WEST VIRGINIA (7/9/12)
"You're in West-by-God-Virginia," said the shirtless man in the car idling in the parking lot of a darkened Exxon station at the crossroads of Routes 19 and 16 in the tiny town of Fayetteville, W. Va.
He had overheard me on my cell phone talking to the city desk of the Post-Gazette, the first place I turned to for information when it finally hit me that something was seriously wrong in this neck of mountainous woods. "I'm in a tiny town in Virginia," I was telling my colleague.
In reality, I had crossed the border into West-by-God-Virginia a while back on my journey home from Hilton Head with a van-full of females ranging in age from 13 to 84. But I was flustered by the gas gauge reading "E" and the unanticipated closure of this gasoline station, so I had misspoken. This gentleman with the big smile and the gentle twang was making sure I knew just where I stood -- which happened to be 233 miles south of home.
I had departed my beach vacation at 4 a.m. that day. A few hours into the trip, we stopped for breakfast at a Swansea, S.C., cafe specializing in fatback and side meat. I took notice of a local paper but passed, figuring the news would be old by the time I got around to reading it.
So I was flying blind, not knowing that severe storms the night before had wiped out electric service from Virginia and Maryland through West Virginia and D.C., all the way to the southern counties of Pennsylvania. As my colleague at the PG told me, fixing things could take up to a week.
I had gassed up in friendly Swansea and was planning to stop next when I hit the non-interstate part of my journey between I-77 and I-79. It's a stretch of Route 19 around Beckley known to me until Saturday, June 30, 2012, only as a potential speed trap for drivers reluctant to downshift to legal limits. I knew this from personal experience, having been stopped thereabouts a few years back on my way home from Atlanta.
When we hit 19, I hadn't given much thought to seeing a gasoline station with vehicles lined up along the roadway, waiting to fill up. Traffic on 77 had been a nightmare. We had moved at speeds lower that 25 mph for so long that my GPS showed my ETA gaining 90 minutes. I figured lots of people had decided at the same time to gas up after getting off the interstate parking lot. But when I saw a second station miles and miles away with similar lines, I started wondering. That's when I checked my gauge closely and saw that I had a little less than an eighth of a tank of gas.
I got off the highway at the next spot I could and landed at this Exxon station where plastic bags were covering the handles of the pumps and the interior of the building was dark.
I flagged down a sheriff's deputy who told me I was in the midst of a declared emergency. He said there was one open filling station a few miles away using a generator to keep the gasoline flowing but I was certain that my tank would run dry before I made it there.
It was 90 degrees in the shade; our food supplies consisted of some PopTarts and peaches I had bought from a roadside stand. Local water and phone service were shut down; no hotels or restaurants were open; and only one food store in a two-county area was doing business and was likely to shut down soon, the deputy had said.
I was stewing over my predicament with my sunburned legs sizzling in the heat when I noticed a man standing outside a van with an Ontario license plate. His side doors were open, revealing a wife and three kids inside. He was holding a flushed infant. "Are you stranded, too?" I asked. A somber nod of the head. "We're on our way to Orlando."
I was pacing the pavement, trying to make arrangements with my husband to transport filled gas cans from home when along came Marty.
"Y'all OK out here?" he said from his open car window.
"I've been better," I said. I told him I and my new friend Jon from Ontario were about out of essentials but had ample supplies of worry. He pointed to a red-roofed house standing above the Exxon station -- the home of his parents, the mayor of tiny Fayetteville and his wife.
"I don't know what we can do but y'all can sit on the porch and have a cold drink while we think about it," Marty said.
When we all arrived at the house on the hill, we found Mrs. Mayor and Marty's wife handing out bottles of water so cold there were beads of condensation forming by the second. Mr. Mayor was grilling burgers. They were setting up chairs for us and for another couple from Pittsburgh who had found themselves in similar straits.
After a minute or two of chatting about our situations, Mr. Mayor directed his lovely white-haired wife to flip the burgers. The similarly snow-capped mayor disappeared, returning with a red gas can.
"I filled this up yesterday so I could mow the grass," he said, adding that he would divide the liquid gold among us. It would be enough to keep our engines running while we waited in the long lines of the Shell station that was operating on a generator a few miles away.
As we followed Marty on the back roads to the Shell, we passed more than a dozen overturned trees with root balls exceeding 4 feet in diameter and more broken branches than we could count. The power of Nature was evident. She had toyed with our urban trappings -- traffic signals, water plants, electrical lines -- like a toddler bored with her playthings. She had reminded us with her hot breath who was in charge.
But, the people of West-by-God-Virginia trumped Nature's whims. She could have her way with her wind and her hail but they would have their say, too. And what they had to say was "Sit down and have a cool drink and let us help you find your way home."
I say West-thank-God-Virginia-and-her-fine-citizens.