In Chapter 5 Lucille T. Nolen recalls downtown Floyd as it existed sixty to eighty years ago. May readers in the year 2100 appreciate the author’s three-part tour of places in Floyd County. This first excursion begins where else but at The Stoplight.The four cease-here lines are painted strangely far back from the center. You will understand why when a tractor-trailer drags through the intersection perpendicular to you—but has its blinker on as if turning in your direction–and stops. Then it rotates 90 degrees toward you, whereupon eighteen wheels and seventy-five feet attempt to make an arc. The intersection is dangerous, stimulating, antisocial, and social. The light’s timer is unhurried, so drivers waiting uphill on West Main St. (Floyd Highway South) can gauge their position in the queue by looking up toward the wall of the hardware store:
FARMERS’ SUPPLY CORP is painted white on black like the negative of a headline. From behind the steering wheel, FA means Far, FARM means Almost there, and FARMERS’ means At the Line. (You can create six words out of the first without changing the order of letters–as long as you include fa, the term for the fourth note of the diatonic scale in solmization.) And how many wires cross the intersection? And how many sets of lights hang at The Stoplight (a compound artifact become a sole abstraction)? And therefore how many colored-plastic lenses?
A horn blares as a truck charges through pulling a tree-shredder after running the light, cutting someone off, or being cut off. On another day someone tries to cross from Farmers’ Supply to the Courthouse—steps over the curb, then back again as a white truck turns in front of her. Surveying the intersection again, she twists to the left as if to cross downhill–but leans and stops. She tries again and may still be there. Another time as the light turns green, a pickup driver floors it up the incline on W. Main, passes beneath the overhead lenses, and roars toward Roanoke. The racket lingers in resonators under the vehicle and echoes painfully between courthouse and businesses, the acoustic message supplemented by an alphabetic one on the back window: FORD.
A massive grille labors to turn from the upward slope of Rt. 221 onto Rt. 8 North by the Courthouse; it shatters the decibel-meter as it occupies all the space near the sidewalk, blotting out everything on the other side of Locust. The flank of the long trailer offers no signage, just a metal lattice made of rectangular holes, narrow vertical, that emit a barnyard smell. The rounding tractor makes no hesitation as it twists back from the curb toward a straight-ahead direction–when Crack! goes something between it and the trailer. Randall is exiting the scene by the time a second truck roars behind it, so he can only tentatively read “Iowa” on the license place. A bit shaken yet stimulated, he asks about this phenomenon at Farmers’ Supply and gets an appreciative answer: “Cattle dealin’!”
Every so often a black hearse looms over the rise from the direction of Roanoke. Emblazoned with something like “For the wages of sin is death, Romans 6:23,” it seems to haul the driver’s own corpse, like Tom and Huck attending their own funeral. This mobile testifier calls to mind a character remembered by James Thurber,
a lank unkempt elderly gentleman with wild eyes and a deep voice who used to go about shouting at people through a megaphone to prepare for the end of the world. ‘GET READY! GET READY-Y!’ he would bellow. ‘THE WORLLLD IS COMING TO AN END!'” (‘”The Car We Had to Push,” My Life and Hard Times, 1933.)
As a school bus makes a wide turn, a few children look out the window at one or two pedestrians as if on a tour. Lawyer Shortt traverses a few yards of two streets to reach the courthouse, where he clocks a document. One night in front of the Courthouse a high-spirited group celebrates Gay Pride. The cold wind makes them stomp their feet or clutch their coats tighter as they laugh and wave signs. As vehicles stop at the light or pass through, a few drivers honk in apparent encouragement, once or twice a passenger yells an epithet, and often a group of passengers rowdily proclaims support. On Friday evenings, visitors make their way toward the Country Store and its Jamboree. The Stoplight, however, engenders a little confusion for pedestrians, a few of whom seem colorblind.Up N. Locust one building from the corner is Oddfellas Cantina. One of my favorite moments in Floyd came when Marjory and I, rather shaky newcomers, walked in for dinner on Irish Night, and a musician (later introduced as Tina Liza Jones) gave us a big smile. Years later, during a variety show, one dancer, Leia, ended her performance by moving sinuously offstage and becoming silhouetted against the shade on the back door, which glowed golden from the sunset, her undulating arm transforming it to what one spectator called a Japanese lantern.
N. Locust/Rt. 8 extends northwest about 28 miles toward Christiansburg and Interstate 81, first coasting down this long, long incline. Somewhere ahead near the town limits, Locust St. becomes Webbs Mill Rd., and the road crosses Dodd Creek shortly before this stream passes the largest former mill in the county. The creek soon enters the West Fork of the Little River, which itself winds leftward farther on and crosses under Rt. 8. Twelve miles later the highway crosses the main branch of Little River at the border with Montgomery County, new water slipping toward the New River.
Floyd Highway N./ E. Main St., extends northeast toward Roanoke, not quite an hour away. First it climbs a short rise in front of the Courthouse, then falls a mile or so before swerving to the left, passes the town limits, and continues ‘way out in the country to cross the Little River not far from its upland origin. Then it splits the vaguely defined areas of Check and Copper Hill before winding down a mountain to the Roanoke Valley. Just off the pavement of Rt. 221 N., the Check Country Store sells gas from two very modest pumps. The clerk can pull a rope by a sort of collar-handle and open the door for customers. Please click for a video, courtesy of Danica.
In the opposite direction from The Stoplight, Rt. 221/Floyd Hwy. S./W. Main St. runs downhill and southwest to cross Dodd Creek. From the light a bicyclist could push off with feet on the handlebars, then whiz down a mile-long hill that features a blind curve cut from the steep northern rise, the earlier course of Rt. 221 (Chapter 9, “Roads to Erstwhile”). A couple of decades and many cars fewer, I was told, a contingent of boys would skate-board from the Stoplight to the the Hop-In, predecessor to the West End Market. At the bottom of the hill is a bridge that crosses Dodd Creek as it flows from the left and the defunct Epperly Mill. The creek continues through through muddy, vegetation-tangled banks, then disappears toward the bridge over Penn Road NW, where it twists rightward toward the West Fork of the Little River. (“Floyd Highway,” lent to me by Margie Keith, is an instrumental number on a CD called Seasons, by Bill Adams, © 2006 Blueview Records, LLC.)
Just across the bridge is Slaughters’ Nursery. Once as I poked among the potted trees, I saw one called a “dawn redwood,” Metasequoia. Could there be a redwood in Virginia rather than in California, where my parents’ ’51 Plymouth station wagon drove through a tree-trunk? After a few quips with Mike Quesinberry and Lorenzo, two more reasons to live in Floyd, I carted two of these exotics uphill to our acreage, Slaughter’s-on-the-Hill, destination of many a transplant. Then I carved out holes in the stony soil by mattock, shovel, hands, and hours. Would the plants, well-watered and fertilized, survive the winter? And thrive like its predecessors?
Across Laurel Branch Rd. from the nursery is Slaughters’ Grocery, a family-owned business that has the distinction of being located only 180 seconds from the Wells house. The store is known for its deli, which often patronized by Margie Keith, who doesn’t like the stove any more than the ironing board. The clientele tends to be older than that of the Food Lion, more countrified, and less interested in alcohol, since it’s not sold there. Once a venerable man, tall and rangy, wearing a cap, sat on the bench outside the store with his cane leaning against his crossed legs. He smiled at a stranger as if to declare, “I’ve been holding this place for you.” Another time I saw a cap reading WWII and Korean War on a tall gentleman. “I guess you ran out of wars,” I said, then thanked him–noting that when he was in uniform, I was in diapers. A genial fellow, he reported being 200 miles from the Japanese mainland when the atomic bomb canceled his probable next assignment. He was a reminder that, isolated as Floyd County was, and as Confederate in its official heritage, it has sent many a United States soldier off the ridge, some into the earth.
About eight miles farther is the hamlet of Willis. (Less town than vaguely-defined area, it might be called Willisness.) When one person visits her daughter, who has no land-line, they have to go into the bathroom, put the cell phone on speaker, and hold it against the window-glass. “Or we have to go outside and stand next to the mailbox, maybe park the car there because of the cold.”
In the late 1990s a group of families from a scattering of states migrated to the Willis area with the help of a unifying church. The original impetus, however, was apprehension about Y2K–i.e., Year 2000 bug. Would computer coding, meant to operate only for years beginning with 19, collapse at midnight and take along the civilized world? One native of Floyd County bought a 427-acre diary farm and sold lots for an intentional community. (For comparison, see Chapter 52 for David Allen’s account of his Hanatuskee school venture.) Once again isolated Floyd became a place to survive–as it had been for Confederate deserters and Edgar Cayce apostles. Stores filled many an order for foodstuffs and equipment. Eventually about twenty-four families built houses there, some even after Y2K fizzled.***
They were mostly acquaintances or friends of families already established in the community, which was committed to homeschooling (co-op style) and worshipping in their church. Land and houses were cheap for families with several children who were moving from other parts of the country (e.g., California). Unlike the Travianna Community (see Chapter 50), the leadership was male. Was its version of Christianity over-patriarchal? Certainly their Covenant Church was very conservative in its social views, e.g., about abortion and birth control. Did members store weapons just in case? (“No,” scoffs one former participant.) Add hints of a few rather lurid goings-on and you have a potential film called Rivendell. Most of the members departed but some still live in the county. One of them, my piano teacher, is thoughtful enough to suppress tears when I arrive.
Driving past the tiny business hub of Willis, one reaches Hillsville after twenty don’t-be-in-a-hurry miles. There, a right turn onto Rt. 58 leads to I-77, which heads south, crosses under the Blue Ridge Parkway, and plummets down a risky pass toward Charlotte.Returning returning toward the center of Floyd town–what’s this? A woman-become tree-trunk, right out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
209 W. Main.
The old-time structure of Gallery OneEleven stands further up. Once crowded with ledgers and desks, it now holds funky objects that make you want to need them. At the far end, Marjory and I were drawn to a cascade of rolled-up carpets. Admiring the profusion of textures, hues and patterns, we talked with the owner of the business, Melodie Wenger, about how she acquired both the merchandise and the expertise. Surprisingly, she had traveled to Asia on some kind of project to help women. I was especially interested because in 1961 I had traveled through Iran, where I had seen children weave carpets in a rather primitive factory. We bought one from Melodie that had been woven by members of a certain tribe in Baluchistan. A sort of magic carpet, it not only blessed foot and eye but offered me a sort of retroactive healing; for in that Asian end-of-the-world desert, fifty years earlier, I had lain down on an empty highway of pebbles as a sick and despairing hitchhiker.
Crossing Locust St. to 105 E. Main, we reach Jeanie O’Neill Gallery-Boutique. On the sidewalk one child cared less about arty clothes than about silver baubles that hung on knotted twine from the storefront overhang down to the sidewalk. Inside is a blend of comfortable, sophisticated, and arty:
Next door the Blue Ridge Restaurant is resolutely down-home of ambience, cuisine, and customers. One morning, however, several waitresses were discussing a method of house-lighting in South America that uses jars of water and bleach suspended from hole in ceiling.
A mile farther, downhill and around a curve, brings us to the United States Post Office. The in-and-out arrows between North Main and parking lot continued to fade toward invisibility, so that these signals operate by custom, and an uninitiated occasionally turns into Out. At one of the prime mixing-points of the county, residents open doors for each other and wait in line patiently with the help of small talk and laughter. Once I witnessed the mailing of tiny, wiggling perishables: an entrepreneur had discovered an piscatory-niche. Another time, several dozen small, padded envelopes drew this explanation: “I distribute toothpaste.” Another time, a customer apologized for being slow and I threatened to count to ten. One friendly customer: “Why did Roy leave his mail at the counter?” Voice around the corner of the mailboxes: “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Once I saw a lad standing by the counter and offered to mail him to the Bad Boy Farm.
A staff member, Wanda, heard our need for two emergency tickets to FloydFest. She donated her complimentary one, and her colleague Jack contacted somebody who met us at the parking lot of Slaughters’ Grocery, gave us a ticket, and refused to take money. Marjory and I would send Wanda post cards from all over, including the Queen Mary 2; she sent us one from the Lowcountry. Once I complained about a March of Dimes solicitation found in the post office box: I had done some fund-raising work for that organization decades years earlier and now claimed to be irked that although polio was extinguished, Dimes marched on. Another time I noted that the P.O. didn’t hand out goodies like the bank, so Wanda reached under the counter and handed me a roll of Smarties. Once I plunked the chromium dinger and announced: “Randall has left the building.” Before a solar eclipse, Wanda enthusiastically beckoned Marjory to follow her out of the building, where she demonstrated how a how a punctured cereal box could register a tiny image of the sun (as demonstrated to her by a teacher).
There is an ongoing contest to see who can hold the door for the person, encumbered or not. One morning I held both doors for a person who was leaving and met the amiable Cal, who lives in New Town (the African American section of Floyd, one of the places-within-a-place). Retired from the Veterans Administration Hospital in Roanoke, he would have played high school football “but somebody had to feed the pigs.”
In the bustling interior you can also talk low about serious matters–even counsel and commiserate–and in the parking lot you can carry on impromptu business. Once as I sat in the lot waiting for my spouse, I beheld a parade of boxes toted by a mother and three children. Owing to a tenacity for veracity–not nosiness–I got out of the car and asked the family’s driver about the spectacle. He seemed happy to explain: “Mim builds custom ukeleles—buys the basic models and improves them–sends them all over the world.” In this same parking lot you won’t overlook a minivan covered tiny fragments of glass and countless words, the most prominent being BACK OFF, I’M A GODDESS.
From Floyd Hwy. N., just past the P.O., turn left onto Rt. 615 toward Christiansburg and you will pass a business that manufactures squirrel food and that (by report) has one customer in Qatar.Back to the Courthouse Corner, turn right and passt the razed Brame Hotel, the defunct beauty shop, and the long-ago eaten bucket steak. Downhill on the right, set far back from the road, is a handsome modern building that houses Harvest Moon Food Store (ground floor) and Natasha’s Market Café. The former is the Palace of Poppodums (and the other delicacies mentioned earlier). When Marjory bought a fancy chocolate bar and I plucked it out of the bag to claim ownership, the clerk urged me to “Spare a square!”
Outside, a frigid wind might surprise you with the tolling of a faraway cathedral bell, only before you recognize the random gravitas of a gong. It hangs from an Oriental wooden frame, its brown casing shaped like a giant bullet whose metal has been cut through to form a vertical inscription. Its clapper is shaped like the end of a fly-swatter. Having been to both Hong Kong and Japan, I recognized the Nipponese framework and the kanji script, although the owner of Harvest Moon stubbornly insisted that the whole thing is Chinese and that characters mean “happiness.” Once I saw a man bounding up the outside stairs to Natasha’s, on his way whopping a cylinder with his left hand to make it revolve. This contraption demanded scrutiny. Made of copper and fixed to a post by a bracket, it was about a foot high with the finial included and bore inscrutable letters in low relief. A Buddhist prayer-wheel.
Upstairs, Chef Natasha Shishkevish, who hails from Connecticut, owns a restaurant that (as my spouse observed) resembles a dance studio with its spaciousness, twelve-foot high ceiling, and hardwood floor. Maybe an art studio, too, with its indirect lighting. Windows on one side reveal grassy uphill, while nearly floor-to-ceiling windows on the north reveal a vista that does downhill and then uphill again in the form of Wills Ridge on the horizon. Serious art adorns the space, such as the fantastical statuette called “Riding Bull.” (For a description, please see Chapter 41.)
In another mode of creativity, sonic: during Virginia’s Blue Ridge Music Festival in 2013, violinists held a rehearsal at Natasha’s, and a woman stood watching nearby, her arms holding a child who wore orange tennis shoes and listened with open mouth as if to catch every note.
Even more art outside the building. On the edge of the parking lot stands “He always carried it with him,” an eight-foot high man created with locust-wood fragments dyed with brown deck stain—a sort of mosaic with pieces affixed by deck screws. Flat pieces connect round, muscle-like ones. Wearing a hat and boots, he carries a faded green wooden leaf under his arm like a surfboard that’s about as long as the figure is tall. The tip extends two feet in front of him, the center to the middle of his shin, and the base almost to the ground, where its stem rests. About three inches in diameter, the stem is slightly articulated in several places. A conundrum of form and material, cause and effect, the figure is made from whatever produced the leaf, and the leaf itself helped to generate the holder. But one day the sculpture had disappeared–not headed for the woods (as explained by Charlie Brouwer, the artist, originally from Michigan), but transported to Bristol for a year-long exhibition titled Art in Public Places.
Into the parking lot rolled the tractor of a tractor-trailer, a two-story Freightliner with a window on the second story of the cab. A man climbed out, soon followed by a woman and two children. “Does that rig hold all of you?” Smiling: “It’s our RV.” As I sat in the parking lot one night after a rain, I was startled when the effigy of a cow, viewed in the side-view mirror toward its behind, would bend an ear out of sight and even switch its tail. This animation occurred whenever I moved my head a bit and a leftover raindrop blotted out part of the anatomy. More magic in the daytime when the the dark bulk transmogrified into a wire frame with psychedelic stuffing.
Every Friday and Saturday a truck from North Carolina parks front of the Harvest Moon. This refrigerated vessel sells a multitude of creatures, even one from the Sea of Andouille. Worthy of a poem, so I’ll try a haiku–call it a trai-ku:
Floyd’s fishing boat docks,
Two cheerful gals reel in bucks
For trout, wave-raised ducks.
Gravity helps wheels roll farther downhill to a Dollar Store and Floyd Fitness Center. Social joints are lubricated and physical ones challenged. One of the personal trainers, Rowan Chantal (raised in the Zephyr Community), once wore shoes of a color so outrageous that I had to reprimand him. He gazed fiercely at my T-shirt–which bore the words “The Great Gatsby” along with a representation of the famously staring billboard. “Well your eyes keep looking at me, and I feel objectified.”
Farther downhill on Rt. 8 and around a curve or two, we come to handsome wooden ruins on the right. Its sign reads “Dodd Creek Mill,” successor to Webb’s Mill (itself a successor). Its unpainted surfaces, like a pencil sketch, throw emphasis onto a stately, three-story volume complicated by different angles and planes. The horizontal clapboards on the highway-side surround vertical windows that in turn enclose shutters composed of small horizontal rectangles. The building leans toward the water that once enabled it to grind buckwheat (Webb and Cox, The Water-Powered Mills of Floyd County, Virginia, pp. 172-75). When it glows cheerily in the low-angled sun, it stands as a monument to human accomplishment–entrepreneurial, mechanical and architectural, even social as a community center. But on a cloudy day it becomes an elegy of an edifice, a reminder of all that is ground by the stones of time.
Driving back uphill on Rt. 8, we pass Penn Rd. on the right–twice, for it makes an arc from Rt. 8 to Rt. 8. Then once again we spot the empty sidewalk-wheelbarrows of Farmers’ Supply.