SUNNY CAL JOURNAL - Writer Said Grantsville Is A Good Place To Sober Up

By Bob Weaver 2003

I learned a long time ago it was sorta all right for me to be critical of things around here, but let some "outsider" come in and do likewise, we all get huffy. And outsiders have - from the Wall Street Journal, Saturday Evening Post to George magazine, among others.

Just last week, a documentary film maker had his equipment erected in front of the courthouse. He was from Belgium or France. Several folks approached him, wanting to know what he was doing in Grantsville. He just said "Making a TV program." We all wondered what he was saying (in foreign tongue) about our county.

Then there was the "First Impressions" report from an outside group from WVU, a few years ago, reporting how the town of Grantsville might brighten up their burg. They complained about the no parking signs in front of the "Welcome Center," saying they weren't too hospitable. The signs remained.

So, my heart skipped when I picked up a book a while back in Buckhannon, "Burnt House to Paw Paw" by Merrill Gilfillan, a writer man wandering through Appalachia and making notes of the places he visits. I opened to see if he came through Sunny Cal.

He did, in 1997. I remember a writer some years ago by the name of Moon, who trekked across America and stopped in Sutton WV. He diligently reported that most of the folks in that town had one eye missing and one leg off, besides strange stuff hanging from their mouth.

Here is Gilfillan's journey through Sunny Cal, mostly Grantsville and US 33/119, with some explanations for our readers:

"But today a fresh matriarchal breeze is blowing and down below Tanner people are out enjoying the day, stand talking nice and easy near the road. Laundry flaps on the clotheslines and the work goes on. An old woman bends in a cemetery, scrubbing a tombstone with a bucket and sponge; a woman and a young girl mysteriously drag a rocking horse along a rural forest edge.

Within and hour I am restless, I need to get out of the car, so I stop in Grantsville and drive around until I notice River Street, and turn that rutty way (EXPLANATION-It is no longer rustic since its repaving), skirting the edge of town where it fronts the Little Kanawha.

I park in an unobtrusive place between rubbley store-backs and the drop of the river bank and open the door and lean back. I have a touch of the whiskey head (EXPLANATION-Grantsville is as good as place as any to sober up) from the bon voyage party and the warm lull of the alley is calming.

The stream is muddy and high from recent rains. I hear her clatter and clip along. Beyond her a steep wooded ridge rises. The backside quiet of the town feels as good as the sun. A Kingfisher rattles down the river and from across the way a distant lapdog yaps from a hidden hollow; it echoes and bounces four-fold down the hill.

I remember the first excursion I made into these mountains. 1964. I was 18 and came down with a friend from college in a black Volkswagen. We drove like crazy to the Rolling Stones and the Supremes, slept on the ground anywhere we pleased or put up at flea bag tourist rooms through Kentucky and West Virginia, and all the way to Asheville, North Carolina, everything washed with the creamy new-light of the first look.

We loved the hawk-wild tangle of it, its mythic otherliness, and the headstrong maze of its twisting back roads. We stared in disbelief at our first red-eye gravy.

We passed a pretty teenage girl somewhere in remote West Virginia-she was wearing a breezy old-fashioned plaid dress and walking downvalley along the railroad tracks with her head down in maddening self-containment.

We talked about her for weeks (EXPLANATION-These boys have been away from home, too long), and knew full well that she was the Truth of the Matter. Recollected, the entire has a custardy Thomas Hart Benton musculature.

But this afternoon in Grantsville it takes a few minutes of backalley sun to cut into that blossom and core, to step out of the disposable hum and commercial false front lining the highways and into the gist of it all; but that will come when it is ready.

I splash canteen water on my face and walk around into the main street. It is a compact business district with handsome stone buildings around the pivotal courthouse square. The downtown is bustling (EXPLANATION-First of the month?) with shoppers; pickup trucks with red mud splashed high on their flanks sit waiting along the curbs with grannies as lean as Ghandi in them.

I go into a busy cafe for carry out coffee. It is a strange, out-of-kilter place with easter-egg purple walls (EXPLANATION-JoAnn's Restaurant, now the Koffee Kup) adorned with a tacky hodgepodge of ornaments and tasseled curtains where there are no windows that reminds me instantly of an odd-ball sprang-up-overnight "Indian" restaurant in New York City.

Then I roll on south and soon hit Route 33, a major east-west artery, and follow its thin valley-trickle of human habitation west.

There are crisp white churches set on lovely knolls among the woods. Family groups in old cars tear by, several generations within exuding a voracious holiday-like wonder. Small roads digressing from the highway into the hills (EXPLANATION- Arnoldsburg to Leatherbark) smack of things like ham and greens or biscuits with cocoa gravy.

Huge rock ledges hang on the lip of the valley; one large chunk has torn off and fallen and landed directly on some sort of home (EXPLANATION-Joe Cain's old vet clinic) or roadside shack; a few splintered boards extend from under the edges, like feathers on a cat's jowl. I cut south at Spencer...

Well, that's it, the first impressions of Merrill Gilfillan, who really likes the backwoods.