on a Wednesday

I woke up on a beautiful cool morning (cool! for a change!) in the Monongahela National Forest and took Hops for a couple of miles on gravel roads and soggy trails. While we were out on the trail, an email came in from an author I greatly admire who very generously had offered, some weeks back, to read my thesis. She said she loved what she was reading. My heart was in a bit of a flurry from the high compliment from such a highly regarded source, but I left the email to answer later, from a proper screen with a proper connection to the internet. Back in camp, I cooked some eggs, washed dishes, and packed up for the day.

I drove into town and parked, made some phone calls, and answered the lovely email from the author. I bought groceries–and just to be able to park, leave Hops, and buy groceries midday was such a change and a beauty, this milder, more forgiving weather. I parked us for several hours at a state park’s picnic area, where the signal was a little stronger, and I got a little more work done, including prepping for another author interview that evening. I drove back into town for a burrito in the late afternoon, and parked at a trailhead to eat and read a book in peace.

Backing out of my parking space, I made a mistake. I didn’t see the ditch behind me, and Foxy’s rear wheels just slid in. I was in this trouble by a margin of less than a foot, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades; the van was going nowhere. I checked it out: the wheels weren’t dug in; there was matted grass, and not mud, under her tires. It all boded well, but still I was going nowhere. I dragged some rocks over and packed them beneath & behind the tires. I got a little traction, but still no progress. A nice man on a bicycle stopped and apologized for being unable to help. He consulted; we agreed on the prognosis. He advised I walk across a nearby bridge, over the Blackwater River, to a nearby grocery store (the same we’d already visited that day) for help. That had been my next plan anyway, so off Hops and I went.

At the store, we had to wait a few minutes for the right opportunity to come along. A big man in work clothes approached perhaps the biggest pickup truck in the lot. “Excuse me, sir? I… got my van stuck, just right there across the bridge. I’m looking for some help. Do you maybe have a chain or a tow strap on you?” Well, he didn’t; but he consulted a few neighboring cars and trucks, and then his buddies (they turned out to be his employees, actually) came out of the store–they were driving the other giant truck in the lot, parked end-to-end–and located a short but serious cable that we agreed might work. We convoyed across the bridge in two trucks, the four of us plus Hops. “Is that your van? No wonder you got stuck! Geez.” My new friend shook his head. “Looks heavy.”

It took mere moments to hook up truck to van, everybody accelerated on schedule, and Foxy was free and shipshape again. I shook the boss man’s hand briefly; they all accelerated off in a hurry, and Hops and Foxy and I were back on the road.

We went directly to the dollar store for Oreos, and when I came back out, my friend the boss man in the big truck was parked next to Foxy. I grinned and waved. “My name’s Von,” he said, offering his hand again. I gave my name. He said he’d turned around to come back: “I have a five-bedroom house just up here”–he pointed–“and you are welcome to come and stay. You could have a room for the night. If you need a shower, do a load of laundry. I just needed to come back and see.” He’s working as an electrical engineer in the area, on the big windmills. I thanked him again and again, explained that Hops and I were actually having a great time out here–we really are, especially now it’s cooled off so nicely–and we’re moving into a place next week and have just had a shower and laundry. He said, “Oh, you’re enjoying your last days of freedom.” He called it a blessing upon him, to be able to help. And we went our separate ways again, me still thanking him. I drove back to the picnic area with the decent signal, where I’d be conducting an author interview in another hour.

I was still shaky from the stress of having Foxy out of commission, and having to approach strangers for help. But I was also glowing with the pleasure of meeting such a decent human. Von was so kind, and I really appreciated his offer for additional help. I wish I’d gotten his address so I could send him a thank-you card or something. The kindness of strangers: always a beautiful lesson. I felt well cared for. And really, this calamity was a very small one: we were just a little bit stuck (admittedly, this is like a little big pregnant), and so close to town, and I just knew the West Virginia pickup-truck-driving men would take good care of us; and they did. It was a beautiful experience, in the end.

And yet still I was shaking as I set up for my author interview – which of course went beautifully, too, a lovely chat with a talented writer and a friend. Leaving the picnic area with my interview complete, I stopped for a beer at the local brewery just before closing, and traded brewery stickers with the nice young man behind the bar, just as his boyfriend showed up with a burrito for his (the bartender’s) dinner (yes, from the same burrito place; it’s a small town). Leaving the brewery with a single beer in me, I stepped into the delightfully cool air, where Hops was safely napping in the van. We drove into the dusk, back into the national forest, where we’ve made camp again for free at a spot that has begun to feel like home.

Just next week, I’ll be moving into a “real” home, one with walls and ceiling and no engine or tires attached. I’m looking forward to that next chapter; but gosh, on a day like this, when I’ve experienced all the emotions and played in the mud and seen the sun and felt the cool air on my face, this life looks pretty good. Right now Hops is snoring next to me and I have all of the van doors open and I’m about to crawl under the blankets, because the air is cool and slightly damp and we are the two luckiest creatures alive. Viva vanlife. And thanks again to Von, my guardian angel this Wednesday.

a few more stops

Just killing time in West Virginia, before I move into a house and out of this van, for better and for worse…

I had thought I might spend a night at Tygart Lake State Park, but the camping facilities didn’t especially impress. I let a bit of Ritchey go in Tygart Lake at a deserted boat ramp, Hops had a run around, and we moved on.

Cathedral State Park is a lovely area, but no camping; we were there to see the old-growth hemlocks. It’s a very small park; we walked several trails around, apparently, the whole space, and could hear road traffic at all times. But what is there is worth saving. According to their signage, the average age of the forest is 350 years, and some trees are over 500 years old. The largest are some 90 feet tall and 21 feet in circumference. I definitely saw some in that range.

After a little hike at Cathedral, we’ve returned to the Monangahela National Forest, the same spot where we camped in late May when we first entered this state. It’s a lovely area and free! When I want a little more cell signal or a picnic table, I head a few miles downhill to Blackwater Falls State Park, where day use is free. And the town of Davis has a brewery I quite appreciate. Just hanging out, reading and writing, hiking with the dog and watching time pass by.

Here’s a little photo pack of the last few parks and hikes.

Seneca Rocks

From Blackwater, we moved into the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, which is part of (or contiguous with?) the Monongahela National Forest. We’re staying at Seneca Shadows campground, which is practically, yes, in the shadow of Seneca Rocks, a famous rock formation and rock-climbing destination.

Seneca Rocks in morning light

That’s the Rocks there in the foreground.

Hops and I did the hike up to the observation tower at the base of the rock formation proper, and it is no joke of a hike – just a mile and a half up and the same back down, but steep the whole way. These views are from the observation tower, from which one can look basically straight down at one’s car or van.

A sign there at the top of the hike/base of the rock says (I paraphrase), “go beyond this point and die.”

Camp isn’t bad, either.

Blackwater Falls State Park

Staying near my soon-to-be-new-home of Buckhannon, Hops and I are spending a few days at Blackwater Falls State Park. (This will also be the site of this winter’s MFA residency. I don’t know that I’ll attend, although I’d like to visit for a few days, so I was kind of scoping it out.) This is a beautiful park, with several falls beyond the eponymous, and some nice viewpoints; it’s well in the mountains and heavily wooded; there are numerous cabins and a lodge and events center (that’s where residency will take place), so plenty to do and see. We’ve done some hiking and some extra sleeping because whew, I am still pooped from my little stint working on campus.

catching up

I’m so sorry it’s so long! But it has been a wildly busy time. First of all, residency: I returned to my recent MFA alma mater, West Virginia Wesleyan College, to serve as residency assistant for this summer.

I worked July 4-14, and every day was jam-packed. It was glorious being able to continue to be a part of this program I have so loved. (There was a little excitement with a missing college fleet car that I could have done without, but that is life.) And it was very nice to be able to attend every session I wanted to, and none I didn’t. I got to sit on a book reviews panel the last day of residency, and I really enjoyed being able to share some of what I love about doing this work. Highlights included Belle Boggs‘s reading, Cameron Barnett’s entire visit, and the company of returning faculty I love like Mesha Maren, Matt O’Wain (review of Meander Belt and interview forthcoming), and Jon Corcoran. And of course, hanging out with my buddy Abby. Hops really enjoyed having her as suitemate in the dorms.

Also accomplished this week: my buddy Liz picked up my Honda in Texas, and visited the brewery where I used to work, and picked up beer & whiskey for me (thanks Margaret for storing the Honda, and Aaron for the beer & whiskey), and she’ll be driving up here in a few weeks to help me begin my new life! I signed a ten-month lease on a little house, and got the first of my utilities lined up! I made a new friend (courtesy of Abby) who is a mountain biker! I’m pretty excited about starting this next chapter. But also loving being in the van; so this is bittersweet.

waking up to this again was lovely.

vanlife confessions

Confession: I have been in some hotels recently.

It’s been triple digits some, but even in the 90s and even sometimes in the upper 80s, driving the van is unbearable. Foxy has no AC, and if it’s hot enough outside (and with the big, hot engine), the fan just blows hot air. Hops pants and goes glassy-eyed, and I start to panic. We’re miserable. The nights tend to be survivable, but the daytimes just aren’t, especially if we have to drive. I am feeling some guilt and shame about buckling and paying for hotel rooms. But you know what? There are no rules for this lifestyle except the ones I set myself. And, funny thing, back when I first conceived of this trip I thought I might spend as much as one night a week in a hotel room or an Airbnb. I haven’t done anything like that. (I’ve also paid for more camping than I originally expected to.) I’m not on a mission of purity here; I’m trying to live my own best life and do what makes sense to me. And this last week, it has made sense to be in some hotel rooms. I still feel some guilt and shame about this, but I’m trying not to. I don’t even know where this voice in my head comes from. If you’re following this blog because you’re looking for a vanlife purist who never goes indoors, it’s time for you to move along.

some days this is what “on the road” looks like

Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest… it has been delightful to wallow in the air conditioning, and having power and (sometimes) wifi is pretty dreamy, too. I’m calling it a vacation from this life which feels awfully like a vacation. And we are getting ready to move into a dorm, because this week – actually, by the time you read this it will have already started – I’ll be at the summer residency for West Virginia Wesleyan College’s low-residency MFA program in Buckhannon, WV. This is the program I graduated from in January; now I’m back serving as residency assistant, which comes with free room and board and allows me to attend all the morning seminars. I’m looking forward to doing some laundry. It’s funny how the dorm suddenly looks like a luxury! I remember being at the winter residency, back at the beginning of vanlife, when I graduated: folks were doing their usual grumbling about the dorm situation, which is admittedly roughing it, for a bunch of adults with settled lives in houses and apartments and such. I remember thinking, come summer, this is going to look sooooo good… and so it does. So, although we are very much living out of a van, we’re taking a little hiatus from sleeping in it. And that’s okay. Hear me? Okay.

While I’m at residency I expect to be very busy, and the travel-related content I try to share on this blog will be limited. I may take a week or more off from posting here; don’t worry.

And after res, I’ll only have two weeks or so before I start a lease on a place to live in Buckhannon, where I’ll start teaching in August. More to come on that major life change… in late July, then, I’ll be wandering around West Virginia, looking for the coolest temperatures (elevation! lakes!) and ruminating on what these seven months and counting on the road have meant. We are in the twilight days, of this trip at least. For those of you who have been following along, do you have any questions for me about how vanlife works or what I’ve seen along the way? You can leave a comment here, or use this contact form for privacy if you prefer.

for a friend

Jeff was my employer first, starting in 2004 or 2005. I worked for him for several years and several different times, at the bike shop that changed my life in various ways and for the better. I learned a lot from him, and I benefitted from his generosity, for example after I had a serious bike wreck in 2007.

But we were better friends when we didn’t work together. And it was a joy to get to know his wife, Ruth, and their daughter, Liz, two amazing, funny, smart, badass strong women. He was great fun, and hilarious, and irreverent in all the best ways. He liked meat: there was a lot of grilling and smoking at the bike shop and lots of Sparkle burgers and Guy’s Meat Market. He was a drinking buddy and occasionally even a riding buddy. He never once missed my birthday. I remember an amazing birthday card he and Ruth gave me one year that had a chihuahua on it, and it played the Mexican hat dance. That card always brings a smile to my face. It’s in a box in my storage unit in central Texas now.

We had good times. I remember some silliness (that shouldn’t be described too closely) at my parents’ ranch property out west of town on a bike race weekend. Lots of silliness at the bike shop (and just as much angst) (and lots of beer). When he came out to visit his brother in Washington state, when Chris and I lived there, it was such a joy to see him. He was an essentially fun-loving, good-hearted man.

These pictures are screen shots from videos taken the last night at Bikesport, the night of the “tell it like it is” t-shirts, after the party had mostly shut down – I think it was just Chris and I and Jeff and Ruth left, and Chris and Jeff were negotiating over some Sram cables and housing. Jeff was overjoyed to be heading into retirement.

I’m sad he didn’t get as many retired years as he deserved. I’m devastated at the loss I feel now, and for Ruth and Liz, whose feelings I can scarcely imagine. But I’m so very glad I got to know Jeff. He was a good man and a good friend. Love you, buddy.


Jeff’s memorial service is today in Houston, so I am missing it, but don’t think for a second I’m not there in spirit.

a patriotic pro-labor post from Matewan, WV

Get ready for a long one today… I didn’t plan it this way, I swear, but here it is the 4th of July, so let’s talk history, shall we?

I was so honored and grateful that (thanks to some connections!) the staff at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum helped me out by making a special allowance for Hops. It’s been a few days of triple digits here lately – too hot to even run into a gas station to pee with Hops in the van, for sure. Being allowed to bring him into this museum made all the difference to us. And this was an important stop for me.

The Battle of Blair Mountain and the Matewan Massacre are ubiquitous stories here in my soon-to-be-temporary-home-state, and I come from labor organizers myself, so this was a thread I wanted to follow. The treatment of mine workers in these parts has been egregious throughout history, but the 1910s and 20s saw some of the most violent labor conflicts we’ve known. This humble museum offers a wealth of information on these events, which have been largely hidden from history by government inattention (to put it mildly) and the reluctance of those involved to share their stories, for fear of retribution.

I will give my best shot at a brief sketch, but I’m very new to learning these stories.

Working conditions in coal mines were terrible; miners and their families lived in company towns (I read as many as 90% of them), and were paid in company scrip that they had to spend at company stores; they had to buy their own equipment, including shovels, dynamite, and canaries. They were policed by mine guards with guns. They organized to ask for improved conditions, including fair and transparent weighing of coal, the removal of mine guards, and payment with, you know, real money. Offered a wage increase and reduction to a nine-hour work day, they refused and went on strike. The company brought in scabs and evicted miners from their homes, and so the miners, and their wives and children, set up tent cities. It was an increasingly tense situation, obviously. In Matewan, a private detective agency was sent in to enforce evictions; the mayor stood up for the miners; the agents wound up in a standoff with the mayor and sheriff and a few miners, and a gunfight ensued that left 10 people dead on the main street in town. Four bullets remain embedded in the building that now houses the Mine Wars Museum.

The mayor was killed in this massacre; the sheriff later faced charges, and when he appeared for trial, was assassinated along with a friend on the courthouse steps by other agents of the same detective agency. The murders of this pro-labor mayor and sheriff were some of the inciting events – along with continuing poor working conditions, strikes, and evictions – that led to the march over Blair Mountain toward Matewan, in what would become known as “Bloody Mingo” County. The United Mine Workers of America were organized, armed, and ready to do battle for labor rights. As the miners made their way toward Matewan, the United States Army sent out troops against them. General Bandholtz met with the miners and was reassured that they were turning home; but news of union activists shot near the town of Sharples apparently turned them around again (or else they were not actually intending to turn back at all?) – the miners continued to march for Matewan.

Their route took them through Logan County, where anti-union Sheriff Don Chafin held office; he organized an army of his own. At this point, both sides were armed and ready for battle. Guerrilla warfare was ongoing for a time in Mingo County and on Blair Mountain in Logan County; the miners tied red bandannas around their necks so they could tell one another apart from the enemy (a strategy that cuts both ways, of course), and became known as the Red Neck Army. This is said to be the origin of the usage, ‘redneck.’ Sheriff Chafin hired private planes to drop pipe bombs on the miners. It was truly a battle, said to be the largest armed uprising in this country since the Civil War. The museum has documented that the US Army intended to drop bombs on the miners as well, but bad weather grounded their planes. That would be the only time our military has planned to bomb its own people. Scattered fighting continued for months, but the main bulk of the miners surrendered or fled when federal troops came out again.

This is an important event in labor history, but functioned as a defeat for the miners on the ground, and for the UMWA, whose membership was decimated after the battle. Casualty estimates vary widely, from dozens to a hundred or more, but some claim the number is much higher than that. Victors write histories, and the US has habitually suppressed the history of union activity and organized resistance.

The above summary is my own understanding of events from minimal research and my visit to this museum, which is simple and small but very well put together. You shouldn’t take me as an expert, by any means. My next few steps in learning about this story include the movie Matewan, the documentary The Mine Wars, and the book The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom. Consider these for further investigation. Also, please check out the museum link, above, and watch the 4-minute video to see a basic shape of what this museum means to its local community.

Now for pictures! I didn’t take as many as I should, but here you are.