Proving once again that he’s not the average guy, my 23-year-old man child announced last fall that his senior year spring break would be spent navigating the physical roads and emotional paths of his mom’s childhood and youth, with – of all people – his mom.
I was dubious. Surely the come-hither slap of waves against shore would lure him, the girlfriend would have a better offer, or the temptation of staying in his house and rebuilding a 1982 Jaguar XJ6 Sovereign (it’s pronounced Jag-you-are, Mom) would outweigh his desire to visit the place where Nanna and Pawpaw live and where Mom grew up.
I was dubious and I was wrong. We packed up Pollyanna, the 2004 Honda Pilot who gamely faces our adventures with nothing but an oil change and a full tank, added a few more thousand miles to her odometer, and traveled the mountains and valleys of our people. We visited Mothman, ate hot dogs in a school bus perched on the side of a hill, experienced the making of history, communed with aliens through a satellite dish the size of my parents’ neighborhood, ate more hot dogs in a red shack on the side of the road in a town that was so rough in the 70s, the cheerleaders weren’t allowed to go when my school played them, stood where Hatfields and McCoys lived, fought and died, made friends with a Kentucky state trooper with tats and calves the size of that satellite dish, walked past the bullet holes of the first battle of the mine wars, and consumed my mother’s cooking with a hungry Dickensian fervor that belied our middle class lives. More gruel, please?
Part 1: It’s Monday So It Must Be Mothman
In the mid-to-late sixties, a tall, dark creature foretold tragedy to the citizens of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Sadly, nobody spoke Mothman in Point Pleasant, West Virginia in the mid-to-late sixties, so the warnings went untranslated and unheeded. The Silver Bridge collapsed and 46 people met their deaths in a tangle of metal, water and catfish just days before Christmas 1967. This is why I have gephyrophobia.
Although Mothman has been spotted ‘round the world, the burg of Point Pleasant, West Virginia claims him as their own. Point Pleasant lies about an hour northwest of my parents’ home in Milton. There are several ways to get from Milton to Point Pleasant, some more curvy than others. Man Child had expressed his desire to experience the real West Virginia, curvy roads and all. I gave him curvy roads and all. If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, the best distance is a line that looks like a drunk hillbilly staggered between two points, unsure of which direction he was intending to go. Man Child held onto the armrest and his groceries, I held onto the steering wheel and Pollyanna held onto the asphalt as I reclaimed my curvy road driving skills. I am proud of all three of us.
Man Child’s brain is never at rest. This made raising him fun, challenging and sometimes exhausting. Nothing in our house is as it was first made to be. A t-ball stand became a locomotive smokestack; a futon became a go-cart and watermelons became WMD. When he is strapped down in a 2004 Honda Pilot, his need to invent becomes verbal and stories are born. Ergo, Stave the WVDOT worker.
According to Man Child Lore, there is a WVDOT worker named Steve, but all the guys just say Stave. He’s not particularly bright, this Stave, yet he apparently has a lot of responsibility. Man Child begat Stave after six hours on the road, driving from Nashville and we neared my small hometown. Superfluous interstate signs announced the town’s presence. “Milton 1 ¾ Mile” one sign says. Then “Milton 1 Mile” followed by “Milton ¾ Mile.”
“What did they do, just have extra signs that had arbitrary numbers on them? Stave, measure off that distance there, yeah, that’s about a mile and three quarter. Put that sign there cuz it done say a mile and three quarter.”
Stave was also apparently involved in naming the roads between Milton and Point Pleasant. “What do they do here,” my offspring asked. “Just name things after the first thing they see?
“Stave. There’s a cow standin’ in a crick there. Name that one Cow Crick Road. And over there where that horse is? Put up a sign that says Horse Crick Road.
“‘Hey Stave, that thar crick look like it about three mile. Call that one Three Mile Crick.
“Stave, you know you can’t ask me to do no math. Just measure it out agin and if it’s still five and twenty, just call it Five and Twenty Creek Road.
“Stave, I’m plum outa ideas. Just name that one after yourself. Yeah, Stave Branch is fine. I don’t know how you spellit. It’s yer name.”
We pulled into the town of Point Pleasant, (pop 4237) that, like so many other West Virginia towns, looks like a 1980s homecoming queen who has spent a lifetime smoking too much, over-applying mousse in her fringe bangs that defy gravity, and refusing to change the application of her Merle Norman black eyeliner and rust-colored blush. She used to be a beauty, but has, as my mother would say, “let herself go.”
We parked next to a storied haunted hotel and stepped from the car. Through the wispy morning clouds, filtered sun illuminated the metal spectacle a block away as if God were anointing the creature with light. Mothman: The Sculpture.
Made of stainless steel by the artist Robert (Bob) Roach, Mothman is more jacked than Shemar Moore and despite his tattered wings is, quite frankly, kinda hot. (I can patch those wings up for you, boo.) His hands and feet are talons and his red eyes a little threatening, but nobody’s perfect. After all, Mothman has our best interest at heart and just wants people to know that bad things are about to happen.
Next to Mothman: The Sculpture is WOMM, for which I now have a bumper sticker. I have a bumper crop of bumper stickers. They hold Pollyanna together and I’m smug that I have one of the first Coexist stickers ever made as well as a sticker for the city of Flint, for which the L has been replaced with the silhouette of a handgun. One of my great pleasures in life is watching people read my bumper stickers, shake their heads and walk away.
Another of my greatest pleasures is taking Man Child to places such as The World’s Only Mothman Museum. WOMM is a veritable cornucopia of all things Mothman and when Man Child saw the motorized Mothman bike, I thought he was going to soil his pants. He could scarcely contain his joy when I agreed to pay seven bucks for both of us to tour the museum. I love being the benevolent parent. Of course I’ll pay the admission fee for a museum tour my child. Your continuing education is so very, very important to your father and me.
Owned by a graphic design teacher, who is also a rocker and, if I can guess correctly, an old hippie, The World’s Only Mothman Museum holds a wealth of knowledge for even those of us who consider ourselves Mothman connoisseurs. http://www.mothmanmuseum.com/ I am embarrassed to admit that I did not know that there were Men in Black before Will Smith. After touring the museum under the watchful glare of Men in Black mannequins, I do not doubt their existence.
As with every museum worth its exhibit, the tour ends in the gift shop. I am a fool for swag. When my offspring toured colleges and didn’t take advantage of the swag bags, I pouted. Imagine my delight in a shop filled with Mothman swag. T-shirts and aforementioned bumper stickers and books and buttons and bags! I wanted ALL the things. We already have the movie starring Richard Gere and Debra Messing; get the book! The traveling coffee mug! Who cares if we’re paying two college tuitions and board for a high maintenance horse? Who cares if our house is so cluttered that “Hoarders” producers circle us like a vulture around a dying cow? Mothman swag for EVERYONE!
Dizzy by my frenzied Mothman shopping extravaganza, credit card clutched in my sweaty hand, I turned my head when the museum shop door opened and a smoky smell wafted in. A fellow was tossing mats on the floor like it was his job. It was. He owned the place. Man Child and I felt like we had met Sir Paul McCartney and nearly fell to our knees in fealty. “You own the Mothman Museum? Like. Wow. Man.”
We shook hands and learned that he smelled smoky because he’d been on the picket line with striking West Virginia teachers. Our love became greater. Forget living down the street from country music royalty, or bumping into Connie Britton at my kids’ school. I’m impressed with a schoolteacher who is a graphic artist and owns the freaking WORLD’S ONLY MOTHMAN MUSEUM. He’s also in a band. I mean can you get any more boss than that?
He also knows our Really Cool Neighbor who grew up in Point Pleasant and we learned that the stuffed Mothman she gave us years ago is now a collector’s item. Sorry Tammy. Collector Mothman is mine. The World’s Most Interesting Man who owns the World’s Only Mothman Museum invited us back for the Mothman Festival that is held the third weekend of September.
We put it in our calendars.
It was difficult to pull ourselves away from Point Pleasant, but we had an appointment with my mother, niece and some hot dogs. We paid our respects to those lost in the Silver Bridge collapse, paid homage to Chief Cornstalk with the embarrassment of knowing more often than not, the white guys have been the bad guys and nodded respectfully to the red glowing eyes in a porthole window of a Victorian house.
Thirty minutes down Route 2 from Mothman is a much-heralded eatery that defies haute cuisine, defines hot weenies and has been featured in shows such as Diners, Drive Ins and Dives. Clutching our 10% off coupon from WOMM, we entered the compound that is Hillbilly Hot Dogs.
This architectural marvel perched on the side of a hill that overlooks the slow-moving Ohio River is the brainchild of Sonny and Sharie Knight. He, a West Virginia native, brought his California girl back to the hills with him and they built a building so they could open a hotdog stand. Nearly two decades later, the building has all but disappeared within a puzzle of school buses, junktiques, outhouses, boats, vans teetering on poles, wedding chapels and more kitsch than a garden gnome emporium.
What remains important, however, within the layers of décor and bâtiment de fantaisie, is the original building, which houses the kitchen (cue: angelic voices). From this surprisingly sterile, steamy room, Hillbilly Hot Dogs are born. http://www.hillbillyhotdogs.com/
There are more menu choices at Hillbilly Hot Dogs than there are cars on blocks between Point Pleasant and Hillbilly Hot Dogs. Each item has a name. I got the West Virginian. Man Child considered the Homewrecker, briefly and the Widowmaker even more briefly, but I don’t remember what he got. Nor do I remember what my mother and niece got. I was in the zone and all that mattered was my hot dog, the onion rings and a Diet Coke. I’m watching my weight, after all.
We climbed into one of the dining rooms – a school bus covered in graffiti – and sat at a beautifully appointed table with a lovely centerpiece made from a Spam can. I need to remember that when I complete Daisy’s décor. As we waited for our food, Man Child plopped into the driver’s seat of the bus and discovered that everything was still connected. “The clutch just engaged!” he yelled. “The brakes are still hooked up!” He pushed pedals and shifted gears. I looked at my mom and she looked at me. Good God he was going to drive us into the Ohio River. Worst of all, he was going to drive us into the Ohio River BEFORE we got our hot dogs.
I used the ploy available to moms worldwide, no matter the age of their offspring. I distracted with food. “Why don’t you see if our order is ready?” He took off sniffing like a beagle after a rabbit and the bus stayed nestled into the side of a hill.
Before I made this trip, I had a discussion with my nutritionist. Because I have an autoimmune disease and because I am twice the woman I used to be, she has her work cut out for her. We were on the phone and she was trying to help me make good decisions for the trip by encouraging me to plan ahead.
“Well, I know I’m going to Hillbilly Hot Dogs, so that’s just gonna be a blow-it-out-my-ass kinda day,” I announced, knowing that I meant it both figuratively and literally. I heard the clicking of a keyboard and bit my tongue. Dammit. She was on the website, looking at the menu. I think I heard her retch.
She was quiet. The kind of quiet that a nervous person like myself feels obligated to fill. “I know it’s unhealthy, but it’s something I have to do.” She doesn’t understand the sacrifices we make for our kids, even when they’re grown. My son wanted the West Virginia experience. That meant Mothman and Hillbilly Hot Dogs.
“They have some vegetables,” she whispered. “Oh. Those are fried.” Then a few seconds later, “Wait. Here are rabbit fixin’s.”
I kept my mouth shut. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. I adore this woman. She’s changed my life, seriously, with alterations in my eating habits that have lessened inflammation. But her elevator don’t go all the way to the top if she thinks I’m going to go to Hillbilly Hot Dogs and order a SALAD.
Because I’ve lived in Nashville long enough to say one thing and mean another, (unlike in West Virginia where you say everything that pops into your brain), I said, “Yes, that sounds lovely” and agreed that yes, I would have a great time and make good choices.
Because I was raised by my mother, for whom guilt is the elixir of life, I felt a little bit remorseful as I took the first bite of my dog, enjoying that satisfying pop of a perfectly cooked wiener. With each subsequent bite, I felt less guilty. By the time I had eaten all of my hot dog, an order of onion rings and half of my niece’s fries, and washed it down with a Diet Coke, I was happily, greasily semi-comatose.
All I needed was a wafer-thin mint.
We strolled the grounds afterward, as one would in any park-like setting, enjoying
bon mots written upon slabs of wood (“grinning like a opossum pooping peach seeds”), and marveling at the logistics of getting a van 20 feet into the air so that it could perch on top of a dead tree. We were flirting with a stray cat when Man Child clutched his stomach and high tailed it to the outhouse.
He was getting the full West Virginia experience, after all.
Coming soon: Take Me Home Country Roads Part 2. Herstory in the making.