The Old Watchman

Trip Start Jun 01, 2011
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of United States  , Virginia
Saturday, October 8, 2011

Heading west on 66 through bullshit eastern Virginia traffic (and at 2:30 on a Saturday - what gives?), I eventually found freedom in the wooded hills further inland.  A friend from D.C. recommended taking Skyline Drive - a long, windy road that pretty much traverses the backbone of the Blur Ridge Mountains.  A quick pit stop in Front Royal was necessary for gas and a latte, and it just so happened that the old main street was blocked off for a fair of sorts.  I parked my truck and started walking toward the activity.  The first person I saw made eye contact, acknowledged my humanity, and went as far as saying "Good afternoon."  Places like this, places like Crested Butte, where I was greeted by nearly every local I passed by, I believe, I hope (they must!), exist in every region and every state across this country.  Dare I project this even to a global level?  Yes.  I am compelled.  I must.  Because if places like this do not exist everywhere, if humans have completely lost their humanity, if the commune has been removed from community, then what the hell else are we still living for?

Sitting on the coffee shop patio while sending some emails and checking some maps, I was able to witness and observe the interactions of friends and families, the local townspeople, those drawn in from nearby communities, and perhaps the occasional random passerthrough, such as myself.  Though these towns are a little sleepy, perhaps a little dull, they close down at 5 o'clock (and don't even think about messing with Sundays), there is something to be said for them.  They retain and thrive on a part of the human spirit that is so easily abandoned for the sake of ease and success and "progress".  Although I am not even done with this journey, I dream of the day that I can take another large chunk of time and, rather than making a grand hoorah tour of the entire country, spend a week or two at a time in places like this.  To really see and experience them.  To become intimate with them.  To be able to replace "Yes, I saw that place" with "Yes, I know that place."

The trip over Skyline Drive was slow-going, though generously compensated by the smells of autumn leaves beginning their winter slumber, by the flickering of sunlight and shadows through the branches of a million trees, by breathtaking views of the valleys and farmlands stretching endlessly into the distance, finally swallowed up by far-off haze and the curve of the earth.  At one point I noticed myself getting rather irritated following a very slow car.  I decided to pull in to the next viewpoint, get out my guitar, and sit on the edge playing sonnets to the valleys below.  A family of four showed up a few moments later, mom and two kids sitting about 10 feet to my left.  Any time the children piped up they were quickly shushed by mother, who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the vibrations resonating out of my Washburn.  I had an unintended audience.  As they stood to leave, she looked at me and blessed me with a "Thank you!"

For those of you who know my last name - great.  For those of you who don't, well, it's Harrison.  There it is.  Secret is out.  This blog and all of the confessions and madness contained within are now eternally tied to my name through the world wide web.  There goes my chance to ever run for political office.  Shucks.  Anyway.  With a name like Harrison, a visit to a nearby town with a name like Harrisonburg was imperative!  However, if I knew then what I know now, I would have just kept driving.

Sometimes you will walk into a bar or a restaurant, or perhaps drive in to a town, and your entire being twists and turns and tells you to keep moving.  I wrote about trusting your gut some time ago, and it was speaking when I entered town, but I wanted to check it out anyway.  Strange, still downtown streets.  The air had a squishing, slightly oppressive feel.  And it must have been 'Take your high school kid out on the town' night, because that's about all I saw.  The first place I ventured in to seemed to be the hip spot in town.  A seafood restaurant and bar.  Quite hoity-toity upon entering, however.  Bright colored walls bearing eccentric, colorful, post-modern art and paintings.  A high, open ceiling.  Far too brightly lit - every pimple and blemish stood out like flares in the unromantic glow.  It reminded me of a church that is trying way too hard to be hip and cool and reach an audience, all the while forsaking its true character and innate identity.  Chatting with a patron, I discovered it was new to town.  I give it a year.  Just trying way too hard.  A passing fancy.  A novelty.  I was standing behind the folks sitting at the bar, waiting to get the bartender's attention.  Right as I decided that I did not want to stay and was putting a Franklin back in my wallet, the woman in front of me turned and asked if I'd like to get in to order a drink.  "Actually, I'm not really feeling this place.  I'm gonna leave, but thank you."

I heard some good music coming from downstairs and found my way down.  A dark, subtle basement with a great feel and just the right amount of people.  Perfect!  I ordered a Bud.  Perhaps the way I ordered gave away my identity.  "Are you part of the private party?"  "Uh... no..."  "Oh, sorry, a private party has this area booked for tonight."  "Oh.  Well give me a couple minutes and I can make friends with a few of them."  I smiled, thanked her, and helped myself out, but not before helping myself to a few hors d'oeuvres from the snack table.  I finally found a beer and some fries at a bar that felt like a cross between a 50's diner and a fisherman's wharf.  A fight nearly broke out, ignorant political speak (I am no master at speaking politically, but I know ignorant political speak when I hear it), and rednecks that would make a Nevada trailer park jealous.

I was planning on spending the night there, but at about that time I decided to move on and get a little closer to Asheville., NC.  Walking back to my truck, I saw a piece of trash being blown by the wind at the foot of some steps.  When I got closer, I realized it was no trash - it was an injured pigeon.  One of its wings must have been damaged, and it resorted to scuffling along the ground as a means of mobility.  I approached slowly and did my best to calm its fear by trying to communicate that I meant no harm (yes, I'm talking to birds now).  I knelt close and was able to cup the bird in my hands after a few missed attempts.  At first it was panicked, struggling to be free with its poor little heart racing.  I sat calmly, thinking and breathing peace and compassion, gently stroking its neck and back with my thumb.  It calmed down, and I simply sat with it for a minute or two, having perhaps the best interaction with another living creature that I'd had all night.  I spotted some shrubs across the road, a much better provider of bugs and shelter than a staircase, and released the bird, who quickly scuffled into the safety of the leave and twigs.

By this point in my journey, I had a resolve to visit as many states as possible.  Realizing I would likely be this close again, at about 10 at night I decided to make a quick drive over to West Virginia.  The speed limit outside of the Harrisonburg city limits was a surprising 55.  Going that speed down narrow roads, sudden hills, and sharp turns (and all three at once, quite often) was fun as hell!  Speeding past humble homes under the full moon light, I wondered who lived there, what they did.  I imagined an old farmer, running the same farm and living in the same home that his father had, and his father before him.  Though not exactly an appealing smell, the scents of cow and manure filled the air, perfectly completing the scene.  Soon into the forest, leering walls of trees blocking out all but traces of the moonlight.  Carefully keeping an eye out for stray deer, I climbed higher and higher into George Washington National Forest and reached the pass, the line between the Virginias.  Though perhaps still kind of cheating, I was sure to drive a few hundred feet beyond the welcome sign to ensure that I had, in fact, been on West Virginian soil.

Down the way I came.  Back over the pass, sharp mountain turns, long straightaway guarded by towering sentinels, back into the manure air and roller coaster country roads, skirting along the edge of Harrisonburg (not quickly enough), and rescued by highway 81 toward Lexington and beyond.  I began to get a little sleepy as I drew closer to Lexington.  Between that and the desire to spend some time in the historic town, I pulled into a rest area just a few miles prior.  On the way to and from the restroom I noticed numerous signs promoting safety.  A large map showing where the police headquarters are located for each region of Virginia, short and long numbers to dial in case of emergency, customer safety satisfaction cards that could be filled out and deposited, and a huge safety sign right in front.  There was even an attendant who I assumed was there all night.  It was already midnight and I saw him walking around outside... though probably pushing 70 years old, I'm not sure I would entirely entrust my life into his hands.  However, I doubt he is there to prevent murders or rapes, but rather just to be a simple presence to dissuade 'easy' crimes committed by cowardly criminals (although, when I was in Oregon I read about two people who were woken in the middle of the night by a semi-truck running over their tent, and then the driver getting out and proceeding to beat them with a baseball bat [it might have been an ax, I can't remember]).  I'd slept in a few rest areas prior to this - Oregon, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana come immediately to mind - and didn't recall ever seeing that much concern about safety.  Were Virginia rest areas notoriously dangerous?  Should I take my chances in town?  I did a little 'research' on my phone but didn't see anything that immediately raised worry.  I expressed my concern to Shari, my magical friend in Vancouver, who assured me that I would be protected through the night.  I rested my mind, got lost in a book for a spell, curled up snugly to keep out the cold Virginia night, and peacefully drifted off to sleep under the caring eyes of the tall yellow lights, the keen ears of the snoring semi trucks, and the imposing presence of the old watchman.
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