West Virginia Road Trip

The welcome signs to West Virginia read, “Almost Heaven…Wild and Wonderful“.  But as I drive deeper into the heart of coal country the signs begin to conjure up the lyrics of the Eagle’s song Hotel California, “this could be heaven or this could be hell.”

“It’s crazy, October the 14th and the leaves have hardly begun to change,” I told my wife as we turn onto State Rt. 84 at Frost, WV, driving the last 3 miles to Camp.  Global warming or short term anomaly?  Democrats cry global warming, Republicans are thankful for a few extra weeks of moderate weather and leave tomorrow to worry for itself.  I’m a centrist and worry some but pay more attention to data than pundits.  We all wish the leaves had more color.

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Normally by this week of October the leaves are at their peak, with yellows, oranges, and brown replacing the green you see in this picture.

We live in South Georgia where summer, if anything, has been even more stubborn.  I often think of late summer as being pregnant, like a 3rd trimester woman ready to get it over with.  The leaves begin to look tired and the vibrancy of the green dissipates.  Like the woman far past her pregnant glow, the leaves waddle in the wind like she does as she makes the last couple of nesting trips to Walmart just before the baby drops.

In South Georgia the temperature had been hovering around 90, like a middle aged man, still hot but less than the sizzling, humid, mid 90’s of his youth.  Hurricane Michael had just come through Valdosta, our home town.  Like the harlot the wife notices the husband admiring creating little more than a nuisance, it broke enough branches to temporarily knockout power, unlike the home wrecking devastation it left in its wake in the Florida Panhandle and southeastern, Georgia.  Like a Bible thumping committee chasing the home breaker out of town, the hurricane had been swiftly run out, northeast across the state by a cold front.

The hurricane had traversed the state 2 days before we began our journey.  You could clearly tell where the eye had passed by the many road signs, annoying eyesores at their best, blown down as we approached Cordele, GA.

It remained cloudy our entire journey from South Georgia to West Virginia.  Driving north it began to sprinkle gently, just enough to need the wipers intermittently.  It was a steady rain by the time we hit Windy Gap in southeast Virginia after climbing out of the hilly Piedmont Region on Interstate 77 into the honest-to-goodness Appalachian Mountains.  As the rain increased the temperature slowly dropped.  At any time I expected to cross a frontal boundary with a few squalls and then for the temperature to drop precipitously without a cloud in the sky.  But the rain held on like an annoying, old girlfriend and it was dreary our entire trip.

We stopped over in Man for a couple of nights to visit friends.  Jeff and Terry live on Pine Ridge, a community on Huff Creek in Logan County, WV which sits precariously on the side of the mountain overlooking Mallory Bottom where Jeff and I grew up.  Nothing much separates Pine Ridge from Mallory Bottom.  It was all painted with a single stroke like an “L” without lifting brush from canvas.  The vertical part of the stroke is Pine Ridge, the horizontal part Mallory Bottom.  Horizontal real estate exists only in the narrow ribbons along rivers and creeks and comes at a premium in this part of the state.  It’s surprising, and at times somewhat alarming, the places people build.

From the vantage of Jeff and Terry’s picture window I could see the house where I grew up.  It’s difficult to fathom all those years spent in that house now that I’ve spent over twice as much of my life away from it.

There was not much exceptional about that 3 bedroom, 1-½ bath cinder-block house (now brick, Dad had it done while I was away at college) except maybe that it served as a version of Stonehenge.  If you sat in the middle of the couch in the living room on the summer solstice, at the far upper left-hand corner of the living room picture window, the sun sits in the notch formed by the ridge coming down the left-hand side of Huff Creek and the mountain on the other side of the Guyandotte River.  On the winter solstice, the sun sits in the far right-hand side of the picture window in a notch formed in the mountains by the ridge running down the right-hand side of Huff Creek and the mountain on the other side of the Guyandotte.

Like a metronome the years of my youth were marked by the sun tracking back and forth across that picture window between the notches in the mountain.  Waiting 30 minutes when you’re 6-yrs.-old on Sunday afternoon for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom to come on television is an eternity.  But there is not much slow about time when you grow old.  Time becomes nimble and quick and much more difficult to grab hold of.

Things have considerably changed about Mallory Bottom over the years.  Bill Bailey’s and Teddy Brown’s gardens are now chockfull with houses.  The kids growing up there would never dream there used to be a groundhog burrow underneath what is now their kitchen and that a kid their age once shot quail and rabbits where White’s Armature Works and the new Junior High sit.  That’s a juxtaposition to the deer, turkey, and bear in the mountains where before there were none.  There are bear tooth marks in Jeff’s and Terri’s plastic trash cans to prove it.  That would have made headlines in the Logan Banner when I was a kid.  And now people travel from afar to hunt the big bucks in the archery only section of this part of the state.

There was drinking, people smoked marijuana, and a few of the hardcore occasionally dropped acid when I was growing up.  Women were prescribed Valium for “bad nerves”.  That’s been augmented by pharmaceutical opioids, crack cocaine, and heroine abuse.  Jeff gave me a running commentary one afternoon as we surveyed the Bottom from his front yard of the people who live there now and the drug abuse that was tearing the community apart.

In one of the house trailers that line the bank where the railroad track used to run, a man came out with a woman yelling after him.

“There was a drug bust there last summer,” Jeff told me.

We couldn’t discern what the woman was yelling but it was clear she was giving the man hell.  He walked down an alley out of sight and returned in a few minutes.  He tried the door which was evidently locked.  As he walked down the steps the door opened and he turned and went in.  In a few minutes he came out again with the woman yelling behind him.  He ran down the alley, came back in a little while and began doing push-ups in the road in front of the trailer.

“What the heck?” I wondered as the scenario repeated.  The man going in the trailer and then coming out with the woman yelling behind him.  He would do push-ups in the road in front of the trailer and then run down the alley to return and repeat the scenario for as long as we observed.

This changed my mind about founding the Mallory Bottom and Greater Huff Creek Poet’s Society.

There are good people who still live in the bottom like the Noles, the Lemons, the Adkins, and many more I’m sure.  We all have our stories, I think, and they probably look very strange to people looking in from the outside.

Jeff, Mary, and I took an afternoon walk through the woods, up the mountain behind Jeff’s house where I had spent so much of my time as a child and teenager.  The pasture, where Cecil Graham kept horses, had grown up and is now covered with big poplar trees.  The old gas well behind Teddy Brown’s was hardly recognizable.  Jeff’s dogs ran ahead of us, spoiling any chance of seeing game.  We walked on a well-worn path past the gas well to the road leading to another gas well up the hollow.  Mary ran with the dogs up the steep, dirt road.  Jeff lingered with me as I attempted not to show my windedness.  I broke records in track and still hold one for the fastest quarter mile ever run by an athlete in junior high in Logan County.  It is embarrassing to have people wait for me.  I tell myself as a consolation, that I still have a very good quality of life.  Not many at all are as lucky as I who have suffered from stage IV lung cancer and who have had triple-bypass heart surgery.

Jeff was a wild child growing up.  In his late teens, wearing nothing but his whitey tighties, a Spiderman Halloween mask with a red towel pinned around his neck, he would speed down Main Street on Sammy Browning’s dirt bike past the town cops sitting in their Chevette cop car.  He would inevitably lose them as they gave chase when he crossed Man hill.  After hiding the dirt bike off an old logging road, he would drive in his souped up Mustang back to Man and strike up a casual conversation with the cops.  He enjoyed telling them that if he were them and ever caught that guy, how he wouldn’t bother arresting him.  He would take the guy way the hell up Rock House Holler and beat the living crap out of him.  And I’m sure if Jeff had ever become a town cop, he would have done something just like that.  At the time, Jeff was a partier.  Law enforcement did not show up as a strong suit on his career assessment in high school.

Terri, on the other hand, even though she thinks of herself as a total nerd in high school, I think most must of thought of her as a stunning redhead, extraordinarily shapely, and quiet and unassuming in temperament.  She graduated at the top of her class.  Even though Jeff was exceedingly handsome, athletic, and funny, I doubt any of their friends ever imagined the 2 would be a match.  My perception is she would have been voted most likely not to date Jeff if there had been such a thing in the Man High School Year Book.  Maybe the attraction was because he was older and one of the few guys in the Triadelphia District who had the game to come on to such a beauty, even though she didn’t see herself that way.

Before Terri, Jeff got around.  Jeff’s faithfulness to Terri surprised many who knew him well.  Terri tempered Jeff’s wild child side.  After dating Terri for a time, Jeff began to work for Terri’s father in construction.  And Jeff was a hard worker.  While the other guys would carry 1 bundle of shingles to the roof, Jeff would carry 2.  All the heavy lifting eventually led to deteriorated discs and when a fall from a 2 story building broke Jeff’s hip, his days of heavy lifting were over.

Jeff doesn’t complain about the chronic pain and is ecstatic about staying at home more and babysitting Ely, their 4-month-old grandson.  They’ve created a wonderful life for themselves.  Terri graduated from Pharmacy school at WVU and they invested in the pharmacy Terri manages.  They have a beautiful home on Pine Ridge at the end of the road which affords them privacy. They raised two exceptional children who are on their own and successful. They are wonderful hosts and Mary and I look forward to them visiting us in South Georgia.

Some say Terri is the best thing that ever happened to Jeff.  After being with them for a day and 2 nights, it is obvious Terri thinks Jeff is the best thing that ever happened to her.  Mary and I agree on both counts.  Together they’re great.

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Jeff and Eli.

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Terri and Eli.

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Eli’s mom and dad, Erica and Ethan.

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Jane, Jeff and Terri’s daughter.

 

The temperature was is the high 40’s, and it was drizzling when we said good-bye at 10:00 am Sunday morning.  The drive up Huff Creek to the foot of Huff Mountain brought back memories.  Back then people dumped their trash along the creek in various places and old washing machines and other home appliances would accumulate.  During floods, the first sign of a big rise would be the plastic milk jugs floating down the river.  We still called communities coal camps back then and although the miners were no longer paid in script, there were still company stores operating where the miners could buy on credit.  I was blown away when I found, at 10-yrs.-old, I could charge a candy bar and a coke to my daddy’s account without him being there to approve.

The houses tend to continue to be built close together just as they had been when the communities were first created by the coal companies.  There are no subdivisions along the river, up the creeks, or snaking up the hollers in this part of WV with their neat rows of similar houses on named streets.  The communities are a hodgepodge of many old homes and some new.  A few of the houses remain from the original coal camp days and are livable.  Scarce, but standing out worse than a sore thumb, are the original coal camp houses that have been abandoned with derelict, old model cars from the 70’s and 80’s still sitting in a weed choked driveway under a caved-in carport.  Mixed among the shabbiness are a good many very nice homes with expensive late model pickups and SUV’s.

I mused as we drove through the pith of Appalachia; the rugged part where bleeding heart liberals once came to help the poor, where the coal barons from distant cities exploited and controlled the lives of these backwoods farmers and countless emigrants brought in to mine the coal; how the current inhabitants feel about where they live.  Are they proud like I was of their communities even while walking past the trash dump by the creek to fish at the “Big Rock” for smallmouth bass when I was a kid?  After all, the trash dumps have been removed, old appliances are no longer dumped along the logging and mine roads.  The creeks and rivers no longer run black with the untreated water used to clean coal.  They stock Buffalo Creek with trout where in 1972 a coal refuse dam collapsed and killed 126 people.  The alleys and side roads created in the coal camp days have been named for emergency service purposes.

I was blown away when one of the supervisors from the plant I managed in South Georgia brought his wife to Logan County on vacation to ride their 4-wheeler on the hundreds of miles of trails that snake through the mountains.  I could not imagine anyone coming to Logan County on vacation unless it was to visit relatives.  For a time in my 20’s, I drove past the Devil Anse Hatfield Memorial and down part of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail to get to the strip mine where I worked.  Then the memorial was grown up like a second growth forest 3 yrs. after a clear cut and seldom visited.  At the time, that part of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail was known as the Holden 22 mine road.

When I was growing up, WV was about as blue as a State could get, like the sky after a hard cold front roared through.  Until Hillary, the Democratic Party was thought of as championing welfare and the “little man”.  Republicans were thought of as the party of the coal barons, “Big Coal”.  They were the party of big business that exploited the “little man”.  Now the Democrats are known as the liberals who are out to destroy the coal industry.  Trump is a hero.  Perhaps not a “good Christian”, he is viewed by the Christian Right as an instrument in God’s hand, like the prophets viewed Nebuchadnezzar or Cyrus in the times of the Judean Exile.

We are in the vicinity of Blair Mountain, where in 1921 Federal troops were brought in to stop the mine war that was raging between union organizers in their attempted push into Logan and Mingo Counties, and the Baldwin-Felts thugs who were imported from Chicago by the mine operators to crush them, and aligned with the forces of Logan County’s Sheriff, Don Chafin.

As we cross Bolt Mountain, I point out the coal seams in the sheer sandstone cliffs where the side of the mountain was shaved away to make way for State Rt. 85 and 99.  We pass abandoned coal tipples where the coal was stored in towering silos to be loaded into waiting coal cars.  How long has it been since the tracks we cross have been strained by a long, long coal train on its way to an electric coal fired plant on the outskirts of a big city in the Northeast or Midwest?  Much of what we encounter is like a post-apocalyptic scene in a movie, the old company houses with caved-in roofs, abandoned cars, derelict coal tipples.  But even after all the years of mining, some coal is left in “them thar hills”.

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View of a coal seam driving across Bolt Mountain.

Hope remains for those who mine metallurgical coal.  Ethan, Jeff and Terri’s son, works at the new Ramaco coal preparation plant on Elk Creek which has a estimated 20 years of reserves and was a 20 million dollar investment that processes metallurgical coal.  Granted the coal industry in WV will never be what it once was, but under the Trump administration, many miners have gone back to work.


 
Ramaco Preparation Plant on Elk Creek in Logan County, WV.

The giant coal companies like Arch and Massey desire to mine the coal.  The miners and their new found friend, Donald Trump, want them to.  Various environmental and preservation groups, thought by locals to all be Democrats, are fighting to keep them from it.

Do the young men and women still living here know the history of the area, like the Battle of Blair Mountain and what transpired in the early 1920’s? To this day it is the largest armed uprising in the U.S.A. since the Civil War.  Do they have an inkling of the working conditions the early miners faced, even though most have relatives who died in mine accidents?  Growing up I know I was fairly clueless.

Even though some miners have recently gone back to work, it is accepted as fact by those who live here that coal will never be what it once was.  Like an old miner with black lung gasping for breath as he climbs the steps to his front porch, for most livelihood from the coal industry won’t last much longer.  What will these people do?  What will happen to all these small towns up the creeks and hollers that were once thriving communities, where up to this point, generations have breathed every breath of their existence?

When I was younger, expatriate hillbillies returning to visit moms and dads, brothers, sisters, and friends, all expressed feelings much the same as I have now.  I didn’t agree with their sentiments then; their mightier than thou attitudes, uppity at the least, and at worst sometimes making me feel they were snobs who were ignorant to start with, only confirming their low character with their attitudes.  These days I’m one of them.

So much has changed for the good in the coalfields.  Cleaning up some of the trash in the yards and bulldozing the abandoned homes and disposing of the derelict cars would go a long way in improving the appearance of the area and the reputation of those living here.

Soon after my grandfather passed, his home burned and all the junk he accumulated over the years went with it.  I look at my home now in South Georgia, in a neighborhood of doctors, lawyers, accountants, and business owners.  I see hints of Chatty Adkins in it.  Surely, my apple didn’t fall far from the tree.  I have no right to judge.

It seems to me that WV in large part gets its reputation from a portion of the state southwest of Charleston, and stretching a bit to the east along the Kanawha and a portion of the New River.  This is rugged territory with knife edge ridges and steep, deep valleys.  It is the heart of what people typically think of as Appalachia.  My family for at least 4 generations could have served as poster children.  Funny, but I still bristle as much as any West Virginian when my people, as they so often are, are depicted as poor white trash.

We turn on Interstate 77 and the lay of the topography changes as does the feel of the land.  Here the ridges are broad, with steep plunges to the creeks and rivers.  Then we turn onto Interstate 64 and climb over a mountain into the Greenbrier River Valley.

For me, this is the “almost heaven” part of the state.  Cattle and sheep dot the pastures carved out of the forests on the fat rolling ridges with the Alleghenies rising far off in the blue hazed distance.  As we leave Greenbrier County and enter Pocahontas County, we get to the “wild and wonderful” part of the state.  They call this the Birthplace of Rivers.  Five rivers find their origins here.

Deer were all but hunted out in Logan County by the early part of the 1900’s.  An influx of people during the development of the coalfields only made matters worse.  Some deer remained in the eastern mountains of WV, and there were plenty of forests there for squirrel hunters to spread out in, and long creeks and streams with no habitation, perfect for coons and coon hunting.

My uncle bought a piece of property on the WV/VA line and he and my father built a camp there.  They called it Camp Joy.  Uncle Benny was a big time coon hunter and kept a pack of exceptional coonhounds.  He was a drinker and a card player, a big boned, hard fellow, who no one much cared to cross.  It wasn’t long before that camp was burned down, probably by locals who didn’t care for Uncle Benny and who didn’t have the nerve to confront him face to face.

After the fire, a group of friends from our home town pitched in and bought an acre at the mouth of a hollow a mile down State Rt. 84. They built their camp with by-laws which reflected their values:  no drinking, no profanity, no women during hunting season, and no farting at the dinner table.  The summer my father graduated from high school, he earned his share in the camp by helping the carpenter they hired build it.

My fondest childhood memories revolve around visits during the hunting season spent there with my Dad.  And our family:  Dad, Mom, my 3 sisters and little brother, spent most of our summer vacations there.  I have returned through the years at every chance.

I remember going there with Dad on Labor Day weekends when all the members went up for a work weekend.  I remember when they installed a shower, a septic tank, and ran new water lines.  They put in a new kitchen sink.  They were so proud of their work.  Being only around 9-yrs.-old, I wasn’t much help.  I marveled at their expertise.

Forty-five years later and Dad was showing significant signs of Alzheimer’s disease.  Like a young girl with buck teeth, skinny with no curves, and mousey unkempt hair, the camp was never really pretty but became greatly loved by those who got to know her well.  As she reached old age, although still loved, whatever beauty she once held, if any at all, was all gone.  As she aged, the visits by those who loved her most became fewer and farther between.  All but one or two of the old members had passed away and the ones who still survived could not come on their own.  Field mice had taken over the place.  The homemade cabinetry in the kitchen was caving in, the planks in the doors had shrunk in the ensuing 70 yrs. since their construction, and served only to slow down the cold, winter wind.  The copper water lines consisted mostly of patches.

Nothing electric in the camp worked consistently, including the water pump.  There are few things more frustrating than getting up a luxurious lather and suddenly going from a gratifying, full stream to a trickle in far less time than you can possibly rinse out the suds. You’re left standing in the shower waiting for the pump to decide to work again.  Lately, it reminds me of my own plumbing, God help my prostate.

My youngest son, Luke, and I took Dad to the camp in 2007 for a week during buck season.  The camp falling apart wasn’t such a big deal for 3 guys, especially since we were there for only a week.  But I knew if I wanted to bring Dad back in the ensuing years, the Camp was going to need some serious work and the time to do it in.  I got the time during the great recession when the plant I managed was closed for weeks on end.  I took out a loan on my 401K, and the work I couldn’t finish myself, I hired out to contractors.

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Luke and Dad at the camp with deer taken in 2007.

At the time, there were about 4 people paying dues, $60 a year.  As I spent money and precious time, I didn’t bother to involve the others.  If they wanted to come back and take advantage of the camp, it was their prerogative.  It was worth it to me to be able to come back to the place I love so much, which held so many memories.

As I gutted the insides of the camp and saw the workmanship of the guys who worked on the camp when I was 9, I was left wondering what the hell?  All that work they did was slipshod and half-ass.  But thinking about it, they worked fulltime jobs and all the work on the Camp was done in a rush on long weekends and holidays.  The work I’ve done is holding solid, firm, and true for now.  Later on it may skew as wrong the other way.  At least now I have Mary to nail my left hand to the right-hand cross piece. “I am no carpenter, by Christ”!  I steal the sentiment and a line from Alan Dugan’s poem, Love Song: I and Thou.

Even after all that, there was still much left to do.  Things you wouldn’t ordinarily think of continued to malfunction long after the cosmetic things were done.  Like this summer when I had to dig up the septic line and replace it.  That was one nasty job.

Now, on our visits in the spring and summer, the first day is always spent cutting grass and brush.  I was surprised to find the grass had hardly grown at all since our last visit in July.  The porch needed swept, but that was about all.

There are 2 other members who use the Camp now other than Mary and me.  Clell, who is in his late 70’s, brings 2 nephews around the week of October 10th.  Danny, my brother-in-law from my first wife who passed away, came last deer season after about a 15 yr. hiatus, and plans to come again this year.  That’s it.  The rest of the time Mary and I have the camp to ourselves.  Clell and his nephews had left the day we arrived.

As we enter, I notice the kitchen rug needed swept, but everything else appeared neat and tidy.  I thought to myself, “They did a decent job cleaning up.”  But it was only “man clean”.

When Mary came in she exclaimed, “I wish someone would teach those guys how to clean.  Just once I’d like to come in after they left and not have to spend hours cleaning!”

The next 3 hours Mary and I went through the camp like a white tornado.  Finally, it was to her liking.  There wasn’t a field mice turd, a bug, or a leaf left in the Camp. The toilet, shower, and lavatory were sparkling.  It was irrevocably clean.

And for once, everything in the camp was working.  What project was left to do?  Oh, there were plenty of things that could be done, like painting the wall where the chimney had leaked from the flume for the coal stove.  We needed to pick up a 220 electric heater to replace the coal stove.  That would be done on our next trip to Marlinton or Lewisburg.  All we were compelled to do is hunt, and fish, and love every minute of it!

The cold front that had chased Michael out of Georgia had cooled things down a bit in WV, but it was the reinforcing cold fronts after Michael that really changed the weather.  We hunted through them, Mary with her sweet little 20 ga. Berretta and me with my bow.

On our second day, we hunted up the forest road of Sugar Camp Hollow.  We caught a squirrel out for once and it ran up a big oak.  I walked to the opposite side of the tree from Mary and he came around where Mary made a clean shot. Maybe the neatest thing about the hunt is the pictures we took of a Marbled Orb spider.  He’s not poisonous but he sure looks menacing.

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Marbled Orb Spider. Beautiful but not dangerous.

Although we were hunting and traveling fairly slowly, I was still having problems keeping up with Mary.  I told her to go ahead, that I was going to wait for deer and would catch up directly. I didn’t take a stand.  I waited for her to go around a bend and for the nueropathy in my feet to stop burning and then followed.  I finally caught up near the top after she had stopped to watch a stand of shag bark hickory for squirrels.

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Yes, Mary, that is a squirrel in my pocket, but I am glad to see you.

This year there are so many white oak acorns the game doesn’t need to search for food.  White oak acorns are large and it only takes a few to fill up a squirrel.  We shot a couple of squirrels but didn’t see even one deer the entire time we were in the woods.  This spring and summer we would see up to 40 deer in the hay fields on the 10 mile drive from Minnehaha to Frost so we know they are there.  This time we didn’t see a single deer in the fields.  They were filling up on the white oak back in the woods.  They won’t move much until the rut, when the bucks will get as stupid as a college freshman in a bar.

The first couple of days we were there the WV Department of Natural Resources were doing the fall stocking of the trout streams, but the wind was blowing so hard we had to put sinkers on our lines just to keep the wind from lifting them out of the water and blowing the bait off our hooks.  We managed to catch a couple of minnows, which we tried using as bait to no avail.

An old college roommate, Walter Boylan and his girlfriend, Mary Ann, were supposed to arrive at the camp on Friday evening.  Walter got hung up helping a friend move his mother and they arrived in the early afternoon on Saturday.

Walter was one of the few wrestlers in high school who consistently came in under weight at weigh-ins.  He has gained weight since then, and while not exactly brawny, he looks very healthy.  He still has a full head of red, slightly graying hair and a strong chin with a neatly trimmed, red beard.  Kind of a, but not a full version of, the Brawny Towel guy.  Mary Ann is a totally unpretentious, pretty, middle aged woman who probably never considered coloring her grey hair, unlike my totally unpretentious Venezuelan beauty.  Walter has been married twice before and says he will never marry again.  That’s a shame, I think, because they make a great couple.  He lives in Greenville, South Carolina and she just outside of Charleston, WV.  They’re one of the few who are able to make a long distance relationship work.  We stayed at Mary Ann’s house this spring when Mary and I came to Charleston for me to compete in the WV Liar’s contest at the State Capital grounds during the Vandalia Festival.

We built a fire in the pit in front of the camp and I commenced to tell stories.  Presently Walter brought out a bottle of Tennessee, Salty Carmel Whiskey from the cooler in their car.  I like whiskey because it hurts so good!  This stuff was dangerous because it was good and didn’t hurt at all.  We passed it around the fire and I continued to reminisce (tell exaggerated stories/lies).  I took the 2 squirrels we had shot earlier in the week, seasoned them with Emeril’s Rib Rub, Lowry’s Seasoning Salt, and about a stick of butter.  I wrapped them in aluminum foil, arranged the coals in the fire, and plopped them in.

Mary Ann had never had roof rabbit (squirrel) before.  I expected it to be overcooked on one side and practically raw on the other.  I told them no matter how they preferred their meat, they would find at least a small portion to their liking.

When I flipped the “roof rabbits”, the butter shifted and there was a delicious sizzle.  About 12 minutes after flipping, I pulled the sizzling, steaming packet out of the fire.  Perfection!  They were young squirrels from the first liter of the year, tender but adult in size.

It was the best squirrel I’d ever eaten, and my father having been the best squirrel hunter in WV, I’ve eaten a horde of squirrels.  The first squirrel fell apart in 3 pieces naturally and I gave Mary Ann and Walter a piece each and took the other.  We wolfed it down and they asked for more.  Maybe it was the liquor, but I didn’t offer Mary a piece.

“Oh, my gosh!” was heard all around as we savored the “roof rabbit”.  After we devoured the first squirrel, I tore apart the remaining one and again shared a 3rd each with Walter and Mary Ann.  As I chewed the last bit of flesh from the bone and was spitting out the #6 buckshot which had brought the squirrel’s life to an end, Mary, my sweet, darling wife and hunting partner exclaimed, “What about me!”  The 3 of us had jealously consumed the squirrel and I hadn’t given Mary a second thought.

“Sorry, I don’t believe I just did that!” was all I could muster in response as I licked the delicious squirrel grease and butter from my lips and off my fingers.

Mary is not at all bashful.  She is the quintessential confident, Venezuelan beauty, much like a slightly older version of the Venezuelan women who have won the Miss Universe Pageant more often than any other nationality.  I’m tremendously blessed to have her as my wife.  And she loves me!   How do you make up for bogarting squirrel to such a woman?  I don’t know how, but I will, I must!

Mary had only a sip of the whiskey and wasn’t experiencing the same exuberance as the rest of us after eating the squirrel.  Walter suggested calling an Uber to drive us to Marlinton to get another bottle of the Salty, Carmel, Tennessee Whiskey.  It was a great idea except that the closest phone service was at the Marlinton city limits.  I guess a ride back would be better than nothing.  Mary was still stone cold sober and after careful consideration, I agreed to let her drive us.

 

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Mary Ann and Mary Peeling Apples for a Pie

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Good times with Walter and Mary Ann at Cass.

I made a friend at the liquor store.  He was a semi-distinguished looking, though a little rummy eyed, gentleman holding a large paper sack with what appeared to be several bottles of liquor. I struck up a conversation with him as I waited for the others to come out of the store.  He told me about bear hunting with a 22.  “You have to shoot them in the corner of the eye, and the bullet will follow the optic nerve path into the cranium,” he explained.  “The skull is much too thick for a 22 to penetrate,” he assured me.  I was spared from a yarn about him being a sniper in the service when Mary came out of the liquor store and pulled me into the Sequoia.  She’s good like that.

On the way back Mary pulled off in a wide space by Knapps Creek for Walter and me to relieve ourselves.  I was feeling pretty confident, hanging low and clearing my boots adequately taking a piss.  Then Walter whips his out, and pisses halfway across the creek.  “The one benefit of not having a prostate,” he explained, smiling, clearly proud of his pissing ability.

We were enjoying each other’s company so much we didn’t think to open the bottle of liquor on the return to camp.   Against camp rules, I ended up absent mindedly leaving it in the freezer.

I cooked the typical camp breakfast the next morning:  fried eggs, bacon, sausage, gravy, biscuits, and fried apples.  The only thing missing were the home fries.  I came by triple-bypass surgery honestly.  Hopefully, the atorovastin I take now will help keep my arteries flowing for a few more years.  With the addition of the breakfast to the squirrels we had the evening before, it made the journey to the camp seem complete even though we didn’t have much luck hunting and fishing.

We topped off Walter and Mary Ann’s visit with a trip to Cass Railroad, a tourist destination where you can ride an early 1900’s logging train to the second highest point in WV.  The overlook at the top of the mountain has a view of the giant, other worldly, radio telescopes way down in the valley near the community of Greenbank.

There were cars parked in the Cass parking lot with 3” of snow on the hood.  Evidently the owners had spent the night at Snowshoe Ski Resort which is located at the top of the mountain past Cass on Rt. 66.  We didn’t consider taking the train with the weather the way it was.

The store and the restaurant at Cass remind me of the coal camp company stores of my youth on Huff and Buffalo Creeks.  After all, the buildings were part of the old, logging company operation from the early 1900’s.  But only a few of the people there were similar to the people I grew up with.  There were men wearing turbans and women wearing burqa’s, Quaker’s wearing overalls and granny dresses, and Asians wearing modern apparel, coming off the train mixed in with the rednecks in their Carhartt hoodies, and women wearing shirts that proclaim, “We don’t retreat, we reload.”  Welcome to modern America, Pocahontas County, WV!

We said our bittersweet good-byes to Walter and Mary Ann Sunday afternoon.  I spent Monday morning writing much of this.  In the afternoon we fished.  The creek had come down and cleared up and the wind was no longer roaring.  We saw some trout but couldn’t interest them in anything we offered.  I bet they would have hit my homemade secret bait, but I didn’t prepare any for this trip.  We had planned on driving the 26 miles through the mountain on the dirt road of Forrest Rt. 55 after fishing but it got too late.

The camp was already clean, but we cleaned for hours more before we left Tuesday afternoon.  When Danny comes up on Nov. 9th he has no chance of cleaning enough before he leaves to satisfy Mary.  She’ll clean for 3 hours on our return regardless, so I hope he doesn’t waste his time.

The cold front that brought the snow to the cars at the Cass parking lot had raced to the south and we were now under the influence of a giant high pressure system, just the kind of weather we wish we had when we arrived.

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Beautiful weather with color finally tinging the trees the day we depart. Normally most of the leaves have fallen by this time of year.

We left Camp in the afternoon, so much of our journey home was in the dark.  We arrived at the house at 3:00 am.  There was a faint smell of rotten meat in the garage, like the spoiled boar in the chest freezers in the garage in our house in Florida after hurricane Jean in 2004.  When I opened the door into the kitchen I was bowled over.  Somehow, we had left the freeze door cracked open before we left home 9 days before.  A brown puddle of goop had dried on the tile in front of the fridge.

We spent a couple of hours cleaning before unpacking the car.  A faint reminder remains still.  Will it ever dissipate?  I think whenever we smell something faint in the kitchen, even if it has nothing to do with the freezer, it will remind us of it.  Kind of like an unpleasant childhood memory that never fades completely.  A little bit like parts of my childhood growing up in Mallory Bottom.

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