Spencer Hall goes to West Virginia where old men are angry, the middle-aged women love Dana Holgorsen, and LSU fans stare down demons unimpressed.
5:00 p.m. The woman at the rental counter in Washington, D.C. asks: "Where will you be driving?"
"West Virginia. Do you want to come with us? We have room, and everyone here looks bored."
She stared at us. "West Virginia?"
"Yes. Wild AND wonderful West Virginia."
She stares back and smiles. "No, I don't think I want to go to West Virginia."
9:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. Sit down, Maryland. You are not important here except to say that you cannot mock West Virginia for a very important reason: once you drive one hour west of Washington, DC, you are West Virginia without the coal and regional charm. There is also a stretch of highway that dips to 40 mph in a speed trap so blatant the city of Lawtey, Florida would accuse you of shamelessness, and a Wendy's where the hamburger buns smelled like feet.
12:15 a.m. We stop at an ATM in our destination, Bridgeport, West Virginia. It is as close as we could get to Morgantown, since LSU fans have had rooms booked for months. The ATM asks for your total withdrawal in increments of ten dollars. Pulling up to the hotel, we pass an all-you-can-eat steak buffet. Two doors down there is a kidney dialysis clinic. All of these things are very important to the West Virginia-ness of it, because even in the dead of night the first three things point to a place where ten dollars is the base increment of exchange, all-you-can-eat buffets haven't caved to the pleading "all-you-care-to-eat" yet, and the near complete lack of zoning makes for some extremely ironic arrangements of complimentary businesses.
8:45 a.m. West Virginia is a place where a lot of meals are eaten at gas stations. This one has a Tudor's Biscuit World tucked inside it, and it has been leveled by the morning rush. It looks like a passing horde of Magyars has gone through: tables sit rearranged and covered with biscuit crumbs and wrappers, and the restaurant crew is moving slowly and undesirously through the wreckage.
A pair of bros behind us have the following discussion:
Bro 1: Man, it sucks you can't use a radar detector legally in this state anymore.
Bro 2: No! I thought that was still legal!
Bro 1: Nope. Been illegal for a while.
Bro 2: Dude, you should be a lawyer.
I order the Rocket.
I will be very honest here. The Rocket is good, but it is a lot like the state itself. It is daunting, an unpretentious stack of carbohydrates and fried meats without a single concession to concerns about health, safety, or moderation. It is also delicious, but even as you eat it you are planning gentle steps to the car and an avoidance of all exertion for the next three hours. That is how heart attacks happen, and the game does not start until 8:00 p.m. It would be a shame to come to West Virginia and die before you got to see Dana Holgorsen's magnificent skullet in person.
9:00 a.m. Caffeine is administered in the state's trendiest manner.
10:00 a.m.--10:45 a.m. No one planned anything in West Virginia. I mention this to someone later at a tailgate, and he laughs. "Well, how else do you end up with a state shaped like this?" He then holds out his hand, extends his thumb, and then flicks me off. Do this yourself: it is an excellent approximation of the state's shape.
The roads seem to have followed suit. Morgantown is built on a series of rolling hills, and the roads around the campus are a random handful of spaghetti thrown onto a map mounted on a wall. GPS gives up and begins sending you in loops when you enter specific addresses. Pedestrians seemed as lost as we were; we saw the same ten people wandering back and forth lost between destinations. Two were LSU fans toting an immense sign. I rolled down the window and did what I usually do to stray SEC fans in strange locales.
"ROLLLLLLLLLL TAAAAAAAAAAHDE! ROLL TIDE."
They looked confused, but not as confused as when we drove past them three more times before finding our destination, and I kind of just had to wave sheepishly at them as we passed. Trolling in person is never as much fun as it is online.
11:00 a.m. We sit overlooking the stadium on the hill where West Virginia University's overlords parked their law school. (Lawyers always seize the high ground, and then charge you to park there.) An immense green slope slants down toward Milan Puskar Stadium, and tailgates abut the edge dotting the overcast sky with WVU flags.
We find ours beneath a joint WVU/Nebraska flag. Our host Charley hustles us toward the tailgate's main attraction.
That is the shape of the state of West Virginia branded into the side of the pig. Charley had to use both hands to heave the grill open, and the smell slamming into your nostrils was the best kind of olfactory car accident, a spectacular collision of wood smoke, charcoal aroma, and savory pig that smelled like the soul of bacon itself being slow-roasted over rare fragrant endangered trees.
Charley slams the door shut. "Did you know we have a Brazilian tailgate next to us?"
Before I can say "Whaaaa--" I look up and a slim dark young woman wearing a bikini top and shorts is in our midst handing out yellow and blue jello shots. This is the strangest combination of elements ever, and for a second the words sit in my mouth unspoken. I'm sorry, I have to work, and by work I mean just sort of wander around looking for moonshine and the exact cut of this place's jib. And that's really what I should do, but there's this pork-infused smoke stuck in the fibers of my shirt, and this scantily clad woman with jello shots, and football on the television.
The jello shot has no taste, but fumes off of it smell like siphoning the gas out of an F-22's fuel tank.
12:35 p.m. Georgia Tech and UNC are ACC-ing it up on the big screen, exchanging fumbles and interceptions in bunches because I think it is required by ACC bylaws. I am talking with a WVU alum about Dana Holgorsen.
"What do you think of him thus far?"
"Oh, I like him. He's fantastic, and he's been so good for the energy around the program."
"But 40-year-old divorcees in Morgantown? They REALLY love him."
2:00 p.m. A group of WVU tailgaters and LSU fans line up on the edge of the hill with beers, trying with varying degrees of success to pop a hole in the side for what they call a Shotgun Throwdown. There is a countdown, and then a cheer in unison:
"Chew tobacco chew tobacco chew tobacco SPIT! IF YOU AIN'T A MOUNTAINEER, YOU AIN'T SHIT!"
Take the responsible leaders of a place like West Virginia, or Georgia, or Kentucky, or any other place that cares deeply--perhaps a little too deeply--about football. At one point or another in the near future, perhaps sometime around 2040 or so, they will have all had a moment where they jammed a key into the side of a beer can and yelled rhythmic profanities before downing the whole thing at once in the name of god, country, and football.
3:30 p.m. LSU fans join in the cheers of "Eat Shit Pitt" as Pitt winds out the last seconds of a dismal loss to Notre Dame for no other reasons besides courtesy and the urge to celebrate someone else's failure. West Virginia fans seem impressed by the display of obscene chivalry.
5:50 p.m. Feeling guilty about eating nothing but Tudor's stack-o-deathmeats and a jello shot all day, I run the stairs back up the hill between the law school and the stadium. Steve Slaton got his massive thighs from good genes, but he turned them into tree trunks running this hill. I get 3/4 of the way up in decent shape before I run into a knot of traffic surrounding a guy in a patterned t-shirt and jeans who can't go five feet without stopping and hugging random strangers, or posing for pictures, or nodding patient, beaming smiles at strangers congratulating him on being him and thanking him for things he did years ago.
In fact, I almost run headfirst into Pat White before huffing, looking up, and realizing I was about to bowl over the most popular quarterback in West Virginia history.
"Oh, Pat can't go anywhere without being mobbed. It was like that when he was an undergrad," says the woman at the tailgate who told me this morning about Holgorsen's pinup status among divorcees. "One time at Kegler's I got this picture with him, and he's all smiles and cute, and then his friends come up to me and say, 'Hey, can you get your picture taken with that guy, too?'"
The guy was Steve Slaton, who was sitting right there and was extremely unhappy about being one-upped by White. "He looked real grumpy in the photo, but he really wanted us to take it with him anyway." And that is how you know that Steve Slaton at West Virginia was Daffy Duck to Pat White's Bugs Bunny.
6:10 p.m. I start to panic a bit. I have gone the whole day without once trying moonshine, and this seems to be a necessary thing if you're going to go to a West Virginia football game. At the last second one person leads to another, and soon I am holding a mason jar of moonshine. The words "RED CORN" are scrawled across the top with a red marker.
An illegible date doesn't matter. The faint fumes coming off the top of the clear liquid lolling around in the mason jar mean dates have long since ceased to matter for Red Corn. Someone will leave a jar of this in their basement for centuries for some archaeologist to choke on, and it will taste just as much like gasoline as it does right now.
"Will this blind me?"
My shine connection looks like a cousin of Jimbo Fisher. He answers in a cold deadpan.
"Nah. I hope not."
"Can you see me right now?"
He opens his eyes wide.
"Yes. You'll be fine."
The mouthfeel is similar to vodka: zero taste of its own, and only the jet fuel fumes of a distilled alcohol to let you know you're drinking anything at all. The pain starts when it hits your trachea. Red Corn catches fire starting at the collarbones, and burns through your chest like you have swallowed a road flare.
I pass the jar. Captain Moonshine has a talent for condensing a lot of information into a very small span of time. In ten minutes of leaning against a truck I learn the thumbnail sketch of West Virginia's history, a tale he tells with admirable concision, but which my shine-stricken brain remembers as "Abraham Lincoln drove a train through a mountain and then punched coal from the hills with his bare hands." I blame moonshine for ruining a well-wrought history lesson.
8:45 p.m. LSU is busy taking advantage of every single mistake a young West Virginia team would care to make, with the Honey Badger Tyrann Mathieu leading the way. I am sitting in the endzone, and on the tipped interception for a TD the athleticism is gaspworthy as he pounces, paws at the ball, and then brings it down in a single movement at full speed.
Despite falling behind, Mountaineer fans are well-behaved save for one old bastard we will call "Mr. Season Ticket Holder." Mr Season Ticket Holder yells for everyone to sit down despite 54 rows of people standing at once in front of him, and focuses in on one fellow Mountaineer fan in front of him.
"Boy, I am A SEASON TICKET HOLDER and you better sit down or I will have you removed."
"Sir, I'm just doing what everyone else is doing, and I want to see--"
"DON'T YOU SIR ME, BOY! I AM A SEASON TICKET HOLDER, AND HAVE BEEN FOR THIRTY YEARS. YOU SHUT UP AND SIT DOWN."
I spend the rest of the quarter with Luke and Steven making up some of the other rights Mr. Season Ticket Holder thinks come with the purchase of season tickets.
"You're gonna have to buy me a beer, son. SEASON TICKET HOLDER."
"I'm gonna need to have that play reversed, line judge. Sorry! SEASON TICKET HOLDER."
"Once a year all 18,000 of us get to roam freely killing non-season ticket holders like the Spartans slaughtering Helots. Sorry! SEASON TICKET HOLDER."
Season Ticket Holder also yelled for the coaches to "GET HIS BLACK ASS OUT OF THE GAME" when an LSU defender got chippy with a WVU lineman. On the whole, please know that West Virginia fans were pleasant, funny, and extremely hospitable. Also please note that there is an old guy with a non-fabulous mustache sitting at the top of section 97 wearing a set of headphones who is a racist piece of shit who needs to be slapped with a brick just like the rest of the world's Mr. Season Ticket Holders.
If you see him, please tell him he's the worst, and the only fan who came close to giving WVU a bad name during our whole wonderful visit.
11:45 p.m. West Virginia tried. They really did, right down to the end when Holgorsen challenged a non-catch call successfully with seconds left on the clock and down by an insurmountable deficit on the scoreboard. Holgorsen, whose balding baby mullet is an iconic presence in the pregame hype montage, clearly figured something out about the LSU defense, but when Mo Claiborne returns a kick for a TD after your best counterpunch, it is a long crushing slide under the Les Miles glacier after that.
Watching Alabama, you realize their greatest trick is making hope an impossibility, but LSU is worse for giving you hope, and then toying with you by snatching it away with an interception, or a punt return, or a long bomb thrown for a TD on 3rd and 1.
Fog begins to fall down the mountain and over the lip of the stadium, rolling like the tentacles of Appalachian Cthulhu over the endzone bleachers. Despite the scoreboard, one can't help but feel a creeping dread for LSU fans as the Tigers continue to score points trying to run the clock out in a stadium surrounded by angry West Virginia fans. Looking back, they appear to be surrounded on all sides, bordered by a sinister and very literal fog, surly Mountaineers supporters standing with arms folded and stares locked directly ahead, and the very dark Morgantown night itself.
In the midst of a setting when any other fanbase would be quietly scuttling for the exits and hightailing it for the hotel, an LSU fan surrounded by simmering Mountaineers and murder-obscuring fog is yelling: "L-S-U! L-S-U!" No one is joining in with him, and he doesn't seem to care. If the demon himself materialized from the fog, he'd just look it in the eye and tell him what was on his mind.
Demon, I ain't scared. I've been to Alabama. I've been maimed in a gator hunting accident. I got into a fight with Juvenile in 2002 at a New Orleans dry cleaner, and I made him back his ass up, if you hear what I'm sayin', demon. Les Miles is my coach. You think you can show me the mouth of madness? I've worn madness' hat, and the fit was perfect. I've seen a team coached by Mike Archer. I've seen Nick Saban reduce a parking attendant to tears. Whatever you got to show me is Dora the Explorer compared to what I've seen. Come at this, broseph.
1:05 a.m. Back up on the law school hill, long lines of red taillights snake out into the hills. I find Charley pulling the last bits of meat off the pig's head. He holds up hunks of hog jowl and says mournfully, "It's like ice cream, isn't it?" Charley got slapped by an old man in the middle of the game.
"I mean, what the hell do you do with THAT? You can't win a fight with an old man. You just can't," he says, stuffing another handful of pork into his mouth in the dark. "He was a Mountaineer fan, too. Just wanted me to sit down."
Old men did not seem to react well to Dana Holgorsen football, but I have a feeling that West Virginia is just full of old men itching for an excuse to slap someone. It and picking over the last scraps of a pig roast are the only things that can soothe the hurt of a loss at this point. Others try throwing loaded coolers down the hill to alleviate their frustrations. One guy keeps running around the parking lot yelling "HOT ROUTE!" and throwing blondies out of an aluminum tray at random people and cars. No one seems to notice or care.
His friend tries to get a ride with a stranger driving past.
"HEY BIG CAT! BIG CAT! STOP! I NEED A RIDE YOU LOOK COOL HEY STOP--"
The car drives past into the dark, and the guy seems hurt.
"Come back! That's not cool! We could have been friends, man! WE COULD HAVE BEEN FRIENDS!"
(Photos by Steven Godfrey and Luke Zimmermann)