|By Bob Weaver 1999|
I learned a long time ago that it was all right for me to be critical
of things around here, but let some "outsider"
come in an do likewise, I get huffy.
And they have - from the Wall
Street Journal, the Saturday Evening Post to
George Magazine, among others.
Then there was the "First
Impressions" report from a slightly outside group from
WVU, reporting how the town of Grantsville might brighten up their
So, my heart skipped when I picked up a
book in Buckhannon the other day, "Burnt House to Paw Paw" by Merrill
Gilfillan, a writer man wandering
through Appalachia and making notes of the places he visits.
opened to see if he came through Sunny Cal.
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 necessary explanations for our local readers:
"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.
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
recent 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
Volswagen. 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
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) 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
Well, that's it, the first impressions of
Merrill Gilfillan, who really likes the backwoods. Actually, the book
is a great read. Hard Press, 1997 for $12.95.