In 2012 the Jacksonville Center for the Arts sponsored “Portrait of Floyd, Virginia.” Mr. Glen McClure of Norfolk took seventy-four black-and-white photographs of residents, mainly downtown; many of the photos were then included in a booklet and exhibited in the gallery. This album of six-dozen-plus residents underlines the diversity of the vague place “Floyd,” both its individuals and groups. Consider only the retirees, whether From Here or Came Here: each deserves an autobiography. In Appendix 2 you will find the girlhood memories of Betty “Sunny” Bernardine, who was born in 1926 and raised in a country town in Illinois, where her parents moved from Chicago to grow their own food during the Depression.*
One clerk at the Rt. 8 Dollar store speaks with a Long Island accent and lives in Hillsville, about 45 minutes and many curves away. At the Rt. 221 Dollar, near the Post Office, a 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 at the bare midriff. Another customer wore a net-like cap, a print dress, gray stockings, sensible shoes and spectacles, along with the expression “I am invisible.” Another time, one of her denominational sisters steered out of the Food Lion parking lot with her right hand as she held a cell phone to her net-cap.
At Floyd Pharmacy a customer reported that the child accompanying her had woken up before dawn to buy a tractor with Daddy; another told the clerk in thick New Yorkese 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, runs the Barter Clinic, and tends to wear a long-skirted rustic ensemble.
One resident (Morgan’s father) works for two weeks a month in Alaska. And the retiree who raises goats–how much help does he get from that M.D. degree? One resident hangs large signs in his yard on behalf of conservative political candidates and plays a loud, right-wing radio station, but he hails from Minnesota and drives a Prius. To some people the Devil is just as corporeal as their friends, neighbors, and even Roy G. Biv. Mr. Biv is the sole Mnemonic among the Country Baptists, the Brethren and the Mennonites.
Laura Polant, a principal of the annual Floyd Yoga Jam ‘way out in the country, offers this self-description:
I am one of the dakinis who co-created the “collective hallucination” that is the YOJam weekend…. A tiny snapshot in time, a mini-utopia which comes into be-ing, like a mid-summer’s night dream and then fades back into the mist…. You could also say I am one of the directors, co-creatrix, den-mother, corporate liaison, media magician and wordsmith of the group!
A fairly cosmopolitan Came-Here might still have a country background. Ralph Roe, for example, worked as an engineer in California but grew up on a farm in New York:
We had about forty cows, one bull, two horses, one dog, and fourteen cats. They all had names except for the chickens and pigs. Mabel might get three scoops of grain, whereas Bertha would only deserve two. The grain looked and tasted like granola and had some drops of molasses in it (like honey in a granola bar). Of course, being vegetarians, their main courses were dried hay and whole cornstalks chopped up, which included the ears.
Two enlarged photographs in “Portrait of Floyd, Virginia” were displayed in the Jacksonville Center. Both citizens live in the Check area (northeast), but the bearded Arthur Conner, pictured below in 2012, flew across the Himalayas twice in the military, and he seems as authentic and complex as the bass fiddle grasped by the hands that fashioned it. River Roberts, almost eighty years younger, seems to be resting momentarily like a sprite who has been running around in many-laced high-tops. **
Contributing to the county’s modest ethnic variety, a number of hard-working people maintain a low profile and sometimes keep their nacionalidad to themselves. Question: has this group pretty much replaced the African Americans in Floyd County? “They all died or moved away,” declared one old-timer from Copper Hill, who grew up comfortably with blacks all around and was amazed that they had to eat in the kitchen of the Blue Ridge Cafe.
As for the county’s ethos, it has a kind streak. When I asked someone to give an example, she thought for several moments. “Gannon. People regularly give him rides.” This fellow took one-too-many rides in high school, has to walk with little cooperation from one side, and lives in the subsidized Pine Ridge Apartments. After his wreck, he benefited from counseling by Bill Gardner (Chapter 28). “Invaluable,” Gannon declared to me.
One 17-degree day Gannon and I happened to meet outside the Harvest Moon health food store. “People tell me,” he said, “‘Don’t be afraid to ask'”–i.e., for a lift. He glanced at his open coat, and on behalf of the town I immediately zipped it up and closed the top snap for good measure. Noticing that his right hand, which held a bag, was ungloved, I offered him mine. At the second offer he took it but declined the left glove–shortly before I noticed that hand tucked in its pocket-home. A couple of years later I congratulated him on being named King of Mardi Gras, a celebration sponsored by Blue Mountain School as a fund-raiser. But when I offered him a ride home from the grocery store, he said he already had one. “I don’t walk anymore,” he quipped: I’m king.”
Another streak is more of a smear. Youngsters with an unorthodox sexual orientation can meet with hostility. “For many in Floyd County,” writes Jim Best, President of Floyd PFLAG, “coming out means the fear of being kicked out of the house. Fear of homelessness. Or in terms of one high school senior, ‘social suicide.'” As everywhere, organized religion has a mixed influence on this social issue as well as others.
Call it the Bobble Belt, an accessory woven from a striking variety of fibers and hues. It tends to value the more severe verses of Scripture, about the punitive inferno and sex, as–well, Gospel. Its anthem is John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace.” Although this song has only five notes (i.e., of the pentatonic scale), they can beat the singer down as a “wretch.” This word does fit the tailgaters of a later chapter.
Despite its geographical breadth, the area is a Protestant stronghold. Roman Catholic churches bear a slight resemblance to plants grown out of their zone, and the priest may even have roots in a different hemisphere. The newly-built Catholic Church on the outskirts of Floyd town closed its doors and then reopened a year or two later as if under new ownership. How about “U-U”–Unitarian-Universalist? A person must drive to Blacksburg to escape what that association calls “dogma.” Quaker? Established in Floyd, yes, but marginal, like a Christian mission to Wherezistan. No temple or mosque in the county but an abundance of Ancient Pagan or New Age gatherings. These counter-cultural values and rituals–are they reactions to Abrahamic patriarchy, which characterizes three major religions? And to Christian duality? Heaven-hell, heaven-earth, body-spirit, material-spiritual, sin-not sin, saved-not saved, saint-not saint, male-female?
Anyone unmoved by Old Time Religion might view some teachings in Floyd County as the 1950s automobiles that putter around Havana. Writes Jim Best:
The choir director of a very conservative congregation invited me to sing but the pastor intervened right before the service. “Our church constitution,” he declared, “does not permit homosexuals to sing in the choir.” The choir director called me after church to report that there was no such prohibition in the church constitution. Another visitor quoted the pastor as saying he didn’t have to go by the church constitution or the Bible but just his feelings.
At the Floyd Country Store, the Friday Night Jamboree is preceded by Gospel Hour, 6:30-7:30, no dancing or clogging. The songs tend toward the simple and sentimental, polar opposites of many hymns, whose Latinate syntax resists emotion. The county’s land gives root to an occasional stark, home-made cross or trio of crosses; observed by a Christian, they may evoke veneration and comfort, perhaps a twinge of guilt; by a “non,” perhaps a discomfiting image of human sacrifice. An occasional T-shirt or church marquee bears this alphanumeric theology: 1 cross, 3 nails, 4 given. The county’s weekly newspaper features an entire page, “In the Spirit,” that invites readers to worship and lists churches (no fewer than seventy-nine in one issue). Obituaries typically open not with died but with Heaven, Home, Jesus, Angels, The Lord, Choir, and so forth….
“Spiritual”–O word equally positive, powerful, and vague! It can include Father God, Mother Earth, even Uncle Sam when he is assumed to be Christian, even Christ-like. “Spiritual” encompasses other S-words: Spiritualism, statism (body politic as quasi-divine), Sabbatarian, Saturnalian, Selassie-centric, and all manner of sectarianism. Its meaning depends heavily on context, like John Newton’s “free” or the “Liberty” of Lynchburg’s University or the ACLU. However defined, spiritual endeavors coexist peacefully in Floyd County. At the Bread Basket on Rt. 8, an Amish/Mennonite bakery, Randall asked for news about the woman who’d let him photograph her hair-covering (later chapter). “She’s in Granada, teaching for a year of service.”
Such imports include a surprising number of Jews–at least by heritage if not by observance. A famously vague word, “Jewish” gives sociologists dyspepsia with its potpourri of genealogy, heritage, religion, values, appearance, etc. At a dinner party I asked about this outsize presence and was reminded that Jews were prominent in the the early idealistic counterculture movement. (Please see Chapter 35 on Ed Gralla.) Of the people that Marjory and I ended up associating with, only a minority went to church, not to mention to the absent synagogue, for one reason or another–a major contrast with the typical From Heres. In a few cases, the marriage was split into believer and non-believer. I told one new arrival that the town was holding its breath to see which church he would favor. With a good-natured laugh: “I hate to see people die of suffocation, because I’m a Jewish agnostic.”
In the late 1990s a group of families from a scattering of states migrated to the county 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 in the Willis area 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 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.*As everywhere, there are conflicts, grudges, falling-outs, ex-es, dramatic stories tossed in Dead Letters of Discretion. Why so many divorces, I wondered, among the Came Heres? Know a place by its paradoxes (as I maintained in Along the Waccamaw). One person surmised that there were no more splits than in the rest of society. Another replied (from experience) that the dreamed-of new life was too hard for some. Anyway, because these divorced or lived-togethers both tend to stay in the area, there are many once-couples. A friend tried to draw up a family tree of Floyd’s ex-spouses but finally gave up: “I needed a Scattergram.” As for jobs, occasionally one hears a jaundiced statement like “Nobody wants to work in Floyd County.” “This builder was crooked–and he was Church of the Brethren.” “Single men are scared by educated and accomplished women.” I also heard this warning: “If you come to Floyd County, bring your own job.”
The Green Garage sold fresh vegetables by the honor system–just put your money in the slot. Ditto a few of the pottery studios out in the country. There was no outside lock on an old cabin at Travianna Community, nearly deserted, but our daughter’s indoor electronics disappeared, perhaps as a bonus to a transient work crew. A few people give “neighbor” a bad name: one family operates heavy equipment at 5 a.m. on a Sunday, while another puts a broken washing machine in the yard and uses it to burn garbage. My friend Tom (world-trip companion of Angel in Goggles) declared that a top-loading washer is ideal for that purpose, whereas a front-loading dryer can bake bread.
By contrast, the series of shipshape properties along Ridgeview Rd. NW amounts to a two-mile-long yard-of-the-month contest. At various informal recreation areas, however, aluminum cans and cardboard boxes trash the roadside. A hiking friend noticed that a beautiful tree next to the road bore hack-marks on its trunk; appalled at this vandalism, she spotted the axe and took it home. Some residents indulge in a sort of home cooking, undertaken even in their vehicles. But the area is comparatively fortunate: “Some towns,” asserted one person, “are devoured by meth.”
One drug seems quietly accessible at what might be called the grass-roots level. As Laura Polant noted, the cannabis plant illustrates the county’s motto, “To grow is to prosper.” “Remember,” she added, “marijuana follows a long earlier tradition of growing corn for revenue.” Profit from moonshine, she explained, sometimes paid taxes on the farm or even bought the land–just as in the recent past with marijuana. (For an account of moonshine’s Depression-era effects on the economy, society, and justice system of Franklin County, adjacent to Floyd, see Spirits of Just Men, by Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Univ. of Illinois Press, 2011.)
I had always wanted to try a pot-laced brownie and as a surprise received a large chocolate-chip cookie for my birthday. From an heirloom plant, of unknown efficacy, it contained an oil made from leaves. Remembering to Eat Local, I ended up rather dizzy and inclined to smile for twenty-four hours. A business meeting at Black Water Loft went smoothly but perhaps strangely. This experience seemed to be a form of communion with the back-to-the-landers, who enjoyed their ritual-recreational version of the Greeks’ holy basil. Forty years later, the dominant culture still deemed marijuana a threat, and one seller spent nine months in jail at society’s expense.
One economic mainstay is barter. The most Floydian example, perhaps: one family paid for a substantial number of cello lessons with an old Mercedes Benz, which the young teacher drove to college in Ohio.An occasional bumper-sticker reads “Coexist.” As a goal this word seems unambitious, even namby-pamby. Still, it’s peacenik in comparison to “Don’t Tread on Me.” This warning frequently issues from license plates decorated with a coiled viper. “Me” seems to view its fellows as threats. Does the serpent-citizen not eye them with a tightly-wound hostility that promises retaliation? The mythical serpent of Genesis sunders human from deity; the metal one, individual from society. Perhaps even human from divine. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book 9, the fallen angel sneaks into the Garden of Eden and keenly regrets appropriating the body of a serpent:
O foul descent! that I who erst contended
With Gods to sit the highest am now constraind
Into a Beast, and mixt with bestial slime,
This essence to incarnate and imbrute,
That to the the hight of Deitie aspir’d.
Politically there is dyspepsia, enough to require a dose of Dia-Bisma (sold in Chapter 5). Some liberally-inclined residents weep by the headwaters of Babylon, although they don’t hang up their lyres but rather strum them. At a TEDx conference sponsored by Blue Mountain School, a speaker mentioned an elected official and brought a loud, collective groan from one pocket of the audience.
Unlike Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, in 1901–Thornton Wilder’s Our Town–Floyd has no Polish Town, although there is a small African American section, and Hispanics tend to live in pockets of house trailers throughout the county. Socially there is no gated community except the ones that pen cattle. When one couple considered moving permanently to the area, I counseled caution. “In your city you’re in the upper crust; there is no upper crust in Floyd.” Their response was thought-provoking: “Floyd is classless.” Another perspective: “There are various communities.” Certain there are extreme variations of income: one person rents a house trailer with no refrigerator or stove; another owes for last winter’s fuel because the trailer’s furnace was inefficient; another owns a countless-cubic mansion.
Of course there are the Confederate flaggers, as just about everywhere (even in Maine and outside Waremme, Belgium, from my observation). Farmers’ Supply keeps a few such banners in the tactful attic, but some folks display them by trailers or on trucks. These people don’t know Shiloh from Shinola. One person converted the rear window of a large pickup into the Reb-X with its ten white stars–unconcerned that the Dodge brand originated in Detroit. Unknown is the degree of sympathy that these folks engender from other citizens.In Floyd County, residents vary greatly as to diet. At one extreme, people demand organic foods such as raw pepital, local beets, calendula flower, Medjool dates, and Nori sesame seeds, as well as sometimes-exotic fare like Sharwood’s Indian poppodums. (Non-edibles might include Waleda Sea Buckthorn body lotion and even Total Kidney Cleanse.) The white-breaders, by contrast, may keep a garden like the health-foodie, but at the grocery store they follow the recipe of the sociology textbook for their group: whole milk, lots of meat, fatty and salty snacks, beer, not to forget cookies & Dew. Fast food, big belt. (Christiansburg, model of the Appalachian diet, might change its name to Round Town.)
One person looked at a display of avocados, asked “What are those?” and answered herself: “They look like rotten pears.” Having learned that they yield guacamole, she cheerily exclaimed, “Oh, like at the Mexican restaurant!” One shopper, I’ll call her Rotunda, wheeled out a cart loaded with about sixty bottles of soda pop. One parent bought a jumbo bottle of Pepsi the same size as her young daughter’s belly. For one customer in line, a balanced diet was Schlitz & cigs. “White bread” includes a trip to Hardee’s for fried bologna and Velveeta biscuit. (If you see Randall munching a white-bunned-spicy-pork-barbecue-with-slaw and reading a newspaper at the Xpress Mart, he is conducting research.)
All these physical and social variations are complicated by the passage of years. Customs, places, and people vanish like the Streetcar Diner (Chapter 5) down the tracks of time.
“Who will watch the home place?” asks a song often performed by the acoustic quartet Windfall (lyrics by Laurie Lewis). For many derelict farmhouses in Floyd County the answer is “raccoons.” More positively, El Tenador, a roller skating rink on Rt. 221 that operated into at least 1980, was reincarnated as Phoenix Hardwoods. (“We had a big Halloween skating party there,” said Barbara Triplett; “I remember two years in a row dressing up and renting roller skates.”) In the Floyd Press an estate sale lists obsolete items to be auctioned off such as a horse-drawn wagon-frame, milk cans, and an apple-butter kettle & stirrer–not much there to repurpose. But after forty years, a former Christmas-tree farm declines into a motley woods and then becomes slated for restoration–a culling process powered by horses in a return to an ancient, salutary technique.
Ancient is relative. In Floyd County all Caucasians and people of African descent are immigrants–when viewed against the background of Native Americans, who seem to have begun sojourning or living in the area thousands of years ago. For an overview of the equally sketchy and fascinating evidence, see “Floyd County and Native Americans,” Chapter 25 of Jean Thomas Schaeffer’s Raised on Songs and Stories: A Memoir of Place in the Blue Ridge (Floyd, VA: Harvestwood, 2014).
If a writer tries to impose too much order on all the heterogeneous, inconsistent, and sometimes mysterious details of a place, the shopping bag of a document will rip and spill. Yet a writer must both observe and judge. Both of these goals, however, must rely on an incomplete and even biased perspective–a dilemma represented by the ancient fable of three blind Hindus. As they tried to identify an animal, the first sat on a stool, clasped a heavy sac on the creature’s belly, and squeezed its several downward-protuberances; the second moved his hand over its long, rigid beak, careful to avoid the teeth; the third felt the length of its shaggy tail—wait a minute. Something’s wrong. Maybe these guys were Chinese.
** Arthur Conner’s 2011 interview with the Floyd Story Center oral history project is housed at the Old Church Gallery, Ltd., community archives in Floyd, VIrginia. For more information on the program see: www.floydstorycenter.blogspot.com .
*** For an article on deserters, see Rand Dotson, “‘The Grave and Scandalous Evil Infected to Your People’: The Erosion of Confederate Loyalty in Floyd County, Virginia.”Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 108.4 (2000). Article listed in bibliography of “Floyd County Virginia,” Wikipedia. For Information on Rivendell, see the Internet for contemporaneous newspaper articles as well as more personal items.