Stop #4: Harpers Ferry, WV
First of all, let's talk about West Virginia. The late, great John Denver had my hopes high. We even sang "Take Me Home, Country Roads" as we drove into the state. Unfortunately, our first impression of the state was, well, not great. Almost immediately after we crossed the state line, the roads became noticeably more bumpy with small potholes. Fortunately, it only took me a minute or two to get pretty good at maneuvering our hefty van through said potholes--like I was in some sort of real-life video game (million-dollar idea: invent an app game where you dodge potholes in a large van. App name: West Virginia Scramble.) I was still in the first minutes of the West Virginia Scramble when I noticed lights flashing up ahead. I slowed down as I came upon the following scene.
A crew of highway patrolmen had pulled over an old, rusted-out truck. A rather rotund woman was sitting handcuffed on the tailgate of the rusty old truck. She had no teeth, no bra, no socks, no shoes, possibly no pants, very unkempt hair, and a tank top that she had clearly fashioned herself from a formerly sleeved shirt. Her face was weathered from what I can only assume had been a lifetime of bad choices. She was casually swinging her legs and gumming her bottom lip while making eye contact with me as I slowly passed her by. (I, along with the other vehicles on the road, had slowed our van considerably by this point. We were all taking in the scene.) I broke her gaze for a split second to notice a man lying on the side of the road by the truck. He looked even worse for the wear than she did and had on less clothing. He was handcuffed in an awkward position and not moving. I glanced back at the woman, who again locked eyes with me. Her eyes were mesmerizing. There was not a shred of shame, remorse, or embarrassment in them. Eyes can't talk, but her eyes were confidently, uncomfortably, and slightly proudly telling me, "Whatever you are imagining it was that transpired in this here pickup truck, mister, I assure you it was far worse."
As we slowly rolled by, Careese and I looked at each other the same way we looked at each other after watching an episode of the TV show Yo Gabba Gabba. It was a look that communicated a shared question: "What on God's green earth did we just see?"
While I had ended up in an inadvertent staring contest with a likely criminal, Careese had been focused on the unmoving man, trying to figure out if he was dead or alive. Our kids were all glued to the windows trying to figure out the same thing. In an attempt to convince our kids that they had more likely witnessed the aftermath of a 5-to-10 years in prison type of crime rather than a life-in-prison level felony, Careese called up the highway patrol. (If you know my wife, this will not surprise you at all.)
"I've got a van full of kids and I'd like to tell them that they did not just see a dead person on the side of the road. Are you aware of any deaths reported in the area?" she asked.
Operator: "No, ma'am. We had a couple people get carried away downriver who we've been searching for, but we're still searching and no deaths have been reported."
"The man back there was alive, kids," Careese reported to our kids who were anxiously awaiting an answer.
It was only later that my wife and eldest daughter told me they were pretty sure the man was, in fact, deceased, and that I had been too transfixed by the powerful gaze of a disheveled West Virginian mountain momma to notice.
So, that was my first impression of you, West Virginia--what was potentially a hillbilly murder scene. You made me think less of John Denver, and I don't think I can forgive you for that.
On to Harpers Ferry.
As we rolled into Harpers Ferry, my fears about the state were mostly put at ease. No one else awkwardly locked eyes with me, and everyone seemed to be wearing pants. As I tried to park, a police officer stopped me and told me that the city had closed the parking area I was trying to park in. I asked him where I should park my large van. "The train station is the only place to park, but it is full," he replied.
Me: "So, you're telling me that there is not a single place to park my van in this town?"
Him: "No, there is not. Sorry."
That's when we began to awkwardly circle the town of Harpers Ferry in our large, creeper-looking van. I figured we would circle the town until someone vacated their spot or until we'd seen all the sights through the van windows. As I circled, it quickly became evident that the streets of Harpers Ferry were not designed for Struggle Bus-sized vans. My feelings of angst for the state of West Virginia reemerged.
By my second pass through town, my face had morphed into that gritty-teeth emoticon. Suddenly, I noticed a man waving me down. He motioned for us to park in his yard. Seeing no better option, I pulled in and parked next to another car in the yard. We made some overly socially-distanced introductions (thanks in large part to my rapidly growing apprehensiveness toward everyone in the state of West Virginia). Fortunately, ol' Curt turned out to be a super nice fellow who told us a bit about the town and let our kids run in to use his bathroom while we chatted outside. Ok, maybe Curt was an angel. In the course of the conversation, I found out that Curt had only recently moved to the state. That made sense. West Virginia had not yet had time to ruin him. Get out while you still can, Curt! What? Is it wrong to stereotype an entire state as irksome based on a drive-by encounter with only two of its citizens? Anyhow, we eventually left our van parked in Curt's yard while we walked around the town. I gave him a copy of my book.
I was glad we were able to stop and take a little time in the town, because Harpers Ferry, being the site of John Brown's raid, was a great place to have a few important conversations with the kids. In fact, the week prior to our arrival thousands had marched here in a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. We visited John Brown's fort and talked about the centuries old battle for racial equality. This would become a great segue for our next stop, Gettysburg.
Harpers Ferry was more crowded than our previous stops, so we decided to head out before we'd stayed too long; but the conversations we were able to have with our kids made us glad we'd visited. Careese and the kids hung out at John Brown's fort and continued talking while I ran back to Curt's to get the van. As I approached, I heard his voice.
"The Ghost of Vomit Past, huh? Ew!" Curt said as I approached his house. Apparently, he'd been doing a little reading.
And that's when it hit me. I'm the last person who should be judging West Virginia. In fact, the Struggle Bus might just be the official state van of West Virginia. Sing it with me.
♪ ♬ ♪ ♫
Country roads, take me home
to the place I belong.
West Virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads...
♪ ♬ ♪ ♫
I hope you enjoy the remainder of Struggle Bus: The Van. The Myth. The Legend., Curt. Thanks for your hospitality!
On to the next Struggle Bus Tour stop: Gettysburg, PA.