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Foggy Mountain Breakdown
Dawn and I began this weekend in the mountain town of Weber City. I parked the car at a gas station and Dawn begged us a ride, but when I approached the car the woman behind the wheel said, “You don’t have an axe, do you?” Hmm. I seem to get that reaction a lot.
“No, but I do have a cheese grater.”
The woman frowned, her fingers hovering over the door lock, but she still gave us a ride four miles up the road to the tiny town of Hiltons.
Dawn had to swallow a handful of Ibuprofen before we could get started since her hip was still bothering her, but she was a trooper and we strolled back at a lazy pace. The weather was perfect for walking: overcast and a balmy 58 degrees, but the sun was gathering strength when we got near the end and the temps crept up near 80. “You’re going to have to do the rest yourself,” Dawn said.
I passed her the car keys and she drove on another 4½ miles to Gate City. I tromped along without incident, but I felt like a limp noodle by the time I finished. We decided to eat at a local diner and get a feel for the place. I was enticed by Pop's Greasy Spoon, whose sign boasted: "It ain't healthy, but it sure tastes good!" Well, they got the first part right. As for the second, they should change it to, "but at least it's cheap!"
I chatted with a few people, but apparently, other than once being the "Gateway to the Wilderness Road," Gate City didn't have anything else to recommend it. And since this was no longer the 18th Century, even that tidbit didn't help out much.
“You’ve got this spotting thing down,” I said.
“Yep, down to a science,” she agreed.
That opinion would soon change.
A few miles later, I saw fog-lights burning on the road’s shoulder as I crested a rise. Unfortunately, I forgot to tell Dawn that my car’s electrical system draws heavy and that it can drain a battery in short order if the engine’s not running. Which it wasn’t. I opened the door and heard Hootie and the Blowfish jamming on the CD-player.
Dawn saw the look on my face and said, “Everything all right?”
“I’ll let you know in a sec. Try the ignition, will ya?”
She turned the key from Accessory to Start and the engine responded with a series of clicks that sounded like beads bouncing around inside a maracas gourd. My shoulders slumped and I slapped my forehead.
Dawn clamped her mouth shut and her eyes furtively cast back and forth. When the vein in my forehead is pulsing, she knows it’s best to stay quiet and save her sarcastic jabs for later.
Today was twice as foggy as yesterday, and the lenses in my glasses had steamed over after just five minutes outside. I’d simply hooked them though the neck of my shirt as I walked, but now I took them off as I popped the trunk to get a snack from the cooler. I set the glasses just inside the lip of the trunk’s opening, right where the cover slams down, but didn’t realize this until just AFTER I’d slammed the lid. I screamed in frustration and shouted a few choice words at the sky.
Dawn eyeballed me kind-of the same way that the kind woman from yesterday had (okay, now I see why I get that reaction). I leaned in, pressed the trunk release, and went to the back to recover the tangled remnants of my wire frames. Amazingly, they hadn’t been harmed! I thought they would’ve been crushed, but they were resting in an air pocket. Phew.
That wasn’t the only good news. A Good Samaritan named Charles pulled over to lend me a hand. I searched in the trunk for my jumper cables, but then I remembered that my niece had borrowed them a few months ago and never gave them back. Charles had a set of his own though, and we hooked them up to the terminals, jumped the battery, and the car sputtered to life.
We thanked him effusively and drove back to Gate City where I’d seen an Advance Auto Parts. When we pulled into the lot, we noticed a gaggle of turkeys pecking in a field abutting the store. Being the clown I am, I decided to chase after them and see what happened. Nothing much; they just ran into the woods. However, the clerks inside were a little put off by it. “Those turkeys are like pets to us,” one of them said with a scowl.
There I go again, making friends with the locals.
With the battery changed out, Dawn dropped me back off at the spot where the car had broken down and I continued the last of today’s trek. Dawn waited for me in a church parking lot at Speer’s Ferry. I was jelly-legged after humping eight mountain miles and soaked from head to toe. I peeled off my sopping wet shirt and grabbed a semi-fresh one from my rucksack to change into.
Dawn looked left and right, then back at me. “Should you be doing that in a church parking lot?”
“Why not? We’re made in His image, aren’t we?”
She eyed my gut and shook her head. “In that case, God might need to go on a diet.”
Smoke ‘Em if You Got ‘Em
Today we were supposed to drive the seven hours across the state to get back home. But first I was going to get in an early morning walk. Dawn acted as chauffeur again and dropped me off this morning around 6 a.m. It was chilly so I threw on my Hokie sweatshirt and endured honks and dopplared epithets yowled out windows of passing cars with UT bumper stickers. I wasn’t too worried until I heard a sprinkling of gunshots in the wood line. Just hunters, I was sure. Even so, I took off the Hokie sweatshirt and tied the arms around my waist. No need to stick out. I wanted to blend in with the rest of the Tennessee fans in this region. If I had an orange tee shirt I would have worn it, and if I had some shoe polish I would have blacked out half my teeth. Anything to be inconspicuous. I just wanted to log my miles and be on my way back home.
However, when I reached Dawn at the designated pick-up spot a few miles down the road, I still had plenty of steam left in me and decided to push on a little farther. I swapped my empty water bottle for a full one and then Dawn left me and drove another few miles up the road. We repeated this another two times. I’d only planned to get in a quickie, but I knocked out a little over 9 rolling miles at a fairly rapid pace. When I met Dawn at the end of my fourth leg, I felt like I’d actually accomplished something this morning. Not only had I logged 3 or 4 times as many miles as I’d planned, I’d also tromped past several farms that were harvesting one of the most historically important crops to Virginia: tobacco.
Tobacco was the dominant force in Virginia's economy for its first three centuries. After the “Starving Time” nearly wiped out Jamestown, John Rolfe introduced tobacco as a way of making the colony economically viable. In 1612, they began to grow a more palatable Spanish strain with a lighter leaf than the harsh stuff grown and smoked by the local Indians. The success of the crop and the demand for it in the Old World is credited by some historians as the reason why the southern half of the United States speaks English today instead of Spanish.
But even though tobacco was a successful crop, it was labor intensive and damaging to the soil. Land had to lie fallow for 20 years before it was fertile and crops could grow there once again. Corn, since its root system was deeper than tobacco, could be grown in those “fallow fields,” but corn wasn’t nearly as profitable and it, too, depleted the soil without rotation.
Generally, one person could work a two-acre plot of tobacco for three years before moving on to the next two-acre plot, coming back to the original one 21 years later. Thus 14 acres of land could be worked by one field hand. To yield more tobacco, huge tracts of land were needed, which eventually gave rise to the plantation system in the South.
Although tobacco production is far down from what it used to be in its heyday, tobacco in Virginia is still a very important crop. Less than 10% of Virginia farms grow tobacco, but it generates 90% of the income for farms in the regions where it is grown. As demand dwindles thanks to health consciousness (yea!) and outsourcing (boo!), more farmers are switching to different crops or selling the land and giving up on farming altogether. Africa and China and South America can produce and deliver tobacco much cheaper than American farmers. “Virginia tobacco,” once the pride of the Commonwealth, is now primarily produced in Brazil. At least they didn’t outsource the name as well.
Bluegrass on the Crooked Road
After this morning’s interesting encounters, Dawn and I drove a few hours northwest to Blacksburg to take in a football game. It was Virginia Tech’s season opener against Appalachian State, and we were cheering in the hot sun as the hometown Hokies throttled the Mountaineers 45-0, kicking off a season that would land Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Not bad for what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
When the game wrapped up, we drove the two hours back toward Bristol for a night of bluegrass the way it was intended: played on a tiny stage in a country store. Every Monday night and the first Saturday of the month, the Crooked Road General Store (6292 Gate City Highway, Bristol, VA; 276-644-9958) throws its doors open for a free night of bluegrass music. The kitchen opens for business at 5:30 and the banjo pickin’ begins at 6:30.
"Yeah," Dawn said, taking a big swig and bugging her eyes out, "still does."
We chatted with the owner and she told us about the regular shindigs she hosted at the store. “We’ve had all sorts play our little stage,” she said with pride. As she rattled off their names, I was amazed at what colorful monikers country music rock stars paint themselves with. “Rusty Bob McTaggert has played here, and so has Dishrag Johnson, Sawblade Sally, and even Running Pustule Pete.”
We arrived tonight just as the evening’s entertainment, The Blue Stone River Band, was setting up on stage. Coming straight from the football game, we were still wearing out gameday gear, namely VT sweatshirts. The crowd turned in their seats, took in our appearance, and gasped in astonishment. Then they peppered us with boos. Even though this store is in Virginia, it perches on the southwestern border of the state and is closer in distance and culture to Tennessee.
“All right, all right,” the owner interjected, “they din’t know no better. Leave ‘em be.”
We meekly took our seats just minutes before the band started in on its first number. The Blue Stone River Band was a four-person band with someone on guitar, bass, mandolin, and the heart of any bluegrass band: a banjo. Most of their songs started off explosively, with all four instruments beginning at a gallop at the same time. The timing was amazing. And anyone who has only heard banjo music but not seen the instrument being picked doesn’t know what he’s missing. The picker’s fingers were tipped with silver caps that had a claw-like protrusion. These silver talons skipped across the strings creating a cascading stream of music that seemed impossible for one person to generate.
The crowd clapped and cheered as if they’d paid fifty bucks a piece to get in. We drank in the warmth and charm of the place and I have to say, it felt like I was home surrounded by family. Yes, even with the heckling. Well, considering my family, especially with the heckling.
Cats, Dogs, and Sketchy Joe
At 2:19 this morning, I realized today would be strange; I just had no idea how strange.
Let me start by explaining that Dawn and I tend to be polar opposites where sleep is concerned. I function well on 6 hours a night and she can barely move if she gets less than 8. She shuffles around like a zombie for the first hour after waking, whereas I tend to wake well before the sun comes up and spring out of bed raring to go. She sleeps so soundly that she’s trained her dogs to scratch her awake when they hear her morning alarm clock, which would otherwise blare as loudly as a fire alarm without any reaction from her. I, on the other hand, rouse from the slightest noise, as you will soon discover.
Dawn woke up at 2:19 a.m.—a strange enough occurrence at that hour—and pressed the light button on her watch to check the time. The accompanying beep was tiny, but enough to make me spring up and say, “What?”
“I can’t sleep,” Dawn said.
Rolling off my bed, I stood in a combat pose in the middle of the room and shouted, “All right then, let’s go!”
“Something’s wrong with you,” Dawn said. “That’s not human.”
About an hour later, Dawn dropped me off in the parking lot of Miller’s Chapel and I began my trek down the tiny mountain road. At that hour and that far out in the boonies, I expected nothing but solitude on this pitch-black morning. But a quarter-mile later I saw a tall, thin figure carrying a flashlight appear from around a rocky bend. As he approached my first thought was, Guess we’re not the only early risers. “Hey,” I said, “great morning for a walk, huh?”
The guy stopped and teetered and I realized something was off. He wasn’t out for a pre-dawn walk; he was still out from the night before. Not only that, his tee shirt was slathered in dirt, he was wearing flip-flops, and his face had the haggard and pock-marked appearance of a meth addict. “Wattth out,” he slurred, “some guys are after me.” Then he twitched several times, blinked, and added, “They took my phone.”
Just then Dawn drove up in the car and I waved her to a stop. The plan was for her to drive four miles down the road and wait for me, but she pulled over now to see what was going on. I hopped in and told her to keep driving and see if there was a rabid band of hillbillies up ahead. The way this guy was tweaking, I didn’t trust his story and I certainly wasn’t going to invite him in the car.
I filled Dawn in as we scouted the next mile of road, finding nothing out of the ordinary. “Okay,” she said, “let’s have a few words with your new friend.” Dawn had been a deputy in the Newport News Sheriff’s Department for 20 years, and I knew that was just her polite way of saying she was going to interrogate him.
Sketchy Joe, as we so fondly referred to him, was standing in the chapel parking lot by the time we reached him. Dawn parked and we both hopped out. She approached him head on while I took up a flanking position and prepared to pounce, my right hand ready to grab and my left hand holding a canister of pepper spray.
Dawn eyeballed him up and down then said, “What seems to be the problem?”
He told the same wild story about some guys being after him, but when Dawn suggested we call the sheriff’s office he started singing a different tune. “Nah,” he said, “don’t call the police. They’d get me. They know where I live.”
“So you know them then?”
“My girlfriend knows Trish and John Boy. Thass why we went over to his house. But he’s dangerous. Things got bad, so I just got outta there.”
“You just left your girlfriend there? If she’s in danger, we need to call someone.”
His eyes rattled around while he thought up an answer. “If’n you call my cell phone, she’s got it.”
I called the number he gave me, but it went straight to voice mail.
“They must’ve turned it off,” he said.
Dawn nodded and asked in a confidential tone, “Did you get thrown out of a party? Is that what happened?”
“Nah, we all just chillin and all a sudden they say they want to do a foursome. I won’t interested so I got outta there.”
“Uh huh,” Dawn said. “I still think you should call the sheriff.”
“I don’t want to get involved.”
“And what is your name again?”
“Nah, I can’t say no more.” And with that, he turned to shuffle away in his flip-flops.
We watched him recede down the road, heading toward Bristol fifteen miles away. “See,” I said, “this is what happens when you wake up before 3 in the morning.”
“That’s why I like to sleep in.”
I continued my walk and Dawn drove off, thinking that now that our encounter with Sketchy Joe was behind us the rest of the day would be normal. Au contraire! When Dawn arrived at today’s finish line, a gravel pull-off next to a trash collection site, she killed the car and planned to catch a few z’s while I hoofed it out to her.
But she couldn’t sleep. It was 5 a.m., pitch black, and she was a single woman alone on the side of the road in the back woods’ mountains. Scenes from horror movies played in her head. And then she heard a soft thump-thump on the hood of the car. She held her breath and strained to listen. Peering into the dark, she saw that a portion of the darkness was a different hue than the night sky; there was an outline of someone or something just outside the car. Her hands felt for the door locks to make sure they were secure. Heart thumping, she turned on the car and the lights, ready to dart out of there. On the other side of the windshield was a pair of startled eyes staring back at Dawn. And then the cat jumped off the hood and disappeared into the night.
Dawn laughed at herself, but she was shaking at the same time. She reached for a bottle of water and felt the towel I carried with me on my walks to wipe away my sweat. I’d left it behind after the encounter with Sketchy Joe. Knowing that I’d need my towel and figuring she wouldn’t be able to nap anyway, not with her heart racing the way it was, she drove back so she could give it to me. Good thing she did, otherwise today’s story might not have a happy ending.
Halfway back, she saw what at first appeared to be a giant goat. Or a pony. What it really was was a great white Pyrenees. The dog came out into the road and chased the car. He was tall enough to look into the driver side window while running alongside, barking the whole time.
When I saw the approaching headlights, I stepped off the shoulder to give a wide berth. This early in the morning, I always play it extra safe. The car stopped beside me and Dawn pushed the passenger door open. “Get in,” she said, “unless you want to be Cujo’s breakfast.”
She filled me in and we passed by the hellhound. The beast chased us for a quarter-mile, barking all the way, hungry for the flesh of city slickers. When he peeled off, Dawn drove for another quarter-mile and dropped me off at an intersection. We marked the spot in the GPS so I could return to walk this skipped patch of road sometime when Cujo wasn’t on the prowl.
When I finished my four-mile leg this morning, I still had plenty of juice left in my legs. And, thanks to the early start, time enough to add some more miles. So we drove back the way we came, slowed down to film Cujo as we went past, and continued a few more miles past my original starting point. And there, shambling down the mountain, was Sketchy Joe.
“I wonder,” I said as we drove past, “if his story will change again.”
When I came walking up on him, Sketchy Joe seemed shocked to see me. Not because I’d passed him miles down the road going in the other direction. No. As far as he knew, this was the first time he’d seen me. “Watch out,” he said, “there are some guys out there who are after me.”
When I told him that I was the same guy he’d already passed by before, he just nodded and smiled and scratched himself. I chatted him up a bit more and asked him about to tell me more about what had happened. This time he told me that John Boy’s place was a meth lab. “He pulled out a 16-gauge shotgun and I just got outta there.”
I told Dawn this latest update when I made it back to the car. “It probably is a meth lab,” I said, “and John Boy is his dealer.”
As I drove us back to the hotel, we discussed the horrors of various drug addictions and how meth was at the top of the list. Not only does it turn you into a different, crazed person, it also disfigures you as well, turning your teeth and bones to mush and scarring your skin with rashes. The Monmouth County Sheriff's Department documents the startling and rapid disfigurements in their Faces of Meth project.
Coming up on Sketchy Joe for the third time today, I pulled over to give him a ride back to Bristol. The whole way back, he yammered about this and that. His fingers tapped a staccato drumbeat on the water bottle we’d passed back to him. And, of course, when we first stopped and he got into the car, the first words out of his mouth were, “Glad you came along. There are these guys back there after me.”
It takes so long to drive out to the western tip of Virginia from our homes on the shore that my weekend walks are limited by the amount of remaining hours. So Dawn took some vacation so we could leave on Wednesday evening after she finished work and spend more time walking. In turn, I decided to surprise her with a visit to Mabry Mill, a famous Virginia landmark that was far off our walking route.
Dawn noticed my head bobbing on the drive south and suggested we sing to stay awake. Sing we did, though howl might be a more appropriate term. We were both screaming songs at the tops of our lungs, windows rolled down so we could share our enthusiastic renderings (or butcheries) with the world.
“Better stop now,” I said, “we’re getting close and if anyone there hears us, they might not let us in.”
Turned out there was no way to line up the rising sun to be a backdrop for the mill, which was a good thing since the sun had come up long before we’d arrived. But the mill was still a thing of beauty, with a functional paddlewheel spooning water into an ancient-looking, wooden aqueduct. A paved walkway wended around the mill and through the tree line, leading to a designated viewing spot with a split-rail fence acting as a retaining wall. Posted signs said to not step over the fence because that might spoil someone else’s picture, but there was no one else around so over I went to get some close-ups.
There were a few ducks lounging in the grass on the hill over the water. They were snoozing standing up with their bills tucked beneath their wings. It was such a pretty sight, my first thought was Serenity Now. Dawn’s must’ve been Bowling Pins, because she ran at them and sent them scattering and then chased them down the hill into the pond.
After snapping a dozen-or-so photos, we moseyed through the various historic displays in the nearby park. By that time, a park ranger had arrived and he was busily shaving down a piece of wood inside an enclosure. We were the only ones there and I tried to step over the knee-high log fence to get a closer picture of him, but he yelled, “No one steps over the fence!”
I backed off and whispered to Dawn, “I told you. He must’ve heard us singing.”
Undeterred by Mr. Grouchy Pants, we ambled over to the neighboring Mabry Mill Restaurant for breakfast. The menu featured several items with connections to the mill, so I ordered the Gristmill Platter, which consisted of three pancakes made from the types of grains that the mill used to process: buckwheat, cornmeal, and sweet potato. The service was slow and I had plenty of time to fantasize about my meal during our long wait. I’d never tried buckwheat before and I was excited at the prospect.
When my plate finally arrived, I cut off a piece of each pancake and tried them separately.
“Well?” Dawn asked.
Instead of answering directly, I sawed off a chunk, stabbed it, and passed the fork to her. “Here, you have got to try this!”
Her face screwed up into a fist moments after it entered her mouth. “Ugh,” she said, “disgusting!”
“I know, tastes more like buckshot than buckwheat.”
“You could have just told me.”
“True, but sharing is caring.”
The rest of the meal wasn’t much better. The sweet potato pancake was all right, but the cornmeal one was bland as dirt. The pancakes improved mightily when I drowned them in syrup, but they never rose to the level of a great, or even decent, dining experience.
Dawn’s Southern Platter wasn’t much better, with only one out of three items palatable. Her scrambled eggs were fine, but the grits were runny and the sausage was refrigerator cold in the middle. At least I was wise enough to refuse her entreaties to “Have a bite.”
Had we known in advance, I would have packed a lunch and we could have eaten at one of the picnic tables near the mill. Oh, well. The restaurant wasn’t the purpose for our visit. I’d seen the photos of the mill and heard about it for so long, I was thrilled to finally see it in person.
Done with our scenic detour, we drove west toward the tiny town of Bruno, hoping to beg a ride at the tiny shop where we’d stopped to buy Amish bread a little more than a month ago. On the previous occasion, the storeowner had made fun of our accents and I’d returned the favor in my blog post; but on this visit, the store had been shut down. Permanently.
We’d seen that far too many times during the walk. A sign of the times, stores shuttered and businesses no longer able to survive. It put a damper on our mood from the beautiful sights from this morning. All we could do was push on to the next store.
I parked the car at a gas station in Hiltons and Dawn found someone (Greg Sampson) kind enough to give us a lift. He drove us back to the first store and dropped us off. Thanks, Greg!
The two stores were only five miles apart, but the walking was rough. It was now midday, the roads were steep, and the temps were in the upper 90s. Plus we’d slacked off for most of August and were terribly out of shape. We clawed our way up and down the mountain highway and shrugged our shoulders at the drivers passing by and pointing. About halfway through our walk, we were feeling a little delirious and that was when GOD spoke to us. He said, “Get into the ditch!”
Here’s what happened. We were stumbling along when an 18-wheeled delivery truck veered over the line and nearly hit us.
It was one of those times when your life flashes before your eyes. And all I could see all the pranks I’d pulled and all the snarky comments I’d made. I glanced up at the truck and saw emblazoned on the container’s side: G. O. D. Guaranteed Overnight Delivery. I got the message loud and clear, and I vowed to stop being such a wise ass.
After we climbed out of the ditch and gathered our composure, Dawn said, “It was almost like he was aiming for us. They must not like out-of-towners around here.”
“I think you’re right. Why don’t you go first?”
I never was good with vows.
Earth, Wind, and Fire
Have you heard the latest news? Earth, Wind, and Fire are playing in Hampton Roads. Unfortunately, I’m not talking about the band. I’m talking about natural disasters.
First, lighting struck the Great Dismal Swamp, which started a fire burning out of control, spewing noxious fumes across the northern North Carolina and all of Hampton Roads. Then on August 23, an earthquake centered near Richmond registered 5.8 on the Richter Scale and shook the entire East Coast. When it happened, I was working on the computer on the second floor. I thought the floor was shaking because the washing machine had an uneven load in it. But then I remembered I wasn’t washing a load.
The third destructive force to be visited upon us had the gentle name of Irene. But Irene wasn’t gentle at all because Irene was a hurricane. She came barreling through the area, smashing houses and knocking trees onto power lines. Everyone thought the storm might at least cancel out the Dismal Swamp fire, but it merely cut off power throughout several states and left hundreds of thousands of people stinky and sweaty. Welcome to my world.
Amid all that mess I received one piece of great news. The New York Quarterly, which Rolling Stone calls “The most important poetry magazine in America,” informed me that they would be publishing one of my poems in an upcoming issue.
I was so excited about the news that I immediately told Dawn, who, in usual fashion, slapped me back to reality. At least her version of it. “Well, that does it,” she said. “When the Earth shook, the wind ripped our roofs off, and sulphur rained down from the sky, I didn’t believe it was the end of the world. But you being published in New York Quarterly? Now THAT is a sign of the apocalypse!”
That was the final straw. After the first night of sweating in bed from a loss of power due to Irene, I decided to escape. If I couldn’t get any work done on the computer at home, at least I could finish up the leg I’d started at the end of last month in Northern Virginia. I drove up to Warrenton and spent the night rolling around on fresh sheets in my air-conditioned hotel room. I tried to call Dawn to rub her nose in it—I mean, tell her how much I missed her—but both her phones were turned off because of the power loss. Oh, well, it’s the thought that counts.
The next morning, I scouted out the seven miles I had to hike from The Plains to Rectortown. Since I was out there on my own I decided to start at the halfway point in the town of Marshall and turn around to go back after I’d reached the end. Sure, that would double my mileage, but the nearest taxi was located in Warrenton and the price to come out to Rectortown was too steep for my cheap—I mean, thrifty—ways.
The temperature, for once, was actually chilly when I started. It slowly warmed up as I walked up the road, but I reached Rectortown before it got hot. My turnaround point was the local elementary school, and when I got there I saw a couple of people taking down the flag from the pole. Parked at the curb was a truck with its door open. I figured at least one of them was getting ready to go home, so I moseyed over to see if I could get a ride. Terry, the school’s head janitor, was so helpful that he drove me past where I started this morning so I could walk back to the midway point and not do any doubling back at all.
Since Terry saved me that extra distance, I decided to do some extra exploring with a four-mile circuit through Warrenton. Dawn and I had hoofed through the town before, visiting the renovated Train Depot Restaurant, the preserved slave auction blocks, and the Old Jail Museum, so I didn’t really know if there were any more surprises left for me. There were.
First, I passed by the courthouse and saw, out front, a prominent statue of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall. I chatted with a deputy who told me that Marshall had come from this town. The deputy also informed me that the Gray Ghost, Colonel John Singleton Mosby, leader of the Rangers that performed raids on Union forces in NOVA throughout the Civil War, was buried in a cemetery on the other side of town. Well, that I had to see.
When I got to the sizable cemetery, I read the map posted on the outside wall of the groundskeeper’s hut but couldn’t find Mosby’s grave.
I rounded my circuit and came back through the center of town, stopping at a little café called Jimmie’s Market. As I sipped one of their specialty drinks, which was half tea and half juice, the proprietor started chatting me up. I asked her a couple of questions about Warrenton, and she said, “Oh, you’ve asked the right person. I’m the queen of gossip.”
Turns out she was right. In a period of fifteen minutes, she told me about hushed up thefts, money laundering schemes by local businessmen, and even the presence of the Mafia in town.
The Mafia? Hmm. She lost me with that nugget. Even though I wasn’t sold on the veracity of her stories, I was fascinated by the way she found sinister meaning behind whatever she observes. Someone glancing back as she walks past the store? She must be plotting something. Someone not glancing back as she walks past the store? She’s also plotting something, but she’s too cagy to let on.
I left the café pondering how the way we want things to be affects the manner in which we interpret what we view. I took a good, long look at Warrenton’s main drag and didn’t see dark agents lurking behind every corner. I saw Main Street USA. Families strolling along sidewalks peeking into shop windows. Catchy phrases written in chalk on sandwich boards to entice patrons. And in front of the post office, a street musician blowing songs for passers by on his trumpet.
I soaked in the beautiful fall day as the musician finished his song. Then I fished out five bucks from my wallet and asked him to play a song that summed up how I felt. Nothing bleak, and nothing by Earth, Wind, and Fire. I didn’t want to focus on this month’s natural disasters; I wanted to see the silver lining in the sulphuric cloud. I asked him to play Louie Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, and as the brassy notes danced in the air I knew it was true.
The world is wonderful. If you want it to be.
The Counterfeit Farm Girl
After reading my last blog entry, which focused on Dawn’s newly acquired, debilitating heart condition, many of you faithful readers promptly freaked out. Dawn was touched by your concern and asked me to alleviate your fears. No, she is not dying. Last week her Premature Atrial Contractions (PACs) were getting way out of control, but her doctor prescribed beta blockers and that seems to have her PAC-man fever under control.
So today we took to the road to test her endurance. We were heading back to horse country to see what 4-½ miles of hilly roads would do to her. If the PACs weren’t going to do her in, I was going to give it a try.
We began the walk around midday in the quiet hamlet of Rectortown. The temperature was warm, but not oppressive, and our spirits were high as we began. But as soon as Rectortown’s collection of old, quaint houses faded from view behind us, the long roller coaster of intermediate slopes began to assault our calves.
For the first three miles, no hill by itself was enough to do us in, but the constant sway of the road had a compounding effect. Then we hit a hill with a skiing grade of black diamond and all bets were off. I was aching but didn’t want to be the one to ask for a break. I mean, how do you live down being beaten by an invalid heart patient? So I was glad to hear Dawn ask to stop. At least that’s what I think she wanted. What she actually said was, "Blaaaghhh, blee blee."
I dropped my rucksack in the shade of an oak tree and we swapped out my empty water bottle for one that was still chilled with ice. De-li-cious!
"You sure? We can hang out in this shade if you need to rest a little longer."
"No, I’m fine."
"I was just thinking about your PACs."
"Shut up and get a move on."
We chugged up that final hill, which twisted its way around fields and over a couple of false crests. Finally, though, we made it to the top, where a herd of polo horses were grazing in a field with cows. We’d brought along some apples to feed them, but when we called them over they just tossed their manes and showed us their hind ends.
I guess being polo horses they were expecting caviar or something. Their loss. Dawn and I chowed down on the apples, which were a wonderful treat after clambering up that hill.
We only had about a half-mile to go, but the roadside still held one more surprise for us. We’d reached the town limits of Upperville and suddenly the endless line of fencing that borders almost every road in horse country changed its style from the typical three-post, wooden structure to waist-high stone walls. And boy were they gorgeous. These walls weren’t cut stones slapped together with mortar; they were loose stones stacked in piles that were framed by the timbers of a standard fence.
I imagined how difficult it must have been to construct each six-foot segment of this wall, and then I looked off to the horizon.
For now, though, we found ourselves approaching our destination: Sue McCorkindale’s farm. We were visiting Sue’s farm so I could interview her for a Virginia Living story about her latest memoir, 500 Acres and No Place to Hide.
Just as Dawn defies expectations (Debilitating heart condition? Pffshaw! Watch me attack that hill!), so does Sue. She is a fast-talking, petite, blonde who used to work in New York City as the marketing director for Family Circle magazine. She is an amalgamation of characters from Sex and the City and the Real Housewives of New Jersey, and nothing, not even relocating to a farm in the sticks, will make this brash Jersey Girl change her city ways.
When her husband suggested moving out of the city to a farm in central Virginia, she was supportive, but a little shell-shocked. "I didn’t see anything on the drive down," she said. "I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, there’s nothing here!' I didn’t see anything but religious billboards, you know, ‘Got God?’ Yes, I do, but I don’t think God’s hanging with me today because I’m about to move to a farm! I have a feeling I’ve been left.
Now she's adjusted to the peace and quiet of Upperville and even to farm life...but only so much. When Sue toured us around her farm, she didn't look anything like a typical farmer. Her blonde do was a high-end precision cut and her shirt was a snazzy white, boat-neck number. And instead of boots to tromp through the muck, she stepped cautiously in a pair of heels. Heels? On a farm? How has that worked out for her?
"Lots of broken shoes," she said. "The heel snaps, the buckles pop off, you name it. Eventually what I figured out is you don’t wear the really good shoes during the day like you used to, Susan, you dum-dum. You save those for a special occasion. You go to Pay Less for cheapies and wear them around the farm."
To hear more from our day together pick up a copy of the November issue of Virginia Living. If you like stories packed with humorous mishaps, you should pick up a copy of her memoir, 500 Acres and No Place to Hide. It's humorous from cover to cover, even when her life gets turned upside down in a way that would leave most of us crying. But to really get a sense of the book's tone, click on this video and listen to what farmer Sue has to say about it herself: