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Monday, December 08, 2008

The Country Roads That Took Me Home

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I have an on-going, smoldering love affair with West Virginia. If I could, I would make sweet love to the land, but barring that, I decided early in life that I would never marry a man who didn't share in my love of the Mennen's Toilet Powder sign and I stuck hard and fast to that rule. Josh didn't get to home base until he had passed the Harper's Ferry Test.

When Manda announced she was starting a site called "Finding West Virginia," I immediately begged her to take me along when they hit Berkeley Springs or Harper's Ferry. Which led to me turning to Josh at 11 o'clock on a Friday night after Thanksgiving and saying, "let's go to Shepherdstown tomorrow."

"Like, tomorrow tomorrow?" he asked.

"For a Christmas festival," I answered, glancing between the town's website on the computer screen and Josh's incredulous face.

"But we're Jewish," he reminded me.

"No one will know."

Back in college, we had a term called "self-contained unit" that we used to discuss how little we were carrying--and carrying applied to anything that would leave our body at any point during the evening including our coat. The ultimate self-contained unit would be someone who only carried what could fit in pockets and wore a sweatshirt that could be removed and tied around the waist inside an overheated-in-winter Wisconsin building.

In order to become the ultimate self-contained unit, you needed to invest in a pair of old school long underwear. This would be worn underneath the outfit, ensuring that any good bra was quickly turned into a uni-boob. A breast shelf. Over that went a thin shirt--maybe even a t-shirt if it was still the 90s--and then a sweatshirt that could be removed. No one owned cell phones or iPods in college therefore, pockets contained keys, a credit card, some money, and a Chapstick. Voila--the self-contained unit.

Why did I need to be a self-contained unit for this trip? I don't know. I mean, the point in college is that you didn't need to deal with taking care of a coat at a party (or have someone have sex on top of it if you slung it over a bed). I didn't really have a point for being coat-less this trip but I proudly strutted down the stairs in my finery--a March of Dimes sweatshirt and jeans with furry boots to ensure maximum leg warmth.

"Check this out," I breathed at Josh.

"I think you're probably going to be too hot," he warned.

And twenty minutes later, as I sat in the living room, eating a meal of plastic food the ChickieNob prepared for me while we waited for Josh to get ready, I had to agree. I curled up on the floor, trying not to dampen the carpet with my sweaty forehead.

"This is like Dead Sea hot," I panted.

"What is dead?" the ChickieNob asked.

Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! I wasn't prepared! I wasn't prepared. I corrected myself. "This is Red Sea hot. Like Eilat in July."

We piled in the car and I reasoned with the Wolvog that it was impossible to drive to West Virginia listening to Paul Simon who has been living in my CD player on continual play for about three months now. "Paul is fine for driving around here or going up I-95. But when you go west, you need John Denver."

"I don't know John Denver," he told me.

"I'll tell you all my favourite songs when they come on. You're going to love him," I promised.

"You're not going to love him," Josh corrected. "I don't love him. She told me that I would love him and it still hasn't happened."

Except who was that in the driver seat, singing along to "Thank G-d I'm a Country Boy?"

I thought so.

We pulled into Harper's Ferry first because I have been telling the twins the story of the Mennen's Toilet Powder sign for four straight years. The story goes (as the man from River and Trail Outfitters told me) was that Mennen paid a native American man some time between 1903 and 1906 to free-climb the rock face and paint a sign that said: "Mennen's Borated Talcum Toilet Powder" with his homemade paint. No one knows what he put in the paint but once they declared the area a National Park, they tried using a plethora of methods to remove the advertisement (which is also billed as the first billboard in America) including sandblasting and it is still there to this day.

Walking through Harper's Ferry

Mennen's Borated Talcum Toilet Powder up close and personal

The remains of the old bridge in the space where the Potomac meets the Shenandoah

This was the twins first time in Harper's Ferry and we did the grand tour. We printed out worksheets from the website and went on a scavenger hunt through the town. We went into the dry goods store and bakery (which strangely enough, turned out to be public bathroom). We went over the foot bridge in order to get a better look at the Mennen's Toilet Powder advertisement.

Walking on the foot bridge. Can you see the sign on the rocks above?

We walked up the hill to the church that the ChickieNob dubbed "Sweet Little Church" and had a picnic on the stone plaza. The railing overlooking the town below was festooned with pine and ribbons. We didn't get to go inside because the church was closed so they missed out on the eight-foot-tall wax Jesus covered in 39 lashes. We also didn't continue up the hill to the cemetery even though I wanted to revisit the site where Josh once dropped trouser next to a headstone for Mr. Butts (okay, raise your hand if you have the same photograph). You know, the whole "avoiding the topic" thing.

This church is one of my favourite places in the whole world. It is so quiet inside and it has this distinct, musty smell and dim lights that makes your whole body go quiet.

This is the space I always thought about when we spoke about bringing the twins here. I didn't want to bring them until they were old enough to remember their first trip.

It was this sort of picnic--a pile on each other and rest and enjoy the view sort of picnic

The Mennen's Toilet Powder sign from afar

Watching a train get swallowed by the mountain

After lunch, we walked through the town and discovered how sparkle lights are powered (a pressing question that had been bothering the Wolvog for quite some time). We also stopped in Aunt Irene's and bought a pack of m&ms and fudge. Which is where we ended up with Little Stevie.

My brother once bought the ChickieNob a stuffed guinea pig that she promptly named Stevie after my brother's roommate at the time who we called Uncle Steve. Stevie is well-known throughout Maryland due to his familiar cry of "goodie!" which he makes--apparently--before he poops on you. Everyone who has visited my house has met Stevie and has been pooped on and my mother often enjoys me calling her at odd hours and beginning the conversation with a "goodie!" Even Mr. Badger uses it to lighten the mood over at Chez Lindsay. It does feel good to say. Goodie!

I'll give you a moment to wipe off the imaginary poop.

The Wolvog fell in love with a miniature version of Stevie that was being sold at the candy store and he gave up his own treat in order to bring home the stuffed animal that he named Little Stevie. Little Stevie came with a convenient clip which enabled the Wolvog to attach him to his coat zipper (yes, he was wearing a coat because he was not a self-contained unit) and hold him out from his chest at passersby to scream at them, "goodie! Poop, poop, poop."

Once that occurred, it was time to hit the road again.

We got back in the car which we had left by the train station. This train station holds a special place in my heart because we had a rule in summer camp that you were not allowed to call home. Ever. The whole summer (which was probably only four weeks, but still. I was a very sensitive child in case you couldn't guess).

Harper's Ferry train station

On a trip to Harper's Ferry, we left the group and ran down to the train station to use the pay phone. We called our respective houses and begged for candy. My mother seemingly came through a few days later. There was a rule at our camp that no outside food could enter because it was a kosher camp, therefore, all packages were opened and checked. A friend was in the office and saw the unopened box and snuck it out to our cabin. We hid it at the bottom of my sleeping bag and waited all day to open it. Once our counselor was gone, we slid off the wrapping to reveal a salt-water taffy box from Candy Kitchen. We literally couldn't peel off the tape fast enough. Inside was a hand-held fan. And a note. Something about keeping cool.

That's how I became the most unpopular girl in the cabin in under three minutes. The other reason was the time I accidentally pulled the sink out of the wall and the cabin flooded.

So we collected our car at said train station and continued on to Shepherdstown and the Christmas festival. We have an uneven love of Christmas in our house. I mean, yes, we're both observant Jews who keep kosher and speak Hebrish with the kids. But I'm also a closeted Christmas lover. I like candy canes. I like sparkle lights. And I looooooooove Christmas music.

A make-sweet-love-to-Christmas-music type relationship.

So I mumbled my way through the description of the carolers and the sparkle lights and the Christmas show and told Josh that there was going to be Klezmer band--a Klezmer band!--at the war memorial hall that day. He agreed to go in support of the three Jews who live in West Virginia and said we could stay for the rest of the Christmas program including the roasted chestnuts.

And then we fell in love with Shepherdstown. We had never been there even though it's only ten miles from Harper's Ferry and you already know how I feel about that saucy wench. It is so cute and little and happy and sweet. Sweet. It is literally the sweetest town in the world with restaurants perfectly tailored to our tastes including the Three Onions Lounge, Kazu Thai and Japanese restaurant, and the Stone Soup Bistro (seriously, could there ever be a more perfect restaurant for me in the world?).

There are book stores and coffee shops. There is a little tea shop where I got a cup of English Breakfast for the road.

Art from the tea shop

Shaharazades tea shop

Everything we came for didn't materialize--no carolers, no chestnuts, and the Klezmer band wasn't a great fit. But we fell in love with this elderly man who did a magic trick for the ChickieNob while we walked through an art fair. And we tried out the Victorian Christmas toys at a museum, gently caressing the unlit candles decorating the tree. We walked on the stone walls and checked out the tiny creek that ran near the college--because it was that sort of town--the kind where you find these small wonders where you least expect them.

The creek by the college

We got back in the car at the end of the night so happy. Except Little Stevie.

"Goodge goodge goodge," the Wolvog moaned from the backseat.

"What does that mean?" we asked him.

"It's not me, it's Stevie. It's Little Stevie, I mean. He's so sad. He doesn't like your music. He only likes Paul Simon."

We switched the CD and Paul Simon returned. I missed John Denver. He fits the space--the view from the bridge when you are about to cross the river into Harper's Ferry and you can see the advertisement on the rock face and the sweet little church peeking out above the trees. I waited four years to bring the twins here--eight if you count the fact that Josh and I started speaking about our children years before they arrived. It was the perfect introduction to West Virginia (fine, fine, second introduction since the ChickieNob took her first steps in another town in the state). And I didn't leave anything behind since I was a self-contained unit.

The Miner's Lady, I was once told--again, by someone from River and Trail Outfitters (purveyors of white water rapid outings and West Virginia information)--was the name of a rapid in the Shenandoah River. Was the line referencing the almost Heaven, West Virginian point on the river or was the rapid named after the line in his song? Or was the Miner's Lady something else entirely? This is what I thought about when the sun set over the river and we made our way home.


luna said...

great post, never been there. wolvog and chickienob are adorable from behind!

Jaymee said...

love the pictures!! i am smelling a road trip in the near future!!

Kristin said...

What a fabulous post and great stories. Shhh...don't tell anyone that I like some of those John Denver songs too. My parents played it all the time when I was younger.

Anonymous said...

My first airshift at my radio station in Houston happened to occur on Thanksgiving Day of... 2004? Anyway, when it came time for the last song of my evening (round about 5:54ish), I played Country Roads. "I hear her voice in the mornin' hour she calls me, radio reminds me of my home far away..." I cried all the way home.

Now firmly in my adulthood (and back home, where I doubtlessly belong), I cannot listen to Country Roads without getting misty-eyed. Just can't do it. I put that song on, look at this incredible world of beauty that I get to live in, and it just hits me right square in the heart.

The fact that you have such a deep-rooted love for this place makes me love you that much more.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the wonderful comments about Shepherdstown. We love our town as well. Please come back again.

Anonymous said...

I am a gigantic, unabashed John Denver fan. After my parents' divorce, I was under the impression that John was actually my dad. When my dad took me to a John Denver concert a year later, the mystery was solved. There was less John Denver music in the house when he moved out, but that didn't me HE was was actually John. Yeah, I was a weird kid.

Back to you and your post.

Thanks for taking us along on your visit to West Virginia. Being a west-coaster, I'm not sure when/if I'll make it to West Virginia (what with more exotic destinations competing for my meager travel budget), but it sounds absolutely idyllic.

Also, the self-contained unit thing, I loved to do that when I first went to Europe. It was exhiliratingly free feeling.

loribeth said...

I'm going to have that song running through my head all day now. :) When I was in jr high band, we played a John Denver medley -- "Leaving on a Jet Plane/Country Roads/Rocky Mountain High." It was always my favourite number that we did. :)

Billy said...

Sounds like a lovely trip you had :-).

Another Dreamer said...

Love the photos, that looks (and sounds) like it was quite a pleasant trip.

Tash said...

Ooohh, one of my favorite places too. I used to love that one could more or less stand where Jefferson did when he wrote about the confluence of the rivers in "Notes on The State of Virginia." I remember walking into that church and being shocked beyond recognition when my agnostic husband *genuflected.* (Claimed it was old habit.) And walking a bit along the trail, wondering if some day we might be the types to walk along it further.

I even miss it a wee bit. Just a wee. Thanks.

Lori said...

We claim John Denver in these parts, and I sang many a "Sweet Surrender" (coincidentally the title of my post today) to get T & R to sleep when they were babies.

Me? I love Klezmer music.

So nice of you to take us along!

MrsSpock said...

I have both his greatest hits album. They're loaded onto my Ipod. I even met his brother at an environmental conference in '01.

The pics are fantabulous....

Anonymous said...

For the first six months of my marriage, and for a year before that, my DH lived in Ohio and I was still in school at U.Va. and I drove through W.Va. many, many times. It is just beautiful, even from the highway.

Rebeccah said...

Love the photos! (And if you name any John Denver song, I'll sing along with you.)

Cassandra said...

Whenever I happen to know all of the lyrics to a John Denver song, and there are a few, my husband mutters something under his breath about goyim.

Your Dead/Red sea struggle reminds me of a conversation with DH's youngest sister years and years ago when she was 6 years old. The family was planning a trip to Israel with the whole family including grandparents "while they can still travel" -- it never happened, since one grandparent soon after became unable to travel and then died, and the planning never resumed.

Anyway, while the trip was still in the works, we'd all been discussing it a lot, and the 6-year-old declared that she refused to go swimming in the Dead Sea. I pointed out how much fun her brother once had in the Dead Sea since you float so much due to the high salt content. "No. It's the Dead Sea. I don't want to die." You don't die, it's just called that. It's fine, really. Your brother has been swimming in the Dead Sea and he's still alive. "No." How about the Red Sea? "No." Mediterranean Sea? "No." Sea of Galilee? Jordan River? "No. Does Israel have a pool? I'll only go swimming if they have a pool."

WiseGuy said...

That was a beautiful post....and it introed me to places about which I had no idea!

Artblog said...

Wow that's looks good! Cute tales too :) x

Fertilized said...

excellent day trip! I am so inspired by the lessons, memories and cultures your children are going to be able to share with everyone

Billy said...

Talking of the Dead Sea..
I was looking for a postcard to send the class who is searching for the Gingerbread Man. I wanted to send a postcard of Tel-Aviv, which is in the whereabouts of where I live, but couldn't find one. In fact they hardly had any good postcards (O.K, I didn't go to any tourist attraction where one might find some). The only decent postcard I could find was from the Dead Sea.. So I will be Billy from the Dead Sea :-).

Lisa said...

I <3 you!! Anyone who can get John Denver, camp memories, and Klezmer music into the same extended thought deserves to be loved!

Anonymous said...

We lived in West Virginia for about six years, but in the southern part of the state. Just as pretty, but not quite as artsy. I liked that John Denver song when we moved there. Not so much when we left! You hear it everywhere...

Another beautiful place in WV you might like is Snowshoe. Not quite a day trip for you though, I don't think! Here's the link..


Breathtaking and magical year round......many wonderful memories from that place.

Glad y'all had fun, love your pics!!

beagle said...

Thanks for taking us on the virtual journey!

Barb said...


Bea said...

Dude, your photography is really coming along. Also, why am I using "dude" so much today? Also, holy fuck you have written a lot of posts since I last checked in.