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Once we were actually on the road, life seemed better.  The last time we had done this, I had had two cats, a  one-year-old, and a 16-year-old nephew in the van, while Robert towed the car with the truck.  This seemed simpler.  We were aiming for Greenville, Texas, east of Dallas, where our daughter would spend the evening with us at the motel.  Coordinating on our cell phones, we all arrived within minutes of each other. There was handy truck parking, and we had dinner at the catfish place next door.  Hilde took her brother off to Wal-Mart on a mysterious errand, and came back with walkie-talkies.  She had brought a deck of UNO cards and we played until late.  This was the best part of the whole move.

It had been in the 80s all week.  We woke the next day to freezing winds.  Starting out east, the trees were coated with ice, but the interstate was fairly dry and the sky blue.  We got about 25 miles when the truck disappeared from my rear-view mirror.  Neither the walkie-talkie nor the cellphones worked well, but Robert managed to convey that the check-engine light had come on and the cab was full of alarm bells.  I found a place to pull off at the next exit.  Robert talked to Budget, complicated by the fact that we had no idea where we were except east of Greenville, and we waited for road service to arrive.  He went to get a part, and we waited.  We all made multiple trips to the Jack-in-a-Box up the road, and finally got back on the road.  Maybe ten miles up the road, Robert called and said the truck was doing it again.  I pulled off at the next exit, which was completely bare of anything except a defunct gas station with a gravel parking lot, now an Adult Attractions XXX.  We waited for the road service mechanic, who came, took the truck for a test drive, and said it would have to go to the shop, which was back the way we had come, almost to Greenville.  So Robert drove it down there, alarm bells ringing.

The shop was a diesel repair place on the interstate access road, miles from anywhere.  There was no place for customers, and the bathroom was being used as a pen for a litter of German Shepherd puppies.  Arend and I sat in the car and read, running the engine sporadically.  There was talk of transferring the load.  Budget was communicating with the mechanic, but not us.  It being Sunday, the part that might be the problem could not be located, and might have to come from Dallas.  We went back to Greenville and checked into another motel.  Budget Road Service and Customer Service both claimed the other was calling the shots.  We gave up and spent the evening looking at the weather on the NOAA website.  We had been just ahead of the winter front, which had now passed us, with not much hope of our catching up with it.  I called our daughter, declared the next time I moved it would be into a nursing home, and made her swear she would take care of it.

In the morning, we hung about the motel until checkout time, and then went to the shop.  They had located the part, which would not arrive until three.  We went to Commerce, 10 miles north, and hung out in Cowhill Express, a coffee shop on the square.  We went to an outlet store, and to Wal-Mart.  We must have eaten lunch somewhere.  After 5, we finally got our truck back.  We went to the next exit with a motel, Sulphur Springs.  We had made 15 miles in two days.  We had originally planned to get to Clarksburg on Monday morning.  It was Monday night and we still had 1100 miles to go.

My son and husband discussed what to do.  Clearly, we needed a place to spend the night, and to finish packing.  Robert was very calm about being able to fit everything in.  We went back to the house, where our neighbor Juliana was in her yard.  She took me in, installed me on the sofa in their den with  a throw, brought me a glass of wine and a cup of black-eyed peas for luck, and offered to put us up for the night.  Then she went across the street to help pack.  Meanwhile, we had realized our bicycles were not going to fit in the truck, and Robert and Arend went off to get a bicycle rack for our trailer hitch.  Juliana’s husband, Andy, who was not happy to see us leave and who had already said goodbye twice, came home to find us not only still there, but staying in his house.  Eventually we all watched The Maltese Falcon and collapsed.

Soon after daybreak, we went across the street and begin packing and loading again.  Andy and Robert had seen how much space was still on top of the load, and Robert fitted all the unboxed odds and ends carefully in, then finished with the boxes.  Arend, the heavy-duty bicyclist in the family, went to work on assembling the bicycle rack.  He got stuck at one spot.  His father tried; Andy tried; I tried.  There was a piece that just wouldn’t quite fit.  I went across to more neighbors; she works at REI and he worked in a bicycle shop long ago.  We decided it need to go back to the shop for a return or instructions.  Robert the neighbor (the neighborhood is full of Roberts) took me up to the bike shop, where their assembler said “I dunno, I’ve never put one of these together before” and then not only neatly tapped the part into place with his rubber mallet (we should have thought of that, but ours was already loaded, of course), but put the whole thing together.

We went back to the house and Robert the neighbor started putting the rack on the hitch.  Virtually everything was loaded except the things sitting on the lawn waiting to go in the car.  I was beginning to hope, when I realized I had left my purse sitting on the counter in the bike shop with more than the usual vital stuff in it.  Since I couldn’t take our car, Andy took me back up there, where I walked in, walked to the counter, picked up my purse, and walked out, without a notice from anyone.  When we got back, it turned out a thread was stripped on the mounting bolt for the rack, so Robert the neighbor went off to obtain a new one.  We finished loading the car, and waited.  Mina, his wife. took pictures.  Robert arrived with the bolt, eventually it went in, and we were ready, exactly 24 hours after we had intended to leave.

The neighbors gathered, Robert pulled out to the stop sign at the corner, and I backed the car out of the driveway.  There was a huge grating noise.  Arend, in the passenger seat, said a word under his breath that you shouldn’t say in front of your mother.  I pulled forward.  There was another huge grating noise, the sound of tires spinning, and the car stopped.  I got out.  I had backed over the curb.  The bicycle rack was wedged against the street; a rear tire was wedged against the curb.  I despaired.  Juliana, brilliantly, said “Put a board under the wheel,” and produced a short length of 2×4. Robert, who had left the truck idling at the corner, backed it out, the board raising it just enough to clear.  We all cheered and I drove up to the corner ahead of the truck, since I was to drive lead.  As we were waiting for a gap in traffic, a middle-aged man on a bicycle, naked except for a g-string, pulled up next to us and crossed the street, a perfectly Austin ending to 23 years there.

It’s been over three weeks, and the trauma has faded.  And it has been a hard winter for many friends, making my troubles seem small.  I keep telling myself that my pioneer ancestors had it a lot tougher.

It started with the loading, the day after New Years.  Having spent the week packing, we still weren’t finished with the kitchen and the lamps by 10, when the loaders were arriving.  Robert got the truck, and as Lawrence the loader was telling me his grave doubts about getting all our stuff in, his crew discovered the padlock to which Robert hadn’t been given a key.  While we have many tools, they don’t include bolt-cutters.  Budget wouldn’t come out; Robert had to drive the 24-foot truck back across town.  They hadn’t put the furniture pads or the dolly in the truck either.  (Obvious once we discovered the padlock – had they tried, they might have noticed they couldn’t open the back.)

I had measured and counted all our books (thousands), and had used several on-line estimators of how much space we needed.  We moved to Texas in a 24-foot rental truck, and I had looked at what we had acquired since then and determined that first, it wasn’t much, most of it replacements, and second, we weren’t moving a number of things, like the appliances. I am a major compulsive planner, and being told I had blown it was nerve-wracking.  I continued packing dishes and answering loader questions.  Since everything was going, it wasn’t clear to me why I had to keep saying, “Yes, that’s going” – until I walked into the bedroom and our luggage for the three days on the road was about to go.

In two hours, everything in the house that was packed had been loaded.  The kitchen counters were still piled high, the sunroom floor was covered with unclosed boxes, and the back patio was covered with all those miscellaneous things that live in the garage in Texas, where there are no attics or basements.  Everyone in our neighborhood parks the cars in the driveway, since there is usually no ice, snow or rain to prtect them from, and throws a quilt over them when it hails.  Lawrence said he would load the back yard and leave two feet for us to load the additional boxes when we had them packed.  I was envisioning having to store things, having to make another three-day round trip, having to pull a trailer with the car, which I was driving.

We continued packing, grimly.  What was left was mostly the kitchen, and the china and glassware seemed to have been breeding in the dark upper cupboards.  We had already given away the set of china we got when we first married, two dozen champagne glasses inherited from Robert’s aunt and used only for puddings occasionally (very occasionally – we don’t eat dessert – instant pudding is a comfort food used only during illness) , and a variety of other things.  The kitchen, which some prospective buyers had objected to a much to small, was really a bottomless pit, endlessly producing items which had to be carefully wrapped.  We were supposed to be leaving that afternoon, and all the beds had gone on the truck long before.  I couldn’t see a solution, and I couldn’t bear the suspense of whether it would all fit. At four o’clock, I lost it.  I called my husband and son to the car, and announced we were going to Burger King, the nearest place we could sit down with veggie burgers for my son.  Once there, we ate in silence, and I calmly announced that I could not go on.  This shows how far gone I was; my usual method of losing it is much louder.

We went to get our car title and driver’s licenses transferred the other week.  It was curious to me that this seemed to involve more paperwork than buying the house had.  And to have a baby, a helpless human being for which you are completely responsible for the next 18 years, requires no paperwork at all, although the hospital checks to make sure you have a child safety seat before you drive it home.

I spent several hours searching various web sites, with pages of step-by-step instructions and caveats.  (For the curious, the Department of Motor Vehicles driver’s license page and vehicle license page.)  Once upon a time in a previous life, when I was in charge of organizing state government information on the web, one of my tests for a good state government web site or search was how easily one could find information on getting a driver’s license.  This was in the days before Google, in the early days of Alta Vista (for those of you over 30 who remember Alta Vista), and finding anything depended on the humans who constructed the sites.  I used to check regularly on various states to see how Texas compared.  In some states, it was impossible to find anything.  Today, West Virginia passes with flying colors – typing “wv driver’s license” into Google pops up detailed instructions, in second place after dmv.org, a commercial site advertising insurance and whatnot that has managed to get itself to the top of the list for title and license information for any state.

It became clear that there were a number of steps that needed to be followed in the correct order, in order to avoid going to any one office twice.  I made a chart of what was required and all the dependencies. It is necessary to have a form from the county assessor that you have reported the vehicle for the personal property tax to avoid the 5% privilege tax (West Virginia’s name for the sales or transfer tax on vehicles, but driving in West Virginia is hardly a privilege, since public transportation is virtually non-existent in most places and it is generally too far to walk).  As I recalled from my youth, the assessor requires proof of insurance.  The DMV merely required two proofs of West Virginia residence (deed, rental agreement, utility bills; if you live with parents or otherwise are not paying rent or utilities directly, you have to have an affadavit from the person who is); two proofs of identity(a Social Security card and a birth certificate); a declaration of insurance coverage; the car title; and the form from the assessor.  Texas is one of the few states with reciprocal inspections, so at least we didn’t have to have the car inspected.

Obviously the correct order was the insurance office, the assessor’s office, and then the DMV.  So we gathered together our documents and set off.  We accomplished the first two steps in a single afternoon, and the next day, went off to the DMV, where you start by going to the information desk to have your particular procedure explained.  I was so proud when they said “…and you can save yourself a lot of money by…” that I interrupted and said “Yes, I know, we’ve already been to the assessor’s office.”

We proceeded to the driver’s license desk,  presented our various proofs that we were us and now lived in West Virginia, filled out forms, took the vision test, read the pamphlet on drinking and driving, presented our proofs again, turned in our Texas licenses, and were passed on to the desk where we presented the old title and the new title form, presented our proofs again, paid money, got our license plate and a temproary registration card, and were sent to wait for our photos.  We were photographed and finger-printed (optional) and then received our licenses (an improvement over Texas, which mails them, sometimes taking six weeks.)  The whole thing didn’t take much over an hour.  The new title came in the mail just a week later.

Of course, the insurance agent needed a copy of the registration card, which we couldn’t get until we had the proof of insurance to get the registration.  So we had to go back to the insurance agency – but hey, it could have been worse.

Perhaps in a few years I will tire of the snow, but I don’t think so.  After 23 years in Austin, Texas, where a dusting occurred every decade or so, prompting the neighborhood to stand in the streets staring, I am ready for four seasons again, including lots of snow.

Sourgum Seed BallsI love the look of the snow blanketing the hills, draping along the tops of the tree branches, frosting the Norway spruces and hemlocks, putting a little round beret on each of the sour gum seed balls still on the tree.  And the way it records the otherwise secret life of the neighborhood – the three-pronged trail of birds across the patio, the deer tracks across the yard, the neighborhood cats boldly crossing our back porch.

I love the sounds of snow, or the lack thereof – the way you can tell, before you have opened your eyes and seen, without looking directly outside, the change in the light because everything outside is white, that it has snowed because all sounds are muted by the snow.  And of course the faint rustling of the snow flakes falling, only audible in their thousands.

I had forgotten the sound of the snow trucks; not really snowplows, because West Virginia is not in the heavy-duty snow belt.  These are double-duty dump trucks, with a scraper on the front and a salt-and-cinder spreader on the back.  In the summer, they serve other purposes.  They go along the street in front of the house, which is a federal highway. The city runs pickup trucks with scrapers attached on the narrow side streets.  All of them can be heard on streets and roads far away, down the hill and across the valley.  It is a cheery sound, because it means the streets will soon be easily passable again.

And I had forgotten the sound of tire chains.  I recognized it instantly, though, the first time I heard a school bus with chains go by the house.

There is nothing quite like twilight on a snowy evening, especially seen from a window in a warm room.  It always reminds me of one of my favorite hymns.

The People’s Peace

Peace is the mind’s old wilderness cut down –
A wider nation than the founders dreamed.
Peace is the main street in a country town;
Our children named; our parents’ lives redeemed.

Not scholar’s calm, nor gift of church or state,
Nor everlasting date of death’s release;
But careless noon, the houses lighted late,
Harvest and holiday: the people’s peace.

The peace not past our understanding falls
Like light upon the soft white tablecloth
At winter supper warm between four walls,
A thing too simple to be tried as truth.

Days into years, the doorways worn at sill,
Years into lives, the plans for long increase
Come true at last for those of God’s good will:
These are the things we mean by saying, Peace.

by John Holmes (set to Sursum Corda by Alfred Morton Smith)

In the latest Unitarian Universalist hymnal (Singing the Living Tradition), the first verse was removed, apparently because of the reference to cutting down the wilderness.  What can I say?

Dave Banta, a poet who lives in Plummer’s Hollow, Pennsylvania, has a Morning Porch blog, where he reports on each morning in haiku-like poetry.  I too go out each morning to greet the day.  In Austin, it was first on the front stoop, and later on the back screen porch we built.  The view was the street (a charming neighborhood of bungalows built mostly in the 30s and 40s) or the back yard (the backs of bungalows and, fortunately, lots of trees and other green things.)

PorchHere, we have a stone patio that looks out over the West Fork valley and the ridges beyond, with Norway spruces, sweet gum, and maples in the foreground. It looks out to the southeast, so in the morning, I can see the sunrise, in the evening, the sunset.  I can just see the long stretch of the river winding around the bottom of the hill.  My grown children, raised in mostly-flat Texas, described the yard as a cliff when they first saw it.  I take my cappuccino and see what the day has brought.  This morning, it was 10°, but with blue sky, sun, and fluffy clouds.  The local deer wandered through (just four now – one lay down and died in a neighbor’s yard last month – the one he called Hillary because whatever he did to discourage her eating his plants, she wouldn’t give up).

Every time I hear about the mountaintop removal of Gauley Mountain, I cringe at the irony.  The best known work of the late West Virginia Poet Laureate, Louise McNeill, was Gauley Mountain, a set of poems about the people in one small place in the hills.  Her genius was relating the very particular detail of life in one small bit of West Virginia and illuminating the universal human condition.  Her best poems are about mountain people, but here is one on the land.

West Virginia

Where the mountain river flows
And the rhododendron grows
Is the land of all the lands
That I touch with tender hands;
Loved and treasured, earth and star,
By my father’s fathers far–
Deep-earth, black-earth, of-the-lime
From the ancient oceans’ time.
Plow-land, fern-land, woodland shade,
Grave-land where my kin are laid,
West Virginia’s hill to bless–
Leafy songs of wilderness;
Dear land, near land, here at home–
Where the rocks are honeycomb,
And the rhododendrons . . .
Where the mountain river runs.

Her poetry used to be on-line at gauleymountain.org, but it is no more.  Mountain Stage produced Gauley Mountain spoken and set to music; it is available on CD (some excerpts available on-line.) Here is Jay Rockefeller’s tribute to her in the Congressional Record.

For more information on the mountaintop removal at Gauley Mountain and a link to a petition to deny extension of the current mining permit see this post on West Virginia Blue

Elizabeth Ann Stalnaker HersmanThis is my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Ann Stalnaker, at 19, holding her second-born, Romeo Hersman.  Her first-born, Harvey, died the day before Romeo was born.  He was not quite two.  She went on to have another son, Bruce, and then five daughters, my grandmother Maud the eldest.  Married at 17, she was just 32 when she died of tuberculosis; Maud was 10 and Allie, her youngest, not yet two.

Our family still owns the land her house stood on, called Sugar Run, at Speed, Roane County.  No-one has lived there since she died in 1895.  Her children went to their grandparents and aunts.  My great-grandfather had an affair with her sister that resulted in a child he raised, moved across the ridge to a farm he named Limberlost, eventually remarried, and served in the state legislature.

Elizabeth Ann’s great-great-grandparents read like a Who’s Who of West Virginia’s first settlers: Stalnaker, Radcliff, Hughes, McWhorter, Hurst, Waggoner, Bonnett, Hardman.  Most of her great-grandparents grew up in the forts of Harrison County during the Indian troubles after the Revolution.  Indian fighters Lewis Bonnett and Jesse Hughes were great-great uncles.  Her great-great-grandmother Margaret Bonnett Waggoner was killed by Shawnees in 1792, and her great-grandfather Peter Waggoner taken and raised among the Indians, not returning until 1812.  Only her mother’s mother’s family, the Balls, were latecomers from old Virginia, not arriving until after 1800.  They all converged in the Hacker’s Creek area, now Jane Lew and McWhorter.  Her parents, Walter and Rulina Waggoner Stalnaker, moved to Roane County in the spring of 1875, along with most of his siblings and her sister Virginia, who was married to his brother George.  Elizabeth Ann was 12, the oldest of 7 children; three more were born in Roane County.  After her death, her parents moved on to Calhoun County.

I have hiked Sugar Run from childhood, camped out there in a tent by myself one summer.  I have a necklace my father made with a bit of sandstone from the house foundation, the only trace of the farm that once was.  I’ve slept in her bed for 25 years, a black walnut four-poster with a high headboard, carved by a local carpenter.  My children slept in her cradle, the one my grandmother slept in.

But this picture and those few facts are about all I know about her.  I don’t know whether she was a Liz or a Betsy; probably not a Liza or Beth, from the nicknames that were common then.  My other great-grandmothers were called Molly, Jane, Anna.  In my mind, this one is always Elizabeth Ann.

Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. - Howard Thurman.

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