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.
A vehicle with a flat tire sits in front of Black Water Loft. Next day, it’s still there. The first week I regard this installation as an eyesore. And as a symptom of the old guard’s tendency toward political and cultural inertia–including an Old Time religion still drowsy from the Great Awakening. Our friend declared that one member of the Board of Supervisors “won’t do anything that’s not in the Bible.” A former commissioner (see the chapter on Bill Gardner) declared that his epitaph should read “Died for lack of a second.” Perhaps the airless, squashed tread was even a symbol of absent inspiration—like the old priest’s flat bicycle tire in “Araby,” a story by James Joyce. Did it not also seem to represent and aggravate the town’s annual commercial hibernation?
The second week I inclined toward something like tolerance, even as a snow-patch now covered the tread. The third week I started to feel—what was it? “Randall,” I told myself, “stop and smell the Goodyears. Enjoy this culture. Nobody asked you to come here. What if everybody was like you, always Doing, exploring, afraid of wasted time, uncomfortable with stasis. You won’t even use a drive-in window but have to get out walk in. You don’t have to ‘pedal faster’ like the cross-trainer machine tells you to do when you stop for water. You are not a waitress at Cracker Barrel, so you don’t have to demonstrate ‘urgency with a purpose.’ This is Floyd Time.”
Too bad such chronometry doesn’t extend to the roads.
Granted, some drivers poke along. On Hwy. 221 S, one little truck that slowed at times to 30 mph gave me a chance to read its license plate: MLKCOW. Farmers carefully haul circular bales of hay on trailers wider than the lane. And when The Stoplight turns green, some people take a few seconds for meditation. Others poke on the road. “Sorry I’m late,” announced Fred; “I was caught behind a blue-hair who was using a periscope to see the highway. If she drove over 38, her head would explode.” Call me wrong, but the more rural the driver, isn’t he or she more likely to delay a signal until beginning the turn, or to avoid using one? And to wait until the vehicle is invisible at dusk to turn on the lights? And to eschew turning on headlights in rain or fog? As for safety belts, I had spent a few decades in a largely rural county so I was used to the newspaper phrase “ejected from the vehicle”–a sacrifice to the god Rusticus.Know a place by its paradoxes (as I asserted in another book). For example Floyd County has a history of moonshining but allows no hard-liquor store (although it allows wine and beer to be sold with bread and milk). As another example, Floydians– although quite friendly, well-Jesused, and sometimes slow-paced–often endanger their fellow citizens by over-driving the roads. In single-minded self-absorption, some pervert highway to mighway. Granted, a contingent of make-timers merely pass through through the county and regard it as an obstacle. But no matter who is the lead-foot, the worldwide compulsion to speed has reached this land of 381 square miles and a single pair of two-lane highways.
In France I once remarked that driving was often antisocial. “‘Antisocial,’” retorted a native, “It’s a %#d+> war!” In England, when the vehicle behind ours pushed threateningly close, a fellow passenger nailed the act as “motorized bullying.” One writer described SR 46 in Florida as a place where “ramped-up motorists try to outdo each other to see how fast and aggressively they can drive on this once-quiet country road.” (Bill Belleville, Rediscovering Rawlings, a River and Time, p. 29.)
Floyd County roads curve, climb hills, and have numberless turnoffs as well as sudden obstructions. All this danger is complicated by darkness, rain, fog, ice, snow, deer, and cell phones. In a further paradox, residents often barrel through scenery that is nearly timeless geologically. And they seem to ignore a beauty that constantly shifts depending on topography, season, weather, and time of day. Add one more incongruous note that helps to define the county (and make it interesting): many people in the county are determined to use fossil fuels sparingly, but some of their fellow citizens would use the last drop of gasoline on earth to keep a vehicle from slowing down up a hill.
Fred wrote about traveling between his house on Goose Creek and the hardtop:
Too many times in the past several months, the speed limit (established for dry roads in good visibility without deer) is not fast enough for the car behind me. And woe is me should I slow down around a bend to actually see the forest or the roadside wildflowers as anything more than a blur of color, light and shadow zipping past my window. So contrary to my contrary nature, I pull over and let the driven individual drive far too fast for the road or their own or their neighbor’s good to ‘save’ a few precious minutes in their busy lives. (What We Hold in Our Hands: A Slow Road Reader, p. 45.)
While living out of state, my wife and I bought property here, subscribed to the Floyd Press, read Wreck-of-the-Week, and questioned our decision. Our future neighbor, Margie Keith, even wrote to warn us about the dangers of Rt. 221 south of Slaughters Grocery. (Notice the rubber skid-marks there and elsewhere.) Some time after we moved here, I hiked down Annie Lane to investigate the cause of unending sirens on that road. Someone was being carried on a stretcher from a car that, facing uphill, had crossed the southbound lane and flipped upside down in the ditch. Just a few days ago I pulled out onto Rt. 221 after staring left and right twice, and as I picked up speed going up that same steep grade, my rearview mirror suddenly filled with grille. A driver who had whipped around the curve from town had evidently planned to use 221 as a ramp to the moon, so pulling onto the half-shoulder, I let the vehicle pass and read the first letters of its license plate: XDK, perhaps an experimental rocket. A year or so later, a roadside memorial appeared on that hillside as a sort of macabre plant. Also on 221, as I drove toward Floyd, rounded a curve and started downhill, a small car shot toward me straddling the yellow lines, its right side scooting in front of the long truck it had just passed. In this case, Floyd County was not incriminated because the vehicle had just entered Carroll County.
As everywhere, some drivers exhibit Judgment Error Repetition Condition (JERC). A teacher reported that one guy bragged about driving 100 miles per hour on the way to high school. (“Traffic crashes rank as the number one cause of death for 16- to 19-year-olds” according to the AAA Magazine, May-June, 2012). Do driving habits and motor-racing influence each other? Do some drivers imagine numbers painted on their vehicles? All this speeding, tailgating, and occasionally deadly trucking is enabled partly by the same anonymity that helped three masked people rob the Rise and Shine Market of $1500 worth of beer and cigarettes. In a small county, however, there is always the chance of recognition and of a phone call to parents. In Floyd a citizen may be more likely than in some counties to receive summary justice: one lad made a contemptuous gesture as he overtook a vehicle, then when he stopped for gasoline got a fist for the finger.
Testimonies are ample. “I probably used to drive too fast to town until a car rounded a curve in my lane and I had to run up the slope—lost a grille. I no longer take safety for granted and drive slower.” “They drive that single-lane dirt road like it’s the interstate.” “This man with a long trailer pulled right out in front of me on Wills Ridge.” “If they wreck going that way, they come up on my yard; if they wreck the other way, they come up on my neighbor’s.” On Thunderstruck Road, next to Little River, our extended family was taking a walk (except for one who rode in a perambulator). By the time a whizzing driver spied us around a curve, he had trouble slowing in the muddy ruts.
Driving anywhere in the world is not a democracy but a dictatorship. The worst rule the road, whether their habits are inveterate or occasional, criminal or careless. Lucky the driver who doesn’t encounter Harebrain, Harry Hurry, or Hostile. Perhaps bad driving can be illuminated by the Ten Commandments (so valued in Giles County that it kept them posted in the high school and lost a lawsuit). Is bad driving not stealing? Does it not filch from the safety margin of others—as if unfastening their seat belts? As for tailgating, a blend of danger and discourtesy—one person told me that she has regular pull-off places that she can use. The tailgater’s vehicle seems powered by frustration. Have you watched a driver make a risky pass only to move up farther in a line of traffic and then constantly apply the brakes as if hitting his head against a wall? As always, the unrecognizable abets the antisocial. Imagine daring to press your shopping cart against the next person in line and provoking a glare that would melt ice cream.
Perhaps everyone should have their name emblazoned on their front bumper in mirror-writing, like an ambulance. Or why not a pair of loudspeakers on the vehicle’s roof that verbalize what is only implied by bumper-to-bumper propinquity. DAMN YOU! DRIVE FASTER OR GET OUT OF MY WAY! I WISH I COULD RUN RIGHT OVER YOUR PIECE OF JUNK! YOU ARE NOT A PERSON BUT AN IMPOSITION! IF YOU CAN’T DRIVE OVER THE SPEED LIMIT, STAY HOME! HAVE A NICE DAY.
What about trucks? Ranging in size from the diminutive to the Norfolk & Western Class J 611 steam locomotive that retired to Roanoke. They usually haul goods, equipment, or materials in a businesslike way. But more than sometimes, “men in trucks,” as a friend says with a head-shaking tone of voice, is an antisocial combination. Trucksticles. Fast, aggressive, a macho grill in the rearview mirror, Ram, not Ma’m. Here are some examples collected over the past half-dozen years:
One night my wife and I are driving up Rt. 8 from Stuart, in Patrick County. What’s this materializing behind us? A two-story high truck!? I can’t discern a load, just a cab. Somehow it closes in as we wind up the Blue Ridge rampart, hairpin by switchback. Somehow it keeps reappearing. It reminds me of a scene from a movie (a friend suggested Maximum Overdrive, by Stephen King) where a couple is chased by a careening truck with opaque windows. Am I paranoid? Is the driver just in a hurry? Enjoying a challenge of Tour de Truck? Playing with us? Threatening? Are we ourselves in a movie? There is no place to turn off, and I am afraid to stop anyway. The car leans into turns faster and my fingers grip the steering wheel tighter, but I don’t report the problem to my spouse. Headlights again behind us, jiggling a little at the bumps. At last we reach Tuggles Gap by ourselves and zip under the Parkway and down toward the familiar Stoplight.
Another time on that same road, Marjory and a neighbor were heading down off the plateau when they nearly smashed into a big truck as it pulled into their lane to make the curve. The neighbor, luckily driving a small car, had to scramble onto the narrow shoulder. Another time, farther downhill on Rt. 8, my wife and I were tailgated by a truck so long that I wondered not only why but how it could handle the twists. As soon as we reached the flat stretch by Wade’s Apples, I was startled….. Well, have you ever been in a moving train as it’s passed by another going in the same direction? As the flatbed slipped by my window, I beheld the reason for such haste: wired to the platform was a powder-blue antique tractor.
And in the dark on Rt. 221, why did a landscaping truck pass me uphill? No doubt headed to an outbreak of deadly nightshade. That was the last time I drove back to Floyd after sunset from Roanoke, and I no longer take the picturesque Rt. 615 (which my late brother once hiked all the way from Floyd to Christiansburg). For one day, as I wound down Pilot Mountain, a little red pickup nearly ran into my rear bumper. I tapped my brake lights several times but it wouldn’t draw back, and as I was putting my hazard lights on, what should fill the window beside me but the truck as the guy passed on a downhill curve. One evening on Rt. 221, headed north from town toward Franklin Pike, I was tailgated by a pickup with the silhouette of two equally rough-looking guys in the cab. Their vehicle would not slow down despite my brake-pumping, signal-blinking, and Obama sticker.
Coming back from Roanoke one night, pre-landscaping, I was passed by a small, beat-up, faded-yellow pickup–on the icy bridge at Bethlehem Church Road. I flicked my brights twice in shock and indignation, whereupon the vehicle skidded and swerved partly sideways to a halt. I drew past it and, fearing that antisocial would be capped by criminal, pulled up a long driveway with the intention of begging for help. Nobody home, so there I sat. This movie had a happy ending, however, because nobody followed me and I drove home shaken and wondering about the driver. Alcohol? Other drugs? Inattention? Screwed-upness?
Got to make those cylinders pump! Once on Black Ridge Road I saw a truck ‘way behind me and surmised that it was hauling what else but a dozen portable toilets, no doubt mementos of FloydFest. As it drew closer, I wagered that even with this bizarre cargo, the driver would try to make time on a road made for horses. Sure enough, as the truck gained on me, it set off a cloud of dust by briefly going briefly off the road.Driving to a friend’s home on Rt. 221,” reports an acquaintance, “as daylight drew towards dusk, we were nearing a low hilltop where the highway swings to the left when suddenly we saw a small white car coming toward us at highway speed and in what should have been our lane! I could see that the driver was preoccupied by something as he was looking down and not out at the roadway. My wife, who was driving, swerved to the right off the highway onto a gravel makeshift shoulder and onto someone’s front lawn. We knocked over the owner’s mailbox while attempting to stop the car. The small car continued on its way and we saw no sign that he had even seen us. We incurred $2500 in damages. A police report was filed.
In Floyd County, cell phones aggravate the problem of speed, which already ignores topography, road quality, and slender-legged ruminant animals, one of whom turned a new Lexus to Japanese junk. How many residents treasure their gun for personal safety—yet pull out the cell phone and compromise it? Are cell phones, moreover, not more dangerous than guns? As social media, are they not antisocial? First of all, a driver who texts is all thumbs: “AT &T cites Virginia Tech Transportation Institute statistics that drivers who text while driving are 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident” (Subaru Drive Magazine, Winter 2003).
Back around 1952 I saw a public service program on Chicago TV that traced three drivers on the same morning: one sped, one drank, and the other applied makeup in the rear-view mirror. Which was finally identified after a fiery crash? The one that didn’t pay attention. Would you object if your dentist were to chat on the phone while drilling? Why, since it’s not a matter of life and death? How about your bus driver? “Oops, thought this rig had clearance.”
Some of the finest people I know pack the phone-shaped pistol. Before cell towers, however, the only ones who drove single-handed were tough guys who attached these little roller-thingies to their steering wheel so they could put their right arm languidly over the seat while tooling around in their customized vehicles. Now look for people who cannot back out of parking lot without talking on a cell phone as if it operates the reverse gear. In my youth we had polio and no safety belts or airbags;now we counteract major advances in safety by pressing letters and numbers.
A psychologist named Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) proposed a hierarchy of needs. It theorized that people had to establish a feeling of safety and security before they graduated to more rarified concerns such as love or personal fulfillment. Oh, Abe, Abe! Tell that to the person wandering back and forth on the highway, or running up on someone’s trunk, damages never to be adequately preceded by a dollar sign. We humans crave immediate satisfaction. We need to chat or conduct business NOW, so the roadway ahead, the mirrors, and the speedometer can all sit quietly and talk among themselves. We can probably do OK. Yes, we might overlook mistakes, not to mention lost opportunities for courtesy, and yes, we can “Hang up and drive” as the bumper sticker urges. But we don’t like infringements on our freedom. How many Floydians sport the “Don’t Tread on Me” license plate but tread on others?