The Road Home
One year after my family moved to West Virginia, “Howard’s New Life,” a 1967 episode of The Andy Griffith Show, aired on television. The story revolved around the character Howard Sprague’s decision to quit his job as county clerk after seeing a travelogue on TV about island life. He sees the opportunity to discover life as a beachcomber in the Caribbean, lying in a hammock all day, enjoying the view and living life on the beach. Ahhhhh.
Howard is convinced that “the grass is greener on the other side,” and leaves Mayberry for white sands and blue waters, only to discover that the real treasure in life resides in his own backyard—Mayberry. That structure, familiarity, friends, and fishing holes are his pot of gold.
As a fan of TV Land, I had the chance to see this episode a few months ago. I couldn’t help but think it was sent my way not by coincidence, but by some sort of divine provenance, to gently, yet firmly remind me of what I have, I believe, secretly always known—that living in West Virginia is equivalent to that rare discovery of recognizing, before it’s too late, that we needn’t look any further than our own backyard to find true, genuine happiness.
My family moved from St. Louis to a small town east of Charleston, along Route 60—Charlton Heights. While we initially yearned to “go home,” my sisters and I soon found ourselves embracing the thrills of careening from our driveway at the very top of town all the way through town, down the mountain—a swirling distance of about 15 minutes on our Schwinns—the warm summer breeze grazing our cheeks and strands from our long tresses gently stinging our eyes as we landed on the pavement outside the post office and Morrison’s Store, where we indulged in Mallo Cups and smoothies. We seldom had to trek back up the mountain, as most often someone would stop to pick up mail and cart us back home. While we never forgot about the arch outside our bedroom window in the Midwest, its earlier allure and fierce attachment was no match for what was to become an even greater attachment to seemingly endless walks through the woods, sled rides down the mountains, and picnics at Hawks Nest.
And while the nearby city of Montgomery was a bustling thoroughfare upon our arrival, with a business district that boasted restaurants, a movie theater, a department store, furniture stores, and the absolute best G. C. Murphy store in the country (especially for three young girls with limited funds, gleaned primarily from raking the yard after our father cut the grass), its current spirit remains optimistic for the future while the odds are clearly stacked against it. It is that strength of human character mixed with a strong dose of well-defined work ethic that shines brightest in Appalachia and that continues to re-invent itself, becoming the impetus for a continual re-awakening throughout the state.
When my mother passed away suddenly in 2005, I didn’t find solace in returning to my birthplace, but instead sought comfort and found peace in Charlton Heights. Several times each week, I would be pulled east, driving from Charleston along Route 60, feeling a sense of renewal and promise the closer I got to my destination. “Almost there” became my mantra, and my sisters would travel vicariously with me, as I called them long distance along the journey, announcing each passing town’s name, like a train conductor, until my left turn signal clicked and I began my ascent.
As I start the climb up Orchard Avenue and stop for a bit longer each time I visit, closing my eyes and visualizing the floor plan of my childhood home, I am most touched by the recollected sounds of my mother in the kitchen, my father working quietly at his desk, my sisters bustling about, and “walking” through my own room; much of its treasures remain a constant, dependable part of my life (Led Zeppelin’s music, favorite reads, and a movie poster from The Last Picture Show).
The thick blanket of greenery on both sides of the road, the mountains forming a canopy of protection all around me, and the powerful, almost revered sound of silence brought an “Ahhhh” that assured me that, yes, we can go home again, and in our arriving and tenure we hear the sounds of friends welcoming us back, reminding us that it is in the familiar, the structure, and the rediscovery that we find our pot of gold. In fact, we are comforted by the thought that we never really left it, or perhaps, that it never really left us.