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Driving Southwestern Virginia’s Mountains

Tara Donne Abingdon’s Martha Washington Inn.

Photo: Tara Donne

In fall as many as 10,000 hawks a day soar above the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwest Virginia. The overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway are like a string of drive-in movie theaters—cars line the road, and people sink into canvas chairs that look as comfortable as La-Z-Boy recliners. They hold binoculars, watching for graceful squadrons of hawks to fly past.

All of Virginia looks a bit like a flying bird if you squint at it on a map—its head pointing west; its wings forming the coast. As a newcomer to Virginia from New York City, teaching at Hollins University in Roanoke for nine months, I decided to push to the very edge of the state to see what was down there, to help my wife, Elizabeth, and me understand where we were.

On the southern outskirts of Roanoke, the slightly down-and-out atmosphere of pawnshops and converted industrial buildings gives way to a more pruned, suburban feel. Then after an innocuous-looking turn, the road suddenly narrows, all signs of suburbia disappear, and you are swerving back and forth up and around a mountain. Regulars fly by at high speed, familiar with the curves.

We climbed for 20 minutes until we reached a plateau, the road ribboning and undulating more gently; then, in another 20 minutes, we came upon the town of Floyd and Sweet Providence Farm Market & Bakery, a red-roofed log-cabin store on the crest of a steep hill. Its porch was strewn with pumpkins. Beside them, a young boy fed apples into a press that squeezed out cider.  Just off the porch, a local named Dale Belcher stirred apple butter in a copper kettle hanging over a wood fire. Some of the goopy brown stuff had slopped over the edges and burned. Smoke twirled upward from the fire, flames licking the pot. Belcher moved his long wooden stirring pole in rhythmic, deliberate motions, like some Appalachian gondolier. We chatted, and he asked me where I was from. I said New York. “I was told to see two things in the world—Washington, D.C., and the ocean,” he said, in manner somewhere between W. C. Fields and Santa Claus. “I seen them both and I wasn’t impressed. I was born in these mountains, raised in the mountains, live in the mountains, and probably’ll die in the mountains.” He stirred a few more times and then flashed me a huge grin and laughed.

Floyd belongs to what is surely a statistical anomaly: a town with more cappuccino vendors than stoplights. Of the latter there’s only one. There is also a winery, a gourmet food store, a hardware store, and a couple of antiques shops. Finders Keepers is filled with Deco furniture at reasonable prices. Chic’s Antique Mall is a warren of vintage radios, kerosene lamps, tools, and beautiful objects, where you could disappear for hours.

We had seen pottery by Silvie Granatelli when we stopped for coffee at the Café del Sol, and asked her if we could visit. She has been a member of the 16 Hands pottery collective since 1992. Originally from New Jersey, by way of Chicago, she was in appearance and manner as far from Dale Benchley as one could get, but she said the locals welcomed her with open arms when she arrived. “So many young people left after World War II that when the hippies started arriving in the sixties and seventies, the town was thrilled.”

According to Anne Bower, at the Floyd Country Store, in the late 50’s an academic studying wind patterns concluded that if there were a nuclear war and you found yourself in Virginia, Floyd was where you’d want to be. That brought the first wave of new settlers at the time, and the hippies who arrived afterwards were part of the back-to-the-land movement. According to one resident, Tim Spence, “The moonshiners and the hippies seem to share a suspicion of government and get along pretty well.”

Friday nights at the Floyd Country Store, a “jamboree” of bluegrass music starts at 6:30 and ends around 10:30. It has been going on for as long as Granatelli can remember. The performers are mostly amateurs from the surrounding hills. And there is dancing. Granatelli told us, “The first time I saw the jamboree, I was moved to tears. That was twenty-five years ago, and it’s still authentic.”

A low mist came in with the dusk as we drove southwest toward Abingdon along the narrow Daniel Boone Heritage Highway. Cows stood in the mist like ghosts. Occasional signs read crooked road, referring to the many historic bluegrass and country music sights that dot this lonely road, most famously the Carter Family Fold, a music center run by the dynasty that produced June Carter, wife of Johnny Cash.

When darkness fell it brought a feeling of terrible waste—all this unseen scenery!—and intense hunger. We were in the absurd position of being in a rush in the dark in the middle of nowhere, to get to the best restaurant in Abingdon. The Tavern, like all the good places in town, closes at 9 p.m. We pulled in just under the wire.

It was in the tchotchke-filled dining room of our bed-and-breakfast the next morning, a Sunday, that we met the judge. He was sitting patiently beside his wife, Jane, who wore a black dress with a diamond brooch. Across from them two places had been set for Elizabeth and me.

Glen Williams spent 30 years on the federal bench of Virginia’s Western District, based in Lee County, which occupies the tiny notch at the southwest tip of Virginia, on the Kentucky border. The previous evening, there had been a reunion of his legal aides—many accomplished folks, including a U.S. senator, whom he listed at my request. The judge had a way of speaking that involved no facial gestures or hand movements. One eye wandered and the other stared vaguely off into space. His accent was country but not conspicuously so. It was—if you can say this about an accent—judicious. I told him we were transplants from the Northeast on a journey of tourism and discovery, and this got him talking.

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