Travelogia on the Road: The Worst Town in America

In the summer 2012, I helped a close friend (who was also named Sam) move from Pasadena, California to Atlanta, Georgia. Instead of taking a normal route along Interstate 10, Sam, drawn in by the search for a rare German pastry called baumkuchen, insisted on taking a circuitous route that ultimately sprawled across the Great Basin and the Midwest and down the Appalachians and Atlantic Coast. My recollections from the time, lightly edited, are hereby offered for your entertainment.

We woke up in the same bed in Indianapolis. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Day Seven

…haggard people of all ages, all with the same mysterious scars and sores, feasting silently on glorified Lunchables.

Sam?” whispered Sam, late in the night. “Let’s get out of here.”

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“I just need to get on the road, cover some ground.” Of course I knew why he wanted to leave, but we promised never to speak of it again so I shall keep it a secret.1 Suffice it to say I was uncomfortable too, but I wasn’t going to lose a night’s sleep over it, especially if it meant leaving Chicago ahead of schedule.

An hour later, we were in Indiana. I fell asleep sitting up, always unpleasant, but not as unpleasant as being woken up by Stan Ridgway’s “Call of the West” at full blast.

“Where are we?” I said.

“I don’t know,” Sam replied. He spoke in a way that suggested that he had come to terms with ignorance early on.

“Did you have your jolt?” They day before leaving home, Sam and I went to a soda tasting at a place called Galco’s. Among the rare sodas they serve are Jolt Cola, which possessed a truly psychotic amount of caffeine. He’d already had one during the night drive to Iowa, but had refrained from drinking the other one.

He turned off at a sign announcing hotels and we soon found ourselves in a business park surrounded by forest. We checked in to one of the hotels for a night, which I hadn’t known you could do at 3 AM. There was only one bed.

“Don’t worry,” said Sam. “It’s big enough.” He was right, in my memory the bed was eleven feet wide, wide enough to share without it being weird. So we rapidly fell asleep.

As it turned out, we were in Indianapolis.

~~~

557938_4430196712355_1536998484_n.jpgIndy, as it is often called, is the kind of place most American cities used to be like. A quiet, smallish business district, surrounded by a grizzled remainder of Victorian homes and lots of cheap surface-level parking lots, with newer, presumably more vibrant neighborhoods further afield. It hearkened back to a time when cities were dying. You could almost imagine the people of Indianapolis listening to Foreigner and voting for Ronald Reagan. In fact, some of them may have been.

This was all heightened by the fact that it was Sunday and nobody was around. Consequently the only place open in Downtown Indianapolis was a Jewish deli. I couldn’t pass up an oddity like that.

Shapiro’s was big, ancient place– it opened in 1905– and everything looked delicious. Knowing we wouldn’t get another full meal for nearly 400 miles, Sam and I tried to eat as much as we could. I had a corned beef sandwich and a slice of strawberry shortcake. Sam had Boston creme cake and some kind of soup. We even picked up a physical copy of The Onion while we were there.

Meanwhile, Sam had an urgent appointment in Piqua, Ohio, the little town whose name he couldn’t remember back in the spring, and the last place to get baumkuchen on our journey. What Sam didn’t tell me is that we were going to a private home.

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Klaus Taesler was born in Germany during the war, during which time his father was captured by the Americans in Libya and rather liked it. As an adult, Klaus himself decided to become a pastry chef, but in Germany that was very serious business. Unable to cope with the stress of culinary education, he moved to Ohio.

“I only sell a few cakes online every year,” he said. “There isn’t much demand.” Sam had me film as Klaus showed him the novelty oven he customized to make the legendary cake. Judging from the house, creatively reusing materials was a specialty of his. Hanging on the wall of his den was a giant homemade Swiss crossbow that needed two men to arm.

Klaus was thrilled to meet Sam. “I’ve been following your blog all year.”

“You have!?” said Sam. “I didn’t know there was anyone.”

“Nobody seems to be interested in making these,” said Klaus. “I don’t have much competition, but it’s nice to know people are interested.”

Klaus served us sample slices of his cake. It was immensely rich and dense, with a chocolate ganache center. I had mine with the only drink available, cranberry juice. Klaus got Sam his cake, which was the size of a toilet paper roll but weighing five pounds.

Sam couldn’t have been more thrilled, but I felt like I was from another planet. But today was Sam’s big day, and our host was interesting enough, so I powered through with a grave face and a running camera.

We discussed what had just happened in the car.

“What do we do now?” I asked.
Sam replied sternly, “Morgantown. And nowhere else.”
“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked.
“We just had cake.”
“Cake isn’t a meal.”

Sam spotted Klaus coming out to water the lawn. “We’ve been sitting here for too long. If he sees us parked it’ll be awkward.”

I agreed and we left.

Passing through Ohio we did something new. We passed a major city, Columbus, without stopping. Five days earlier, any city would have been a welcome break, but here were cities all over the place, and we were running behind. Not much later, the flat plains turned into steep little hills. We were in the Appalachians.

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West Virginia is a strange state; it doesn’t quite fit in with any of the regions surrounding it. During the Civil War, most Southern highlanders sided with the Union, so West Virginia broke away from Virginia. Consequently, it’s the only state that is entirely mountainous. It’s gorgeous; framed by big rivers like the Potomac and the Ohio, with long narrow little towns stretched out on their banks. But it’s also famously poor, backward, and eternally dependent on coal to survive economically. In the environmental movement it’s West Virginia vs. The World, and we saw this expressed in billboards touting the black stuff as clean and renewable. Every coal advocate, and there are not many but they’re very loud, keeps saying “if coal is phased out, West Virginia will suffer,” conveniently ignoring that this place has always been extremely poor and depressed.

Sam had dreaded Wheeling since we planned the trip. One of his friends who then worked for Google told him it was the worst town in America.

“I’m curious to know why,” I said.

Sam had prepared remarks for this. “Errol Morris did this documentary back in the eighties about this town in Florida– I don’t remember where– where people would injure themselves and live off the insurance money.”

“That sounds like Florida,” I said.

“You don’t get it though. There was this kid, and for his sixteenth birthday, his friend was going to shoot his left arm off with a shotgun, and he was going to sue, and he’d never have to work. That’s Wheeling. At least that’s what Blake said.”

However, we were very hungry, and we had to eat something before moving on, so we went in. The only open place was a pizzeria, which seemed like a safe bet until we saw the pizza. I went to the bathroom and when I came back our food was ready. I’d never seen anything like it.

“This is a place…” started Sam, “that cooks pizza with just sauce on…and puts cold cheese on at the end.”

“That’s disgusting,” I said.

“They pride themselves on it!” he cried, apoplectic.

I looked around at the other customers. They were all either morbidly obese or emaciated, pale, haggard people of all ages, all with the same mysterious scars and sores, feasting silently on glorified Lunchables. Sam ate his entire serving, but I couldn’t bring my self to finish mine. Sam tried to backtrack and say it wasn’t that bad, but I wouldn’t let him. At the end of our journey, he would admit that yes, it was horrible. Still hungry, we hauled ass out of Wheeling, evading a woman who jumped in front of us, presumably hoping to get hit and sue, or perhaps just so something interesting could happen to her.

Because of West Virginia’s unusual shape, the rest of the day took us through a small section of Pennsylvania before depositing us back across the border to Morgantown and our nicest hotel yet. We watched the Olympics before recuperating from the drive, dropping off my laundry, and finding the only restaurant open in Morgantown on a Sunday night when school is out of session.

Day Eight

Thankfully, Morgantown was nothing like Wheeling. Named after it’s founder, the excellently-dubbed Morgan Morgan, it’s a university town with several streets named after famous alumni like Jerry West Boulevard and Don Knotts Road. And thanks to the inestimable negotiating skills of former senator Robert Byrd, it boasted a city-wide Personal Rapid Transit System. In the morning, Sam and I wanted to try it out. We walked onto campus and ascended a seemingly endless stairway to the elevated track.

The perceived benefit of Personal Rapid Transit is that instead of stopping at every station, you could request a car that would take you right where you wanted like a taxi. A computerized signal would guide the car to your destination. This is what brought us to Morgantown in the first place. The ride, from one end of town to the other, was incredibly fast, and the track bobbed up and down among the hills and streams like a rollercoaster, but something was wrong. This was cutting-edge technology in the 1970s, and it’s easy to see why: it cost a lot of money to get a few people across a short distance. It wasn’t even on rails, just a concrete runway!

Sam and I clambered down the rusty platform to the central business district. Sam had seen an Asian market on Google Maps and we’d come to get a gift for Theo, with whom we’d be staying the night. But it was closed. Even so, the view of the river was splendid. This was the Monagahela, which flowed north to Pittsburgh to join the Allegheny and become the Ohio. In California this would be considered a sizable river, but compared to what we’d seen thus far it was little more than a creek. It’ll be a shame when it’s full of coal sludge.