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Driving Southwestern Virginia’s Mountains

Tara Donne Abingdon’s Martha Washington Inn.

Photo: Tara Donne

He was very informative about Daniel Boone, who had first seen the land that would become Kentucky from Cumberland Gap, at Virginia’s western edge. Boone’s adolescent son had been killed by Indians on one of his expeditions. The judge wove this historical moment into a tale of the plaque commemorating the Boone boy’s death. Apparently some powerful people in another part of the state had claimed the event for their county, and the judge had to lobby for years to get it moved back to its rightful place in Lee County, where he lived.

We sat listening for more than an hour, and when we got up to leave I remarked, randomly but sincerely, that I would love to continue the conversation in the future.

“Oh, come on and see us sometime in Jonesville,” he said. “Ask anyone where we live and they’ll just point to the top of the hill.”

It’s unusual that I would drive four hours even to visit family, and yet we were headed to see people we had talked to for an hour, carried along on the mellifluous current of the judge’s deadpan country accent. The landscape had become ragged and steep. Periodically we passed train depots, railway car after railway car heaped with coal, absorbing the light into itself, pure blackness.

The judge and Jane came out of the house to greet us, and soon we were inside chatting. Or, as at our last meeting, listening to the judge. But it was a pleasure. We sat in his den, where I noticed all sorts of poetry volumes, including Leaves of Grass. As it happens, the judge is known for peppering his decisions with poetic quotations. In one bank fraud case, he led off with “Oh, what a tangled web we weave.”

A football game was on, but he sat beside the television; it turned out that neither eye works anymore, so I would occasionally do play-by-play between asking the judge questions and responding to his dry wit. It was a bizarre kind of delight. The judge was a fount of regional and personal history, including the tale of what he called “a sacrificial candidacy” for Congress in 1964, when Barry Goldwater led the Republican ticket.

The judge’s campaign sounded a bit like the Keystone Cops. He told of bringing a Republican congressman down from New York to speak on his behalf in Hungry Mother State Park, in Smyth County; he was someone known for impassioned speeches about God who chose instead to talk about Social Security, which apparently moved nobody.

“Our next rally was in the town of Lebanon. We had a picnic. I said, ‘Please, no more about Social Security,’ and we had a good old prayer rally at the picnic, but there was hardly anyone there.”

My wife and I drove on through the sunstruck landscape rehashing his anecdotes; one was about how he had been studying for a Monday-morning exam in law school but on Sunday “threw the books away,” because Pearl Harbor had been bombed and every student would be going to war.

“Come on back!” they said when we left. And I was sure they meant it.

The next morning at the Martha Washington Inn, in Abingdon, we had a Sunday brunch buffet verging on gluttony—eggs Benedict, shrimp and oysters, stands of prime rib and omelettes—then took a long stroll through the town’s pretty streets and antiques stores. But we dwelled longest in the Cave House Craft Shop. Amid work by local craftspeople, I came across The Plow Reader, an anthology of articles published in a regional alternative weekly in the late 70’s. This is coal-mining country, and there were accounts of the bitter strikes and battles I recognized from Barbara Kopple’s seminal documentary about the coal industry, Harlan County U.S.A. There were also poems and personal essays expressing an unsentimental love of the land. “Once a year I get the urge to go back to the cool hemlock-shaded creek and breathe the fragrant air,” Colleen Davenport Taylor writes about her grandparents’ farm. When she returns to find it’s been sold, she suggests an intimacy with the land that permeates the pages of The Plow Reader: “The soil is a medium for living things and lives itself and its strength can be killed by those not aware.”

On our drive back to Roanoke, the land on either side of us dropped into stunning views or curled into hollows; neat houses and clusters of trailers popped up here and there. The fall foliage was dense. We saw more cows than cars. It was haunted and hypnotic, and that may be why, entering the town of Saltville, I turned randomly at a sign that said old salt mill.

We were stopped in our tracks by a colorful assemblage of small structures in someone’s front yard, a miniature theme park through which a little railroad ran. It was completely quiet outside the car. I took a step in the silence and a loud horn blew, and 20 different things whirred into fluttering motion. It scared me to death. After a moment it stopped. I stepped back, and then forward again, past some unseen force field, and again it all erupted in motion and noise. This time I kept going. The tiny town’s themes, mostly embodied in plastic, seemed to involve God, the railroad, and Virginia. There was a little school, a chapel, a little jail, and a courthouse. I came to a piece of stone vaguely shaped like Virginia, which had the state’s name pasted on it, some plastic pink flowers beside it, and a little plastic horse and buggy glued onto it. It looked a bit like a headstone. On top there was a bell jar enclosing a clock. It was a totally eerie, gorgeous rampage of Outsider art and craziness.

We drove on and came to a closed country store. Next door was another creaky contraption, a huge metal viewing station, almost like a small Eiffel Tower. Halfway up you could step off a platform onto a very rickety little bridge held by cables that moved and squeaked beneath your feet. It appeared to lead right off a cliff. In fact, it brought you to the lip of a ridge, beneath which the whole enchanted forest of southwest Virginia seemed to stretch out. Not a single light glimmered. The land extended so far, and with such a serene feeling of undiscovered territory, that there, with the sky a muted and deep blue above me and the rolling hills below, I felt a tremor of long-ago discovery course through me, anew.

Thomas Beller is a T+L contributing editor.

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