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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then headed south on Route 29 past Chatham…
(not Chatham, Massachusetts. Or Boston, Massachusetts, for that matter)
…through the town of Tightsqueeze, almost all the way to North Carolina. Just short of Danville, I reached my destination.
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.
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.
HISTORY BREAK: You probably know that Big Lick is Roanoke’s original name, dating back to when the area was first settled by Europeans and named after the salt marshes in the area. When the railroads came in in the 1880s, the town changed its name to Roanoke, which some sources say is derived from the Algonquian word for “money.”
At any rate, these days you can enjoy the Big Lick Brewing Company and Big Lick Entertainment, which puts on the Comic-Con.
And it was really fun! We had never been to one; Jim used to try to get our son to go to Awesome Con (the Comic-Con in DC), but our boy never signed on. So now that the kids are out of the house, we two empty nesters went to check it out.
I didn’t know what to expect. People in costumes, certainly. And the costumes were really marvelous, detailed, and lovingly put together. They are also a barometer of what’s big in the world of fantasy these days (lots and lots of Star Wars, and I only saw one Hermione).
There was all kinds of merchandise.
And there were some guests, too. We saw Jason David Frank up on the stage — he’d been a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, and at one point I heard a audience member telling him how inspirational he had been to him as he was growing up.
The whole event centered around a culture that I know very little about. It was inclusive, welcoming, and really celebratory. And full of kindness: I saw a woman approach a sinister-looking Star Wars guy to ask if he would take his picture with her kids, and the response through that mask was a sincere, enthusiastic, “Sure!” That was the vibe all through the event, and I’m glad to see it’s coming back in August.
Who knows, maybe you’ll see an extra Gandalf and Galadriel walking around?
Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.
It may be no surprise that I’ve had New York on my mind lately.
And ironically enough, the week after we moved our girl from Alabama to North Carolina, we jumped on the train for a long-planned trip to the Big City itself.
The real drivers for the trip were our friends Colleen and Brett, who had taken the Amtrak from Roanoke to New York previously and were enthusiastic to do so again. And for someone who says he would never relish living there, Brett did an amazing job planning the trip, for which we are grateful.
Those guys started the day out early; the Amtrak leaves Roanoke at about 6:30 am. Jim and I joined them an hour up the road, in Lynchburg, and we picked up more friends, Michelle and Steve, just south of DC. A bloody Mary or two, and the attention of a fellow passenger — a bored and sassy nine-year-old traveling with her parents to go see Aladdin — made the hours zoom by.
In fact, the weekend zoomed by as we roamed around the island of Manhattan. We walked on the Highline and had lunch in Chelsea Market.
We saw a couple of shows!
We climbed all over the Vessel in Hudson Yards.
We checked out Little Italy, Chinatown (we were there during the Lunar New Year and it was fun seeing folks hustle around to get their supplies for the festivities), and the Housingworks Bookstore Café.
And, oh yes, Times Square, Top of the Rock, and even the M&Ms store.
It was a dizzying couple of days, made more fun by chatting with the many international visitors in our hotel and with the warm, funny, kind New Yorkers all around us. With the thought of our girl’s impending move (she found an apartment over the weekend!) looming in the back of my mind, the trip made me anticipate it — in a good way — even more intently.
While getting our eldest settled is still very much a work in progress, it occurred to me yesterday that I have two of the things in place that have made our own new spot much more homey.
When we lived in Fairfax, I was very fortunate to have a dentist, hairdresser, and a couple of doctors that I could confidently recommend to anyone. When we moved down here, it’s took a while to assemble that team. The dentist was pretty easy: Dr. Sean Eschenbach was recommended by my trusted dental health protector in Northern Virginia (though it did take several — well worth it! — months to wait for that first appointment).
Finding a hairdresser took some more trial and error. One promising prospect confessed that she was planning on moving to Fairfax the week after my appointment, having lived in Roanoke for six months and deciding she didn’t like it (this was a low point in my transition to this town). Another hair professional, on learning that I did not want to color my hair, helpfully pointed out exactly how much gray hair I had and suggested that I should probably consider a perm. My last perm was in 1988 and I’d like to keep it that way.
My one visit to a hairdresser out here at the lake didn’t go well. I’ll leave it at that. (And yes, I am vain enough about my hair that this whole thing mattered to me quite a bit!)
I finally approached a woman in a coffee shop with a sharp coif to see if she would give up her secrets. That’s how I met Betsy at Oliver’s Twist Salon. She is one of the kindest, most pleasant, patient individuals I have ever met. And she makes my hair behave. A great hairdresser and a nice dentist? That is an excellent start!
Who do you need on your team to make your location feel like home?
We were very proud and relieved that our girl had managed to find a great job for after graduation. In late January, she was set to go to work with a large company’s office in Charlotte, North Carolina, so we spent a long weekend getting her moved in.
She flew from Roanoke to Auburn to collect her things, as I’ve mentioned.
The next morning, we got up at the crack of dawn and picked up this streamlined vehicle…
And made our way through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and into Alabama. A long drive.
The next morning, Cora and I drove her car and Jim drove the loaded-up van back up I-85 for five hours to Charlotte.
We were glad to have the next day free to visit Costco and Target, as well as other sites of interest around the city.
We left on Monday, MLK Day. I was feeling a little blue that our “baby” was now out on her own in the world, but overall glad that she was launching herself in a nice town.
And then the next day she called to tell us that her company was transferring her to New York City. She is moving in less than two weeks.
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.
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.
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.
No, that’s not “country fried” (but I guess you could say that).
Franklin County, our home for the past year and a half, is nothing like the harried and fast-paced Northern Virginia we came from. One of our kids (the one who just finished college and will be moving to a city next week) is not amused. The other one is much more enchanted with our new-ish home.
Maybe he had a hard semester, but he talked a lot over winter break about how peaceful it is out here. Like his mother, he appreciates the cows and tractors. He grew a beard, which startled his grandfather enough to make that gentleman exclaim that he looks just like a native of our neighboring state, known for its country roads and coal industry.
And then, when his car was pretty much flattened in October by a hit-and-run (thankfully, without him in it), he put his sights on a vehicle that would be harder to crunch, and he headed back to college last week in a brand new (to him) truck. He said that he likes driving it around here because when he drives it, “more people wave.” He is definitely fitting in.
We sampled breads, herbs, coffee, and cheeses, all made fresh and locally, served up by friendly vendors. There was plenty of wine, beer, and even moonshine (two different distillers!) but we had a long afternoon planned and didn’t want to slow ourselves down.
Plus, because the emphasis of the conference was organic and biological farming, most of the crowd there were actually farmers or people associated with the food community. You would think that, living down here, one would have more opportunity to hang out with farmers but on the other hand, those folks have pretty long hours.
We went home with some delicious Persian kolompeh cookies and some chutney from Kelly’s Persian Foods, located in Charleston West Virginia, some chimichurri spice and pimiento cheese from Piemonte Kitchen & Garden, whose Facebook page has some cool photos of the event, and a jar of lavender jelly and great-smelling soap from Green Roof Soaps, right up the road in Bedford (and on Etsy!). The diversity of offerings was incredible and the crowd was large enough to feel festive without being too crowded. In fact, I felt a little like I was in on a secret.
But now you know, too.
This is an event that I want to make sure is on my calendar for next year!