Philippi Stories and Tips

Country Roads: An Appreciation

Country roads Photo, Philippi, West Virginia

I often say that that I don’t like to drive, but that’s not really true.

I dislike traffic. I’m bored by freeways. And I absolutely hate being rushed or pressured by tailgaters and aggressive drivers.

But actually, given a near-empty country road and no worries about arriving anyplace in particular, I love driving. I’m relaxed on narrow, winding roads, easing around curves with the minimum of effort.

Only minutes off of I-79, as the road slithers like a yellow-banded snake through valleys and along ridge tops, I feel the knots in my shoulders begin to ease. My two-handed death-grip on the steering wheel relaxes, and I breathe more freely. I’m headed in a general southeasterly direction, with the glare of the afternoon sun behind me. The road beckons as I put a CD in the stereo and my West Virginian odyssey begins.

One evening as the sun went down
And the jungle fire was burning,
Down the track came a hobo hiking
And he said, "Boys, I''m not turning
I’m headed for a land that’s far away
Besides the crystal fountain
So come with me, we’ll go and see
The Big Rock Candy Mountains."

Before I left, I had a hazy plan to do two things: to see some of West Virginia’s covered bridges and to scout for promising rivers to kayak. However, I soon found that navigating solo put me at something of a disadvantage in finding some of the covered bridges, and I soon gave up the search for the remoter ones. As for the river scouting, that was ludicrously easy as many roads run alongside the rivers.

West Virginian roads are inviting, almost animate, and lay in wait with low-key surprises. There’s poetry in their names. Raccoon Run. Mud Gut Road. Sugar Creek. Snake Skin Road. Slaty Fork. Pigs Ear Road. The roads meander through valleys and over bridges, often recrossing the same stream in several places. They wind up the sides of mountains, come down, and then climb up again. There’s a certain rhythm to them.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
There''s a land that''s fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars all are empty
And the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

Driving near Washington, D.C. has made me defensive. I had plain forgotten how much fun it can be to drive on country roads. The absence of traffic in central West Virginia strikes me as almost miraculous. Road rage is almost inconceivable here, and the courtesy of the drivers I share the road with is remarkable. No one tailgates me, even though my touring pace is a leisurely 40 mph. I keep an eye on my rear view mirror so that whenever someone comes up behind me, I can pull over and let them pass. This is easy to do, given the ample number of gravel layovers on the roads. But even when there is no convenient layover, I never feel rushed. Recognizing a tourist (my out-of-state tags and bike rack are a big tip-off), West Virginians courteously give me plenty of leeway. There’s not a single unpleasant moment behind the wheel in a week of near-constant wandering. I’ve died and gone to motorist heaven.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
Oh I''m bound to go
Where there ain''t no snow
Where the rain don''t fall
And the winds don''t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

I’m not looking for anything in particular, so of course I see plenty. Tiny towns appear every eight or ten miles along the road, invariably in the most scenic spots. Thornton . . . Fellowsville . . . Century . . . Volga . . . Nestorville . . . Buildings are on a reassuringly human scale. The modest white houses are in proportion to the other buildings and surroundings; there are no pretentious MacMansions jutting out in self-importance. Each town is graced by at least one small white clapboard church, Methodist or Presbyterian, generally. There are no malls, no ugly strips of commercial development, and no billboards. Small signs advertise the local businesses: Sewing Machine Repairs. New Hope Boarding House. Me & My Dad’s Game Preserve. Mabel’s Beauty Shop. Tom’s Auto Repair. Stemple & Forman Funeral Home. Rick’s Taxidermy.

Most of the towns boast white historical markers detailing local history. I stop and read them with polite interest. Here’s where Lee set up camp in his campaign of 1862. And there’s where Indians killed a group of settlers in 1758. Over yonder is the oldest cemetery west of the Alleghenies. Another sign claims that Mahlon Loomis, local resident, invented the first radio back in 1872, two years before Marconi. Who knows? It all seems possible. I’m thinking I just might encounter anything. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
You never change your socks
And little streams of alcohol
Come a-tricklin’ down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats
And the railroad bulls are blind
There''s a lake of stew
And of whisky, too
You can paddle all around them
In a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

I ride with the windows down. It would be a sin to roll them up on such a gorgeous afternoon. The sweet scent of mown grass rushes in as I pass fields of freshly cut hay. If the farmers are cutting hay, they’re expecting at least a couple days of fair weather ahead. I smile to myself: good weather means good driving. In one field encompassing an entire hillside, a boy about 12 nonchalantly steers a tractor, the hay falling in neat swaths behind him. I give him a wave as I pass.

Cruising by farmhouses and through towns, I amuse myself by coming up with a taxonomy of outdoor decoration. Let’s see now, there’s the Patriot, partial to American flags, red-white-and-blue wind socks, and plenty of yellow ribbons. Then there’s the Ardent Hobbyist, whose passion for gardening, antiques, or some other interest is symbolized by an implement set in a flowerbed -- a wheelbarrow, perhaps, or an antique milk jug. There’s the Devoted Pet Owner, whose front door or gate is flanked by wooden cutouts of Doberman Pinschers, Scotties, or Siamese cats. The Kineticist favors wind chimes, whirligigs, or anything else that moves. The Mountain Mystic runs to gazing balls, gnomes, and wishing wells, while the Humorist can’t resist those fat-lady-bent-over-weeding cutouts. Or, in the case of the owner of this barn, a little practical joke:

The school of Rural Realism is characterized by life-like tableaux of plastic animals such as deer, rabbits, donkeys, and foxes. At one point, I’m taken in completely by a set of fake Canadian geese. Only when I check my rearview mirror do I realize they haven’t moved. Just up the road I see a squirrel poised motionless on a tree stump on a lawn and make the natural assumption. How amazingly lifelike! Then it jumps down and I realize it’s not a lawn ornament.

One yard defies categorization, blending elements of the Patriot, Mountain Mystic, and Rural Realist. I dub this Native Electivism:

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
The jails are made of tin.
And you can walk right out again,
As soon you are in.
There ain''t no short-handled shovels,
No axes, saws nor picks,
I''m a-goin’ to stay
Where you sleep all day,
Where they hung the jerk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

Initially, I head in whichever direction seems most appealing, but before long I’ve come up with a general plan. Philippi . . . that has a nice ring to it. Plus, it’s got a covered bridge. Whenever I reach a junction, I just follow the sign for Philippi. It’s the seat of Barbour County, and all the roads seem to eventually head there, which makes navigating a lot less complicated. But it isn’t really the destination that matters to me as I drive along these country roads. It’s the process of getting there.

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