West Virginia

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.


  1. Christina - September 16, 2020 6:39 am

    I remember the rolling hills and the good country people who took care of us last time we were there. Truly a gift!

  2. Fred - September 16, 2020 7:02 am

    Thanks for the memories of days gone by…
    God Bless y’all, another Fred

  3. AlaRedClayGirl - September 16, 2020 9:36 am

    It’s 4:30 am, I can’t sleep and now I’m hungry for a cheeseburger! There are those meals, for one reason or another, that you just never forget. I’ve had several of those. Have a good ride today.

  4. Trudy - September 16, 2020 9:52 am

    I went to college in West Virginia; met my first husband there, a local fella, and married him. I learned a lot there from the people, the community, and land. It was a culture shock to this gal from bustling Pittsburgh, but it was rewarding and enriching. I learned to can vegetables, ate wild game (I’d never eaten before in my whole life); and remember the first meal I ever ate at my in-laws came from their huge garden and the end of a gun—even the butter was made right there by Bessie’s contribution. I learned a new vocabulary—a dirt and gravel road winding through two hills was a “holler”, “warshing” clothes in a wringer washer got “wrenched” in a separate tub, a closet was a “press”, and “right cheer” meant immediately next to you. There are lots more things I learned, and I carry them in my heart and memories every day. Thank you, Sean, for the memories of a beautiful state where the hills are alive with the sound of music from fiddles, banjos, and heartfelt singing from those singing on a porch up a holler.

  5. Linda Allen - September 16, 2020 10:51 am

    Come to Harpers Ferry, wr will feed you!

  6. steve acree - September 16, 2020 11:12 am

    There are two gas stations within 10 minutes of my small town that BOTH serve outstanding southern food. Fried chicken, fish gizzards and livers. Breakfast biscuits sausage grits and gravy. North Fla is stil the south.

  7. Robert M Brenner - September 16, 2020 11:47 am

    “Take me home country roads to the place I belong”!

  8. Jan - September 16, 2020 12:08 pm

    Delightful story! Hope you and your lovely wife are still traveling today and not on the north Florida coast with Sally where my nephews are …

  9. Rhonda - September 16, 2020 12:20 pm

    You are just up the road from me. I would have fed you too.

  10. Sarah Thomas - September 16, 2020 12:49 pm

    And this is why if you were born a West Virginian you will always be a West Virginian. No matter where you go, no matter where you live, places like Paw Paw will always be more home than wherever you are. (And someone will ALWAYS feed you in WV.)

  11. Dianne - September 16, 2020 1:17 pm

    I could almost taste that bacon cheeseburger, Sean. Burgers cooked like that one are hard to find now. There’s a place in Griffin, GA called The Dog House that serves that kind of burger, and it makes my mouth water just thinking about one of those burgers. Have enjoyed hearing about your trip into Americana. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Jane Elder - September 16, 2020 1:30 pm

    What a lovely name..Paw Paw. Paw paws are getting ready to pick here. Neighbor had a tree full. Son in law went out to harvest them. Deer got to them and only left three. I don’t care for paw paws but my husband picked quite a few last fall. I made paw paw pudding for him and the fiddle player at our weekly jam. They thought it was the best they had ever eaten.

  13. Susan Wold - September 16, 2020 1:53 pm

    Wonderful to revisit those days in my memory. Thank you Sean. But now answer what many of us want to know…what happened to Fred? Was he there in the morning, did he head home after being fed……..

  14. Linda Fidler - September 16, 2020 2:30 pm

    Almost heaven, West Virginia! The state where I was born. Always love its beautiful and rugged scenery.

  15. Linda Fidler - September 16, 2020 2:32 pm

    You are so right! Only lived there a few months but my mom was born there so we always went back to visit. My immigrant grandparents chose WVA to find their American dream.

  16. Susan from Wausau - September 16, 2020 2:35 pm

    OMG, I’m right back at the Wausau Cafe, about 1965. I’m 6 years old, and my best friend Ann and I are having perfect hamburgers off the griddle. Mine has mayo and ketchup, hers has mayo and mustard. We could walk from her house by ourselves, and I think it may have cost a dollar. Jukebox in the corner, a couple of truckers having lunch. A couple of town “mothers “ behind the counter ready to tackle anybody who even looked at us wrong.

    You bring back such wonderful memories. I hope I can see these beautiful places you’re sharing. I think there’s so little of it left. Thanks for preserving it for us.

  17. Larry Wall - September 16, 2020 2:58 pm

    Jane Elder, have you never eaten pawpaw jelly? If you had, you couldn’t say that you didn’t like pawpaws. I promise. 🙂

  18. Larry Wall - September 16, 2020 3:08 pm

    “The West Virginia night is so black that the stares look like spilled glitter on fancy blue jeans”. Sean, that is getting so lyrical that you may have one of the ‘real country’ singer start asking you to write a few songs for them. But only those who have sat on a stump on a dark night can know the powerful, lonesome feeling they can bestow. Good read today. You and Jamie stay safe and “Peddle On”.

  19. Linda Moon - September 16, 2020 4:18 pm

    I think these country roads you’ve been on have taken you home, with adventures and a few ordeals, too. Gosh, I miss Merle and adventurous road trips. I hope to be on one again that will lead to mountain trails and towns, so please, God, I hope there’s at least one or two more before I go Home.

  20. Helen De Prima - September 16, 2020 5:17 pm

    Sounds like the Delmarva Peninsula, two spots in particular: The Stingray, first stop on the seaward end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel — Formica booths and country cooking on the backside of an Exxon station. Where the locals eat, including outing buses from a nearby assisted living home. And, believe it or not, Stuckey’s, farther north along the same road — best biscuits and gravy ever, and we’ve sampled quite a few. The Delmarva is your kind of place, Sean.

  21. Angry Rooney - September 16, 2020 7:48 pm

    Sean, you nailed it buddy! The filling station in Paw Paw WV is a veritable community center. It’s a one stop shop for fuel, grub, and gossip. You can fill up yer truck whilst you fill up yer jeans. Always service with a smile. You can listen to old timers spin yarns while ya watch the local cop spin tires chasing down speeders heading for the state line. You can get directions to wherever you thought you were headed. Or you can set a spell at a table and take it allllll in.
    It’s my favorite filling station in the world. And I feel fortunate each and every time I get to go.

    PS The sammitches are dynamite as well.

  22. MAM - September 16, 2020 10:28 pm

    YUM! And thanks for sharing with Fred. You didn’t mention Jamie, but I hope she got fed, too. 🙂

  23. Donna Kaufmann - September 16, 2020 11:29 pm

    Thanks for the memory of yesteryear!
    I could honestly hear, see, taste & smell everything in your story including Fred.
    Y’all Stay safe🍀

  24. Nancy M - September 17, 2020 4:41 am

    I hope you’re safe from Sally, and I hope your home is safe, too.

  25. Dave Conkle - September 20, 2020 2:08 am

    Welcome to my West Virginia . If you like it now you’d have loved it in the 50’s


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