Walking Around with Famous People

I intended to write, write, write through the pandemic about how we “country folk” made our way through the Covid mess. Now that things are opening back up, I’m not that surprised, I suppose, that I just didn’t find the energy for to do it.

But I’ve got notes, y’all, so I’m going to spend a couple of days talking about some of the things that kept us busy when we were supposed to stay away from other people.

I’ve mentioned that one thing I like to do each morning is take a walk. It really is pretty here and getting a little air sets me up nicely for the day. I walk with my neighbor, Jane, a couple of days a week (on many weeks we made sure to walk six feet apart!), but other days, I’m on my own.

When we lived in a suburban neighborhood in busy Northern Virginia, I’d get on the road walking or jogging by 5 am so I could get home in time to bother our kids before they went off to school. The problem with that schedule here is that when it’s dark, it’s dark. We don’t have streetlights.

That’s the moon setting, you know

Our daughter prodded me out the dark door. Now a New Yorker, when she came to visit she appreciated getting out early and seeing the stars. You’re missing out, she told me, so I dusted off my old headlamp and started braving the pre-dawn roads.

Sunrises are pretty good here.

The other problem, though, is critters. We have friendly creatures, like opossum, foxes, and rabbits (squee!). We have some other denizens, though, like coyotes and yes, black bears, whom I did not want to meet. The answer came from my sister and brother-in-law: podcasts.

I started with Smartless, a podcast featuring Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, Will Arnett, and a mystery guest each week. I chose this one because I walk without my earbuds in (on dark, twisty, roads, I want to be able to hear what’s coming) and I figured that the sound of men’s voices would discourage anything creeping around from coming too close. They talk to some amazing people and what I love is that they’re all really, really kind to each other.

Then Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground came along and I loved that, too. And Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us is good, though her guests tend to be doing their book tours, and I have hit up Amazon a few too many times when I get home. I am now way behind on my reading.

Lately I’m loving Adam Grant’s WorkLife – he is an organizational psychologist and talks about how we get along with each other, mostly at work but also just in general. He has great energy, is really thoughtful, and was sassy enough match wits with Malcom Gladwell when he was a guest on the show. I just saw that WorkLife is one of Apple’s most highly-rated podcasts, so here I was thinking I was discovering something but ahem, I’m just a little late to the party.

Most of all, I highly recommend Every Little Thing, where each episode answers a burning question, like how old is Winnie the Pooh (the character. Old bear? Young bear?), or whether people actually only breathe through one nostril at a time, or how the game Scrabble became so popular. The episode on Pooh had me laughing like a fool and actually crying at the end, and I dare you to listen to the episode on dog shows (are they anti-dachshund?) without cheering for the weenie dogs.

These little drops of wisdom each morning have made the walks a lot of fun, and I’ll tell you what: I haven’t seen a bear yet.

A Bad Day for a Road Trip

Earlier this week, I had some business to attend to up in Fairfax, so I drove up Monday, met with some of my colleagues (face to face for the first time in more than a year!) and – the best part – hung out with my sister and brother-in-law for the first time since December 2019.

Zoom is amazing but not like this.

Work wrapped up by Tuesday at 2 pm, and since it’s a four-hour drive back to the countryside, I was motivated to get on the road before the famous northern Virginia traffic (even with so many people working from home, it’s bad, y’all). Off I went.

As I turned south onto Route 29, the road that would take me most of the way home, it occurred to me that I should stop to fill up my half-tank of gas. But oddly enough, the gas stations all seemed to have lines. I didn’t want to wait in a line; I wanted to get home. So I kept on.

Eventually I saw a little gas station without any lines, so I pulled in, only to find hand written signs that read, “No gas.”

Uh-oh.

I traveled on south, passing gas station lines so long that they pushed out into the roadway. In Charlottesville, the large-ish, busy town at the midpoint of the trip, its many gas stations featured astonishing lines. I hesitated to join any of them for fear that the station would run out of gas before my turn came, leaving me in worse shape.

My gas gauge had also crept to just below a quarter of a tank.

Once south of Charlottesville, Rt. 29 becomes really rural, really fast. I was aiming for a familiar gas and snack stop in North Garden, Virginia, just about 15 miles out of town, but when I got there, the Exxon was also out of gas. I started trying to devise a Plan B and not was coming up with any good prospects.

But three miles later, around a bend, up popped Caul’s Grocery.

Here’s how it looks on the Google Maps page

Caul’s is small. It had a line. But that line was short enough that I could join it and only be one or two cars from being able to get off of Rt. 29 and into the parking lot. I turned on my hazard lights to warn the folks flying down the road that we were parked right out there in traffic, and in short order, a line formed right up behind me. Even better, I was able to pull into the parking lot and safety.

A beautiful sight

As I waited with my window rolled down, I congratulated one fellow for being able to fill his tank, and he assured me that Caul’s Grocery’s proprietor (Mr. Caul?) had reported that he’d received a large shipment of gas just the day before. Whew. Within forty minutes or so, I myself was gassed up and ready to roll home.

My fellow travelers. That lumber truck hung out with us for awhile but then tried his luck down the road. I don’t know how he could have fit into the parking lot, frankly.

All of this adventure was the result of a ransomeware attack that had shut down the Colonial Pipeline, which delivers gas to much of the East Coast. And of course, people panicked and gobbled up gasoline. In a clear illustration of not putting two and two together, I had heard about the hack but had not considered how it might affect me. I guess I’m out of practice at traveling.

But I will always make a point of stopping at Caul’s on my way to and from points north.

A Little Warmth on a Cold Day

We got a bit of snow on Thursday morning, just enough to whet the appetite for the BIG, EPIC STORM that we’re supposed to get tonight.

This made for a gorgeous walk. I set out as the sun was coming up, motivated to get some pictures.

Mission accomplished.

That’s the moon setting!

I usually walk with a neighbor on Tuesdays and Thursdays but she declined out of concern for icy roads. I quickly came to appreciate her wisdom because it was a little dicey out there. And really cold. But still seriously pretty, so I kept at it.

Not far from our house, they’re putting up some new houses and as I was gingerly slipping my way down the road, one of the contractors drove by. A big guy in a big pickup. I don’t want to generalize too much, but he looked like a lot of the big guys in big pickups we have around here. We shared a wave and when I got to the cul-de-sac at the bottom of the hill where they’re building those houses, he was out of the truck and getting ready to start his day’s affairs.

“How you doing?” he called out.

“I’m rethinking my choices,” I said.

“Naw,” he replied, “you’re out here doing it. That’s what’s important.”

“Hey, can you do me a favor?” I asked. “If you see me wipe out and fall on my butt in this ice…” I intended to complete the phrase with a request for him to not laugh too loud because it might hurt my feelings. I was entertaining myself with my own joke when he cut me off mid-sentence.

“I’m gonna come help you up,” he said.

“No, no! I was just going to ask you not to laugh too hard!”

“I won’t,” he said. “But I’m going to help you, too.”

That was so unexpected and darned nice that it puts a smile on my face even after a couple of days. It is great to learn that someone you don’t even know is out there ready to help you up if you need it.

But enough pondering. I’m off to locate a new snow shovel so both Jim and I will be well equipped for that BIG, EPIC SNOW.

Turkey Trot

Our old suburban neighborhood used to have a turkey trot every year on Thanksgiving morning. We’d all meet at the Haydens’ house and take a route around a little man-made lake, then come back and share some excellent pumpkin bread. Sometimes we would run, other times we would walk. Kids would come out, and older folks, and people in turkey hats, and it was a wonderful way to catch up with neighbors you might not have had a chance to see during a busy fall.

This year, they’re doing it again, responsibly distanced of course. A couple of friends were texting about going and it occurred to me that while I will miss the neighborhood turkey trot (quite a bit), out here in Franklin County I can go for a walk and have a chance to see a real turkey trotting.

Turkeys are pretty majestic and out here they just hang out in people’s yards, like deer. One day I had my own deer-reminiscent experience of seeing a turkey from the corner of my eye as I was driving. He was headed on a collision course with my car, but just as I was thinking, oh, no, I’m about to flatten a turkey, that guy launched into the air and sailed across the road, inches from my windshield.

It was a spectacular sight. I could even see his little eye looking at my thunderstruck face as he flew by. It was a striking (not literally, ha ha) reminder that you never know when you’re going to see something amazing, but also that sometimes, we’re capable of much more than anyone thinks.

Want some fun Thanksgiving facts about turkeys? Here’s an article from National Geographic that will make you the star of dinner table conversation today! I hope you have much to be thankful for, today and every day.

Day Job

I have a college friend who is an author. If you have kids of a certain age you have almost certainly heard of her work; Disney turned one of her characters into an animated series and it thrills me to see merch and Halloween costumes based on my own friend’s creation!

Anyway, I follow this good lady on Facebook. There, she mentioned that she had retweeted (on her Twitter page, of course) some political revelry about Saturday’s announcement that the US elections have been called in favor of President-elect Biden. One of her Twitter followers unfollowed her over the retweet and told her to stick to her day job.

Okay, now, people need to stop it.

I live in a very “red” part of Virginia, and was it my imagination that at our little Kroger yesterday, people were extra inconsiderate? We always have our share of loud and proud mask-refusers, but hey, you fella who rammed someone else’s cart so you could get closer to the oranges, was that necessary?

Anger serves a purpose. If it spurs you to make change, it serves a really valuable purpose. But temper? Snideness? Calling people names and telling them what to do with their own platforms? Come on, y’all, wouldn’t it make sense to take that energy and work to make things better in your little corner of the world?

My friend Anne Marie had the best response to her un-follower: “I told her my day job was being human and writing was just a part of me, and I wished her well.”

THAT’s a professional! Doing her day job! And now, hopefully I can pry myself away from the news long enough to be a little more productive at my own day job this week.

It’s a Complicated Place, Franklin County

I’ve had the chance to learn and write a little bit about the history of the southwestern Virginia counties that border Smith Mountain Lake. I’ve learned some of the area’s darker history from Beth Macy’s excellent book, Truevine, and also from our neighbor, who grew up in Woolwine, Virginia, not too far from here.

I’ve seen the Confederate soldier manning the porch at the Franklin County Historical Society, and have been in there doing research when other folks have come in looking for their ancestors among the volumes of data amassed inside.

But this week I was grateful to the Washington Post for its article about how Franklin County, a tiny county (56,000 of us as of 2019) was introduced to the Black Lives Matter movement. “When Black Lives Matter came to white, rural America,” tells the story of three women, Katosha Poindexter, Bridgette Craighead, and Malala Penn, who are trying to raise awareness of racial justice here.

I learned that Franklin County is nearly 90 percent white, which supports what I’ve seen in the past two years we’ve lived at the lake. I learned that the Ku Klux Klan was very active not very far from where we now live. And sadly, from some of the comments on local social media pages about the women’s BLM protest, I learned that some ugly attitudes are still around.

Fortunately, I’m catching up today with a college friend who has a keen eye and ties to Smith Mountain Lake; maybe Heidi will help me sorth things out.

Creeping Out, Creeping Back In

I first drafted this post talking about how lucky we were in our remote part of the country. Until very recently, our reported cases of Covid-19 had been very moderate. Even with the rate of people wearing masks standing at about 50-50, with the wide-open spaces in Franklin County we felt like we might miss the worst of it.

Then Memorial Day came and evidently everyone went to Myrtle Beach, including that virus. Myrtle Beach is a spot on the South Carolina shore, just about five hours south of our area. There’s a boardwalk, and golf courses, and an amusement park, and evidently lots of pent-up need for people to get out to the sand, because they opened up their businesses in June and the virus exploded.

Look, it’s the Coronavirus Highway!

People in Roanoke love Myrtle Beach! And they brought that virus back with them. The worst souvenir ever.

So now our local cases are creeping up. Mask wearing is a little better, but I’m cautious and more mindful of staying home. But for awhile there…

Jim and I went out to eat at our favorite restaurant, instead of doing take-out.

Napoli Cowboy has a nice outdoor area now! And you have to make a reservation.

I made a trip to Rocky Mount for a mammogram, which is no fun but you gotta do it. Hats off to the clinic for being extremely impressive at monitoring patients’ health and getting us in and out quickly.

I started going into Roanoke on Saturday mornings to peruse the tremendous Kolsch selection at Barrel Chest, where they remember you and what you like, with always something new and good to recommend.

I would also include a stop at Roasters Next Door so I could support a local coffee shop that happens to have delicious lavender-pancake flavored lattes.

But now it looks like all of those good things might be on hold and it’s 100% worth it if we can avoid this mess spreading any more than it is.

Where I Live

For the last couple of weeks it feels like most of the things I tend to write about are terribly trivial.

… an unnecessary insertion into a week filled with long overdue conversations about race that deserved our full and undivided attention.

Monica Hesse, The Washington Post, June 9, 2020

But like most of us, I suspect, I’ve been thinking about race a whole lot since the end of May, along with my place in making things better.

Because the place where I live, in this corner of southwest Virginia, has a lot going for it:

It’s hay bale season and every field is now full of these
We also have ridiculous scenery
And real farmers!

And we live among some of the kindest people you’ll ever meet.

But this corner of the world is also trying to figure out, I think, where it stands regarding its past.

The Confederate on the porch used to stand at the courthouse. He moved to the historical society when he was replaced (with another Confederate)

And while it’s not too unusual to see a Confederate flag in someone’s yard, on the other hand, our county’s school board voted just last week to ban the symbol from its dress code, overturning a decision to the contrary that was just made in January of this year.

There’s a lot to think about.

From Here? Come Here?

I am doing some work with the Smith Mountain Arts Council — just press releases, but that’s enough that they invite me to monthly board meetings — and it’s a sad time for the arts council because we are having to cancel all of our events, of course. This was the subject of some conversation at our last meeting (on Zoom); the council comprises many talented and energetic people (mostly retired) who want to offer some kind of outlet for performance and give their neighbors a chance to get out for an evening.

One of the guys in the group finally spoke out, confessing that he and his wife would absolutely not be going out until they were completely comfortable that it was safe. There was much agreement.

Then I ran into a neighbor this morning who expressed some exasperation that businesses aren’t opening back up quickly enough. I was a little surprised by her reaction, and I’ll admit that was because she is well into her sixties, in a demographic that I assumed would be more on the side of keeping things locked down a little longer.

But that’s just my oversimplified thinking, obviously.

I do a lot of thinking about the people who are “From Here’s” — whose families have lived in Franklin County for hundreds of years, who have Confederate soldiers in their family trees, and who have seen the fortunes of this place rise and fall with manufacturing, tobacco, the railroads, and farming. On the other hand, a lot of us folks around the lake are “Come Here’s” — people who are mostly retired, and who have moved from places in North Carolina and Virginia, certainly, but many of whom are from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (where my neighbor mentioned above originated).

Items like this little fella are available for purchase at a local gift store.

I fall into the trap of thinking that the Come Here’s think one way, and the From Here’s think another. But my conversations over the last couple of days once again illustrate that that’s more than a little naive. Then I default to thinking, gee, I wish I was a historian or sociologist, just to try to make sense of it all.

Tomorrow, I promise, I will lighten up and talk more about fun quarantine activities and pondering if our college son will ever get out of bed before mid-afternoon.

Covid’s Creep to the Country

I think I’ve mentioned that where we live is fairly rural.

As with some rural communities, there may be some sense of insulation from the effects of Covid-19 as it sweeps around the world. In fact, someone I know was teased a few weeks ago at a local gardening store when he told the cashier that he would load his own mulch in order to maintain some social distance. “A CUSTOMER IS COMING TO THE LOADING AREA,” she announced over the store’s loudspeaker. “BUT HE DOESN’T NEED HELP BECAUSE HE WANTS TO SOCIAL DISTANCE!” There was chuckling. This person now buys his mulch from the Lowe’s in Rocky Mount.

(About ten days after this interaction this same establishment went to curbside-only service. No more loitering in the garden store, y’all!)

And indeed, today’s Roanoke Times reports only 16 cases of Covid-19 in Franklin County, with 19 in Bedford County just across the lake.

However, a large population of our neighbors are retired and are very respectful of the threat that the coronavirus presents. You see some folks wearing masks in the stores, and appreciate businesses’ attempts to distance their customers.

The Burnt Chimney Post Office is not playing around.

We are supporting our small businesses with take-out orders and only venturing out when we need to. But if we went to our windows to bang pots at 7 pm in support of health care workers, I don’t think anyone would hear us.

When I talk to friends in the DC area or our daughter in New York, it is clear that they are living in a world that seems very different, even if I suspect strongly that it is not.