Wednesday, November 06, 2013

When Things Come Together

It's nice when things come together. Like when the shortest and quickest route from Point A to Point B also happens to be the preferred route.

I'm somewhere in Research Triangle, which I guess is where research mysteriously disappears, or something. I am here for a couple of days to learn something, and because it is relatively nearby, it made sense to drive rather than fly. The time driving to and from the airport, getting through security, waiting at the airport, renting a car at the other airport, then reversing the process less than three days later would be more productively applied to driving.

I say this because I have always enjoyed driving as a pastime, and consider time on the road an opportunity to experience something different. It is productive, and to have the opportunity to meld a business trip with a mild adventure was too good to pass by. In this instance, I had the opportunity to trace a "Blue Highways" route from nearly one end to the other, and a great deal of the trip was over terra incognito,  a transect of my home state I had never seen any of before—a double bonus.

The first hour-and-a-half was pleasant and familiar, covering well-known roads and terrain. Following that, indulging in a little map-less, GPS-less, directions-less dead reckoning offered me the opportunity to get mildly lost and explore some rutted and sinuous dirt roads, more pothole and washboard than road proper. Eventually, I was reunited with my intended route, a minor, two-lane state highway,

I saw hidden gems like the town of Scottsville, (pop. 566) on the James River; skirted Willis Mountain, which has been gnawed away by years of mining the kyanite it contains to feed the spark plug industry, a field somewhere in between with a flock of forty wild turkeys blissfully browsing in the early morning light, and not much later a field with a scattering of bison quietly grazing like clenched fists. All this transpired beneath a November sky of increasing overcast and mood.
Willis Mountain, in the distance

The thing about taking a "Blue Highway" route is that you're never more than a few feet from people's lives. For better or worse, you are witness to ten thousand silent vignettes, snapshots of the endless variety of the human condition. In a brief moment you witness and absorb joy, bliss, sorrow, despair...and then they are all gone, replaced by some other moment of insight into another world.

The road, mostly two-laned, rolled southward through deep hollows and ravines of the piedmont resplendent with the yellow-orange cloak of hickories, oaks and beech, then onto more gently rolling hills given to fieldcrops and pasture. Round bales in abundance; fields of some undetermined cover crop, bleached gray by the frost but still standing. The farther south the road ran, the more the land alongside it was given to plantations of pine and clearcuts now grown back with a low understory of riotous autumn colors, as if to compliment the pumpkin-orange clay.

Roads like this are not the arteries of our world anymore; they're not even the arterioles. They're more like capillaries, essential in aggregate but no one in particular is indispensable—but to those whose lives revolve around and are connected directly to them.

I would contrast this route of choice with my alternative, the first choice of Google Maps and Garmin alike—the inevitable interstate corridor, in this case I-95 and I-85. While the "Blue Highway" places you squarely in the middle of people's lives, what you can observe from the interstate highway is generally determined by those who want to be seen. It is a calculated, calculating, deliberate effort to shape and present a very narrowly tailored message to a specific audience. There is no spontaneity within it, there is no humanity in it, there is no serendipity in it. It is commerce, reduced to lowest terms. You can assume that you are being lied to, in one form or another, when you see something from the interstate. When people live in close proximity to an interstate, they try and screen themselves and their lives off from it, to maintain a modicum of privacy.

There is no need for this screening from the "Blue Highway," because there is no dichotomy between inside and outside; the highway is a part of their life.

In a couple of days, I will retrace my route, perhaps with a few minor tweaks learned from my southbound passage, hopefully with enough time to make a stop in Scottsville. I'm looking forward to it, as much as i looked forward to today's trip.

I saw so much.


  • The bleached gray crop was soybeans. I know this because at one point I pulled over on the shoulder and walked to the edge of a field, where I bent down and snapped off a branch from a plant. The leaves were completely wilted but the pods and the stems remained intact, giving a very odd look to the whole thing.
  • I filled the tank in the middle of nowhere, for $2.99 a gallon...full service. Yep, Full Service. Who knew? My receipt was hand-written on a receipt pad made from yellowing newsprint. It might just be the only full service station outside of N.J. 
  • What is it with company trips and Bald Eagles? I'm driving down a divided highway, and an oncoming car spooks a juvenile bald eagle from the median with something in its beak/talons. I slammed on the brakes and pulled to the shoulder; it flew up and circled above the road long enough for me go get a good look at it but not long enough for me to get a picture. Amazing.
  • On the way down, I came around a bend in the road and had to slow down sharply for a woman crossing the road from the mailbox to a small business. On the way home...I came around the reciprocal bend, and had to slow down for the same woman (hairdo) crossing the same road from the same mailbox to the same business. How odd is that?
  • What is it with company trips and bison/buffalo? 
    Yep. Those are buffaloes. Or bisons. 
  • Scottsville is a gem of a little town. I had no idea that places like that existed in Virginia. Lunch at the Tavern on the James was amazing. Enjoyed chatting with Tom at James River Brewing about where they are now and where they're heading. I will definitely be seeing more of Scottsville in the future.