Early afternoon I hit the road for Lewisburg with an audiobook on positive thinking playing in the background. I do that sometimes, particularly when I'm nervous and road trips alone tend to make me nervous. It's soothing to have someone in the background telling me to imagine the best, not the worst. I need to be reminded.
With the air conditioning blaring and Rhonda Byrne giving me advice about imagining a better outcome, the drive was pleasant, far more pleasant than spending much time at the house, which was still without power and beginning to smell like a barn.
Sometimes it's nice to just not go home. I was looking forward to this.
Following my directions, I took the White Sulphur Springs exit. I didn't need to, my instructions for getting credentialed at the concert were pretty specific, but I figured checking in with the media center at The Greenbrier was a good idea --besides, there would be food, which had been described to me in near pornographic terms. Since the power outage, I'd lived mostly on peanut butter sandwiches and ravioli straight from the can; washed it down with warm mango Kool Aid.
Things went south almost immediately after I got off the interstate.
A series of signs led me down a winding, narrow two lane road that seemed to be going nowhere, but this seemed to make sense. The Greenbrier was a resort. Why would you want your four star luxury hotel located propped up right next to the interstate like a Motel 6?
So I followed the signs which led me inexorably back to Lewisburg.
The signs had been meant to lead people from the resort to the concert area. So much for checking in with the main media people, but that was fine. I still had plenty of time to get to the show. All I had to do was get to the fairgrounds, find Old Powell Road and the media tent. Everything would fall into place after that.
The locals had gone fairly nuts about the Classic. Like with the state fair, many had embraced the fun-loving flea market part of their souls. Young women and surly looking black men waved scalped tickets on street corners while fat mothers lounged on chairs in the shade, offering up their lawns as premium parking --meaning parking away from the throng of cars going into the fairgrounds that would eventually all try to leave at the same time at some point before midnight.
In parking lots, a few vendors had set up, selling sandwiches of pulled pork, beverages and snacks. In the air there was the celebratory feeling of "Hey, Rube."
The plan was simple: I'd do my little interview with the concert producer then watch Toby Keith be Toby Keith in all his redneck glory. After the show, I'd grab some space at the media tent and write out the review before finding a place to crash or maybe just go home.
But first Old Powell Road.
I did a lap around the fairgrounds. The concert, it turned out, wasn't being held on the actual fairgrounds, where I'd seen a couple of shows before at the track, but in the vast grassland where people usually parked and often camped like some kind of middle-class hillbilly army. A fenced concert area was set up at the bottom of a hill.
I didn't see a sign for Old Powell Road, just the entrance to the main area. A couple of state troopers with buzz cuts were busily waving vehicles through, but it wasn't where I wanted to go. I passed it by and kept looking for the road.
Pretty quick, I wound up where I'd begun; on the other side of the fairgrounds.
Not a problem, I thought. I must have missed the sign --and there would have to be a street sign, I thought. A lot of energy had gone into putting this together. It was an important detail that people know where the hell they were going.
I drove around again. Saw nothing and completed a lap.
It occurred to me that maybe Old Powell Road was on the other side, down the opposite direction from where I'd turned onto the road in front of the concert. I went further down toward Lewisburg and turned back.
Nope and I noticed the streets weren't marked very well. I began to panic. This wasn't just me dicking around. I was on assignment.
At the main entrance, I rolled the car window down, waved my press pass at a state trooper and said, "Hey, I'm with the newspaper. I need to find the media tent. Do you know where Old Powell Road is?"
He shrugged, disinterested, pointed me in the direction of the dirt road leading in and told me, "Ask one of the volunteers."
I asked just about all of them all the way up to the top of the hill. They were a friendly lot: big, beaming smiles and necks loaded down with lanyards and tags. Some of them had radios in their hands or flags or both. Over and over I stopped, going from polite to pleading, saying, "I'm looking for the media entrance. I'm with the newspaper."
They passed me down the line like a joint at a Ziggy Marley concert until finally, one of them said, "Hey, talk to security at the top of the hill. They'll get you straightened out."
The short, old guy at the very top of the hill did not smile when I explained who I was and what I was doing. He seemed to genuinely hate being bothered.
"You got a pass?" He asked.
I shoved the badge and necklace at him. I tried to hand him my instructions.
He wouldn't touch any of it.
"Well, that's a pass, alright... but it ain't the right one for parking."
"Okay," I said. "How do I get go the media tent where I can straighten this out?"
He had no idea.
"Look," I tried. "I just need to find Old Powell Road. That's where I'm supposed to go."
Again, I tried to show him the instructions.
Without so much as a glance at them, he said, "You're going to have to head back down that way and go around."
He wanted me to go back down the hill and get back on the main drag.
"But where is it?"
He sighed, impatiently. "You'll need to go around."
The black shirted troll told me to turn around; not exactly an easy feat, but back down the hill I went.
I did another lap around the fairgrounds, returned to the same cops waving cars into the same entrance.
I drove back around and headed toward Lewisburg and stopped at the first gas station I could find.
A lumbering young guy in a greasy, sweat-soaked t-shirt stood near the curb, guarding the ice machine. I must have looked pretty frantic. I was barely out of my car when he asked, "Mister, you ok?"
He stepped slightly toward me, but not too far from the ice machine and crossed his arms. Curious and arcane signs and symbols decorated his beefy, exposed forearms. The words "white power" were etched very clearly, along with a few other lines about the master race, but he seemed genuine and also, I'd recently cut my hair. I looked like a skinhead.
I explained that I was looking for Old Powell Road.
"I think that's the back way into the fairgrounds," he said and I could have kissed him full on the mouth. "But I'm not a hundred percent sure how you get to it."
My stomach lurched.
"Tell you what," the polite young hatemonger said, "Go inside and ask for Dave. Dave knows where all the back roads are. I'd tell you, but I'm afraid I'd get you lost."
He was incredibly helpful and I had nothing to lose.
Inside, the convenience store was doing a brisk business, selling chips, soda and beer. A retired carnie with honey blond hair and a scattering of bad tattoos over leathery skin ran the register and shuffled people out the door with surprising efficiency.
"You keep a hold of that receipt," she told the man in front of me. "Give it to the guy outside and he'll get you your bag of ice."
Apparently, with the power out, we'd reverted to savages. People were now willing to steal ice and the machine needed to be guarded by a friendly racist at all times.
"Can I help you, sweetheart?" She asked me and everything I needed to say came out in gush.
"The kid told me to come find Dave."
The nearly mummified woman frowned then said, "Dave ain't here."
My heart sank, but she looked over my shoulder at some sweaty, pale man three bodies behind me.
"Do you know where Old Powell Road is?"
She never said his name, but it only took half a beat of staring at the ceiling before he nodded and slowly gave me vague directions on how I might get there.
"You want to take a right at the second, maybe third light..."
I only got lost once and not for very long. His directions, while imperfect, were good enough to give me a general idea of what I was looking for, which in this case was a back road branching off from the end of another road and sure enough after about ten minutes, up ahead were a couple of bored state troopers standing underneath a sign that said, "Buses" and "Media."
I'd finally arrived.
Turning into the lot, I rolled the window down and started to ask about the media tent. The cop, not at all interested, waved me through and said, "They'll take care of you at the top of the hill."
Good enough, but then I didn't see what would be considered a media area and the road leading up the hill seemed to be going past the backstage area and instead brought me right back to the grizzled old security guard who'd sent me on this same trip.
He'd been standing in front of Old Powell Road the entire time.
Luckily, another security guy approached the car, and I started in on who I was, what I was doing and how this needed to get fixed now.
"Have you got a press badge?"
I waved it at him and he seemed puzzled.
"I don't know," he said. "Let me call someone."
He got on his radio, asked a couple of questions and waited for a response.
"Sorry," he explained. "I don't know who to actually ask. The people running things are all using code names. I need to find someone named Bam-Bam."
"You'll need to move your car off the road," he said. "You're blocking traffic."
That was the traffic coming down the hill, the traffic the other security guy didn't seem to be all that interested in.
But I moved over to the side of the road, discovered I had a cell signal (very weak) and began texting, complaining and ranting at my editor, my girlfriend, at our Lord, Jesus Christ. After a couple of minutes, a middle-aged volunteer approached the car and asked me if I needed help.
The other security guy had abandoned me.
She told me her name was Lynn and I told her who I was, why I was here then I showed her the badge.
"I don't think I know who you are," she said, which didn't seem especially relevant, but still kind of hurt. "Let me check with somebody for you."
While she wandered off, I sat in the car and fumed. This had turned to shit. I just wanted to get out of here, but Lynn came back and told me, "You can just park over there and go in."
"Just park anywhere you can and go in," she repeated. "Your badge is good here."
"What about the media area?" I asked. Where was the media tent? Where was the wi-fi and what about the food and beer?
"WJLS is over there." She pointed toward a radio station remote tent. "You can go hang out with them if you want."
As best I could manage, I said thank-you and found a place to park about a hundred yards from the main gate. I hung the media badge around my neck, grabbed my notepad, a couple of pencils and started for the main gate.
Other than being asked to put my very dangerous (and dull) Swiss Army knife back in my car, there were no more problems with getting inside to the concert.
Nothing had gone right, but at least I was there. I could get the review done and the rest would work itself out.
My phone rang.
"Where are you?"
"What?" It took a second for me to place the voice. It was the concert rep who'd emailed me the paperwork, who'd started this mess in the first place. I took a breath, then said, "I'm in the venue."
"I'm at the concert and looking for a place to sit so I can review the show."
"But Lionel Richie is here."
"For pictures and media."
She thought I was here to interview Lionel Richie. This entire thing was about me getting a picture of Lionel Richie, something I hadn't asked for.
"I'm not here to take pictures," I told her. "I didn't bring a photographer. I was hoping to talk to Gary about the repairs to the stage, but..."
"But Lionel Richie is here," she repeated.
"I'm just going to review the show. Thanks."
I hung up on her.