I had the opportunity to visit the wild and wonderful mountains of West Virginia very recently, and was thrilled to be there in the heart of winter, which is when my last two Hard Cider Abbey stories (and the next as well) are set. But sadly, it was a very short trip, just a drive-through really, on my way from my daughter’s house in Nashville, TN, to my own home in northern NJ. The best route home from that part of Tennessee is generally to cross over to Knoxville then jump on Interstate 81 for that long, long, stretch up through western Virginia. But my initial trip down, eleven days earlier, had been marred by the sheer amount of tractor-trailer and heavy-equipment trucks clogging that road—in fact, I had a perilous near miss when a distracted double-trailer wandered abruptly into my lane, at 75 mph. I studied the map, and decided I would try a route through Kentucky and West Virginia, which combined both local roads and interstates. A chancy proposition, in a capricious winter full of sudden storms and ice, but I was eager for the chance to be in West Virginia again, and see if my winter depiction of it was accurate.
I began by following a small road, Route 31E north, which I picked up just a mile or so from my daughter’s house. After a dispiriting twenty or thirty miles or so of suburban traffic and endless shopping malls and retail, I found myself at last on a lovely single-laned road winding through picturesque Wyeth-like landscapes of vast harvested cornfields and beautifully weathered barns. I took 31E intentionally, for I knew it would take me very close to the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, which in some ways is the inspiration for my series. Though Hard Cider Abbey in no way resembles the more pristine and larger abbey of Gethsemani, I did have the chance, on a past visit there, to meet a monk of Appalachian heritage, which was reflected charmingly in his speech patterns (That fellow, along with my old friend the West Virginian Catholic pastor, were inspirations for my characters. It’s true, as some have pointed out to me, that there are very few Catholics in Appalachia, but the ones you find there are utterly fascinating.) I also passed the boyhood home of Abraham Lincoln, very close to the abbey—closed, alas, due to the government shutdown. I paused for a short while at Gethsemani and soaked in some of its austere peace; then continued on my way, up and round Lexington, hunkering down for the night just west of the state line into West Virginia.
The drive up and across the state, begun early on a Saturday morning, was like a mobile sort of meditation—there was virtually no traffic between Charleston and Morgantown, and the snow-covered mountain vistas were amazing and inspiring. The highway here is like a bit of a roller-coaster, and I was mindful of the frozen slush along the edges, that could easily send a car skittering off the edge and into a ravine. Of course, they’re not huge magnificent landforms like the Rocky Mountains, but extremely impressive hills. On my various stops for food and gas and bathroom breaks, I made a point of talking with the locals, to hear their accents and dialects. I didn’t have much time for shopping but did purchase a dried dipper gourd at an antique shop next to a gas station, and it turned out the proprietor had grown it himself. I was surprised, however, at the development and retail build-up growing around many of the smaller and remoter towns, which is good, I know, for local economies, but does seem a bit sad to me. When all the small towns in America start to all look like each other, it does seem that something’s been lost.
Once past Morgantown, I had one last roller-coaster stretch, which took me into the panhandle of Maryland, past Cumberland, where my hotel room overlooked the busy set of railroad tracks that cut through that city. Endless freight trains woke me every half hour or so—which was comforting in a way, since my childhood home, too, sat beside railroad tracks and I remembered how the house shook whenever they passed by. All in all, an interesting winter adventure, which served as a potent booster-shot for my writing. I made a promise to myself to return very soon to the locale of my fiction, and stay put for a good while, perhaps when the weather grows a little warmer.