A couple of weeks ago, Mrs. M’s mom took a nasty fall, breaking her shoulder to a degree that required reconstructive surgery. Afterwards, she was transported from Lost-in-the-Woods County to a convalescent center in Huntington, WV. As one might expect, Mrs. M wanted to go check on her mom, so I played chauffeur and we went up there on Tuesday, returning yesterday.
Mapquest informed us that the 400-mile trip would take about six-and-a-half hours, but with snack stops, leg stretches, and the like, it actually took us closer to eight. A stretch of I-77 through WV was a toll road, a notion that still has a fair amount of novelty for me. I’ve driven a couple of toll highways over the years — there’s one between Greenville, SC and Atlanta, for example, but the WV Turnpike may have been the most expensive I’ve driven, running $12 spread over three booths between Princeton (the southern terminus) and Charleston in the north.
One of the things I enjoy about trips to NC, VA, and the like is the Sheetz chain of convenience stores. I guess I’m easily impressed, but they just seem nicer than most such chains, and on this trip I discovered that I really like their biscuits, particularly with two pieces of sausage and cheddar cheese. That’s a darned fine breakfast sandwich (even if they call it a “shmiscuit”), and of such things good trips can be distinguished from lackluster ones.
After making it to Huntington, we settled in at our base of operations, the Doubletree hotel downtown. My knowledge of the area was quite limited — I knew the city was home to Marshall U, which throttled my beloved Ball State Cardinals on a regular basis when both schools were in the Mid-American Conference. To be fair, I always think that cities look ugly when I pass through them on the Interstate, but I felt like the place had a grungy vibe when I arrived. This proved to be inaccurate, but my initial take was that it felt like Muncie — without the glamour. It probably didn’t help matters any that the hotel was across the street from an abandoned pawn/retail shop. Additionally, while Huntington is a major inland port and rivers-to-rails hub (and indeed, was founded as such for the old Chesapeake and Ohio railroad — now CSX), a floodwall separates the downtown from the Ohio River, which may spare the city from horrors like the 1937 flood (which also devastated my old stomping grounds in Cincinnati and Northern KY), but is less than aesthetically pleasant. Add to that the current COVIDian ghost town effect and my own personal claustrophobic feeling I get in Appalachian cities, and I had a sense of Rust Belt urban depression.
We got there in time for Mrs. M to go visit her mom while I tried to get the kinks out of my arthritic knee. The fact that we came up from South Carolina, which is currently seeing an uptick in virus cases, probably would have rendered us suspect, but we continued our usual masking and sanitation routine, and tried not to mention that we were visiting from vintage-1348 Genoa.
As we were both pretty tired, after Mrs. M returned to the room, we settled for dinner at a Bob Evans a few blocks from the hotel. We chatted a little with our server, and found out she was relatively new to the area herself, having come up with her boyfriend from Mingo County, a place that I primarily associate with John Sayles. We drove by the aforementioned floodwall on our way back to the hotel, and made an early night of it.
In the meantime, I put on my mask and walked a few blocks down Third Avenue, which seemed to be the main drag. I noticed that several of the historic buildings have been renovated/revitalized in interesting ways, including an arts center, a laser tag emporium, a bar/arcade, and a building with a remarkably cool assortment of small shops, patio dining/live music, and food options. Although the website said the building was closed to indoor dining, things have apparently reopened, as we will see later.
But as I walked a little farther, I found a location of a fast-food chain I like a lot, HWY 55. There’s one near Real City, but it’s in an area I don’t visit very often, so I took advantage of the opportunity to get a large cheeseburger and some tater tots, all cooked to perfection. I particularly like their cheeseburgers, which remind me of the burgers I would get as a kid at the grille of the drugstore where my grandmother worked. While the theme of the restaurant is 50s diner, the canned music was anachronistic, but in an interesting way. Most notably, I almost dropped my burger when 1974’s “Tiger Feet“, by British glam merchants Mud came on. Someone in the Muzak programming department earned some righteous geek cred on Wednesday.
After Mrs. M got back from a very pleasant visit with her mom, we walked back to the Market, and had dinner at a nice Greek restaurant upstairs. I had hoped for some pastichio, but they were out, so I had a nice bifteki while Mrs. M busied herself with mahi mahi on veggie pasta with aioli. We talked a little with our server, who is about to begin work on a Masters in Social Work at Marshall. On the way out, we noticed a homemade ice cream place, but decided to save that for another time. (And by “another time”, I mean the following night.) We got back to the hotel, where Mrs. M reported on her mom’s progress to family and friends, and after the middle-aged couple’s ritual watching of HGTV, we called it a night.
The next day, Mrs. M headed back to the hospital while I went to Pullman Square, a 4-block shopping, dining, and theater complex. I was delighted to find an independent book and comic store called The Inner Geek. It was a nice little store, and I picked up a current issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, featuring stories from my writer pals Brendan DuBois and Shawn Cosby, so I was able to support a cool bookstore and some cool people at the same time.
That evening, Mrs. M and I walked back down to the Market, going for a couple of flatbread pizzas at a stand on the first floor, followed by ice cream at the stand we had seen the night before. It was a sunny Friday evening, and a fellow was playing guitar on the patio of the complex. I decided Huntington might have some pretty neat things after all.
We got out of town on Saturday morning as some of Mrs. M’s sibs are taking over the visiting privileges. We don’t want to hog all the improvement, after all. I swung by Sheetz again, and then at lunchtime, we stopped at Shoneys, where I was overjoyed to find that they had kept the breakfast buffet open into the afternoon. Patrons were supplied with pliofilm gloves for the buffet, and we wore our masks when we weren’t actually at our tables. On the downside, we were hit for an additional 75 cents in tolls on our way back to the Interstate. Still, it was worth it.
Eventually we made our way back to South Carolina, and stopped for gasoline about 60 miles from home. We had gone about ten or fifteen more miles, putting us squarely in the middle of nowhere, when I heard the dreaded thudthudthud of a low tire. On a Saturday. On July the Fourth. Sure enough, the driver’s rear tire was done. We tried to get the tire off, but the installer had apparently used an impact wrench, and even the addition of my considerable weight to the tire iron wasn’t doing the trick.
Fortunately, Mrs. M noticed a house across the highway from where we were pulled over, and went to see if anyone there could help us. She saw a tractor in a shed, and told me, “That’s when I knew they had tools.”
So that’s how we met Robert and Linda, the kind retired couple. Not only does Robert have tools, but he knows how to use them — he’s a retired general contractor. He brought a 4-way wrench over, and with the additional torque, succeeded in getting the old tire off and putting the spare on. At which point we discovered the spare was not quite flat, but well underinflated, at about 10 psi when it should be at 60 psi. Fortunately, another tool Robert has is a compressor, so we got the spare properly inflated. More accurately, he did that while I was grateful, and while Mrs. M and Robert’s wife chatted in the house.
The car was finally in shape to go, and after refusing some thank-you money, Robert and Linda wished us well for the last leg of our trip. And it must have worked, because we got home around six.
So I’m home again, and it’s the Fourth of July weekend. The country is going through a difficult time right now, with a feeling not unlike the Nixon-Ford-Carter era. Unfortunately, neither of the two major parties are offering anything that looks like positive developments, preferring instead to throw red meat to their increasingly polarized bases. It’s wearying. Like my first impression of Huntington, things don’t seem promising.
But at the same time, I got a reminder this week that while it’s a land of screamers and haters, of Puritans on both sides with no room for Grace, this is much more a country of young people coming from hardscrabble coal country and other harsh places to find their lives and loves, and to build careers where they can help other people. And especially, it’s a country of Roberts and Lindas, who didn’t know us and didn’t have to help us. But they did, just because we needed help, and they gave us their work and cold water in the blistering late afternoon sun. Every drop of sweat that fell from Robert’s head as he twisted that tire tool was a reminder that this country is a place where people help strangers, because they can.
It’s a day late, but Happy Independence Day, everybody.
And Patricia? Keep getting better.