Monday, July 6, 2009

God Loves West Virginia

My youngest daughter and I were in the mountains of West Virginia when Kelsey died. The twenty-first century is still creeping its way into the area, so we had no cell phone service, and some poor young State Trooper had the assignment of waking me up around 2:00 Sunday morning and delivering the news. I could read on his face that he would have rather been doing just about anything other than watching the two us suffer the initial moments of shock and loss, but he stood by and was very helpful, polite and professional. He was, like most people I've met in West Virginia, a really good person. It ended early what had been a fateful trip for us that we nearly did not get to make. We had commented several times on how Fate seemed to be determined for us to be there, originally thinking that must somehow mean something good was in store for us there.

Marissa was attending a reunion of the Alldrege Academy, where she had been enrolled two years before, and also planned on touring a small college in Elkins, WV to see about transferring there. We had been planning the trip for some time, and I had made all the reservations weeks before. When we began pulling everything together for the trip, I realized I had made the plane reservations for July, not June. A few hours of complete panic and chaos ensued, with me first thinking we wouldn't be able to go at all, then declaring that we would have to drive it, then finally finding a comparably priced flight on another airline at the last minute if Marissa and I flew in a day sooner and stayed a day later. Given that we were flying into Pittsburgh, it certainly didn't break my heart to stay in that area longer, so we scrambled to pack early and made a very early morning flight out the next morning. We arrived in Pittsburgh a mere two hours ahead of a wall of severe thunderstorms that hit the area with a wild violence that closed down street after street in the ciry and several surrounding towns, flooded homes and had people literally running down the street chasing their now floating cars. We sat comfortably in our hotel on a hill watching an incredible lightning show as people somewhat literally poured in from the now closed airport and realized, had we flown when we were originally supposed to, we would have been caught in the resultant chaos from all the delayed and cancelled flights. That was the first moment we looked at one another and thought that something was afoot, but it was not the last.

The trip was important for both of us. For me, quite frankly, it was a chance to get away from the grueling duty of caring for Mother. I needed a rest. For Marissa, it was a little more. This was a chance to reconect with people who had, quite frankly, saved her life. Alldredge is, most unfortunately, no longer operating, a victim of these tough times, but the people who went through its unique program often form tight bonds, and this was their 10th reunion. I call it Marissa's boarding school when I talk about that time, because it's hard to explain what it really was. Part wildnerness program, part residential treatment center, part school, part holistic healing center. Whatever it can be summed up as, it was the best experience Marissa has ever had, and the staff taught me personally a lot about myself and how my own experiences impact others. Then taught me how to make that impact a positive one. Marissa needed a taste of that synergy again, and so did I.

Probably part of the allure of Alldredge was the natural beauty of the area it was housed in, which is in the forests surrounding Davis, West Virginia. Of course, most people know West Virginia by the reputation of its people, which is that they are uneducated, poor hillbillies. And, candidly, the reputation is not without some merit. But I consider its inhabitants very lucky, because it is truly breathtaking from one end to another. And no where, not even my much beloved Montana, smells as good as West Virginia. The sweet grass smell is intoxicating. And, one does not even have to inhale deeply to find it, it finds you and surrounds you in its heavenly nectar. If I could bottle that smell, I would be rich. On our way from Pittsburgh to Davis, we passed a home where the owners had painted on a boulder, "God I love West Virginia". I concur. We were very happy to be there again.

And, it seemed our weird luck kept holding. The storms that assailed Pittsburgh that first night weren't done with the area, including right where we were headed. But on the approximately 160 mile drive in a rental car up violent mountain switchbacks to reach the reunion the rain held off and the weather was clear. Marissa and I toured the campus in Elkins on Friday in pouring rain, but the weather to and back across was okay. We joined a group for white water rafting on Saturday, initially wondering if we'd be able to go as rain pounded down violently in the morning on the way to the launch point with the forecast calling for flood-like conditions, only to have the clouds back away, keeping watch just over the mountains, but allowing the sun to hit the river and give us a perfect day with water levels ideal for rafting. Marissa and I kept looking at one another with an odd sense of wonder.

I still don't understand it exactly. I don't know if that it was some sort of cosmic last gift to us before all of this began or what, but it seemed like magic. And, with a knock on the door, the magic was over. One thing about the eastern mountains is that a tight blanket of fog settles in over them at night, and it was heavier than usual due to the stormy conditions. The trooper warned me about it before he left, adding that there were also a lot of deer on the road. The earliest we could get on a flight out of Pittsburgh was mid-afternoon as it was, so Marissa and I began the long wait for the sun to come up and the fog to clear to begin down. Marissa was also pretty set on saying goodbye to her friends who were there for the reunion and should all be gathering for a group breakfast at 8:00. It was a long wait. I discovered I handled it a little better if I kept moving, so I figured I would try to do some laundry to distract myself. The laundry room for the hotel is on the back side of the main building, which looks down onto a valley of local farm land. On a normal day, it is a beautiful setting. That day, it was something more. As I hauled my bag of clothes along, I prayed that Kelsey was at peace and that God would look out for her and accept her into heaven despite her troubled life. At that moment, the early morning sun broke through the clouds and beamed down in a traveling arc across the valley. I stopped dead in my tracks and stared as the sun, like a spotlight dripped in diamonds, traveled across one side of the valley to the other. Then it dipped back up into the clouds, as if it had responded to me and now the regular programming was resuming. I don't know if it was really an answer, but I decided to take it as one. And I took some comfort from it. Enough to get me back to Pittsburgh and then on home in one piece. I guess that's why they call it faith; it can't be proven, it can only be believed and felt. I felt it at that moment. If that's not what it was, then don't bother to tell me. I'd rather take it on faith.


  1. This proves the old saying "the Lord works in
    mysterious ways"

  2. If I could bottle that smell, I could be rich. . . such a great expression!
    will you take me to Montanna one day, I REALLY want to go!

  3. Okay, Mel, you're on for that trip. Greg pointed out how long it'd been since I'd been back - too long, for sure. So, I'll be wanting a little Glacier air before long.