Geedunk (geé-dunk): 1. Navy word for junk food: candy, ice cream, potato chips. 2. Food or drink as souvenir: two liters of mediocre table red bought in a Monoprix in Paris, carried across two continents in a cardboard wine box with “bon vivant” on the sides, then found cheaper at the Piggly Wiggly in Tulsa.

Geegaws (jeé-jaws): 1. Trinkets and baubles. 2. Useless souvenirs, often fragile or unwieldy, though not necessarily cheap: a porcelain figurine with tiny arms and hands, waving a feathered cavalier hat; a book in the size known as “double elephant folio”—50 inches high and heavier than a baby stroller—containing color plates of Monrovia.

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Recently Mrs. Churm caught me gazing at old photos of bachelor adventures and sniffing the suntan lotion. Ignoring my hints that I use our air miles to fly to Nepal, she asked if I wanted to visit my friend Frenchy, who’s renting a condo on Snowshoe Mountain and building a log house a couple thousand feet below the lodge. “That would be great!” I said, then saw the look on her face and added, “I am on deadline for that magazine piece; this would give me time to finish. And I’ll bring you and the boys something nice.” “You don’t need to get me anything,” Mrs. Churm said, and I knew I’d better bring her something extraordinary.

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A tale about geegaws: A friend wanted to see the Three Gorges before the deluge. Somewhere up the Yangtze, he, his wife, and fellow passengers debarked at a village market selling the usual teapots and brass bells and cans of Chinese soda. My friend spotted something unusual in the back of a stall; a girl said it was a poncho, used when her grandfather worked the fields. My friend looked at the ratty, rotting thing—apparently made of bark—and asked if it was for sale. The girl wanted a few bucks for it. “You are not buying that,” his wife said.

Now it meant something, you see. “I think I will buy it,” he said. “If you try to buy that hideous thing I’ll go back to the boat alone,” she said. “See you back at the boat,” he said cheerfully. Before the transaction was finished, the boat’s whistle blew, and a state senator from Minnesota, traveling free because his wife was the tour agent, bellowed that my friend should be left behind. But he got his poncho.

His wife refused to sleep with it in their cabin, so he wrapped it lovingly in a garbage bag, stowed it in a locker in the steward’s galley, and checked on it in the night. He got trench foot on his hands from carrying the sweaty plastic through airports, and endured vigorous probings by security because he couldn’t explain what he was clutching. On the airplane, he put it in the overhead; his wife moaned that its proximity was going to make her vomit, until he began to feel queasy, too. Finally, he took it to their Chinese hotel’s business center, handed them his credit card, and said, “Ship it. I don’t care what it costs.” Two months later, when it got to their house, he figured out that, with exchange rates for its purchase, and packaging and shipping fees, and the insurance he didn’t ask for, he’d paid, oh, a million dollars for it. His wife demanded to spend the same on herself as recompense for all she’d suffered, and he agreed, to make peace.

The best part: Go visit them sometime and she’ll ask if you’d like to see the really cool bark poncho they bought in China, which she hopes to have an art expert appraise. He’ll pretend to be finding pictures from their trip and won’t say a word. Who says geegaws aren’t important?

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With the semester over, I drove into a June sunrise, the trunk filled with books, rooster sauce, nuoc mam, good wine, and better bourbon. Ohio was under construction, but West Virginia rewarded me with black cows grazing in grass up to their hocks on a hillside; the forested ridge behind it glowed with sun. A bit further into the mountains, near Nutter’s Road, I lost my cell signal for good. Here, I thought, is where I’ll go all Kurtz, train battalions to explicate and parse as we sip sumac tea and gobble tiger-lily blooms. I’ll compose dispatches in nut shells and tail feathers, and Dennis Hopper will deliver them to McSweeney’s, on an ass.

I stopped daydreaming at Flinderation Road, the start of the Land of Roadside Crosses. The sunset in my mirror turned the color of the apocalypse, then it started raining. A sign offered “Deer Cutting.” Fog rolled down the mountains onto the road. Night fell, and it rained harder. I stopped at the last Hardee’s on earth and dashed inside to ask directions. I was still wearing the clothes I’d left in: white shorts, the yellow polo shirt Mrs. Churm bought me for my birthday, and running shoes over Nautica anklets (desperation socks; my others were packed). Cowboys waiting for their Angus burgers stared, puzzled how I’d gotten there from Pluto.

It only took five more hours to climb Frenchy’s driveway. I’d been saving my liver for old age, but he built up the fire and we talked a long time. Then I slept without stirring in the cold air from the open window. I woke after dawn to omelets cooked in bacon drippings, biscuits with butter and elderberry jelly, and black coffee.

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What the semioticians call signs—cultural artifacts invested with meaning—can be seen everywhere, from the socks we choose to the “Monster Thickburgers” (1,420 calories) we eat. A ski resort is a sign, too. Life on a mountaintop requires such tremendous resources—to fight exposure, maintain infrastructure, and haul flavored syrups up to the Starbucks—that for much of history it’s been shepherds, ascetics, and the foolhardy who chose it. It still connotes separation, now more likely to be between rich and poor.

Snowshoe is such a commanding presence—economically, physically, politically—that it does as it likes. What it likes to do occasionally is flush overflow sewage into waterways that run to the towns, where the resort’s own minimum-wage service-industry workers live. Frenchy probably wouldn’t like the place at all if it weren’t for its skiing, restaurants, shops, views over the Alleghenies, barbecue and jazz festivals in the summer, and the conversation of the bartender in the boathouse at the bottom of the lift. (“You know how it is; you meet a guy, and you got to go with him,” she explained to us.)

Each morning, I worked in the condo, while he hung doors and cut molding in his house, down on a tributary of the Elk River. He’s planning a bigger house for the upper slope of his meadow, covered at the moment with foxtail, teasel, and Montrose rose. Indigo buntings look in his windows, and the hawthorns are in bloom. Afternoons, we sanded and stained, inspected other people’s land, or went caving. Every night, we drove back up to the condo and feasted without end.

One night, after a run to town for groceries and a copy of the Pocahontas Times, I read an article on 81-year-old Jake Hilleary, who used to trap bears for the state. Once, he brought some clay, to get a bear’s paw print. “I wanted to make me an ashtray,” he said. He was “straddling the [sedated] bear and pushing its front paw into the clay that I was going to get baked in Johnnie Hill’s kiln,” when his co-worker gave the bear the antidote for the tranquilizer. “He just got up and took off with me on top,” Jake said. “He took me right to the woods … I guess I’m the only one in the state that ever rode a wild bear.” Well, sure. In the state.

Geedunk and geegaws are signs, at the intersection of two worlds. A plastic mug bought at the city zoo, mold-injected to look like a panda, brings together the cloud forest and the concrete jungle. To the buyer, it says, “I appreciate the wondrous diversity of species on this small blue planet, and snow cones.”

Souvenirs of all kinds commemorate difference, in forms entirely safe (if they don’t carry you to the woods) and freed from context. That’s why they’re so often grotesque (alligator-head key chains in Florida) or tacky (candy cigarettes in the Stuckey’s of my youth). A bark poncho in a museum-quality frame, hung with a couple’s wedding photos, means something to (and about) its owners, even if it’s as cryptic as a word carved in a tree in Roanoke.

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On my last day in West Virginia, Frenchy and I cooled beer in the river and tossed canned corn to the trout. He told me about his neighbors. One old man has told the county he’ll be on his porch with his shotgun if they want to come by to hook him up to the sewer system that Snowshoe forced through. “You’ll fit right in here,” I said.

“I come from a long line of hard bastards,” he said. “My great-grandmother Molly’s first husband went to Florida to drain swamps. He died working, and the crew left him on the side of the road. Molly went for his body herself and took it home to Alabama. Later she married a man named Finnegan, my great-grandfather. Now he was Irish, so he liked to drink. But Molly towered over his ass, and she’d go after him. He’d run to their bed and pull the sheet over himself, quaking, and yell, ‘Molly! In your wrath, remember mercy!’”

The next morning, I packed to go home. Sun warmed the clouds lying in the hollows, and they rose like wraiths and were shredded by the breeze. We shook hands and I flew down the mountain. Robins bathed in frigid water in the ditches along the falling road between the trees. Ahead were more mountains, and I drove down and up for hours before rolling out on the plains.

I knew I was back in my usual world when Chaz, a technology manager I know in Chicago, called me. He was in his car, too, and shouted that while I was away he’d been denied rush-hour entertainment. I told him I had bigger problems; in every store in West Virginia, the black-bear knickknacks had been molded in Colorado, the apple butter processed in New York, and the toys manufactured in Taiwan. Where were the locals’ wood carvings, the irregular pots and amateur landscapes, the slippery-willow flutes? Soon, I said, the only geegaws in America with discernible differences will be mass-produced T-shirts bearing logos of various corporate resorts.

“Why do people want to save old ways of life?” Chaz interrupted. “Certain things are meant to disappear, like all that stuff you said. Or telephone operators. People are dumb enough to wish we had them back. Same with family ranchers and farmers. I saw some on TV, the big babies. Listen, I want Wal-Mart and Best Buy and Chili’s to run everything for me. I want everything to be the same. I want to be sealed in a Twinkie the size of a living room and live there forever.”

I said we needed to know about different things, like finishing houses and making Vietnamese noodle soup, in order to have metaphors with which to think comparatively, maybe even empathetically. Chaz said, “You’re gonna have to explain this empathy thing to me someday.”

I told him my theory about souvenirs as little talismans that we buy because they reassure us we can survive difference. I told him about the cowboys in Elkins stunned by my clothes, which were signs of foolish disregard for weather and landscape.

Chaz said, “Maybe they were just wondering why a guy was wearing Nautica anklets 10 years out of fashion.”

I paused long enough that he thought we lost the cell signal.

“Hello?” he said.

“How’s your bark poncho?” I asked.

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Halloo, the house! I’m back, Mrs. Churm! Bring in the boys—hello, boys! Come see the marvels I brought you: a fossil calamite in limestone, coal from the tender of a logging train, a rusty spike that once held its rail to the earth. I see you eyeballing all the regulation geedunk and geegaws, Mrs. Churm, and, yes, here’s a jug of West Virginia maple syrup, four T-shirts, two toy animals, and a comically large lollipop. Here too is my suitcase filled with dirty laundry. But I also brought home my gratitude and desire, and more stories than I can tell my love, you.