On the Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend, I drove out to West Virginia to provide some additional support to the hikers as they finished up the route. Sunday night was a fitful night of interrupted sleep at the Come On Inn in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The lights in the room didn’t work, but I convinced myself the only part of the space I needed was the bed. I picked up Matt and Cassie the next morning at a similarly luxurious roadside motel. We loaded the packs into the car and then they set off on the road again, unencumbered by their backpacks. It’s a strange feeling to drop your friends off and let them go off into the wild blue yonder. Personally I have a hard time even going for a ride on the metro without a book, a magazine, and headphones (just in case!), so they seemed stripped down and light, vulnerable.
My job was to cover the miles in a car and rendezvous with Cassie and Matt at various spots and at the end of the day. Which meant that I had a lot of time to explore back-country roads. Sometimes I would text the hikers what they could expect up ahead: “look for three sullen girls with a horse.” I spent a fair amount of time with my jaw hanging open at the beauty of the landscape, completely in awe. I’ve been to most big cities in the US and have done a pretty good amount of international travel as well, but it began to seem like I couldn’t claim to be well-traveled until I’ve done a lot more poking around in the rural pockets all over our own country. I had never heard of the New River Valley until this project started, and I began to wonder why, and what other regions of the US were completely unknown to me.
I hung out for a few hours in Elgood, West Virginia, reading on the back porch of a church and admiring the views all around. I made friends with a family celebrating Memorial Day, visiting their family cemetery in Elgood who shared great stories of the town in a more active period.
As I drove, I thought about the prison hunger strike going on in nearby Red Onion. I listened to country music, with tales of red sundresses and ice-cold beers and old green Novas. I pulled to the side of the road to let cars pass, because I was in no kind of hurry. I got lost and it didn’t matter, since I had plenty of time. At one point I approached a man, deep in the middle of what might be called nowhere, washing his car to ask for directions to the next town: “are you looking for Chris?”, he asked. I wondered if lost-looking solo female travelers with New York plates often stopped looking for Chris. I said that I wasn’t, but wondered for the next couple of hours what Chris might have that I might need. I visited a roadside general store called The Apple Barrel, where people speeding by in their cars would wave, just in case the proprietor was sitting on his porch outside.
Again and again I was struck by the different sense of time. I thought I knew this concept, right?, life in the city goes at a faster clip. But it had been a while since I had really felt this difference in my bones. Just in my two days on this short journey, multiple people shared stories with me, Matt and Cassie. They weren’t expecting to see us, we didn’t have an appointment or a slot on their calendar, but they still shared themselves. I reflected with some guilt about the sharp contrast with our frenzied pace in the home office, where there is never enough time to do it all and where I gently encourage people to schedule as far in advance as possible. The trip shook me up, made me question some assumptions, and stunned me with its beauty—and was only a very small piece of the 500 miles / 500 stories project.