We are driving out of Charlestown, WV. It is nearing four in the afternoon and my son and I have spent our day walking through the city. I have been walking. My son has been dragging. Sometimes a sinker, sometimes an anchor but never a balloon. Never a kite.
This is, on a Saturday, an amazingly vibrant small city. There is a literacy festival at the library, jammed bookstores all over, a chili festival along the waterfront, kids playing in public fountains as though they were waterparks. Families stroll slowly through the June early afternoon along the streets and riverfront. We have walked downtown, the capitol complex, seen The Mountain Stage, the Museum of Art and Folk Art. Everywhere people. From this small city I had not anticipated such a density of activity. I’d never had expected to see such life.
No more than I would have expected to see the dollies. So many people, for lack of working legs, pushing themselves along by gloved fists against the pavement. Some lack legs so fully I am reminded, uncharitably I admit, of a cartoon I had seen many years ago of a crowd of legless bayou frogs, all pushing themselves on dollies, with one asking another what he wanted for dinner. “Frog legs.”
We see so many fist-driven four-wheelers that, after the first few, we feel the need to take tally. Seventeen – after we started to count. We move twelve miles through this city in six hours, despite a lack of our dollies all our own, and have been having a wondrous day. At least I have been. My son – my son, at 14, is having his own experience.
We are ready to head out. Our target is Ohio, Gallipolis specifically, and our goal is to get there before dark with enough time, this Summer evening, to find a room and stroll the town before the sun sets. Gallipolis, for no good reason other than someone having told me it was close enough to our destination – P.S.G., Pagan Spirit Gathering – that we can stay overnight and drive an easy pace the twenty miles to the Wisteria gate by nine. Time enough to ride behind the Amish buggies and enjoy the experience and the word patience need never come to mind.
We drive west along I64, out of Charleston, crossing the river over humming tangles of black-girdered bridges looking for I35 – the closest way across the Ohio, the easiest way to Gallipolis.
My son is mapmaster. This has not worked as well as I might have liked. I had thought map reading might be genetic. The only genetic tendency expressing itself at the moment is that towards frustration.
I glance over and look quickly at the map, unfolded on my son’s lap, as I drive. Taking another quick look away from the road I see his frown, his furrowed forehead, eyes turned toward at each other. The highway numbers are upside down. So are the names of the cities. Perhaps there are one or two other genetic tendencies expressing themselves we shall have to look into upon our return home.
I have been reading maps nearly as long as I have been reading words. I am fascinated by them. Where do the roads go, where do they start? I liked my late nights to extend far into the early morning tracing routs from origin to end. When our family took trips, I was in charge of the map, navigating from the front passenger seat. Exactly where my son is now.
We have a year old Rand McNally atlas, purchased not many months ago. I prefer actual maps to printed directions. Mapquest and Google can only go so far. What if we wish to change routs, see what we can see, drive where we might? What an interesting name. Look, there is a cave just ahead. See, there is a gorge down that road. Off we go. With an atlas I can find my way back again, back to the beaten track from off, back on the path and on to our destination. No loss. All gain.
We find our way, road upon road, I-64, I-35, headed toward the Ohio River, to cross into the state of that same name. As we approach the Silver Bridge at Point Pleasant there appears to be something missing: the bridge. There is no bridge. Now, there is the pitted rampart to the river edge, battered pillars from the water surface, confused us to the end of the road. What was, is not.
We pull over, parallel to the Ohio and perpendicular to where we had every reason to expect a bridge entrance which would continued onto a bridge.
The map. It shows a bridge. The land begs to differ. The water – a clear expanse bridge-free to the Ohio bank. Do not mistake the map for the territory.
We ask. The bridge fell down. Recently? No. 1967. Have you ever heard of the Mothman? Seen the movie? No. The one time it might have done me some good to have paid attention to popular culture.
A bridge, off the Earth thirty-five years, still on the map. If you can’t trust Rand McNally, who can you trust?
We travel further south, a half hour more distant of our evening’s destination, to where another bridge is shown, fully ready for that to be gone as well but gone it was not. It exists, as the map shows, and over the Ohio we go. Once on the other side, we follow the river again and Gallipolis is near.
It is small, sparse, quiet. We drive past the fringe Wal-Marts and K-marts, pass by the motels on the outskirts and plunge into the town itself. That is our goal: to find a room where we can park the car and spend the evening walking to dinner, walking to the shops, walking, walking, walking and no driving need be done. My goal. My son’s goal fixed firmly on tomorrow morning. That the youth exist in the here and now and age dwells in the past and future is cliché, not axiom.
We find one hotel. Just one that fits our bill. Just one in town. The William Ann. We could not happier. Older, quaint, friendly and directly in the middle of the town. We put our bags and baskets in the paneled room and set out for a walk.
Dinner comes from a small local grocery store we stroll past. We are stunned by the contents. It is appointed very much as one would expect a small grocery in the inner-city: no fresh vegetables, a deli counter of prepared animal or creamed products, a surprising amount of space devoted to chips and breads, sodas and snacks. We purchase some sandwiches and two apples well past their prime and eat as we walk into the town commons.
In the middle of the commons, on the southern side, the side closest to, within a stone’s toss of, the Ohio River, is a statue that commemorates the bringing of yellow fever to the town and the fifty-seven killed when the disease made landfall in 1878, brought by the doctor who was on that south-destined barge specifically to treat the disease already being carried by those on board; people looking for a new, better life downstream. An agent of mercy, he boarded it upstream so the victims would not need to disembark for treatment or supplies and risk infecting others. Until all aboard were well, only he would have the infrequent necessary contact with the off-barge world.
The rudder arm broke and the ship drifted ashore at Gallipolis. So did the flavivirus.
A four sided post about five feet high, each side is inscribed. One side tells us it is in memory of the yellow fever victims, another has the fifty-seven names on it, yet another lists the barge crew and another side tells us who bestowed the memorial upon the town. Atop the post is the rudder arm. That I know of, this is the world’s sole memorial to viral hemorrhagic fever.
The Scioto Company ran an ad in Paris attracting middle-class French to America with cheap Ohio land. They bought the deeds, sold their goods, and made the long voyage to America and into Midwest. They found nothing. No homesteads. Worthless deeds. It was 1790 and they petitioned President Washington for land. They got it in The French Grant. On the Banks of the Ohio River. Gallipolis. City of the Gauls.
The town failed to thrive. Mining did not quite take off, agriculture was a plan that came to little in an area more swamp than soil.
In 1818, a few families from Wales set sail from Liverpool to Baltimore and traveled by horse and cart to Pittsburg. Tired of the trials of over-land travel, they opted to trust themselves to the Ohio River, counting on it to take them the rest of the way to Paddy’s Run – a frontier town near Cincinnati.
The barge would abruptly, constantly, run aground on the shifting sandbars of the river. The men would jump out onto the dissipating sand and often require rescuing.
The journey taking longer than anticipated, and needing to reprovision, the water-borne pioneers set ashore in Gallipolis, a settlement then with fewer than one thousand people and barely hanging on.
Everyone got off the barge for a night on dry land. Fresh and full, they would shove off again the next morning.
The stories run two ways. Townsfolk got the bright idea the Welsh provided an immediate increase in the population, workforce and gene pool and, like it or not, would be staying in Gallipolis.
The other story is the Welsh women, tired of the river, fatigued from life with no home, weary of seeing their husbands and sons risk their lives, conspired to make Gallipolis their final destination.
Either way, the next morning, the barge was gone. All that was left ashore was a bit of rope.
And five new families.
It is dusk and the summer light is fading. Alek is asking for food again. We walk back toward The William Ann and to the malt shop across the street. It seems everyone is here. The outside is packed and, from a distance, the crowd hides the glass walls but, as we approach, we see through the people, through the panes, the inside is packed as well. We enter and get in line.
He has a milkshake and fries. We linger and he eats. The end of his long day. We go back to the hotel but I am not done. I want to walk some more. As he watches TV, I set out again.
There is music in the dark. I walk parallel the river. There is a wedding and the music is heard blocks away as a party is held under canopies beside a church. I walk on, walk by, music fading. The street ends and I come upon the bank of the Ohio.
I had passed slips and docks but they did not draw. The bank, though: the bank, the natural boundary, does.
It is a slope. Grassy and steep in the dark, I am drawn to the bank, to the brink where land ends and water begins. Through the trees.
There, in an opening between the trees. Steps down through the thick. It opens out. I enter a field of stars before the watery black.
Grass, trees. Fireflies. More than I have seen in, perhaps, all my childhood years together. All my adult life since. Flittering light, bright movements of starlight on wing. Filling the grass, trees, bushes, hovering over the ambiguous bank.
And there is a swing. To the right, hanging from a tree, next to the river, a smooth board on two knotted ropes. I sit, rock, glide. I am a body in motion, surrounded by light.