Essays: On The Road And A Little Off

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Nashville TN, July 25 - -
On the morning of Friday June 26 I said goodbye to my friend Sebastian and, aided by his hand-drawn map of a "much more scenic" route, the Volvo and I set out for Middletown, CT, and the Buttonwood Tree. In a little less than two hours I had moved from the twisty backcountry of New Hampshire into the mostly urban setting that is Connecticut. Towns, strung like pearls along the Interstate, blended almost undetectably from one into the next.

I arrived in Middletown at about noon, and was directed via cellphone by Jennifer Hawkins, the Buttonwoon Tree...proprietress, I the Record Express store down the street whose manager, Ian, is also the sound dude at the Buttonwood Tree.
I introduced myself. "Hey, man, I see you don't have any Panama Red records on the shelves here."
Ian shook his head sadly. "Sold out...just can't keep enough of 'em in stock." I fell over laughing.
Because Ian couldn't leave just yet to take me for my sound check, I ambled across the street to get some coffee. I discovered that here was also a good place to get a bagel and lox. So I sat with my Jewish donut and French roast out on the sidewalk in front, worked a couple of crossword puzzles, and put in a call to my number two daughter, Nicole, who lives in Connecticut with her husband Carlos. She got back in touch and said they would be down before the show, so we could get in some hang time.

Ian and I took the Volvo to the club for the sound check. The Buttonwood Tree is a gallery, bookstore and performance space that seats about twenty-five people. But it's been "presenting underserved but deserving artists" for ten years, and I'm glad to be considered deserving. After the sound check, I dropped Ian off back at his store and recrossed the street to the deli. Just as I got inside my cell went off. It was daughter number two. She and Carlos had arrived and were waiting for me back at the Buttonwood Tree up the street.
We greeted each other with much enthusiasm on the sidewalk in front of the club. I hadn't seen them since Patty and I came through Arizona where they lived three years ago, and I was delighted they were looking so well and happy together.

We all went in while I introduced myself to Jennifer, and then we headed back to the deli down the street. Nobody was really hungry and pretty soon it was getting close to showtime, so we three set out in search of a wee bracer which we found at a Mexican joint between the Buttonwood Tree and the deli. Then it was time for the show.

The audience was enthusiastic. The sets went well. I sold a few CDs and T-shirts and made some new friends whom I hope to see on my next swing through Connecticut. I didn't have much time to visit with Jennifer, as one of her children was ailing and she had to get right back home. I give The Buttonwood Tree two thumbs way up. A few nights after I played there, Roy BookBinder came through. Its reputation as a small but important cornerstone of the New England original music scene is justly deserved.

Carlos and Nicole and I headed back to the Mexican joint, ate some Mexican stuff, drank some Mexican beer, listened to some non-Mexican music. My kid is very loving (and a BeeAyBeeEe), and my son-in-law a mellow laid-back dude. They enjoy each other's company, and seemed to enjoy mine. We had a good time, but they both had work the next day and I was anxious to see my brother in Almost Heaven. I left Connecticut about midnight.


Through the velvet dark across New York State to Interstate 81 and then south through Pennsylvania into Maryland, hang a right, go to Parkersburg, split left, drive another hour, get off and head into Glenville, WV. What we're really talking about here is twelve hours of hard driving...

The last time I visited my brother Gary and his family, I was a passenger, so I hadn't paid much attention. I had no idea of how to find his place. I had been trying to call him the whole way down from Connecticut, but there was never an answer. Nicole had mentioned something about a folk festival in Glenville, which is undoubtedly where they would be, but when I got to Glenville I learned that the festival had been the week before. Still no answer on the phone. Later I would learn that an overloaded logging truck taking hardwood from West Virginia to a furniture factory in North Carolina had knocked the telephone line out. It's always something going out of West Virginia, never something coming in.

Well, I figured, even if they weren't home, I could always just crash there once I found the place. I was deep-fried roadkill by now. Well, I did know his address...sorta. Something about Wolf Pen. I asked a couple sitting in a pickup truck in the drugstore parking lot where Wolf Pen might be. They suggested that it might be back up the road a piece.

" it in a holler?" I asked. They looked at the flatlander like he was crazy, because of course it's in a holler. This is West Virginia. Everything is in a holler. Or on a ridge.

But I followed their directions as best I could and soon found myself on a dirt road winding back into the embrace of the hills. A branch turned left. Should I take it? No, I'll just keep on going up a little bit more. Come around a curve. There, parked on the side of the road, is a red Subaru, its hood raised, and a footbridge across the creek. Well, I think to myself, I'll get out here and ask these people. If it's the right holler, they'll know the family.

Dogs barking. Skinny red-and-beige sled-dog lookin half-grown pup with one eye blue and one yellow comes across the footbridge and fawns sillily at my feet. "Hello, puppy," I say. Then I hear soft conversation coming from across the bridge. I cross the creek and look to my right and see my sister-in-law Annette and my brother Gary standing in the garden, waiting to see who's come to call.


Though we have always been brothers, of course, he is also my oldest and closest friend. Back when we were living in Florida, Gary had an epiphany: "Since I was born in West Virginia," he said to me at the time, "it would make sense that if there were a place I was meant to be, it would be there." And he and Annette had packed up and moved to Glenville. And except for brief trips back to visit family in Florida, they have remained, having and raising their four children.

One son has moved back to Florida, one to Charleston, WV, the oldest daughter is married to a local young man, and the youngest, just out of high school, is getting ready to go off to culinary school in Pittsburgh. She is right now visiting friends in Parkersburg. I am disappointed, for she is a favorite of mine.
"She says she's getting us used to the idea that she won't be around much anymore," says Annette.

Sometimes, every once in a while, when I am overtaken by some need to reconnect, there is nothing for it but to go and visit Gary and Annette.

They live in a quiet glen along the creek. In the morning the sun glitters off the dew collected on the leaves of the trees and the grass in their yard, creating a jeweled atmosphere reminiscent of Tolkien's descriptions of Rivendell. Throughout the day they are visited by all manner of songbirds, colorful flyers such as we no longer see in the cities. Two grandchildren are up from Florida staying the summer. And there is Ruby, the silly sled-pup who had been first to greet me, Pudge, a venerable and patient old Norwegian Elkhound/Labrador cross and two or three cats, the most interesting of whom is Blind Bob, a completely sightless feline phenomenon who nonetheless has managed to get around unaided for years.
"When we were re-doing the kitchen," says Annette, "we had to move the back door temporarily. Bob kept running into the wall. Finally he figured out the new layout, just about the time the kitchen was done and the door was moved back. He ran into the wall again for a while. It must have been mystifying for him."

I stayed with Gary and Annette for two days, visiting with their daughter Ruthie and jamming with her husband Jamie and his guitar buddies. On the last day Donnie Ree, the youngest daughter, came home.

Early next morning, I got up with Gary at five a.m., his usual time. Annette got up soon after. We three sat in the kitchen quietly drinking coffee until seven, when I got in the Volvo and left Rivendell for home.

My route took me through Huntington, WV, where I had lived for nine years while growing up. It used to be large, when I was small. At the time it was the largest city in the state, with a population of around 90,000. Now, it has shrunk because of industry moving out, but also because I am an adult, and the streets and buildings are smaller in my perception, especially the elementary schoolyard beside the railroad where I had seen Dwight Eisenhower go by, waving to us from the last car on his way to Washington in 1952 . It is the home of Marshall University...Marshall College in my day...and the U is now the city's largest employer. It took me just fifteen minutes to drive from Guyandotte, the section where I was raised, to the West End and back onto the Interstate. I drove into Kentucky.

I stopped in Lexington to visit with my oldest brother, Jim. We talked about nothing and everything for a couple of hours. He had a doctor's appointment, and I had a date to keep with Patty. I left about three p.m. and five hours later pulled in beside our bus,
"Phoenix". I had been gone for eleven days.