Monday, June 30, 2008


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.

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