An Encounter With Crystal

An old derelict house in the historic National Road village of Morristown, Ohio in Belmont County

      The day began innocently enough, giving no indication that we would have a County Sheriff summoned to investigate our suspicious activities before high noon.  Sun at last, and new springtime warmth, demanded that my wife and I get out of the house and hit the road!  Being of modest means, and strange hobbies, the urge to wander the backroads of Ohio overwhelms us several times a month.  It is cheaper than doing anything else.  The objective is usually similar each time - take photographs and be on the lookout for any marked paving or builder's bricks lying about.  We enjoy each other's company so traveling and exploring towns and villages is a fine excuse to be alone together.  

      On this particular day we had chosen Eastern Ohio as our intended target, and managed to arrive in Belmont County by late morning, without any major distractions or delays. Morristown, an old and mostly intact original National Road community dating from the early 1800's, was our first stop.  It was platted in 1802, one year before Ohio became a state, and the National Road came through the town in 1826 by utilizing the existing Wheeling Street, resulting in a quick name change to Main Street.  My wife and I like old stuff, and it seemed like Morristown would fit the bill on that account.

     Things were rather quiet on Main Street.  The National Road / US-40 had long since by-passed the picturesque hamlet when a new route was created a couple of hundred feet to the south. In the late 1960's I-70 was built about a mile south of US-40. Through traffic had long since decamped to the newer ribbons of pavement.  A crush of tourists would not be an issue since few outside the county have even heard of the place. Businesses vanished long ago.  To spend money, get groceries, or enjoy a meal, the locals must now drive ten or fifteen miles to the Ohio Valley Mall southeast of St. Clairsville.  The mall is oddly named because it is not in the river valley.  Quite the contrary, it is high above the muddy water, and far from it.  Thus, finding this historic village rather dead was fully anticipated.

          We parked beside a stately Federal style two-story frame house, that was vacant, and one of a number of vacant dwellings on this former interstate road of a young nation.  Most of the other buildings were constructed of brick, and made fine subjects to photograph.  My bride decided to occupy her time poking about for treasure around the old vacant house.  We got lost in our separate pursuits.  I returned to the car in order to load a new roll of film into my camera.  No people, and only a couple of cars had driven down the street since our arrival.  Tammy was climbing a pile of dirt by the empty house.  From my vantage point I could see a double-wide mobile home on the opposite side of the mound.

         With my camera once again ready for action, I got out of the car to take a few more shots, and asked Tammy if she was ready to ride down to the other end of the main drag.  She was getting back into the car as I prepared to stow the camera behind my seat, when we were startled by a loud indignant female voice.

          "What are you doing here?" she shouted.

        I turned to see an agitated young woman standing near my door.  She was stout in stature, attired in an over-sized tee-shirt with a unicorn on it, ill-fitting blue polyester short-shorts, and plastic flowered flip-flops that were a size too small. Her shoulder-length dirty-blonde hair was swept over to one side, and seemed to be inflated by some un-natural force.  Maybe it was her emotional state that caused her hair to swell in volume, because she was definitely worked up about something.  She was clutching a cellphone in her hand, which she waved menacingly when she spoke.

          "What are you doing here?!" she demanded again.

          "We are visiting your fine town, and taking pictures," I replied, and held up my camera.

          "You can't do that!" she sputtered.  Then looking at Tammy, declared, "She wasn't taking pictures!  She was in my pool!"

        "I do not see a pool. All I see is a pile of dirt! Besides, it's too cold to go swimming!" I replied as I nodded in the direction of the earthen mound.

        "That is gonna be my pool, and she was climbing on it!  That is trespassing!  What are you doing here?"

        Apparently this was not going to be a conversation.  It was an interrogation, and it continued in this circular manner for a few more rotations, so I stowed my camera away and got into the car.

        "I'm going to call the cops!  And I'm taking a picture of your license plate for evidence!" she shouted, and leaned down in front of our car with her phone.

        "Go ahead, but we are leaving," I declared, as I started the engine.

        She dialed 9-1-1 and quickly was speaking to a dispatcher.  The story she gave them was that there were two suspicious people in town, they had been trespassing on her property, there had been thefts in the area recently, she had confronted the suspects, and now they would not leave.

        To this, I yelled out my window, "I would leave, but you are standing in front of my car!"

        Finally concluding her call, she stood in front of our vehicle, with her hands on her hips, and glared at us.  "The sheriff is coming!  You need to wait!"

        "I am not waiting!  However, we are going to drive down there to those buildings, stop and take some more pictures, then turn around a drive back through town.  If we are gone by the time the sheriff gets here, tell him we might be over in Adena, or maybe Mount Pleasant.  So if you will kindly step aside, we are moving."

        The woman huffed, stomped her flip-flops on the pavement, and then moved away from the car.  She continued to give us a major 'stink eye' as we rolled away.  A few blocks down a slight hill from the irate woman was a section of old brick buildings on both sides of the street, and our next stop.  We both got out of the car laughing.

        "That woman is nuts!" Tammy said, shaking her head in amazement.  "Do you think we ought to leave?"

        "No, I think we are fine," I replied.  "But she is definitely off her tether!  Of course, you were in her pool!"

        Tammy burst out laughing again, and walked over to an empty storefront window to have a look inside.  I headed across the street toward a stately two story brick house of Italianate design, which looked incongruous amongst the older primarily Federal style buildings.

        A large young man, dressed in olive-drab cargo pants, a camo tee-shirt under an old Army surplus fatigue jacket, walked out into the street from between two old beat-up pickup trucks, and headed to intercept me.  "What ya doin?" he asked.

        A feeling of dread washed over me.  "Taking pictures," I replied.

        "Yeah, that is a real historical house there.  Probably the oldest house in town.  It used to have the slave houses around back, but those are gone now.  This whole area used to be a plantation!"

        I uttered some sound of astonishment and disbelief, and gestured toward a plaque stating the house was built in the late 1870's.  That was all he needed for encouragement.  He quickly proceeded to expound on several conspiracy theories as to why the marker was wrong, mixing and mashing several of them together to create his own brew of history and what is wrong today.  I nodded several times to him while I composed my shots, and threw in a couple of, "Is that right?" comments to keep him going.

        "Like history!" he declared, "But people need to get their facts straight!  I do a lot of research, and I get most of my stuff off the internet.  They don't teach the real stuff in school.  I try to tell it to my kids, but they ain't interested.  I find a lot of good stuff on YouTube!"

        When he finally stopped to take a breath, it was to yell at one of his boys who by now had wandered out into the street to see what was going on.  I took that opportunity to note that we had met an interesting character up the street.

        "Oh, yeah?  Was it the guy who lives by the cemetery up there?"

        "No, it was the woman who lives in the trailer a little ways past that."

        "Oh, that is Crystal!  Don't let her bother you!  She is a real case!"

        "Well, it is too late for that!  She called the sheriff on us!"

        "What did they do?"

        "Nothing.  They have not showed up yet."

        He snorted, then laughed.  "They probably won't.  So what did you do to get Crystal's panties all in a bunch?"

        "Not me!  She got pissed at my wife over there.  Claimed she was in Crystal's pool!"

        "She don't have a pool!"

        "I know.  Tammy was poking around in that pile of dirt up there, looking for old bricks, and Crystal comes storming out of the double-wide screaming to get out of her pool!  Then she called the sheriff."  

        Glancing back up the street, I saw the unmistakable dark form of a County Sheriff cruiser slowly crest the hill.  It slowed down near the scene of the crime.  I walked out into the middle of the street and waved at him.  Looking over to my new found friend, and expert on all things wacko in the past, present, and future,  I noted that, "You all have a pretty good response time around here!"

        "Must be a slow morning, and he musta' been in the area.  There usually is only one or two cars to patrol the whole county!"

        The cruiser rolled up to where we were standing, and then parked at a jaunty angle in the street so as to block the path of fleeing desperadoes.  The young deputy Sheriff already had his window down.  Tammy who had been observing all this, but had been keeping her distance in order to avoid getting sucked into the conspiracy lecture, now walked over to join the confab.  We all exchanged pleasantries.

       "So, officer, are you here on a report of suspicious characters, or something?" I casually asked.

        "Yeah, we got a call about a disturbance of some sort, and I was in the area."

        "We are the disturbance!" Tammy declared proudly.

        The young deputy, who appeared to have maybe graduated high school last week, took a long look at Tammy and me, and pursed his lips.  "Were you trespassing?" he asked.

        "No!" Tammy declared.  "I was standing on that pile of dirt up there, poking around for bricks, and this crazy woman suddenly appears and tells me to get out of her pool!  Then she called you guys!"

        He wanted to know what we were really doing, and we gave him the story.  Nice day, out for a drive, taking pictures, and seeing if any bricks turn up.  He let the brick part pass without comment - which most sane people do.

        Then Mister Warped History chimed in, "Crystal just likes to stir things up!  By the way, did you used to work in the jail?  You look kinda familiar!"  A whole new discussion broke out.  Who knew who.  What date range Mister History had partaken of the county's lodging at the cross-bar motel - without revealing what the charges were.  The whole thing was amusing, and rather unbelievable.

        Finally, I butted in and asked, "Do you need us for anything else, officer?  We have other places we would like to go."

        "No, I think I got all I need," the young deputy replied.

        "So," I said, "how are you going to write this report up?  Two senior citizens out of control?"

        He smiled, and replied, "that maybe how I have to do it!  You have a nice day!"

 *    *    *

        A form of common courtesy among friends is to ask something to the effect of, "what have you been doing recently?"  When we tell them, they are often perplexed.  Just as often, one will say, "the next time you guys take off, let me know!  I want to go with you!"  But that is not how we roll.

        Tammy and I are great road partners.  I grab my camera, we grab a handful of CD's for traveling music, and we stop at our local gas station to fill our coffee mugs and banter with the cashier.  In most cases we do not know where we are going, although we may have decided upon a direction, and possibly a town.  None of that guarantees that we will actually get there.  We enjoy each other's company.  We enjoy the surprises of the backroads.

        Our encounter with Crystal, then the friendly raconteur of impossible history and conspiracies, plus a non-confrontational encounter with a Belmont County Deputy Sheriff, was how this particular day began.  To be sure, it was unlike any other day.  By the time we decided to head back toward home we had also met loquacious individuals in Mount Pleasant and Bellaire - and that was not unusual.  Each had a story to tell, and we were there to listen.

        One morning in New Straitsville, we got ensnared by a group of folks hanging out on the sidewalk in front of the local market.  They wanted to know what we were doing - just like Crystal, but they found it interesting.  In no time the conversation had taken all sorts of tangents until it was revealed that everyone was packin' guns - except Tammy and me.  The only implements of self-defense we had was a canvas tote full of bricks and my camera bag.  At first we were a bit nervous, and then we felt down-right naked and out of place, but the folks on the sidewalk included us in their world for an hour of lively conversation and friendship.  That is the real reason Tammy and me do what we do.  We meet real characters, and see fascinating places.  It is totally unscripted, and it cannot be planned.

        Embracing the unknown, while on the road, was a major theme of my book, Hitting the Road Without a Map.  However, a cross county journey is not necessary to experience the joy and wonder of the unexpected.  It can be achieved wherever one is - with a little bit of walking, or a short drive, plus the time and willingness to stop and engage with the world.




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