There’s nothing quite like going for a drive without a particular destination. There’s more than plenty to see in downtown cities and neatly manicured suburbs. Skyscraper office buildings and high-rise apartments are technological marvels that are beautiful in their own way. Patterned streets with square lots holding pastel colored houses are pleasing to the eye. However, when I have a craving for sights and sounds that somehow simultaneously excite my heart and calm my soul, I drive out to places that many consider nowhere, or at least in the middle of nowhere.
Robert Frost’s most famous quote is certainly, “Two roads diverged in the wood, and I- I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” The road less traveled often opens unseen opportunities, and opportunities abound in the rural country and mountainous regions of Virginia. Truth be told, with a few exceptions, one can almost divide Virginia along the I-95 corridor. The further west you venture from I-95, the more likely you are to come across scenes reminiscent of The Andy Griffith Show, Into The Wild, or Old Yeller.
I’ve taken many drives and rides over the past two decades, with the intent on reaching a destination and sometimes not. In fact, just the other week I took a trip to the western portions of Virginia over the Shenandoahs, beyond the Massanutten Valley, and toward the Alleghenys. Eventually, I ended up in McDowell, Virginia heading south on Bullpasture River Road. I knew it turned into a gravel road, but it was a gravel road I had yet to explore. The road changed from pavement with a double yellow line, to a paved road with no paint, and finally to gravel. Shortly after I was on the gravel I thought I was going to have to engage the four-wheel drive because new gravel had been laid down so thick to repair a recent washout from the close creek running parallel to the road, the tires were hesitant to push forward.
Bullpasture River Road is lined with farms and forest in its entirety. Like many river valleys such as the James and Shenandoah, I would assume it’s fairly fertile and thus the reason for so many thriving farms. I couldn’t help but notice several Bluebirds and Goldfinches perched on wooden fence posts while the restless ones were darting through the trees of the forested sections. By what must have only been foreshadowing when reflecting on the day, I soon came upon two gentlemen walking on the side of the gravel road and one had what was probably the largest telescopic lens I had ever seen. In the country, people treat each other as if they’re no stranger. I stopped and rolled down my window. Believing me to be a local, the gentlemen with the camera introduced himself and asked if I knew the owners of the small green house I had just passed. He had once lived in the valley and knew the previous owners from decades prior, who no longer lived there. He and his friend were birdwatchers and looking for a specific type of Warbler. I informed him of the Bluebirds and Goldfinches and found out he was currently living in New York City and taking a several day trip back to the mountains of Virginia. We chatted for a few more minutes and wished each other a good day before I continued on.
I rounded a curve into an open field of tall pale green grasses gently swaying in the breeze. In contrast to the pale green, at the edge of the tree line was a Whitetail doe with her very new auburn and spotted fawn which was standing underneath its mother curiously watching me. I stopped and stepped out, slowly approaching the two for a picture while respecting their space. They allowed me within fifty feet or so before the doe signaled it was time for her and her fawn to move on. I continued to watch as they took a drink from a stream before disappearing into the thick leaves. Shortly after my deer encounter I came across a Black Snake stretched out sunning itself in the middle of the road. I once again got out and moved in for a closer picture. However hated they may be, snakes serve an important part in the ecosystem. Some farmers will curse them for the eggs and baby chicks they steal, but others are thankful for the rodents kept at bay. I got my picture and continued driving as it started to sprinkle.
At the crest of a small hill a two-story white farmhouse with a wraparound porch sat about twenty yards off the road to my right. An elderly couple were sitting in rocking chairs. In the country, porch sitting is about as close as you can come to claiming to be an active participant in professional sports without leaving your own home. My grandparents, especially my grandpa, loved to sit on the swing and watch cars or count the train cars as they rattled by. I threw up my hand, knowing they would be watching and they returned the wave. As I crossed in front of their dirt driveway a Beagle gave chase and ran with me for close to half a mile before giving up and heading home, most likely to await the next vehicle which would have the same fate.
I suppose now is as good a time as any to talk about the people. Country and mountain folk may seem unfriendly to the untamed eye, but quite the opposite is true. Many of them are reserved and don’t see the need to converse over what they determine to be eccentric and non-essential. Expensive fancy items aren’t quick to catch their eye. But you know what? They’re some of the friendliest people that will literally give you the shirt off their back if you require it. Status matters not to many in the country. Character, ethics, and morals are the backbone and kinship, whether by blood, neighbor, or friendship and that’s what you may consider the social fabric out there. If you need a safe haven, head out to the less inhabited parts of the state where you will find there’s really no need to lock your doors. Still not convinced? While I may be getting a little sidetracked, here’s the proof in the pudding.
Two caring and courteous occurrences happened to me while riding my bike. My one and only (fingers crossed) bike incident happened near Eagle Rock, Virginia. I was a new rider on a back road trip meandering along to visit my parents on a sunny fall afternoon, just a few days after a storm system brought significant flooding to the region. In the middle of a hairpin turn of a blind curve, a gravel driveway had washed out. My rear tire lost traction and long story short I ended up in the ditch full of leaves, miraculously uninjured save some bruises, and my bike fared the same thanks to the two food bed of thick leaves washed into the ditch. I couldn’t get a 600 pound bike out by myself. Along came a truck and the gentleman stopped and he and his friend immediately asked if they could help. Within five minutes my bike was out of the ditch, on the road, and they refused to accept anything for their efforts. Another time I was riding in the bitter cold and stopped on the side of the road to heat my hands up from the exhaust. A passing car pulled behind me and asked if I needed help. When I explained what I was doing he asked if I wanted to sit in his car for a few minutes to warm up. I politely declined his offer, for only my hands were numb.
On a drive filled with history lessons from a family friend sitting in the passenger seat, I found myself in Burkes Garden, Virginia. If you look at satellite imagery Burkes Garden appears to be a crater in the mountains from a possible large meteor impact, but it’s actually a collapsed ocean bed from millions of years ago. There’s one paved road and one gravel road on opposite sides and those are the only way in and out by vehicle. On the gravel approach I spotted what I thought was a Black Bear in the middle of the road. Upon closer inspection we realized it was a cow that had little interest in moving when we approached. I stuck my hand out and rubbed the cow as we very slowly passed, taking note of the tag on its ear. Down in Burkes Garden we pulled into and drove down the long gravel driveway of the first residence we came to. The front door of the white house was open and there was a long line of laundry hanging out to dry. We got out and knocked on the door. No one answered. My friend opened the screen door and walked in. A minute later he came out with a woman in tow who had her head wrapped in a towel. She was washing her hair in the kitchen sink and didn’t hear the knock. We informed her of the cow and she told us her neighbor had been having trouble with that cow escaping. She invited us in for tea and told us about how she and her husband had lived there for close to 50 years and he would continue farming until the day he died. Moral of the story: only in the country can you walk into a stranger’s house and they invite you in for tea.
Back to my most recent drive. I continued heading south and west, coming to Big Valley. I passed a church with a grass parking lot and operational outhouses for bathrooms. I saw a caution sign that said “Draft Horses.” Then I began thinking. This is all about going back to the basics, and something that everyone should have an opportunity to experience. Moses spent forty days in the wilderness, as did Jesus. Removing oneself from too many worldly things has to be good, right? I drove by waving fields of wheat and a patchwork quilt of fertile and fresh colors. I stopped at a clear stream and marveled at the blue, gray, purple, red, and sandstone colored rocks in its bed.
The land and nature is, in fact, the alluring force that pulls us to the mountains and fields. Maybe you’re answering the inner organic farmer in you. It’s amazing what just a single acre of land will produce. Or are you interested in chopping your own firewood for the woodstove in the winter and opening up windows, allowing the fresh clean air to circulate and cool a house in the spring? One doesn’t need to be 100% self-reliant to understand the benefits that self-reliance has for mental and physical health. If you’ve learned your entire life by reading, here’s an opportunity to learn by doing.
Go for a dip in a swimming hole in the creek or float a canoe or kayak down the river. Catch some trout to cook over an open flame in a firepit in your front yard. Explore hiking trails where you can quietly perch yourself upon a high rock field in the forest while you watch bucks chase after does or bears saunter by looking for a meal to fatten themselves before hibernating. Make sure you bring binoculars to witness mass bird migrations taking place a thousand feet above your head. The stars. Have you ever truly been somewhere with little to no light pollution?
You may just find exactly what you’re looking for in the middle of nowhere as well. Think peace of mind and peace for family. Chances are you’ll meet new friends you’ll soon call family for life. Think in terms of dollars. Land and taxes are far cheaper in rural areas than large populated metropolises where you may have one thousand or more people living above your head. Whether it be a farm tucked into a hollow or on hundreds of acres of rolling hills, or prime dense forest in a secluded location where you want to build a weekend or retirement home, the only way you’ll find that perfect piece of property you’re desiring is if you get in your vehicle and go for an exploratory drive to destination nowhere.