The kindest and most proper secretary was stifling a laugh with huge shocked eyes when I picked up Katerina from her cozy elementary school. Katerina seemed to be basking in the glow of her attention.
As we approached the car outside, Katerina announced that she’d told her Speech teacher as well as the secretary all about our Spring Break trip.
“Oh that’s great honey! Did you tell them about our museum visits and camping?”
“Not really, I forgot. But I did tell them about how we went to a bar and that my whole family rode the bull. Oh, and that Daddy left us stranded all alone at the campground because he got lost!”
I nearly doubled over and almost had gone back in to explain my daughter’s generous account of our trip, but just nodded my head and cringed. What could I say?
We were somewhere in the West Virginian hills and had pulled up to a campground. The kiddos took off like dogs itching to be let out to chase squirrels. Nikos put up the tent, I set out the camping chairs and was simply exuberant to be camping for the first time of the season.
Nikos suggested supper at the park’s lodge, but I protested, “No way sweetie, we’re going to cook over the campfire! I’ve waited all winter to do this again!” We decided we’d drive to the next town until we found a grocery store. Katerina begged to stay at the campground, so I sent Nikos and the the older kids with a grocery list four items long.
The swift wind picked up and carried gray storm clouds over our heads. Katerina began shivering, even with her fleece jacket, so I found an old lighter in my kitchen bin to build a fire. The other lighter was naturally in the truck, because that would have been convenient. I kept Katerina busy by finding twigs and small fallen branches, hoping the activity would warm her. I had to go out in the woods and drag huge fallen logs to break apart and Katerina loved the adventure of it all.
The cold rain began. My lighter was just sparking rather than maintaining a steady flame, but I jerked the dial till I’d worn a callous on my thumb. I began tearing strips from a paper grocery bag, rolling and tucking them underneath the kindling. I glanced over at Katerina, sitting very still with a forlorn look on her tiny solemn face. She frowned and whispered, “Mama, I don’t think I like camping anymore. It’s lonely out here all by ourselves. Where is everybody?” The last thing I wanted was for my nature girl to dislike camping. I explained that people didn’t typically camp in March.
The rain never ceased and neither did my silent prayer that I could get a campfire going with my faulty lighter. Finally, a tiny flame took off and we had us a campfire! I praised Katerina for being the one responsible for our fire, due to her hard work collecting all of the twigs.
The campfire warmed and cheered Katerina up, while she snacked on graham crackers. Eventually however, lightening penetrated the sky and a full-fledged storm erupted. We ran to the tent and Katerina began crying that she was scared and cold. I wrapped her up in a blanket, rocked her and taught her how to sing Boom De Yadah. We sang that song 553 times until at long last, 2.5 hours later, Nikos and the kids returned.
Nikos had gotten lost, he hadn’t a cell phone signal, and the ding dong spent $38 on steaks, even though it was pouring the rain.
It was 9:10, lodge was closed, and the fire was reduced to final embers and smoke.
I instructed everyone to get in the truck, and promised that we’d find a place to eat. It didn’t take long till we pulled up to some rinky dink place, looked more like a garage, but it had the word “grill” on its sign-well, and “bar.” I sent Nikos in to ask if it was really a restaurant and if kids were allowed inside. That was when a big burly dude with a black leather vest stepped out, waved at us and yelled, “Y’all get outta that rain, and come on in! We’ve got some real good burgers here!”
Elizabeth whispered, “Mama, are you sure we should eat here?” I shushed her and walked inside to a dimly lit place the size of a roller rink, with lazer lights and zippity light dots dancing everywhere. Katerina gasped, “Daddy is this a real bar?” Then Nikolas pointed toward the back and yelled, “What’s that, a bull or something?” I began to wonder if I’d sheltered my kiddos too much.
The 6’5″ or so-how would I know from way down at 5’2″?-guy sauntered over, wrapped his arm around me and repeated, “Folks, we’ve got some real good burgers here, the best on this side of the Mississippi. Y’all just have a seat and we’ll feed you good.” I told him I needed to borrow a flashlight to see the menu, and then I couldn’t read the writing, so he handed me his reading glasses that were on a chain necklace. I took the kindly man’s suggestion, ordered some burgers, bottled water and cheese fries directly to the cook. He explained that they made the burgers fresh, so to give him a few extra minutes. I apologized that we were ordering so late, and he waved me off with “No problem at all mam, that’s what we’re here for.” I swear these were the kindest most hospitable people I’d encountered in ten years of my life.
The kids were wide-eyed and hyper-stimulated by the fog machine and laser lights darting everywhere. And that was when the DJ played Footloose. I yelled out over the music, “Come on guys, let’s go dance!” Not a soul was on the dance floor, but I got my big rear out there, and Nikos followed right behind. In fact, the bar was just about empty, besides a few playing pool, and some at the main bar hunched over minding their business.
Elizabeth was nearly under the table, mortified by her dreadfully embarrassing parents. Nikolas was doubled over laughing at our dance moves, and Katerina was running around chasing the laser dots. Minute by minute, all three kids made it out to the dance floor and our family of five jammed to Tone Loc, Kenny Chesney and everything in-between.
Once the cook brought out our din, we chowed like little monsters. Let me just say, those folks weren’t lying about their burgers! The fries were typical, but I didn’t need to be eating them anyway.
We headed over to the mechanical bull, and competed who could stay on the longest. Yes, I took my kiddos into a honkeytonk bar, and Nikos and I embarrassed them silly by our dancing, but no, Katerina did not ride the bull-I do have limits! I’d say Elizabeth won the competition, and that’s because she’d hold on till her hair turned gray just to show up her brother.
While exiting the dance floor, a few onlookers at the bar applauded us, still not sure if they were glad to see us nuts leave or what. I waved a goodbye to my buddy, and he responded, “Y’all be careful and stop on back again soon!”
As we neared our truck, Nikolas pointed sorrowfully to a used syringe discarded on the gravel lot. The needle represented a stark contrast between the kind people who reside in these parts with the disease of addiction. Drug addiction has spread its sinister claws, a menacing presence that preys upon the innocent, often hopeless, and fully blind-sided people, who are also some of the warmest and sincerest families I’ve ever known. Yet, as the ancient New River flows and shapes its environment, the solid and towering oaks provide shade, 19th century cabins stand erect up in beloved hollers, grandparents boast of their treasured grandbabies, frogs croak on a chilled autumn morn, and the whispered secrets of the hills are carried by soft breezes, the resilient nature of the Appalachian people will prevail, that I am certain.
It was late, nearly 11 when we made our way back to the campground. We were hoarse from laughter or perhaps the fog machine, and all slept soundly. We’d a great time, based on silly mishaps and our perpetual lack of planning.
Now you have what I never managed to explain to Katerina’s Speech teacher or the lovely secretary at school. Yes, Daddy got lost and left us at a campground, and we took our kids to a bar, and in fact, rode a bull. But hey, we did indeed eat the best burgers east of the Mississippi, and you know what? I’d say they were the best on the other side too!