A 2001 drive around the 48 states in 48 days

Tag: west virginia

Day 4. WV/KY: prowlers, growlers, snarlers, droners

A slightly bewildered old man was pacing the lobby when I came down in the morning. He was furtively examining the faces of everyone passing through and so I soon came under close examination. I had already decided, on principle, not to bother with breakfast as it cost extra on top of the room. An urn of free coffee bubbled on the sideboard for me and the other cheapskates. After a brief exchange of banalities, I learnt that the old man was the proprietor who was evidently just bedazzled by the amounts of cash he was sucking out of his clientele with every passing minute. I took polite leave and stepped out on to the porch with my coffee.

The prowling trio from the previous evening were still in the grounds. They may have gone to bed but, for all I knew, they’d been stalking the area all night. They were all still wearing exactly the same clothes. They came up to the main door and peered through the glass. The boy saw me staring at them and started walking over to where I had parked myself in a rocking chair. I tried to look away but I’d been rumbled. “You staying in this hotel?” he asked. I nodded. “It’s a bit pricey isn’t it?” I laughed and nodded again. The middle-aged man came over to see who the boy was pestering. It transpired that the three were father, son and younger son. Father and younger son had come down from Billings MT as older son (who lived in Florida, presumably with a divorced mother) was about to start medical school in Lewisburg.

They offered no explanation for what they’d been up to in the grounds, but the young boy was eager to question me about England. He was disappointed to learn that we didn’t have much baseball but fascinated by the notion of cricket. I did lay it on a bit thick – as it’s easy enough to do when explaining cricket to a foreigner – but his eyes bulged as I recounted some of the more curious idiosyncrasies of a game that can last five days with no eventual winner. I needed to get going and the boy insisted that he help carry my bags to the car. The three of them came on to the drive to wave me off, chirruping thanks for my time and for “teaching them all about cricket”. If they were really a band of villainous rogues, they were certainly friendly and polite with it.

West Virginia is known as the Switzerland of America. Surprisingly enough, this isn’t anything to do with watch-making, dodgy banking, holey cheese, being rubbish at Jeux sans Frontiers, or blowing into ten-foot long horns. It’s because of the landscape, and you could see why. It was gloriously mountainous with dramatic rock faces, and soon I was driving away through low hanging cloud. The road dropped down to follow the Kanawha River and the scenery became breathtaking.

Approaching Gauley Bridge, I started to feel peckish so I swung off the road when I saw Thelma’s Cafe. A fuggle of old men were congregating inside and growling incomprehensibly at each other. I strained to listen in on what they were making noise about but could only recognize every twentieth word as having any relationship with what I would call English. The bestial cacophony seemed to increase in pitch as the old woman shuffled over to take my order and the company was alerted to the presence of a pre-septuagenarian outsider. The service was XXX-slow. When my coffee and pancakes finally arrived forty minutes later, both were very black and very cold. I went up to the counter in search of milk and maple syrup to enhance palatability, where a sign on the door to the kitchen read: “Federal offence for non-employees to cross into employee area”. I waited for some minutes but nobody came out. Finally, almost an hour after arriving, I put some money on the table and took my leave to the sound of a low grumble. From the other diners and from my own stomach.

Back on the road to Charleston, the local radio had a show on that was being hosted by a couple of very chirpy rednecks. They had been inundated by requests (so they claimed) to play a cover of It’s Hip to be Square (originally by Huey Lewis and the News). The song had been cleverly rewritten to include the refrain “It’s hip to be queer” and basically amounted to a homophobic diatribe. I stayed tuned in, eagerly waiting to see if they played any other similarly hilarious adapted covers. Chubby Checker’s Lets do a Piss perhaps, or Fartbreaker by Dionne Warwick.

I was about to learn an important lesson. It was best to avoid stopping at places that have no windows. I had seen nowhere that even looked like it could cure my growing hunger pangs for the past 50 miles and so I pulled in at a café near Hurricane. What used to be windows were now boarded up and painted green. There were three pick-ups in the lot, so it appeared to be in business. I creaked the door open and was hit by the smell of decay, a mix of hospital and compost heap. Inside it was dingy and a couple of Goliaths were at the counter watching TV through the gloom. With menacing deliberation, both turned and stared at me, tracking my movement as I edged towards a barstool. The television was silent, but the crackle of a radio could be heard out the back. One of the men scratched his beard and slowly ran his eyes up and then down me. He looked like he was figuring out what part of me would be tastiest to start eating first.

The other came over and asked what I wanted. In truth, I wanted to leave immediately but appreciated that it might have seemed a little odd so I asked if I could have a coffee. All thought of food had slipped from my brain. Ever since the age of twelve, when I resigned from the Sea Scouts on the grounds that the uniform was too itchy, I’ve known myself to be some measure short of a real tough guy. I rarely have to think much about the options when confronted by a fight or flee situation, and tend to be off down the road at the first sign of trouble. I don’t think of it as cowardice necessarily, just a sensible, rational appreciation that I’m no good at punching and even worse at being punched.

As my thoughts turned to running shoes, I was once more presented with black coffee, this time in a chipped mug that clearly hadn’t seen the washing up bowl for a couple of weeks. Nervously I asked if they had any milk and without a word was presented with a catering-tub of powdered dairy creamer. The guy who had served me went back to watching the TV, but his companion’s neck remained locked in a stare in my direction.

I drank up quickly and, in an uncharacteristic show of bravado, left my book and tape recorder on the counter while I went to the restroom, which was teeming with insect-life. On my return, I was relieved to see my things were still there but horrified to see that my coffee mug had been refilled. I felt obliged to swallow it down and then asked for the bill. “You want more coffee”, said the man with a scowl that suggested he’d blow my head off if I gave the wrong answer. I went for “no”, suffixed by a squeeked “thank you very much”. I almost needed to visit the restroom again.

Once out of the door, I think I may have run back to my car. I had been successfully disabused of the notion that it would be desirable to chat with real West Virginians. I was still hungry, but at least I was still alive and free. I checked my rear-view mirror to see if either of them were following me. I held my breath until I was round the next bend and out of sight. It suddenly became a priority to get up on to the Interstate and out into Kentucky as quickly as I could manage.

My stopover that evening was with Martha and David in Louisville. They were friends of the family dating back to the war, but I’d only met them once. They both owned guns and still referred to Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay. The most direct route would have been to stay on the Interstate through Lexington, but I wanted to visit Maysville if only for the sake of my surname. Even if it was dull, there was another place called Mays Lick just down the road. Unfortunately, they proved even more disappointing than Cape May NJ. Maysville seemed largely shut due to it being Sunday morning, and Mays Lick was devoid of all shops.

I landed upon Old Washington, which was a delight. It was another cobbled town with narrow streets and cabins dating back to the 18th Century. By now I was very hungry so was pleased to find that the Old Town Tavern was still serving lunch. There was a small dispute with the waitress when I ordered the daily special. It was “Golden Chilli” and she assured me that it could only be eaten by those with a high constituent of asbestos in their tongues. She was on the point of refusing to let me even try it. After lengthy insistence, I was finally brought a gloopy bowl of baked beans and mince which offered about the same zing quotient as a couple of sticks of celery.

Still it was good ballast and allowed me to entertain myself with thoughts of the rectal havoc that a couple of gallons of Praed Street’s finest vindaloo could cause the folks around here. Three others came in during these musings, and once again I was able to listen in on pedestrian conversation. They were discussing keys at some length. The man said that he’d once lost his car keys in a field and had got ten of his men to spend all afternoon looking for them without success. To ensure that it never happened again, he now kept his car keys on the same key ring as his house keys. He didn’t explain quite how this sure-fire guarantee worked, but he was firmly convinced that it did.

The route down to Lexington took me through proper Bible Belt country. The main clue was the aggressive evangelism depicted on the notice boards of churches. One in particular caught my eye: “Our business is feeding sheep, not entertaining goats.” It wasn’t very C of E. As a corollary to this, there was a profusion of dry counties in these parts including Bourbon. This meant that if you went on the tour of the Jim Beam distillery, you wouldn’t be allowed to sample the goods afterwards because it would be against the law. Despite this puritanical background, it wasn’t just booze that they grew in Kentucky but smokes as well. According to a postcard that I picked up with a picture of a “baccy plantation” on it, tobacco appeared to be the state’s chief cash crop and accounted for over 50% of agricultural receipts.

When I got to Louisville, I called David from a gas station and he came out to meet me. I followed him back to their home, which was truly American-sized. There was a huge drive with land falling off to both sides and a series of summerhouses around the swimming pool and barbeque complex at the back of the house. David informed me that the inside of the house stretched to about 5000 square feet, which seemed quite a lot for two people. Martha was inside with a warm welcome and I was quickly installed in an armchair with an iced Coke in my hand. I was told to relax and take my time, although this turned out to be a lie. After a few moments of languorous sipping, David casually informed me that we had to leave the house in seven minutes.

We went for a drive around their very pleasant neighbourhood and I was given a running commentary on things of local interest. We went past the Goshen Store which had been continuously in business since 1750 and was, according to Martha, the “oldest store west of the Mississippi”, which is quite some achievement for a shop in Kentucky. We drove through Harrod’s Creek, supposedly the richest zip code in the US, even including Beverly Hills. We saw the marina and drove along the Ohio River from which I could see the southern side of Indiana. The water was more or less at eye level from our vantage point in the car, and I thought that it looked like an impressive stretch. David was more dismissive. He came from Memphis, where the Mississippi flowed thick and fast. “The folks down there would think of this as just a creek.”

We went into Louisville where I was shown the home of the Louisville Slugger, which was commemorated by an eight-storey bat up against the building. David and Martha had taken the notion that I was looking for stories about America to heart, and made sure I was fed with all the details. I didn’t take in a lot of what I was told about the architecture, but apparently it was quite strange. I do remember David saying that the Kentucky Derby was now the world’s fourth largest sporting event after the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 and one other Nascar race that I’d never heard of. I assumed that the Olympics must have been the fifth.

The idea was to eat at a place on the river but it was packed out with a TV crew. It was hosting an audience with one of the coaches from the University of Kentucky, which had an impending American Football match. Most of the audience were pretty basic beer swilling men. College sport clearly enjoyed much greater mass appeal in the US than events like the Boat Race did back home. David informed me that they didn’t have the same trouble with sports’ spectators that we had in England. Perhaps after an important basketball match, there might occasionally be a bit of a riot in the streets and a couple of cars might get turned over and set alight, but “nothing like the problems you have with those soccer hooligans over there”.

We went to another bistro where I ordered a beer. David joined me and Martha had a glass of wine, but that would be it for the evening as far as booze was concerned. They have no casual drinking culture in many parts of the US. If you drink, you have a problem. When David was told by his doctor that it would be a good for his heart to drink a glass of red wine a day, he bought some at $7 a gallon and took his dose down in one go each evening from a tall tumbler while pinching his nose. Over dinner, the conversation turned to the religious broadcasts of the Bible belt. I doubted whether the combination of emotional and financial exploitation would be allowed on air in the UK. Martha said that she once heard one station offering signed portraits of Jesus to its listeners in exchange for a donation. And some people had sent money in.

We returned to the house and David cleaned his guns. His arsenal wasn’t simply kept from love of the Second Amendment, but for a practical purpose. They had a raccoon problem in those parts and he would shoot any that came near the house. He’d already bagged about twenty-five this year and didn’t think he was finished yet. I asked him what he did with the carcasses and he said that he had offered to skin one and make a hat for Martha but that generally he just tossed them over the fence. The buzzards reduced them to a small pile of bones within a day or so.

We chatted about speed limits and David warned me about the prospect of being sent straight to jail if I were caught exceeding any by more than 20 mph anywhere in America. He was keen to note that at least there were none of “them speeding cameras that you have in England”. He didn’t reckon that they would survive a day round these parts “before the good ol’ boys would go shoot ‘em down”. Martha was watching the TV and I commented with admiration on the size of the screen. David informed me that it wasn’t a big screen but that if I wanted to see a really big screen, he could show me. We went down into the basement to a large room that had been newly renovated and in pride of place was a TV that must have had a 50’’ screen. I had to concede he had a point.

The den also sported soft leather sofas and a top of the range sound system, with tweeters, woofers and eight different speakers arranged strategically around the room. The sound from the TV was channelled through this system, but you could play CDs on it too. David played me a CD of aircraft engines from World War II, which was good if you liked continuous vrooming noises. There’s nothing quite like the drone of a Lancaster just before bedtime. Anyone who likes to lie in bed unable to sleep because the same noise is going round and round inside their head should try it some time.

Day 3. MD/VA/WV: pigs, make-up, appetites, servility

Sharing a bathroom is not a hardship but does involve a certain potential awkwardness, starting with the knickered jaunt across the landing first thing in the morning. It’s not a great situation in which to greet a stranger, particularly if they’re in their underwear too. I was up and in and out of the bathroom by 7 am.

Downstairs the couple who owned the place were ready for the day. Audrey greeted me excitedly and introduced me to her husband, James, who looked generally unimpressed with life. He was like Victor Meldrew, but lacked the charm and gaiety. What appeared to be melon was on the table. More detailed taxonomy was offered by the old man as he sat down: “Pass that there chilli-sauce and pepper, son. I like to put it on my cantaloupe.” Eager to fall in with local custom, I followed suit but it didn’t prove a combination that was much to my liking.

Shortly we were joined by the other couple, Pat and Kathy, who were in their early thirties and also from Maryland. He worked for a mobile telephone company and asked me what cell phone I was using on my travels. I told him that I didn’t have one. “Gee, you definitely need a phone on you. It’s not always safe traveling in this country by yourself. You don’t know what scrapes you’re going to get yourself into and you’d want one in an emergency. Hell, I’d give you one of ours if I knew you better and thought I could trust you.” This was a man who clearly had no internal monologue.

Pat couldn’t understand why we didn’t have the death penalty in the UK. James and Audrey chipped in with agreement. Audrey commented that she believed that anyone caught looting during riots should be shot on the spot. Given that it was such a biblically-orientated household, I thought about asking her whether the authorities should have killed Jesus when he started overturning the market stalls in the Temple. But I was wary of appearing blasphemous, and didn’t much fancy being taken outside to be stoned.

Thankfully, conversation turned to my trip. After the rigmarole of explaining broadly what I was doing, I made the innocuous point that you need to be careful travelling from state to state because laws change and you might do something illegal inadvertently that was perfectly OK where you had just come from. Pat seemed to read this as a slight on the USA and pointed out that we had some pretty weird laws in England too. As he wound himself up for a story, I braced myself for the one about insulting Chelsea Pensioners on Blackfriars’ Bridge or similar fare.

Unexpectedly he started talking about pigs and how it was perfectly legal to keep them in England. In fact, it was also legal to give any individual pig you owned a name. What was still illegal though, and apparently punishable by death, was to give a pig the name Napoleon. He finished the story with one of those “so what do you say to that” looks. Very politely I told him that I had never heard that story before but that I would be surprised if such a thing existed under English law. It sounded more like something that might pertain in France rather than England. He looked puzzled: “Well that’s the same place isn’t it?” Very calmly, I informed him that they were two very separate sovereign countries that just happened to be near each other in Europe. He seemed genuinely grateful to be enlightened.

I felt that I might have embarrassed him, so to compensate I thought I’d say something overtly complimentary about my experiences so far. The first thing that came into my head was to comment on how good the roads were and how cheap the gas was. Pat looked me sternly in the face and, with a wag of his finger, warned me not to be fooled. The gas only seemed cheap because it was sold in US gallons, which were four quarts. He told me that this was less than our Imperial gallons, which were supposedly made up of five quarts. It looked like I had learned something too, in principle if not precision.

The conversation had prolonged the meal and it was now approaching 10 am. I needed to get going. All that was left to do was to get a postcard from Maryland and I could head off for Virginia. This proved far from easy. I spent most of the morning touring around the dozen or so small towns up to the state line and then back into central Maryland to no avail. Everywhere was either shut or hadn’t heard of postcards. I was beginning to resign myself to failing at only the third hurdle on what I had expected to be one of the easier of my tasks for each state.

I was struggling with quite why I thought procuring postcards would facilitate my coming into contact with local life. All it was doing was holding me up, so I pointed the car in the direction of Virginia and hit the gas. I’d have to lie when I got home and pretend that it had got lost in the mail. About a mile short of the state line there was the Maryland Visitors’ Center. As a final roll of the dice, I stopped by only to be told that they didn’t sell postcards. However, they did have some that they could let me have for free and there was even a mailbox on site and so I was saved. I’m sure the level of elation I felt was barely justified, but postcards had taken on a disproportionate importance in my mind at that moment in my life.

Annoyed at the unnecessary time that I had lost, but relieved all the same, I motored over the toll bridge into Virginia. If I headed straight for Richmond, I could still be there for lunch. For the second time since I had set out, “Ferry ‘cross the Mersey” came on the radio. To the uninitiated American ear, it probably sounded like a romantic little boat ride, rather than a windswept chug across the grey maw from the Wirral to the Liver Building. But that’s songs for you. I’d be prepared to bet that Galveston is nowhere near as poly-orgasmic as Glen Campbell makes it sound.

George W Bush is the 43rd President of the United States. You don’t have to be John Nash to work out that, with a union of fifty states, not all of them have had a turn a providing a man for the top job. Virginia isn’t one of them. Eight of those forty-three have hailed from the Old Dominion State, including the original, George Washington. Virginia was also the northernmost of the eleven southern states to secede from the union at the time of the American Civil War. And they seemed to be still fighting the same battle almost a hundred years later, if Prince Edward County was anything to go by. Its reaction to the US Supreme Court’s order to desegregate public educational facilities was to close all its schools from 1959-64. Human rights had never been much of a big deal in Virginia: between 1924 and 1979, 8000 people had been condemned to sterilization for being feeble-minded, a program for which the state took until the 21st Century to apologize. Land of the free and home of the brave.

With the lesson fresh in my mind from Maryland, my first stop in Richmond was at the Visitors’ Center where I was able to pick up postcard and a Virginia version of one of those shaky snow things. The woman was extremely helpful and made several suggestions where I could go for lunch, and carefully showed me how to get there on a detailed street map of the town. She also offered me another handy tip for survival in the US. I was still getting used to a currency where all the notes were the same size and color. She saw me carefully examining the bills in my change and pointed out that the best way to check the denomination was to look for the numbers in the corners. Gee, I’d never thought of that. It certainly beat trying to remember which President appeared on which note.

Within a couple of turns of leaving the Visitors’ Centre, I was driving down a broad tree-lined avenue of colonial mansions. This was certainly not an impoverished neighbourhood. A side road, with slightly more modest homes, led me to the Strawberry Street Café, which was packed with the beautiful people. I come from Essex and so have always felt slightly fazed when confronted by style. The most I know about good taste is that I don’t have much of it. I felt slightly out of place as I waited in the porch but I was already picking up the American habit of brazening it out. When the waitress noticed I was by myself, she suggested that if I were happy to sit at the bar then I would definitely be served more quickly.

I took my seat on the stool and took in the sight of well-to-do America out to family lunch. The finery of clothes, as well as of hair, teeth and skin complexion, was almost overwhelming. There were no fatties in here, let alone people with false limbs or terminal eczema. The barman turned to me and casually asked me whether I came from north or south London. My reply was unnecessarily complicated for him. I explained that I lived in Paddington, which was central London, but actually came from a place to the east of London called Southend. I think he wished he hadn’t asked.

This brief exchange had attracted the attention of a pristine couple just along the bar from me. His was a wholesomely weathered face and hers had a rubbery Barbie-doll look to it. He was a good twenty years her senior and had a twinkle to his eye and a strut to his conversation. She was beautifully manicured, a glossy brunette with straight hair down to her waist, but her eyes were vacant and her voice a monotone.

They introduced themselves as Hubert and Anita and wanted to know what brought an Englishman to these parts. They were both from Virginia but lived out in the countryside where, from what I could deduce, they both appeared to do not much more than just ride around on horses for a living. Nice work if you can get it. They liked to come into Richmond of a weekend to get Anita’s favourite brunch. It looked like a huge dollop of summer pudding with some sausage on the side, but they explained that it was actually blueberry French toast with cream. They were keen to know whether it was really true that we sometimes had baked beans and tomatoes for breakfast in England. They seemed genuinely disgusted by the thought.

I made a comment about how genteel Richmond seemed to be compared to where I’d stayed the night before in Maryland. Hubert wasn’t so sure. He figured that Virginia was every bit as rough as any place else that he’d seen in America: “I tell you, if you looked ‘trailer-trash’ up in the dictionary, there’d be a picture of my neighbors”. He then went on to tell me a rather disturbing tale of how three men from this family had turned up at his ranch one day proffering a hundred dollar bill and making overtures about his “pretty little wife”. It transpired that Anita herself came out of the house and chased them away with her gun: “I told that Chilli Bean to go back where he came from”. I hoped that Chilli Bean was some sort of nickname for one of the neighbors.

In a curious non-sequitur, Hubert started talking about Vietnam and how to behave in a combat situation. He’d been eighteen at the start of that war and had served his time in the army. The most important thing for a soldier was honor, but every army had men “who behave dishonorably”. He then told a story about one of his commanding officers who had shot a woman through her baby and killed them both. I wasn’t sure where this conversation was taking us and it was proving to be rather rich meat given that I’d only made the couple’s acquaintance ten minutes previously. I decided to pay up and be on my way.

It was 2.15 by the time I had made my way out of Richmond and so I found myself chasing the clock once more. There was more character to the highway than the Interstate and soon I was rolling through wooded glades and past ramshackle houses. It was a very relaxing drive – thanks to the combination of being virtually the only car on the road and my discovery/use of the cruise control for the first time – and I didn’t need to stop until I reached Amherst where I filled up with gas and phoned ahead to book a room in West Virginia.

I nipped in to the restroom where there was a condom machine with printed caution that use of condoms helped reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, but that the “only 100% guarantee was to abstain from all sexual activity before marriage and then to maintain a monogamous relationship once married”. Presumably the manufacturers were obliged to put this on their machines to warn of the evils of their product, in much the same way as UK cigarette packs have to tell you that smoking can shrivel your genitals, damage your offspring and then kill you.

Pleased that I had got myself organized, I decided I could afford the time to visit the nearby natural bridge. I swung off the highway and made my way down to Glasgow. It was small, quiet and green and nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Places were evidently not named for any reasons of similarity. From Glasgow, I followed the road to the town called Natural Bridge and, shortly before I reached it, stumbled upon the geological feature after which it was named. The commercial instinct had taken hold with a complex featuring a waxwork museum, a souvenir megastore and even a miniature golf course built around the bridge itself, which unfortunately was out of sight from the car park and the road. Instead I had to pay my ten bucks for the privilege of walking down 137 steps to view the landmark that Thomas Jefferson had described as “the most sublime of nature’s works”.

There was a cluster of very portly people webbling around the burger stand at the bottom. They weren’t just fat, they were super-fat. They were the full Michelin Man and were unable to move their arms or legs without swinging the whole of that side of their bodies. Each had the approximate turning-circle of a Winnebago. At a guess, I’d have put them in the 500-600 lbs category and none of them was taller than 5’8’’. After I had taken some photos (of the bridge), I got to the bottom of the staircase and was horrified to see the fatties had started the ascent ahead of me. Thankfully, they were pausing for breath once every five or six steps and so I was able to squeeze by. I had once run the London Marathon, and not since the end of that race have I seen people looking so red-faced and painfully short of breath. One of them was shovelling chips from a refuse-sack-sized bag into her mouth between gasps for air. I suppose she had to work hard to keep in that condition.

The sun was low in the sky as I rejoined the mountain pass over to West Virginia. An atmospheric mist hung in the air as I crossed the state line and the hills gave way to a mountain skyline. I was delighted to see my first 70 mph limit sign. I was through White Sulphur Springs and drawing into Lewisburg just as dusk was upon the town. The General Lewis was a marvellous old colonial hotel with antiques throughout, ornate gardens and a traditional front porch. My room was decked out with an old writing desk and a four-poster bed. The wall lights had those bulbs that mimic flickering candles. It was all very grand.

The hotel had no bar as such, but you could order beer from an attendant while you lazed on the leather chairs in the lounge. For all its luxury, this was another place not best suited to my purposes. It attracted a middle-aged clientele who wanted to get away from it all and largely keep themselves to themselves, and it offered employees for whom servility and deference were the cornerstones of their training. I wanted to find someone to talk with but I was unlikely to have any luck here. The closest that I came to joining in was when I was able to listen in on the conversation of the table next to me in the restaurant, but they were discussing children and it wasn’t very interesting. The highlight was “You don’t get rid of your kids until they’re 65”. (See what I mean?)

After dinner, I had a glass of wine and a cigarette out on the porch where I was joined by a couple who immediately hid themselves behind newspapers. The only other sign of life came from three characters – a middle-aged man, a post-adolescent teenager, and a ten-year old boy decked out in full baseball gear – who seemed to be prowling around the grounds and who made occasional forays onto the porch area without ever stopping to sit or speaking to anyone. I expect that I could have gone to reception, made a formal request and they probably would have sent one of the waiting staff out with the instruction to chat, but that hardly seemed the point. I picked up a local paper myself and found myself turning to the “What’s happening in your community” page. The Milton Senior Center was having its monthly luncheon on Sep 12th: “The event will start at 10.30 am with free blood pressure readings.” The Burger Grade School Reunion was scheduled for Sep 15th: it promised to feature “a talent show, games and horseshoes”. I had no idea what “horseshoes” might mean in this context, and the appended warning that “No alcohol would be allowed” seemed especially cruel. And at Barboursville, there was going to be a seminar on Sep 12th entitled “Smart women finish rich” hosted by one Scott Bumgardner of Edward Jones Investments.

It struck me that most smart women I knew would make a point of steering clear of anyone who called themselves Mr Bumgardner. I was going to check with my porch-side companions to see what they thought, but they looked like they’d been sucking lemons for the last hour or so. The Mason-Dixon line, nowadays a delineator for where palpable friendliness begins, obviously turned south and dog-legged round West Virginia.