Friday, November 16, 2012

Road To Kilmarnock

On a cold gray November morning, I am driving to Kilmarnock, a small town at the distal end of Virginia's Northern Neck. The neck is bounded by the Potomac on the north and the Rappahanock on the south; at its tip is the Chesapeake. The land is mostly flat sandy farmland punctuated with rich stands of pine and long walls of grey-brown oaks with their leaves around their ankles. The spine of the Northern Neck is a long, low dwindling ridge breaking the flatness and adding some twistiness to the roads. Soybeans are being harvested today by giant John Deere combines; corn is long gone from the fields, leaving only the rough stubble of its stalks behind.

I travel Route 3, a state highway that begins in the Piedmont at Culpeper, crosses the Fall line at Fredericksburg before meandering down the coastal plain and ending in Gloucester. It waxes and wanes on its way to the waterside, first four lanes, then two, then four again so many times over that it's hard to keep track. I note that every time it dwindles to two lanes, the driver ahead prefers to drive at least ten miles below the speed limit. This phenomena, and the astonishing length of the Northern Neck—after a short time driving, I reach what I assume to be the midpoint. It is not; I still have almost an hour and a half ahead of me—contributes to my sense of having been driving for ever and that I will never, ever, reach Kilmarnock.

I was wise to leave my arrival time vague.

A few miles shy of Kilmarnock, I crest a gentle rise and see in the distance a figure walking on the shoulder amid the wind-blown leaves. Though he is walking determinedly, with his back to me, I can tell by his posture he is hitchhiking. As if in confirmation, he hears my approach and turns to stick out his thumb. I have already changed lanes and begun to slow down.

He trots along the shoulder to where I have stopped. (I am always glad when hitchhikers do that; there is nothing more infuriating that a dawdling hitchhiker.) The front seat is full of a jumble of things, so I reach back and open the rear door so there will be no confusion. I am slightly embarrassed for making him ride in the back, but there is only so much...

He ducks in gratefully, trailing a nimbus of stale cigarette smoke behind him. He extends a scarred and calloused hand for me to shake, and thanks me profusely for stopping. I run through the obligatory preliminaries—how long you been out there, how far you heading, and so on, and find myself pleased that though my long and arduous trek to Kilmarnock is nearly done, I am still going just far enough to get him to his destination.

He tells me his story.

He is a plasterer. Not a drywall man, but a real plasterer. He was called out to a job first thing this morning and hitched there, but the lead was called off to another site and there was nothing for him to do. So he is heading home late in the morning, not a dime richer and hoping tomorrow will work out better. I surmise a lifetime of working with alkali is responsible for the condition of his hands.

“We're working on an older hoese, maybe from the 1830's. The original lintels over the windows were made of plaster, but they've rotted oat over the years. Instead of rebuilding them with plaster, we're building them up from cement. The final finish we'll do with plaster, so they look right.” 
“The hoese has walls that are two feet thick, ceilings ten, twelve feet high. The lintels themselves are eight feet up, so everything we do, we gotta do from either up on a stepladder or on scaffolding. It's tough. And there are a lot of windows...” he trailed off and gestured out the window. We had arrived. 

He exits the car and thanks me once again. I had spent four, maybe five minutes with him, and it was like stepping back into the 18th century; his trade, his description of his work, his self-reliant demeanor, his generous attitude. But mostly his ancient Virginia accent, with its distinctive bending of vowels that still maintains here and there, mostly in those low places close to the saltwater. It is the still-living language of the English who came here sometime between the founding of the country and the Civil War, and it is beautiful to hear it being spoken in a land where we have lost almost all marks of regional distinction.

Really glad I stopped. No idea why I did.

Also: This timely piece.

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