Huntington

I keep thinking eventually this will get easier.

But let's go back a couple days and take a look at Huntington. I woke up Thursday at 10 a.m., lounged around until noon, and then set off, on foot, down the side of the highway.

I was determined not to ride my bike at all that day, but the motel was two miles out of town, so I figured I'd either hoof it or hitch a ride, and I wasn't ready for hitchhiking just yet, so the shoes got a workout. It was an uneventful hike except for one thing — I stopped at a place called Frostop for a root beer. The establishment is notable for the giant rotating root beer mug on the roof, and I'm always on the hunt for a good root beer, so I gave it a shot. As it turned out, it was a top ten root beer. Top five maybe. Creamy as a glass of milk. Unfortunately, there's no easy way for me to drive home via Huntington, otherwise I'd stop in for more. Too bad, because I can taste it on my mind's tongue.

Aside from its world-class root-beer dispensaries, Huntington is basically a cuticle of prosperity centered on the river and surrounded by a thick band of poverty. Sort of like beach cities, except denser, it seemed to me. This wasn't, by and large, the empty poverty of places like Atlanta or New Orleans or Detroit — rather, it's heavily populated slums. Concentrated misery. And if you don't pay close attention, you can walk deeply into it before you even notice.

The city core, however, is quite charming (I should note that there is a particularly wealthy section centered around the lovely Ritter Park several blocks south of downtown, but I am assuming this is an anomaly). It's a vivacious collection of little shops, restaurants, and apartments situated in tightly clustered four- and five-story buildings on a grid of streets and avenues, like a tiny New York. Just next to the Ohio River is Pullman Square, a sort of downtown outdoor mall with a good independent bookstore, more restaurants, and a cinema. I sat on a balcony belonging to one of the restaurants and knocked back a couple ciders, which I'd been greatly craving.

Behind Pullman Square, directly on the river, is small but beautiful park. It just happened that on the evening I was in town, there was to be a concert hosted by a local radio station. I hadn't heard of any of the bands, and expected the worst, but it was only five bucks and what else did I have to do after all? So after kicking around town for a few hours I paid my fiver and entered.

The bands were all country, in a manner of speaking. Perhaps you haven't heard any country music lately, but it's virtually indistinguishable from rock, except for the accents. No particular accent (or English)? Rock. Southern accent? Country. These guys ran all the rock tropes — one foot up on the monitor; full sleeve tattoos; drum-only clap-along sections; the bass player in one band kept pointing out at individuals in the crowd as if to say, "yeah, you're rockin' man." Some silly shit, but the beer was cheap and the crowd was a fascinating spectacle. It's a very curious thing to me how styles and mores that would have invited an ass-kicking in suburban Nashville when I was a teenager are now ubiquitous, and accepted at face value in a tiny burg like Huntington.

At some point I found myself cornering people to ask them whether they considered themselves northerners or southerners. It's a funny question to me because these people seemed more a creation of mass media than a part of any historical-cultural category stemming from anything so ancient as the Civil War. Somewhat to my surprise, they unanimously identified as southerners. What's up with that? As darkness fell I left and called a cab to go back to the motel. On the way I asked the driver what he thought, and, stereotypically, he gave the most thoughtful response.

"It's ironic," he said, "given that West Virginia owes its existence to the Union." He concluded, however, that West Virginians were a southern people. Southern-ness, it would seem, is just an attitude these days, as mediated as skinny jeans. As one fellow rather abrasively yelled at me, "this is rebel country!" It is decidedly not, of course, but who can argue that point at a country music festival?

That was, in a nutshell, my experience of Huntington (I should note I also ate lunch at a place called Hillbilly Hotdogs — decent food but the hillbilly theme gets cloying fast). I'm aware that I'm a couple days behind here, but it's 10:30 and I am, as usual, wiped out. I'll be in Fairmont tomorrow, however, and might be able to come up with a chance to catch up.