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Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.

Month

May 2017

a different country road

I have a special needs brother-in-law who has lived in Logan, West Virginia for the past few years. More specifically, Whitman Junction, which runs along the holler formed by Whitman Creek. And yes it’s holler, not hollow. The houses of Whitman Junction – some ramshackle, some very nice brick ranchers –  sit so closely together that you could sit in your kitchen and hear your neighbor’s cat purring next door, and so close to the road that a misjudged first step off the front porch could put you directly in the line of traffic.  It’s what you would call a tight-knit community.

My brother-in-law has been in and out of Logan General Hospital recently, and is now recovering from a serious illness.  Because of all of this, my wife and I have spent a great deal of time in the Logan area over the last few years.  To know about Logan – and southern West Virginia – you need to know about the state in general.

Economically, West Virginia typically ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in just about every category. At one time, though, southern West Virginia was a booming coal mining region. But as mining has declined, so have the fortunes of southern West Virginia. Communities like Logan have been hard hit.

The geography and geology of southern West Virginia, specifically, the coal formed in the mountains eons ago, is what spurred the boom times of yesteryear. Those same mountains also tend to isolate southern West Virginia.  The terrain is rugged. Check out this photo of the main highway leading to Logan. That’s a major cut through hard sandstone.  And the next photo. It took a massive earthwork project just to build another Walmart.

logan highway cut for web
The rugged terrain in Logan makes for expensive highways.

 

fountain place for web
Even the shopping centers are carved out of the rock.

Add all this up and you get people who are different. I know I talk with an accent, but it ain’t nuthin like the accent of southern West Virginia. It’s also the land of camo. As in camouflage hats, camo vests, camo shirts, camo pants. You also see a lot of miners in their work clothes, easily identified by the bright orange reflectors.  Yeah, the people are different. And they seem to have a little bit of a hard edge.

The other day we stopped to get a bite to eat and saw a couple coming out of the fast food restaurant holding hands. They were thin and wiry. He wore a scowl. So did she. Tough love, maybe? I’d be afraid of either one of them.

But maybe I shouldn’t be.

We had driven to Logan that morning, a Saturday, and were listening to This American Life. It was an old episode about a prison production of Hamlet. It was one of the most engaging shows I’ve ever heard on that broadcast. They interviewed convicted criminals who were trying their best to be actors.  One of them acknowledged that his tough guy persona, the very thing that had landed him in prison, was an act. It was who he thought people expected him to be. It was, for him, a cloak of protection.

The people in Logan have had it rough. I’d probably scowl, too, if for no other reason, than to keep the world at bay.

And there are many, many good people in Logan. You can tell by the way the old guys wear their camo ball caps tipped back on their head.  You can tell by the way the young girls in the stores go out of their way to make you feel like a long, lost cousin.  You can tell by the 10-second conversation in the hospital elevator where a stranger tells you about the heartbreak she’s dealing with. Just like people all over the world.

If you lived in Hawaii, you’d probably smile a lot. Perfect weather, beautiful people, laid back attitude.  If you lived in Logan, it would be tougher to smile. And yet they do.  Even the scowling couple probably find contentment when their guard is down. They were holding hands, after all.

Wherever you go in your travels, you’ll find good people.  It might take more of an effort to find them, but they’re there. Look past what’s on the outside, and find the goodness within.

 

 

 

 

no passport required

hawks nest for web

The New River, one of the five oldest rivers in the world, is an hour away. If I count the hike to get to the overlook at Hawks Nest State Park, make it two hours.

Clear Fork for web

There are rivers like this everywhere.  This one is in Raleigh County, an hour and a half from my front door.

greenbank for web

ET, phone home. Green Bank, West Virginia is home to the largest fully-steerable radio telescope in the world in the heart of Pocahontas County.  If you wanted to pick one place to go in West Virginia, Pocahontas County would be a good choice.

alban fresco for web

No, it’s not New York.  Just another small town Main Street in St. Albans. When I was a kid, we watched Frankie Avalon and Anette Funicello in Beach Blanket Bingo.  For a while it was a Jehova’s Witness Kingdom Hall.  Now the Alban is a theater again featuring plays and concerts.

So ends the tour of picturesque West Virginia.  Tomorrow we go to Logan.


all images copyright joseph e bird

almost heaven

tree for web

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.

Take Me Home, Country Roads, the signature hit of John Denver, was adopted by my home state, in part because of the first line of the song, Almost Heaven, West Virginia, but also because the spirit of the song is about coming home to the country roads we all love so much.  West Virginians are scattered all over the world, but the mountains seem to have an irresistible pull that tells us we should have been home yesterday.

But let’s talk about the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River.  In truth, both of those geographic features, even though they cross the border into West Virginia, are better known as Virginia landmarks. But let’s call it the songwriter’s artistic license.

It’s easy to understand how the Blue Ridge Mountains could inspire Denver and his co-songwriters.  It’s a relatively short drive from my home to the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the most beautifully scenic highways in America.

Overlooks are everywhere.  It’s an incredible sight to see the mountains fade into the horizon miles and miles away.  Picturesque trees are works of art waiting to be painted. Rustic barns, quaint cottages, and chairs on the hillside make you want to slow down and take it all in.  And at the end of every day is the perfect sunset.

blueridge sunset

Here’s another truth.

Though the Blue Ridge Mountains are part of Virginia, there are places just as spectacular all over West Virginia.  So much so, that we tend to take them for granted. The sunset picture above could have been taken in my back yard. A mountain top view is minutes away.  Babbling brooks and rivers winding through the forest are within an easy bike ride.  It’s the stuff that inspires artists and poets.

Almost heaven, West Virginia.

 

I don’t have a passport.

That pretty well sums up what kind of traveler I am.

Don’t misunderstand. I wish I had a passport. I would have liked to have traveled around the world. See the sights. Meet people. Learn about their culture. But that’s not my reality, for reasons that aren’t important for this discussion.

I’m just not a world traveler. But I have a lot of friends who are.

I have a friend in Singapore who corresponds with me on a regular basis. Another musician friend in the UK who travels the countryside with his wife and dog and guitar. A friend down under shares her amazing photos of the places she visits. Amos, a writer, goes to Lisbon for inspiration. Want real life in Sydney or New Zealand?  Check this out.  And my good friend Lily treks all over Canada with her husband. Oh, Canada. I could go on.

People will ask if I have any travel plans for the summer. My running joke is that we plan to take a trip to Marmet, a wide spot on the road about 20 miles away.  While Marmet is a fine community, it’s not on anybody’s list of places to vacation.

In my travel fantasies, there are places I would have liked to live. Not just visit for a day, or even a week, but actually live there. Get a job. An apartment. Shop for food. Cook meals. Get to know people. Get to know their culture. Live in the country. Again, I know people who do this. But for me, it’s just a fantasy.

So my travels are typically much closer to home. And I’ve discovered there is much to learn about the different people and cultures within my own country, and within my own state. Not to mention some truly spectacular places.

This week, we’ll travel to some of these places. It won’t be glamorous, but it will be fulfilling.  More tomorrow.

did you solve the riddle?

The other day I wrote about finding special moments throughout the day in piece called ninety nine miles.  At the end, while travelling back home, the narrator finally finds some relief as Scott sings, Salina, I’m as nowhere as I can be.  

Did you Google?  Did you figure it out?

Who is Scott?  Answer, Scott Avett, of course.

The song, Salina.  It starts out as just another nice Avett Brothers song about being away from home. Then near the end, the music takes on a symphonic quality.

Click the link and stay with it.  No video on this clip, just great music for a rainy Saturday night.

The Ballad of the Boy from Quincy

Quincy RR yard-1917 adjusted
Railyard at Quincy, WV, circa 1917

He hopped a train out Quincy way
Rode with his brothers, to earn the pay
Stayed in the city, and worked all day

That’s how it was back then
And he’d do it all again

Just to spend his life with her.

.

She lived a ways on down the road
But went to town, to pay what’s owed
Ate lunch with pie, a la mode

At the big department store
She left there wanting more

Hoping he would come her way.

.

One day he rode the train past town
Jumped off the car when it slowed down
Hurt his leg when he hit the ground

And limped across the street
Saw a bench and had seat

And waited for the pain to fade.

.

The people gave him looks of scorn
His shirt was dirty, his pants were torn
They didn’t like him, he could have sworn

He held his eyes down low
Hoping it wouldn’t show

That he was just a kid from the sticks.

.

Down the way was the streetcar stop
Next to a tiny soda shop
He thought he just might get a pop

And then be on his way
Forget this maddening day

And go back to his home in the hills.

.

She was standing on the other side
Asking what he had in mind
He knew right then she’d be his bride

As crazy as it was
That’s just what true love does

Because their story had just begun.

.

What happened to you, you fall off the train?
You look to be in quite some pain
You kinda slow? Don’t have much brains?

At that he simply smiled
You’re wrong a country mile

I’m the sharpest man you’ll ever meet, today.

.

He bought a drink to quench his thirst
Not sure which was best, or which was worst
His bold approach was unrehearsed

He’d never met a girl like her
His mind was such a blur

But somehow, he’d make it work.

.

He found his wit, they were matched so well
He had fallen, to her spell
Her beauty, he couldn’t wait to tell

To all his friends back home
And he’d never be alone

It was just a matter of time.

.

They were wed for sixty years
Through the laughter and the tears
And then his greatest fear

She was gone in dawn’s first light
And lonely was the night

And his heart would never heal.

.

Now he’s left, he’s gone back home
Not to Quincy, not to be alone
No more trains, no more to roam

They’re walking side by side
Their love again his pride

Together evermore.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird

ninety-nine miles

cropped-mountains-for-web.jpg

Not quite dawn.
Early morning drive
to get to where i’m going.
Which is where?
Doesn’t matter.
Just another destination

The gray skies start to lighten.
No dramatic sunrise.
Just light, and a little more.
Ninety nine miles down the road.
Around the bend.
Down the valley.
Up the hill.

Then the golden streaks
shining on the brilliant greens.
Bright highlights and deep shadows
and fog nestled
in the forest.
For a moment
maybe two.
.
A meeting.
Just business.
Keep the project moving.
What city?
Doesn’t matter.
Just another job.

They go their way.
I go mine.
Looking for lunch.
Walking the streets.
A pawn shop.
Liquor store.
Check cashing.

The next block is different.
A coffee shop.
A Mediterranean restaurant.
Great food and friendly server.
It doesn’t get any better.
For a moment.
Maybe two.
.
Day is dimming.
The tires are humming.
Got to get back home.
Where?
Doesn’t matter.
Home is home.

The radio is droning.
Two hours of talk
numbs the mind.
Even the music
that always brings relief
has been playing
much too long.

Then Scott sings.
Salina,
I’m as nowhere as I can be.
The most beautiful music.
And all is well.
For a moment.
Maybe two.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird

Gliding over the miles.

Along the road, on the shoulder.
Her strides are even
Her pace is steady
She is young, in her prime,
and I envy her energy.

Along the road, on the shoulder.
Her hair bundled together
bounces from one side to the other.
Of course she catches my eye.
She’s a confident athlete.

Along the road, on the shoulder.
She dodges a pothole with a stutter step
and then she’s running again.
She’s so relaxed
And makes it all seem effortless.

Along the road, on the shoulder.
She’s a runner, not a jogger.
She’ll get taunts and catcalls
But she’ll keep running.
Because it’s all about the running.

My prime is a memory as I run
along the road, on the shoulder.
yet there are those days when my
strides are long
and my pace is quick
and time is a myth
and I run as she runs
gliding over the miles
as if
I could run
forever.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird

Probably not.

He came to me, this poor man.
Poor in the sense of having nothing.
He was dirty.
His pants were ripped.
He was ashamed of his appearance.
He was ashamed of his life.
I wish I could say he was rich in other ways.
But no. Probably not.

Another stopped me on the elevator.
He studied my face, as if he knew me.
His mind had betrayed him.
It was why he was there, in this hospital.
Reality had left him long ago.
Then he knew. I was Stevie Ray Vaughn.
You might think that such folly is liberating.
But no. Probably not.

A woman on the sidewalk
Said she needed some money.
Fifteen dollars for the bus pass.
Not just the spare change pitch.
She seemed sincere, if a little desperate.
She got her fifteen dollars.
And fifteen minutes in prayer.
It could just be another con job.
But no. Probably not.

Do my pennies make me rich?
Do your dollars make you poor?
Who is wise and who is foolish?
Do we know the way of truth?
Are you righteous in your mind?
Does evil stain your thoughts?
One could say that all is vanity.
But no. Probably not.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird


Note:  These are true stories, and it pleases me to tell of the kindness that others have shown to those in need.

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