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.

Escape!

Over the next week or so, I thought I’d write about what things are like here in the Virginia countryside with all of this quarantining, and what I’ve been doing during the lockdown.

One of the things I try to do is get out and walk. Where we live, it’s very easy to take a walk and remain socially distanced.

Even when you walk with someone else.

I walk on Tuesdays and Thursdays with a neighbor, Jane, and her dog, Max.

He is not convinced that he wants to walk with me

We usually get on the road around 7, which is now just as the sun is coming up. Our loop is just about two miles. We see all kinds of critters.

That’s a deer I saw this morning, peeking at
me from over the hill

On the other days, I mix it up with different routes or maybe a little jog. But I try to get out there every day because — a true confession — I want my pants to keep fitting.

Here’s a guy who’s been walking for a cause and he’s awesome.

Here’s a news article that was in yesterday’s Roanoke Times about how regular walking might even help you survive a bout with the ‘rona! Yes, please!

I hope that whatever your situation, you’re able to exercise, even in (or especially in) a low-key way. I’m reading a book, Keep Going, by artist Austin Kelon, who sees walking as an antidote to the barrage of information flying at us every day: “you get outside and you start walking and you come to your senses … people smiling, birds chirping, clouds flying overhead … all that stuff. There’s possibility. Walking is a way to find possibility in your life when there doesn’t seem to be any left.”

Socially Distanced Donuts

It is a tough tug-of-war between wanting to stay secluded and wanting to support local businesses. Jim and I have been helping the local economic cause, at least a little, by stopping for take-out from our favorite spot up the street, Napoli Cowboy.

And then some businesses have made it even easier to support them while staying a safe six feet away.

Mama Crockett’s cider donuts were famous well before we moved here. You can’t just get them anywhere. They have a store in downtown Lynchburg, about an hour from us, and they also sell the donuts ALL OVER THE PLACE from a couple of cool minty campers.

For example, Charlottesville is in luck tomorrow

Sadly, they never seemed to sell them anywhere near me. Until today.

Mama Crockett’s Facebook page lists where their truck is going to be, and I was overjoyed to see that it was coming to Rocky Mount today — just 25 minutes up the road!

Jim said that there was a line for these guys when they came to the city, but a snowy morning in Rocky Mount is pretty desolate

You can order and pay online, set up a time for your pick-up, and then you just show up and they zoom your donuts down the 6-foot chute to your hungry hands. Then the hardest thing is not eating them in the car on the way home.

One of the benefits to living down here right now is that we are pretty naturally spread out. Spread out enough to feel okay about getting a solid breakfast.

It’s Still Spring

So…. whatcha been up to?

Here in Wirtz, we’re probably doing much what you’re doing these days: staying put.

But I’m feeling extremely lucky being able to do it.

For one thing, since moving to this area year ago, I have been very fortunate to work as a freelance writer, with my main client being the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University. In case you don’t know, Mason is the largest public research university in the commonwealth (!) (that’s right, Virginia Tech!), serving students from its campuses in Fairfax, Manassas, and Arlington, Virginia. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is one of the largest colleges within the university, boasting over 20 distinct departments and programs. It has some amazing faculty members, students, and alumni, and I help to write about them.

Like most institutions of higher learning (and even not-so-higher learning), Mason has been hustling to meet the needs of its students in the face of this nasty covid-19 mess. What this means for me is that now all of my colleagues are working remotely, just like me. And the messaging has been flying fast and furious, so I have been fortunate to help keep those messages going.

Let me tell you, being able to work during this time is a huge (I’ll say it) blessing. It helps draw my focus from social media, which is so crazy right now, and the news — none of which seems to be all that good. And it’s springtime here, so I can work from an office view like this one.

Most of this blog has been all about the neat things to see around this area, and obviously we haven’t been out doing a lot of that. But in the coming days I’ll tell you what it’s like socially distancing in the country, because it sure seems different than what my friends are experiencing in bustling northern Virginia.

I hope you are well and healthy and have something good to keep you busy, too.

Country Roads

Soon after our trip to Roanoke’s Big Lick ComicCon, Jim and I went (much) further afield to visit Costa Rica with our friends Gary and Tammy.

I won’t write much about it (because this is not a travel blog), but I will note that where we were, close to the west coast, featured rolling fields full of crops and cattle, with mountains in the distance.

Not too unlike our views at home!
We even took a ride behind a GINORMOUS tractor,
which looks a little like our local snow plow in a wholly different vibe.
Of course, you’re not going to see this guy in Franklin County (photo by Gary Reinhardt).

Let me tell you, though, the roads are better here.

I had a chance to appreciate good old Virginia infrastructure yesterday when I took some of those roads to the town of Blairs in Pittsylvania County, to visit Southside Elementary School and read a book with some second graders.

I love a captive audience.

This was part of a project that brought American Association of University Women members to read about inclusiveness to kids around Franklin, Bedford, and Pittsylvania Counties. I volunteered for a farther-flung school near Danville, Va., because I hadn’t had a chance to explore in that direction.

And explore I did! Blairs is about an hour from our home, and along the way I drove through Penhook, almost all the way to Gretna.

You’re not in a hurry when you’re behind the big truck.

Then headed south on Route 29 past Chatham…

(not Chatham, Massachusetts. Or Boston, Massachusetts, for that matter)

This is a Boston Globe picture of a sticker sold by enterprising Cape Codders.
Chatham, Virginia, does not have sharks to worry about.

…through the town of Tightsqueeze, almost all the way to North Carolina. Just short of Danville, I reached my destination.

Flowers blooming in Blairs!

The teachers and administration at the school were marvelous, and the kids were, of course, charming. It was a wonderful opportunity and a lot of fun to read with them.

On the way home, I took a meandering mountain road through Witt, Mount Hermon, and Henry Fork.

Soon after I took this picture I had to, ahem, put the phone down and focus on the driving,
because the roads got a little curvy and hilly.

Eventually, I reached the familiar four lanes of Route 220, cut through Rocky Mount, and made my way back home more than a little proud of myself that after all that exploring, I found my way back. We are through with our “major” traveling for the time being, and it’s nice that a trip so far away can be echoed by the beauty at home.

Snow Birds and White Birds

After the holidays, the environs around Smith Mountain Lake thin out considerably. We have a large population of folks who mostly enjoy the water during the warmer months, and many of them seem to slip off to even warmer climates after the ornaments and lights get put away for another year.

But I want to tell you about the birds that don’t fly away.

I don’t know if I’ve written here about how the colors of the countryside also get quieter this time of year, a muted, mellow palette of pale blue, gray, taupe, sage green, and wheat. Many mornings, as the sun comes up, a gentle pink joins the party.

Often, if you get up at just the right time, all of these colors form a backdrop for some graceful winter visitors. The first rays of sun bounce off the wings of swirling white birds that fish in the lake in the cooler months.

Some mornings, we only see one or two outside our window. Other times, a veritable flock appears.

They all like to perch at Bridgewater Plaza later in the day.

In an effort to learn more about the birds (for instance, what they are), I queried the SML Residents Facebook page and got three possible answers: gannets, kittiwakes, and migratory ringed bill gulls visiting from Lake Erie. (I also learned that the term “sea gull” is a bit of a misnomer, because they can show up around any body of water, but “parking lot gull” sounds a lot less poetic.) I’m leaning towards the ring bill gulls.

This is not one of our birds; it’s a photo by Sunchie Yang from the Audobon Photography Awards. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/ring-billed-gull#photo9

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter too much because no matter what they are, I just love to see them each morning. And it’s nice to celebrate the quiet while we have it, of course, because it looks like Punxatawney Phil missed his shadow this morning and SML will be able to welcome its snow birds’ return six weeks early.