I have been driving to Wheeling lately.
I have a friend who lives there. When I didn’t have a car, Steubenville and Wheeling seem so far apart that she might as well have lived on the moon. But this month I’ve gone and visited her twice.
The drive to Wheeling goes right down the bank of the noxious Ohio river. You can either drive on the Ohio side and cross the bridge near Martin’s Ferry, or the West Virginia side if you cross the bridge in Steubenville. Along the way there are picturesque layer cakes of brown striped mountain cliffs. There are hillsides alive with trees, Queen Anne’s lace and the magenta of pokeweed stems. There are small towns that look like something out of Donald Hall’s Oxcart Man. And then, every so often, there is a coal plant spewing smoke into the atmosphere. These are the ugliest buildings imaginable: each an enormous, rusting hodgepodge of different shades of brown metal, a tangle of pipes and chimneys, trucks constantly entering and leaving the anthill, noise and filth and decay. And then there’s another striped cliff.
Eventually I got to Wheeling, which is a bit of a labyrinth. I followed the signs to Route 70 with blind faith until I was in downtown, which is pretty but run-down. I would rather live there than in run-down Steubenville.
I took a few back roads, and mistakenly ended up in the wrong end of Oglebay. The resort is very large– one end of it has a pool, a small zoo and cabins. The place my Garmin led me to was the top of a ski lift, disused because it was summer.
I hadn’t realized I was driving to the summit of a small mountain. If you haven’t been driving in West Virginia, I can’t explain how that’s possible, but it is. I was driving on an unnervingly narrow road, conscious that there was a bit of an incline, around two hairpin turns, and then I was on top of a mountain. I pulled into the little parking lot, and the world dropped in front of me: green on green on green, dark pines and lighter deciduous bordering warm grass, and at the bottom, the odd unnatural green of a golf course.
And I was homesick.
I was an awkward, high-strung, bookish and imaginative child again, attending family reunions in Pocahontas County where everything is alive. I was building mermaid traps in the creek with my bad cousins. We were going swimming in that freezing cold pool with no water heater near the Pine Run cabins. We were skipping rocks and screaming to make our voices echo across the lake. We were getting lost in the woods just before dark, sneaking into cabins with the windows that are easy to open if you’re a mischievous child and determined enough, throwing Styrofoam picnic plates into the fireplace to watch them sizzle and shrink.
And then we were older, and my Bad Cousins were forcing crawfish to wrestle and kill each other in gladiator fights to the death. And then they were tormenting the crawfish with bug spray, and capturing frogs and gold-flecked salamanders to do the same. I was waiting until they went in for dinner, and releasing their menagerie of prisoners back into the creek if I could.
And then I hit puberty and became fat and ugly, which my cousins didn’t let me forget. When I cried and went off to be by myself, they taunted “Mary has a brain disease that makes her angry all the time,” and the taunting got worse.
I started spending reunions going on walks in the woods by myself. And one day I turned my back on most of my family and never spoke to them again. To this day, I don’t think they understand why.
I don’t want to go back to them, but I do want to go home.
For so many years I was desperate to go home– to be the person I was before it all went wrong, in the mountains, playing with people who loved me. And now here I was, home or within a few hours’ drive of it, going to meet a friend who likes me, at the top of a mountain.
We eventually drove downhill and found the zoo, which has a train that takes you right through the zebra’s pen. The zebra at the Oglebay zoo is completely accustomed to humans; he sneers and turns his back on you, giving you nothing but a flamboyant striped rear end to admire. The ostrich who shares a pen with him is similarly unimpressed. There are golden tamarinds who climb right up to the glass and stare at you, and a sloth with a wet nose who never opens his eyes. There is an albino alligator paddling round and round an artificial pond. There is a tortoise big enough to use for a coffee table. In another pen, they have the most beautiful wart hogs I’ve ever seen– a shade of brown that’s almost orange, with a black and white mask and fussy curly ears. If I were any animal other than myself, I think I would be that wart hog, and my cousins would wish I was something else.
In another part of Oglebay there is a pool. The first time I visited my friend we were rained out and couldn’t swim, but the second time we swam for hours. Swimming is the only sport I like.
Just outside the pool there is a place where the deer congregate. I have never seen so many deer in one place. In Pocahontas County, for some reason, you only see does. But in this part of West Virginia there are does, bucks with antlers, and spotted little fawns all together. The deer in Pocahontas County are skittish, but the deer in Wheeling walk right up in front of your car if they want something. If you honk at them, they stomp their feet in defiance. The tourists encourage their boldness; they throw carrots out of the car windows, and sometimes bring them big buckets of corn. If you are quiet and gentle, you can walk among the deer and pretend to be Saint Francis, and I did.
I used to fear Saint Francis because of the trouble at Franciscan University. But lately I love him. His family also despised him for being who he was, instead of somebody else. And besides, he liked animals.
If I wandered up to Saint Francis as a bright orange wart hog, or a spoiled deer, or a tormented salamander, and told him my story, I think Saint Francis would be kind to me.
After one of the visits, my friend and I went back to her house and we played with her vintage Fisher Price Little People dollhouse collection. She has several houses, the airport and the Sesame Street set, and also a giant box containing the furniture and figurines. I especially liked the freckle-faced figurine in the red baseball cap, the one making a mean face. He reminds me of my bad cousins.
Then it was time to drive home– well, not really home, but to Steubenville.
I will be back someday soon.
And sometime soon, I will drive all the way out to Pocahontas County to see the place where everything is alive. And sometime soon I will drive to Columbus to see where I grew up and what’s left of my family. But it doesn’t feel like torture to drive back to Steubenville now.
It’s good to see friends and beautiful places now and again.
There is beauty here in the Ohio Valley, mixed in with all the ugly.
It’s good to see it when I can.
Image via Pixabay.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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