Invariably, someone asks where I’m going on vacation, and when I tell them, there comes a look as if I’ve said the Gulag Archipelego, or Pittsburgh, or the Gaza Strip.
I know what they’re thinking, even as they murmur politely. They’re thinking: Who would go to West Virginia for vacation? Who would do this for 24 years straight?
But that’s what my friends and I do, early in November, every year.
Now, West Virginia does have luxury hotels; presidents have stayed at the Greenbrier in White Sulpher Springs. But our destination is modest, a reasonably priced state park where there’s no daily housekeeping or room service. It didn’t even get wireless until three years ago.
And it’s the best thing ever.
“Don’t you ever think about going to, say, Greece instead?” my son asked as I was packing one year.
Of course. Every time I drive through Athens, West Virginia, on the way to the park.
But if we went to Athens, Greece, every year it would cost a lot more, and we would lose the most precious thing about the experience, which is having done the same thing, with the same friends, in the same place — tick tick tocking like a metronome — every year.
We were callow youths with fresh faces when we began this tradition, which we didn’t know would be a tradition. One of us was moving to Ohio, and the two left behind in South Carolina were frantic to keep in touch. So we picked a halfway point to meet, which turned out to be Princeton, West Virginia, which some wag has dubbed “the jewel of the South,” perhaps not knowing about Charleston or Savannah.
Princeton has its rustic charms, and a perfectly serviceable Cracker Barrel, but any true comparison to jewelry would have to involve a plastic capsule that comes from a bubble-gum machine. The people are wonderful when they’re not out shooting deer, and this year, we discovered a nearby spa that claims Gisele Bündchen is a client. But much of the area’s natural beauty has been marred by manmade poverty.
Yet for us, Princeton, population 5,822, is a shining city on a hill because of its proximity to Pipestem State Park, population 3, for all that it matters while we’re there.
People mock us for getting three cabins, instead of one, but we say, only half joking, that we don’t like each other that much. When we first started going, we all had young children, and the silence and privacy was important. It still is.
Plus, my artsy friends need room to spread out. We rarely drink, but there are years in which we craft ourselves into oblivion. We’ve made scrapbooks and soap, stenciled placemats with our children’s names rimmed in gold paint, and painted rustic signs on pieces of barn wood that were beautiful to us but wouldn’t fetch a dollar on Etsy. But this is not rigid. This year, two of us watched football while the other painted.
In the early years, my grandmother once said to me, “I never wanted to be away from my children,” and I’m sure she didn’t. It was a different generation. Plus, there were two years that I was accompanied by newborns, since they were born in September and I was still nursing. (My wonderful friends would care for the baby every afternoon so I could nap. But they wouldn’t keep the baby all night. They don’t like me that much.)
One of my friend’s aunts recently confided that, much like my grandmother, she thought we were being selfish in the early years of this tradition. Only with time, did she begin to see the value of what we created, and she said she now admires this thing that we built, which is a form of life-sustaining art in itself. With apologies to Marina Abramovic, the artists are present.
Every year hasn’t been picture-perfect. There were years when someone didn’t show up because of some argument that seemed important at the time but the details of which we can now barely remember. There were times when one of us was sick, or about to be sick, or had a parent who was dying, or a child who was killing us, or some other personal devastation.
In other words, there were times when life rudely intervened.
But nothing gets old without pock marks, which over time, add richness and complexity to a thing’s beauty.
Maybe one day I’ll get to Greece. But if I do, it won’t be in November. I’ve got plans then, pretty much for the rest of my life. And truly, it’s the best thing ever. Go and do likewise, no matter how much time you’ve got left.