Seeing as we are about to move forward with the northeast leg of my cross country road trip, allow me for a minute to summarize the part of the country through which I had driven up to Tuesday afternoon. To recap, I spent the first five days of my vacation traversing Louisiana, cutting through Mississippi on my way to Alabama, before making a sweet sojourn through Tennessee which begat a beautiful two day ride across Kentucky. Along the way, there were plenty of green mountains, friendly people, fine food, and beautiful women. This was virtually across the board, in the rural areas and in the cities. The college campuses I saw ranged from pleasantly quiet (Southern Miss) to SEC Awesome-riffic (Alabama, Kentucky). I bring this up because people who attended SEC schools -- those who earned their degrees and the remaining 90% who either dropped out, played sports, or didn't attend Vanderbilt -- are very parochial about SEC football and SEC country and how it is different than any other conference. Truth be told, I always rolled my eyes at it a little bit. I mean I know the football is great in the SEC, but good college towns are good college towns, or so I thought. And to some degree, that is the case. Ann Arbor and Austin have every bit the college cache as Tuscaloosa or Knoxville. But there are certain places where the difference between "SEC college town" and, well, "not an SEC college town" can become very pronounced. The trip from Kentucky through West Virginia is one of those places.
The drive through West Virginia itself, if done on the interstates, is nearly identical to driving through most of Tennessee and parts of Kentucky. It's very green, very hilly, and very rural. But get off the interstate in one of the cities with a major college (and in West Virginia, there's really only two -- Huntington which houses Marshall University, and Morgantown which houses criminals), and immediately you can tell that you're not in SEC country anymore.
In SEC country, football stadiums are majestic cathedrals, surrounded by meticulously manicured landscaping, reminding its fans that this is where the best of the best have brought them to a higher place on Saturdays for decades ...
At Marshall, the football stadium is a reminder that Division I football is actually played amidst this cavalcade of generic urban squalor they call a college campus ....
Clearly, one person who hasn't forgotten about Marshall football is Kaye from the Marshall bookstore, who had this to say when I brought up the rivalry with West Virginia ....
When I told her that I would be going through Morgantown later that evening, she warned me not to "look at any of them cross eyed" or else I'd catch a beating, to which I replied "Why not? Won't most of them be looking at me cross eyed?" (Inbred jokes in West Virginia are like the 1st grade questions in "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" They're so easy that you aren't even really proud you nailed it, just relieved.) That said, Kaye got such a big belly laugh out of that burn on WVU, that I probably could have easily made out with her right then and there ... and if she were 30 years younger, I might have done that. Instead, I did the only logical thing ... squelched out her laughter by saying "What the hell are you laughing at lady?? You live in HUNTINGTON!! It's not like NASA is camped out here looking for future scientists ... " That crack on Kaye was not meant to disrespect the entire state of West Virginia, just the uneducated parts of it (or as I like to call it, "the other 99%").
And by the way, if you're wondering what I purchased at the Marshall bookstore, I purchased a Marshall Soccer t-shirt, in protest of former Marshall QB Chad Pennington getting $9M this season from the Jets (assuming they don't cut him) despite being able to barely outthrow my 10 year old daughter.
Just before getting back on the interstate to leave Huntington, I saw this final little piece of constructive brilliance. A Super 8 Motel built high atop some random hill just off the highway, with parking in front of the facility and no guardrail at the edge of the parking spaces. I have no empirical research to back this up, but I am going to put the over/under at 75% (and take the over) on the percentage of people pulling into a Super 8 Motel parking lot in Huntington, WV who have either (a) been drinking, (b) been using drugs, (c) haven't slept in 24 hours, (d) are shitty drivers, or (e) all of the above. I mean, isn't this a Faces of Death scene waiting to happen? That said, it is a pretty kick ass sledding hill in the wintertime if you get a nice snow cushion built up below the cement wall barricade at the bottom. So to review, in the world according to Sean Pendergast -- driving down this hill in an automobile because you were too impaired to properly park your rig, BAD .... sledding down this hill on a small piece of plastic shaped like a saucer with the only thing protecting your head being an old school Pittsburgh Steelers ski cap with a pom pom on top, GOOD. (And yes, I just made fun of West Virginians for being uneducated two paragraphs ago ... so what? You got a problem?)
I continued my journey through the Mountaineer State headed for Morgantown by dinnertime, all the while with the lyrics to "Country Roads" by John Denver ringing in my head. I could hear him singing "Almost heaven ... West Virginia", and I began to think that if this is really almost heaven maybe it's not so bad that I've committed all of these sins. In fact, maybe I should commit more sins, so I pulled over in Charleston, purchased a Playboy magazine (lust), read it at an all you can eat buffet (gluttony), went to a casino (greed), took a nap (sloth), killed a spider (wrath), became jealous of people with hair (envy), put on some cologne (pride) and jumped in the car to head to Morgantown, safe in my assumptions that my activities of the previous two hours (not to mention the previous 39 years) would be enough to keep me out of "almost heaven", let alone heaven itself.
I had spoken with my father just thirty minutes before arriving in Morgantown with his words still ringing in my head -- "Why in the hell are you stopping to spend the night in Morgantown?!?" I originally had not planned to; my rough draft on this leg of the trip had me arriving in Pittsburgh in time to see the Astros and the Pirates play on Tuesday night and Wednesday night. However, as the day wore on it became apparent that my late start combined with my "nooner" with the Mega-Ho in Lexington combined with torrential downpours the whole day were going to keep me from seeing my beloved 'Stros try and stay out of last place in the NL Central, at least on Tuesday. So Morgantown seemed like a proper stop on the tour, especially given the collegiate nature of my previous four stops (Baton Rouge, Tuscaloosa, Nashville, Lexington). I mean, maybe they had a Pac Man Jones/Chris Henry Reality Tour where you could ride around town and see the places they committed all of their felonious acts, narrated by the Morgantown Chief of Police.
So I pulled into Morgantown, and the closer I got to the WVU campus, the more I could see what my dad was talking about. Now keep in mind, my dad spent ten years in athletic administration at the University of Connecticut from 1998 through 2007, so his impressions of Morgantown are largely formulated from experiences where he had whiskey bottles jettisoned his way at WVU v UCONN football and basketball games. All of that said, I was thoroughly unimpressed with Morgantown. The roads around campus are all about ten feet wide and wind agonizingly through some of the most depressing "rurban" decay you will ever see. (NOTE: "Rurban" is my made up word combining "rural" and "urban". It's for areas that are in towns, but just hillbilly enough to where they have a rural feel to them. With demographic awareness like this, I'm sure Obama and McCain are on the edge of their seats to see which of them I will publicly endorse come November.)
Aesthetically, the campus itself was a blah 3.5 on a 1-10 scale, especially on the heels of seeing the great campuses of the SEC. Also, the campus was ultra-hilly, which I know sounds like nitpicking but there is something supremely depressing to me about a campus that has so many hills that walking or biking to class becomes a dreaded chore. I mean let's face it, I'll be the first to admit that walking or biking to class is a dreaded chore on the flattest of campuses (see Dame, Notre), so injecting 45 degree hills into the mix seems almost unfair.
So with nighttime rapidly approaching, I had a decision to make -- do I stay in Morgantown tonight, or do I keep on trucking to Pittsburgh, despite John Denver's contentions that West Virginia has "almost heaven" status? The decision was an easy one. I bolted. It came down to three things:
(1) Realizing that if this place was not good enough for Rich Rodriguez, who went to WVU, to stay then it certainly wasn't good enough for me to stay.
(2) Seeing this guy leaving a meeting for the gifted and talented students at Morgantown High School ...
The choice was easy. I pressed on, headed for that Pennsylvania state line. Made it to Pittsburgh around 10:00PM. Ironically, the Astros-Pirates game had multiple rain delays and didn't end until nearly 1:30 in the morning. So I got to stay up and watch the Astros blow a lead that they had held for nearly 6 hours. For this, I was bitter. However, the good news is I was not on a canoe in the outback of Appalachia. For this, I was grateful.
And I was going to PNC Park on Wednesday. For this I was grateful, too.