In an earlier chapter Lucille T. Nolen recalls downtown Floyd over several decades 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 stop-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 S. Main 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 in word without changing the order of letters–as long as you include the two-letter word 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 that is actually a mystically 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 Main St., passes beneath the iconic colors, and roars northward. The racket lingers in resonators under the vehicle and echoes painfully between courthouse and businesses, an 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 side 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 body, like Tom and Huck attending their own funeral. This mobile testifier calls to mind a character remembered by James Thurber. He was “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 an automobile scoots around the corner, the passenger leans out the window at Randall, who is carrying a heavy container of spirits from the Republic of Floyd Emporium: “Need any help with that?” Both friends laugh as the car disappears. 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 introduces 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, the 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, then passes the town limits, then continues ‘way out in the country to cross the Little River (not far from its 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 Rt. 221/Floyd Hwy. S./W. Main St. runs southwest and crosses Dodd Creek. From The Stoplight a bicyclist can 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 (“Old Roads”). 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’ ’52 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. is Slaughters’ Grocery, a family-owned business, which has the distinction of being located only 180 seconds down hills from the Wells house. The store is known for its deli, which was often patronized by Margie Keith, who didn’t like cooking any more than farming. The clientele tends to be older and more countrified than that of the Food Lion. 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.”
About eight miles farther is the hamlet of Willis. When one acquaintance 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.” Driving up, down, and around another twenty miles to Hillsville, a person can turn right onto Rt. 58 and reach I-77, then head south over a dangerous pass toward Charlotte. At the bottom is a bridge that crosses Dodd Creek as it flows from the left past Epperly Mill. The creek continues through through muddy, vegetation-tangled banks, then disappears toward the bridge over Penn Road, where it twists rightward toward the West Fork of the Little River. “Floyd Highway,” by the way, is an instrumental number on the CD called Seasons, by Bill Adams (lent to me by Margie Keith). © 2006 Blueview Records, LLC.Returning toward the center of Floyd town, we pass to Gallery OneEleven on the right, a small, wood-frame building on South Main that could still have horses tied up in front. It had been the law office of Mr. James Tompkins. Inside it is crowded not with ledgers and desks but with funky objects that made you want to need them. At the far end, we 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 sort of factory. Once Marge and I bought one that had been woven by members of a certain tribe in Baluchistan. It not only blessed foot and eye but offered a sort of retroactive healing; for in that Asian end-of-the-world desert I had once lain down on an empty highway of pebbles as a sick and despairing hitchhiker.
Crossing Locust St. we pass Jeanie O’Neill Gallery-Boutique. One child cared less about arty clothes than about silver baubles that hung on knotted twine from the storefront overhang down to the sidewalk. She ran up to one set and jiggled it–fifteen chromium disks resembling the tops of bicycle bells and arranged singly or in groups–oblivious to the mystical progression 1-3-1-1-3-1-2-3-1. The other set comprised thirteen washer-like disks the size of 50-cent pieces and one silver globe that hung two or three feet from the cement and reflected the outer world, including a child’s face. Next door the Blue Ridge Restaurant is resolutely down-home. One morning, however, several waitresses compromised the ambience by discoursing on 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 the 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 frequent laughter. Once I witnessed the mailing of tiny, wiggling perishables: a resident had discovered an economic piscatory-niche. Now and then, extemporaneous theater. Customer: “I’m sorry for being so slow.” Randall: “I’m going to count to ten.” Or Friendly customer: “Why did Roy leave his mail at the counter?” Voice around corner of 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 ticket, 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 sent Wanda post cards from all over, including the Queen Mary 2; she sent us one from the Low Country. 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 fifty years earlier and now claimed to be irked that polio was extinguished but 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 multicolored Smarties. Once I plunked the dinger and announced: “Randall has left the building.”
There is an ongoing contest to see who can hold the door for the person, encumbered or not. A paradox. For standards of behavior at the post office clash with those on the road. Two public systems, communication and transportation, the first of which brings out patience and amiability while the second–well, nobody in line pushes against the next person or jumps the queue. Unlike that bigger-than-pickup truck driven by Mr. Hyde: it rushes around all three obstacle-vehicles, uphill, and returns to its lane only after traveling along the double yellow line and forcing an oncoming car to slow down.
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. 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–rather than 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.Back to The Stoplight and down the hill. 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). Its staff members are more sophisticated than those in most grocery stores. For example, 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 script. 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 insisted that the whole shebang is Chinese and that characters mean “happiness.” Once I saw a man bound up the outside stairs to Natasha’s, on his way whopping a cylinder with his left hand and making 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 Marjory 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, including this piece of fantastic object. “Riding Bull,” a statuette about six inches wide, makes up the lid of a classical-looking pot that was apparently turned on a wheel and painted bronze-turned-green. From its top and bottom it tapers outward to the middle. But the sculpture, far from presenting an ideal forms, is a work of fantasy: a bull ridden by a naked woman with the head of a rabbit. Like the bull, the saddle has protrusions, which she grasps, front and back, which are capped (Marjory’s help again) with elf-hats over rabbit faces. The hats and the animal’s legs preserve the sculptor’s pinch-marks. So Object is fused with Process and Artist: made, making, and maker. In another mode of creativity, 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 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 sideview mirror toward its behind, would bend an ear out of sight and even switch its tail. I realized that 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.
Farther downhill on Rt. 8 from Natasha’s/Harvest Moon, and around a curve or two, we come to that old mill on the right. Its sign reads “Dodd Creek Mill,” successor to Webb’s Mill (itself a successor). Three stories high, it remains handsome. Its unpainted surfaces, like a pencil sketch, throw emphasis on other features: a stately volume is 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 we spot the sidewalk wheelbarrows of Farmers’ Supply.