Save a whale -- ride a mermaid!

The rumors are true: Mermaids do exist, and they live in the Greenbrier River in West Virginia.

Don't believe me? You will soon. I was there. I was among them. In fact, I was one.

Here's my tail of adventure. Back in the cold winter, my friend Alyson brought up the 4th of July, and how her wacky West Virginia family was holding two annual traditions the same weekend: her Italian branch's family reunion, and the Mermaid Parade.

Yes, a Mermaid Parade. Aly started this tradition two years ago a) because she loved mermaids, and b) wanted to be in a parade. It quickly ballooned to include all of the women in the family, and involves building a float, dressing in mermaid tails, wearing as much sparkly jewelry as possible, and riding in the local parade.

She asked if I'd like to join. I asked if the Pope was Catholic. And so it was set that I would celebrate our nation's freedom by traveling to a new state, partying with relatives I wasn't related to, and getting me some mermaid tail.

Country roads -- specifically routes 66, 81, and 64 -- took me to Alyson's home some months later for the three-day adventure. To prove just how wild and wonderful it is, West Virginia set its speed limit at 70 one foot over the state line. However, the scenery was so beautiful I wanted to do 25. Ah, irony.

I even paused at a rest stop to enjoy the views. Did you read that closely? Julia Rocchi actually STOPPED speeding, and got out to smell the roses-slash-take self portraits.

I could tell WV was my kind of state already.

This sense was reinforced when I pulled down the gravel road to Aly's parents' house. (The relatives camping on the lawn helped me locate it.) No sooner had I turned off the car, Aly came running to greet me, shouting, "You made it! Want some gumbo??"

I didn't unpack the car until three hours later. The evening became a whirl of learning relatives' names, forgetting relatives' names, eating gumbo, drinking Chianti, visiting the river bank, and best of all -- helping to decorate the float. You have to admire these Capaldo women: They can take a truck, a hitch, a baby pool, an old couch, and leftover fabric, and turn it into Poseidon's perch, complete with cascading waterfall, within a matter of hours. (Must be the gumbo.)

The next morning dawned humid and gray. It was time for Alderson's annual parade. Now, a note on this event before we go back to mythical aquatic creatures. Alderson has a population of about 214.6 people and 54 teeth. But they don't let their relative smallness keep them from celebrating the 4th in style. I'm talking an entire WEEK of festivities dedicated to our country's independence -- shows, fireworks, picnics ... and of course, the parade.

The parade draws every citizen out of doors. They line the entire parade route (at least 1 mile), and fill every bit of sidewalk on the bridges, residential roads, and historic Alderson pavements. They come with chairs, blankets, flags, pickup trucks, tents, and all their relatives. "Big deal" does not even approach its significance.

So you can imagine the butterflies in my stomach as Aly and I clambered onto the float to head down the winding road back to town and get in line for the parade. Passing trucks honked and waved, other motorists gawked, and we nearly stuck the whole float on a tight turn into the (wrong) staging area. But we made it in one piece, and it was time to perform.

And by perform, I mean drown.

No sooner did we get all our mermaids in order, complete with tails, tiaras, and 3000 necklaces for parade route distribution, then the skies opened up and dropped the rain that had threatened all morning. Our soaked-to-the-bone-edness was rapidly justified by the claim we were being "authentic" -- after all, mermaids aren't dry! High spirits were restored, and the parade began.

Let me tell you, there's no better way to meet a town efficiently than march before them. Everyone is primed for a good time and already disposed to like you. Highlights of the event included:

* Being the banner bearer.

* Pandering to the very old and very young.

* Blowing bubbles.

* Accidentally running over the mp3 player that was pumping our float music.

* Meeting the inspiration for Hallmark's Maxine:

* Our official tagline: Save the river, save our tails!

* Our unofficial tagline: Save a whale, ride a mermaid!

* Having a mer-chihuahua along for the ride:

* Plus a mer-pig:

* And, of course, my lovely friend Alyson.

I even got to see this motel sign along the route (file this under "motel of many talents"):

After the parade, we returned to the Ficks' house for more revelry. This encompassed eating, drinking, corn hole, horseshoes, swimming, tubing, singalongs, and more eating. (I had to bum rush the table to get my meal. And this is coming from a girl who thought she already knew what bum rushing a table meant from her own family experiences.)

When evening fell, magic happened. This rather hickish-looking homestead -- covered in Christmas lights, clotheslines, garden equipment, trailer-turned-houses, and tents, cars and relatives on the lawn -- turned into a wonderland. The fire pit roared. The fireflies soared. And the children disappeared into the dusk to play and explore, making me wish I were 10 and with all my cousins again in this fairy-tale landscape.

Such round-the-clock fun continued straight into the family reunion the next day. A note on family reunions: Attending ones where you are not actually related to anyone are antithetical, lonely, and freeing all at the same time. I wasn't obligated to talk to anyone or make the rounds. I just got to eat pulled pork and play corn hole whenever I wanted. On the other hand, no one deeply cared who I was, why I was there, or what I was up to in life. Disconcerting.

That said, the Capaldo clan is as warm and hospitable a crew as you can ever hope to meet, and they adopted me happily. Here they are en masse:

Names include: Happy, Pat (called Susie), Toodles, Zeth, Leonard, Granny, Tooney, Tammy, Zed, Jud, Kimber, Zizzy, Tristan, Trinity (a boy), Braylin, Baylin, Collie, Jeremiah, Basil, Nellie, and Billy Owen. Billy Owen a special case because he's one of three brothers named Bill -- all by different moms. And he met his fourth brother named Bill when they were put in the same jail cell -- the same brother who was killed two weeks later in an auto accident.

The weekend ended with a literal and illegal bang during our home-grown fireworks show, with one rocket shooting into the grove of trees 15 feet from the spectators. This confirmed why fireworks are illegal in the first place for anyone but trained professionals. Still, a fitting and explosive end to a fabulous weekend.

And what did I learn? That I stink at tossing bean bags into holes. That river shoes are a must for painless river adventures. That sugar is an essential food group in W Va. That my friend has a stronger accent when she's back home. And that families and love are universal, no matter the state, the event, or the float design.

The End. Literally.