A long walk is always worth writing about

I was just finishing my customary morning coffee on the front stoop Thursday when I saw a red flash dash through the air in front of my house. It was a bird, of course. And unlike that blue jay that crapped right in front of me last week, it had some shame. It likely held it until I wasn’t looking.

To use the scientific name (and make myself seem smarter), it was a Cardinalis cardinalis, more commonly known as the northern cardinal.

The cardinal is hardly unique to where I live in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. In fact, it’s quite common across a wide swath of North America. I only mention it here because the sight of it reminded me to write this post.

If you don’t see why a bird as common as a cardinal would prompt me to open my laptop add up these three facts:

(1) The cardinal is the state bird of West Virginia.

(2) West Virginia celebrated its 154th birthday on Tuesday.

(3) We marked the holiday – West Virginia Day – by going for a hike.

A long walk is always worth writing about.

When I rolled out of bed Tuesday morning, I suggested to my wife that instead of spending a lazy morning dodging bird doo-doo on the front stoop, we should celebrate statehood by going for a hike.

Although I suspect she was secretly disappointed about missing a chance to witness firsthand my shitty relationship with birds, she enthusiastically agreed to hit the trail. My wife is always up for a physical challenge, so I suggested we hike Maryland Heights.

Hiking the Heights may seem like an odd thing to do on West Virginia’s birthday. After all, the mountain is in Maryland. But I would argue that Maryland Heights might as well be a part of my home state, especially on June 20th – West Virginia Day.

Maryland Heights towers over historic Harpers Ferry, the West Virginia town at the confluence of the storied Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Harpers Ferry was a key stop for Meriwether Lewis as he prepared for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It’s famous for John Brown’s Raid and it has links to the present day NAACP through the now defunct Storer College. Storer was a historically black school. Frederick Douglass once served as a trustee.

It goes without saying that Harpers Ferry is steeped in Civil War history and as the highest point above the town, Maryland Heights played a key military role. Soldiers like to control the high ground, the better to lob cannonballs down on helpless enemies below.

On the day we hiked the Heights, it seemed to me that West Virginians were storming the mountain. More than once, I heard fellow hikers greet each other with a jaunty “Happy West Virginia Day.” One woman we saw wore a T-shirt with the state’s venerable “Wild, Wonderful” slogan on it. The man hiking with her wore a shirt emblazoned with a giant “304.” “304” is shorthand for West Virginia. It was the state’s only area code until 2009, when we were forced by whoever governs these things to begin using another one as well. I won’t say what the other area code is here. I will never get used to anything other than “304.”

As we were coming down off the mountain, my wife ran into a friend who was hiking with her son. They apparently hauled a state flag up to the overlook to snap a picture with it there.

To use what seems to be a favorite word of one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson, the overlook offers a “splendid” view of Harpers Ferry. It makes struggling up the Heights worth it, not to mention that it’s a good place to rest and catch your breath.

All in all, it was, as they say, a good day to be a mountaineer, even if we spent part of it in Maryland.

Only one thing marred our hike. The trailhead could be marked more clearly. Even though we had hiked the mountain with our kids once before, we missed it this time around. I grew frustrated with our failure and got petulant about it. So much so, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that my wife attempted to persuade a bird to poop on my head.

In any case, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other as we made our way up the steep trail burned away any lingering hard feelings.

However, I remain somewhat anxious about bird shit.

Our trip to Seneca Rocks – No rest for the out of breath

I didn’t know it at the time, but one of the pictures I took during a family hike at West Virginia’s Seneca Rocks last week pretty much sums up our long slog up the mountain. At least, it pretty much sums up the hike for me.

walking

The picture shows our 16-year-old son starting to take a fairly commanding lead over his mother and sister, who appear to be holding a conversation of some sort. All three are walking along a wooded track with their backs to the camera. All three seem to be moving at a good clip.

I’m nowhere to be seen.

That’s because I possessed the camera and took the picture from behind.

Way behind.

Which begs the question – why was I lagging?

Just to get that shot?

Or was I struggling to keep up?

It depends on whom you ask. My wife would probably tell you that I was getting a little red in the face. In fact, she asked several times on our way up the mountain if I was “okay.”

Personally, I like to think I was leading from the rear. After all, our trip to Seneca Rocks was my idea.

senecarocks

senecarockscloseup
West Virginia’s Seneca Rocks is popular with climbers and rapellers. Also, the 10th Mountain Division trained here during World War 2.

I told my wife about a month ago that I wanted to take the kids to the Rocks over spring break. I figured they could use some fresh air – especially our son, who, if left on his own, would probably figure out a way to somehow become one with the Internet like Johnny Depp does in the new movie “Transcendence.” But instead of hatching an evil plan to destroy the world, our son would likely use his extravagant power to have a pizza delivered to the house every day.

As ideas go, that’s not such a bad one. But even the digitally omnipotent need to flex their muscles every once in a while.

And, flex them he did.

The trail up to the observation platform at Seneca Rocks is a mile-and-a-half. One website I found describes it invitingly as a “pleasant hike along gentle uphill grades and switchbacks.”

For a 16-year-old (and, apparently everyone else) that description rings true. But I’m a newly minted 50-year-old who realized not far up the trail that our teenage son is not the one who needs to get out more – that being dragged around our neighborhood by our giant dog Rodney once in a while was not going to be enough exercise to keep from getting a little dizzy from exertion.

Thankfully, there are plenty of places to stop and rest on the way up. Wooden benches are placed strategically along the trail, and fallen trees and big boulders are handy to lean against as you catch your breath and let the burn in your legs subside.

Not that I ever got to take advantage of any opportunity to rest.

As anyone who has ever had the misfortune of bringing up the rear will tell you, there really is no rest for the weary. I’m just glad I was in charge of the water bottles.

I had them in a fanny pack strapped around what passes for my waist – a happy circumstance that forced my wife and kids to stop and wait for me when they got thirsty. Unfortunately, my joy at each pause in our hike didn’t last long. After they sipped some water and I began settling in for a well-deserved break, our son would turn almost immediately and start back up the trail with my wife and daughter following closely in his wake.

I had no choice but to get moving, again.

I finally got to catch my breath when I stumbled up to the observation platform to join my family. The view is spectacular and well worth the hike up Seneca Rocks, especially if you’re concerned about someone in the family who really ought to get out more.

me

And, just for the record, I actually led the way for much of the trek down the mountain.

There are times when gravity really is my friend.

meleading

West Virginia chemical spill – what now?

I figure I’m doing it right if even one reader cracks a smile at what I offer in the Saturday paper.

And, I had every intention of trying to make you chuckle this time.

For example, I could have written about my attempt to fix a plumbing problem at my house.

My wife sounded the alarm the other day while I was washing a few dishes. After I pulled the plug, I heard her shouting from the basement. I thought “what now?” as I grabbed a flash light and went downstairs.

It turned out that it wasn’t so much a leak that concerned her — it was a waterfall. A section of the PVC pipe that drains our kitchen sink had failed.

The only thing amusing about the situation was when I thought about fixing it myself.

I guess I’ve failed at so many other jobs around the house that my wife didn’t even give me a chance. She called a plumber. The bill wasn’t very funny, but at least water isn’t cascading on the floor anymore.

I could go into greater detail about our water crisis. But suffice to say, I can now trust that when I drain the kitchen sink, the water will flow where it’s supposed to.

That’s more than my mom, my brother and our friends and former neighbors in the Charleston area can say.

Authorities this week began lifting a “do not use” order following the chemical spill that fouled the region’s tap water. But when it comes to regaining public trust in the water system, they have their work cut out for them.

When I talked to my mom this week, she vowed never to use the water again … for anything. My brother tweeted that he’s not comfortable drinking it anymore. Others have posted their fears online, too. Even I thought twice about the water that flows out of the tap in my Martinsburg home and I haven’t lived in Charleston for nearly ten years.

The Charleston Daily Mail reflected the pervasive water worries on its front page. It published a simple picture of a glass of tap water alongside a plastic bottle of water you can find in any convenience store.

The water in both containers looks fine, even refreshing. But the Daily Mail published its picture with the headline, “Which one of these will you drink?

Good question.

It seems the people who live in my old stomping grounds are engaged in a bizarre game of Double-Dog Dare.

There are those who appear to have put their concern aside. Take Charleston Mayor Danny Jones. He told MetroNews this week that he’d been showering throughout the crisis, saying he had “bathed in worse stuff in Vietnam.”

Jones is a military veteran who appears to be doing what political leaders are supposed to do in a crisis, reassuring the public by setting an example.

But as the Daily Mail and other Charleston area news outlets are reporting, bottled water sales remain brisk even as the immediate emergency eases, a clear indication that many don’t trust the water supply.

I can’t say I would, either.

I’m just thankful all I’ve had to worry about this week is scraping up enough money to pay the plumber.

The Commute Just Keeps Getting Better and Better

The commute between my home in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle and my job in Washington, D.C., has lately seemed more like a trek for which I could use a Sherpa guide.

And now, more wintry weather is expected just as I’m due back tomorrow morning after a couple of days off.

The Washington Post’s “Capital Weather Gang” characterizes the storm we’re supposed to get this weekend as more of a “nuisance.”

But when you live as far away from your job as I do, a “nuisance” can quickly turn into a major migraine. And, after what I’ve been through on the commute lately, I’m not looking forward to even a hint of inclement weather.

For example, here’s what I-270 looked like from my windshield last Sunday at around midday.

This is a little further along my commute, on I-70 heading west on Maryland’s Braddock Mountain.

It was even tougher getting home Tuesday morning after having worked the overnight. This is I-70W heading up South Mountain. The big rigs were having trouble. Some had to be towed in order to get going again. 

Before you start criticizing, I know I’m not supposed to take pictures, much less tweet, while driving. But I wasn’t really driving. The interstate was more like a parking lot at the time.

And, while I may not end up frozen in my tracks tomorrow, that doesn’t mean I’m not hiring.

Do you know anyone around here who can blaze a trail through a snowstorm as well as a Sherpa?  I’m looking for somebody who can get me down off the mountain and back in one piece.

On Tattoos and Root Canals

I need a tattoo about as much as I want to get a root canal.

However, I’ve lately been obsessed by the prospect of getting inked.

Blame it on the suggestive power of reality TV.

The other day, a marathon of tattoo themed shows was on one of the cable channels.

One was modeled after the foodie show that features troubled restaurants. In this case, two tough Jersey boys go around rescuing tattoo shops in danger of folding.

Another had contestants vying to become the “Ink Master.” It’s sort of like “American Idol,” only the contestants are armed with tattoo needles. And instead of just one mean judge, all three are pretty militant.

The last show was a cautionary one in which sheepish customers show up at a shop where three tattoo artists billed as being among “the nation’s best” specialize in covering up embarrassing ink.

At first, I wondered why anyone would think that producing one show based on tattooing would be a good thing, much less three.

After a while, though, I found myself wondering what I would get. I even started looking up  possibilities on the Internet.

For some people, motorcyclists for instance, the choices seem endless. But I don’t ride a bike. I’m a middle-aged, married man with two kids, a giant dog and a cat who’s so mean she scares me. Plus, I commute to work in a sensible four-door sedan.

In fact, the only motor with attitude I own is the one I make my son use to mow the lawn. Somehow, I don’t think getting a lawn mower tattooed on my left bicep and a matching weed-eater on the right strikes the proper tattoo tone.

I thought of getting one with a West Virginia theme.

The state flower, the rhododendron, came to mind.  I could landscape my chest with an image of one.

I also thought about getting the state flag on my arm or a snarling cardinal with its wings spread wide on my back, ready to strike.

Or a pepperoni roll on my stomach. They end up there anyway, so why not?

I know what my wife would say, the same thing she said when I once threatened to get an ear pierced and enthused that perhaps a nostril stud would look awesome.

I let it drop after she told me I’m not hip enough.

That’s why I know better than to ask her about tattoos. So the other day I went to my straight-arrow 15-year-old son. He let me down too, saying I wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

In other words, NOT. HIP. ENOUGH.

If I can’t get a tattoo because I lack something other people with ink seem to have, at least I’ve proved tough enough to endure getting one.

Earlier this week, I watched my dentist get his drills and needles out and go to work inside my mouth.

I had to have a root canal.

While I may not be hip enough for a tattoo, at least I can get through THAT without flinching.

Well, not much anyway.

That Old Time “Hot Dog” Religion

Revelation is not necessarily the word I’m looking for.

But I can’t shake the possibility that if God does indeed watch over my home state of West Virginia, then the uncomfortable truth revealed to me this week really was divine.

In any case, whether it was gospel or not, I see now that I’ve got a problem that only I can solve.

Lord knows I can’t count on my wife. She is ambivalent when it come to hot dogs.

While she can take them or leave them, I find them irresistible. And so does our son. He’s the type of kid whose stomach is just not satisfied unless it’s stuffed with something that’s been slaughtered rather than picked.

My epiphany came on Wednesday, National Hot Dog Day. To celebrate, I treated my 15-year-old carnivore to a hot dog lunch. That’s no mean feat since we live in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, an area that seems devoid of any decent hot dog joints. I had to settle for stopping by a Sheetz convenience store.

Before you recoil in horror, it’s not like we plucked a dried-out dog from one of those self-serve contraptions lesser convenience stores keep on the counter – the ones in which hot dogs slowly rotate along stainless steel rollers. Our dogs were delivered to us through the use of superior technology – we ordered them from a touch screen. Then we watched as they were prepared and presented to us wrapped in foil to keep them warm.

As we left the store with our prize, I asked our son if he had ordered a West Virginia Hot Dog.

“That’s a thing?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “That’s a thing.”

To prove it, when we got home I sent him a link to the West Virginia Hot Dog Blog, specifically the page that describes the home state creation in loving detail.

You can click here for it, but the short version goes like this:  West Virginia Hot Dog lore says they were created during the Great Depression outside my hometown of Charleston, the state capitol. It’s toppings include a beanless chili sauce, mustard and chopped onions with the essential topping being slaw.

At the risk of alienating myself, I rarely order one. I’m not a big fan of slaw. But at least I know there is such a thing as a West Virginia Hot Dog.

Our son did not.

And the kicker here is, he loves slaw. So it stands to reason that he’d love it on a hot dog.

But he has never experienced the combination.

While the heavens didn’t open up and strike me with divine lightning, I realized after our hot dog lunch on Wednesday that somewhere along the line, I had failed to fully instruct our son in the finer points of West Virginia cuisine.

He knows about pepperoni rolls and when we are back in Charleston, I treat him to an artery hardening Tudor’s biscuit. But I have failed him where hot dogs are concerned.

I know now what I have to do.

I’m going to have to take our son on a pilgrimage to Hinton, the southern West Virginia town where the clouds part and the angels smile upon the legendary Dairy Queen – the one where you can sit down to the hot dog meal of your choice while taking in a spectacular view of the New River.

I hear the dogs there are not as good as they used to be. But I suspect places like the Hinton DQ have trouble measuring up to warm memories.

Besides, whether they are any good or not, I can’t think of a better place for us to have a come to Jesus meeting.

Why West Virginia’s Birthday Annoys Me

This time of year always annoys me, and it’s not because the kids won’t be back in school for another two months.

It’s because of West Virginia’s birthday.

This year was doubly annoying because the state marked a more significant milestone than usual – its 150th birthday, the sesquicentennial of its formation.

The June 20th birthday prompted celebrations big and small throughout the state and spilled over on-line. My Facebook feed (once I plowed through the all of the ads) was filled with pictures of fireworks exploding over the gold dome of the state capitol, the “Welcome Signs” above interstate highways, ramp feeds, paw paws and pepperoni rolls.

I added to the FB parade. At least some of the pepperoni roll pictures were mine. My wife and I served them along with dinner on West Virginia Day and followed them up with apple pie and ice cream for dessert. What would any celebration of West Virginia statehood be without pepperoni rolls?

But even though my stomach is a little too well-acquainted with them, it still bugs me that I can’t say what many of my friends can – that I was born in West Virginia, that I’m a native.

It pains me to admit, but I came into this world in Connecticut. It pains me even more to admit that I once lived in Ohio.

It’s not that I have anything against Ohioans.

I’d just rather not get stuck behind them on the interstate. That’s about as annoying as pepperoni rolls are to a vegan, which probably says something about how well West Virginians and Ohioans mix.

A smarter man than me could explain the rivalry better. All I can say is I fall on the side of pepperoni rolls.

And, although I’m not much of a slaw guy, I am partial to a juicy hot dog drowned in chili sauce. I’ve even had a dog or two at the legendary Dairy Queen in Hinton – the one with the dining room that provides a gorgeous view of the New River.

I’ve eaten and experienced much of what West Virginia has to offer. I’m even planning a hiking trip to Dolly Sods for next month.

With terrain more like what you’d find in sub-arctic regions, Dolly Sods is one of the most unique places on the east coast.

And it’s in West Virginia.

I am, too. Yet I am still not a native.

I blame my parents. They were living out-of-state at the time my siblings and I were born, making us the first in generations on either side of the family born SOMEWHERE ELSE.

Perhaps this is the year I do something about my status.

A former colleague, who is also suffering from being born somewhere else despite having parents from West Virginia, once suggested we find a way to get naturalized – to obtain a piece paper proclaiming us natives.

A. James Manchin was still alive then. He was the only one we could think of who had the appropriate twinkle in his eye to make such a pronouncement. At the very least, I’m sure he could have dug up a few of those certificates he used to pass out when he was West Virginia’s Secretary of State. He had to have some leftover.

Manchin would have been perfect to confer native status upon us, and he would have done it like he did most things – with a lot of panache.

However, he died before we could put our plan in motion.

Senator Robert C. Byrd was a top choice, too. He certainly had the gravitas, but he is no longer with us, either.

So, I’m asking if there is anyone who can unilaterally lift this burden from me and others who are living in limbo?

Because if the congressional divide on immigration legislation is any guide, I fear I’m in for a long wait if I have to rely on lawmakers to come together on this issue.