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I drove to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia today. Because it’s two hours out of town. Because I wanted a tangible, physical break between my old job and my new. Mostly because I can.

I drove through smoke-colored rain which made everything look mostly the same until I came up and out of a valley somewhere (Maryland?) and all of a sudden I was in West Virginia: rolling hills of scrubby dead grass. Farms tucked into hill-bottoms. Altitude.

When people ask me about the difference between the west coast and this one, I never know what to say. But now, because of this place, I think I do: the east coast is the teddy bear you’ve had since you were a baby that is now in some closet somewhere. The fur is matted down and worn into nubs from years of your baby fingers rubbing their baby oils into it. Threadbare in parts, you can see the under-stitching of your childhood. All of this place has been worn down: from the brick-box-homes to the creaking General Store floors to the hill-lettes of West Virginia, people have just been here longer. We’ve worn it down. Its sharp corners are rounded. It’s threadbare.

Berkeley Springs used to be called the town of Bath because of its mineral springs. I am somewhat glamorized by the so-called properties of these waters – signs and internet sites and pamphlets tell me that it Leaves your Skin Feeling Soft! Aids in Digestion! George Washington is quoted on city signs cautiously stating that these waters may do him good – kind of a lukewarm statement to put on a sign but if George said it, it must be marketable. And this whole tourism industry has sprouted around these waters. Every place has ‘spa treatments’, homeopathic medicines, massage. I got a massage at the State Park from Candace, a real West Virginia girl. She was born here. She doesn’t want to live anywhere else. She wears thick black eyeliner all around her eyes and has a son who makes her laugh when he talks like an adult, even though he’s only a baby still. Her boyfriend is a cook at the fanciest restaurant in town. Big cities make her nervous. She yawns and squirts oil into her hands and giggles when I moan as she works her West Virginia fingers into the tightly rolled muscles between my knee and hip, the arch of my foot, my shoulderblades.

I want to see this place, so I drive up and out of town, into the hills (mountains?). Everyone who lives here apparently has a fleet of vehicles: truck, motorhome, construction equipment, and a sensible car. I drive along a curling road, black asphalt wet like licorice, like a giraffe’s tongue. The clouds are so low they are also fog and the slick tree trunks pop black against this softness. Another difference between this coast and that: trees. Somehow, a forest of deciduous trees just doesn’t feel like a forest to me.

I eat dinner at the bar of the hippest place in town (Candace told me about it). Everything is homemade and organic, and I bite into my monstrous pink burger with bacon, provolone, and grilled onions while I watch a Dad play pool with his two young boys. One of the boys drops his pool cue and it makes James jump. James is a cook at this place, but right now he is drinking a Bud Light next to me at the bar and watching San Diego play New York. He and his wife got into some trouble when her brother-in-law moved in with them and was selling cocaine out of their house. He got 5 years in prison and found Jesus, they got charged with conspiracy. They had to leave and this was the only place they tried where the trailer park owner didn’t care and let them stay. They have two girls.

Laura is the bartender. She has burgundy hair and tattoos up both arms, cool glasses with rhinestones that glitter in the Christmas lights hung above the bar. When Laura isn’t refilling my beer or James’, she is talking really intensely to a young girl sitting at one of the tables. When the girl leaves, Laura says, “I love you.” The girl is her daughter, and she’s just had her first kiss. She’s 13 and her name is Ruby. Here are the rules Laura makes Ruby repeat over and over: finish high school. Go to college. Travel the world for a year. Have a career. Get married. Have kids. IN THAT ORDER. Laura got pregnant with Ruby when she was 19. She says she didn’t know any better. She wants Ruby to know better.

I’m sitting here thinking about these people and this place, trying to will blood into my cold, damp feet in front of the gas fire here at the Country Inn. I imagine living here. So small. I imagine myself huddled in one of the houses I drove past in the hills, seeing my skin in the light of my satellite TV. I understand, in a different way, the need for community, for neighbors, for dark places that feel like a different world that would make me forget. Understand that winter is a real thing here.


Phoenix said...

I love your writing style. Good God it's gorgeous - I can see everything you write about and fall in love with the people you fall in love with, if only for a few seconds...

You have such a gift, my friend.

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