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Our 2008 Road Trip, Part 1: Hanging with the Hillbillies

Hillbilly sign!

Welcome to the mountains of West Virginia! And one of the better meals on this trip.

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Beginning with 2003’s excursion to Washington DC, we added my son to the roster and tried to accommodate his preferences and childhood accordingly.

Our 2007 drive down to Orlando had been a fun mix of famous theme park and American spaceflight, with one personal milestone for me: my first contact with the Atlantic Ocean. My moment lasted about ten minutes before thunderstorms chased us away from the coast. As Atlantic beach experiences go, Florida gave me a lousy first impression.

For 2008 we decided a second try was in order. Rather than take back-to-back trips to the same state, we researched other east-coast beach options, judged them by their nearby attractions, adjusted for our modest budget that couldn’t possibly afford upper-class oceanfront accommodations, and settled on what we hoped would be a suitable sequel.

Thus in this year of our Lord did we declare: the Goldens are going to Virginia Beach!

Little did we know it would be our least favorite road trip to date. 9½ years later, it still holds the title of The Worst.

Today we kick off another special MCC miniseries representing the original travelogue from our 2008 drive from Indianapolis to southeast Virginia. Some hindsight editing will be included along the way as part of the “special edition” processing. Special thanks as always to my wife Anne, who — for reasons that will become more apparent in the narrative — co-wrote far more of this travelogue than any other we’ve done.

Despite our pain and disappointment: enjoy!

DAY ONE: Saturday, July 12, 2008.

We awoke early Saturday morning to an ugly harbinger of a forceful downpour. I’d dismissed the long-range forecasts that had been only slightly wary of our precipitation odds to come. I’m impressed enough if a meteorologist can successfully prognosticate a given afternoon, but I don’t hold out hope for their claims much beyond that point. Despite the rain right in my face as we loaded up our luggage, I remained undaunted. Even if we were flooded everywhere we went, we had plenty of indoor activities as backup on my always-lengthy to-do list.

This year we organized ourselves successfully for the most part — we packed fewer bags than usual, and we had our mail-holding, housesitting, and dog-wrangling arrangements in place days beforehand. Naturally one unfinished errand had to be completed before vacation could officially begin: Anne needed to deposit her paycheck. We swung by her bank on our way to the nearest interstate, only to be denied because their ATM didn’t provide deposit envelopes (unlike mine, at the time) and the lobby wouldn’t be open for a few more hours.

Her next nearest bank location necessitated a mile-‘n’-a-half of backtracking, but held a cozy spot inside a Kroger, complete with ATM and ample supply of envelopes, and well sheltered from the nasty weather. I walked her inside with our family-sized umbrella — the kind with a four-foot handle and a five-foot wingspan that can gouge other pedestrians’ eyes if I’m not careful. She’s accustomed to live tellers processing her deposits, so I accompanied her to provide training assistance with her very first ATM deposit. When we returned to our waiting chariot, gentleman that I sometimes try to be, I thought it would be prudent to give her the umbrella, then wade over to my side and unlock her door from inside, since our keychain remote only worked on the driver’s door.

I was soaked in record time, but I unlocked her door as soon as mine was open. I sat down, shut my door, latched my seatbelt, inserted key into ignition…and noticed she was still outside, struggling to close the cumbersome umbrella. After much flailing, she managed to shut it, open her door, and step upward into the tall SUV with her cute, tiny legs at the same time. I hadn’t taken into account that she and the umbrella were nearly the same height. Clearly I’d underestimated its inanimate ferocity. She wound up twice as soaked as me.

Past that point and eventually reheated through the miracle of 20th-century dashboard tech, we found our takeoff otherwise comfy. This year’s rental SUV was a Toyota RAV4 that provided a smooth ride with ample leg room (a convenience lacking in last year’s car) and the best gas mileage of any motorized vehicle I’ve driven to date.

We held off on lunch till we crossed the border into West Virginia, where our meal would also be our first spectacle. We detoured at Huntington and headed seven miles north to Lesage for one of our few preplanned meal stops of the week: Hillbilly Hot Dogs.

Hillbilly Hot Dogs!

A beloved institution since 1999, started by a husband/wife team. He was a local; she was a California girl. Together it was a dream.

OG Building!

The original 12×16 shack where they first opened for business.

Left Bus!

The seating area to our left. Yes, it’s a bus.

Hillbilly expansion!

To the right, a second shack and another bus. It’s basically modular prefab.

Rather than found a business that might serve to enlighten the citizens of West Virginia and dispel the stereotypes of mountain life (like, I dunno, the Appalachian equivalent of Starbucks or something), this couple had the brave and fearless idea of cobbling together a restaurant out of a couple of shacks to which they later added a pair of former school buses welded side by side. The cookery happens in the shacks, in which we were relieved to witness modern kitchens that were up to code despite outward appearances. The buses are your seating area, where tables have replaced every other seat. Graffiti is encouraged.

Driver's Seat!

The former driver’s seat, and a selection of random toys for kids to play with or doodle on.

Stuffed animals!

Sorry, kids, some toys are merely display items.

While you’re waiting for your food, you can sign your name anywhere (pens and markers are in limited supply, so I’d advise bringing your own), marvel at the sub-Friday’s kitsch decor, peruse their collection of 8-track tapes, try to locate their bathroom (which we never did), or watch the TV repeating a clip of the Food Network’s Guy Fieri visiting their joint on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Marker + Toys!

Far as I recall, we were given no guidelines, but taggers largely kept their marks family-friendly.

Among a selection of over three dozen menu items, the dog to end all dogs is called the Homewrecker. The deep-fried dog is fifteen inches long, couched in a bun twice as thick, and buried under shredded cheese, nacho cheese, chili, lettuce, cole slaw, mustard, ketchup, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and machismo. Weighing in at 3½ pounds and fifteen dollars, this was my challenger:

Homewrecker!

Somewhere beneath that Hungry-Man taco salad, a monstrous mega-dog lies waiting in ambush.

If you can devour an entire Homewrecker in twelve minutes or less, it’s free and you get a T-shirt. I’ve never been an Adam Richman type. Even in the days when I tipped the scales at 300 pounds, competitive eating has never been my thing. I figured, just this once, let’s go for it and see what happens.

Homewrecker, still smiling!

Me in the early minutes, yet to be humbled.

Fork and knife were a must. I was three bites into it before I decided that the bun would be a waste of valuable stomach space, and just hollowed it out from there.

Halfway into it, I declared the leafy vegetables a combined detriment and scraped them off.

Homewrecker halfway!

This far into an eating challenge, it’s the rationalizations and compromises that keep you going and drown out common sense.

Three inches before the end, I wimped out and gave up.

The remains:

Homewrecker Surrender!

I didn’t ask if they had to-go boxes.

Buried under all that crap, it was hard to tell flavors apart. I’m pretty sure there was some quality meat packed in there.

Careful observers may snicker at the Diet Coke by my side. I’m entitled to my moments of hypocrisy just like everyone else. Drinking issues will come up again later in the miniseries.

Meanwhile, Anne went with Pistol Pete’s Chicken Parmesan — a hot dog bun containing two boneless chicken strips, two fried cheesesticks, parmesan and pizza sauce. My son was mortified by the entire experience and will probably never admit he was there. He settled for a pair of mere Hillbilly Dogs with ketchup. His abject fear of culinary adventure saddened the nice lady at the counter. On the other hand, he asked for seconds. That’s rare, high praise in his way.

License Plates!

Outside is a post upon which hang the license plates that, I think, once belonged to those ex-patrons wrecked by the Homewrecker who never left the premises alive.

To be continued!

[Historical notes:

1. As of 2016, or possibly sooner, my bank no longer offers deposit envelopes because ATM advancements have made them obsolete. Science is magic!

2. After a terrible false start with a malfunctioning lemon that we had to ditch, we also drove a Toyota RAV4 on our 2017 trip to Baltimore. Still the best rental option, if you can luck into one.

3. The 2008 version of Hillbilly Hot Dogs’ official site featured cornball music on auto-play. You can find a few nods to it if you dig around.]

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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