The National Road runs like an artery right through our community. It wasn’t originally meant to come through Wheeling, though. It began in Cumberland, Md., and ultimately ended in Vandalia, Ill., but thanks to the connections of Moses Shepherd and his wife Lydia Boggs Shepherd, who lived in their home on what is now Kruger Street, the construction reached Wheeling on Aug. 1, 1818.
My ancestors hopped off the road near Dimmeydale, and that’s where I still am today. Route 40, which shares asphalt with National Road for several states, continues on to Utah, but it’s the historic road rather than the busy route that gets most of the glory.
I grew up and live on this famous thoroughfare in what’s known as the National Road Corridor Historic District. You can read about the history, which is fascinating and significant, but reading about it and living upon it are two different things.
It’s noisy. The ambulance speeds past at least five times a day. Funeral processions head toward the cemeteries up the street. Masses of honking Wheeling Park High School students drive by, celebrating victories. And I’m not going to mention any names, but those of you who think it’s appropriate to drag race at 10 p.m. should know that my dog loses bladder control every time you downshift.
Four lanes of traffic produce immense flying dirt. In black and white photos from generations past, my family sits on the front porch in white dresses and crisp, starched shirts. Perhaps trolleys and horses didn’t throw off much grime, but in this century, I have to power wash every year, and sitting on the porch swing turns your backside gray with road filth. The squirrels here have asthma, and I haven’t told the kids yet, but our Halloween skeleton died from black lung.
I watch National Road constantly. I see the Jesuit track team, Linsly cross-country girls, kids walking home from Triadelphia Middle School, and a very musical man who often sings his way up the sidewalk at 11:30 each night in the summer. I see your handsome hounds, your jogging strollers, and I cheer for the Ogden runners. The active lifestyle in Wheeling is alive and well.
The flip side of all my observation, of course, is that the National Road can see me, too.
It took me some years to realize how much of my life is on display, but once I did, I became keenly aware of what I’d been sharing with the world. Sometimes, I do vinyasas on the roof in my pajamas and watch the full moon rise. I’ve been caught riding the lawn tractor like a cowboy and spotted running from yellow jackets. A few years ago, my husband went out onto the roof to clean the gutters, and the window slammed shut behind him. He had no shirt on and was wearing Crocs. Rather than open the window, I went down onto the lawn and filmed him while he shouted, “Please come open the window! Please? Come on, people are watching!” And they were: two cars honked. I finally let him back inside because I needed something heavy moved.
One August day, I went up into the attic to de-clutter. Three flights of stairs stood between me and the garbage cans, so I got the terribly clever idea to throw everything out the window. However, the bag — stuffed full of old Christmas decorations, half-burned candles and retired underthings — possessed such bulk that my spaghetti arms failed to give it the heave-ho it so desperately needed to clear the second-floor roof outside my son’s bedroom window. Thus, it came to a sudden halt a full story above its intended destination. And, given my husband’s mortal fear of bats, an air conditioner was not only blocking my access to the roof and the errant bag, but the cooling unit was also duct taped, drilled and lacquered to the window frame to keep the flying night-rats out of the house. It was too high to reach with a ladder or pool hook, and too low to reach from the attic. So there it sat, in full view of every driver, runner and skateboarder, for six weeks. What a picture it painted of our lives: an old Victorian house beneath stately locust trees, carefully painted trim and tenderly managed perennials, and a bag of zebra-striped unmentionables loafing in the box gutter like a drunken Santa. I felt judged and rightly so. When you live on the National Pike, you’ve got standards to maintain, and woe to the homeowner who fails to uphold them.
Living here sometimes puts a damper on American activities. We’ve had zero trick-or-treaters in 40 years. A cheerful Mountaineer flag would turn black with road dust. And then there’s the “What’s Your Exotic Dancer Name?” test, a time-wasting social media endeavor in which you pair the name of your first pet with the name of the street you grew up on. Those raised in Wheeling might end up with a moniker like Princess Diamond, or Buffy Biltmore. Maybe it’s Cody Meadow. According to the formula, my stage name would be Humphrey National, and I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t pay a cover charge to see that.
It’s easy to think of myself in a fishbowl, but I’m not alone. There’s a fellowship of National Road-dwellers, and I often consider their lives. How regularly do they sweep their porches? Do passing truckers honk at them, too, when they bend over to pull weeds? I wonder if Lydia Boggs Shepherd ever fell off a ladder hanging Christmas lights.
Despite its inconveniences, the road connects us as a community. When you drive past me torturing my spouse on the roof, you’re headed to work or school, to WesBanco, or DiCarlos, back and forth in our little historic town. When I work on my landscaping out front, you stop and chat with me about the sunshine or the deer. The road brings us together.
On my son’s seventh birthday last summer, someone gave him an inflatable T-rex costume, the kind you see in internet videos. He put it on and ran to the front sidewalk to strut around. The kid danced his heart out for 15 minutes.
National Road, you didn’t let him down. He got twelve honks and three woo-hoos.
• Laura Jackson Robertsis a freelance writer in Wheeling, W.Va. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and writes about nature and the environment. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Vandaleer, Animal, Matador Network, Defenestration, The Higgs Weldon and the Erma Bombeck humor site. Laura is the Northern Panhandle representative for West Virginia Writers, a blog editor for Literary Mama Magazine and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She recently finished her first book of humor. Laura lives in Wheeling with her husband and their sons. Visit her online at www.laurajacksonroberts.com.