Days of Wine and (Freedom) Noses

After a wonderful May and June when it felt like we were bounding into a wide-open summer, here came that obnoxious Delta variant to move the goalposts on getting back to “normal.” At Smith Mountain Lake, we saw that play out last week over the SML Wine Festival.

The wine festival has been going on for over 30 years, a very popular event held annually on the last weekend of September. In 2019, it took place at Crazy Horse Marina and Jim and I got to enjoy the event with our friends the Marstons, chauffeured by boat by their son, Luke (thanks, Luke!). There were loads of wineries represented, a variety of food options, live music, some interesting artwork for sale, and a crowd of happy wine-sippers.

Also, excellent souvenir glassware

Last September, of course, it was cancelled for Covid.

This July, the local chamber of commerce made big waves by changing it up. No longer would it be at the Crazy Horse, but at a new venue, Mariners Landing, a golf community perched at the end of one of the lake’s creeks. But what really rocked the boat were the prices: individual tickets were now going to start at $65 per person (more than double the previous price), with VIP options and boat slips raised accordingly. The chamber explained that “the timing was right to elevate the experience,” and stressed that some popular musical acts would be playing in the new, “more intimate” setting.

This change did not go over well with my neighbors.

The residents’ Facebook page got so heated that the admin turned off the comments. An alternative event was set up for the same day, called the Knot-A-Festival, where individual tickets are $15 and everyone brings their own wine.

In the end, though, the festival announced last week that they would postpone for a year because of the Delta variant. Some in the residents’ page are surmising that it’s because they couldn’t sell those pricey tickets, but the Mariners Landing community is also very mindful of masking and distancing in the face of the new Covid threat.

While I wouldn’t think such measures would be controversial, a trip to the local Kroger (or any other lake-local business) proves that we mask wearers are very much in the minority. Sigh, here we go again (and without our Virginia wine).

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.

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.

A Reason to Put Earrings On

I’ve started volunteering with our local Smith Mountain Arts Council (SMAC). A number of our neighbors here at the lake have hidden talents as singers, actors, writers, artists, and photographers, and SMAC is here to give them a place to shine.

Sadly, though, with Covid-19, our usual array of performances have been shuttered this season.

For me, this makes my life a little easier because I am in charge of the press releases for the arts council, and with no shows, I have very little to reveal to the local press. But we keep up our monthly meetings, and these have been switched to Zoom meetings.

Because these meetings take place on Friday mornings, it would be in bad form to morph them into a virtual happy hour (though I see nothing wrong with using a 90-minute meeting to move along a Fellowship-of-the-Ring needlework project). We still have our Zoom happy hours on Friday nights with the family, and that’s still my favorite part of the week.

The kids must love logging in to see this sight

But last night, I got involved in another meeting, this time with a book group! In the pre-Covid times, they met in Roanoke, at a nice coffee shop, but they’ve gone online for the past few months. They’re a Meet-Up group and I signed up a while ago but got to meet them last night. They’re very nice and some of them were even drinking wine. We read and discussed Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, with an hour-long discussion and plans for our next few books (Why Religion? by Elaine Pagels for July and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibrahim X. Kendi for August). We meet once a month, which leaves time for other reading.

And next month, fingers crossed, we are going to meet – properly socially distanced – outside in a Roanoke park!

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.

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.

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.

My People

I am extremely lucky when it comes to my line of work. I can do most of it from our dining room table, tapping away at my laptop. It’s an introvert’s dream, even if it can feel a little isolating from time to time on the occasion when one isn’t feeling quite so quiet.

So today, before I got started with work projects, I went to mail a care package to our boy – a college student who has exams next week – and decided to shop local on the way.

It’s always coffee time

While in CJ’s, the gentleman in line behind me struck up a conversation about his recent travels in Italy, where his grown-up kids joined him for a decidedly non-traditional Thanksgiving. Me: I see your Italian vacation and raise you a daughter graduating from college in three days, ha HA! One of his buds came in and asked if Tom (the Italian vacation guy) was bothering me. No, I assured him, to which he replied, “Just give him time!”

It’s a jokey crowd around the lake.

I moved on out to the parking lot with a smile on my face. Parked next to me was a vehicle belonging to the marine service company that had fixed our neighbors’ boat this fall. I mentioned to driver how pleased my neighbors were and he introduced himself (Josh) and gave me his card. Now I know whom to call to look at our non-working little boat in the spring.

At the UPS store, the lady behind the counter and I talked about the holiday rush, the stress of college exams, and of course, how I have a daughter graduating from college in three days BECAUSE WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH ME? And then we talked about how quickly kids grow up we both cried a little.

Things move slower in this part of Virginia. I’ve happened into CJ’s when it’s unusually busy and the proprietor has straight-up told me, nah, you’re not getting your coffee for awhile. And when we had trees removed from our back yard this fall, once the tree company guy ascertained that they weren’t immediately imperiling our roof, he told me he’d see us in oh, three weeks.

But even though I still feel like a bit of a newbie here, mornings like this make me feel right at home.