This wasn't the first house we owned, or the second, but it was our first house in West Virginia. Very briefly. Overnight actually. The house was in Walton, West Virginia. The next day we moved all the way back to Virginia again. I saw the house today as I traveled US 119 North to Spencer, and had to stop and take this photo and smile in spite of myself.
Maybe I'd better start at the beginning of the story.
I first saw West Virginia when I was twenty. It was my first husband's 21st birthday and we went on a little road trip. He kept talking about buying beer and I could not see why that was so important. For a guy, I guess this is a rite of passage, but since I didn't like beer I couldn't see the point. I suggested taking a picnic to Skyline Drive. He could get a beer on the way home.
So off we went in our little red Volkswagen Superbeetle with our two young sons, George and Jon, in the back (This was August of 1971). We got to Skyline Drive and found the traffic was terrible; apparently we'd hit a hot tourist day. We took off down Route 11 towards Harrisonburg, VA, then turned onto another little road, looking for a likely spot to spread our picnic cloth. The road became one lane, then dirt. We continued driving, up and up into beautiful mountains. We found a picnic table on the side of the road and had our very late lunch looking out over the green hills. We had no idea where we were and we didn't care.
After lunch we continued driving. And driving. And driving. The road snaked across the ridges and eventually we saw that we were descending into a little village because we could see rooftops below us on the mountain. Then we saw the sign: "Sugar Grove." I consulted my map and realized we were in West Virginia. I had never seen such a beautiful place and I vowed then and there that I would move to this state no matter how long it took.
It took three years. When my husband was finally able to get his job with Xerox transferred, it was not to the eastern side of West Virginia but to Charleston, many more hours away. I didn't care. I wanted to move so badly it didn't matter where in the state we lived. Now I see how reckless and uninformed we were. We didn't know about floodplains or coal mines, mud roads or unemployment. We didn't know how hard it could be to make a living here. We just knew we wanted to get out of the DC area and into the mountains.
My husband moved first, living with my uncle while looking for a place for the rest of us. I stayed in Manassas with our by then four sons, taking care of the house and hoping it sold fast. I couldn't drive so being there alone was a little difficult, since I was about five miles out of town. But I managed.
After almost two months, my husband called to tell me he'd found a house. It wasn't fancy, he warned, but it was only $50 a month. I called my brothers and sisters and got a caravan of pickups together to help us move.
We drove across Rte 60, then took what looked like a shortcut on the map across Clay County. Remember I said we knew little about West Virginia? We knew nothing about the roads of Clay County and we traveled some wild and lonesome country before arriving, just after dark, at our new house.
The moving-in began immediately. It was a bit later, when I got to the kitchen, that I saw what this house really was. A dump. No sink, no fridge. Old, old faucets sticking out of the wall. You had to unplug the hot water heater to plug in the light. The toilet didn't work. There was no water. Windows were missing. There was no source of heat. There were roaches.
I blew up. Now, I'm usually a pretty calm person and see most problems as challenges. But after a 10-hour drive with four restless boys, I could not deal with what I was seeing. I yelled at my husband, he yelled back and we had a right big argument with my brothers and sisters looking on, mouths agape. Poor things, they'd worked so hard. And now I was saying that absolutely I could not live in this house and we'd have to move everything back to Virginia?
They finally settled us down and everyone dropped wearily into sleeping bags. During the night it rained. It poured, actually. We loaded everything back into the trucks in the morning before eating breakfast. The first truck pulled onto the dirt driveway and immediately got stuck because by then the dirt was deep, rich red mud.
I will spare you the cussing, screaming, and yelling that ensued. It became funny after a while though, and we had a regular mud bog with three trucks and a van all getting stuck and eventually getting out. We were all soaking wet, covered in mud and hungry. Where was the nearest place to get breakfast? The map came out again and we drove south to Clendenin.
In Clendenin we found the only restaurant--closed. It was a Sunday morning and everyone must have been at church. We stopped by the old iron bridge that led into town and dug through our stuff to find anything edible. We found bread, peanut butter and warm beer. I made sandwiches and handed them around. Nothing had ever tasted so good.
My brother Tom popped a top on a beer and chugged it. He wiped his lips and looked at me. "Man, there's nothing better than a warm beer before breakfast on a Sunday morning in Clendenin, West Virginia." I stared at him; it took a minute for it to sink in that he was joking. We all doubled up with laughter and all the bad feelings, anger and frustration disappeared.
On our way back to Virginia, I asked my husband why in the world he'd rented the place. He explained that he'd looked at it at night and it didn't seem too bad. He'd had a terrible time finding anyone who would even talk to him about renting a place to us when we had four children. So in his defense, he thought it might be okay, and if I'd been older and less tired perhaps we could have made it work. We moved again the following weekend, to Ravenswood, a small town on the Ohio River where we rented a townhouse with three bedrooms for $91 a month, utilities included.
Every time I travel 119, I look for the house, my first home in West Virginia. It's been abandoned for about 20 years now, but the little place still stands, and I still wonder if we could have made it comfortable. It sure had some lovely flat bottom ground for gardens. And enough mud to have kept us stuck and spinning for years. I think in the end we were better off not staying there--even if it meant drinking warm beer in Clendenin on a Sunday morning before breakfast.