Driving Southwestern Virginia’s Mountains
Winding through Appalachia in Virginia’s hilly Southwest.
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.
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.
This drive should take two or three days, depending on how long you stop and linger.
Where to Go
Spring and fall are the best times to visit Appalachia. Temperatures are mild, and fall foliage reaches its peak in mid-October.
Where to Stay
Martha Washington Inn
150 W. Main St., Abingdon; 276/628-3161; marthawashingtoninn.com; doubles from $285.
Where to Eat
Café del Sol
302 S. Locust St., Floyd; 540/745-2287; floydcoffee.com; lunch for two $14.
222 E. Main St., Abingdon; 276/628-1118; abingdontavern.com; dinner for two $81.
What to Do
Art Museum of Western Virginia
Will Roanoke be the Bilbao of southwest Virginia?The city has placed its bets on emerging Los Angeles architect Randall Stout’s new building for the Art Museum of Western Virginia, which sits in the center of its revitalized downtown district like a postmodern Noah’s Ark washed up on top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. One Market Square, Roanoke; 540/342-5760; artmuseumroanoke.org.
Cave House Craft Shop
279 E. Main St., Abingdon; 276/628-7721; cavehousecrafts.org.
Chic’s Antique Mall
125 W. Main St., Floyd; 540/745-4627.
219 E. Main St., Floyd; 540/745-5336.
Floyd Country Store
206 S. Locust St., Floyd; 540/745-4563; floydcountrystore.com.
1643 Starbuck Rd. S.E., Floyd; 540/745-4613; 16hands.com.
Sweet Providence Farm Market & Bakery
3263 Floyd Hwy. N., Floyd; 540/745-4000; sweetprovidencefarm.com.
- It List 2008: The World’s Best New Hotels