I remember the first time someone made a joke about “County Roads” when they found out I would be attending West Virginia University. I was in my best friend’s kitchen in the middle of June and her grandmother began belting the song out at the top of her lungs. I had absolutely no idea what she was doing. As it turns out, whenever anyone over the age of 40 heard where I was attending school, they would serenade me as I laughed uncomfortably. Great, I thought to myself, everyone thinks of some weird country song when they think of my school. I hate country music.
I would learn later on that John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was released in 1971 and instantly met with a positive response from the people of West Virginia. Denver famously described the state of West Virginia as “almost heaven,” a phrase I’m sure he never could have imagined would be used for endless amounts of Instagram captions. “Country Roads” is played at every pregame show, after every victory–sports-related or otherwise–and the state of West Virginia actually made it their official state song in March 2014. Four decades later, it seemed the tradition was being kept alive.
When I arrived in Morgantown to begin school at West Virginia University in August 2011, it was no more than a day before “Country Roads,” was shoved down my throat. During freshmen orientation they made us sing it, and every time I walked down the street I could hear it blasting from a house party or someone’s balcony. I was embarrassed. I thought I was too cool to sing along. I will always be a New Yorker at heart, so the fervor my peers seemed to feel for this song constituted my first real case of culture shock. The south was a world away from Long Island. What was this strange place where everybody asks how you’re doing, Starbucks lines take an hour, and people are unresponsive or utterly shocked if you ask them to hurry?
Luckily for me, I discovered I wasn’t the only person who felt overwhelmed by my new home. I settled into a group of friends quickly; we hopped around different frat parties, trying to help our guy friends decide which one would be a good fit. Once they chose which fraternity they wanted to join, we were introduced to dozens of people. Not many of those people stood out to me, but Adam Singer did.
Adam was older, but you wouldn’t really know it; there was something ageless about him. Perhaps it was his playful demeanor, or the fact that he could consume more alcohol than anyone I’ve ever known, but we became friends quickly. It turned out he lived just a few minutes from me at home. He understood my frustration about how awful the pizza was. He promised me we would go to the best bagel place in Long Island together during fall break. Adam didn’t care about our age difference, or that I had no interest in joining a sorority; he simply understood what it was like to go from being a kid on Long Island to a student at WVU. We could talk about music, sports, TV, clothes, and of course bagels. I felt that I had known him for years.
The one thing we truly didn’t have in common was a deep love for Morgantown. Adam was probably the number one advocate of “Country Roads.” He was living proof that someone from Long Island could survive West Virginia, and I don’t think I understood at the time how badly I needed to learn this from him.
Over the next four years, that foreign world would shape me into the person I’ve become — and who I am today. By my first fall break, I had given in to the allure of “Country Roads.” I could feel how powerful it was: the entire student body would come together for a moment, even if it was to drunkenly sing this song, (we have our own version of “Sweet Caroline” as well). I embraced the “County Roads” at every pregame, frat party, tailgate, happy hour and of course every win. Hearing it would fill me up to the brim with pride about the off-beat community I now called home. On a trip with school friends to Israel we ran into some alumni. We immediately bonded with them by taking tequila shots together, and forcing the bar’s DJ to play the song for us. Just for a moment, all the way on the other side of the world, we had the luxury of feeling a little bit at home.
We returned from summer break, eager to embark on our sophomore year, but just two months in, we were faced with tragic news; Adam had been diagnosed with cancer, and he wasn’t going to be with us much longer. So, instead of moving back to New York to get treatment there, Adam made the brave decision to finish what he started. He came back to school to be surrounded by friends, to graduate, and to not let cancer get in the way of his life. We all held our breath, but much to our amazement, he was still the same Adam we all knew and loved. I believe he went out more in his final semester than I did in four years. When no one had heard “Royals” by Lorde yet, he made everyone listen to it on repeat at a pregame until we were begging him to stop. He never let cancer diminish all the colorful aspects of his personality, all the life that was still inside him.
I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to part ways with Morgantown and all it meant to him, but I knew deep down he wasn’t in the proper shape to be there. He had to spend a lot of time at the university hospital, and I remember visiting him there during one particularly bad time period. Standing by his bedside and holding his hand, I felt absolutely terrified for him. Was he going to die here? How much time did he actually have? Just the smell of a hospital is enough to make me hurl, but for him I overcame it. Adam, though, was fearless. In classic Adam fashion, he cracked me up the whole time I sat with him, because he wouldn’t stop asking the nurse to go to the frat’s upcoming date party with him. Even with an IV in him he was a comedian. Eventually the sickness caught up with him, and by the winter it was time for him to go home.
The thing about Adam is that he was always moving forward. The next step for him was not to simply “go home” and wait for his disease to swallow him whole. The next step on the agenda was to get his apartment and job in New York City. Some of my best memories with him are in that New York City apartment. Like the great friend he was, he texted me from NYC on my 21st birthday right at midnight, wishing he was in Morgantown celebrating with us. That was the last time he would wish me happy birthday.
A month later, as we were about to complete fall semester, Adam passed. I had known it was coming for a while, but that didn’t make it any easier. I had seen him just a few weeks ago, how could someone with such a large presence just be gone? I remember texting him knowing he wouldn’t respond anyway. It just didn’t feel real. I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me, but once I could gather my thoughts I marched straight to Adam’s favorite bar with my best friend and we sat together while I sobbed into a whiskey sour.
The day of the funeral was when I realized I was surrounded by a group of people who I had never really been in a serious situation with. The most pressing of our worries usually revolved around which bar would be strict with IDs, if the cops were going to break up our party, or where we would pregame. These people were always smiling, joking, laughing — they were my college friends. But here we were, all in shock even though Adam’s fate had always been inevitable. Their faces were like stone, their eyes bloodshot from crying. It felt like I was seeing these people for the first time. Many of them stood up and told stories about Adam, these came mostly from people who knew him far better than I ever had the chance to. Most of these stories made me cry, because I missed my friend, and realized I still had questions for him. Some stories made me smile, but I was overall thankful to learn even more about Adam, who I had sadly only had the chance to know for four short years.
Towards the end of the funeral, the rabbi put his cell phone to the mic, and announced that he was going to play “Country Roads” for Adam. My body tensed up immediately. I held my breath trying to keep my composure. People cried loudly, sobbing along to the song that had made us once all feel so happy; a song we’d sung hundreds of times with Adam. It was the hardest part of that day, but it was the most important. I knew from that day on he would be with me whenever I heard that song.
After he died everything was different. Four years of happiness began to feel a lot more complex. My college memories felt weighty, and I resented the whole experience for a long time. I began to wish I’d gone somewhere else, had different friends or done it all differently. I couldn’t stand to hear “Country Roads.” I couldn’t stand to think about anything from my life in Morgantown. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
It took months away from school for my bitterness to evaporate. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that if I had done it all differently, I wouldn’t have known Adam at all. Maybe I had gotten so hung up on the idea that my friend was sick that I forgot losing him was a reality. Maybe he was filled with so much life that I didn’t think his death was possible. I didn’t think four years of emotion could be felt over the course of a song that is approximately three minutes long, but John Denver proved me wrong. To this day, my heart swells up every single time I hear “Country Roads.” Even if it’s just for a moment, I’ll be transported back to my strange second home hidden away in the mountains of “almost heaven,” West Virginia. I’ll let the good, the bad and the ugly rush back to me, and above all else: I’ll remember Adam and the way he taught me to love my school.