PAW PAW, W.Va.—This is your authentic American backwater town. Unassuming and tiny. Ancient clapboard churches. A train whistle whining in the background. Population 508.
I sincerely hope they have food here.
My wife and I have been pedaling on muddy trails for many days, living out of backpacks, eating protein energy bars that taste like expired tennis balls. We are exhausted, trail worn, and starving. I’ve never been so glad to see civilization in my entire life.
Please, God. Let them have food here.
We arrive at our cabin, which sits near the edge of a cattle field. There is a lot of mooing in the background. A local dog keeps sniffing around our campfire pit. I don’t know his name, so I’ve nicknamed him Fred. He’s brown and white, and he doesn’t understand the concept of personal space.
Also, it turns out Fred likes energy bars.
My wife and I leave camp on foot in search of supper. Fred Joins us. And we immediately discover that Paw Paw isn’t exactly the kind of place where you simply find supper.
There is an old restaurant across the highway, but they’re not open. I dial the number on the faded sign to ask the owner if he plans on opening tonight. The guy says, “Nope. Deep fryer ain’t working. Sorry.”
This is not what you want to hear after you’ve cycled five million miles and your stomach is sour from famine. I am in desperate need of saturated fat. I am ready to bribe this man for a cheeseburger.
But some things are not meant to be.
“Try the gas station,” says a local guy who is sitting on the curb outside Dollar General. He is drinking from a Mountain Dew bottle. Or maybe he’s spitting into it. I can’t tell.
In a few moments, my wife and I and Fred are all trotting across Route 9 to investigate the filling station.
It’s an old place, with muddy trucks parked out front, and a few farmhouses behind it. When we reach the front door, I see an old man seated at a picnic table, drinking from a paper bag. He has a long beard and leathery skin.
I throw open the gas station door. I am met with the warm sounds of country music playing. The old kind. Twin fiddle intros and pedal steel solos. Back when men who sang country music had roughened hands, and didn’t wear glitter jeans.
In the front of the station are young men, drinking Cokes, wearing grease-stained work clothes. In the back is a woman restocking the beer.
I approach the counter. My stomach is growling. I glance behind me to see Fred waiting outside the front door.
The woman behind the counter stands about eye-level with the cash register. Behind her, I see a modest array of kitchen equipment. But it doesn’t look like she’s open for operation. The grills are covered. The fryers are turned off. I’m thinking I’m out of luck.
“Ma’am?” I ask. “Do you serve food?” My voice sounds pathetic.
The woman looks at her kitchen equipment. She glances at her watch. She gives me a half smile. “What would you like, sweetie?”
Somewhere in the distance, angels are singing Handel.
In a few minutes she fires up the griddle, and the deep fryers are bubbling with the Joy of the Lord. She runs her kitchen like a well-oiled nuclear submarine, moving from station to station.
Merle Haggard is singing about Silver Wings on the radio. And we’re doing okay inWest Virginia.
You rarely see this sort of thing anymore. I can’t tell you the last time I saw guys drinking Coca-Colas in filling stations, or lady fry cooks take care of hungry strangers. And you certainly don’t have music with fiddles in it these days.
I feel like I’ve fallen into a time warp. This little station is the way the world used to operate. This is the way I remember things being. And when I was a kid, this is the way I thought things would always stay. But the world changed.
Somewhere along the way people became more hostile, some got angrier. Then, along came a pandemic.
When I pay for my food, it’s bone cheap. The woman presents me with several to-go boxes. Inside are two foil-wrapped double bacon cheeseburgers, brimming with sliced pickles, onions, and hot piles of fries big enough to dam up the Potomac.
“You’re a lifesaver,” I tell her. And I mean it. “A true lifesaver.”
“Nah,” she says.
I leave a tip, then exit the store to find Fred waiting for me. Tail swinging. His whole backside is wagging. He follows my wife and I across Route 9, back to our cattle pasture campsite, keeping his nose only centimeters away from the greasy food bag.
We all sit outside on log stumps to eat. The West Virginia night is so black that the stars look like spilled glitter on fancy blue jeans. The cattle in the distance are mooing at me. My burger is so hot the cheese burns the roof of my mouth.
And I can honestly say, without a doubt, this is the best meal Fred and I have had in years.
Thank you, Paw Paw.