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Entries in West Virginia (7)


Blue Highways: Spencer, West Virginia

Unfolding the Map

This post is a companion to my previous post, but at the same time it isn't.  While it deals with time and the past, it's a more personal reflection on how past and present intersect in my life.  When one pokes at the unseen on a trip, they may want the unseen to poke back.  Sometimes, however, you don't want to know about the unseen, especially that which you've tucked away for a reason.  That's why I have the symbolic picture of West Virginia's state reptile, the timber rattlesnake, to the right.  If you want to know where Spencer sits on the map...just go to it!

Book Quote

"I hunched over the steering wheel as if to peer under the clouds, to see beyond.  I couldn't shake the sense I was driving in another era.  Maybe it was the place or maybe a slow turning in the mind about how a man cannot entirely disconnect from the past.  To try to is the American impulse, but to look at the steady continuance of the past is to watch time get emptied of its bluster because time bears down less on the continuum than on the components.  To be only a nub in the eternal temporary is still to have a chance to see, a chance to pry at the mystery.  What is the blue road anyway but an opportunity to poke at the unseen and a hoping the unseen will poke back?

"At Spencer, I turned west onto U.S. 33.  The Appalachians flattened themselves to hills, and barnsides again gave the Midwest imperative: CHEW MAIL POUCH."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 3

View of Spencer, West Virginia. Photo by Richie Diesterheft and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host site.

Spencer, West Virginia

I suppose that this post will be an extension of the last post given LHM's quote, above, further reflects on the past and time.  And yet, I think the content will be different because the quote touches on something deeper.  As of late, my thoughts have also been enmeshed in that deeper reflection on past and present as well, and so that's where I will try to go also in this post.

As I write my thoughts are jumbling all over the place.  The week started with a realization that my job is going to expand, perhaps with greater compensation but perhaps not.  Then came news that a close family member may have a serious disease.  These pieces of the present pile on to the ongoing task of identifying and buying a house - a fun but also stressful time as we prepare to make a decision on whether to put up a bid for a house that we like but which we have some concerns about.  We are also trying to decide whether we should make a yearly trip to New Orleans and the Mardi Gras, which we haven't missed since we left in 2004 and which has become very important to us. 

All of these present events, however, get placed with the "continuum of the past," as LHM puts it.  The past year has been, for me, a long look at the context of my life, both the good and bad.  Everywhere I look upon the blue highway of my past, I can poke the "nub in the eternal temporary."  My perceived failures are there to see, like billboards on a dusty plain.  Stop here and have kids.  Choose your career wisely.  Do what YOU want sometimes, not what you think others want.  No outlet down this road.  Well, since you've done it anyway, you'll get burned but learn from it.

I notice these billboards because, like highway billboards, I've painted them in bright colors, outfitted them in lighting and put them, repeatedly, in the most conspicuous places.  My successes and the things I've done right are less gaudy, and set back farther from the highway.  They are little handwritten signs that stand back inconspicuously from the road and which don't draw attention unless I really look for them.  They are life's difficulties that I've overcome.  They are my marriage which I often and sadly take for granted when I shouldn't.  They are the friends that I've also taken for granted but who have been there for me.  They are the professional successes that maybe didn't measure up to the ideal image I had of my life but which have enabled me to live a comfortable life and have earned the respect of my peers.  They are the moments when I have been satisfied and happy.

If I look back over the continuum of my past, and I don't take time to look carefully, I only see the billboards, and those points could make my past seem overwhelmingly full of failure, regret, wrong turns and mistakes.  But once I truly drive into my past, and look for the things that I've pushed to the margins, once I look for the hand-lettered signs, my life's continuum looks different.  I want to stop and poke around, and relearn who I really am.

For "what is the blue road anyway but an opportunity to poke at the unseen and a hoping the unseen will poke back?"  In my life, I have been more than willing to take those chances in the real, physical world in the hopes of learning something I don't know, and of experiencing something that I've never experienced before.  In my early adulthood, on car trips, I made a determination well before ever reading Blue Highways that I would take what I called the scenic routes as much as possible and as time allowed.  I loved traveling through the small downtowns and stopping at the local markets or the diners.  My poking at the unseen gave me a better appreciation for America than the interstate ever could.  I've been enriched by those experiences.

But in my inner life, poking at the unseen has been much more scary.  Even though it is a road I've traveled, to retrace my route, or to stop in at places, both good and bad, that I've been before has seemed fraught with peril.  While I travel forward through my life in time, those experiences have built up the edifice of what I present to myself and to the rest of the world.  To go back and disturb the foundations might reveal something else, something more complex than the image I've constructed.  I would have to rearrange my understanding.  I would have to turn some billboards into hand-lettered signs and make some hand-lettered signs into billboards.  I might discover some billboards that have faded or decayed and fix them up, and write some new hand-lettered signs.

"A man cannot entirely disconnect from the past..." but "to try to is the American impulse."  I won't say that I've failed, but I've tried and it doesn't work.  Everything that happens now must be put in the context of what has gone before, the continuum of the past, just as the events of a journey add up into an overall impression of the whole endeavor.  As I move forward on my life's journey from this point in the present, my new goal is not to disconnect, but to assimilate and embrace, all of the points on my eternal temporary.

Musical Interlude

I have no rhyme or reason for this video, but it just feels right to go with this post.  enjoy Sugar Ray's Someday.


If you want to know more about Spencer

City of Spencer
Wikipedia: Spencer

Next up: Gallipolis, Ohio


Blue Highways: Valleyfork, Wallback and Left Hand, West Virginia

Unfolding the Map

As we wind our way through the mountains of West Virginia, past the tiny towns in the small river valleys, William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) has a sense of going back in time.  How often have we all felt that sense, in one way or another, and how often have we brushed aside the thrill and the melancholy of it all as we charge ahead into the future.  I have, but then again, I've also allowed myself to bathe in it, soak it in, and breathe it.  It's easy to commune with the past and its ghosts, if you are willing to let yourself.  Go to the map to learn where to find Valleyfork, Wallback and Left Hand.  And look at the lovely monarch butterfly to the right, West Virginia's state butterfly.

Book Quote

"State 4 followed the Elk River, an occluded green thickness that might have been split pea puree.  The Elk provided a narrow bench, the only level land, and on it people had built homes, although the river lay between them and the road and necessitated hundreds of little handmade bridges - many of them suspension footbridges, the emblem of Appalachia.  From rock ledges broken open by the highway cut, where seeps dripped, hung five-gallon galvanized buckets to collect the spring water.

"Again came the feeling I'd had all morning, that somehow I'd made a turn in time rather than in space and driven into the thirties.  The only things that showed a later decade were the pickup trucks: clean and new, unlike the rattling, broken automobiles.

"West Virginia 36, a quirk of a road, went into even more remote land, the highway so narrow my right tires repeately dropped off the pavement.  Towns: Valleyfork, Wallback, and Left Hand (a school, church, post office, and large hole once the Exxon station)."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 3

Mountain scene near Wallback, West Virginia. Photo by SHAMROCKSUE and hosted at Panoramio. Click on photo to go to host site.Valleyfork, Wallback and Left Hand

I'm in a melancholy mood as I write this post, Littourati.  I'm listening to melancholy music, and LHM's quote also has the feeling of melancholia about it.  I've always found the past to be melancholy anyway - times gone by that sit in our memories and resurface in the present, like shadows in a mist, and then disappear again have a tinge of sadness and wistfulness associated with them.

In the book Shoeless Joe (made into the movie Field of Dreams), a farmer by the name of Ray is filled with melancholy over the lost opportunities of his life.  Ray hears a call to build a baseball field, which he does.  Then he hears another call, one commanding him to "ease his pain."  By a process of investigation, he comes to believe that he must ease the pain of the reclusive writer JD Salinger.  After contacting and kidnapping (sort of) Salinger and attending a Boston Red Sox game with him, Ray sees the name of "Moonlight Graham" on an apparently malfunctioning Red Sox scoreboard.  He and Salinger track down Graham to his hometown of Chisolm, Minnesota, only to find that he died some years before after a lifetime as a physician.  Graham had played in one game in the major leagues, but only got 2 innings in the field and never got an at-bat.  That night in Chisolm, Ray can't sleep and gets up to go for a walk, leaving the sleeping Salinger in the hotel.  As he wanders outside into a cold, foggy night, he sees a figure carrying a bag moving slowly in an empty street of a Chisolm of yesteryear.  He follows him and discovers the halting figure is Moonlight Graham, returning late at night from a house call, who invites Ray home.  Graham tells Ray his story, and reveals that despite a full and fulfilling life, that he always missed baseball and his regret over missing that one chance at bat.

I won't spoil the rest of the novel, which is wonderful, as is the movie adaptation.  I bring the novel up because it almost makes real the feeling of turning a corner, and finding oneself in the past, or a different era, and the delicious melancholy that accompanies those feelings.  We've all experienced such feelings, I imagine, even if we might not have recognized it.

The strongest moment I can think of where I experienced such a feeling was in Istanbul, Turkey.  I was walking through a market bazaar when one of the five daily Islamic call to prayers began.  I suddenly felt like I was in a different time, which in itself was strange because the call was being sent through speakers at the nearby Blue Mosque.  Yet I was transfixed in a moment that, even though I noted that I was in the present, seemed like it could have been from any time in the past 1000 years.  I've felt this in other places also.  At Ephesus, again in Turkey, there were plenty of tourists milling around, but when I went around the corner of a ruin and into an area where I was alone for a few minutes, I could almost feel the Greek and Roman ghosts brushing softly past me.  In a really interesting twist, as I marveled at the engineering in the latrines, I could imagine Roman men, almost as if they were really there, sitting on those toilet seats conducting lofty conversations in politics, business, philosophy and science while taking care of far more earthy needs.  While people milled around in the base of the ancient Ephesian theater, I went to the top of the seats and while the wind softly blew and I looked out over the fields that once were the Aegean Sea, now two miles distant, I could feel the Greek and Roman patrons sit next to me, watching a tragedy by Sophocles or a comedy by Aristophanes on the stage below.

In Chaco Canyon, I felt the shoulders and feet of many generations of ancestral pueblo forebears bringing stone after stone to build the great complexes and kivas that served as the center of their religious rites.  In Rome, I could see the crowd roaring in the Colosseum as gladiators fought for freedom, money and the adulation of crowd and emperor, and I saw chariots racing around the Circus Maximus, even though all that was left was a flat oval.  I've also, in my mind's ear, heard the angelic voice of Hildegard von Bingen rising in a lovely and challenging counterpoint to the monks choirs in the 12th century monastery where she entered holy orders near Odernheim, Germany.

But the feeling of walking into a different era is not just confined to the spectacular places of history, but wherever one makes a connection with the past.  I've felt it on the site of the former lumber mill in the Irmulco Valley, which hosted a surrounding town of workers in the early 1900s, but which is only marked by some crumbling brick foundations today.  I've even felt it on trails in the redwood forest, when a shiver goes up my spine as I realize that people have trod the same paths for generations.  And always, along with the thrill of being one the past in a connection through time, is the melancholy when I realize that one day I too will be one of those ghosts, or simply a faded memory, that lightly tugs at the sleeve or thoughts of a wandering passerby as he or she stops in a moment of reverie, and then moves on.

Musical Interlude

I wrote above that I was melancholy, and I'm going to share the playlist that I've entitled Melancholia with you.  It features a variety of music styles and artists, and for 2½ hours you can wallow in some sweet sadness.

Melancholia from mhessnm on 8tracks Radio.

If you want to know more about Valleyfork, Wallback and Left Hand

Wikipedia: Left Hand
Wikipedia: Valley Fork
Wikipedia: Wallback

Next up: Spencer, West Virginia


Blue Highways: Gassaway, West Virginia

Unfolding the Map

At a burger joint in Gassaway, William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) has to listen to a guy's fish stories.  The focus on catfish reminds me of how scary they seem to me.  And I don't even go into the fact that catfish includes a species kind that can kill a human with poison, and the notorious candiru, which has been known to swim into and lodge itself in...well, never mind...just never go swimming where candiru are known to live.  At right is the West Virginia commemorative quarter reverse from Wikimedia Commons.

Book Quote

"As I ate my hamburger, the fellow explained the best means of taking a catfish.  During the long explanation rivaling Izaak Walton's for detail, the man periodically formed a funnel with his index finger and thumb and poured salt into his bottle of Falls City.  'Used to could taste the beer in our country,' he said.  The angling method was this:  first 'bait' a catfish hole with alfalfa and pork fat for three weeks; then, the night before a rain, put a nine-lived Eveready in a sealed Mason jar and lower it into the water to hang just in front of the baited hook.

"'And it works well?' I asked.

"'It works sometimes.'"

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 3

Elk Street in downtown Gassaway, West Virginia. Photo by Tim Kiser and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host site.

Gassaway, West Virginia

Catfish have always frightened me, just a little.

As I related in a previous post, I have always had a slight fear of deep water, especially murky deep water where the bottom cannot be seen.  When I jump off a boat into a lake, for instance, or I am treading water where my feet cannot touch, I get a sense of vertigo.  When I'm swimming or treading water in such situations, I could be just inches from the sand below, or feet, or miles from anything solid.  It is as if I am flying half blind - I can see the sky above, but the earth below is hidden.

When you add the potential for catfish or other forms of life, swimming unseen below, then my hair starts to raise on end.

When I was a child, and we used to drive east from my hometown on a trip to another town or down to the city, we always passed a particular landmark.  My mom grew up in a logging camp in the forest, and the road now passes through Camp 19 at a place called McGuire's Ranch.  There is a pond next to the road that was always known in our family as "Man-Made Lake."  A small stream was dammed there and the pond was used for floating logs.  My mom said that she used to swim there, and when she did, the catfish "tickled" her toes.

As a child, I was fascinated by that story.  Why would catfish tickle her toes?  I thought about her swimming, legs below the surface, and a catfish taking an interest and putting its nose up to her feet.  The picture in my mind made me shiver, and made me vow to never swim in the pond, even if I got a chance.

The fish in the river near our property were always tiny - little minnows and trout a few inches long.  The minnows in our creek would occasionally tickle my toes as they flitted about them while I stood in the river, but that was cute.  A larger fish near my toes would seriously give me a panic.

Later on in my life, I began to hear the legends of the enormous catfish, lurking in the dark waters at the bottom of rivers and lakes.  These tails put the dread in me.  These catfish were always described as being the "size of a Volkswagen" or sometimes "the size of a motor home."  Usually, wherever a dam was located, you'd hear about the huge fish that lay at the base of the dam.  It was usually catfish - bottom feeders, they would grow large on the stuff that came down rivers and got deposited at the dam.  Just as goldfish, if you put them into a larger environment outside of an aquarium, would get really large, so too catfish, it was said, would grow in proportion to their environment.  In New Mexico, I recently heard of an old giant catfish said to be lurking at the base of Elephant Butte dam on the Rio Grande.

My leeriness of catfish didn't stop with my discovery of the sport of "noodling."  Noodling is such a crazy idea to me that I can't believe that anyone ever thought that it would be a good idea.  If you haven't heard of noodling before, I'm not making this up.  Noodling, a popular form of sport fishing especially in the South, consists of finding catfish holes in rivers, and sticking one's arm into the hole until the catfish bites it.  The fisher then engages in a tug of war with the catfish until the catfish is dislodged from its hole and caught.  The fishing can occur in shallow or deep water, and can involve injury since once the catfish bites it latches onto hand, wrist or arm.  People often sustain minor wounds, though some can lose fingers or get infected from the bites.

I've never even developed the taste for catfish on the plate.  I lived in Louisiana for four years and one item found in many restaurants, particularly those that serve Cajun food, is blackened catfish.  However, knowing that catfish are bottom feeders and vacuum up all kinds of things both benign and toxic, I was not really keen for the meal in the first place.  But I tried it to see if I would be pleasantly surprised.  After all, I drink Coke despite the things in it that aren't good for me also.  Yet the fish seemed bland except for the Cajun spices.  It just didn't grab me.

So, from images of huge Volkswagen size behemoths swimming under me in lakes and rising to either "tickle my toes" or actually swallow me whole, to scum-eating bottom feeders, to the object of a sport practiced by people who I think must be slightly deranged to let a catfish bite them by design, I just never warmed up to catfish.

Give me a good salmon any day.  Now that's a fish I can live with!

Musical Interlude

Here's an amazing blues song recorded around 1941 by Robert Petway called Catfish Blues.

If you want a more electric version of the song, listen to Jimi Hendrix' recording:

If you want to know more about Gassaway

Town of Gassaway
Wikipedia: Gassaway

Next up: Valley Fork, Wallback and Left Hand, West Virginia


Blue Highways: Sutton, West Virginia

Unfolding the Map

Another casualty of a changing America in the 1980s, the soda fountain, is the focus of William Least Heat-Moon's (LHM) attention in this post's starting quote from Blue Highways.  In this post, I speculate how my life might have changed had my father realized his dream of owning a soda fountain in my hometown.  To the right is the West Virginia state flower, the Rhododendron maximum.  To find Sutton in the long geographical timeline of our journey, please see the map.

Book Quote

"In the frayed, cluttery hamlet everything - people, streets, buildings - seemed to be nearing an end.  In one old survivor, Elliott's Fountain,...I drank a Hamilton-Beach chocolate milkshake, the kind served alongside the stainless steel mixing cup.

"The owner, Hugh Elliott, laid out a 1910 photograph of the drugstore when you could buy a freshly concocted purge or balm, or a fountain Bromo-Seltzer, or a dulcimer; although the pharmaceuticals were gone, you could still get a Bromo or a dulcimer (next to the Texas Instruments 1025 Memory Calculator)....what had been a spacious room of several bent-steel chairs and tables was now top to bottom with merchandise.  What had been a place of community was now a stuffed retail outlet...

"....A crisp little lavendar-and-lace lady, wearing her expansion-band wristwatch almost to the elbow to keep it in place, sipped a cherry phosphate and pointed out in the photograph the table where her husband - dead these twenty years - had proposed to her.  She said, 'You won't find me at the grave.  Always feel closer to him in here with a phosphate.'"

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 3

Main Street in Sutton, West Virginia. Photo by Tim Kiser and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host site.Sutton, West Virginia

In stopping in Sutton, LHM goes to a soda fountain to have a milkshake, and then uses his experience and the description of a lady enjoying a phosphate drink to again lament a disappearing America.  "What had been a place of community," he writes, "was now a stuffed retail outlet."

One of the stories that I picked up about my father had to do with a soda fountain.  My father's dream was to own a soda fountain in my hometown, in particular a soda fountain called The Green Parrot.  He lost his mother at a young age, and during the Depression he had to work to help support his family.  Along the way one of the skills he picked up was cooking.

World War II broke out in 1941, when my father was 17 years old.  He knew that he would be drafted for the army, and went to talk with the owner of The Green Parrot.  The owner told my father that when he came back from the war, if he had the money he could buy the fountain.  My father went off to war and served in the Pacific, eventually rising to the rank of master sergeant.  He served mostly on the island of Saipan, where his skills were put to work when he was given the duty of organizing and managing the mess halls.  He dutifully sent portions of his pay back to his father at home, and had told his father to put the money into savings so that he could buy The Green Parrot.

When my father came home, he asked his father for the money so that he could make the offer for the soda fountain.  His father told him the money had been put into a different investment, a 13 acre piece of property in the Irmulco Valley, about 25 miles distant.  Gone was his dream of owning The Green Parrot.

You have read of much of the rest of the story in Littourati.  My father went to work at the lumber mill, the main employer in my town, where he worked the rest of his life.  He was unhappy and unfulfilled.  He was a longtime alcoholic and may have abused Valium.  He may have had depression.  He was the anchor of dysfunction in my dysfunctional family.  He sexually abused me, and to this day my family still deals with the legacy of his unhappiness.

But I'm not writing this to demonize my father or my family.  Instead I'm writing this to speculate what might have been.  What might have happened had that money been available to my father when he came home from the war?  Would my father have been happy as a small business owner.

Would The Green Parrot have been my place of employment?  Would I have developed a community there among the people who came in - the young, the old, the regulars, the out-of-towners?  What effects might they have had on my life, outlook and aspirations?  Would I have learned skills that would have had effects on my life?  Would I have gotten to know a girl, fallen in love and stayed in Fort Bragg?  Would I have taken over The Green Parrot after my father retired, and would I have attempted to keep it alive through lean times until fountains became retro and cool again?

Most importantly, would being a visible business-owning member of the community have made my father a different man?  Would he have been more satisfied with his life being in control of his own destiny?  Would his marriage and family have been successful?  Would my family have been spared the pain of dysfunction, and would I have been spared the horrors of abuse?  And would our constant exposure to the community in a type of place that, at their height, fostered community and caring in small towns, have served as a check against dark activities behind closed doors?

These are all just speculations. and I suspect that the my father's problems were deeper than a change of employment could address.  The fact is that my father's life is what it was, and mine has been what it is.  I have weathered the pain and horror of my family's problems, though I still have to deal with it sometimes.  I have made my life into what it is which, like everyone else's, has been full of a lot of joys and opportunities along with some occasional setbacks, mostly of my own doing.

But when I think of how I did it, it was a lot of my own effort and in a feeling of isolation.  Of course, there were people who helped me along the way and I am very thankful for them.  However, at that time in the United States the concept of community was stronger than it seems to be now.  People looked out for each other.  My father's isolation took us out of a wider community, and the inability of my immediate and extended family to confront the problems within it made our problems worse.  An extended community doesn't mean that all problems are immediately solved, but makes it more possible that difficulties and hardships affecting some of its members will be recognized and addressed.

Now, many of these establishments that encouraged community - the soda fountain, the neighborhood bar, the diner, the small markets and pharmacies, and the fraternal organizations have given way to chain restaurants, loud taverns where speaking is impossible, material goods are placed front and center over opportunities to mingle, and the world-wide web and social networks have replaced communal organizations.  With these advances have also come reversals.  I believe that there is more isolation, more discord and less opportunity to come to agreement.  We see it on local levels in anger that boils over into violence, and on the national level in a polarized government.

And to be realistic, the world wouldn't have changed much had my father been able to buy a soda fountain in the 1940s.  My world might have been better or worse, depending on unforeseen factors.  But our country is always worse for a loss of community.  It's telling that the lady in quote feels closer to her dead husband in the soda fountain, where the memories of her interactions with him and others in the community are strongest, than at his grave.  I hope that the real sense of community that made America so strong and vital aren't someday marked on a symbolic gravestone with "Here lies America's community spirit, killed by modernity and progress."

Musical Interlude

Perhaps I might paint a soda fountain too optimistically, but it's hard not to get into the infectious spirit with Glenn Miller and the Modernaires making it look so fun!


If you want to know more about Sutton

Braxton County News (newspaper)
Photo of sign at Elliot's Fountain
Town of Sutton
Wikipedia: Braxton County, West Virginia
Wikipedia: Sutton

Next up: Gassaway, West Virginia


Blue Highways: Buckhannon, West Virginia

Unfolding the Map

This post is garbage!  Or, more accurately, it's about garbage.  I hope you don't think it is garbage!  As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) makes his way back toward the end of his journey, he passes through Buckhannon and notices all the rusting cars and appliances in yards.  It got me thinking about garbage in my life.  What is garbage?  How do we know it?  I don't say I have any answers, but reflections.  If you want to know where Buckhannon is located, this virtual map won't clutter your house!

Book Quote

"At Buckhannon, I drove southwest on state 4.  Beautiful country despite hills clobbered with broken appliances and automobile fragments, which children turned into Jungle gyms.  Should you ever go looking for some of the six hundred million tons of ferrous scrap rusting away in America, start with West Virginia."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 3

East Main Street in Buckhannon, West Virginia. Photo by Tim Kiser and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host site.

Buckhannon, West Virginia

This morning I had just sat down to eat breakfast, drink my cup of morning tea (Darjeeling) and read the paper when my wife said "Oh, today's garbage day."  That meant that I had to trundle myself up, gather up the garbage from the kitchen and two bathrooms, drag it out to the trash can and wheel it out to the street, along with the recycling.  Only after that could I sit down and enjoy my oatmeal and tea.

I write about that humdrum little detail because like most Americans, I have a complicated relationship with garbage.  This relationship includes not only making sure that I have the garbage at the curb every Wednesday for the trucks to pick up, but also deciding what is garbage as opposed to things I want to keep.  In my relationships with other people, I've found that garbage is a very subjective term.

We all know garbage, for the most part, when we see it.  Wrappers discarded on the street are a good example of something we might label as garbage.  Stuff that smells is garbage, such as old or spoiled food.  But occasionally, we see something that someone has set on the curb as garbage and find it desirable.  As a college student needing a couch for his dorm room, when I saw a halfway decent one sitting out on a curb, I took it.  Lamps, old televisions or computers, things that in our increasingly throwaway society people discard because it is easier to buy something new than fix the old, often are put out as garbage by some but then taken by others.

Sometimes, things we have that we consider beautiful are considered garbage by others.  I don't know how many times I've been in houses that have what I consider hideous art on the walls.  Why would anyone buy that, I wonder?  What I think would look better adorning a trash can than someone's home might well have special meaning to the person who owns it.

My uncle, a hoarder, gave me a new insight into the junk versus treasure conundrum.  He collected things that he thought would be valuable someday.  His house was literally untidy pathways between piles of stuff.  Most of it was trash.  He collected newspapers because he thought the headlines would be worth something someday.  He collected cheap memorabilia for the same reason.  He had piles of books, usually bad novels or biographies.  I suppose that he thought that someday some of these cheap things would not be readily available, leaving him the sole proprietor of a moment of time and history that people would want to reconnect with, and would want to pay lots of money for that experience.

I'm not saying that he didn't have valuable things.  He had a practically priceless collection of vintage, excellent condition 78 RPM records comprising classical, jazz and pop music dating from the early 1900s up through the 1940s and 50s (someone actually put some on the web, that you can see here).  I desperately wanted to own this collection and make it available to others, but unfortunately he didn't leave the records to me and the family of his surviving brother (my other uncle) took possession of them on my uncle's death.  I can only hope that they made their way into the hands of collectors who will appreciate them, or to a museum or some music foundation that will preserve them, rather than getting thrown in the trash.  He also had some collectible baseball action figures from the 1960s and 70s that were still in their original packaging that might be worth something someday.

My uncle helped me understand the mentality of a next-door neighbor, many miles and many years later.  This neighbor was gay, but in appearances was the antithesis of the stereotypes of gay men.  He dressed like a slob, and lived in a house that was eventually condemned for code violations.  He had been the owner, with a life partner, of an antique store.  When his partner died of AIDS, he closed the store and brought all of the stuff home. Some of it was very nice, such as costume jewelry, vintage clothing, and other material antiques that might fetch a bit money if sold.  Yet it was piled all around his place - with trails between the piles - and not put to any use whatsoever.  Eventually, the city condemned his house and bulldozed it.  My neighbor had managed to liberate most of his stuff from the home, and went to live elsewhere - hopefully somewhere in the country - where he could keep his stuff with less attention from authorities.  What became an empty lot was eventually sold to an Asian immigrant, who built a house that he rents to a Navajo family.

My own house is filling up with stuff.  I'm not a hoarder, but trying to decide what is garbage and what isn't is difficult.  Most of the stuff I have has a memory attached to it that for some reason I am reluctant to part with.  It keeps accumulating, making keeping an uncluttered house difficult.  But I have trouble classifying it as either garbage or someone else's treasure.

In the country, one can drive in rural areas and see rusting hulks of autos, trucks, buses and tractors sitting out in yards on blocks, weeds growing up through the engine, and missing windows because they have been busted in by mischievious kids or elements.  Appliances also sit rusting, unused and unwanted.  Most people associate this type of yard with a "trashy" element.  After all, how can someone not care about the appearance of their home with all that trash around it?  Yet, if you talk to people, you'll find that often they scavenge these items for parts.  That's what I suspect that people in West Virginia, with "some of the six hundred million tons of ferrous scrap rusting away in America," are doing with it.

Lately, trash is making a comeback in the form of "found art."  Enterprising artists take bottlecaps, sea glass, old dominoes and ScrabbleTM tiles, old photos, broken ceramic and crockery, and dated magazine pages and turn them into jewelry or put them into other types of art.  I have bought my wife brightly colored jewelry made in Africa from tightly rolled magazine pages.  I have seen handbags woven from the straps of old seatbeltsDiscarded wire is used to make brightly colored baskets.  I've always heard that "one man's trash is another man's treasure," and these found art objects are making a believer out of me.

I believe that if I see garbage in my life, that's what it is.  If something is cluttering your life, or smelling bad, and hampering your style or causing anxiety, then get rid of it.  Perhaps it's time for me to loosen my bonds to my accumulating stuff, let it go, and hope that my treasure can also be someone else's treasure too.

Musical Interlude

Oscar the Grouch of Sesame Street is the world's foremost lover and proponent of trash.  In this video, called I Love Trash, he sings the praises of garbage.

If you want to know more about Buckhannon

Buckhannon-Upshur Chamber of Commerce
City of Buckhannon
The Record Delta (newspaper)
Smithsonian Magazine: Buckhannon: The Perfect Birthplace
Upshur County Convention and Visitors Bureau
West Virginia Wesleyan College
Wikipedia: Buckhannon

Next up: Sutton, West Virginia