhaps he should move there and thus have a better set of clients, but the great grandchildren of the millionaires live elsewhere and already have their own lawyers.

Bramwell was a bubble. As soon as we left town the landscape became littered with increasingly large heaps of coal slag, and the homes transitioned from quaint Victorian cottages to tar paper shacks, many of which had either collapsed or burned down. The valleys are narrow and the mountains steep. There is little flat land to build upon, so many of the dilapidated shacks were located far up the mountainsides, and were accessible only by steep steps, most of which had long since collapsed. During the hundred plus mile drive I never saw a single human being.

Welch wasn’t a mere village, it was a real city with towering brick buildings and narrow streets. It more resembled a derelict industrial town in Romania than anything I had ever seen in West Virginia. This is what it looked like in 1946 when coal was king and the lucky people were the ones who weren’t in Europe.

All because of Unions.

But this is what the same street looks like now.

All because of Unions.

We drove all over town looking for a place to have lunch. Nothing, nada, zip. The land of the Hatfields and McCoys, a place where fortunes had been made, and where the first Federal food stamps were issued had all come to this, a ghost town where you can’t even buy lunch.

Where Sid Hatfield died

The building above is the McDowell county courthouse in Welch. The sign commemorates the death of Sid Hatfield. In 1921 he was the Police Chief of Matewan in nearby Mingo county. Despite being a bad ass redneck Sid was a union sympathizer who had been involved in the Matewan massacre, so he was shot by “detectives” (think Pink) hired by the coal barons. His assassination later led to the infamous Battle of Blair mountain where striking miners were bombed from the air, subjected to poison gas, and over a million rounds were fired, all at the behest of the government which supported the coal barons. Here’s Sid.

He’s got a mighty pretty mouth, but don’t try to kiss him cuz he’s mean!

We headed back northeast through piles of coal slag until we reached the eponymous town of Itmann, so named for it’s founder I. T. Mann. The town is effectively gone, but the company store was most impressive!

Way better than a Walmart!

Most coal company stores were featureless warehouses filled with substandard good sold to impoverished miners on credit, but old Isaac T had grander plans so he hired Italian stonemasons straight from the old country and had them build a castle where the sweaty coal miners could buy French cologne.

Where are the liveried guards?

Here is the administrative office.

The head office.

Those piles of rubbish are all that remains of intricate vellum drawings of the labyrinth of mine shafts that underlay the surrounding mountains. There are many miles of such subterranean passages, all of which are leaking acid and waiting to collapse. Without these drawings there is no possible way to restore the ruined landscape, or to avoid a needless tragedy, but who cares?

No one in West Virginia, much less the Governor, takes coal mine safety and environmental restoration seriously. To do so would require the services of a dedicated do-gooder like Andrew, but the powers that be carefully neuter people like him to make sure that their dying industry can scrape the last penny out of the otherwise empty barrel.

After enjoying Andrew’s company for several days we moved on to visit our friend Dean, the world’s most unlikely rocket scientist. Like Andrew, he and his wife Gail live on top of a mountain in a place even Hillbillies fear to tread. How they get there in the winter is beyond my comprehension. Dean doesn’t even have an advanced degree yet his walls are hung with commemorative plaques lauding his contributions to the Hubble space telescope program. He and Gail are seriously odd, even by the standards of West Virginia. I thought he was an atheist like most of my other friends until he converted to Hasidic Judaism which is not exactly a popular faith in the region, much less among scientists. Perhaps that is why they live so far up the mountain?

Dean offered to give us a tour of the nearby New river gorge. The New river is one of the oldest rivers on earth. It is even older than the Appalachian mountains across which it cuts. In doing so it forms the deepest gorge in the eastern United States. The famous New river bridge, from which people leap, was until recently the highest automotive bridge in the world.

The New river gorge and bridge. Image swiped from the National Park Service

There are few ways to get to the bottom of the gorge, but as you can see if you look closely there is a railroad track down there, and it goes all the way to Washington DC. To board the train you have to go to Thurmond, another ghost town, but one with an active Amtrak station!

The Thurmond Amtrak station. All aboard for the big city!

Thurmond is small now, the current census lists five inhabitants, but in the good old days it was a roaring railroad boom town famous for its gambling, gunfights, and whorehouses. Alcohol was banned, but a ritzy hotel just across the river solved all that. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Dunglen housed the world’s longest-running poker game, which continued uninterrupted for 14 years. Needless to say this lavish den of inequity was burned down by Christian reformers in anticipation of prohibition. Some of downtown Thurmond still survives, just minus all the people. Here is the bank.

The withdrawals have all been made.

This is one of the few towns I have ever seen in the United States that has no main street, just a railroad track. Above the town on the steep mountainside there were once many beautiful homes, but all have been subsumed by encroaching vegetation.

Even the ghosts have left

It is hard for me to imagine why such a ridiculously cute little town served by a functional railroad connected to a major metropolitan area has not been boutiqued by developers. Normally I resent gentrification, but in a place like this it would be an improvement over oblivion.

Enough of socializing. We had no desire to wear out our welcome, so we headed northeast for some quality time alone at our beloved campsite along Back creek in the mountains of Virginia just east of the West Virginia line. Back creek, a tributary of the Jackson river, is one of the most pristine streams in the east.

Back creek

The campsite itself isn’t anything special, but nearby there is a beautiful spring full of watercress that emerges from a cave that has never been explored. The entrance has long been sealed by a concrete structure intended to serve as a water supply. I know there is a large cave behind the wall because a cold wind blasts through the holes where the pipes have fallen out.

Blowing spring

There is another spring a short distance away, and it is obviously hydrologically connected. Ann, who is famous for crawling into nasty wet holes, was about to give it a go until we observed that no cold air was blowing out. That meant the cave passage within must surely be sumped; i .e., the water reaches the ceiling.

Ann considered the crack, but came to her senses.

But the other spring did blow, and it blew continuously rather than exhibiting a breathing phenomenon, which meant that the cave was both large and had an upper entrance somewhere on Back creek mountain. Needless to say we had to go look for it.

The topographic map showed an old logging road that looped up to the ridge and back. That seemed easy until we discovered that the putative logging road didn’t exist, so we simply headed up a ravine.

It didn’t help a bit that I had worn shorts. The ravine was filled with stinging nettle Urtica dioica, a wretched urticating pest to which I strongly react. I was amazed to observe that nettles seemed to be the preferred fare of the resident deer. How could they eat such a thing? Perhaps nettles are to them what chili peppers are to me, a favorite tongue tormenting spice!

About a mile from camp and far from any trail we discovered a nasty small sink with a waterfall pouring into it. This was surely the hypothetical upper entrance. It was about 500 vertical feet above the spring, so there is the potential for a deep pit. In the old days I would have felt compelled to explore it, but there is no way in Hell I am ever going to get on a rope again!

It seemed that at 73 I had finally come to my senses, but not completely. I noticed that the ridge of Back mountain was composed of hard sandstone, and if the ridge continued to have exposed rock all the way up the mountain there might possibly be a rattlesnake den. A few miles from camp a forest service road led straight to the top.

A great place for rattlesnakes!

It was exactly as I had imagined it would be, dry rocks exposed to the sun with deep crevices into which the snakes could retreat for hibernation. The problem was that these same conditions were too rugged for an old man to traverse. With every step I risked either stepping on a rattlesnake or falling into a hidden crevice. Someone younger with better balance might be able to leap from rock to rock, but I could not. One broken bone and my exploring days would be over. I retreated in ignominy and brooded about it for days. Eventually I swallowed my pride and accepted the reality that an old explorer who can still walk is better off that one who can only reminisce.

Back at camp we were pleased to have no neighbors, but the weekend was coming and that was sure to change. We were dismayed when a large and noisy group of drunken Hillbillies set up camp nearby. When they started playing guitars and singing we realized that our only recourse was the old dictum, “If you can’t beat um join um”! They turned out to be delightful people, true “salt of the earth” who lived nearby and gathered here every year for a family reunion.

I found their language to be particularly interesting. Unlike TV watching Walmart style Rednecks who speak with a generic uneducated drawl these people had retained the distinctive Scotch Irish Appalachian dialect of their ancestors. They were also more family oriented. Despite the presence of four generations everyone deferred to Maw and Paw. It was wonderful to be around people who still lived their history.

Consider how odd it is that these antiquated people lived much closer to “civilization” than most of the backwoods people one encounters anywhere in the mountains or throughout the deep south. They had retained more of their original culture than any of the others, yet these were Virginians who lived near Hot Springs, a hotbed of gentility where the rich and powerful from around the world have gathered to plot world domination ever since Thomas Jefferson was a pup.

The Hillbillies weren’t the only ones singing. Every night when camp quieted down we could hear the amazing serenade of a large pack of coyotes just up the creek. Late one night when I was well toasted by the fire and well soused with rum, I decided to take a night walk to ascertain where the nearby O’Roarke draft sank into the ground. I knew that it did so because it never reaches Back creek. The going was rough, but I eventually determined that it sank into a boulder pile never to be seen again.

It was much easier to return by the nearby road rather than to retrace my steps, so I climbed up to the road, turned off my light, and admired the night. All was still until the coyotes began howling again down by the creek. I would much rather listen to the songs of coyotes than to any man made music.

Because of the silence, and the fact I was above the pack and listening carefully, I could tell that it was not some standardized ritual like dogs barking or frogs croaking. They sounded nothing like the coyotes in Florida.

As I stood in the darkness a howl came from above and behind me. That was followed by carefully modulated yips, then another and another. It was three scouts out on patrol coordinating their movements and reporting back to headquarters. The coyotes below responded in kind. None of the yippings and yowlings were ever the same. It was obvious that they were actually having a conversation!

That was when I let out a howl of my own followed by the best yipping I could manage. The nearest coyote above me clearly said, “What? Who the fuck are you?” It might as well have been speaking English. I fell silent, then the scout asked the pack below, “Did you guys here that?”

I managed to have two more vocal interactions before the nearest scout realized I was a fraud and barked in indignation, but no more yipping. Yipping is for friends! The other two scouts also wanted to know what was going on. By that time the pack below was yelling, “Get the Hell out of there, it’s a damned human!” After that they all fell silent and I never heard them again. It was one of the most intimate and wonderful interactions I have ever had with wildlife.

One day I decided to follow Back creek north all the way to Highlands county Virginia, there to visit to visit some of the scenes of my youth and to wallow in nostalgia. Highlands county is a part of West Virginia that accidently got put in the wrong state.

The Blue grass valley of Virginia

The tiny town of Blue grass Virginia is as close to heaven as I ever hope to get. From there I headed west on a back road to the remotest place in the State of Virginia. My plan was to hike down to Laurel creek at the headwaters of my beloved North fork of the South branch of the Potomac river. I’m getting misty just thinking about it.

(Note to Dr. Ann: You can throw my dead carcass anywhere you wish. Weazelworld would be good, but if you want to take me on one last road trip you can always scatter me at the headwaters of the Potomac and I’ll be sure to find my way home.)

Now for the nostalgic part. The non descript abandoned house in the photo below is located in the middle of nowhere, yet it has an extraordinary history and looms large in my memory.

Where it all happened

As previously mentioned, in the early 70s Hippies had fled the cities to live simpler more honest lives. As Thoreau put it, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”. In the Blue Grass valley that meant raising sheep and vegetables while strumming guitars, smoking pot, and having great sex.

I have no idea how I first found this remote place, but when I did I discovered that a friendly oddball was building an entire sailboat inside the old house. He was amenable to visitors, so my friends and I became regular guests.

It was about that time that I walked around the house to discover two of my friends engaged in an epic act of fornication on the lawn. I politely excused myself, then turned to another friend and said, “I think that was a bullseye!” So it was that Jessica was conceived and later born. If only her life had turned out as well as it started.

Every time we visited the boat inside the house got bigger, so big in fact that there was no possible way to get it out of the house. I have forgotten whether the wall was torn down to get the boat out or whether the boat was torn apart and reassembled. It somehow eventually made it to the sea where it promptly sank. The oddball was not deterred. He then began work on a kayak which he eventually completed. Instead of taking it somewhere, he waited until a hurricane hit the mountains, then paddled with the flood all the way to the Chesapeake bay and out to sea, after which he threw the kayak into a dumpster and returned to the mountains.

Such absurdities were commonplace. One of my frequent companions to Highlands county was a kind hearted fellow named Billious, who had an inordinate fascination with all things digestive, and especially execratory. For Bill to shit was to pray, and he would often invite young women to join him in the sacrament, but his entreaties were just as often declined.

His obsession naturally led to an interest in all things with tubes and holes such as plumbing fixtures. His interest was not practical, but rather aesthetic. His home featured an elaborate display of fixtures but none were connected to any means of disposal. He preferred to use an outhouse, but was concerned with splashback, so he built a palatial privy thirty feet in the sky atop at tower designed solely for that purpose. It featured all the necessary accoutrements including diagonal seating for a better view, beer cooler, telephone, high powered rifle, and an extensive pornographic library.

One day Billious and I were driving through the nearby town of Monterey when he espied an unusual hill on the outskirts of town. It was tall, sheep shorn, and perfectly conical, rather like a miniature Mount Fuji. The hill spoke to him, and he knew what he had to do. He returned to his rented cabin, cleaned the toilet until it looked gleaming and new, something he had never done before, then unbolted it from the floor. Bill was not a particularly powerful or athletic man; but, with great effort, he managed to carry the burdensome toilet to the very top of the hill where it could be seen for miles around. With the beatific smile of someone receiving communion he pulled down his pants, sat on the gleaming throne, and shat. It was one of the happiest moments of his life.

But why did the hill speak to him? I later learned that Trimble knob is a strange geological anomaly. Unlike all the other mountains for hundreds of miles around it is an extinct volcano. I trust that the gods who dwell therein were as pleased with Bill’s offering as he was himself.

Another of my strange friends was a beautiful one eyed woman who was a successful modern artist. Her oeuvre was the painting of enormous monochromatic but otherwise blank canvases. Things like a “study in black”, which was black, and about 24 square feet in size. Art critics raved about the depth and complexity of her work, but one day she woke up (probably after reading Thoreau), and decided to move to Monterey to raise sheep. Toward that end she converted her enormous canvases into a teepee.

Years later my memory of these strange events, and many others, grew dim. I began to think that perhaps I had imagined it all while under the influence of omnipresent drugs. That is why it is said that if you can remember the 60s and 70s you weren’t really there.

Corroboration came in 2019 when we were visiting our friends Fang and Harny who own a beautiful farm not far from our camp. Fang volunteered to take us on a grand tour in her classic Mercury Marquis. One might suppose that a huge Mercury Marquis might be the wrong vehicle for back roads, but Fang handled it like an overloaded bootlegger outrunning a revenooer.

We were high atop Lantz mountains west of Blue Grass when we were surprised to find an old one eyed man walking down the lonely road. We stopped to see if he needed a ride, but he was just our for a stroll.

I asked if he had ever heard a crazy story about a sailboat being built inside a house a long time ago. He replied, “You’re almost there. It’s the first house you come to at the foot of the mountain, but it’s been empty for a long time.” I asked what had happened to the inhabitant. He replied, “That feller didn’t believe in no government no how, so one day he took his motor scooter down the mountain to buy supplies in Monterey but the Sheriff shot him dead for riding an unregistered scooter. As for your one eyed friend, I knew her well, but she just passed away.”

As soon as we got to the foot of the mountain I recognized the little valley. Nothing had changed except that the sheep were gone and the pasture had reverted to meadow.

Like John Denver said,

“Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain mama
Take me home, country roads”

It might sound corny to you, but here I go getting misty again.

Stay tuned for one more mountain adventure in the year of our pandemic 2021!