Filed under: twitchhiker project | Tags: appalachian trail, catoctin iron furnace, frederick, national road, pittsburgh, sideling hill, wheeling
If you’re staring an eight hour road-trip square in the eye, a word of warning – the day before, steer clear of authentic buffalo chilli for lunch and quesadillas with extra jalapenos for dinner. That’s all I’m saying.
My day promised to be long but exciting; while it would hardly be a full-blown Route 66 coast-to-coast affair, my host Ken (@yenra) had certainly gone to a great deal of trouble to ensure it was an unforgettable experience. The night before, the other Twitter users and I had discussed Ken’s rampant enthusiasm for our journey; his constant tweets asking for others to recommend music for a cross-country playlist, and did they have any ideas what snacks he should buy?
Oh God, we thought. I may have unwittingly fallen prey to my first nutjob. It was only a matter of time before the local sheriff uncovered my headless torso in a nameless field.
Before I reached @yenra and my inevitable decapitation in Frederick, Lauree (@wordtravelsfast) had to drive me there from Washington DC. The previous night’s margaritafest had not been kind to her. She also had serious relationship issues with her GPS system, which stubbornly refused to show the correct route between the two points. When it did, Lauree ignored it anyway and did her own thing, meaning I was treated to a tour of DC’s less travelled roads by two women – one a mindless automaton – who weren’t on speaking terms.
There was no doubting Ken’s house when pulled into the street; it was the one with Ken stood outside waiting for us. Within a moment, Ken’s whole family was stood outside, too. And their dogs. I started to panic. My host had rolled out the red carpet to the point of assembling his family to greet me. I wasn’t going to die in a field, I was going to be locked in the cellar, chained to a bed and referred to as precious.
I needn’t have worried. Very quickly Ken proved himself to be nothing other than a kind thoughtful guy, a giddy school boy in a grown man’s body, a middle-aged father of two with a job in a government agency I wasn’t to know the name of, who wanted nothing more than to play a part in my adventure. He’d missed out when Windows revolutionised the world of computing, and decided there and then he wouldn’t miss out again; when the internet first saw light, he became one of the US Government’s first webmasters. He was helping me because he didn’t want to live with the regrets of inaction, a personality trait that had plunged me into this journey and so one I entirely identified with.
We left Frederick in Ken’s Mustang convertible, accompanied by an icebox filled with enough soda to drown a dry whale. I tried my first root beer, and instantly vowed never to try my second. It tasted like I’d squeezed a tube of Deep Heat down my throat; I was guaranteed not to suffer any muscle strain on the journey, but I’d have to wash my mouth out with shampoo.
Our route weaved on and off the freeway, taking in much of the historic US Highway 40 or the Historic National Road, one of the first roads surveyed and built by the US government at the turn of the 19th Century. We stopped at a diner lost in time and mullets (where I gained a stone in weight merely by glancing at my macaroni and cheese), the Catoctin Iron Furnace, the Appalachian Trail, Sideling Hill – anywhere that was a point of interest or a photo opportunity.
Ken had also put together a playlist for the journey, based on requests and suggestions from Twitter users:
Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver
The Long and Winding Road – The Beatles
On The Road Again – Willie Nelson
Litttlest Hobo Theme (Maybe Tomorrow) – Terry Bush
Ramblin’ Man – The Allman Brothers
Born To Run – Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
Road to Nowhere – Talking Heads
Born To Be Wild – Steppenwolf
Cream – Crossroads – Eric Clapton
Radar Love – Golden Earring
Rocky Mountain High – John Denver
It’s A New Day – Will.I.Am
Already Gone – The Eagles
Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Don’t Stop – Fleetwood Mac
Land Down Under – Men at Work
It was an amazing eight hours, through the stranded towns and lonely roads of Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. We talked most of the way, except when I was fast asleep, discussing Twitter and iPhones, Ken’s passion for England and my passion for chocolate-covered raisins. While his persistant enthusiasm had initially petrified me, Ken’s infectious zest for my journey was as pleasing as it was unexpected. I needed people to want this trip to succeed as much as I did; it was difficult staying optimistic in isolation.
Ken and I were originally aiming for Pittsburgh, but up until the day before there hadn’t been a single offer of help. Despite a news story running on msnbc.com, I was dead to the Steel City; nobody wanted to know and if they did, they’d put their fingers in their ears and were humming loudly at me. I’d argued that I stood the best chance of success of reaching New Zealand by crossing the US, yet there I was being staunchly ignored by a city with a metropolitan population of over two million. So shortly before 6pm, we rolled into Wheeling, West Virgina to be greeted at the roadside by Kathy (@aikaterine71) and her husband Alston. Kathy’s offer was last minute – we only confirmed it after I’d left Washington that morning.
If there are two more selfless individuals in that town, you’d struggle to find them in broad daylight while carrying a lamp. Last year, Kathy and Alston lost their possessions and their home in a fire and were living in temporary accommodation while their house was rebuilt. They were squeezed into a one bedroom flat with rented furniture, yet were willing to offer a stranger their sofa for the evening. Of course the world is full of bastards and murderers and thieves and the devil, but it was showing me plenty of charity and kindness.
Alston and I spent most the evening putting the world of science fiction to rights; he relived the summer of ’77 and his memories of watching Star Wars at a cinema just a few blocks away, while I ranted about the mind-mangling bollocks that was Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And we all showed some lovin’ to the greatest ever television show that barely was – Firefly.
The evening’s entertainment consisted of Celebrity Apprentice in HD and a strange quirk of pizza found only in these parts; the base was crusty, almost like crackerbread, and only half the cheese was cooked; you sprinkled the rest on yourself before eating. They’d messed with a classic and I wasn’t sure about the result., but they’d taken me into their makeshift home while a city of two million continued to pretend I wasn’t there, so I forgave them their folly and chomped away.
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