Daily life is, in general, pretty mundane. Ask the average adult what they were doing in June of 1998, and you’ll likely be met with blank stares, occasional chin-scratching, and something that sounds a lot like “Uuuhhhhhh….” Even vacation, though certainly more interesting and often more exciting than everyday life, still often falls short of the life-changing and earth-shattering seminal moments that sear themselves into your memory forever; filled with relatively common daily routines like waking, eating, and bathing, it’s not an insult to say that a vacation was relaxing or enjoyable but not all-together very memorable.
I’ve been remarkably fortunate to enjoy a year that’s been filled not just with seriously enjoyable vacations, but also quite a few seminal moments of its own. Our first Bourbon night in several years started the year off with an entertaining bang, and was followed by the literal bang of shooting trap at a deep-woods cabin with several long-lost friends from college. My trip off-roading across the American western desert with two Germans named Dirk (wait… what? How is that not a blog yet?!) provided SEVERAL seminal moments, not the least of which were cliff diving into the Colorado River south of the Grand Canyon and gazing upon untold numbers of stars and meteors in the blackness of night that envelops the outlying stretches of Zion National Park.
Amid company like this, the seemingly mundane drive home from Myrtle Beach with my wife & daughter provided a somewhat surprising but also very worthy seminal experience of its own.
The challenging thing about seminal moments is that, even though you often recognize them as you are living them, they are remarkably difficult to adequately describe afterwards. As powerful as the written word can be, and as much as pictures are worth a thousand words…. Not even powerfully-charged words and emotion-provoking photographs can come close to capturing the fullness of a seminal experience in life; nay, they sadly will often fall far short of the real thing.
Regardless, I’m going to do my best to describe what this trip was like for us. I hope that the viewpoint developed by reading about it falls short of neither the buildup of my introduction nor the actual experience we had in driving it.
When writing previous back roads and travel-related blogs, I’ve attempted to do my best to mesh words and photos together to provide an apt-enough description of a trip to motivate you to try it. This method seems to be too simplistic to describe the hidden natural beauty of the rolling farmland and lush mountain ranges of North Carolina and the Virginias, so I’m not going to give my typical turn for turn depiction of this trip. Instead, I’m going to try describing it in terms of the overall perspective that we had, with some specific experiences thrown in to provide descriptive support.
For example, why do I call the natural beauty of these areas hidden, in spite of the fact that in several cases, they are seen by many people on a regular basis? Because for the most part, unless you enjoy a special interest like off-roading (ex: Uwharrie National Forest), have a relative living in the area, or have perhaps lived there yourself, there isn’t a great deal of reason for you to be passing through on the roads we took.
As addressed briefly in the Convenience blog, one thing I’ve seen over and over again during my various trips on America’s back roads are the signs of the collapse of the middle-American economy. Factories are shuttered and many jobs are lost. Multi-lane highways are built and small towns are bypassed. Family owned businesses like retail stores, restaurants, and service providers such as mechanics, printers, and carpenters wilt like thirsty plants in the hot August sun. Most cling desperately to life for years, fed just enough to hold on and slowly fade away by the few hardened locals who chose to stay in spite of the fatally damaged economy. Eventually though, the reality of our “brave new world” finally wins out, and the majority of these damaged local businesses die out.
We saw this time and again driving home from Myrtle Beach as we passed from small town to small town. The bleak emptiness and slow decay of the long-closed factories, restaurants, and shops was a powerful reinforcement to the developing Convenience blog that was festering in my brain.
Thankfully though, as powerful as this imagery and experience truly was, it certainly was not the only thing we saw, and ultimately was not our primary takeaway from the drive home. And, for the first time in my life, for the entirety of this back road journey my perspective was as a passenger: Amanda drove us home, and I rode shotgun.
America is still an almost unfathomably beautiful country. I’ve been overwhelmed by this realization on multiple occasions this year, and several times during the course of our drive home from Myrtle. As a passenger, I was fortune to witness more of this beauty in its 360-degree glory than I would have in my far more limited perspective as a driver. As such, I am very grateful for the fact that it’s not nearly all doom and gloom in the American heartland, even as the evidence of the fracture and stress that change has wrought on our country is plain to see.
For every long-dead factory or business we saw, we also encountered very vibrant communities that pulled themselves back up from the pit by sheer determination and hard work… not to mention more than a little help from Mother Nature’s beauty. As we passed through the foothills and valleys of North Carolina, we fell in love with the simple attractiveness of the leafy greens and yellows stretching across the multitudes of tobacco farms.
We breathed the crisp and refreshingly cool piney air as the road wove its way up and back down through deeply forested mountains. We thrilled at the undeniable magnetism and adored the endearing simplicity of the mountain town of Sparta, NC, where we stopped for a deliciously ordinary (and inexpensive!) lunch at the Trojan Patio.
Not long after we finished our takeout cones of hand-dipped ice cream from the Trojan Patio, our journey north on US RT 21 took us across the border into Virginia. At this point, I became noticeably melancholy, as we were a mere 20 or so miles from Wytheville and the end of the back roads portion of our journey – or so I thought. On our previous trips past Wytheville on I-77 (including this year’s journey south), we merely glance off the outskirts of town, seeing only the typical interstate detritus of chain gas stations, rest stops, fast food joints… and a ponderously large Harley-Davidson dealership.
I no longer ponder about the size of that Harley dealership, not after having travelled through the North Carolina and Virginia/West Virginia mountains on US RT 21. These are the epitome of mountainous motorcycle roads. I also no longer ponder on why it’s located in the previously perceived as “middle of nowhere tiny village of Wytheville.”
No, I comprehend that location, and its enormity, far better now than I ever thought I would in years past.
Travelling north on US21 took us directly through not only the heart of this spectacular mountainous region, but through the heart of Wytheville as well. Yes, it’s still clear to me that Wytheville is a pretty small American town. But it’s no ordinary American town… or perhaps, maybe it really IS an ordinary American town, one that progress and convenience and the super-highway system has slowly left behind.
A trip through the heart of Wytheville is a trip back in time: a trip to a lifestyle and a community that we now nostalgically call “Americana,” but was then simply called America. Block and brick retail buildings and banks flank the main drag downtown, surrounded on all sides by sturdily built and well-dressed craftsman style homes. Lawns are properly cut and fiercely guarded by the family dog. Kids ride bikes and play in the streets, cell phones tucked away in pockets or left at home – presuming they even have cell phones at all.
The downtown area played host to a street fair filled with vendor tents and a large DJ booth that closed down several blocks of the main drag. This caused us to lose our sense of direction momentarily while trying to find a place to fill our gas tank, and we looped back through town unnecessarily for a second glance. It was a not-unwelcome detour that provided additional time to take in the essence of what makes our country so great: the retail stores, restaurants, businesses, churches, families, and events that make a place truly a community.
After filling up and sneaking into the restrooms, we somewhat depressingly jumped back onto the interstate to complete our journey north…. And our progress almost immediately ground to a complete halt. A quick check on the map app showed not one but two accidents just north of us that were completely impeding the flow of traffic. I saw a turnaround in the middle of the road and barked to Amanda “Turn around and get back off the highway!” As I said, not quite the end of the back road journey just yet!
Weaving and winding our way from switchback to switchback, we meandered up and down the Virginia mountains on US52 for about 20 miles or so to bypass the accidents and traffic – and sadly, we also bypassed the endearingly tacky-looking Big Walker Lookout: a several-stories high observation tower perched at the top of one of the range’s tallest peaks, accompanied by an equally cheesy (but curiously charming) general store. We also passed by a spooky and long-shuttered gem or knick-knack store (it wasn’t clear which) called Virginia City. There’s lots to see in those mountains… that’s for certain.
Not long after that, we were back on the highway again, this time joining the thrumming masses of cars making their way north on the interstate. Though the drive on I77, US19, and I79 through West Virginia and southwest PA are beautiful, I addressed them in my blog about the trip south and won’t repeat myself here. I’ve written more than enough already, and if my verbose descriptions and cell phone photography have done their job, you might just be intrigued enough to go check the trip out for yourself. I certainly hope you do. Thanks for reading!
Editor’s note: As a passenger on this trip, I was able to take far more pictures than I usually do. For every one picture that I included in this blog, I left another five or ten out. Instead of letting them rot forever sitting by the wayside, I’ve created another blog to post some of my favorites. Check it out here.