On Labor Day weekend we packed up the family car, strapped a miniature kayak to the top, and headed into central West Virginia so the four of us could enjoy a few days in the wilderness with no access to a toilet. My husband’s family has a secluded cabin on the Elk River in Webster County, West Virginia. Aside from the river and wildlife, there is absolutely nothing in Webster County, and that’s what my husband loves about it.
The last vestige of civilization you will encounter on this trip is in Buckhannon, an hour from “the camp.” After that, it’s a bumpy and nauseating one-hour drive away from the smallest convenience. It’s advisable to stop in Buckhannon and use the facilities, fuel up on gas, and buy some pepperoni rolls.
Pepperoni rolls are a West Virginia specialty. I haven’t seen them for sale at convenience stores in Virginia, but they are, as the name suggests, white-flour rolls with pepperoni inside.
I learned about pepperoni rolls years ago, and on our most recent trip I learned a new term from the Webster County lexicon: Bear dogs. Bear dogs aren’t what you might think at this point, and they’re probably not something that you would eat, although how you feel about the concept of bear dogs might have something to do with what you would consider eating, and what you would do to get it.
Dan and I have had some pretty bad arguments about going all the way to Webster County to go camping. I’d have a totally different attitude about “the camp” if only it were closer to where we live and had indoor plumbing. If that were the case, I’d be happy to get away from the lines and the traffic of Winchester, Virginia, where we live. If the cabin were just an hour away and had a toilet inside, I’d gladly go there once a month and sit listening to the river while I graded papers. In the evenings, I’d pour a glass of chardonnay and sit on the porch pretending to be one of those women in an L.L. Bean catalog.
But the camp is a five-hour drive from Winchester, and it’s pretty much impossible to pretend you’re in an L.L. Bean ad when you’re on your way to the outhouse and haven’t showered in days.
Still, on Labor Day weekend, the weather was unusually pleasant and the traffic into central West Virginia was remarkably light, at least compared to the way things have gotten in Winchester, which people used to call a small town. Now half of the city’s population commutes to Washington, D.C., for work and traffic gets backed up to the point that you can sit through a green light if you’re near a highway at rush hour.
There are no traffic lights in Webster County.
So because the weather was good and because I was happy to get away from the business of Winchester, by the time we arrived at “the camp,” I was thinking maybe this trip would be different for me.
And it was. But it wasn’t.
As soon as we pulled up to the cabin, before I could even inhale that rich smell of earth that makes me feel lonely and morbid, we were greeted by three adolescent males on four-wheelers. They were friends of some of Dan’s friends who live in the holler near the camp and they wanted to say hello and see what was on our agenda.
I regarded the boys with a detached amusement, knowing my husband’s blood pressure was rising already. We are high school teachers, my husband and I, and teenage boys are the exact demographic of human that demands most of our attention during our workweek. Aside from that, Dan values “the camp” above all else because of the solitude it affords him. Only each time he has visited recently, he finds less and less of it, not only because his family’s friends drop by (they can’t call first because there’s no phone), but also because a few other people have started camping nearby. The last part really amazes me. I don’t know how anyone ever finds the place.
Dan gave the four-wheeler boys a polite but vague greeting and sent them on their way.
In the distance, we could hear another camper playing classic rock music.
“Damn it,” Dan said, “people don’t come down here to listen to that.”
The truth, which he knows, is that he doesn’t go camping to listen to other people’s music, but that is exactly why they go camping; they also go to do other things which may or may not qualify as wholesome by our rather geriatric standards.
But my thing is, why? You can listen to music and drink at home. Why do you need to pretend you’re homeless to have fun?
At any rate, I was just trying to stay positive by thinking about making s’mores.
About an hour after the boys left, a man and two women knocked on the cabin door. Since they were close friends of Dan’s family, we invited them in.
I’ve tried before talking to Dan about how I feel unprepared to host company without access to a working sink. It’s hard enough at home with a sink and a dishwasher and a grocery store around the corner. Am I supposed to offer people a burnt hot dog on a stick and a cup of water that we hauled up from the river?
The answer, rustic women, is yes, you are supposed to offer them hot dogs on sticks, and you are supposed to be nice about it. And no, you don’t haul your drinking water from the river in Webster. You buy bottled water and haul that with you. Or you buy soda, and you call it “pop.” Mountain Dew seems to be a local favorite.
The man and two women introduced themselves to me. They had never met me before and believed I didn’t really exist, they said.
There are several bulletin boards inside “the camp” covered with photos of various members of Dan’s family posing with fish and other animals who have had the misfortune of crossing their paths, but there is only one picture of me. In this photo, I am about 25 years old, standing by the river with a walking stick and an unemphatic smile. On the day the photo was taken, our nephew was catching crawdads in the river and I was miserable because my period was coming on and I was far away from a functional bathroom.
There aren’t many pictures of women at the camp because women generally avoid the place. Even Dan’s stepmother, who is a far better sport than I, told me that she’d rather not be there for long because she simply feels gross after a day or two without a proper bathroom.
The dominant female at “the camp” would have to be Jessica, a buxom blond in a bikini whose calendar photo is tacked up by the door. Jessica stands with her backside toward the camera, glancing coyly over her shoulder, her lips parted slightly.
I would imagine that Jessica doesn’t have a period because she’s like the models I saw on a talk show once who said that their job required them to stay so thin that they did not menstruate, and that they had needed to get breast implants to compensate for their lack of body fat.
But that is the thing about two-dimensional girls and dead animals in photographs, boys. You don’t know that the flat-chested girl with the sad smile is feeling confined by fertility, or that the girl with the luscious, tan breasts is half-starved and maintains a state of infertility to draw a paycheck, or that the deer with the impressive rack had recently overcome some major obstacles in his life and was just starting to realize his full potential. A picture says a thousand words, but sometimes most of them are lies.
Our second group of visitors at the camp only stayed for 20 minutes or so. Once they left, Dan built a campfire and we started making s’mores. I was enjoying some burned marshmallows when a bearded man with a thick accent arrived with a little girl about the age of our children. He had met Dan during a fishing event on Memorial Day weekend.
The girl, who was obviously eager for the company of other children, launched into a game of hide-and-seek with our two children, Oliver, 10, and Annabelle, 7, within minutes of introduction.
It was dark by the time they left. We hurried into pajamas and turned out the lights at the cabin. Down the road, the music had finally stopped.
The next day, I was cleaning up after breakfast when I heard a child call out, “Guys, I’m here!” The little girl was back, and within minutes the three children were running in and out of the cabin, climbing up the wooden ladder to the upstairs loft to play hide-and-seek.
Just before noon, I served them some snacks, and then we sent the little girl back to her campsite because Dan wanted to let Oliver try out his miniature kayak on the river. We put the kids in their bathing suits, got into the car, and drove a few feet downriver to a place where a large rock would make an easy boat launch.
We’d expected to be alone, but it was not to be. Standing on the rock was another bearded man, who introduced himself as Jeff. Jeff was the father of the little girl we’d just sent “home,” and she was already there swimming. Their family was camping nearby with Jeff’s father-in-law, but they also had a house in Webster County.
Dan helped Oliver into the kayak as Annabelle waded into the river. A few minutes later, Jeff’s wife Jennifer arrived.
Jeff left, but Jennifer, who Dan secretly remembered as a high school classmate, stayed and talked to us about her two daughters. Her older daughter was in her 20s, Jennifer said, and had been having a terrible time recently finding a suitable roommate. It is nearly impossible to find a normal person to share an apartment with in large cities such as Morgantown and Clarksburg, West Virginia, Jennifer said. A lot of people are on drugs. Some are confused about their gender identities, and others are just plain crazy.
Jennifer also told us how they had recently closed her younger daughter’s school, in part because a top administrator was both greedy and incompetent. There was quite a lot of treachery going on amongst the decision-makers of that school district. Jennifer talked animatedly about it as she smoked a cigarette and sipped Mountain Dew.
At some point over the course of the conversation, Jennifer and Dan discovered that their families were related by marriage.
After an hour or so, Dan was giving me a look of desperation, but I pretended not to notice. What did he want me to do? Throw one of my tantrums and demand to go home? I’d tried it before and I knew it wasn’t going to work. I had resigned myself to camping, and Jennifer’s narratives were fairly entertaining, as far as I was concerned.
For the second time since we had arrived at “the camp,” I heard someone mention a “bear dog.” The first time, I thought it was a term of endearment used to describe one’s cuddly bear-like dog. I realized on the second reference that not everyone in Webster County would have a bear-like dog and that what they were actually referring to were dogs used by hunters to track bears. I also surmised that some people make jokes about their “bear dogs” when they are really referring to small lapdogs because this is their way of being ironic.
Later that evening, I discussed my revelation with my friend Beth.
“I don’t agree with bear dogs,” Beth said during the adult conversation we enjoyed as she cradled her infant son while her 3-year-old daughter ran in and out of the cabin playing hide-and-seek with our kids. Beth lives in Elkins, West Virginia, about an hour and a half from “the camp.” I was surprised but glad that she and her husband made the long trip with two young children to see us at the cabin.
Bear dogs, my friend explained, are often neglected by their owners. They can spend weeks roaming the countryside without adequate attention or nourishment. This ethical dilemma is, of course, completely separate from whether or not you think it’s OK to use a pack of dogs to chase a bear up a tree because this is your way of hunting bears.
“So these are the things we debate about in Webster County?” I asked Beth.
Yes, she said.
We met when we were reporters together in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Neither one of us had kids then. We’d work until 11 p.m. covering Jefferson County Planning Commission and then be back at it again the next morning chasing down some fatal car accident on the interstate.
She left Martinsburg when she took an editor’s position at the newspaper in Elkins. Even as city editor, which is the second or third top position in a small newsroom, she found herself working until 2 a.m. pretty often, so after she had her first child, she quit the newspaper and became an insurance agent.
As we discussed bear dogs and served our kids crackers and juice on a picnic table in a cabin in the woods, Beth said she felt a little nostalgic sometimes for the intellectual stimulation that came with the stress of working in Martinsburg, where we had crime and politics. In Elkins, she said, the pace was a lot slower.
It’s funny because when you are in your 20s and working in Martinsburg, you definitely don’t think of it as the pinnacle of urban living.
During our Labor Day trip to “the camp,” we saw one car with a Michigan license plate and another from Kentucky. I’ll never understand how they found Webster County. Dan said they must be like him – folks who grew up in Webster but moved away for jobs.
On Monday, I couldn’t wait to pack up and go home. Someone at a nearby campsite was blasting rock music when we left.
On the winding ride out of the green abyss, we passed Rella’s, a leaning wooden shack of a restaurant where Dan and his friend once ordered beans and cornbread and made small talk with the waitresses as the waitresses smoked cigarettes.
When we got to Buckhannon, I made Dan stop at a convenience store so we could go to the bathroom, and I bought a bag of pepperoni rolls to take home. Dan bought a Mountain Dew and offered me a sip. I declined. He asked if I was afraid of it.
I am not afraid of Mountain Dew or even bear dogs, but for the most part, I still think what I have always thought about camping, which is that its only purpose is to make you appreciate having a roof over your head and a sink at your disposal.
Maybe, though, it is also an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange. Maybe, as Nora Ephron said, everything is copy. You just have to tell yourself that you are not a real woman with a real period that makes things messy and inconvenient. You are a character, and so is everyone you meet on the journey.