Floydiana is a serial book, not a blog. Chapter by chapter it explores life in Floyd, a town and county in Southern Virginia. The area’s mixture of people is as unlikely as its scenery is “Look at That!”
Laurel, a senior at Floyd County High School, wrote this blog entry in 2015 as an assignment by her teacher, Ms. Amanda Biviano. The purpose of the entry was to imitate the style and layout of an article. “Congrats” ironically debunks myths about home-schooling. Laurel herself was a home-schooler—and sibling-teacher—until the 2014-15 school year. She is a talented violinist who can play both classical and old-time/Bluegrass. In 2002 her family moved to Willis from California along with many friends. They sought land, cheaper living costs, and participation in a home-schooling community. For Floydiana Laurel wrote a chapter on selling barbecue at FloydFest and part of a chapter (“Once Upons”) about hosting French-Canadian cyclists.
Kudos to you! You’ve shaken off the shackles of the system! Now you can descend into the nothingness that is self-education. Next time someone asks “where do you go to school?” you can reply with a big and confident “Nowhere!” Relish the shock, confusion, and uncomfortable situations that arise from that response–much like telling someone that you have an extra toe, or that 2 + 2 = 5 (and it does if you want it to).
Declaring you are going to be home-schooled is a popular decision among those whom the public schools have deemed unfit for learning in a controlled environment, or for those who have deemed the public education system unfit. You may have been told that you are un-teachable or “headed down a bad road” but that didn’t stop you! With my “How to be a Successful Homeschooler” DVD series, you can easily fulfill all the stereotypes you know about us! Sit back on your bed and read these ten essential behaviors/guidelines to get started:
1. Don’t do any school–ever. You want to show the world that the real reason you quit public school was because you are already a intelligent individual and don’t need no teacher to learn you nothing.
2. Be a pot-head hippie or a conservative Christian child. Everybody knows that you can’t survive as a homeschooler unless you live a certain way and or believe things that a lot of other people don’t. While these aren’t the only choices, these two above are the most popular, and while there isn’t anything wrong with being conservative or Christian, there are many accounts that prove that being a hippie is waaaay more fun and doesn’t lead to father issues later in life.
3. During normal school hours, be in public as much as possible. This is great because not only do you get to lord it over those sitting in school, their minds slowly being melted (suckers!), you get the best computers at the public library, or the best swings at the park. Watch out for those who don’t want to see children before 3:00 p.m. ”Shouldn’t you be in school?” is always fun to hear because then you have two choices. Tell them you are home-schooled and watch them awkwardly try to think of something nice to say OR loudly say this: “School? My parents say it’s something that rots your brain.” After delivering that zinger, hop on your scooter (bikes are for rowdy public schoolers) and roll away.
4. Become socially withdrawn and awkward. Everybody knows that if you homeschool at some time in your life, it stunts you socially. If you’re late to the home-schooling game, don’t worry! You have plenty of time to forget how to act around other people. To reach a good stage of weirdness, don’t make eye contact, speak quietly about random things, or start an argument about something truly inconsequential that you are oddly passionate about–like how PBS got rid of Reading Rainbow but they kept Caillou. Another way to be awkward is talk only of your religious beliefs and to pick fights with those who don’t agree.
5. Dress oddly. When people see you, you want them to think either high school delinquent or Duggar family member. If you aren’t drawing odd or pitying looks–you ain’t doing it right!
6. Don’t use real cuss words. If you’re a potty mouth and worried about this one, don’t fret about losing your favorite dirty words because I’ve got you covered! Here are a few substitutions to fulfill your more vulgar habit: What the freak, Gosh Darn-it, Holy Shiitake, and Oh, my Goodness. If you need a few nasty names, try Doo-doo head, or Meanie. Those always deliver the proverbial punches you desire.
7. Know all of those home-schooled in your immediate area. We are very recognizable by our similar way of dressing and our demeanors. We are known for our social gatherings and outings (especially on weekdays, see above) and those occasions are always good for a reaffirmation of one’s home-school beliefs. Note that if it is a mixed group (boys and girls) you want to always leave room for Jesus.
8. Memorize a butt-load of movie lines. A quick way to recognize a homeschooler is the way they spit out almost entire scripts at will and random. Sometimes, the scenes they quote relate to the moment at hand, other times–not at all. Really embrace your decision of leaving public education and start right away. The best ones to quote are any and all Pixar or Disney movies with the exception of Brave, because that one is about feminism and might give women bad ideas.
9. Keep people guessing on whether you are school age. Are you an immature adult? An extremely smart child? Did you graduate early? Folks will constantly wonder why you aren’t in school, it is an unavoidable problem, and will ask you how you like it. “Today I love it because they let me out of the house!”
10. Become proficient in a musical instrument. People always wonder what we do all day if we aren’t actually doing school. Their minds can’t even comprehend the fact that you aren’t sitting in a classroom somewhere–your mind being crammed with useless bits of information that you will forget as soon as the test is over–being a good child. They instantly jump to the worst conclusions. So, to keep away the naysayers, pick up an instrument and play the day away! This is also a great backup plan for life if your arranged marriage doesn’t pan out.
Do these ten simple things and you will be indistinguishable from those who have homeschooled all of their lives. So go order my How to be a Successful Homeschooler, and instantly feel your geek level go up! Homeschoolers unite!
Original version printed serially in 2008 by The Floyd Press and The Mountain-Ear (Nederland, CO). Revised and augmented through Feb. 2015.
A place is a comparison. Its identity can be appreciated only by reference. “Bland County,” declared one native, “is Floyd without the stoplight.” Like him, anybody who moves to this geographical-cultural area known as “Floyd” will bring a geographical overlay of memory. The author, for example, regards the corner at The Stoplight as the town’s noisy industrial area—much like the two railroad right-of ways and three railroads that divided the genteel Glen Ellyn, Illinois, into south and north sides.. more »
ADD: IMMPORTANCE OF OFFSPRING TO OUR EXPERIENCE OF FLOYD COUNTY
Floydiana does not refer to a place–unlike Michiana, a seven-county region of southwest Michigan and northern Indiana. And unlike Floydada, a place in Texas. Instead it is a collection, like Shakespeareana, which is an accumulation of items by and about the playwright. It is pronounced Floydee-Anna rather than Floy-Diana. It records events, people, words, animals, places, scenes, and ways that characterize the improbable Land of Floyd County, Virginia. Natives are apt to employ two syllables: “Flow-eed.”
It does not (as a friend pretended to think) capture the Virginian adventures of Indiana Jones, although the author does wear a hat to protect his generous scalp. Another friend mis-remembered the title as Floydorama. How about Floydlandia? No such debt to Sibelius. Nor does this enterprise have anything to do with Floy Diane, who grew up in the Low Country of South Carolina. And it has no connection with Floydioli, a hand-made vegetarian stuffed pasta that uses local and organic ingredients. The book probably reflects the author’s earlier inclination to write about local South Carolina, where he directed the Horry County Oral History Project (please see hcohp.net).
But more immediately Floydiana grows out of a newspaper column. When the column failed to thrive, the writer left it on the doorstep of The Floyd Press and adopted Baby Blog. This infant grew and grew into an electronic book (like the author’s Angel in Goggles–please see tab). Although this offspring had no predetermined length, organization, or conclusion, it ended up covering the years 2012-2016. And much of it turned out to be communal. Some pieces were meant to be vividly Today; some to vivify Yesteryear; all became History.
Like the wagons that hauled grain to its now-defunct watermills, Floyd County offers an axle-busting load of grist to a writer. The place is a mixture of the congenial, beautiful, diverse, disturbing, and (on the roads) even dangerous. Located on the Blue Ridge Plateau in the southwest part of the state, it points its northeastern corner toward Roanoke, or “Ro’noke.” (Map of Virginia counties.)
The Blue Ridge Parkway pretty much defines its ragged northeast-to-southwest border. The county has 15,000-16,000 residents and one proper town of about 450 people, also called Floyd, which boasts the county’s single traffic light at the nexus of Rts. 8 and 221. This icon has a tricolor progression that can be perceived in winter from the deck of the Wells retirement house, a log dwelling that is technically a lodge in square footage but that we call “the Cabin” in rustic indulgence.
Although most of the residents are white, the county is a mixture of Appalachian-stock families, folks of hippy heritage that goes back to the 1970s, other residents who are countercultural to one degree or another, artisans, people who moved here for the landscape and atmosphere, and some who returned after pursuing opportunity or serving Uncle Sam.
As for employment, many citizens now commute to larger towns instead of working on the farm, at the factory, or at the mill. (Not to forget the erstwhile still. For a study of moonshining in adjacent Franklin county, see Charles D. Thompson Jr., Spirits of Just Men, Univ. of Illinois Pr, 2011). Also as more than partial compensation for the loss of former jobs, many work via the Internet—for example a veterinarian from Kentucky who fabricates and sells horse-rescue harnesses.
How did one tourist learn about the area? “I Googled ‘pottery and bed & breakfasts.’”
Now about your septuagenarian author (b. 1942). Almost four decades ago he wrote a column for a South Carolina newspaper that became the nucleus for a book, Along the Waccamaw: A Yankee Discovers a Home by the River (Algonquin 1990). He was raised as a white Midwestern suburbanite Christian Republican, but of all these defining features has retained only the complexion. Before retiring to Virginia he lived in Wyoming and Connecticut as well as other Southern states: Tennessee, North Carolina, Mississippi, and South Carolina, this last where he and Marjory spent most of their careers near the ocean. He has also literally traveled around the world with a friend. As he writes he sips a potion grown in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ethiopia (taken strictly black), which helps give him access to the Bald Truth.
He gratefully recognizes two predecessors. Ms. Morgan Cain Grim wrote “Familiar Faces,” a series on Floydians both home-grown and transplanted. She recorded more than sixty interviews, each with a photograph, before graduating from Floyd High School in 2005. Mr. Fred First wrote “The Road Less Traveled,” which ran biweekly from 2004 until 2011. This column fervently appreciated the county’s natural resources and, backed by abundant research, cast a chilly eye on threats to the health of Mother Earth. Fred has written two books on the area, Slow Road Home and What We Hold in Our Hands, takes ace photographs, and keeps a well-read blog.
For this project Randall is heavily and happily indebted to his wife and friends, especially Fred with his technical expertise (also vital to Angel in Goggles). The author dedicates Floydiana to the late Greg Wells, who drew Randall and Marjory to Floyd County. Although they are here without him, without him they would not be here.
WORK IN LAURA POLANT
A region, country, satrap, province, county or town is never a single place but a collection of them.
To all this variety of locales add the multiplicity of people. The tall, bearded nun, and the bejeweled Cleopatra-of-a CPA–no, leave aside costumes at the Halloween Dance, Pine Tavern Pavilion. But there are many unpredictable, paradoxical, and diverse personages in Floyd County. Just looking at the retirees–each deserves a chapter in Floydiana. Betty “Sunny” Bernardine (b. 1926) records her childhood memories of Illinois REFER TO APPENDIX.
One woman clerks at a Dollar store, speaks with a Long Island accent, and lives in Hillsville, about 45 minutes away via Rt. 221 S. At the other Dollar on the opposite side of town, one woman parked a truck displaying a sticker “I am the Gun Lobby.” A little bumptious, she wore cowgirl boots, jeans, and a shirt that didn’t mind moving up and down a little at the bare midriff. Another wore a net-like cap, a print dress, gray stockings, sensible shoes and spectacles, and the expression “I am invisible.” One of her denominational sisters steered out of a parking lot with her right hand as she held a cell phone to her net-cap. At Floyd Pharmacy one customer reported that the child accompanying her had woken up before dawn to buy a tractor with Daddy; another told the clerk, in a New York accent, that she still owned property in Brooklyn. One of the most prominent members of the alternative community came here decades ago from where else but British Columbia. One native, Susan Osborne, is an osteopath who sings, paints, plays the violin, and runs the Barter Clinic, where she typically spends unhurried Floyd Time with her patients. more »
In about 1847 a thirteen-year old arrived in Jacksonville, Virginia—later named Floyd. No family stories explain how he traveled there, how long the journey took, who might have accompanied him, or how he felt about his lost past and unknown future. But over the decades he painted his own venerable portrait.
Born in Bedford, Virginia, to the wife of a country doctor. James Lucas Tompkins was eventually joined by twelve more siblings. Too many eggs for one carton, so the oldest was sent to live with his mother’s brother, Dr. Tazewell Headen, and his wife. Because the couple had no children–youngsters at that time were part of the labor force–James worked at their mercantile store. He also attended Oxford Academy in town and later worked at other stores in the area.
Original version printed in the Floyd Press, 2012
We parked on E. Main St., up and over the hill from Gallery OneEleven, just past Locust St. The morning was bright, cool, and autumnal as five-year old Sidney explored a half-hidden driveway with its cement statue of an angel. Then he headed up the hill toward The Stoplight, passing in front of the Confederate Soldier with his two-year-old brother Julien as various extended hands rushed to catch up with them. Alice watched it all as daughter Andrea held her in a front-loaded BabyBjörn. “Exit only,” read Sidney aloud at a parking lot, surprised at his new ability.
We turned at the county’s Sole Stoplight corner (see video clip above).
Ms. April descending from the Loft.
Passing Farmers’ Supply Corp., 101 E. Main St., I asked our oldest grandchild to look up at the foreshortened white letters: “We can read those from the cabin with binoculars.” Now four of us climbed, and one rode, up the twenty-five steps and two switchbacks to Black Water Loft. (This name confused us a little, for in the Lowcountry because blackwater rivers are tea-colored infusions of biomass rather than fluxes of brown mud.) Julien was already snuggled in the lap of his father, who, visiting from Charlotte, was working there in his “Floyd office” composed of table, computer, earphones, and decaf.
We were all there thanks to good luck six years earlier. This building was serving as Harvest Moon, and one day I hustled down there from Oddfellas to buy a copy of the Floyd Press. Marjory and our chauffeur Greg had been sipping coffee, discouraged after a fruitless tour in search of either land or a dwelling for retirement. The co-owner, Virginia Neukirch, had said, “Why not look at the real estate ads?” Indeed, a tiny square of newsprint promised a gorgeous view. So on the way back to South Carolina Marge and I drove up frozen and twisting ruts until they gave out, then left the car for the hostile March wind, marched farther up the naked clear-cut, and beheld a vista that ended only at the opposite ridge of town.
At the loft I was able to name at least three of the McCutchan sisters, but I confused the decaf latte with the cappuccino when I distributed them at the Country Store to supplement our lunch. Over sandwiches we watched a gallery of citizens pass by the window. The boys explored the aisles and found that they needed Sky Streaks–balsa airplanes with a red propellor and blue rubber band.
Lucille Thomas Nolen was born in 1922 and raised near Haycock Mt. 1¼ mile from Blue Ridge Parkway on Haycock Rd. Her husband was Edd Nolen, whose story is told in a later chapter, “Two Brothers, One Pair of Hands.” She will take you on a memory stroll along the streets of downtown Floyd going back to the late 1930s and 1940s. more »
Born in 1929 (seven years after Lucille Thomas Hylton), Margie was able to escape the drudgery of farm work in 1946 and retired back to Floyd County in 2000. She lives near the author on the edge of Rt. 221: “I can’t wait till FloydFest is over,” she declared as vehicle after vehicle charged up the hill. Her house and former used-book store occupies a remodeled building formerly used by the Floyd Church of God. “It was fun to say ‘I recycled a church.'” In 2013 the once-sturdy farm girl is fragile and white-haired, but she still has a sparkle of both mien and mind that was no doubt appreciated by her employers. A smart dresser, politically liberal, Margie speaks quietly with a non-Appalachian Southern accent. Along with her two cats she listens to classical music on WVTF Public Radio. Her collaborator on this autobiography, Randall A. Wells, along with his wife Marjory, occasionally drive down the hill to take her a little supper (“I don’t cook”), and she sometimes bestows on them a thoughtfully-chosen volume. Margie notes that while she sent Wells to the dictionary for the word “slopping,” he sent her there for “deracinate”—a verb that is fundamental to her memoir.
I was born in a house, still standing, across the road from the present Willis Elementary School. I was the first of five daughters born to Jabe and Hattie Hylton Keith. When I was still a small child, we moved to the Cundiff farm in the Topeco Community, where we lived during the Great Depression of the Thirties. The house had no electricity. Light was from kerosene lamps. Wood stoves were used for cooking and heating. Water for drinking, cooking, laundry and bathing was carried up the hill from a spring in the woods. The toilet was down the path.
We had a Philco battery radio. Before she married, my mother bought a Victrola and some records. (She had been a teacher in one-room schools in the Burks Fork area, around the Buffalo.) When electricity came, we got a refrigerator and made strawberry ice cream with wild berries. more »
The seen defines the seer. Seer–O word felicitous because your author is able to apprehend the Bald Truth! And for the reader, what luck! “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).
And yet…. In truth, the people all see a different Floyd County. Margie Keith watching her father butcher hogs. A farmer watching with satisfaction as his tractor turns noise and grass to hay. A tourist descending from the Parkway on Rt. 8 and passing a sample yurt, then the ugly-rusty relic of a water tower. An employee crossing one branch or the other of the Little River to work in an adjacent county. A family drifting or paddling down the same river and encountering a party of back-to-the-birthday-suiters. A crowd of Gay Pride folks standing near The Stoplight while chatting, laughing, and holding placards. A trim child swimming in a hidden-away pond, another with a potbelly watching his friends play video games. One old-timer pulling turnips at dusk before they freeze. Another sweeping an arm of contempt at the changes in downtown Floyd and calling “All this” a “mess.” A visitor exclaiming, “You have a paradise here!”
You might think of this series called “Glimpses” as Floyd County’s “Metropolitan Diary”–a feature of the New York Times– except that the vignettes are selected and written by one person (however gifted) rather than chosen from submissions. This montage of people, places, events, animals, and objects is created by someone who is gregarious, monastic, doubled in friends and acquaintances thanks to his engaging spouse (and ditto daughter), somewhat adventuresome, perhaps too curious, opinionated, uninterested in embarrassing private citizens, retired, and inclined toward long-term projects. more »
Original version printed serially in the Floyd Press, 2012-13.
“My watch starts tickin’ slower as I cross that county line.” From “Floyd Time,” by Rusty May. Floyd Time, Windfall/Windfall Studios, 2010. By permission.
Traffic comes to a halt on South Locust (Rt. 8). The door of a car ahead flings open as a woman leaves it ajar to run across the street to the sidewalk by the Country Store, where she lovingly and loudly plucks a cat from someone’s arms. Nobody honks. A treasured example of what’s appreciatively called Floyd Time. more »
Just as people bring their own background to Floyd County, they bring Floyd County to other places. My wife and I escaped much of the winter, including the two-foot snowfall, by staying at our condo in South Carolina. We had lived for thirty-five years in Horry County (“Oh-ree’), near Myrtle Beach, but familiar details of the place now stood out sharply and unpredictably during our sojourn.
Although Horry (the largest county east of the Mississippi) is about three times the size of Floyd, both were formerly quite isolated. Now, only Floyd, with its moat of a rampart. The Independent Republic of Horry resembles a peninsula of North Carolina that’s nearly surrounded by water. Travelers who enter via Hwy. 501 from the northwest cross a river to an elevation of 54 feet, according to the altimeter. Same case if coming from the south, and from the east, it’s by boat. Drivers earn admission to Floyd County from the south by negotiating Rt. 8. They roll under the stone-overpass of the Blue Ridge Parkway, while on Rt. 501, before drivers reach the Atlantic, they come to one underpass after another, etc.–along with bridges over both the Waccamaw River and the Intracoastal Waterway. In Horry County, driving challenges come mainly on the crowded, four-lane highways; in Floyd, they come on the twisting and hilly two-lanes. The familiar S.C. log trucks, on their way to the wood-chip mill, seemed to carry surprisingly–no, disturbingly–extended, once-tall trunks. In Floyd County, such vehicles may rely more often on articulated trailers that can navigate curves more safely
As a tourist resort on the East Coast, the Grand Strand is second only to Disneyness. Horry has about eighteen times as many people as Floyd County, but each entity includes a national make-work project completed in the Depression: Horry has the Waterway, of limited practical import to the area; Floyd the Parkway, vital source of tourists and even residents. Drivers coming into “Myrtle” on Hwy. 501 run a gamut of billboards (e.g., “Touch sharks!”), and then a stretch of highway that, especially to someone from bucolic Floyd, seems lined by a chaos of signs, colors, and structures. (This disorder is exceeded only by Hwy. 17 in North Myrtle Beach, a stretch that invites even drivers to shut their eyes.) Like Floyd, Horry makes only a modest attempt to subordinate the part to the whole in any aspect of life. Neither place is sophisticated, and the Grand Strand is often called the Redneck Riviera with a certain fond mockery. Caps favored but optional at its many restaurants.
Even more than in Floyd County, it seemed to me, people in Horry tended to be overweight—as in most places in the U.S.A. but especially in the rural South. In Cherokee, N.C., a note attached to a cash register declared, “Jesus loves you big.” The Lord’s favor toward avoirdupois is lucky for the two men who once stood in a doorway of a Floyd County business like the meeting of two hot-air balloons. And for the potbellied man in Myrtle Beach who wore a shirt announcing that “Winners like to be on top.” I was surprised to see an orange trailer along the Waccamaw River—painted by a fan of Clemson University sports—without the maroon of the Hokies. At an intersection we stopped behind two cars that each bore the chromium fish-sign, making us wonder if Christianity could be more dominant in Horry than in Floyd, where a “Coexist” sticker seems more likely.
As in Floyd, airplane contrails lined a southwest-by-northeast path, but in this coastal area the path strangely shifted to the west. Again we had to drink filtered water (a come-down from our well-water). But again we were favored by the sight of shiny green oak trees with their dangling gray pennants. Yet we had to watch for piles made by fire-ants, insects that can deliver stinging rebukes to nature-lovers. Strolling on sand, however, we could hear the hypnotic waves as they surged over themselves whitely. Perhaps there is a more liberating place than the seaside, but certainly its rolling-to-the-horizon flatness is keenly appreciated by those who live in a mountain fastness. In a surprising detail, the familiar winging hawks had turned white.
One day as Marge and I took a walk in the neighborhood that had been a golf course, now with apartments, condos, and houses, I could stand with my back toward a corner and look almost 360 degrees at dwellings near and far with no intervening space, almost like a continuous cutout. Not so in Floyd County, although aspects of its own “built environment” (human-made surroundings) are subject to pressures and differences of opinion—hilltop houses, housing developments, noise, traffic load, and downtown esthetics. Near our condo in South Carolina we now had a Wal-Mart, and every time we shopped there, I wondered why all these other people didn’t have a life. Despite my ambivalence about this chain, the pair of “Dollars” in the town of Floyd do not a Wal-Mart make.
Out in the vast country, by contrast, spacious flat fields—as if the hills had been razed. Where were the neat rows of the Christmas tree farms? As in Floyd County, small churches dotted the landscape, even though Psalm 95 seemed to waste its assertion that God holds the deep places of the earth and the strength of the hills. No Church of the Brethren congregation. As for animals, few cattle, and none of the Appalachian breed with shorter legs on one side. And the dirt–was it sand? Were farmers plowing the beach! (Yes, the county rests on former shores.) We saw indications of tobacco-raising, an occupation little known in Floyd. One was an obsolete, two-story, wooden flue-curing barn; another was a road sign, “Golden Leaf”; and the last was a large structure once used for tobacco auctions. There seemed to be fewer junked vehicles rusting in yards or fields than in Appalachia.
Instead of ridges and mountains that impeded mobility, swamps were everywhere in the countryside—sluggish, sideways water that had helped moat-in the area since the first white people reported on the wilderness in the early 1700s. As they brewed vegetation that darkened the rivers, these swamps created impediments that were more daunting than the network of rivers, creeks, and rivulets in Floyd County. In fact, as one old-timer remembered, swamps made it difficult just to reach the ferry across the river. In Floyd County, water starts; it ends in Horry County. This video pictures the Waccamaw River as it flows toward a January sunset.
After a lot of rain, I was surprised to see many puddles, and not just in muddy areas like those of Floyd. And coming from the mainly-white enclave in the Blue Ridge, I was once again surprised by the number of African Americans in the community. After some thought I realized that there was actually a connection between drainage and demography. For both characterize the Low Country. On Highway 501 near Myrtle Beach, for example, the elevation registered 26 feet. In the Low Country the change in elevation is so slight that rivers can flow backward and spread sideways. On the Waccamaw, the tidal incursion reaches as far up as Conway. And this lunar flood is what allowed slaves to grow rice, for it could be impounded to cover the crop during one phase of the process. Such tidal water also was vital for growing long-staple cotton. The slaves had to clear the forests to plant crops in the first place, making stumps of their own lives. It seemed to me that Floyd County seemed blessedly free of the reliance on the chain, although its farmers themselves worked for a hard master.
These kidnaped people of the Low Country had been transported by tidal power from the harbor of Charleston, many of them having done time on Caribbean sugar plantations—source of rum for Northerners. (See Charles Joyner, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community, Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984.) These people not only helped to grow crops but to fell trees and extract turpentine products from them—industries that depended on water for transportation. And it was the slaves who eventually produced citizens, those who stayed and those who emigrated to Northern cities. As in Floyd County, the problem of slavery and the catastrophe of the Civil War was somewhat complicated. In Horry County, for example, the personage who owned the most slaves hailed from Maine, objected to the war, and saw his son become a heroic Confederate soldier.
Original version of ramble #1 printed in the Floyd Press, 2013
This omnium gatherum called Floydiana would be incomplete without a celebration of hiking through Floyd by road, trail, and sidewalk. This chapter, containing three hikes, is leatherbound: two pairs of hiking boots and one pair of size 5 1/2 Smartfits.
Marge and I turned off Rt. 221 onto Epperly Mill Rd., south a mile or so from town, then parked on the shoulder next to a raspberry bush. We worked to close the Subaru door against downhill gravity, and started hiking. We noticed a few huffs after a winter month spent on the coast and in Florida. Reaching the crest, we gazed to the right at the February sun as it just managed to beam over the hills. The cheerful blue sky was getting serious.
Barking dogs, a breed familiar to walkers, got pulled inside by an accommodating owner. Now on the left, a pair of ears–prominent black ones making a V. A few of the animals regarded us from a pen. Mules? Donkeys? But one pair had a sort of beige spotted coat. “Llama!” exclaimed Marge. “No, alpaca,” she amended. Now as we passed the statue of an angel reading, I felt kinda sorry for it: why not put the book down and join us?! Near the end of a long slope, we drew opposite a sort of barn that framed two black rectangles, one of which in turn framed a long black nose with a white streak down the middle. “Hi, horsie.” No motion. We remembered feeding it grass over the fence in summer. more »
“The meadow of dream has little to do with stoney reality and its harrows and reapers.”
Quotation by Samuel Pickering, Jr., from May Days © The University of Iowa Press, 1988. Used with permission.
So declares Samuel F. Pickering, Jr., on p. 3 of a volume given to me by Margie Keith, owner of the former used-book store. Although the writer was sympathizing with farmers, his observation pertained to Randall, who dreamed of eliminating rocks from a quarter-acre of Blue Ridge to make way for clover and thus for bees. more »
From Randall’s journal, August 16, 2003.
Where would I be if a box of Crackerjacks were sticking out of my doffed boot, a yellow raincoat were under my butt on the grassy hill, an occasional vehicle passed on a slope of the Blue Ridge Parkway a quarter mile in front of me, people are making their way toward a shed-like stage—one pushing a baby carriage—some people are dancing down in front—others sitting or standing–& Jim Lauderdale & his band are loudly playing? Fiddle, drums, 3 electric guitars– Breeze gives lift to a blanket that someone flaps onto the grass—Guy has shirt hanging from rear pocket—2 young women sit on straw stools, raise their arms, laugh, & bounce around to the music—(I stop a member of an earlier band & thank her—local group from Stuart, VA.) Breeze ripples a woman’s wide trousers as she stands and dances on her blanket.
The only color was the yellow reflection of headlights on the curved guardrail. I geared down to keep from gaining speed as Rt. 221 plummeted a half mile toward Kings Store Rd. in Check. There I made a left and trusted my brights to find Jerry Lane. There I made another left at a hilltop curve and after a lonely half mile or so bore left again at the dim sign “Seven Springs Farm.”
During Virginia’s Blue Ridge Music Festival in 2013, a symphony orchestra was performing in the school gymnasium. This space retained a subtle aroma of sweat, and athletics again competed with music when sirens loudened and faded as police cars celebrated the girls’ softball team’s state championship. The conductor stopped for a while to let the celebration fade, then continued cheerfully. During the outdoor phase of a concert at Floyd EcoVillage, next to the pond, a loud chirrup competed with Handel—not a hawk but a frog. According to report, “Next year we’ll play “Froggy Went A-Courtin’.”
One day a few red signs appeared staked into various patches of town: “Accept your brothers and sisters” and “Haters need love,” although the latter soon disappeared. A sticker on a dumpster read “Independent Nation.” It invited questions about the relationship between figure and ground, i.e., between the slogan and dump. Such a grungy place to vaunt a country! Furthermore, this “nation” had ambiguous borders: the dump itself? Country as green cube? Divers for Self-Determination? Once at the same recycling center I noticed that a driver had the vehicle’s radio tuned to a loud banjo song. I asked her with a smile if a person can listen to “Over the Rainbow” at a dump. “Ab-so-lutely!”
The Lotto Pot of Gold: I happened to enter a business two days in a row and saw the same customer scrutinizing cards at the counter. Noted the clerk, “She comes in here ten times a day.” Making money the old-fashioned way, by contrast, another woman was mopping the floor of the Jacksonville Center (former dairy-barn). I offered sympathy for someone who had to clean up after cows. Without a hint of a smile, she replied, “Dirty, nasty paw prints.” In that same room one night an internationally-respected Kasich String Quartet, from Czechoslovakia, played from the dais. As they did so, their phantom selves stirred energetically on the wall thanks to three spotlights that caused as many shadows per member, one dark and the others lighter. Immaterial bows sawed horizontally and vertically as the two-dimensional cellist bobbed over his instrument.
One day a mysterious stratum appeared across the valley—too dark for fog. Smoke, possibly a forest fire in Wythe County, a suggestion as to how interrelated places are on this earth. The same landscape became even more troubling one late afternoon in November. From across valley a whiteness like a slow tsunami rolled into Floyd-upon-the-Hill. It obscured the peak of the great spruce in front of the Rakes Mansion, suffocating it in wool before the adelgids could. Then it dimmed and extinguished the random streetlights, amber or fluorescent. The silos of the Jacksonville Center faded as if into their dairy yesteryear. The western-facing slopes below town could still be made out, but ….
“Then it happened,” to take a line from Jack London: the white opacity was itself becoming obscured. Blackness was falling with End-Town Times. GET READY! GET READY-Y! I lamented the new chrome-laden espresso machine in Black Water Loft, the Aurelia II, with her two pairs of handles and steam-wands, now devoid of sparkle; The Stoplight with its blinded lenses that directed absent traffic; the old building still labeled “Floyd Press” but now declining from obsolete to extinct; the funeral home now becoming its own casket; the Country Store losing shelves of CDs and barrels of candy; and even the cell-phone tower, its red blinking lights were returning to their mysterious provenience.
Yet the next day, like Brigadoon in the musical play, the county seat reappeared, although no doubt the Ethiopian coffee beans were half-price after getting soaked.
In early December appeared another candidate for the Guinness Book of Meteorological Records. In the dark sky a whiteness hung over town and over no less than one-fifth of the circular horizon. I yelled to my wife and daughter, and we assembled on the deck to behold not the usual bright sliver in the direction of Roanoke, but low clouds somehow illuminated to a degree far out of proportion to the lumens of the hamlet. All we could do was shake our heads and at last go inside.
By contrast, one midnight the electricity went out in the cabin. When I groped toward the inside balcony to look out the window toward Floyd, a white flash, flash, flash disoriented me. A pajama-clad look over the valley revealed nothing but darkness broken by the emergency light of the cell tower.
You must believe me that one day the invisible rising sun created an ocean. Behind the town it gleamed a washed-out yellow under pale gray clouds. Marjory and I craned to the right out the door-window and located its farthest-south extent. Then we gradually traced its flat surface leftward as it outlined trees—green pines and bare hardwoods with their random nests. Then we lost sight of its flat surface behind Storkers Knob, but recovered it over the hill beyond the Jacksonville Center. An expanse without floating vessels, it stretched past the downtown to a point roughly even with The Stoplight, where it declined to nothing. Another day what should appear but a new mountain range. In the west rose a touch of Nederland, Colorado, without the snowcaps. From our aerie we traced its dark serrations, which once again defied the rules of geology by ending at the north with a horizontal gap like an open beak.
Stay with I, the personage who utters the Bald Truth in premium grammar. At sunset a mass appeared in the southwestern sky. It called to mind the floating island of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels. An expanse of lava, its molten orange slowly became dimmer as I stared. Eventually it turned an ominous gray as if from ash. Then as if to conclude the show, just above its top edge appeared a bright planet. During that whole day the clouds seemed in such restless, creative turmoil that a person might be excused for imagining the supernatural at work. During one phase, a pair of oblong wispy cloud-puffs extended over the valley toward the northeast. Each held a series of indented marks that suggested a finger-painting hand. And did they not make a discontinuous line with the island? Something going on up there, some kind of twisting tunnel?
One afternoon as winter neared Penn Rd., Marjory and I hiked uphill toward town at right angles to the inclined sun. If I walked on the right edge of road, the shadow of my red stocking-cap bobbed along the left edge. My walking stick grew to about 13 horizontal feet. I used the actual wood to measure a vine next to the road that had been cut in half by a mower: about 31 feet.
At the end of December, three or four of us, with the help of sturdy-wheeled Dolly, tried to plant the live Christmas tree. First we rolled the Fraser Fir across the deck, where it had been adjusting to the outdoors. Then we labored to guide it down the porch stairs until it tipped over and gave Marge a bruise with its root ball. A few days after the tree enjoyed another spell of adjustment, I slid it into a fairly deep hole and bolstered it with dirt created by digging a second hole. This vacancy I eventually filled with another evergreen I hauled up from Slaughters’ Nursery.
On January 30 I was driving up Snaky 8 from the direction of Stuart and looked in the rear-view mirror to behold a very long, new-looking tanker that was grand enough to sport a couple of turrets. “You don’t suppose,” I thought. Yes, it was gaining on me, so I sped up and even drove so fast at one hairpin that my wife complained about the jostling. Somehow the vehicle would make up for lost ground, and it was crowding me when we both had to slow for a tractor-trailer that lumbered up a long, straight, uphill stretch. Suddenly the mirror was empty of grill and cab! Then to my left streaked a long, moving side, for the powerful vehicle was trying to pass the tractor trailer. I could read the number 1200 on its silver rear end as it stirred up the residue of snow and road-treatment into a cloud that almost obscured the slower truck. By the time it was far enough ahead to turn back into the right-hand lane, I could see its back set of wheels cross the double lines as another vehicle came downhill.
This adventure was like jostling for a set of rails with a train. But one afternoon a month or so later, driving up Rt. 221 toward Floyd, I rounded a curve and beheld the headlight of a real locomotive. The Ro’ & Willie! (explained below). Its blaze was a blessing. I drew closer, passing the former clinic but could spot no flatcars–and in fact no engine, just the blinding light. How disappointing to realize that it was merely the reflection of the western sun on a yellow 35-mph sign.
In early February, several curves of the Little River–viewed from the Floyd-bound lane on Rt. 221 N.–flowed turquoise and pink toward the already-vanished sun. Viewed from Rt. 221 S. toward its crest of the Stoplight, a man in a dark winter jacket trod through the cold from the Courthouse to Farmers’ Supply–a silhouette against gray clouds, the last soul on earth.
We exchanged isolated Floyd for a week on the literal island of Curacao.
But then to return and forfeit balmy trade winds for ridge-removing gales! After putting our swimwear back in storage, we bundled up in our second-floor bed near the west window. But how can we get to sleep with that frequent sound—its timbre not so much a whistle as a flute. Was the wind blowing through that corner rupture of the fascia and gutter caused by heavy snow thundering off the roof? (This 23-incher of February slid off the Firsts’ barn, mangled the chain-link fence around the coop, and sent the chickens to live at the neighbors’.) But the reverberations seemed closer. There would be three or four seconds of mourning dove. Whenever the wind was forceful enough, it produced two notes in exact synchrony. Native American? This dyad would move up and down without marking separate notes, glissando, like a fretless violin.
Suddenly this combination would panic and rise angrily in pitch and volume. Typically the high note (as I measured it later) was about sixteen notes on the piano above middle C, while the bottom note was around an octave below it. The two yoked-together pitches often rose and fell with incredible complexity. Unlike the roaring wind out in the trees and against the house, making it creak, this tune seemed to be some creature or spirit trying to get in. I imagined bat ghosts. Silence. The occasional flutter of the high note, once a rapid series of triplets. Like jazz, like some modern piece, like a damaged CD or a faulty PA system that stops and starts in sudden, brief spells.
The next morning Marjory called to me downstairs. “One of the locks wasn’t locked on our window. It wasn’t down all the way, so I turned the lock and it stopped.”
One frigid day, white smoke rose from a field somewhere around the Slaughters’ compound—its source obscured by the grove of white pines down the hillside from Annie Lane. It drifted over the red cap of the annual Santa Claus, whom I had watched from the parking lot as Mike and Lorenzo pumped and tethered it like an entry in the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. As the puffs rolled across Rt. 221 just below the bridge, I could almost make out the coal-fired locomotive, a Shay 0-4-0, that must have paused at Slaughters’ Station. Why should Floyd County not have its defunct railroad? Nederland has the Colorado and Northwestern, whose narrow-gauge tracks once served the mining area of the Front Range. Warrenville, Illinois (home of Sunny Bernardine, earlier chapter), has the “Roarin’ Elgin.” Stuart, Virginia, downhill from Floyd, has the Dick & Willie, nickname for the Danville & Western Railroad. Here is a ditty that celebrates Floyd’s own Roanoke & Willis. Lyrics by R. Wells and music by Vicki Sowers [click to listen].
First you’re tall and then you’re long,
No more branch-bird sings a song.
First the saw & then the skid,
Then the rails, done is did.
Cut you down,
Trip to town,
Ridin’ the Ro’……. & Willie!
Don’t need ticket, you’re a tree
Chestnut lumber, ride for free.
Shay the engine, chuggin’ might,
Save you fro–om the blight.
“Oak tree,” toots the horn,
“Never make another ‘corn.”
You ain’t first–them lumber reapers
Cut that row o’ wooden sleepers.
Cut you down,
Trip to town,
Ridin’ the Ro’…… & Willie!
We walk early in the morning. Weather does not usually deter us. There is not much traffic and we are a familiar sight to most who travel it. We are always greeted with a wave or a honk, and sometimes there may be a brief chat by the road. more »
By Jayn Avery
The Sticks–such a place includes anything rural, from cornstalks to tree-trunks, cattle to pandas. It can be inviting or off-putting. A hamlet outside of Chicago drew “Sunny” Bernardine’s parents during the Depression because its cheaper land might produce food. REVISE?(Her story appears in “Randoms,” elsewhere on this website.) By contrast Margie Keith, although a native of Floyd County, found it an alien life to hoe corn, pick suckers, pull weeds, pick and can beans, pitch hay, and collect eggs. In the 1970s, however, Floyd County experienced an in-migration of back-to-the-landers. The term “hippies” does them an injustice because groups came for various reasons and with a general resolve for a fuller existence. Jayn Avery describes herself as a Floyd artisan who, like many of those early Solstice gatherers, came to the area through connections made at craft fairs. She feels that making a living as a potter (Blue Heron Pottery) was a natural in these mountains of “do-it-yourself, independent, hand-workers.” At a meeting of Floyd Artists’ Dialogue (led by Charlie Brouwer and held at the Jacksonville Center in 2013), she agreed to record her memories after R. Wells issued something between an invitation and insistence.
As I sat on the bank of the creek while keeping an eye on the crowd of little kids playing in the water, most of them naked or wearing panties, I nursed my newborn and felt truly at home. A Connecticut Yankee, having grown up in a world where I never felt I belonged, I could only smile at my fortune. Home–Virginia? I could not have imagined living this far south and still wondered at the naturalness of the experience. And I was not alone. The small creek, which was the beginning of the Little River, was flowing gently with its wooded banks next to a large field where people were gathering for the Summer Solstice of 1981. In my hand-made long skirt and blouse, I blended with the textures of leaves that filtered the warm sun as I watched how the children splashed in the waters while exploring the rocks, mud and each other. Life in this new world we had discovered was an unfolding mystery. more »
On June 21, 2013, the icy peaks of the Southern Alps jut from New Zealand as the sun hangs on to the northern horizon by its fingernails. But at the same time, rays flood the Blue Ridge Mountains in the United States. This phenomenon is best appreciated in a group, for it blends celestial mysticism with a touch of–well, think of cows eating fermented apples.
That prolonged evening a ceremony was held on the abundant acreage of Fred and Ann First. Both were born in 1948, he in Alabama and she in Mississippi; Fred has worked as a biology professor and physical therapist, Ann as a board-certified PharmD. Both are charter members of the facetiously named Floyd Yacht Club.
Visitors can get to their place from The Stoplight by taking Highway 221 north, then turning left at Kings Store–monarchical of name but only historical of inventory–then some miles later by making a dogleg at a business named Clyde S. Angle, vacant as well. Then you go down a hill so long that it would wear the tires off a Boxcar Derby racer. Finally you scrutinize the oncoming curve before darting left down to a narrow bridge. It might carry you onto a gravel road–made of dirt, holes, and curves, maybe puddles or snow-patches, all decorated by downed branches–that probably keeps you from tumbling into Goose Creek as it passes an occasional abandoned house, various tucked-away homesteads, and an antique fire engine. When your hopes flag, and you definition of “close friends” threatens to become geographical, you are halfway to the First farmhouse which, even after being rebuilt, hints of the previous dwellers