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Published: December 28th 2008
Hello there. It is before 10 am in Nashville, TN. I probably won’t publish this until later because the Internet signal is really shoddy here. So yesterday was a full day. I woke up in Charleston, WV and spent my morning downtown. The weather wasn’t agreeing (mid thirties and rainy, Brandon). The town was slow to wake up so I wasted away the first hour hanging out in the library before walking the streets and checking out some of the cafes. Again, found it very hard to find people. My only friend in Charleston was a homeless guy that I bought coffee and gave him the change. Yeah, I had to buy a friend.
Charleston really is a cool town with a striking dichotomy between small town and big city. Here are some of the ways things I jotted down in my journal while walking around, just to give you a feel: “slow feel”, “quiet aromas”, “subdued people”, “shadows of industry”, “people seem to know what they want”. There are large office buildings and corporate logos but there are also old steel bridges, quiet local eateries and quaint side streets. I thought this was fitting for the capitol city of backwoods
A little history for you… Charleston became the State Capitol in 1870. Before that, the capitol was located in Wheeling. The capitol was moved back to Wheeling in 1875 and then finally remained Charleston in 1885. Wheeling was the location of the heated Wheeling Convention where north-western Virginians debated the Virginia Ordinance of Secession. The issues on the table were Confederate or Unionist loyalty. The common conception was that this debate was centered on slavery. On the contrary, the debate was purely economic. One thing you notice very quickly in West Virginia is that anything that matters is located on a river running from the North out of either Pennsylvania or Ohio. The heavy Northern industries, especially the steel business of the upper Ohio River region were dependent on coal. Where was the coal? Abundant in the north-west Virginian mines. So, while Virginia was economically aligned with the plantation models of the south, the northwestern corner was very much aligned with the industrial north. Therefore, on June 20, 1863, while Virginia had clearly seceded from the north, West Virginia was officially formed as the Restored Government of Virginia by President Abraham Lincoln. This new government and formation of
NW counties became West Virginia. I hope I did that story justice.
I had specifically come to Charleston because it is sometimes referred to as the “Northernmost Southern City”. I figured this was the perfect place to start a southern road trip. Also, some of you already know, but I have been working on a book for a few years now and Charleston has always been in my mind as a “model town” for my fictitious Sunset Valley, Pennsylvania. Sunset Valley will be a town with the same feel minus the corporate presence and about half of the population.
Moving out of West Virginia through the Ohio Valley Region and into Kentucky, the industrial presence can not be missed. But once I entered Kentucky, the scene completely changed. From factories to pure, rugged Appalachian hills and dense forest. I drove through the Daniel Boone Nat’l Forest and then, almost as if in an instant, the woods broke and what lay before were the rolling bluegrass hills… endless carpets of green with sparse trees and collections of humble horse farms.
Kentucky is really known for 2 things… horses and whiskey. Another interesting tid-bit of history- the Western Pennsylvania region
was one of the hardest-to-reach places in colonial America. The endless parallel ridges of the Appalachian range and then the broken hills and valleys of the Allegheny Plateau all covered with thick forest made moving products to and from the region very difficult and very costly.
The inhabitants of the region were large grain producers. However, due to shipping difficulties, moving grain out of the region was near impossible for poor frontiersmen. Therefore, they distilled the grain, made Whiskey and moved this product a lot easier and cheaper.
Meanwhile, the colonies had recently won the Revolutionary War and formed a Federal Government. The Federal government assumed the state’s debts from the war and in 1791, Secretary of State Alexander Hamilton, convinced congress to levy a tax on distilled spirits and carriages in order to pay down the national debt (yes, the govt attempted to pay its debts back then). This tax was not only to pay down debt, though. There was a political angle. Hamilton wanted to cement the power of the newly formed Federal government. They could not deal with frontiersmen on the fringes viewing the central government as weak.
The tax did not go over well.
It was viewed as one more instance of the rich Easterners bleeding the hard-working frontiersmen. While large distilleries were able to pay a flat fee to satisfy the tax, small distillers had to pay by the gallon and they had to pay “at the source”. So large distillers, such as George Washington, paid an easy flat fee (about 10 cents per gallon) while the small guys paid 25% and it was levied at the source. What this meant was the small distillers on the fringes, who did not have the means or the geography conducive to forming larger distilleries, had to cut into the margin of an already low-margin product and ultimately could not pass the cost onto the consumers as they still had to trek the stuff across the mountains. Further, a national currency was still not widely distributed so many of these distillers used their whiskey as currency, bartering it for things their families needed. This lead to the Whiskey Rebellion which was spear-headed by the Pennsylvania “Whiskey Boys” and strengthened by support as far south as Georgia.
The rag-tag Whiskey boys put together very unimpressive protest measures (robbing the mail, stopping court proceedings in meaningless small
towns), hardly enough to illicit government intervention. But, remember the new Federal govt was looking to flex its power. Washington and Hamilton decided to make Pennsylvania a testing ground. Martial Law was invoked and militias were summoned to the area. Nearly 13,000 troops were sent, roughly the same size of the entire Revolutionary army!!! President Washington personally commanded the army and marched deep into Pa but the rebels were no where to be found. 75 prisoners were rounded up and put in prison. 1 died there, 2 were sentenced to death by hanging but were later pardoned by Washington because he referred to them as “simpletons” and “insane”.
Long story short, the Pennsylvania rebellion set certain precedents in Constitutional Law. The final summation: The 1794 government dispatched a huge army, spent a ton of money and displayed great force against a “ragtag rabble” of farmers only to capture a few malcontents, drag them through the justice system and ultimately pardon the only two men convicted of treason. Ladies and gentlemen, your government.
So, the reason I tell this story is to weave it into my trip. An unintended consequence of this tax and Federal action is that it allowed
the whiskey distillers outside of Federal dominion to flourish mainly Kentucky and Tennessee. This is why Kentucky is the bourbon capitol of the world today and Tennessee is right behind it. A little outliers theme here… Kentucky is not a whiskey haven because the distillers were smarter or better or because the grain was superior. Kentucky is a whiskey haven because the Federal government took on too much debt, unfairly taxed poor frontiersmen under it’s control, and decided that the minor uprising by farmers and peasants was a good opportunity to extravagantly exercise Federal strength.
I hope you enjoyed some of the history of this fascinating region. As I said earlier, I am now in Nashville and what a difference! It is all about the music here and I would love to share some more of the experiences from my first night in Nashville but that will be saved for another post.
As a final note, I have come to the realization that solo road trips are all about strike-outs: in my first two days, I have pulled into closed gas stations, driven into empty college towns, completely botched my West Virginia dream moment, and missed every distillery I
attempted to visit. Here is my distillery scorecard: Wild Turkey- drove for twenty minutes and couldn’t find it. Gave up and went back to the highway. Maker’s Mark- missed the exit while fidgeting with the iPod. Evan Williams- could not find it. Four Roses- drove past it. Jim Beam- found it but it was already closed for 20 minutes. After Jim Beam, I stopped for a quick snack at Hardees. The woman at the drive-thru told me how to get back to the highway. She said “Drive up to the first light, make a right, go about 2 miles until you see the giant rooster (literally the size of a two story building) and make another right”. Yeah no… I drove for twenty minutes turned around, asked a gas station attendant for directions, and turns out the highway was completely in the other direction! When I got into Nashville, my first contact with a human was a homeless guy trying to get into my car and get a ride “up the road”.
So a solo road trip teaches you to embrace the strikeout. I was thinking about life as well. Life too is filled with strikeouts and near misses.
But just because you strikeout or miss, that doesn’t mean you should rework your course because you WILL reach points where those misses add up and culminate to that home run. So if I can send anything home, it is this: life is a long road and the road may be riddled with misses and let downs but if your heart is true, your course is calibrated to the right compass and you stick to your route, the payoff is huge. Live in those peaks and valleys, “trust your rail” and know you will arrive just where you need to be.
All the best,
Road Trip Playlist- Day 2:
1) Duran Duran- Rio
2) Fenix TX- Lechuza
3) The Doors- Best of The Doors Vol. 1
4) The Doors- Best of the Doors Vol. 2
5) Joni Mitchell- For the Roses
6) Lefty- Self-titled
7) Mark Knopfer and Emmylou Harriss- All the Road Running
8) Dire Straits- Brothers in Arms
9) The Who- Tommy
10) Green Day- American Idiot
11) 311- Self titled
12) Bob Dylan- Nashville Skyline
p.s. I am now uploading this at the Nashville Public Library. Today was a good day but
I am starting to feel lonely. Looking for some human contact, I decided to try a "Free Stress Test" that was being offered on the street. The test was not going too well as we could not induce any stress. Finally we found that my "Stress-Inducer" is wanting to spend more time writing. After some conversation about this and other things that affect mental health, the sales pitch came. He pulled out a book... L Ron Hubbard. For those of you not familiar, that is the founder of Scientology. Turns out my fun free stress test is actually some "religious artifact" called the Hubbard Electrometer that Scientology ministers use to locate people's "source of spiritual travail." Oh yeah, I now have an instructional DVD on how to join the Church. FAIL!!! Last time I ever do one of those fun street tests again. I wanted to punch the guy in his face. He called me buddy and I said I am not your buddy. He was creeeepy
I will post more on Nashville later. I just had to share that one story. 😊
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