What Happiness Sounds Like (when it doesn’t take too much to make you happy)

We wanted someplace quiet on a recent weekend, so we headed for Thomas, West Virginia, a former coal-mining community that’s now finding a second life as a low-key retreat in the mountains.

Our Air BnB was once a hostel, and it had that good hostel vibe–communal, comfortable, simple. We tossed down our bags and set out, walking the steep downslope through the former coal-company houses, past the old church. There wasn’t another soul in the residential streets, and a hovering fog made the November afternoon even more still. But then on main street we found some bustle–people checking out a local art gallery, a place that sold candles and old chairs, a few places to eat. Waiting for us at the end of the strip was the Purple Fiddle, where we had tickets for a show that night.

After a good look around, we climbed back up the hill and promptly fell into a nap in the absolute silence. We awoke later apologizing to each other–oh, hey, didn’t mean to conk out there. But it was fine. A nap in a sagging hostel bed in a tiny mountain town was more than fine.

Being in Thomas reminded me of the legendary long-distance walker in Robert Moor’s excellent book, On Trails. In the course of exploring and explaining trails of all kinds, Moor introduced Nimblewill Nomad, whom Moor accompanied along a stretch of barren Texas highway. Nimblewill had done all the usual long-distance trails and had moved on to open roads, carrying next to nothing. One of his few possessions was a Styrofoam cup that he refilled at gas station soda machines. As he lounged at a picnic table at the edge of a weedy parking lot, he turned to Moor and said,

“You can be a whole lot happier if it doesn’t take too much to make you happy.”

I’ve read a lot of travel articles that focus on coaxing out the maximum value from each travel dollar, asking: What do I get and how can I get more? The underlying assumption is that the best we can hope for is to inch a bit closer to that high bar that marks happiness. There is always a nicer AirBnB somewhere, a more delicious meal, a more impressive town with a better view. We all want to be smart travelers.

But if I examine my own happiness bar–who even set it? Did I, or did I accept someone else’s setting? Could an afternoon nap in a foggy, half-forgotten town not exactly reach happiness, but quiet the insistent search for it?

We splashed water on our faces and pulled on stocking caps (it was plenty cold in November in West Virginia) and just as a rain started that would last all night, we headed down to the Purple Fiddle. It’s all you’d hope for: a converted general store with a tin ceiling, antique washboards and old fiddles on the wall over the plywood stage. We washed down a plate of beans and cornbread with on-tap beer served in mason jars, and caught up on our people watching until the bluegrass band took the stage.

The headliner turned out to be Crandall Creek, a band that’s a pretty big deal in bluegrass circles. They played their instruments not just exquisitely, but joyfully. They clearly love bluegrass and we loved it with them. The young lead singer’s voice, heavy on the r’s and sweet on the trills, seemed to come from not just her, but also from the hills, down through time. She sang of children growing up too fast and young people leaving town and love lost, but it was her voice itself–and the fiddle and banjo twining around it–that made you weep.

The next day, with the young singer’s bluegrass voice still echoing, we wandered down a path that was once a rail line. Lining the trail were hundreds of brick coke ovens, now abandoned, lovely in their mossy-green stillness, belying the drudgery and danger of that hard labor.

On the North Fork of the Blackwater River, we found our way to the Douglas Falls just in time to see a band of intrepid kayakers brave the plunge. (It’s a category 5, we learned from them, just at its roaring best after the night of rain.) We cheered for them, but the fantastic thunder of the falls drowned out anything but itself. Later we drove back, just ahead of a snow storm, under a silent steel-gray sky.

It wasn’t much, really, this little getaway to Thomas, West Virginia. And it was plenty. In Thomas, the quiet may be louder than the tiresome beat of am I happy–am I happy. Quiet enough to hear something true and unexpectedly lovely.

Thanks for reading, and by the way, I love comments. Bookmark fieldtripnotebook.com for more on travel, minimalism, books, public transportation, and hikes. For daily postcards from, well, wherever we are, subscribe to launaatlarge.substack.com.

2 thoughts on “What Happiness Sounds Like (when it doesn’t take too much to make you happy)”

  1. This bit! “We cheered for them, but the fantastic thunder of the falls drowned out anything but itself. Later we drove back, just ahead of a snow storm, under a silent steel-gray sky.” That’s a hat trick of really lovely phrasing there. Thank you for that.

    And there’s me, off to read about coke ovens!

    1. Oh my word, those coke ovens. Apparently even more dangerous and toxic for the people working them and living near them than the coal mines themselves, if that can be possible.

      Thanks for your kind words, dear Catherine. <3

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