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Our 2008 Road Trip, Part 2: Doing the Charleston

Gold Capitol Dome!

I think I shot the West Virginia State Capitol at a weird Batman ’66 angle because I wanted to get as close to it as possible without cutting off the top or bottom. Turning it into a hypotenuse must have seemed logical at the time.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

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 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!

The first few hours of our drive to West Virginia took us through familiar parts of Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky, all of which sped past uneventfully. Parts of eastern Kentucky that were new to us looked the same as the rest, unless you count the water tower with signage welcoming us to “FLORENCE Y’ALL”, or the gas station in Lexington that sold more liquor than gas and was unequipped for pay-at-the-pump, or the dumb Beavis-‘n’-Butthead giggles to be had as we passed Big Bone Lick State Park. After so many hours in a car, some families get punchy and become too easily entertained.


FLORENCE Y'ALL!

Anachronism alert: this photo is an outtake from our fall 2017 drive to Knoxville, TN. I’d forgotten we’ve driven past it before.

West Virginia welcome!

Our very first “Welcome to West Virginia” sign.

WV Paratroopers!

Another West Virginia welcome at the first rest stop, also a salute to Airborne and Special Forces troops. Multitasking tourism and patriotism.

Less than an hour away down I-64 East was our next destination, the capital city of Charleston. West Virginia’s websites and tourism propaganda insist that the city’s main event is the renowned gold-leaf Capitol Dome, the largest state capitol dome in America, taller even than the US Capitol in DC.

Dome + Bell!

Their dome is a very pretty, shiny object up close.

Liberty Bell!

In front of the north entrance is a reproduction of the Liberty Bell, one of 53 replicas manufactured in France in 1950 as a tribute to an ongoing US Savings Bond drive.

Montani Semper Liberi!

Another door with overhead art bearing the West Virginia State Motto, “Montani Semper Liberi” — in Latin, “Mountaineers are always free.”

The Capitol was closed for public tours on Saturdays. Regardless, a well-dressed wedding party cavorted around the grounds, presumably killing time till the special occasion began.

Curious to see other sights, we parallel-parked along their deserted downtown streets and walked a few blocks here and there. Anne had read about their Capitol Market online and gotten her hopes raised, but it was about one-fourth the size of Indy’s own City Market and took five whole minutes to walk through in its entirety. Other than a gourmet chocolate shoppe, it didn’t give us much pause for browsing. Beyond that, Charleston on a Saturday afternoon was a cozy ghost town.

Our hotel was in South Charleston, separately incorporated but not much livelier. We had hoped to have dinner at the tantalizingly named Tudor’s Biscuit World, which sounded to me like the kind of place where Weird Al might feel right at home. I’d only brought directions to one of their four locations…and the location I’d chosen had closed at 2:00. I assume it was owned and operated by Mennonites who had to be up bright ‘n’ early for a 4 a.m. church service.

We drove up and down the streets of South Charleston for a while after that, but the only other open eatery I could locate without returning to the interstate was a Hardee’s isolated across the street from a factory. I ordered their new Prime Rib Thickburger just so I could pretend I was in the presence of haute cuisine. (I had no fries, and I ordered the smallest available size — that Homewrecker wasn’t nearly finished with me yet.) My son made a tentative foray into the unexamined life to try something new to him — that obscure oddity called a Mushroom & Swiss Burger. To him, this was daring.

Some slightly more informed meandering brought us afterward to South Charleston’s version of downtown, which was also mostly closed except a few pubs and a Rite-Aid.

Giant paint can!

We did find a giant paint can that no one reported to Roadside America. Call it their best-kept secret, maybe.

WV Veterans Memorial!

The West Virginia Veterans Memorial, four columns that form a large circle, was undergoing repairs in its inner circle.

The lack of consumer entertainment notwithstanding, downtown South Charleston has a feature we’ve never seen in any other downtown: an Indian burial mound.

Criel Mound!

Or Native American burial mound. Or indigenous burial mound. Today it’s an ex-burial mound.

The Criel Mound was built by the Adena people over 2100 years ago, but for decades it’s borne the name of the farming family that once claimed the property. It’s the second largest mound of its kind in West Virginia, with spiraling steps carved into the side, benches helpfully installed here and there, and modern race-neutral sculptures sharing the same block. According to the historical plaques, it used to be much taller, but in the 1840s eight to ten feet were lopped off the top so that it could be used as a judges’ platform for nearby horse racing. In an 1880s excavation project the remains of thirteen Adena ancestors and any found artifacts were removed and donated to the Smithsonian Institution. Upon our visit it was bordered by the aforementioned pubs and a used car lot.

Mound sign!

The “powerful giant” claim remains a dubious point of contention.

As if all of the above weren’t indignity enough, there went my son butt-surfing down the side of formerly hallowed ground.

Criel Mound!

In his defense, it was already desecrated before we got there.

* * * * *

We spent the evening in a Ramada Inn that had an enormous parrot cage in the lobby and cramped, creaking, glacial-speed elevators with wobbly buttons and poor ventilation. Our room was on the fourth floor and had a scenic view of the lobby roof. We’d hoped the hotel would be as deserted as the rest of town, but we just so happened to be sharing the night with an American Legion convention — lots of veterans in funny hats, taking all the best parking spaces and clogging the elevators.

We relaxed for a while in the first-floor indoor pool that also shared space with a large banquet area…which, of course, the Legionnaires were using for a late-night dinner party. We left each other alone and had the pool almost to ourselves.

Our uneasy truce ended when the country karaoke began.

At that point we surrendered and retreated to our room for the night…positioned right over the pool area and still within earshot of the live Walmart discount-cassette-rack hit parade being performed four stories below by half-toasted elderly amateurs. Nothing to help burn the midnight oil like war stories and “Stand by Your Man”, I guess.

Channel-flipping on the hotel TV brought us the welcome sight and sound of a basic-cable airing of Jurassic Park. We cranked up the volume to drown out the singing — pitting dinosaurs against dinosaurs, as it were. The battle of the bands, of John Williams vs. Hank Williams, continued till sometime after 11 p.m., when we finally lost consciousness.

To be continued!

[Historical notes:

1. We eventually saw the real Liberty Bell in person on our 2010 road trip to Philadelphia. It had much stricter security and far more tour groups interested in it.

2. We never got around to Tudor’s Biscuit World till we stopped in Morgantown on our 2017 road trip. All things considered, we preferred Morgantown to Charleston.

3. I’m disappointed to report the giant paint can was removed in 2015 from the spot where it had stood in the community since 1963. As of March 2016 the city had been making plans to move it to a new, free-standing location and was hopeful that some local arts groups would be interested in renovating it. Its current whereabouts remain a secret hidden from Google as of this afternoon.

4. The mushroom-and-swiss burger — not just the Hardee’s version — remains one of my son’s favorite burger formats to this day. Thanks, South Charleston Hardee’s!]

* * * * *

[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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