I recently became aware of why my friends no longer visit me. It seems that in my earliest days out of seminary several of them came to see where I was living and what I was doing. One of my favorite things to do is drive the back roads, so I would take them on excursions through the pristine green pasture lands around eastern Russell County, Virginia. Around the curves, over the cattle guards, through the huge farms and by the tinkling creeks and springs, we drove and drove and drove.
Then we’d leave the valleys behind and head over Highway 80 from Elk Garden to Hayter’s Gap. The road there is pretty curvy on the Russell County side, but the Washington County side is curvier and the passenger side of the car is at the edge looking down. My passengers would gulp, and I’d laugh, and say things like “sure would be a bad time to meet a coal truck, wouldn’t it?” The narrow road, the hair-pin curves, the steep incline, the dramatic views, the trees, the deer, the lack of guard rails, all combined with my hillbilly accent to scare the “Devil” out of ’em. (Can I say that on a family blog?)
All the while pumping the banjo and mandolin music through all four speakers, we’d make our way through the mountains. They never came back.
Once I took a friend over into the coal communities from Drill, above Honaker, and came out at Garden Creek in Buchanan County. This puts you through several little communities, and by a couple of big coal outfits. You did literally see coal trucks, and once when traveling this way, I came around a curve only to find my side of the road had slid down the hill and I had to make it around a blind curve on the opposite side. Can you just FEEL the excitement?
In the past few years Virginia has finally gotten smart about these hills and begun marketing a tourist route they’re calling “The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Music Heritage Trail.” It snakes through an area from Floyd to Cumberland Gap and up and down the hills and hollers. I’ve been to several of the stops.
A few weeks ago, I finally made a stop at Clintwood’s Dr Ralph Stanley Museum. It was well worth the crookedness. You know there isn’t a square INCH of four lane highway anywhere in Dickenson County, so you have to travel crooked roads to get in, and once there you don’t want to leave. I had an opportunity a few years earlier to travel up the Sandy Ridge to the Bluegrass Doctor’s “Hills of Home” Festival. I’ve never been so crooked in my life, but it was worth every bend and curve. Ralph’s voice is like the roads in that area, as he fluctuates in his phrases, doing what song people call “Vocal Ornamentation.” You can hear it in “O Death” and other great hits of his’n.
I don’t reckon I’ll ever understand people who’d rather take a straight road. The crooked’ns are far pertier. (Prettier). And you travel not only to your destination, but back through time. If you have good music on (something with mandolin, fiddle, or banjo, or all three) you can’t go wrong at all.
Here’s to the curvy roads and the God-made hills and mountains of the Great Southwestern part of Virginia. May your roads always be crooked, and your heart always sing.