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Morgantown, W.Va.: Here's the Party

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

You know those moments that come out of nowhere and demand you stop and seriously consider every twist of fate that brought you to a certain place and point in time?

Okay, here's one.

My friend Sara and I are wearing our best bluejeans and trying to crash a frat party in Morgantown, W.Va. All the cool kids are in there. We get into the bar okay, but the mixer's in a private room and the doors are closed and we forgot to wear white baby-doll T's that will glow in the black light as people pass marking pens and sign each other's chests.

We've made a friend, though, and beg her to sneak us in. She's a little worried, 'cause it's definitely only supposed to be friends of the FiJi guys, but if we're casual about things, it should be okay.

I open the door and walk in. And by walk, I mean fall. Loudly. Dramatically. Like Mary Katherine Gallagher, but without the rebound.

The heads turn, the cloud of dry ice parts and Sara leans in with this: "I don't want to know you right now."

Yeah, thanks. That makes about 70 of us, including the dudes working the DJ booth.

* * *

Right. Let's back up.

I am 28 years old. I started college a decade ago and have had plenty of time to forget what it was like. At one point during my time there, the state university I attended in New York held the prestigious title of Biggest Party School in the nation, an honor that has since been returned -- once again -- to West Virginia University.

A quick word about the rankings. Princeton Review is the source, and they're based on student responses to survey questions. They're asked about time spent studying, beer drinking, drug consuming, participation in Greek life. (Did Lara Win the Tiara, by the way? The banner hanging on the front of her house sealed my vote.)

The Mountaineers nabbed the top spot this year, as they did in 1997. So here I am, in Morgantown on a Thursday in October, sent to find out why.

Three and a half hours after leaving the District, we're in the heart of town and surrounded by sweats.

"I do like a good pair of sweat pants," Sara says, and I agree, as we drive around lost and distracted by the streams of students filling the sidewalks. Baggy sweat pants, snug ones. Navy sweat shirts, yellow, gray, green. And it's cold out, the type of day you might want to wear sweats if you thought about it, but -- let's be honest -- you would never think about it.

Morgantown is a hilly little city, with winding streets that all seem to land in a business district that probably doesn't look much different than it did in 1957. There are old brick-faced banks and law firms, and a multitude of places to pick up some sweats, or a deck of "Morgantown Party Girl" playing cards.

For $99, we get ourselves a room at the Clarion Hotel Morgan. Beautiful old building. Big chandeliers, elegant architecture, new copies of Log Cabin Living in every suite. (Well, ours, anyway.)

And just like that, the bell tolls for happy hour.

Clark, bartender at the Boston Beanery, maps out a plan for us. According to Morgantownbars.com, the city has almost 60 drinking establishments, many of them clustered in the small downtown. Clark's place is delightful, cozy and populated with people who can legally rent cars.

Which means we need to move on. Clark had pointed us in the direction of Chic-n-Bones Rhythm Cafe, where there are framed pictures of Elvis on the wall and the comely bartenders have perfected the art of the tight, rolled sweat pant. We enjoy a plate of fresh vegetables, and as I step away to the restroom, I see Sara made a friend!

The following is a reenactment of an actual barside conversation:

Guy at bar: "So, are you from around here?"

Sara: "No. Just visiting."

Guy at bar: "Oh. Are you here to get [lucky]?"

Sara: "Excuse me?"

Bar guy: " 'Cause if you're here to get [lucky], you should go across the street. This place is more chill."

We are appalled. And go straight across the street. (Research, etc.) Bent Willey's, it's called. And this is where the mini-existential crisis comes in. How, how, am I here right now? (And, come on, who puts a step down first thing after an entryway? That door should open with a laugh track.)

Forget Greek life. The Miller Lites are free till 11 throughout the rest of the bar, and it's here that we meet Russell Hall, a senior business major who's kind enough to sum up the WVU party phenomenon: "We don't study. Drinks are cheap. Our football team is amazing, and these women are beautiful."

Thanks, Russell Hall. Time check, Sara.

"It's not even 10."

Cripes. College crashing is some work. (God, did I just want to be home with a couch and a magazine, though, and maybe a new Glade PlugIn for kicks.)

Anyway, Russell Hall says we at least have to stay out until midnight when they play "Country Roads" in every bar.

So we do. Our next stop is a gigantic place called De Lazy Lizard, where there's a band playing and lots of good, sloppily fighting couples to observe. Then on to Gibbie's Pub for a little live-band karaoke. It seems they like their rock music in Morgantown, but they love their John Denver. Kind of sweet, really.

In truth, a lot of it is kind of sweet. At midnight this town is full of people having good times, singing and dancing and not worrying about what comes next. Best, probably, to leave before there's a bar fight.

We sleep soundly and wake with the smell of smoke in our hair.

Over egg salad sandwiches at the Blue Moose Cafe, we read the local papers. One has a headline about a DUI simulator brought in for students. The other features a story -- and photo -- about the "late-night vomiters" who leave their mark on the city's sidewalks. (Egg salad = bad decision.) We say our goodbyes to fair Morgantown and hit the road, wondering when that merciless song will stop running through our heads. (Still wondering.)

A few days later, I hear that Daniel Paepke, a friend of a friend, recently made the same journey, to see his younger brother, now a WVU senior. I called to compare notes.

Paepke and his crew spent most of the night trying not to get [lucky] at Bent Willey's.

"Everyone else was dancing and running around. We're sticking out because we're sitting there," he said. "I'm pretty sure people were like, 'Who are these old people and why are they here?' "

Wait, and you're how old?

"Twenty-five."

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