Monday, June 30, 2008


I-81 is a long damn road, and it runs all the way from way the hell up there to way the hell down there. Right now we are somewhere in the middle, on a bright Saturday afternoon three-quarters of the way done with June, getting sucked along by an endless stream of tractor-trailers. We are heading out from the Washington suburbs for a sunny lunch break somewhere in the middle of the great valley of Virginia—the Shenandoah Valley.

We have gone past the south end of Massanutten Mountain; from this vantage point, it looks like a volcano rising abruptly through the haze from the valley floor between two other rows of mountains. But we have just spent the last hour-and-a-half driving down its long western flank, so the illusion of volcano-ness fails.

We lunch at the McCormick museum, admiring the restored mill and getting our first up-close-and-personal taste of Virginia’s geology and geography. The grey valley limestone erupts from the lawn here like ridges of dirty snow melting in the sun—scalloped and worn in a vertical pattern. There is wild mint growing in the millstream; it is pungent but also suspect, since the stream is fed with tea-colored water from the nearby pasture. Ick.

We pile back into the van and head for Natural Bridge, our first eagerly anticipated stop. This is a target-rich environment; we pass a sad little dog-eared zoo and “Foamhenge

on the road in. There is a worn fiberglass tyrannosaur stuck out front of the gift shop, with a deranged-looking cowboy riding him. The cowboy’s expression suggests he is worried about what may have happened to his horse, and his understandable concern about riding a dinosaur. There is no explanation provided, and I do not think either of them is native to this part of Virginia.

Travertine, sweet travertine. We walk down a long concrete stairway to the ravine that underlooks the bridge. Cedar creek, the stream that passes beneath Natural Bridge, appears at the upper end of the ravine across a very pretty waterfall. It flows down a cascade, then begins a long and gentle descent over a complex series of limestone ledges arranged like the scales of a fish—specifically, the scales of a glow-in-the-dark international orange mutant trout. The angle of the bedding plane is clear and the plates break perpendicular to the flow of the stream. I see chert inclusions around which the softer stone has eroded. They look like asphalt dripped and spattered across the rock surface.

We watch a knapping demonstrator in the recreated Monacan village as he chips pieces of flint and chert with a tool made of copper and antler. He makes various types of sharp-edged points this way, and I cannot help but notice how scarred his fingers are. Rough way to make a living, but he seems to enjoy it. Also, he looks a heck of a lot more like a Viking than a Native American, but what do I know?

Back on the road, we actually cross over Natural Bridge on Lee Highway, U.S. 11 (the same Lee Highway that starts at the foot of Key Bridge in Rosslyn, sorta). Cleverly, the owners have obscured any possible view to thwart cheapskates. You would never know it was there if they didn’t scream it in your face from every billboard for 75 miles around.

Continuing towards Radford, the sky gets darker and darker to our east over the Blue Ridge. The thunder draws its breath from lungs of pine and oak, and prepares to pound the mountains and hills in short order. In my memory, there are always thunderstorms over the mountains.

BTW: Selu’s website doesn’t do it justice.

FajitasFajitasFajitas! Yum.

At twilight, we crash spastically en mass through the woods adjacent to the lodge and gather at a real live sinkhole barely a hundred yards away. It is a bowl-shaped depression in the woods, maybe a hundred feet across and twelve feet deep, with a funnel-shaped hole in the middle just like well, the drain of a sink. How bout that. The hole is about three feet across at the top, narrowing to maybe 18” at its neck. Wouldn’t want to try going down inside.Everyone looks around the circle, secretly thinking the same thought:

“Who will I want to stuff headfirst into that sinkhole before the week is over?”


Up and on the porch early. The waning “short moon” rides high in the south, making the whole hazy sky glow in an eerie false dawn and fooling me into thinking it was time to get up. Sucker. Mist fills the hollows stretching away to the east. Save for the faint whine of the highway, I sit in silence under the moon for many minutes. Then a lone cow’s distant bellowing breaks the spell; a handful of bats cavort and wheel madly above the lawn, a deer gives a whistling snort as it crashes through branches and brush, an owl hoots towards the river, and suddenly noise is everywhere. Ahead of the sun and the true dawn, the world is awake.

Crows. Lots of them, off to the south towards the river. The bats won’t quit—I don’t think I’ve ever been up to see them at dawn before, always at twilight.

“Crepuscular” is the word of the day.

A wild turkey calls. And again. Now lone deer stands where the lawn, forest and drive converge. As utterly pedestrian and unremarkable as a solitary deer is, it still makes me smile. And now it is gone, vanishing while I looked away.

Calling something a hoary cliché is itself a hoary cliché. But the hilltops really do look like islands in the early morning mist. Now something else is in the air, flying past in a mad chittering formation. I really do have to figure out whether they are bats or birds, but they don’t fly like the bats I’ve seen and bats don’t make so much noise. Swallows? Whatever the non-barn swallow type is; they lack the forked tail.

Definition in the clouds now. Pastel pinks and greys, the colors of mourning doves, flecked with rose and sherbet. A woodpecker sounds, close by and insistent. I think I understand why hunters get so religious about being out in the early morning. Actually hunting must kinda ruin the moment.

AHA! I have the little flying things in the binoculars now! And they’re definitely…either birds or bats. Right-O.

The mist is rising, drowning the islands—in milk.

Bluebird on the lawn. Train whistle far off to the north. Hummingbird, harassing the juniper tree. Now the milk has risen, revealing the close hills but obscuring the farther ones.

Summer. Virginia. The Great Valley.

Sunday morning. Mmm. Coffee. Good.

Pandapas Pond. Hot, hazy, still, cool in the shade but hinting at what the afternoon will bring. Flies aplenty bother everyone. Canada geese; baby turtle swimming in the murk; little static cliques of bluegills. Single-engine airplane drones far overhead. Merciful breeze.

The same swallow-like birds skim the lake, casually dipping into the surface from time to time, and plowing long narrow wakes across the still water. No idea what they’re eating. Lots of dragonflies everywhere. The breeze dies, and it is still as the grave along the shoreline.

This strikes me as an unremarkable place in size and aspect, comparing not that favorably with any stagnant, tepid man-made lake; e.g., Lake Fairfax, but lacking the charming little railroad. And the f---ing horseflies are packets of pure evil on tiny little wings. They are stupid, and have poor, predictable reflexes from not feeling threatened by people. In short order, I have a tiny little pile of two dozen fly corpses at my feet.

A compact grey raptor with a long tapered tail, a buff belly and a nasty little hooked beak. Small glossy black turtle sitting on a lily pad; nearby, another turtle hangs motionless in the water like a pancake with legs, its bright green face breaking the surface.

We leave Pandapas, heading for the falls at Cascades. We depart limestone country and are in sandstone country now; it shows. The vegetation looks a bit rougher here, a bit lanker—not like what we saw growing on the lush limestone-fed soils back across the mountain. We have also entered the Mississippi river watershed, I believe.

I am learning soooo much about the…female issues…of my fellow travelers. Familiarity breeds…too much information. I am determined to work prostate issues and vasectomies into the conversation before the week is over. Misty eventually pulls the money quote out: "Don't trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn't die."

Sunday afternoon, and four generations of Pembroke women sitting on the front porch in the shade.

Condescension is never pretty. What is the line from “Far Appalachia”? “Whiskey is the only gift that doesn’t insult poverty.” I wonder if that applies here…looks like a pretty dry place.

We arrive at the parking area at Cascades, and begin executing some esoteric kind of Chinese fire drill involving food, swimsuits and hiking. Fun! But the clouds are gathering above us, and the collective success of our mission seems to be in jeopardy.

Without thinking, I start hiking, shamelessly and irresponsibly leaving everyone else to pack up lunch. But I manage to outrun my guilty conscience, and Chris becomes my partner in crime.

The hike should be interesting—the awesome scale of the mountains is indicated by the power lines that cross the valley at the parking area and shoot up the mountain.

We maintain a three-mile-an-hour pace up the rocky jeep road, in my haste overlooking the more interesting trail that follows the stream. Frass.

We descend the last quarter mile to the stream, walking through a Rivendell of hemlocks, tossed boulders, pools and riffles. The massive waterfall is only revealed to us at the very end through a portal of stone; it is magnificent. Thunder rolls.

We are the first of our group, by a long shot. I shuck my stinky shoes and work my way out onto the flat rock to the water’s edge. After a few minutes of aimless equivocation, I commit, and swim out into the middle of the pool. I am the only swimmer now, and thunder rolls. I roll onto my back and float, high on the side of a tall mountain, hidden deep in a cleft ravine, staring straight into the pregnant grey belly of the storm.

I don’t last long. It is very cold, and it has been a long time since I swam a mountain stream like this one. I slowly extricate myself, dry off a bit, and begin my lunch of various and sundry. The rest of the group begins to arrive onesy-twosy. I am heartened that most choose to wade, at the very least; there are many spectacular cannonballs as well.
Restores my faith in today’s youth.

Everybody and their dog is here. Really.

It is beyond sad to descend through this ghost town of the hemlocks. They stand on the precipitous hillside, soberly looking down like the bleached bones of old wizards. The thunder calls them, but no reply returns; their desiccated lungs offer no breath into the wind.

We continue downhill, and the afternoon light thickens under the green canopy. More rolls of thunder, and eventually a sprinkling of rain—just enough to fool some into putting on their raingear and sweating themselves up.

A lone deer watches us nonchalantly from the roadside as we drive out.

A brief stop at the local quickie mart gives me the chance to consult the reference section of their bookshelf. The chittering little flying things are tree swallows, not bats. Who knew? Lemon balm and mint grow thick in the little garden beside the store’s parking lot.

Mountain Lake—an odd mishmash of good, bad and indifferent. “Dirty Dancing” and British reality teevee, a sadly diminished lake, man-made wetlands built to preserve a fickle natural lake. Still trading on a movie a generation later. The lakebed we walk is a badlands that reminds me of places in Yellowstone. I have an unconscious aversion to stepping off the path because of that. But there is no lively menacing steam boiling beneath this crust—only foul-smelling muck.

Sandstone and shale. Yet another ghost town with a different citizenry. I see no terrestrial animals—no snakes, no toads, no skinks, no insects—nothing scurries around among the beached rocks. This is like the low tide of death, a big bowl of suck.

Then: FOSSILS! And more FOSSILS! Let’s hear it for the Juniata shale formation! And for people who appreciate nerdy things like FOSSILS!

A concept: Ur-Weather. That’s what we’re experiencing.

And Now For Something Completely Different: The Appalachian Trail! We travel some pretty sketchy roads to Wind Rocks, a west-facing outcropping of sandstone in an isolated near-wilderness. (We wonder if Charlie might be a psychopath who is leading us all to a gruesome doom. After all, how much does anyone really know about this “Center for Field Studies” anyway?)

Evening haze shrouds the valleys before us, plus the next four ridges to the west. A very faint and pale line of light rests on the horizon; otherwise, the scene is a monochromatic fade from grey-green to pure grey. This is beautiful.

Thunder rolls from the south, and the breeze freshens. Crisp lightning bolts spark to the far southwest ridge, and now most of the color has drained from the horizon. I think I can faintly see rain falling south of us. It is immeasurably more pleasant here than it was at Mountain Lake, but I am surprised at how uneasy the coming storm makes me in this vulnerable and exposed place. We give our regards to “Thumper,” and head back to the vans.

Flame azaleas—sherbet colored and taller than me. Don’t think I’ve noticed them before. Back at the van, an orange salamander nearly the same color.

Our moveable feast returns to Selu with us, unmolested. Somehow, we all agree that waiting until we are back "home" to eat is better than (1) hauling everything up to Wind Rocks or (2) trying to eat back at the vans in the parking area. We are hardcore, ain't we? So we picnic in the big room, and there is much eating and little talking. We are hungry and tired after a big, long day.

The storm finally seeks us out in our sanctuary at Selu. Lightning alternates between demure discharges within the low-slung clouds and brazen belligerent bolts in front of our very eyes. They viscerally shake the house, the porch and its insignificant occupants. As much as I relish this show, I am tired; the wind-blown mist makes me cold. I have had enough for one day. I am going inside.


Ibuprofen is your friend. So are earplugs and a blindfold.

Grey and still, with thick fog obscuring the forest’s edge a mere hundred yards away. Highway sounds are muffled and distant, and even the birds seem subdued. The fog makes it seem like the sky is exhausted from last night’s garish spectacle. Now it looks like the fog is closing in.

Mmm. Coffee. Good.

Road sign: “Are You Prepared to Meet God?” (Well, no, not really. Let me shave and put on a clean pair of socks, at the very least).

Bob Childress’ Rock Church on U.S. 221 in Willis. About forty percent white quartz and sixty percent sandstone in a grey limestone mortar. The walls are a compendium of all the rock forms and flavors of erosion in the area—a crazy quilt sewn in stone. I ponder Bob Childress for a few moments in this place where he left his mark, and come to the conclusion I would probably have found him an intolerable prick.

Long Quickee Mart stop in Willis, meeting our whoopee cushion needs, then on the road to Buffalo Mountain.

Blue sky, cool breeze, air smells sweet, rich and clean from last night’s storm. The summit is 3,971 feet.
Breathtaking views in all directions,

including south to Pilot Knob, N.C. Should be great pictures from here—everyone looks magnificent in this light. Long discussion of hay, et cetera, en route.

Chateau Morissette. I didn’t think I could get bored in a winery, but there it is. Maybe I’m just getting cranky because I’m hungry. The tourguide is all like, “wine wine wine blah blah blah” and I’m all like “yeah, yeah, whatever” and I am amazed at the scale of the place for a winery of this size. Okay, that tautology sounds pretty stupid, doesn’t it? Time for lunch, eh?

Lunch, dawdling, dog, time passes. Sunshine, breeze, et cetera. Chat up a trio of sport bikers heading north on the BRP and briefly consider harming one of them in order to steal his bike. Before I can formulate a plan, they roll out, a neatly coordinated ballet on six wheels.

Time for the tasting. It does take the edge off, and now it is seriously going to be nap time. By the way, Elvis is pouring. A single glass of chambourcin (…meh) on the patio. Yeah, I suppose I could get to like this; it would probably make a good autumn evening wine. Hard to believe I’m getting college credit for this. Great location, too—might be the prettiest site for a winery I’ve seen, even in Napa/Sonoma. That’s my Virginia chauvinism rearing its ugly little head.

Okay, Elvis is kind of a prick. A second glass—the ’05 Chardonnay—is in order, as the questioning is dragging on and becoming kinda tedious. Besides, what else should I do when I’m at the mercy of others, stuck in this beautiful place on a beautiful summer’s day? I mean really—suck it up and move on.

Back to the BRP, south to Mabry Mill. The parking area is clotted with Harleys and their clones, and their road-benumbed riders. I recognize what they are feeling from their voices and their gaits and the looks in their eyes. A day like this will eat you up, suck the marrow from you, and wring you out like a sponge. The word I used to use was “road-simple.” Yet I do envy them, and see the mark of the dragon on many. ((sigh.)) We never want what we have, and we never have what we want.
And where are the goddam Beemers? [When I found out, boy did I feel silly!]

Mabry Mill feels a little bit too much like Busch Gardens for my tastes. The extensive concrete sidewalkage, recirculating water and the long, convoluted headrace keep reminding me of a flume ride. And now that you mention it, I hate Harleys for their obscene vulgar indulgent infantile moronic flatulence. A pox on their house.

But there is a simple pleasure in the experience of learning. Everyone here is learning something. I lie down under a beech tree, which I am finally learning to recognize after all these years.

On the road again. A deer, balancing precariously with four feet grouped together in the universal posture, takes a dump in a field beside the highway. Funny.

Note: K1200GT parked on Main Street in Hillsville, outside the restaurant; Ontario tags.

Long, slow, peculiar dinner. Too much iced tea and ice water; suddenly I get very cold, as do many of us. The extended discussion of the Carroll County Courthouse Massacre on the courthouse lawn in the crisp night air exacerbates the situation, and it feels good to finally get back into the van for the long drive back to Selu.

The stars are brilliant even from the van on the interstate. I tell myself I see a shooting star, which may even be true. Ashley spots Jupiter rising low in the east and we try in vain to track it as the road twists and turns. When we arrive at Selu, the Milky Way is on full display for everyone to see, and I see two more shooting stars including one slow, leisurely green ball that moves gracefully across my field of vision from right to left. Here Jupiter is easy to find and plain; with binoculars, a Galilean moon is visible off its right side.

After some time spent laying on my back in the grass, I have no doubt this is where the drain field for the septic tank is. Yippee.Very tired, very late. More later.


Long hot showers work wonders. No ibuprofen, and our cycle time keeps getting shorter.

Beautiful morning—cool and clear, mist in the valleys. On a meadow in the middle distance, a tom is courting a hen by constantly walking an annoying circle around her. Wish I could hear what he’s telling her.

A digression: The bikers of Mabry Mill stick in my mind for some reason. They are representative of a certain type I have watched for a long time. They appear worn, tired, testy, stiff and sore, and not very happy until they are off their bikes and socializing. My prejudice will out, and I make no pretense of objectivity. Riding, though by no mean exercise, is physically demanding. So is sitting in the sun for hours. So is immersion in constant loud noise. To combine it all on a machine designed for its looks, or in imitation of looks, is folly. No wonder they look and act they way they do. The sport bikers have it right. Design is life, reality can’t be held at bay for too long, and physics is a cruel mistress.

Woodpecker. Cow. Skunk.

Pencil and paper. Real film. How quaint.

Hydropower dam on the Little River. Below the dam, two boys fish. It looks odd to me, but this is, of course, exactly what two boys should be doing on the warm morning of June 24th. The one fishes impatiently, from my perspective on the dam. But eventually he hooks what looks like a smallmouth bass, larger than anything edible I recall ever catching. He walks gingerly back along the stone knife-edge from which he is fishing, leading the fish in the water like a dog on a leash before unhooking it and releasing it back into the froth-flecked river.

The foam is not pollution, but an indicator of decay products in the water—exactly what you’d expect to see in a river like this. Mostly protein breakdown products, I think.

The generator is a thing of beauty, virtually Art Deco. 4,160 VAC at 60 Hz. Brushes the size of candy bars. Great data dashboard on the monitor. The rotor is turning at a stately, majestic pace, and it is silent—when I press my ear to it, there is nothing to be heard. Then the plant manager opens the penstock gate and the low flowing river awakens in a roiling, churning explosion of froth and spray; the generator jumps to life.

It now exudes a vital, vigorous force, turning six times faster than it had been just a few moments earlier. Yet, up close, it is still as perfectly balanced; an ear pressed to it now only detects the slightest of hums.

Inside the hollow dam, we admire formations resembling cave formations. But I think the chemistry is different between the limestone/karst geology and this stuff. Besides lime (calcium oxide from superheated limestone, calcium carbonate) portland cement (from which concrete is made) also contains gypsum and some other odds and ends. The sulfate (if I recall correctly) is several orders of magnitude more soluble than the carbonate in rainwater, accounting for the presence of well-defined formations in concrete structures (Lincoln Memorial, this dam, Metro stations) within a few decades of their construction, while purely carbonate formations require centuries to develop. Though they look the same, the dam’s stalactites and flowstone are calcium sulfate, as opposed to calcium carbonate. (I think.)

Our guide actually allows us to climb down into the turbine room through a large square opening in the corner of the blockhouse—via a precarious wall-mounted ladder—to a shuddering catwalk below. A lawyer’s nightmare. We can walk right up to the spinning shaft and touch it, stick our tongues to it if we wish. This degree of access and intimacy is unbelievable in today’s world; it is a throwback to the era when the dam was built.

The Virginia Tech Cogeneration plant is a contrast to the tiny little Radford hydro plant in every conceivable way. It’s a towering nightmare of pipes and girders rising up in the middle of campus like some alien spaceship. It’s like being inside that stupid “pipes” screensaver, but hot. Our personal Virgil leads us into a stygian maze where the hellish heat is matched by the incessant roaring. The thermometer in the men’s room reads 98 degrees, and I believe it. We are told of a part of the facility—where people work—hit 147 degrees recently. It is hot, dirty, dark, loud and menacing, and between the noise, our guide’s mountain accent and his polite speaking voice, I catch one word in twenty. I make up things to fill in the gaps.


Dismal Falls needs to get a better agent.

Perhaps that explains the sign referring to “Falls Of Dismal.” They could also try “Les Falles De Dismalle” if that doesn’t work or maybe “Ye Olde Falles Of Dismal.”

In any case, they actually were pretty nice except for the depredations of the @#$%^&* white trash who left so much beer party debris behind.

That’s what happens when there’s less than—oh, say thirty trail miles—between the parking lot and an attraction. Slobs are lazy. They should just stay home and keep their beer cans in their own yards.

Rant off. We have a nice relaxing stop there,
and pretty much everyone gets wet
to one degree or another. And crayfish, lots of crayfish.

Yet another point of comparison: The Glen Lyn power plant. It sprawls along the New River in an industrial confluence of rail, road, river, wires and structure. The stacks look singularly virtuous as we park, pumping blameless gas into the sky; I think I can barely make out a host of angels hovering at the tops of the stacks, inhaling deep draughts of sweet coaly goodness. We cluster by the road, discussing issues of power and principle while the sun heads towards the hilltop behind us. Our little family remain unmolested by plant security; the two lone employees who appear menacingly on a catwalk high above us appear to only be taking a smoke break. No binoculars, crackling walkie-talkies or high-powered rifles. Apparently, we are unworthy of concern. Damn. How do you like that?

Dinner. Pizza. Tempers. Tension. Tired.

Long dark drive back to Selu. Execute Dreamsicle, then to bed very late. I’m tired to the point of incoherence.

New words from the trip: Geographist, Inauguracy, Frasstastic. Use them three times in a sentence and they’re yours.


Blindfold allows me to sleep until after 7:30; suddenly, it’s time to roll out. Quick gas & coffee stop, then off to Big Walker Mountain on the Floyd/Bland county line.

Today is beautiful, hot and dry. Thin high clouds appear in widely spaced flocks. It feels like we are at high altitude somewhere out west because of the intensity of the sky.

The walk to the top of the rickety metal lookout tower is both a little strenuous and a little nerve-wracking. But it’s worth it—a 360-degree view, mountains around the horizon. Though I’m on my last roll of film, I decide to attempt a full panoramic shot; the last frame shoots as I circle back and overlap the starting point. Sweet.

[note: image below is 3,000 pixels wide; enlarge and pan to view]

We have a long lunch and quiz in the hot sun; many seek shelter in the 3’ wide shade of the footbridge, which gradually moves across the parking lot with the sun’s passage. There is constant shifting to accommodate. Most of us are gradually reddening as the week progresses.

I hear the distinctive hum of an airhead BMW approaching, and sure enough, a mid-nineties R100gs rounds the bend with rider and pillion. Its brief transit delights me no end—its self-assured quiet is such a pleasant departure from the incessant exhaust notes all the other bikes have displayed. Rock on.

Note to self: Must come back here with motorcycle. Soon.

After lunch, we continue along the dazzlingly twisted road, up and down many miles before we arrive at Crab Orchard. At one point on the drive, we note an abrupt transition from rolling limestone fields to the harsh, angular blockiness of sandstone, from wide open fields to a narrow, tree-lined chasm; it occurs almost like turning a switch. Then we arrive at Crab Orchard.

Long metadiscussion about museums. Great exhibit on music, which I find out later is a traveling Smithsonian exhibit, not part of Crab Orchard proper. But the rest of the museum is well done and professional; the structures outside lack the cheesiness that some of our earlier stops have held. Similarly, there is also a lack of oppressive earnestness and sincerity. They have struck a good balance.

Three varieties of mint grow here; two in the demonstration garden behind one of the little cabins and the third in the rank ditch dividing the exhibits. The ditch mint is by far the best of the three. I wonder how often the pioneers struggled to maintain something familiar from back east, when they had a superior alternative available just outside their boundaries.

Hot, crispy dried grass clippings on the lawn under the shade of the maple trees. This is such a pretty place.

More sleepy driving on twisty country roads to Pocahontas. We arrive at the exhibition mine about the time they say they close. We wander around the dim cavernous exhibit hall in a brownian clump; I think we may be reaching a point of diminishing returns. We assemble for the tour, sleepy and chaotic; it begins with a circa-1973 public television video that has not stood up particularly well to the vagaries of time. The phrase “…good, church-going folk…” grates on me, and makes me not like the speaker. Talking heads in static shots and painfully dated fashion make confident and optimistic statements about the town, which time has not borne out. There is a sadly “whistling-past-the-graveyard” quality to their words, and it seems that most of them understand, at some level, that an unfriendly future bears down on Pocahontas.

We begin the mine tour. The air pouring gently around our ankles is at 48 degrees, chilly and damp. The Pocahontas coal seam—12’ thick and stretching from Pennsylvania to Alabama—is a thing of beauty. The walls look like they were designed by H.R.Giger in a fractal landscape, a miniature Grand Canyon of blackness; water trickles down the wall in rivulets of condensation and drips from the ceiling. It smells like an old farmhouse basement I remember. Fossils in the ceiling.

This place has the same feeling of condensed and compressed human misery and anguish that I once felt in the eyeless dungeon of a real live castle. It is oppressive. I try to wrap my brain around what it must have been like to be a coal miner and fail. I can only imagine.

This hardly seems like part of the same state I have lived in for my whole life. It hardly feels like part of the same country—or era. The sun is dropping behind the hillside that houses the mine. It is quiet, serene and still. The gentle remaining warmth of the day is so very welcome after the funereal chill of the mine.

“Upon This Rock I Will Build My Church.” If the rock in question is coal, maybe not such a good idea? That this particular sentiment (Matthew 16:18, if you were counting) is found by the entrance to a ruined church on the steep hillside of the town supports that idea. Ailanthus grows out of the church’s foundation as if it were just another planter box.

We fan out through the town’s evening like a ravening pack of anthropologists across New Guinea, snapping photos and jotting down notes. We couldn’t possibly be more conspicuous if we tried. I can’t imagine what the town must think of hosting this little invasion.

I strike out alone east on the main cross street. There are people sitting out on several porches as I pass; each greets me cheerfully and politely. I walk purposefully with hands jammed in my pockets and notepad firmly tucked away. I try to act like I belong here, but of course I don’t and I don’t kid myself about it either.

I finally locate a place of commerce at the far side of the little town. I purchase a Pepsi, a copy of the local paper and, get this—a dreamsicle. I would spend more money if there were anyplace to spend it, other than the funeral home and a coffin maker. Pocahontas completes our trinity of despair—dying forest, dying lake, dying town.

I rejoin the group, triumphant with my dreamsicle. Life is good.

We dine en masse at a CAFO in the BigBox heart of Bluefield. Expedience is the key here, since eighteen people can get exactly more or less what they want,be done and back on the road in about thirty minutes. No one is writing home about it, but we aren't hungry any more, are we? Moo.

On the trip home, our van (“Top Gun”) sings the periodic table as a rondo, in its original Greek. Unfortunately, we keep faltering around the transuranics, probably because Greek doesn’t accommodate them very well. I really don’t know how the other van (“Air Force One”) passes the long hours on the road.


Up early again for a nice long hot shower. Fell asleep last night in the main room pretzeled into one of the stuffed chairs, pencil and notebook on the floor below my limp, numb hand. Probably a puddle of drool on my chest too, but few witnesses.

This morning dawns with high clouds, low mist, and the promise of a sweltering afternoon.

A growing undercurrent of melancholy as it dawns on us that the week—which loomed so large to begin—is drawing to a close.

“Sneezing Travertine since 1877 B.C.” [Bob Childress]—written on the rear window of Air Force One.

My glasses frame broke yesterday. Pisser.

We begin the day by driving down to the Little River. The river overlook echoes the seven-sided motif of Selu, and a faint trace of mist rises from the river where the sun hasn’t hit yet. Broad, pocked mud flats along the shore between our vantage point and where we stood by the river this time yesterday morning. The bend of the river—Cracker Bend—is beautiful in the early light, laid out plainly before us. The dam-defined rise and fall of the river is clearly seen along its banks, a man-made tide hundreds of miles from the sea.

Floyd, today’s first destination, is a sharp little town with crisp corners, straight edges and a bright attitude. It’s a hippie kind of town, with an admirable attitude that seems to have a lot in common with Rappahannock. Someone describes it as “a college town without the college.” It is clean and vigorous, with many active businesses and little evidence of the desolation we felt in Pocahontas. I could spend a week just exploring the hardware store. To find this depth of vitality is encouraging; it suggests the economic issues plaguing Pocahontas, while serious, are not endemic to the region. We scout the town in little clumps, and actually feel like we might almost fit in here, what with the fancy coffee-based beverages and all.

We leave Floyd for the Seven Springs CSA, in Check, Virginia. That might be part of the Check Republic, I don’t know.

Seven Springs is not like Waterpenny. The first thing I notice is the magnificent row of poppies; everyone else is distracted by an antique deaf cat and a dog with the oddest marking I have ever seen. Much maternal cooing and fawning over what looks to me, honestly, like the biggest disease vector we’ve seen so far on the trip. But what do I know? [Note to self: Look up fleas, ticks, lice, mange, scabies on return.]

The farm is set in a low bowl with a row of gentle hills surrounding. Lots of quartz in the road. In fact, lots of quartz everywhere. That tells me something about what they’re up against—quartz is like the nasty old uncle who doesn’t leave anything behind in his will when he dies. The soil looks bitter and angry; I wouldn’t want to have to make a living off of it. I puzzle over a beautiful clump of paper birch, hundreds of miles outside its natural range, until we learn that all the trees were planted by the current owners. That explains the xenoflora and the ginormous orchard stock—a foot in diameter and thirty feet tall, must be full-sized trees, which hardly anyone plants anymore. The breeze flushes the hot steamy breath out of the fields and across me, while the sun roasts the back of my neck.

A red-winged blackbird pipes loudly from the rushes surrounding the little irrigation pond, then it jumps forth and plays with the barn swallows. It reminds me of this passage:

Tensions disappear along old roads like this. We bump along beat-up concrete between cattails and stretches of meadow and then more cattails and marsh grass. Here and there is a stretch of open water and if you look closely you can see wild ducks at the edge of the cattails. And turtles…There’s a red-winged blackbird. I whack Chris’s knee and point to it.
“What!” he hollers.
He says something I don’t hear. “What?” I holler back.
He grabs the back of my helmet and hollers up, “I’ve seen lots of those, Dad!”
“Oh!” I holler back. Then I nod. At age eleven you don’t get very impressed with red-winged blackbirds.
--Robert Pirsig, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The apprentice camp looks like something Irish gypsies would pass by. This would be a fun place to camp for a while, but live there for a whole growing season? Not so much. And ‘Off-the-grid’ might be a little bit of a stretch given how much of the enterprise is still griddified. But what do I know?

Picked up the Barbara Kingsolver book at a little café in Floyd—you know, read locally? Great read, especially here in the shade at the edge of the woods. Pretty place, cool out of the sun.

Susurration: That’s the word for the sound the wind and the trees are making.

Pack ‘em in, load ‘em up, move ‘em out. On the road agin, towards Roanoke. Hot hazy sky slowly picking up more clouds here and there. We know how that ends. We lunch at Mill Mountain overlooking the city of Roanoke. The steady breeze adds to the feeling most of us seem to have of being sun-blasted and dehydrated. The grass in the park is beginning its dog-days phase, abandoning the traditional ‘green’ for a more stylish ‘tan.’ The view is impressive; it’s a shame the haze diminishes it so much. Again, we have Ur-weather.

I want to nap, but apparently we are convening to perform some kind of student-like stuff at picnic tables dragooned into the shade of two massive white oak trees. The wind and glare make it difficult to focus and follow the presentation. I dismiss the Top Gun crew and retell the Waterpenny saga (Top Gun heard it on the way here), then we adjourn to climb the rest of the way up the hill to the Star on top. The star is there because the town fathers of Roanoke, in 1947, decided Roanoke needed a star. So there you are.

We descend on Roanoke. One hundred and fifty four empty coal cars dragged through the center of town by just two locomotives. Neat trick. The west darkens; the smell of rain is on the air. The wind rises and thunder begins. Ah, summer. The rain plays a fickle, cat-and-mouse game with us, first heavy then light, then circling back on the wind to catch us unaware. Naturally, all of us seek shelter in the nearest bar. Duh.

So far, the part of downtown we are walking around in reminds me of Baltimond, Harrismore or Richburg. Except for the funky art museum, which reminds me of Newcastle-on-Tyne’s fabulous “beer keg” museum.

I join Emily, Doug and Jacques at a sidewalk café for a quick Guinness. Several others of the group arrive before we all head back to the van. While we wait in the parking lot, we gossip cattily about what delays the stragglers, then once the gang is complete, head off to dinner.

Tonight we eat at “The Homeplace” in Catawba, Virginia. It is a hundred-year old farmhouse on a beautiful cattle farm hidden far back off the beaten trail. The house is white clapboard (okay, probably siding) with a red tin roof and a broad porch where guests gather while waiting to be seated. It has the kind of authenticity that chain restaurants spend tens of thousands of dollars to fake. People wander around the grounds randomly, taking in the views and generally soaking up the relaxed ambience. It’s like a family reunion of total strangers, or a wake for someone that nobody knows or mourns.
I claim an old rocking chair on the broad porch for a few minutes, and overhear the following exchange from a sated old couple slowly leaving the restaurant:
Grandma: “I think Penny is larger than I’ve ever seen her.”
Grandpa: “Yeah, she’s pretty huge.”

It takes all my effort to keep from bursting out laughing, especially when Grandpa sits down on the chair right next to me for a spell. I never did get a look at Penny, though.

Dinner is southern comfort food (that’s comfort food from the south, not food made with Southern Comfort) served family style—you know, with bickering, harsh accusations, stony silences and long-festering grudges. We feast on fried chicken and North Carolina barbecue, southern-style green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, cole slaw and biscuits. The food just keeps on coming; the culmination is blueberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream.

Apparently this place is well known among Appalachian Trail through-hikers, who, by the time they get this far north from Springer Mountain, are ready for a decent meal in pleasant surroundings. The all-you-can-eat part is a bonus, and voracious hikers are probably not as much of a threat to the restaurant’s bottom line as “Huge Penny” is—by the time they get this far, their stomachs have shrunk from a steady diet of eating just what they can carry.

We leave the restaurant stuffed.We end the day by all joining together in the magnificent seven-sided council room in the basement of Selu—an oak and stone work of art based on Cherokee ideas, decorated with gorgeous traditional yarn paintings. This is a great gathering place, womb-like in the soft glow of the hidden lights and blond wood. It’s a shame we haven’t taken advantage of it as a group before now.


Up early and finish packing. Always one last thing out of sight, out of mind and out of reach to complicated packing.

Twinges of sadness, but the cumulative effect of the week is a deep-seated fatigue and much information to process. I wonder how long we could maintain a pace like this.

We have a brief presentation about Selu from the Executive Director, then an explanation of the Council Room. We load out for the last time, and bump and lurch down the dusty, rutted road towards the interstate.

We stop in Radford, a quintessential college town, to make a brief survey of a block’s worth of downtown businesses and examine their demographics. Three tattoo parlors in a block; I think that gives us some idea.

The sky threatens, first time on the trip it’s done so while still morning. We drive only a short distance from Radford to stop at Dixie Caverns, our penultimate destination.

Note that Dixie Caverns sells Dreamsicles, and is named for a dog.

We gather for the tour, and are greeted by a young woman who is herself a college student at New River Community College and aspires to one of the four-year schools nearby. Her father worked as a tourguide here in 1974. The cave has been mangled and mauled by years of less-than-enlightened ownership and management; the decades-old scars of broken rock have barely begun to heal. We listen to the tour guide’s perfunctory spiel and play along hesitantly at the audience participation points; real personality shows through when our tour briefly intersects another tour. The other guide—a young man who would not be out of his element on the staff of any nationally renowned pizza franchise—is patiently and earnestly lying to his group about the cave’s endangered species.

Our guide turns aside and hisses to her compatriot: (Sotto voce) “We DO NOT HAVE THEM, you DUMBASS! I wish you’d STOP TELLING PEOPLE THAT!” Then without missing a beat, she resumes the robotour.

We exit the cave into a heavy grey sky and the first few drops of rain. A brief and intense squall passes, and everything reverts immediately to thick, spongy humidity. As I look around for a place to mail some postcards, a car pulls up and the driver, a man in his late twenties, asks me where the cavern is. I point where we have just exited, and explain that you buy tickets and wait for the tour at the gift shop.

“How much is it?” (…good grief, does he mistake me for a Dixie Caverns Employee?)

“ I don’t know…I just finished the tour, but actually someone else paid for it.”

“Well, what did you think? Was it worth it?”

Long, pregnant, increasingly awkward silence. I shift uncomfortably. The woman in the passenger seat awaits my answer expectantly, as I wrestle with complex issues of ethics and morality.

Finally I fess up. “I’m pretty sure you’ve got better things to do with your day. Go watch it rain somewhere.” They laugh, thank me for my candor, and drive away. I hope they enjoy watching it rain.

But the lingering traces of rain complexificate our lunch plans. We end up lunching at Buchanan, the last little town we will explore, nestled besides the upper reaches of the James River. Leftovers in the light drizzle, watching the river run.

Here I part company with the crew of Top Gun, and rejoin Air Force One for the final steamy leg of the drive home. You know what they say—you leave with the one who brung ya.

"Take Me Home, Country Roads"

(With apologies to Bill Danoff, Taffy Nivert & John Denver)

Almost heaven, (South)west(ern) Virginia
Blue Ridge mountains, Shenandoah river
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country roads, take me home
To the place, I belong
West Virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads

All my memories gather round her
Miner’s lady, stranger to blue water
Dark and dusty, painted on the sky
Misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
(South)west(ern) virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads

I hear her voice, in the mornin hours she calls me
The radio reminds me of my home far away
Drivin down the road I get a feeling
That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday

Country roads, take me home
To the place, I belong
(South)west(ern) virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads


Waterpenny Farm, Sperryville, VA. (CSA and internships)
Farmfoody CSA/PYO/Locavore Resource Site
Copper Fox Distillery, Sperryville, VA. America's only Single Malt Whisky