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Road tripping again

Thursday, 25 September 2014 Written by // Bob Leahy - Editor Categories // Travel, Lifestyle, Living with HIV, Bob Leahy

Bob Leahy on his roadtrip to West Virginia where even HIV is hiding in “them thar hills”. Plus doing new things like eating the American way, touring Fiesta HQ and a visit to prison.

Road tripping again

Take me home, country roads 

Almost heaven, West Virginia,

Blue ridge mountain, Shenandoah river,

Life is old there, older than the trees,

Younger than the mountains, growing like a breeze

John Denver

I’ve just spent a week in West Virginia. We drove there. It’s about an eight-hour drive from our little rural backwater to theirs, but it’s another world once you’re there.

Much of West Virginia is what we might think of as backwoods. Sparsely populated but scenically spectacular – this is a mountain state after all. Standards of living, except in the cities and the more industrialized north end of the state, do not look good. There are lots of trailer homes scattered about in "them thar hills" and shacky little houses too. Go into town and mountain men, bearish in the extreme but decidedly not gay, and their mountain mamas, are a common site. Hunting is big in this state.

One is reminded of Deliverance, even though that landmark film with its famous “squeal like a pig” line was filmed in North Georgia. The terrain is very similar, though.

Spending a week here with my partner and a straight couple we get on with well was a delight. It’s a great other-worldly state to explore of course – the scenery partly takes care of that, along with a rich history that includes, again in the north, heavy industry that has seen better days but has taken on a picturesque air. (Think abandoned coal mines and steel manufacturing facilities.)

I’ve written before about how vacations are good for HIVers, going someplace – anyplace – that has at least the appearance of an HIV-free zone. West Virginia certainly fits the bill. Gay vibes are noticeably absent; one doubts there is an AIDS Service Organization that one could seek help at for hundreds of miles.

And yet . . .

I took a peak at the West Virginia stats and it’s here allright – 2,742 confirmed cases since records begun, almost one half of them from male-to-male transmission. There are a smattering of AIDS-related services in the state too. But how difficult it must be to reach those closeted gays who must surely exist in fair number here, and for whom getting tested, yet alone visiting an agency with “AIDS” in its name, must be nightmarish.

One thinks these are issues in Russia, perhaps, but I'm sure they exist much closer to home.


So here I am talking about my vacations and rattling on about HIV in the backwoods. Can I never escape the subject?

Time to switch gears and talk about why vacations are good for you, even if they are cheapies that involve a mere change of scenery and/or new things to occupy your mind. Experiencing the novel is really what it’s about, after all. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.

Here’s three new things I did.

Ate biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Now before our American readers raise their eyebrows in a collective “so what?” I  need to explain that biscuits and gravy are entirely foreign to Canadians. Once explained what they are – a savory tea-biscuit smothered in a whitish sausage gravy – the average Canadian looks at them with the same mixture of dismay/disgust they reserve for grits, another US dish that Canadians don’t quite get. As it turns out, biscuits and gravy, once you get past their uninviting appearance, are really quite delicious. Seconds please!

Went to prison. The now abandoned West Virginia State Penitentiary located in Wheeling, WV was built in 1876 and once housed 2,000 prisoners, three to  each tiny cell. It remains a grimly gothic hell-hole but the $9 tour is a not-to-be-missed eye opener. It’s a reminder of every prison movie you have ever seen, complete with open showers (rather homo-erotic, this part of the tour), the exercise yard, a cafeteria that was segregated as to blacks and whites (yes, really!)  and four tiers of cells, plus the electric chair  - Old Sparky - for visitors to gawk at. Horrible and compelling, all at the same time.

Went to the home of Fiestaware. For those for whom this name draws a blank, Fiesta is that line of rainbow-coloured deco-ish dinnerware that has been trendy for decades and is even more so now. It’s made in a very large factory in Newell, WV employing 1,200 people. It was fascinating to tour the plant and see the stuff made, even better to raid the “seconds” store for slightly imperfect pieces going for a song.


So why did we go to West Virginia, you might ask? Well, we have passed through this mountainous state on our drives down to South Carolina (we own a sliver of a property there) and wanted to see what was behind the inviting scenery. Secondly, and this was the clincher. both my partner and I and the couple who travelled with us are rabid Fiesta collectors. Enough said.

In  any event, here's the bottom line: try and take a vacation, big or small, this year. It’s good for you. 

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