Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Shenandoah Odyssey: Act 1

So, my wife and I have something of a tradition regarding our anniversary.  In the last few years, we've started taking little trips around the fateful day, just an overnight or a long weekend, just the two of us.  The interesting part--she has no idea where we're going.  Sometimes she doesn't even KNOW we're going, like last year when she came home from work to just me telling her to pack a bag and put on a fancy dress.  And it's always great, because my wife is a details person...she likes to know things.  "Control freak" is far too strong a term, but still, uncertainty does not play well with her.  She's a software engineer, maybe that serves as an explanation.

Anyway, there's a point to this bit of potentially relationship-straining exposition.  This year the super-secret trip is a little more involved in terms of planning:  driving from our home in Cincinnati to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.  Historical B&B, hiking and horseback riding in the national park, antebellum plantation tours...should be great.  You see, instead of taking Google's first choice for route, a somewhat roundabout but very dependable all-interstate trek, I opted for the more geographically direct U.S. 50 basically the whole way.  Why not?  It was 40 miles shorter, and actually clocked in at a minute faster.  And besides, think of all the great scenic opportunities that we'd miss out on if we took the boring old "safe" interstate!  Too often we miss real Americana when we travel, and it's disappearing.  And the convenient halfway point was what appeared, again on Google maps, to be a charming river town called Parkersburg, WV, only 3 1/2 hours down the road.

If you'll permit me a momentary baseball metaphor, I may have been jumping for a first-pitch fastball, and nature threw a curve. 

With an adventurous spirit, at around 4:15 PM on Friday, June 29th, we headed east.  At around 4:20 PM, we noticed a storm rolling in from the  At 4:45 we were huddled in the basement of the Lebanon Public Library, with the electricity out, waiting for the raging winds and rain to lighten up enough to keep from getting blown off the road.  While there, we met some nice people also looking for refuge, and some very patient library employees trying to close the place up and get the hell home.  The library director, a very nice lady whose name I unfortunately did not get (and whose nametag was obscured by the storm-induced darkness), chatted with us a while about her 22 years in Lebanon, and gave a ringing endorsement of the small town nature it’s managed to retain even while doubling in size over that time. 

So there you have it folks, Lebanon, OH:  great place to cower in fear.

An hour later, and only twenty minutes into our trip, we were once again on our way.  The storm we let pass, it should now be noted, was a whopper.  We didn't really grasp this at the time, but as we traveled generally east-southeast, it became more and more apparent.  A plan to stop in Chillicothe, OH (Ohio's first capital!) was waylaid by a lack of electricity.  No matter, let's push on, there are plenty of places to get a quick bite, and we've already lost a lot of time.  We were still saying that an hour or so later, passing through McArthur, OH (Vinton County seat and named for War of 1812 General Duncan McArthur!), looking in vain for a working stop light that would indicate modern civilization.  And we'd really started to notice the debris.  U.S. 50 passes through or near several notable national and state forests, and all of them tend to drop large branches and even whole member trees in big storms.  One of these happened to fall across a power line over the road just east of McArthur and stopped traffic.  After a series of GPS arguments, fruitless detour attempts on some truly frightening "roads," and one desperate roadside peepee stop, we decided to wait out the road crew to clear the tree.  They succeeded just around sunset. 

As darkness was now falling, we really became aware of the problem.  We would learn the next day that approximately 2 million people in the Eastern U.S. lost power to this storm, and our path took us conveniently right down the middle of its wake.  On either side of the road, nothing but darkness.  Athens, OH (home to Ohio University, The Princeton Review's #1 party school in the U.S.!  Go Bobcats!) was conspicuously lit up like nothing happened, which just makes me think the party school reputation is a cover for something much more sinister.  By this point, we were thinking of nothing but getting to our hotel, but calls to confirm a later checkin were met with ominous busy signals...uh-oh.  After passing what appeared to be the world's most popular gas station (RED FLAG!) in the oddly named Coolville, 20 miles down the road from the hilariously-named Guysville--I'm thinking a historical pissing match may be to blame--we continued on into the now-resumed blackness.

As we crossed the Ohio River into West Virginia, we were met with the sight of massive gas flares from a darkened factory along the river.  Safety measures, of course, to burn off excess gas, but in the foggy evening it looked like the fires of the apocalypse.  This was our frame of mind by this point in our "relaxed sojourn through Americana."

Now we were approaching Parkersburg (third largest city in West Virgina!  Population 31,629!), which may as well have been a nameless swamp for all we could tell...the city was almost totally blacked out.  The semi-trusty GPS pulled us up to our destination for the night, the historic and elegant Blennerhassett Hotel, which was of course encased in scaffolding for some sort of massive facade repair, and lit only by candles and gaslights around the foggy courtyard.  Did I mention this hotel is haunted?  No?  Well, I didn't know either until after I'd booked it, but figured how creepy could it be?  In a blacked out, storm-torn city, pretty God-damned creepy, that's how.  I decided to withold this bit of information from the wife for the time being, as her relatively fragile spirit of adventure was beginning to wear thin.  The next day (warning, foreshadowing ahead...) would wear it further.

It must be said, the staff at The Blennerhassett was exceptionally friendly and efficient for the conditions, and the nice kid who hauled our luggage up through the Shining-inspired stairwells and hallways was extremely helpful.  A late dinner of cheese sandwiches (they forgot the ham, but we were too tired to care) was followed by crashing into the very plush, but very dark, accomodations, hoping for the power to be restored overnight.

There, that gets us to Parkersburg, WV: a 3.5 hour trip that ended up taking closer to 6.  Next, I'll tell you about getting back out again...that's a better story, but with a much better ending.