Townies

For no other reason beyond simply wanting to (that’s a good reason to do things, I’ve started to discover) I ended up in Southeastern, Virginia, right where it nearly meshes with Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia, over Labor Day. Just for 20 hours or so. I’m no expert on the scene.

On the meandering drive from Charlotte with plenty of pit stops for fried chicken and bbq I wondered if school kids in the region had to sing “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” We did, and I lived nowhere near the Allegheny mountains. Maybe it was mandatory that all grade schools in the late ‘70s had to sing John Denver songs during programs.

The point was having dinner at a restaurant called Town House in Chilhowie, VA, which is not a subject for here. There’s not really a lot going on in Chilhowie. When we arrived at 8pm, the main street called Main Street was dim. I did later see a drive-in next to the gas station, next to the McDonald’s, that was showing Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which I would’ve loved to have experienced there instead of in Astoria this weekend.

There aren’t a lot of lodging options nearby. I wasn’t feeling the Knights Inn and the nearest hotel with some character, General Francis Marion, was ten miles away in Marion. Beyond the violent thunderstorms (so severe that most of the cars were pulling off the highway on the drive into town) and flooding, Marion did not offer much in the way of excitement. And this particular Saturday was as good as it gets. We happened to arrive on the one night a month where the neighboring theater broadcasts "Song of the Mountains." Consequently, the General Francis Marion had a full house.

I have to remind myself that I was not raised in a small town, but a suburb. There was really nothing to do after we arrived around 1am from Chilhowie (and had to buzz the hotel to be let in after 11pm—strangely, a quartet of chatty, possibly drunk 40-somethings showed up right behind us as we got to the door. I wonder where they could’ve possibly been drinking since I had searched for nearby bars on Yelp, which is all it’s really useful for, and got no suggestions closer than 25 miles away. The best approximation I’m now seeing is this restaurant, Macado’s, a regional chain that I also encountered at a Charlotte outlet mall and was surprised that it stayed open till 1am. The mall version looked like a TGI Friday’s and had a King Kong creature in the window). The wholesome back-in-time vibe was only enhanced by the hotel’s décor renovated to evoke its 1920s origins and the Little House On the Prairie (I got to see Mary go blind and then inappropriately hook up with her teacher in Kansas) and Walton’s marathons on the Hallmark Channel. Never mind that no one forced me to watch this one channel exclusively and that the same shows were simultaneously airing in non-pastoral Brooklyn.

Sherwood anderson grave marker

Marion did have one surprise. One of my favorite authors, or at least one that I claim to be despite not fully remembering why exactly, Sherwood Anderson, is buried there. Actually, I would say that his Winesburg, Ohio is one of my favorite books more than I would say he’s a favorite author. When I was interviewed for this bit in Elle (did I ever mention how this lasted for an hour and how I was asked a frightening amount of non-food blog questions?) I drew a complete blank when asked about favorite writers, to the point where I assumed the journalist thought I was retarded and no, not the un-PC usage.

I don’t even remember how I got turned on to him, though it was definitely after I moved to NYC. That’s a mental division because I don’t read a lot of fiction now (I think it’s a combination of less free time, rise of the internet and no longer working with books) and consider the bulk of my literature-exposed years being before I was 25. Therefore, I’m probably stunted and cite obvious favorites (at least I’m not talking about Catcher in the Rye or The Bell Jar, which I never read anyway–maybe I should?). It’s certainly not a fashionable book. I must’ve been influenced by someone. I only recall getting fixated with Winesburg, Ohio around the same time that I was active on a Belle and Sebastian mailing list and had an online flirtation with a boy in England (that I met twice in person) from that group and that we both were reading Anderson’s books. Mix tapes and simultaneous reading seem very distant and uncharacteristically dreamy. During this period, I read an interview with Frank Whaley about his love of Winesburg, Ohio and thought it would be awesome of the Career Opportunities guy somehow managed to get this made into a movie. Garret Dillahunt would definitely have to play a role, absolutely John Hawkes, likely Henry Thomas…omg, this is totally straying into slash fiction territory.

Winesburg 6

I don’t want to talk about the actual book right now. You can read the whole thing here. I’ve started reading it for the third time to see if I still like it and remind myself why I thought it was so great ten years ago. Why would lonely, isolated, messed-up townsfolk in a Midwestern town in the early 1900s appeal so much? I must find out. The book's cover illustrations could practically be Marion, VA now—if you could picture a sushi restaurant called Yummy Yummy down the block.

Marion main street
Photo: PreservationNation via Flickr

On Sunday morning nothing was open (the thrift store looked really good too even though they’re probably marking everything up and selling it on eBay) in Marion and I had to interact with the few people milling around on the street. In fact, I had a conversation with the elderly man with a dog who was changing the letters on the marquee of the Lincoln Theater even though I couldn’t really understand what he was saying. (This same issue arose at a bbq chicken place when a hill person, as James took to calling them, literally people who look like they came out of a shack in the woods and barely managed to throw on a tank top and cut offs, others wore camo and carried rifles, started chatting or rather mumbling like Dale on King of the Hill and I tried to be friendly even though I was fooling no one into thinking I wasn’t an outsider—refusing to drink sweet tea is the first tip-off—and shook my head yes like I agreed, hopefully not to something heinous.)

Mount airy main street

Opie in the window

Main Street appeared a little frozen in time—windows displaying World War II regalia and mannequins in ‘50s formals—though not kitschy like Mt Airy, Andy Griffith’s hometown and inspiration for Mayberry, where we briefly stopped that afternoon and everything was closed yet again (minus the ice cream shop that was completely breaking child labor laws with a boy waiter no older than ten, gussied-up like a soda jerk.taking orders and seating people in an extremely polite and professional manner—unlike the cranky adult woman working the counter. I don’t know if it was because businesses were overloaded with Labor Day customers but I certainly did not encounter a lick of so-called Southern charm, but rather mostly hostility and/or aloofness, during this trip—then again, whether North Carolina is the South is another debate) because it was a goddamn Sunday or as one bbq website called it, "church day." I prefer Caturday, thanks.

View from round hill cemetery
The cemetery is up a steep hill, hidden in a residential neighborhood with nowhere to park and a paved path that didn’t seem wide enough or appropriate for cars. I know because we got stuck about twenty feet into it and had to reverse. I had to run and search, sweatily, for the grave while James waited in the car (he’s not one for mix tapes or bonding over literature, plus he’s addicted to air conditioning) on a grassy patch next to a swing set and a tied-up dog that he thought was evil and that I thought was just evil-looking because his eyes were two different colors, one possibly blind.

Round hill cemetery

I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do at a grave site. Reflect on those who’ve come before you? Wait for a soul-wrenching ephiphany? Should I get my bbq pork chopped or finely chopped? The hard questions. I’ve never been to anyone’s grave. Everyone in my family gets cremated and I have no idea what happens to the ashes. For myself, I have no plans. In fact, I’d never considered preferences. These are things middle-agers must deal with.

Sherwood anderson's grave

"Life, Not Death, Is The Great Adventure" is engraved on the headstone. I’m not quite sure why that’s profound or maybe I’m just not god-fearing because isn’t that obvious? How could death be an adventure? I guess I'll eventually find out.

Ok, I am going to finish reading the book.

 

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