Ghosting Coal Country: West Virginia and Pittsburgh

Hello, ghostlings! How are you holding up? I myself am holed up in an artsy little coffee shop in Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill, where a pair of mock brass steer horns hangs from an exposed brick wall. One of the horns is hosting a spool of gold-brown yarn that runs a string through an array of vintage postcards and photographs. I can hear some creepy amelodic No Wave music in the background. Very hip indeed.

You know, every now and then I come across something that seems like it was planted there just for me and my adventure. For instance, take a gander at this:


“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

I haven’t read Invisible Cities, but I can still dig this. Every city on the map is a tiny slice of the human experience to which we are all connected. It’s a variation of possibility, the ingredients of which exist in your soul, in your community. It’s a haunted house mirror of collective reason.

For example, did you know people in West Virginia leave their trash bags out on the side of the street, with no garbage cans? Did you ever think such a thing was possible in America? I know I didn’t until I saw it firsthand.

Two nights ago I camped in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. I was excited for this particular camping adventure because I had timed it just right to avoid the Labor Day weekend crowd. I also knew it was probably going to be my last opportunity to see a bear. The campground, after all, was called Bear Heaven.

Near-sunset from Bear Heaven Campground.

I arrived around 6 PM and sure enough I was all alone. Eight campsites and mine was the only one occupied. I felt giddy. As I was setting up the tent a Ranger drove by to say hello (and possibly make sure I wasn’t a threat to burn down the forest). The man was middle-aged and portly with a crisp silver mustache. He pointed to a patch on his uniform that bore the image of Sasquatch and told me to watch out for “these fellas.” When I laughed he continued the ruse, regaling me with supposed sightings that occur in this neck of the woods. He’s probably given the same spiel to campers for the past 20 years. I love this guy. I want to write a screenplay about him where he’s forced to solve some kind of twisted double homicide at the campground.


I went back to setting up the tent, and suddenly this happened:


Broken pole. Disappointing, but that’s what you get when you buy a $25 tent at Walmart. Fortunately I was able to position things such that the tent still kind of held up. I set about gathering loose sticks and built myself a little fire.

Things were going great. I had my little campfire and my book and a bag of powdered donuts from 7-11. I was immersed in the quiet serenity of nature. But then I sensed a disturbance. I looked around in all directions and noticed the tiny flicker of a campfire a few sites down.

A bitter frown crossed my face. I was offended. How dare these people interrupt my experience, my solitude. It was then that I realized just how intoxicating my isolation had been. Human beings aren’t supposed to be that alone, it’s too liberating. I thought about those stereotypical Mountain Men that hole up in a backwoods cabin and shoot anything that dares to come near them. I feel like I kind of get that now.

I slept a peaceful sleep in the tent that night. The temperature was neither too hot nor too cold. There were a few too many clouds for a true starscape but the moon was full and its powerful beam was cast almost perfectly in my direction. My damaged tent did ultimately collapse during the night but I didn’t really care. It was like sleeping in a thin vinyl cocoon.

And sadly, I did not see a bear at any point.

The next day I headed North on 79 toward Pittsburgh. Driving through West Virginia reminded me of driving through Montana in that the transcendent beauty of the landscape was nearly offset by the perilous conditions of the drive. Steep declines, up to 9% grade in some cases, had me digging my overgrown nails into the steering wheel for mile after mile.

Before this trip I had my car checked over. The mechanic told me that my brakes would “probably” be okay for this trip but I should definitely get them replaced afterward. Throughout the West Virginia drive I was paranoid that they’d give out, that I would drive off a cliff and die or, worse yet, have to ask for someone’s help. And yet they held up fine, even during the thunderstorm that plagued me for the first few hours the morning after my camp.

It felt like the roads began to level out, to become sane and tolerable, the minute I crossed the border into Pennsylvania. It’s as if God reserved the harshest, most inhabitable terrain specifically for West Virginia. I made it into Pittsburgh by mid-morning and headed straight for the Mattress Factory museum.

The Mattress Factory is a contemporary/experimental art museum located in a chill, compact neighborhood on the North side of Pittsburgh. When you go there you’ll find art from a wide array of artists (many of them local) in a wide array of mediums and evoking an even wider array of emotions and ideas. For example, take a look at this:


This is from British conceptual artist John Latham. His artwork incorporates books that he destroys and repurposes, something I find intuitively disturbing and I think that’s the point. Here’s a brief excerpt from the informational plaque on Latham the museum provides:

Since the 1940’s, Latham pioneered conceptual art as a practice. The work’s conceptual underpinnings are derived from his developed philosophy of “event structures” that question historic, scientific and religious knowledge of time by proposing that the most basic component of reality is a ‘least event’ or shortest possible departure point from a state of nothing.

I freely admit I’m not 100% sure what this means. But his work is jarring and provocative, and like the best experimental and conceptual art it makes one re-examine the world in which we live, revealing how insane and artificial it often is. In that way I think experimental art is not unlike stand-up comedy, although I be neither party would be flattered by that comparison.

Infinity Dots Mirrored Room by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama

One of my favorite exhibits from the Mattress Factory was Dennis Maher’s A Second Home; a sprawling, multi-floor experience that I can best describe as a celebration and deconstruction of architecture.  Room after room is meticulously cluttered with tiny wooden creations, twisted and contorted fragments of toys, tool kits, antiques, other household oddballs. It’s like a living space designed by a madman.


At the top floor of the exhibit, the apex of the madness, one walks sneaks and ducks through a dark, claustophobic space amidst a panorama of intricate toy machines while discordant piano music plays in the background. For my Wisconsin ghostlings, this type of exhibit would not be out of place at House on the Rock.


From the top floor of A Second Home. Try and make sense of this madness.

The final piece I saw at the Mattress Factory was James Turrell’s Pleiades. Here’s how the museum describes it:

You approach the gallery through an inclined corridor so dark that you are virtually without sight. At the top of the ramp, you sit in a chair and face blackness. After your eyes adjust, an amorphous sphere of grey-white, or perhaps red, begins to appear, more a presence than an object. As you look harder, the form becomes smaller. You turn away for a moment and back again. It grows and glimmers. But the source of light itself is constant and still.

At first you find yourself thinking, “this is it? A big black fucking room?” But as you look closer and closer the light, the “amorphous sphere” begins to reveal itself like a nightmare spirit. The longer you sit there in darkened silence the more haunting it becomes. You are staring down infinity, the absoluteness of death. It’s a truly powerful experience it you open yourself up to it.

After the Mattress factory I got to my Airbnb house, located conveniently in Pittsburgh’s Strip district. And it’s here, at last, that we get to today’s daily selfie:

20170905_171118 (1)

Yes that is a cardboard cutout of Katie Perry, large than life size, that came with the room. For the next day or so she’ll be watching over me as I sleep, protecting me from the unhip Hater Ghosts of Pittsburgh.

I’ll have much more to say about this city tomorrow. Stay weird, ghostlings!


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