It was our normal summer road trip: over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we drove —or, rather, under Virginia tunnels and up and down the West Virginia turnpike. Eleven driving hours from central North Carolina to my mom’s parents in Ohio.
Loaded in that Chevy van (a full-sized conversion one…no such thing as minivans back then), there were seven of us: Mom, Dad, four kids, and my paternal grandma. Plus the dogs—who ended up being the catalyst for this most-memorable moment.
We started out early in the morning while it was still dark and, with all the necessary gas and facility stops along the way, wouldn’t arrive till long after the late summer sun set. But we’d made the trip enough times that we didn’t usually start asking “Are we there yet?” until we hit the Ohio border—unless we actually asked how close we were to the border itself. Why? We wanted bathroom breaks before we got there. Ohio’s rest stops still meant wooden outhouses—even in the ’80s.
That may have been a big reason as to why we decided to stop this particular year at one particular city: Nitro, West Virginia. About forty-five minutes from the Ohio border, it was one of the last exits on I-64 before turning off onto the much smaller Hwy 35.
Unfortunately, it was also the most foul-smelling place I’ve ever experienced.
That’s saying a lot, considering each summer trip took us past plenty of cow fields. Not to mention a visit to my great-uncle’s pig farm. And, of course, those outhouses.
Yet none of it compared to the stench in the town of Nitro.
Apparently the city was built in WWI to manufacture cannon powder. Once the war ended? Chemical factories took over. Hence that horrible chemical smell. Across the entire city.
Drive through the town today, and you won’t notice the problem. They’ve cleaned things up environmentally. But on that trip, the odor was overwhelming. And we all complained about stopping there to eat.
But we were hungry, and we needed bathrooms, so we all climbed out for McDonalds.
Now our family modus operandi for fast-food meals was pretty set. Mom and Dad went through the line first, ordering a burger or two for the canines, whom they then fed and took for a brief leg-stretch. Meanwhile, Grandma ordered with us kids.
So as we all politely tried not to hold our noses, Dad stepped up to the counter and placed his doggy-bag request. The gentleman at the register handed him two hamburger patties and told him he’d add the price to whatever the rest of us ordered once Grandma returned from the restroom.
Mom and Dad gave us cash before stepping out, and one by one, we four kids ordered. Grandma came, chose her meal, and the cashier rang it all up but again handed us meals without taking money, suggesting he’d collect when Mom and Dad finished with the dogs.
We began eating, soon Mom and Dad joined us with their tray of food, and we all laughed and joked around, unwinding from the cooped-up car ride.
Until Dad asked how much Grandma paid for our meals.
She handed him all the cash and said, “I didn’t pay anything. The cashier said he’d charge you once you came back.”
Dad blinked, mouth gaping. “He told me I didn’t need to pay because you took care of it.”
We all ate slowly, not sure what to do, calculating how much we didn’t pay for the food we were enjoying.
Did we misunderstand? Would someone come, angrily demanding payment?
Finally, food finished and cash in hand, Dad stepped back to the register where, now, a different cashier stood, this time a lady. He explained what happened, and the woman laughed.
“That’s the manager. Sometimes he pays for traveling families. Just to bless them. Enjoy your trip.”
We walked out into the nauseating Nitro air, admittedly a little shell-shocked. But now, not because of the smell. Instead, because this “most stinkiest” of places just became our favorite town—and one of our best memories.
Yep, the story gives new meaning to Jeremiah 31:13
“Then the young women will dance and be glad,
young men and the old as well,
For I will turn their mourning into gladness” (NIV)
“You thought [it] evil, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20, KJV)
How about you? Have you walked into a situation that looked bitter, but ended up delightful? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
“Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His mercies endure forever.” (Psalm 136:1, KJV)