EXPLORING VIRGINIA’S OUTER RIM By John Watts  

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People often speak of there being two Virginia’s–the authentic, rural southern section and the uprooted, intransigence of the northern metropolitan region.  In fact, from my experience, many homeowners in the Washington metro region seem almost oblivious to the former and treat it as an irrelevant mirage that sounds quaint on paper but never really impacts their world.  Conversely, those folks down at the bottom of the state probably feel very little in common with the upper, while the northern, more affluent section (while occupying much less physical space) probably didn’t bother to consider this notion much at all as immersed it is in the pursuit of pop culture and all things virtual.

After all, northern Virginia is too shook up with transplanted career climbers to ever latch on to a defining identity right?  This was a question I often pondered and it is what compelled me to take several plunges south to write about how the landscapes, people, and scenery remained distinct from my own perspective.

While our Old Dominion state historically joined the confederacy during the Civil War, the forces of urbanization and economic affluence has continued to create a dichotomy between the Northern region of Virginia and the remainder of the central and southern portions, which are far vaster in real estate, once you exclude the Hampton Roads tidewater area out of the equation.  If the Civil War was run all over again, perhaps the Northern Metropolitan area (Arlington, Alexandria, Annandale, Springfield, and Fairfax) would remain with the North this time, so alien and detached is it from the rest of Virginia. Looking at modern voting patterns also shows a consistently huge difference in rural versus urban voting when it comes to the two major parties in local, state, and national elections.

In short, Virginia presents a fascinating amalgam of cultural differences just beyond the reaches of the beltway.  Just thinking of the proximity of Richmond and Washington DC as the capitols of the Confederacy and Union respectably, symbolize this most forcefully. It is a topic that is rife for travel observation and commentary.

CONVERSATION AT CORNER BAKERY

 

Perhaps part of the allure for penetrating deep into the states lower depths is just to get out of the perceived rat race of Northern Virginia.  In the middle of writing this, I talked to a man and his wife who shared their table with my wife and me at the nearby Corner Bakery one Saturday.  Turns out they were originally from the Boston area but had lived and worked for several decades in Washington DC and commuted from Reston.  When I asked them if they had enjoyed the Shenandoah Valley or perhaps the Chesapeake Bay in the region, the chatty husband wasn’t all that familiar with either one–telling me that they rarely had time on the weekend to do anything else but rest up from working all week and buying their bulk groceries at Costco.

Their impression of Fairfax County was of endless chain restaurants and standardized strip malls.  The diversity of people from different countries, combined with the impersonal way people remained aloof, made it difficult to find people to talk with, due to language barriers and a lack of shared traditions.

While they enjoyed some aspects and people, in general they did not like the Washington DC lifestyle and found the people in Northern Virginia to be too busy and allusive to interact with.  They also missed the shared culture and homogeneity that they had known when living in Alaska and the Boston area.  They planned to move to their retirement home in New Hampshire and couldn’t wait to leave Northern Virginia.

PROS AND CONS OF SMALL TOWN LIFE

And this train of thought leads to a brief meditation on the pros and cons of small town life.  Certainly watching any rerun of The Andy Griffith show, reveals the down side of living in a small town, even amongst the most colorfully lovable folks you could ever have the fortune to surround yourself with.

Even the sit-com humor couldn’t disguise the darker side–everyone knows your business and gossip can run rampant.  This implies a degree of conformity and entrapment I suppose, but compared to most suburban sprawl addresses in America today, I would take those community aspects, along with its risks and pitfalls, as it at least offers an extra layering of identity beyond dual slotting of family and workplace in the less personal, metropolitan areas.

At least in these rural outposts (referred to as outer rim places in this piece), you get the opportunity to experience the mysteries (and messiness) of having an extra neighbor/local identity stamped along with your roles.  I find this to be a much healthier alternative to being slotted in a vacuum of some apartment and townhouse, where you rely much more on your career or school identity and hopefully, the love of a close family.

BLUE HIGHWAY CRITERIA

Whenever I travel solo or with partners, the first priority is always to plunge into small to towns and small roads, even if the entire trip is within an hour or so vicinity.  In short, to go to novel places not usually seen during a routine week at home.  Certainly for this trip, the biggest necessity was to shed the interstates as fast as possible and join the overlooked world of messy interactions in strange places where people actually talked to each other.

For years I have enjoyed taking my great travel buddy John B., with me and my dog, Ranger being the current beloved pet in the long proud tradition of adventure pets.

 

So over the course of several years, I gradually formed an idea to take several trips to Virginia’s outer rim reaches of the state.  This meant I had to transcend my usual barrier points 3 or 4 hours down Route 81.

“GOD’S THUMBPRINT” AS FOCUL POINT

As I studied my maps for a deeper plunge still to Virginia’s outer rim, a web-site onBurke’s Garden caught my attention.  I recalled that my brother Rich had first made me aware of it back when he and his wife lived in Wise County, Virginia.  In fact, the 8 to 9 hours of marathon driving that my Mom had to do in her Plymouth Duster back in the mid-1970s starting from Fairfax County and ending in Wise County Virginia, is its own profound testament as to the great length and breadth of the Old Dominion state.

He had actually ventured on foot to Burke’s Garden back in the 1970s and was well aware of its uniqueness and remoteness.

Eventually this became the perfect, definitive goal to reach as Burke’s Garden is itself a mountain rimmed bowl that symbolized the deep plunge I was taking at the furthest reaches of Virginia.  I figured that this was the obsessive exclamation point that I needed to bring clarity to the mission—just like the Richard Dreyfuss character and his need to satiate his curiosity with the Devils Tower in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind; although it turned out not to be until our second trip to the outer rim that we actually got there.

Getting to see how Outer Rim residents viewed us dwellers of the north, proved quite revealing as well.  Case in point—a South West Appalachian Museum staffer in Tazewell who, upon asking me if I needed a receipt for proof of my purchase, simply responded in a bemused manner—“No need.  You’re not in Northern Virginia right now.  We not only believe you, but you are also the only visitors we have here at the moment.”

Certainly the Northern Virginia slice in which I am rooted, feels very detached and subdued from the more homogenous traditions of its Southern relative.  On this occasion, I was determined to hold my breath and dive deeper down to Virginia’s outer rim without pulling up to the surface too soon like divers who suffer from “the bends” while returning back to the familiarity of Northern Virginia.  For Virginia truly has a beautiful deep heart with a vast outer rim, ripe for exploring and lots of driving hours to be logged.

Even though I had not even left my own state, when I told others that I had traveled to its outer rim, I talked of it with an excited tone as if I had crossed over to a distinct “OTHER” place as if in another time zone or state.

This sense of “otherness” is of course the critical part in such a venture.  I had sensed it many times on earlier trips to southern Virginia.  I had been a student back in 1981 at Longwood College and recall vividly the drive down the heart of the piedmont on Route 29.

So I approached this trip with keeping a keen eye for the differences that I saw along the way, the further I drove towards the southern and southwestern edges of Virginia’s outer rim.

 

WINGING IT ON A SHOE STRING BUDGET

Overnight trip options always ruled by necessity and a not very deep pile of financial resources.  This is always how it goes for my driving trips that spring out of my own drive way—either solo or with my buddy John.  We usually have at most, just a night or two, sometimes just one half day, in which to gather new adventures and photos, before necessity kicks in and we are bound to return to our spouses.  We scramble together some spending cash and enough extra on my debit card to support ourselves for some cultural artifacts in the form of authentic foods and some mementos along the way.  While our spouses make sure to pack healthy snack foods like celery and carrots and bottles of water, the allure of cultural experimentation, beckons  us to try some “journal worthy” culinary experiences and pull out our wallets for something we can’t get back home—on a strictly middle class fare basis of course!

I also make sure, whenever possible, to take my pet dog Ranger along for added ambience and support.  This presents an interesting challenge as my friend, John, has been forced over time, to not only not be able to rough it, but to forced, due to health and mobility issues, to be extremely cautious, not going beyond anything more than a flat side walk surface, all the while, trying to also get my dog out to exercise in beautiful, remote places.  We remain kindred souls when it comes to our love of learning and being endlessly curious, but each little logistical decision has to be carefully weighed when it comes to John’s health and what he can safely handle.  We also need to find a motel that will accept pets, which eliminates many of the top rated hotels, such as the venerated Martha Washington Hotel in Abington, Va, which we were to learn on the subsequent trip that I will address later.

In fact the more you accrue defining travel experiences, the harder it can get to find select future spontaneous destinations (within a day or so reservation before travel).  The places that accept dogs are generally on the roughing it spectrum of camping and cabins or on the economy spectrum of cheaper chain motels.  Trying to find a lodging that serves as a extension of the ambience and attractions proves very problematic.  Classy venues like The Bavarian Inn in Shephardstown West Virginia, or the Tides Inn in Irvington, Virginia tend to have strict “no pet” rules.

Plus, compounding all this, is the usual complicated changes that life throws at you anyway.  Some great places like Shrine Mont in Basye, Virginia are only open for certain months of the year.  Or a treasured place like the Hilltop Hotel in West Virginia simply closes down indefinitely due to funding and jurisdictional disputes.

While finishing this piece—(when is anything really finished when you travel?) I had hoped to stay overnight at the Highland Inn in Monterrey Virginia, as it reflected a far western border of Virginia’s outer rim.  It was closed for remodeling purposes unfortunately and remains undiscovered.

Adhering to a serendipity approach to travel is tough when you have to juggle the demands of ADA accommodations with the inclusion of a family pet.  Roughing it is not an option; not that I have ever been too prone anything too rough or extreme in my travel itinerary, even in my younger days.

Since this trip was of the Outer Rim variety, this meant that lots of necessary interstate driving would have to be done coming and going in order to have enough time to savor the quieter charms tucked away for us to discover on the blue highways.

OUTER RIM trip 1 (August 2010)

My first outer rim trip which I will include in this essay, was done solo a year or go before my trip with my buddy John.

This jaunt was done exclusively down Route 29 and Route 15 towards the central Piedmont region of Virginia.  It was a classic Virginia heartland tour as I drove along side and crossed on bridges, (and crossed again) the Rappahannock, Rivanna River, James River, and Appomattox River (at Farmville), with the Roanoke and Dan River coming the next day after breakfast.

It turned out that I had actually done some prior preparation on this trip and reserved my lodging before leaving home.  Before you get disillusioned dear reader as to my compromising my spontaneous values too much, I think it cool to report that the place I reserved was of a most unusual type.

I reserved my overnight trip at a hunting lodge called Falkland Farms, based totally on my surfing the internet and was delighted by its eccentricities and unusual amenities.

                                        OUTER RIM RADIO MUSIC

 

Scottsburg and Scottsville, Virginia:  During my many hours of solo driving, I moved around the dial until I discovered 88.7 FM country radio which was the perfect accompaniment for Outer Rim travel.  The corny, insipid lyrics, that only country music can foist, came drifting across my radio speakers.  Songwriters such as Johnny Paycheck with goofy, colorful verses like—“drinking some Colorado Cool-Aid—“every beer joint you ever been in has got some big mean drunk who wants to fight.”  The fight described in this song actually details the removal of his antagonist’s ear.

 

Road trips are meant for taking long, impatient gambles along the radio dial.  The best feeling is to capture a joyful scenery moment and combine it with some local/regional radio station song that you can forever associate with the experience.  This is when the drudgery and fatigue of driving long distances temporarily subsides.

Apart from the periodic all critical, road side stop–with its physical refreshments, and even more important, spiritual and social benefits of reconnecting with humanity and shaking off the road dust of loneliness—has always been the car radio as a companion that occasionally comes through and delivers exactly what is needed.

FALKLAND FARMS 8/15/2010

 

It seemed too good to be true.  This place I pre-selected, Falkland Farms was right smack dab in the midst of much hiking and boating and the heartland type of life style that I needed.  It was primarily used as a hunters lodge which meant, that at the time I was traveling, it was OFF SEASON and therefore was wide open with vacancies.  I took good old Route 15 south past Farmville to get there.  This was the same two lane road that I drove down as a college kid to attend then named Longwood College.  Driving down south, it was refreshing to talk to the current crop of college age youth working part time as state park workers, recreationists, retail workers and restaurant employees, so many of whom, had taken, recently enrolled, or were still taking classes at Longwood (now University).

The folks in the heartland of Virginia seemed to be more indigenously represented at Longwood as opposed to students going to Virginia Tech or UVA who could originate from any number of states or countries.

 

Of course I made sure to stop my car at Farmville and walk around the campus for old times’ sake.  It was funny how I noticed different things that interested me, which would never have dawned on me back in my Longwood College days of 1983.  The various walking routes from my apartment building to the campus and the surrounding town, suddenly triggered old feelings and memories long buried.

So much about the Farmville area that I was oblivious about.  For starters there were lots of antique furniture stores.  Unknown to me, Farmville apparently has quite a reputation in the state for its great warehouses of antique furniture.

Some of the features may not have even been present back in my youth such as the jogging trail accompanying the Appomattox River towards the far end of town.  But back then, I did a masterful job of squandering my college youth days in Farmville, completely ignorant of the history and the lay of the land around me, as I lived obliviously in a bubble, full of beer and basketball.  The highway was merely a way to get from home to school, so detached was I from most cultural and physical geography.

About this time, I tuned in to radio station WFLO in Farmville.  It featured erratic, sometimes obscure pop/rock tunes from the Beatles doing “Two of Us” to Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”

Before I left town, I tentatively looked around for a memory making place in which to eat and write about in my travel journal.  I pulled the plug at the last second from a polished, modern sports bar place called Charlie’s Waterfront Restaurant.  Despite its pretty and perky hostesses and waitresses, and well varnished and cheerful sports bar veneer, it takes a special fortitude when you travel alone to  go through all the effort of being escorted to a booth or table when you have no one else to diffuse the attention and the self-consciousness of it all.

I just wasn’t in the mood to spend all the extra time it would take to order from a menu with a waitress.  Plus the restaurant didn’t look authentically traditional enough, with just the right amount of eccentricity thrown in to include in my travel plans.  So at the very last second, just as I was about to acquiesce and agree to take a table, I pretended that my wife was in the car and that I needed to ask her first before making a decision—which is the perfect OUT for a wimp like myself!  I have done this numerous times especially at motels, when I wasn’t too keen on a quoted room price.

It took my extra evening driving—but I finally pulled in to Falkland Farms before dusk.  So here I was finally reaching my destination.  I was solo with just my trusty dog Ranger at a gigantic, ornately decorated hunting lodge, and the ONLY occupant there, as it was off season for hunting.  In fact it felt downright SPOOKY large for one man and a dog at times, to say nothing of superfluous.

Upon my arrival I was given a long presentation by one of the owners on this 7,673 acre working plantation in scenic South side Virginia.   Adjacent to Staunton River State Park and John H. Kerr Reservoir, this spread of hunting ground had the perfect proximity to rivers or trails in some of the prettiest stretches of wildlife in the state.

Falkland Farms’ Bed and Breakfast offers a peaceful retreat for all with seasonal views, hiking trails, fishing or just relaxing on the porch.  Surely in the time that I luckily chose to stay overnight, the off season room rate was pretty hard to beat.  Experiences like this reminds me again of why I love going to hotels and Inns that are off season or completely renovated yet.

 

Plastered all over my spacious suite, were stuffed whole animals or animal body parts, displayed in all their best taxidermy realism.  So I did what any 21st century man does when alone at hotel with his dog far away from home in a strange residence—I watched TV and clung to it like it was a campfire.  And I slouched on this manly “Field and Stream” magazine cover sofa pattern as I stared like a Zombie– watching any fanciful thing that my TV clicker paused by while channel surfing.

I awoke the next day to the deep pastoral sounds of the Black Angus cattle mooing.  In fact I thought it was a Viking Ship landing at first with all the deeply resonating horns sounding off.  For some reason, I also had a chronically running nose of my own to contend with overnight, so I had my handkerchief close by ready to blow my OWN horn.

The owner of Falkland Farms gave me my own tour as well as regaling me with the unique headaches associated with running the largest continuous privately, owned lodging in Virginia (perhaps the whole east coast?).  Particularly the need for getting a good match making when it comes to attracting hunters that follow the correct hunter’s etiquette.

He told me of one such prospective customer who called him on the phone looking for a reservation.  Apparently this was a notorious jerk of a hunter who had made a bad impression from an earlier trip.  So despite his offering to pay right then and there in advance the owner kept stoically telling him on the phone—“I can’t do that.” 

“But I’m paying in advance!” the hunting jerk responded.

“I can’t do that” the owner continued. 

“Well why not?”  the hunting jerk kept pressing.

“O.K. then lets’ put this another way.  We don’t have space for YOU.”  End of call.

This brief retelling was very educational for me as I never imagined the particular codes and behaviors required at a hunting lodge.

MIRACULOUS GENERAL STORE (ON ITS LAST LEGS)

 

On my first trip headed down Route 15 I happened upon a general store called Bobby and Linda’s Groceries (featuring ice, minnows, gas, night crawlers and fishing supplies).

Once there, instead of feeling like a hopeless outsider, I found myself quickly in conversation with the 69 year old owner that served me 2 chili dogs, chips, and a sweat tea as he was preparing to close up.  This was a business that would take the time necessary in ALLOWING a customer to get what he needed even if it were a few minutes past closing time.

And I deeply appreciated this hospitality because I was well versed with facing the opposite reaction—the strange stranger effect in a strange land—while trying to fit in and order food or operate a self-service coffee machine without looking too conspicuous and alien.  I have sat at many a diner or small book store on solo trips, and felt conspicuously out of place with every move I made in such small town places.  One almost feels obligated to buy a book in a small store after being greeted by the owner and being steered in a certain direction to find a book.  The tangible atmosphere of alienation can make the seconds drag like hours sometimes, while waiting to do routine things like ordering off of a menu or asking for directions.

So I was grateful that this little store made me feel welcome and not look at me like I was sporting two heads.

While preparing my last chance, adlibbed meal, the owner of the store, whose parents had built it in 1952, said he had never left the area, apart from 2 trips to Richmond.  In his entire lifetime!  Wow!  Now that was the kind of information I wanted to get from this Outer Rim trip.  He went on to say that he feared that the family store was on its last legs and that he would probably have to sell it soon for the sake of solvency.

On the way out with my ‘To Go” dinner, I was called over by a scraggly, old black man in overalls who reeked of alcohol on his breath and was sitting next to a heaping full sized bag of pears.  He immediately began his sales spiel like a carnival barker to promote this simple bag of fresh picked pears—telling me to “take a bite first” and see if I didn’t agree with him if they weren’t the finest pears I ever tasted.  In fact, he told me that I could have the entire bag of pears and to pay what I wanted.  This of course left me in that horrific “what kind of tip should I leave?” no man’s land of indecision.  I must have done all right in the old farmer’s eyes, because when I handed him 15 dollars to pay for the bag of pears, he said, with great feeling in his voice—“God Bless You” as he reached over and gave me a hug.

This was the equivalent of an infamous “Has It” general store in the coastal area of North Carolina when visiting my brother years ago.  Such country stores are renowned for doing an uncanny job when it comes to prioritizing their limited store space.  You can walk in there and get grocery supplies, a sandwich, and pet food.  Furthermore, you can also get the right nail or screw or nylon rope that you needed as well after getting lunch appetite quelled.

This kind of place is instantly surprising and novel and often produces its own kind of magic for the customer.  All of this occurs in the small space of an overstuffed general store that obeys none of the stream line uniformity of your typical 7-11 store.

A SMALL TOWN ANSWER FOR FACE BOOK

While on my solo swing with Ranger I happened upon a wonderful family diner place in Chase City, Virginia (definitely qualifying for outer rim status on the map).  Lunch time at Lois’ Kitchen was a revelation in the art of small town communication.  No one had time to check their face book pages or do some texting or twitter.  The updates were streaming in on a steady basis with entering and exiting patrons.  Witness this quick and cordial exchange:

Customer—“Your wife did a great job last week when I was in.”

Owner man “Yeah she’s almost as good as me!”

Customer again—“at least she didn’t burn the chicken fried steak.”

Owner man–“That’s OK I still love you!”

And that’s how it remained for my full lunch visit at Lois’s Kitchen, which I enjoyed thoroughly.  No doubt everyone in this little town knew the comings and goings of everyone from just a few inquiries and social visits.  So many people seemed just a few degrees removed from everyone else in terms of relations and acquaintances and going to school together.  It was such a treat as a writer, and a shy one at that, to be able to soak up the surrounding color of the restaurant without having to ask a question.

I ended up having corn dogs with sweet potato fries as my meal of choice, let the record show.  Is it any wonder that for most modern day road trips; at least for folks older than Jack Kerouac’s characters in his travel classic “On the Road,” it’s all about finding some refreshingly original and authentic local restaurant and ordering some carb heavy meal loaded with butter and grease in order to validate and justify ones trip as being good journalism.  And this is more than anything, what ends up being the biggest health threats to modern travel for most—not the booze or any kind of pills or drugs.  Simple, journal worthy taste tests along easy road side stops, with little exercise in between the driving and eating.  As one gets older, this becomes THE adventure in the trip—at least the one that is easiest and most fun to execute, compared to walking in museums and art galleries all day or taking hiking/biking excursions.

When I got home and wanted to gather background information on another establishment I had frequented—instead of finding a glowing restaurant web-site, I found this listing of health violations:

  • 0790– Improper methods used to thaw chicken.
  • 1860– A distinct, separate water rinse after washing and before sanitizing of utensils and equipment was not observed.
  • 1960– Plates & other dishes were observed cloth-dried rather than air-dried after cleaning and chemical sanitization.

March 17, 2009  No violation noted during this evaluation.

 

“Aha!” I thought to myself after reading the last entry, “at least the most recent write up had no sanitary “no no’s. I thought it looked and tasted pretty violation free when I was there!”
But this illustrates my earlier point about rural life.  Small towns really tend to police each other very thoroughly.  There is no place to hide.  Although if your clientele is loyal, than your restaurant can endure the WORST health code write ups.

ALL THE WAY DOWN TO DANVILLE 7/18/14 (back with buddy John again)

You can’t get any further down south in central Virginia, than Danville.  In fact the other side of the city touches down on the North Carolina border.  As my friend and I cut across the Shenandoah Valley at the Route 81 Buena Vista exit, we looked expectantly for more and more distinctly vacation kind of road stops and restaurants.  In fact it is always our pact to try to never patronize fast food restaurants or common place chains of any kind while on trips, unless absolutely necessary.  Of course in this day and age, this quest takes lots of patience.  We ended up getting dinner at a chain that fit the spirit of our travel criteria as it was new to us and not a chain often seen yet in our neck of the woods—a barbecue place called Dickey’s.

Danville at first, was very perplexing for us as new travelers, especially since it was dusk when we arrived.  We finally found a Best Value Inn that offered us a double bed room for only 65 dollars but socked it to us with Ranger with an additional 50 dollar pet fee.  But we had little recourse and were feeling weary we settled on it.

The next day however, we found Danville to be chock full of great landmarks and defining features.  First off, we had to find the historic section off of the Dan River.  Our first exposure to downtown Danville was the dilapidated tobacco factory area, which had definitely not been refurbished or yuppie-fied.  Broken window panes were in evidence everywhere, and the general tone held much more in common with 19th century America than 21st century.  This portion of the day also yielded some great arch bridge photos as we were able to fit several arch bridges and the shadowing patterns of arches underneath the bridge on the shore line.  The bike and hike trail down by the river also offered plenty of dog walking space as well as extra exit lanes down to the river’s edge.

DANVILLE AND THE CONFEDERACY’S LAST DAYS

 

The next phase of our Danville city tour revolved around the Victorian house section of the old town, which yielded the single most historically interesting building of our trip.  The historic Sutherlin Mansion has the distinction of being the final Capital of the Confederacy dating from April 3rd to April 10th in 1865 as President Jefferson Davis was forced to abandon Richmond. John and I ended up vacillating, which often happens on trips when one has a thin margin of financing and time is short; finally deciding to NOT paying for the official organized tour of the mansion as it required set amounts of time to complete.

But nevertheless, we were generously given free and extra gems of information about the Civil War history of the mansion as well as the current climate of Danville.  This seems to a reoccurring hallmark of traveling down in the outer rim of Virginia, as people seem more informal and willing to allow for free tidbits of information to leak out, compared to the harder line stance that a place like Mount Vernon in Northern Virginia would more than like take in terms of taking the time to talk to non-paying costumers.

The story behind the Sutherlin’s fleeting days as the rebel’s capital is an interesting one to consider.  Danville’s quartermaster, Major William T. Sutherlin, offered his home to Davis and the Confederate government.  One can readily imagine the desperate last stand that the Confederate President staged at this place.  The city is literally the furthest south he could possibly go in Virginia, with escape routes still available via train to escape beyond the James River into the Carolinas.  I wondered if Jefferson Davis still harbored hope that some type of counter offensive could turn the tide and restore him and the government back to Richmond.

From what I read, Jefferson apparently did manage to remain optimistic that the Confederacy could still prevail—at least outwardly to witnesses around him.  In fact his cabinet was sitting together at dinner when the news arrived of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox reached them in Danville.  They were told to vacate immediately.

It was all about supply lines—for the civilians and military of the CSA.  President Davis hoped to go to Lynchburg to reestablish the capital but there was no occupying army there.  The prevailing wisdom was to then go south and attempt to connect with General Joe Johnston’s army.

I would imagine for the majority of Americans, the fact that this stately (if modest, by mansion standards) building served as the last official capital of the Confederacy—remains a lost trivial pursuit factoid and unlikely vacation destination for non-serious Civil War buffs.

But having seen the timeless state of disrepair of the warehouse district down by the James River, it was very easy to see the relationship of how things stood in 1865 at the close of the war.  So much depended on railroad and river transportation then, and having escape routes for the government as well as supply routes to feed the armies.  Grant and Lee’s armies played a compelling cat and mouse game until the very end, deep in Virginia’s outer rim country.

John and I left Danville, deeply impressed with its Civil War heritage, great rows of grand Victorian houses, and its eminently photogenic river front and multiple arch bridges.

ABINGDON, VIRGINIA AND THE CREEPER TRAIL

 

The remainder of the day, we drove west towards Abingdon, Virginia.  This was a city I knew well for its Barter Theater and its elegant Martha Washington Hotel.  And though I only got to sample a small part of it with my dog Ranger, the charm and scenery of the Virginia Creeper Trail was the real highlight of this trip.  Named the “Creeper” originally due to the native five-leaved ivy found in southwest Virginia, thanks to a punster, its name later became associated with the steam engines that strained their way up the mountain grades hauling lumber and iron ore, I found this to be one well maintained trail.  Apparently this play on words was not appreciated by the railroad company.  In fact the section I was on, featured a large amount of boardwalk trails with wooden trestles.  It was interspersed with plenty of interactive trail signs too.  I was from one such sign that I read about the 18th century adventures of one Daniel Boone who, named the area where I stoodWolf Hills, after his dogs were attacked by a pack of wolves during a hunting expedition.  “Ah yes,” I thought to myself as I scanned this now bucolic and safe area, “another reason for timid hikers such as myself to be grateful to be born too late for such dangers!”

BURKES GARDEN (magically isolated like island in Brigadoon)

 

Once leaving the Abingdon area the next morning, the real drive to remoteness was under way to Burke’s Garden.  It was definitely not an attraction advertised on Route 81.  It required plenty of old fashioned word of mouth inquiry in order to fine tune the last few turns leading to it.  John and I noted that the most significant town nearest Burke’s Garden is the town of Tazewell, which is where we found a very casual restaurant aptly named “Coal Bucket Deli” that had just what we were looking for—good, freshly prepared sandwiches from a popular local establishment that packed plenty of distinctive décor and ambience.

 

VISITING ON BORROWED TIME

 

The road leading in to Burke’s Garden bowl shaped valley, penetrated subtly into one of the protective side wall of trees shrouding its secret.  This began one of the slowest descents I have ever experienced as a driver.  We circled around and around the volcano like rims.  As we did so, several hell bent dogs came running out of driveways to chase us down towards yet another hair pin switch back.  This truly felt like some protected fortress that insulated its own inhabitants.

Burke’s Garden is truly an enchanted valley that requires an investment of time to see.  In fact, we barely wound our way, like a slow penny going around some Spiral Wishing Well Coin Funnel device at the mall, before I was already acutely aware of the need to not remain long.

There was definitely a Welsh or New Zealand gleam to the green pasture land here.  Or was it Prince Edward’s Island that came to mind?  It certainly was like stepping into a country worthy of postcards and lots of camera clicking.  Although I had read about the unique geology and flora and fauna beforehand and read that this isolated valley had its own “micro-climate,” I could quickly sense it all by just the lay of the land.  No motel or B&B that I knew of, encouraged our tarrying, even if I had allotted more time.  I couldn’t help but feel jealous of the slow tempo pace enjoyed by the residents, as we, conversely, thanks to the time and effort it took to get all the way inside Burke’s Garden, we were definitely on the clock, and needing to check our cell phone time and watch the position of the sun in the sky, in order to start making the long trek back to the Shenandoah Valley.  It reminded me of taking a ferry boat over to Tangier Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay with all its isolation and comparative, slow to diffuse, cultural innocence when measured with the mainland.

The Amish General Store

This general store was clearly the one central meeting place for farmers in the valley—the one place to pick up some food stuff and shoot the breeze with another.  Eye contact and greetings were much more conspicuous when walking up the steps to the front door.  We spoke to a young contractor who was in town to do some type of temporary ranch work.  As he paid for his sandwich he described how the weather patterns were exacerbated at Burke’s Garden.  The snow drifts and the plummets of temperature were all worse that the surrounding region outer region, which made his drives very problematic whenever he was working inside the valley.  In fact, snow is generally recorded in every month of the year except July.

Talk about your vital meeting place.  This general store represented the entire internet in this insular valley.  A pleasant young Amish girl ran the cash register.  She performed her clerical duties very pleasantly but rather guardedly, especially for common tourists like ourselves.  I was disappointed to learn that I had missed Pizza Slice Tuesday but just a day, and was forced to make a different selection.

When John and I arrived, I was transfixed by an Amish father with his son that rode up on a horse drawn buggy, with typically muted colors.  I couldn’t help ask for a photograph request.  This brought up the tricky ethics situation of when to take photos and when NOT to—which I was quite unfamiliar with.  When I asked if I could take his photo, the reverent looking father politely told me that he would rather NOT be photographed as his faith discourages graven images, which he takes directly from the scriptures.  He did however, allow me to take a photo of his horse parked out front.

The heavily favored Amish push pedal bikes for youth propulsion

Later on, as John and I sailed over the rolling hills on the small looping roads of the valley in my 21st century motor car, we came upon several Amish young people pushing away with great alacrity on something called “push pedal bikes” which apparently are considered not TOO modern to fit religious interpretation as an ethical enough lifestyle option. In this case, with the backs of the kids turned, I figured I could, in good conscience, click away photos as the subjects themselves were not aware they were being captured for electronic duplication.

What was fascinating while driving down its small rural roads, was seeing the multiple road signs directing travelers, not to town names, but to specific farmer names and farms.  The brochure for Burke’s garden emphasizes that it has the smallest telephone company in Virginia—and they only have to dial four digits to contact a neighbor!  Isn’t this the kind of simplifying of modern life that Thoreau extolled for the sake of our nervous systems?

Another interesting fact is reading that the great shipping/railroad business tycoon,George Vanderbilt, reportedly had Burke’s Garden, as the first choice in building hisBiltmore Estate.  Apparently, the landowners in the valley, banded together in a show of solidarity and refused to sell any of their farm land.

Varmint of Burke’s Garden

My brother Richey was the first one to regale me with this legendary, never eclipsed valley tale.  The year was 1952, and local sheep farmers were having trouble with a large “varmint” that kept killing sheep in the valley. Reportedly, the animal terrorized the community and killed over 400 sheep during an 11 month period. As the number of sheep victims increased so did the stories of the “Varmint”. It became a super beast in the minds of the inhabitants of this isolated farming community.  It caused so much stress and disruption to the valley that the board of supervisors of Tazewell County contacted Clell and Dale Lee, two apparently well renowned hunters, who made their reputations by using their dog packs to help them scent out their quarry.

According to speculation passed down in Wikopedia, (an unimpeachable source!) it seems that the creature must have come down from the dark forest ridges by the fire road where the Appalachian Trail lies.

From here, the story takes a melodramatic turn, resembling some farcical spoof of Hollywood hillbilly buffoonery.  The men were residents of Arizona.  Since the one brother, Dale Lee was in Venezuela hunting jaguars, (these brothers really were GUNS for hire ready for any assignment it seems!) only his brother Clell was available and answered the call. He arrived in Bluefield to find himself coolly received by local farmers; however.

Looking back now, one can only imagine how emasculating this must have felt to the eligible male hunters in town to hear that their local government had to go OUTSIDE and make a bid for national assistance!   No wonder Lee wasn’t thrown a parade initially!  Apparently, the reception was pretty grim when the specialist arrived; though hospitality was eventually brokered in the form of one of the local hunter’s wives, who broke ranks from the boycott on the outsiders and allowed Clell, allowing him to stay at their house.

Seeing an animal track left in a block of ice, Great White Hunter, Lee determined that it was in fact a coyote track.  Was this the “Varmint” himself?  His diagnosis shocked many, as no coyotes had been seen in the area in memory. This was the first sighting.

I have read since, thanks to a Smithsonian sourced article sent from my brother Rich, that new genetic evidence confirms coyote migration routes to Virginia.  Apparently changes in North American ecosystems in the past 150 years is the main cause.  Along the way, the Coyotes that migrated to Virginia, also found time to cross breed with Great Lakes wolves.

The reaction of the farmers in Burke’s Garden to the destruction wrought by the “Varmint,” is easy to see, given this context.

This coyote may have been the very first one to reach the valley soil on this aforementioned migration wave, and the residents would have had no frame of reference to know what to do about it.

Now back to the narrative:

Accompanied by the sheriff, as well as by local farmers, hunters, and game wardens, Lee and his dogs picked up scent and followed it for 5 hours at night.

Lee ordered all parties back to the hunt at dawn the next morning. Because this was a Sunday, the sheriff initially objected, but the hunter prevailed, adamant that the fresh scent must be followed up on.  Learning that the animal had struck again that night, killing two sheep, Lee stationed hunters near the site of the attack and set his dogs back on the scent. A Burkes Garden Resident, Alfred Jones, killed the coyote after a chase of a few hours.  Knowing how preserved and retained this story is as sacred valley legend to this day—Alfred Jones is probably still a house hold name on the tongue of these tightly intertwined farming families.

Just for the record–the creature was found to be quite large – it was nearly four-and-a-half feet long and weighed 35 pounds, and its fangs were an inch long.

Local residents were jubilant, and a dinner was held in Lee’s honor. They must have also been proud that after all the fuss of going outside for a specialist, one of their own locals actually killed the varmint.  It was a team effort.  The coyote was strung up and hung from a tree near the courthouse, and nearly 7,500 people came through to see both the hunter and the dead animal.  It must have been some kind of shindig!  In the days before ESPN and the internet, this must have been some kind of entertainment event.

The animal was stuffed and is currently on display–in a much more respectable and tame format–at the Crab Orchard Museum in Tazewell, Virginia.  Even with today’s events–and from what I could observe it doesn’t look like the lifestyles have modernized much–I would wager that that spectator sport attendance number might still be an all-time valley record—no matter how many annual 10K runs they schedule each year; which incidentally has been dubbed the VARMINT 10K.  What else?

It was at the South West Appalachian Museum in the town of Tazewell that I learned of a young woman named Molly Tynes.  A graduate of Hollins College who moved home to take care of her aging parents, the Civil War broke out around the same time and dramatically effected the families of the region.  Tynes made a heroic ride to warn Wytheville of an impending Union raid in July 1863 during the Civil War. “Yankees are coming” was her rallying cry as she was Burkes Garden version of Paul Revere.

Certainly after seeing how seemingly mysterious and impenetrable Burke’s Garden was proving to be, I could easily imagine in my head the courage and spunk it would have taken for young Molly Tynes horse ride to warn the locals of the Yankees arrival.  Given the apathy and aloofness of people today I imagine a similar youth deciding to retreat back to their Xbox video game and figuring someone else with a cell phone will do the right thing and warn someone.

Though no Hollywood movie has ever been made of her life, Molly Tynes ride remains strongly entrenched as a blend of accepted fact and embraced legend in the south west area as she was the lady whose courageous ride kept the union from capturing the salt supplies in the town of Saltville, Virginia.  In fact there is an annual Molly Tynes pokerrun motorcycle race named for her that occurs at the sight of museum.

I also dug up this bluegrass lyric on the same subject.  I left out most of the lyrics due to the exhaustive length of detail.

 

“The Thrilling Ride of Mollie Tynes” By John Milton Newton
“In Tazewell County there’s a name
Of a lovely girl unknown to fame,
A Virginia maiden whose career
Would rival that of Paul Revere.

Her home was known e’en then quite well,
Still bears the name of Rocky Dell,
Near Buckhorn, and her memory shines,
This country girl named Mollie Tynes.

Twas in the warlike days of ’63,
And in the fair land of the free,
An invading Army came that way.
To Wytheville they would go next day,

To capture and destroy the mines,
But did not know of Mollie Tynes.
She heard that afternoon the plot
To burn the town and hold the spot.

And on to Saltville they would go.
The salt works there we needed so
For soldiers in the camps about
And thousands in the land throughout.

For victory perched with Wytheville’s men,
And Mollie Tynes was heroine then.

A tablet to her valor stands,
And sometimes now when martial bands
Are stepping out on dress parade,
They pass it with uncovered head.”

IT TAKES LANDING IN A DITCH TO MEET THE MOST UPLIFTING PEOPLE (Bill Firestone Jr.)

 

As I have said before in this piece, sometimes being too far down in Virginia’s outer rim can lead to over exertion and trying to fit in too much in not enough time.  This was certainly what led to my second “car in the ditch” scenario, (the first one being located in Montana in March on an unpaved road courtesy of some treacherous Bentonite mud) and yet another unforgettable Good Samaritan encounter.

Here is what led up to this latest one:

I was at the end of my outer rim journey with just Ranger and myself.  I was on the last little road available to me before I ran smack dab into Interstate 95 and a rapid recovery to making time for home.  With unspoiled sightseeing attractions quickly running out, I made a hasty, last second U-turn back towards what looked like an old school house.  As I did so, I got my front right axel stuck in an unseen ditch that was just a foot or so off the driveway.

All of this haste and proneness for mistakes was, no doubt, due to the gigantic amount of time it took to regain my way back home—weighed against my desperate need to uncover more historical and cultural attractions.

I chastised myself bitterly after realizing that I had only me to blame for letting my guard down and becoming too emotional and intent on trying to find a “last DITCH” (pardon the pun) tourist site that I could off the road.  I knew I had gotten too greedy and tried to do too much too quickly.  I felt like the Christmas shopper who; with little time left to shop, still can’t figure out a way to match the right store and merchandise with the right person on the wish list.  It leads to lots of desperation and eventual frustration when you can’t properly slow down and investigate an area on a trip.

But that’s when a ruggedly, hairy looking man saw my plight and pulled his truck up next me.  He was a Pete Seeger looking white bearded savior (with missing teeth) if I ever saw one, with an impeccable sense of timing.

Bill just kept plugging away patiently with the sticks and kindling that he had gathered in order to pry under my mud buried left tire.  He showed great kindness in his He was a regular MacGyver when it came to being resourceful in treating a car stuck in a ditch.  When the leverage and torque proved too difficult for his vehicle, Bill called over a friend of his who had a tractor, which did the trick and pulled me out.  So it ended up being a “ripple effect of kindness” with two layers of helpers.

I made sure before I left, to get his and the other tracer guys addresses so I could later send thank you notes.  Actually Bill told me directly what he would enjoy, when I offered to repay him for his timely services.  “I wouldn’t mind a gift card to Red Lobster for dinner” he said with no hesitation.  So that’s what I did.  Bill Firestone Jr., if you are still out there, thanks again and I hope you enjoyed your Red Lobster dinner!  We need more like you up in Northern Virginia.

 MONTERREY VIRGINIA (and the return of the Highland Inn)

Monterrey.  For decades I have heard tales of this faraway place that held a renowned maple syrup festival every March annually.  In fact I mostly heard about it through the story telling of a friend of mine, blind from birth, whose family roots hailed from Monterrey Virginia.  And this friend loved to reminisce in great detail how the bumps and vibrations felt to him as the car he was riding in would climb the mountains to get to Monterrey.  I could picture it.  Heck, it seemed that he could picture it too.  For surely, just accessing Monterrey and the Highland Inn takes plenty of time and patience.  The extreme altitude is noted whether one is opting for Route 250 at the Staunton exit or Route 33 at the Harrisonburg exit.  And just when the miles seem to never accrue enough to reach your destination, suddenly the town of Monterrey emerges into view.

Like Burke’s Garden, the isolated nature of arriving at Monterrey makes one want to at least stay the night—which fortunately you can—and in great style with the Highland Inn, built circa 1905.

On my first web-site reading of the Highland Inn–once I had learned that it had been repurchased after being closed for the winter—I read of the legendary claim that Nazi General Rommel reportedly staying at the Inn for the sole express purpose of studying up on Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign.  I was intrigued.  Then later on I read that this rumor had been debunked and that Rommel had never stepped foot at the Highland Inn or Monterrey.

Oh well, there is enough history and charm in this multi—wrap around porch Hotel to be a must stay over regardless of who its famous guest list includes.

So when we my wife and I finally got there, the Highland Inn was indeed in a fascinating transitional stage.  Just the kind I like in fact.  One of the sweet ladies that co-owned it told us that they were using many of the rooms on the main floor to “incubate” other businesses in the town area.  This was why there was a seating chart for a string quartet to practice in a small room close to the lobby.  And why a ballet troupe practiced in the dining room.  In fact at the time of our stay in June, the kitchen had not quite cleared all the last hurdles in order to serve food.  The pulse of the community was truly felt within the walls of the Inn.

When we went for dinner and breakfast the next morning the choice was easy.  There were only 2 restaurants in town.  No problem with the stress of too many choices in this town.  There was no TV in our room at the Inn either.  The clarity was refreshing.

Walking around the town of Monterrey with its veil of clouds hanging over the mountain tops truly reinforces the peacefulness of this valley.  The pristine beauty of it makes the hassle of negotiating all those hair pin curves and slow to a crawl ascents more than worth it.  Every motion and sound seems to be audible in Monterrey, like the ripple effect on a pond.  The past glories of the annual Monterrey Maple Syrup Festival were evident behind every store front and retail store—even the boarded up ones.  My taste buds never forgot the heavenly flavor of the maple sweet roll that I bought at one of the general stores.  The local Mountain Hideaway Restaurant & Tavern even sells their precious liquid gold maple syrup by the gallon and priced at 58 dollars.

This is a quiet so pervasive in town that hearing just one 4 wheel growl of a passing truck switching gears is noticed by every residence and becomes a news item.  For one teenage driver, this must be a cool phenomenon for gaining attention.

At the Monterrey Courthouse I read a historical sign that revealed how complicated and ambivalent the citizens of Monterrey were during the Civil War.  Having more in common with West Virginia in terms of the rugged mountain farms, the young men vacillated on fighting for the Confederacy until after the nearby battle of McDowell in 1862.  One can still sense that distinctive “otherness” and independence still in this town and valley and feel mighty glad that such remote pockets of Virginia still exist.

 

VISUAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN NORTHERN VIRGINIA AND OUTER RIM

 

While driving around in my own comfortable brand of travel down in Virginia’s Outer Rim, I tried to keep a keen eye on the differences between it and the coopted corporate-ness of Northern Virginia.

Certainly mass standardization and the ubiquity of the information age has blurred many of the uniqueness found around every corner and inside of every valley.  Nevertheless, certain salient features predominated.

 

  • The unabashed way in which public restaurants would display overtly Christian themes on placemats and signs, especially during the holidays.  I was visiting family on the Virginia’s Eastern Shore at a place called the Sage Diner, in which the Grandkids had a prominent “Just A Child” word search activity centering on Jesus and biblical words like RISEN and SINNERS.
  • The clear distinction of farm to fresh food export—as the trucks and farm vehicles are prominently seen on the roads testify, along with the road side markets selling produce directly.
  • The pro American Patriotism of supporting the troops at restaurants and other retail stores. While urban areas also have tributes to soldiers, especially during holidays such as Memorial Day and the 4thof July—small towns on the outer rim have a stronger solidarity and often list the specific names of servicemen from local towns that are overseas fighting.  A restaurant in Danville named Nikki’s, which serves wonderful home cooked meals, is a great example of this: on their take out menu was this message: “We love our Country and are grateful for all who are serving, and have served, our country.  We would like to honor our service men and women with a 10% Discount on all menu items.  Please let your server know!”
  • The amount of log barns and houses in the south and central part of the state that are still active. By contrast, when Northern Virginia displays a log structure, it is almost always some type of museum or national park site.

And even when the rickety, ramshackle remains of a barn or homestead lies unequivocally deceased in the Outer Rim; it still looks like it belongs there and is only waiting for the family to return to build it back up.  In Northern Virginia, these sightings of fading away barns and sheds, are encircled by the juxtaposition of modern luxury homes and shopping centers.  Modern life has passed them by and left them back in a different century.

This is a healthy departure from the secondary way that nostalgia is packaged along interstates at places like Cracker Barrel or even a retail chain like World Market.  Don’t get me wrong—I love both establishments.  Both are fun and offer wonderful quality in their products that makes shopping fun again.  Each one elicits a feeling of being transported somewhere different that is refreshing.  However they are still standardized chains.  No matter how refreshing and imported their products.  Going off the radar to travel, even in your own state, forces a person to truly plunge into unknown businesses that tend to have a truer pulse for the local spirit of the area.

FINAL—MAKING UP FOR LOST TIME ON THE INTERSTATE

 

The sad reality of that irresistible gravitational pull that obligates us to reposition ourselves back to our own address can cause a traveler to almost get “the bends”—akin to what divers experience, so swift and jarring is the haste in making up the time away in order to resurface back home.  The morning can start deceptively wide open and full of promise for places to visit, and then suddenly, before you know it, the midafternoon rolls in with a vague feeling of lateness and the necessity of staging a hasty departure.  Soon I was bypassing parks and historic attractions and impatiently making up for time on the faster interstates.

Before you know it, that last chance to stop and visit some great hiking trail or landmark becomes a scarcer and scarcer proposition.  I battle with waves of regret when I fail to act fast enough to pull off the highway based on some last second hunch that had whirled past my peripheral vision.

Despite the ubiquity of modern social media and electronics, there still remains a distinct time zone difference when you pass back and forth from the chief metropolitan counties outlying the Washington D.C. area to the deeper and outer rim rural areas of Virginia.

And we, as citizens of the area, are all the richer for it.  Even if it is just a 30 minute drive down Route 50 due west, from Chantilly, Virginia to the horse country of Middleburg, great strata’s of culture and history, lay close by, full of all the bygone charm that we need as an antidote for all the standardization growing around us.

It is indeed a privilege to have such a contrasting part of the state to explore; with so many hours of undiscovered, tucked away treasures yet to discover for future trips.

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About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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