Route 50 begins in West Sacramento, CA, and extends over 3,000 miles to Ocean City, MD, tracing a jagged line across the continent. I plan to follow it east across West Virginia, from Parkersburg to the Virginia line. I have done this drive before, but I don’t remember much of it, except for its hills and curves. Maybe I was less observant back then, or maybe it was just that in the past I didn’t feel the need to scan every bit of America as if my eyes were cameras, knowing that I might never see it again.
In Parkersburg, where sprawling Victorian houses coexist with densely packed office blocks, Route 50 crosses the Ohio River on an unpromising bridge above Blennerhassett Island. It was on this emerald serpent of land that Aaron Burr met with co-conspirators at Harman Blennerhassett’s opulent mansion to plot his treason, the details of which are still as murky as the opaque blue-brown water of the Ohio.
I start the day in a 24-hour Walmart Supercenter. The store contains a Subway and a hair salon. Customers are few at this early hour, but workers in blue polo shirts are numerous; Walmart appears to employ everyone in town who’s not laboring to extract some precious resource from the ground. A big sign outside the hotel I stay in south of Parkersburg reads “Oil and gas workers welcome.” As in every down-market West Virginia hotel I have ever stayed at, all the other guests in the breakfast room, the lobby, and, presumably, the bar – though I don’t stop in to check – are male.
I set out after sunrise but the sun is still suspended in an eerie mist. Here, in the western part of the state, Route 50 is a highway, with lush green hills on either side. Road aside, this seems a place not meant for humans – except, perhaps, the occasional nomad or traveler passing through the haze – and certainly not for Walmart Supercenters. As I drive, awake enough to concentrate on the road but little else, I drowsily wonder whether it is always where the earth is at its most stunning that we ravage it for what’s hidden underneath. The towns and streets on the exit signs, with names like Burning Springs and Mine Road, exist only because of these hidden riches, and it suddenly seems strange to me that we insist on holding on to what we’ve built above the ground long after they are gone. Here, though, the earth seems to be still giving.
Forty-five minutes further east, the mist has not lifted; it has thickened into a spooky grey fog that clings to the treetops and hovers above the road. The sun, shining but obscured, looks like a pale moon.
I take the exit for downtown Clarksburg, and the ramp deposits me in a small city that feels like it’s balancing on a teeter-totter between the nostalgia of lost beauty and the grind of survival. There are parking meters here, and a striking art deco courthouse surrounded by earlier buildings, all impressively detailed, all of which deserve to belong to a place people outside of the immediate region have heard of. It’s a sweetly old-fashioned little city; if it were magically picked up and dropped in another region, it would probably be gentrified instantly, with a few shabbier blocks preserved for their vintage charm.
I keep driving through Bridgeport, where a McDonald’s with a double drive-thru huddles with other fast food places, big box stores, and chain hotels, offering travelers a last look at the most anodyne expressions of American civilization before they venture into the land of unfamiliar brand names and open space. After that, green hills spread out on either side of the road as far as I can see. Houses, and named places – like Pruntytown and Belgium – come less and less frequently until I reach Grafton.
By now the mist has lifted and the day is becoming hot and muggy. Grafton is all steps and inclines, trains and train whistles. I park near the disused B&O Railroad Depot and Willard Hotel, the emptiness of which only reinforces how grand they must have been when they opened in 1912. An old woman sweeps the sidewalk in front of a shop; as I walk around her, trying not to disrupt her sweeping, she says “Sorry Ma’am.” A shirtless teenage boy mills around beside a truck. A man with a scraggly white beard and a hat passes on the sidewalk and doesn’t return my nod. A woman who I guess to be in her late 20s to early 40s walks parallel to me, on the opposite sidewalk. She is wearing a striped dress and wedge heels, with her hair twisted up, and carrying a large tote bag. There is something comfortingly current about her, some sense of belonging to the present day, that no one else here has. I watch her until our paths diverge, then I turn back. I pass a vacant storefront that’s decorated with little American flags. It looks like the quiet end of the world, when we finally forget entirely what the flag was supposed to stand for, and all that’s left are bits of colored cloth clinging to the window of an empty room.
East of Grafton, the towns are fewer and the speed limit seems to change arbitrarily. Sometimes on a fairly tame stretch, it will drop to 15; other times, on some whirl of a road that feels like a self-guided amusement park ride, it will rise to 45, like a dare.
As I always do on long drives, I note the mundane objects out my window. Hay bales in fields, a horse outside a barn, old cars and more old cars and more old cars, parked in rows. Bored-looking cows, confederate flags, houses, trailers, trucks. More Confederate flags. More cows, glossy ones, two of which quite literally gambol through a field, though they look far too large and blocky for this little dance. I cross into Maryland for a moment, then back into West Virginia. It’s a reminder of how odd this state is, historically and physically, a preposterously-shaped blotch made up of pieces of elsewhere that feels like a disorienting cross between the northeast, the south, and something older than both. I cross rivers – the Cacapon, the Cheat – on pretty little bridges.
The road winds, climbs and falls, loops and circles its way through the mountains. I pass towns not quite big enough to justify being called towns, and an occasional antique store or church. I stop to take a photo in front of an apparently shuttered business with a sign over the door, the words crammed together as if to make several meat products into a single, regional foodstuff: CountryHamBaconSausage. I pass several bare-bones Dollar General stores that make this morning’s Walmart look like a luxury department store. Dollar Generals are everywhere, but they look notably, depressingly predatory here. Old Crow Medicine Show shuffles onto my iPhone:
When a man has got the blues and feels discouraged
And has nothing else but trouble all his life
But he’s just an honest man like any other
Living in a world that’s tearing at his mind
If he’s sick and tired of life and takes to drinking
Do not pass him by don’t greet him with a frown
Do not fail to lend your hand and try to help him
Always lift him up and never knock him down
Cell service comes and goes, and when I turn on the radio the stations fade in and out, overlapping. Something twangy and bluegrass-adjacent duels with the Grateful Dead:
I see you’ve got your fists out, say your piece and get out
Guess I get the gist of it but it’s alright
Sorry that you feel that way
The only thing there is to say
Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey
I will get by, I will get by, I will get by, I will survive
Many hours later, the foggy morning long left behind, I reach the state line. Though I’m expecting the landscape to change, having been here before, it’s nevertheless a little disconcerting to drive into the afternoon bustle of Winchester, Virginia. It’s not just that I’m in another state, or that I feel like I’ve suddenly lurched ahead in time, back into the now. It’s also that I’m already sensing West Virginia slipping from my mind, and fearing I’ll remember it all wrong. I have notes, and photos, and I was paying closer attention than the last time I drove this road. Still, there’s something impenetrable about the place I’ve just left, and I wonder whether no outsider will ever get it exactly right, and what I might have missed behind that strange grey fog.