When we passed the dumpster behind the Cracker Barrel restaurant, the futility of trying to take a walk before we left for dinner took on a surreal intensity. The powder blue sky above was clear, the air had a slight crispness to it that only mountain air has in late June. Still, we were circumnavigating a restaurant parking lot.
“Really?” we said in unison and began to laugh at ourselves as we stood at the guard rail, gazing down on the streets and stores below and winding up across the hill to the standard US shopping mall. “Do you want to walk through TJMax?” Heidi asked a hint of sincerity in her voice. I hesitated for a minute before I said no, it was the very last thing she wanted to do and I didn’t want reinforce her belief that I was still addicted to shopping there.
“No, I don’t. Let’s go find a park to walk around. Morgantown must have parks.”
Running away from home when you only had a partial weekend to make your getaway and return in time to resume your responsibilities was not easy, not to mention finding a co-conspirator to share costs and a destination palatable to both. There were only two people who were possible candidates and I sent texts to each asking where they were now. One, Heidi, was home in Maryland, the other was tending to her grandson on her boat down on a lake in Kentucky. She was out. I dialed Heidi’s number.
“I’m running away for the weekend. Want to meet me halfway?”
To her credit Heidi didn’t ask for details. Instead I heard a long UH-OHH, and a “Yes. Send me the details.”
According to the map quest app, Morgantown, WV was the mid-way point between Ona WV and College Park Md., a totally boring three-hour highway trip in either direction unless you count the spectacular Appalachian Mountains in full leaf. Google supplied a nearby attraction to set as our destination—Arthurdale, otherwise known as Eleanor’s Little Village, a depression era WPA pet project of the First Lady.
“Let me get this straight . . . I am going on vacation to visit the projects! You know I hate poor people!” Heidi doesn’t really hate poor people, but she was once a poor person and she hates to be reminded of it.
I shuffled past Ella ensconced in the recliner, eyes glued to the television, shielding my bright orange overnight suitcase with my body, left a note for Tim to fix the dimmer switch in my kitchen on top of his coffee maker hoping he would notice it and respond, and snuck out of the house. The car clock said eight-thirty am. I backed down the driveway and left. For the next two and half hours I drove hashing out, half aloud, the argument I had with my daughter. It was one of those arguments—the ones you can’t win because you and she remember the past differently. It was my fault, her body image problems, her weight issues, and now I was doing it to my granddaughter. Her face was red, her eyes bulged, and she drew up her shoulders to their full height and then leaned her face down and hard into mine. Struck dumb, I turned on my heel and made a beeline for my apartment door, retreated down the stairs, slamming the door behind me. I spent the next couple of hours in a stew of anger and remorse, indignation and guilt. It was fight or flight. I choose flight.
I turned off at exit 146 and the trip became more like a small adventure. The road took me through the hilly West Virginia countryside, past farmhouses and trailers, Baptist Churches and small country stores. A pretty drive until I found myself making sharp turns and steep hilly curves on a severely narrow one-lane gravel road. Lost, I lucked into a mail carrier around a bend in the road. The mail jeep stopped about a dozen feet ahead of me and we faced each other like two bulls in heat. I slowly inched the car forward and to the very edge of the road and as I did, the jeep’s driver did the same. Hugging the roadside, we each crept forward until we were window to window.
“Hi,” I said as I rolled down my window.
“Hi,” she said through her open window.
“D’ya happen to know if I’m on the right road to Arthurdale.”
“Well, let’s see. Yep, you can get there from here. Just keep going straight about two miles till you get to a cross-roads, turn left and keep goin’ till you get to Arthurdale.”
“Is it far?”
“Nah, not far, about ten minutes.”
Sure enough ten more minutes and the Welcome to Arthurdale, population 802, metal sign was on my right—blink and you’ll miss it. The real town, Reedsville, population 563, the one with the grocery store, quilt shop, garden supply and coffee shop, and restaurant, was just past the stop sign from Arthurdale. A dozen cars and pick-ups parked haphazardly around the oval driveway fronted the three somewhat dilapidated white clapboard buildings shaded by a very old looking tree. Under its branches sat an assortment of older potbellied, bearded men smoking cigarettes and watching me pull in. The men and cars gave the impression that the little visitors center, the grange hall and the Appalachian craft shop was at least a popular destination; one with something more interesting than sparse vestiges of Arthurdale’s failed promise of hope for the families rescued from the depression era mining camps of nearby Scott’s Run coal fields. Regrettably, they were there for a family reunion and had stepped out of the grange hall to have a smoke.
Eleanor Roosevelt is a personal hero of mine. I often quoted her popular sayings like “No one can demean you without your permission.” The sparkling mountain air invited us to look over the rolling farmland, dotted with the renovated homesteads left from the original settlement. However, despite the glorious weather, Eleanor’s little village failed to live up to its on-line hype and Heidi was all too eager depart and find a place to eat. As far as she was concerned we had traveled into the never-never and everything we saw and anyone we met, bordered on the bizarre. The enormous coal-burning furnace, occupying a space at least as large as the kitchen in the little farm house, brought howls of laughter. We snickered at the docent, who with obvious pride identified her mother among the students in a photograph of Eleanor passing out diplomas at an early high school graduation. We stared dismissively at the two spindly chestnut saplings planted as part of a national chestnut tree re-growing campaign. However, I think we were both sobered to learn that over four billion chestnut trees had died of a disease in the past century. It was hard to make that fact a laughing matter.
“Where to now?” Heidi asked, still tiptoeing around a direct question about what triggered my escape from Ona. I took a big bite of my cheeseburger, another rebellion since I ate it with the bun and all, and shrugged my shoulders. Arthurdale was my big play, now I was dependent on Heidi and her google skills for what to do next. Running away is like that, not much time for planning. “Is there an art museum on WVU campus?” I asked.
Heidi went to work, fingers flying over her cell phone. “Yep, and it closes at five. Need to go now.” Soon we were rolling up and down the winding roads, me following closely behind Heidi’s car. Two U-turns and several more miles we came to the new art gallery, parked and rushed in hoping to make good use of the hour left before closing. We marched through the first of the two exhibition halls so fast—I don’t remember what was in it. Then we came to a Shepard Fairey exhibit, Work against the Clampdown.” The big posterized graphics thrilled my anti-Trump heart to its core. The exhibit depicted Capitalism, oil and coal as the evil giants robbing the American youth of its idealism. I chatted up the docent, a tall woman about my age who by my own comparison, made me feel short and ethnic, but who exuded liberal pheromones. We talked about the debate amongst museums as to whether political art, street art like Fairey’s, qualified as museum art. In solidarity we shook our heads and lamented the conservative approach to high art when Heidi, an anti-Trump republican, brushed past on her way out the gallery doors. “I don’t get all this anti-oil stuff. He’s using oil paint isn’t he?” she muttered as she went by.
A Marriott stood on a hilltop it shared with a Cracker Barrel, and overlooked several chain restaurants and across to an outdoor mall on an opposite hill top.
Nap time. At least I hoped it was naptime. The hamburger was lying in a pool of grease at the bottom of my stomach and I was tired from the early morning drive, but Heidi was now ready to learn the details of whatever drama led to my leaving home. More to the point, Heidi was ready to weigh in on my living arrangements, my relationship with my daughters, her unparalleled friendship with me, and my thinly disguised fraudulent compassion—none of which I was in the mood to hear about. An existentialist conversation on the meaning of my life was the price for Heidi’s complicity in my escape, but I was going to do my best to delay. That’s when we went for a walk around the Cracker Barrel.
“Next time we meet somewhere for one of your adventures, it will be in civilization so we can just leave your car and go in mine.” Heidi said as we settled down in her new Volkswagen Gulf. “Fine by me,” I said, “but we would have missed meeting in the middle.” I heard a low what-the-frig just over the sound of the engine revving up.
We set out in search of a park, a place to walk off lunch and think about dinner. We agreed to avoid Olive Garden and Red Lobster even at the cost of no dinner. Instead of a park, we found ourselves driving through a cemetery strung out along two small hillsides, steep enough that we decided to drive through rather than walk. “That girl, the one in the photo that looks like a senior picture, isn’t even dead yet.” Heidi pointed out the stone in a row of three. The other two were relatives, perhaps parents, already gone and laid to rest. It struck us as odd, and then as funny. On the backside of the cemetery was a gravel road that looked at first as if it would take us back out to the gate. Instead, it dead-ended into a grassy field with several graves, marked only with plastic signs and an odd assortment of full whiskey bottles, plaster-of-paris angel heads, whirligigs, and dead potted plants. If the not-dead-yet girl’s photo made us laugh inappropriately, we were downright hysterical looking at the macabre gravesites. Try as we might to bring some gravitas and civility to the moment, we couldn’t. The day, the circumstances, the place had all conspired to make us a little bit mad.
“Shaken or stirred?” the bartender asked in a distinct Aussie accent. I looked around—double 007 must be somewhere nearby. After all, it was that kind of circa 1900’s hotel and bar, and most certainly that kind of day. No one had ever asked me before if I wanted my vodka martini shaken or stirred! Sitting out on the rooftop, watching the deepening sky turn from blue to magenta and finally to a depth-less black, tiny lights blossoming across the horizon, Heidi and I both relaxed, talked about nothing of importance, or personal. A mediocre, but not unpleasant, light rock singer crooned in the corner while I enjoyed the buzz of the vodka slowly dulling the sharp edges left in my psyche from the night before.
I woke up at six am, drank my two cups of instant hotel coffee in silence, dressed and left. I scribbled a short note on the hotel stationary; Call me when you are on the road. Thanks and thanks. Carole
Despite texts from my son-in-law encouraging me to stay away as long as I wanted, I was ready to return home. I passed the lengthy drive by looking for KFC’s on the way home, intending to remember the exits where they were. Not a chance in hell. The miles and hours passed as I imagined obsessively an original recipe fried chicken thigh, grease dripping from my lips, and spilling onto my jeans.
Pulling into the road leading to our house I stretched my neck to see if my daughter’s car was in the driveway. The urge to sneak in undetected overwhelmed me. Her car was parked in its usual spot and I saw her riding the lawn tractor up the hill on the far side of the house. She passed in front of me as I pulled in and we both made limp little waves in the other’s direction.
Ella bounced down the stairs to see if I was ready for our nightly ‘healthy living walk’. “Just you and me?” I asked. “No, mom and dad are coming. They are waiting upstairs with Ginger,” Ella replied, giving me a slightly awkward smile. Kids know even if they don’t know.
As we went down the hill, I remembered of the scene of the Clinton’s walking to air force one during the Lewinski scandal, Chelsey between them to minimize the negative optics of the first lady’s rage at her husband’s infidelity. Samantha walked ahead holding Ella’s hand, Tim next, trying to keep Ginger out of the tall grass and ticks, and I trailed behind sensing the cool, awkwardness that enveloped us.
Monday dawned and I wondered if the cold war was still hot! Tim woke up with vertigo, chaos loomed and I was needed if Samantha was going to get to her office. She didn’t ask. I texted and said I would bring Tim to the doctors after I dropped Ella at art camp. If she needed me, I could retrieve him as well. “Thanks mom,” came her reply.
The cold war ended, Sam held my hand dragging me up the hill frowning and fretting as I caught my breath. As we walked, she lectured Ella on the importance of daily exercise and limiting the amount of food she ate at dinner. I didn’t say a word. I thought, thanks Heidi.