In 2012 the Jacksonville Center for the Arts sponsored Portrait of Floyd, Virginia. Glen McClure of Norfolk took seventy-four black-and-white photographs of residents, mainly downtown, many of the photos then included in a booklet and exhibited in the gallery. This album of six-dozen-plus residents underlines the diversity of the indefinite “Floyd,” of both its individuals and groups. Just consider the retirees–each deserves an autobiography in Floydiana. (Betty “Sunny” Bernardine, born in 1926, records memories of her childhood in Illinois, Appendix 2.) Here is another album of citizens, along with a little sociology offered by your perspicacious author.One clerk at the Rt. 8 Dollar store speaks with a Long Island accent and lives in Hillsville, about 45 minutes away. At the Rt. 221 Dollar, 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 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.
One resident 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 displays large signs in his yard on behalf of conservative political candidates (and plays a loud conservative radio station), but he comes from Minnesota and drives a Prius.
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 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.
Photographs of two people in Portrait of Floyd, Virginia were displayed most prominently in the Jacksonville Center–but these citizens are the most dissimilar. Both live in the Check area, but the bearded Arthur Conner (pictured below, 2012) crossed the Himalayas twice in the military, and he seems as authentic and complex as the bass fiddle grasped by the hands that fashioned it. In her portrait (not shown), 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.As for the county’s ethos, residents show a lot of kindness. When I asked someone to give an example, she thought for several moments. “Gannon,” she replied. “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, subject of a later chapter: “Invaluable,” declared Gannon to me. One a 17-degree day we happened to meet outside Harvest Moon. He said, “People tell me, ‘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 snap at the top 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 his other hand was tucked in his pocket. In February of 2015 I would congratulate him on being named King of Mardi Gras, a celebration sponsored by Blue Mountain School as a fund-raiser. When I offered him a ride home from the grocery store, he said he already had one and quipped: “I don’t walk anymore: I’m king.”
Among the Came Heres, a surprising number are Jewish. (A famously vague word, one that gives sociologists insomnia, it comprises a spectrum of as to 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. Of the people that Marjory and I ended up associating with, only a minority went to church, 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 jokingly told a 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.”
As everywhere, there are conflicts, grudges, falling-outs, ex-es. Why so many divorces, I wondered, among the Came Heres? Know a place by its paradoxes (as I maintained in Along the Waccamaw: A Yankee Discovers a Home by the River, Algonquin 1990). One person ventured to say 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. These divorced or lived-togethers both tend to stay in the area, so there are many once-couples. A friend tried to draw up a sort of 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.”
The Green Garage sold fresh vegetables by the honor system–just put your money in the slot. Same as 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 indoor electronics disappeared, perhaps in a correlation with outdoor workers. 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 (our world-trip recounted in Angel in Goggles) noted that a top-loading washer is ideal for that purpose, whereas a front-loading dryer can bake bread.
By contrast, the series of ship-shape 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,” one person declared, “are devoured by meth.”
One drug seems quietly accessible at what might be called the grass-roots level. The cannabis plant illustrates the county’s motto, “To grow is to prosper”–an irony pointed out by Laura Polant, who arrived in 1981. “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. I had always wanted to try a pot-laced brownie and as a surprise received a large chocolate-chip cookie for my birthday. Of unknown potency, it contained an oil made from leaves. Remembering to Eat Local, I ended up rather dizzy and inclined to smile for twenty-four hours. This experience seemed to be a form of communion with the early alternative in-migrants, who had their ritual-recreational version of the Greeks’ holy basil. Forty years later, the law of the dominant culture still deemed marijuana a threat, and one seller spent nine months in jail at society’s expense.
An 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 teacher drove to college in Ohio.
Politically there is dyspepsia. Some liberally-inclined residents weep by the headwaters of Babylon although they don’t hang up their lyres. 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. Socially there is no gated community. When one couple considered moving permanently to the area, I offered a note of caution. “In your city you’re in the upper crust; there is no upper crust in Floyd.” The response was illuminating: “Floyd is classless.” To this assertion someone offered a different perspective: “There are various communities.” The only gated ones hold cattle.
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 their trailers or on their trucks. One person converted the rear window of a large pickup into the colorful Confederate X with its ten white stars–unconcerned that the Dodge originated in DetroitIn Floyd County, residents vary greatly as to what they eat. 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 grub 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: whole milk, lots of meat, fatty and salty snacks, soda pop, not to forget cookies and Dew. 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 person, I’ll call her Rotunda, wheeled out a shopping cart crammed with about sixty bottles of soda pop. One parent bought a 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.
All these physical and social variations are complicated by the passage of time. As Heraclitus said about a river: Nobody ever steps into the same one twice, for neither the river nor the person is the same. A song asks, “Who will watch the home place?” (Although performed hauntingly by the acoustic quartet Windfall, it risks the waltzy-schmaltzy.) The answer for many derelict farmhouses in Floyd County 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 Came Heres–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 lavishly heterogeneous, inconsistent, and sometimes mysterious details of a place, the groceries will start to fall out of the bag or rip it. How daunting to sense the whole from the parts! An ancient fable tells of three blind Hindus that 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; the third petted its shaggy—wait a minute, something’s wrong here. Ah, maybe I got it wrong and these guys were Chinese. Anyway, it is futile to apprehend a place from any one perspective. And yet, in pursuit of the Bald Truth, your author takes the dare.