Wyoming County, West Virginia.
I came down off the mountain hungry as hell. I don’t know how hungry that is really, or if that expression works. But stuck in my head was another saying “so hungry I could eat the north end of a south-bound polecat” and I knew I wasn’t that hungry. So hungry as hell it is.
I steered my truck along Route 16, shimmying alongside the Guyandotte into Pineville where I knew there was a Tudor’s Biscuit World. Tudor’s is a mecca if you’ve been hiking a few days. Pineville feels like a big town when all you’ve got is small towns — it has a legitimate main street and a few open businesses.
I slump down in a booth in the diner, feeling around under the table for an outlet to charge my phone, and that’s when I meet Glen. “What brings you here?” he calls from another table. He is an older man, a big man — my grandma might have said “an inch short of being round.”
“Like a vacation?” he asks.
“I guess so,” I say. I’m actually just driving home, but it seems complicated to explain. “I love these mountains,” I add.
“You do?” Glen moves across the aisle and sits across the booth from me. He seems interested. Genuinely curious.
Yes, I do. I love Southern West Virginia in the way that you always liked that one boy in third grade, the one you knew you weren’t supposed to like, the one with the knobby knees who knew all the planets and could talk about them ceaselessly and wheezed a little when he walked. As you get older, you learn of course that you are not supposed to love this boy and you are not supposed to love West Virginia, so you proclaim your love for Asheville or Telluride and a boy named Brian or Michael or Chad instead.
Glen is looking at me curiously, his eyes creasing on the sides in a way that tells you he is smiling even if his mouth stays straight. His face is a constellation of liver marks, his earlobes have gotten long as old men’s do. He leans in across the table towards me.
“I traveled once,” he says.
He is, of course, inviting me to ask him where. So I do.
“Vietnam.” He says it like a declaration. “A lot of boys from here went, you know. Two years I went. None of us had ever been anywhere but here.”
I knew this without him saying it. I knew this because I know Pineville; population 668. I know this because I know Man and Hemphill and Big Spring. It takes hours to get to what I would consider a proper grocery store from here, kids ride school buses for two hours to get home. Coal leaves out of here 24 hours a day, of course, train car after train car, spilling the earth’s guts over top of hopper cars, leaving it along the track, but people don’t get the chance to leave like that. I’ve watched grown men go gather those stray nuggets, lugging buckets back to rusting Buicks to bring back to heat their home. Every bit counts in Wyoming County.
“Some of the guys in here went,” says Glen, nodding towards another table of men across the diner. “We still tell the stories, of course. Those were interesting days.” He adds that the first man killed in the Korean War was from Pineville — a little local mentionable, even if it wasn’t Glen’s war.
“What kinds of stories?” I ask.
“Well, they tell stories about the war and about the women — and I tell those stories, too,” he chuckles, almost to himself.
“But I like to talk about the trees there the most. The trees! I guess it’s not much of a story, but I’d never seen nothing like them before or again.” He pauses and looks out the window at the mountain slopes. “Never seen anything like them again,” he repeats.
“Now, you understand that I haven’t been to much of anywhere, just Vietnam that one time,” continues Glen. “I guess folks around here don’t really pick up and travel. They worry about who would mind the house, who would feed the dog. But me? I think about where I would go if I had a ticket.”
Glen leans back in the booth and looks up above my head as if he were thinking. We sit in silence together, as if we were now old friends.
I think about my friend who told me about a 4th of July party she had gone to off at some vague friends of hers and mine. She had sat in the yard with the women, who were engrossed in a conversation about how flights out of Charlotte had changed — I don’t recall if they were saying if they were more or less convenient. My friend had grown distressed, unable to join in the conversation. In her 50 some years she had only flown a few times, and the language of layovers and connections and convenience or inconvenience was a foreign tongue and out of reach. She had told me all this because she knew I understood: I had recently sat at work where people compared their favorite beaches to vacation at, and I had slunk down in my chair praying no one would ask me. Beaches? I mean I had been to beaches, I had swam in oceans… but how do you have a favorite? Aren’t you just happy to be there? Anywhere?
It’s not that there is something wrong with these conversations, they just feel like blunt force trauma to the other America of which they appear unaware, the America of no paid leave and leaking radiators and paying down the doctors bill five dollars a time, just so you don’t get dirty looks if you see the receptionist out this Friday night, being wanton and blowing your money on something frivolous like a beer.
“I wouldn’t go to Paris,” Glen says, breaking the silence. He sounds almost defiant. It’s a declaration. I wait for a punchline, wait for a joke. I wait for “Paris, Tennessee!” and a knee slap. Something like that. Old men love to make younger women laugh like they store up jokes and head to Biscuit World to take them for a spin. But the joke doesn’t come.
“And I wouldn’t go to Rome,” he continues, pensively. “Or Hawaii.”
I realize he isn’t joking. He’s giving his own question about having a ticket serious thought. “Why not?” I ask.
“Because everyone goes to those places. If you get to go somewhere you have a responsibility. A responsibility to return with information, something new to tell folks back home. If you go to Paris or Rome or Hawaii and that’s all you done, then you haven’t done something for anyone back home.”
“Like it doesn’t do anything for anyone else?” I ask.
“Exactly,” he says, standing up. “It’s about responsibility.” He straightens his back, lifts his wobbly chin.
I think about a friend who went to Rome a few years back. He had nicely sent me pictures from his days there. Here is the Colosseum. Here is the Fontana dei Fiumi. Here is a cup of coffee, beautiful swirl in the foam. An inventory of one’s presence in a place. I realize he never told me what the trees were like in Rome.
We are so often an astigmatic people. A prescriptive people, taking on symbols of sanctioned adventure. Bromidic, some might say. Dull as dishwater, others might observe. There is something more ruminating, it seems more generous to tell us about the trees.
I want to ask Glen where, then, he would go, if he had a ticket. Kyrgyzstan? East Timor? Namibia? But he is dusting imaginary crumbs off his pants now in a way that tells me we are wrapping up.
“Are you headed back out Route 10?” asks Glen, confirming our conversation is over. I nod. “Part of the road fell in, straight down into the river there. They put a cone out, orange one. Go slow because it can sneak up on you.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“Travel safe,” says Glen.