I recently had a break of nearly seven weeks between engagements, and among the various tasks and projects and undertakings, I managed to fit in three solo rides of respectable length and variety. Taken together, they encompassed a significant chunk of the Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley west to the east front of the Alleghenies and into the Ridge and Valley province of eastern West Virginia. Total distance around eight or nine hundred miles, all on the 1150.
I. The first came early in September, the warm hazy summer Friday before Labor Day. The morning was consumed with chores and trivia, and it was nearly noon with the temperature in the mid-eighties, before I was underway with no particular route in mind beyond the next bend in the road. In a casual and unfocused manner, I made my way across the Blue Ridge at Chester Gap, then meandered through Front Royal and made my way west towards Strasburg and Middletown. But I haven’t ridden Fort Valley in some time, and rarely, if ever, have I ridden it from the north. So at Passage Creek, I decided to head south and follow the stream into the steep and narrow valley.
The early afternoon was warm and the woods were filled with the smells of late summer; cool shade alternated with soft yellow sunshine from second to second. I immediately fell into the rhythm of the road and found myself in a nearly meditative state; it was one of those rare occasions when I was aware of neither myself nor the bike.
My recollections of this path slowly returned, swelling with details at each new turn and vista. I took in the look of the harsh slaty banks and sandstone exposures by the roadside; the dramatic folds that make up Massanutten reveal stratas of rocks not otherwise seen nearby save in the mirrored exposures on the opposite limb of the synclinorum. They have more in common with the rocks much further south and west than the karsts close at hand, and mark this odd mountain as a bit of an outlier.
My next objective is Edinburg Gap Road, a narrow and twisting two lane path across the western spine of Massanutten. Of course, as I approach the turn, I encounter the first traffic since I left Rt. 55, and it is an elderly off-white Vega with cancerous rust spots and two very large passengers who seem to tax the very limits of its suspension and drive train. I am crestfallen to realize I will be following them all the way across the gap and into Edinburg.
But, whatever. I have written about this road before. The sun is warm on my back and the road winds upwards and the woods encroach as it climbs. Pastures spotted with great oaks give way to more humble and homely woods of twisted pines; then we are over the top and beginning that great surprise, the steep, tight and twisty descent of the western slope. Shortly, the grade levels out, the woods recede and houses reappear; the Alleghenies spread from horizon to horizon to the west with the valley before. And, the Vega has disappeared; I ride unimpeded into Edinburg—for the first time as I recall, at least on purpose.
I stopped at the Mill museum, a spectacular and imposing old white mill in the middle of town. It is a good stopping point, and I have been on the road for long enough that getting off the bike to stretch my legs is welcome. I do a perfunctory walk through of the mill museum, correlating its structure with what I know of other such mills in the valley and in particular those mills in the Staunton area which have some bearing on family history.
I roll back out onto Rt. 11 heading south. Edinburg dwindles behind and I am back in valley farmland. Ahead to the south and east, a growing thunderhead sprawls across the valley and up the west flank of the mountain above New Market. At the next opportunity, I turn sharply westward towards the east front of the Alleghenies. I recall that the weather forecast has called for the imminent passage of a strong cold front, and I was about to try and make my way through what I hoped was a weak spot in that front.
I meandered westward on local roads, rising and falling as I rolled towards the mountain. The road seemed to diminish and falter the closer I drew to the mountain, before finally petering out at the odd little village of Orkney Springs just above Bayse, hard against the wooded slopes. Though it is not widely known, Orkney Springs boasts the largest wooden structure in the Commonwealth of Virginia…one whose purpose was not entirely clear to me. And the village is now some sort of religious community, which contributes to the unusual atmosphere of this remote enclave.
But my unintended in-and-out, first to and from Orkney Springs, then from another two-laned road whose promise quickly disappeared, left me feeling conspicuous on the big bright yellow bike, and the glances turned to suspicious stares on my exit. Surely my details had been jotted down in passage for future correlation with the dark deeds I had undoubtedly committed in transit during those four to six minutes.
From this perch high on the flank of the hill, the weather was close at hand; without warning or preface, dazzling flashes of lightning came hand-in-hand with percussive blasts of thunder. I made haste back towards the valley floor with the storm hard at my heels. I managed to take only a glancing blow from the rain by the time I got back to a route whose number I recognized from a long time ago, though I had never traversed this particular section before.
The road meandered through modest woodlots and farm fields, connecting a handful of small settlements and hamlets before ascending above the limestone-scarred fields to hold tight to the spine of a long low ridge that ran parallel to the mountains which framed the valley. The road held kept to this ridge for many miles before gently descending to dump me in the disheartening outskirts of Harrisonburg.
I had a sudden realization around this time. This ride was special in that so far, at each decision point, I had opted to go farther. At this point, I had already gone more miles one way than my typical full-circle route. And I was still outbound.
My objective was to get decisively behind the cold front, which was moving strongly towards the southeast, tracking nearly perpendicular to the mountains. From here, the best (and only) choice was to pick up the thread of U.S.33 from the dreary detritus of strip malls, used car lots and convenience stores. I was not encouraged.
Yet the bleak and humble beginnings of U.S.33 heading west out of Harrisonburg can hardly prepare a rider for the wonders shortly to be encountered. Gradually leaving the warehouses and tract houses behind, 33 winds through broad farm fields then gradually enters the forests leading up to the George Washington National Forest. The road runs straight and true for many miles deep into the deepening forests as it gradually ascends, then abruptly narrows and whips into a frenzy of twists and turns near the West Virginia line.
Now, somewhere back around Orkney Springs, the weather managed to land more than a glancing blow or two on me. I had geared up for the conditions at home when I left—warm, sunny and humid—in mesh gear, cycling shorts and polypro tee shirt. As I ascended Rt. 33, the cool air, so recently dampened by the passage of the storm front, conspired with my damp gear to chill me to the bone. Getting chilled makes you stupid. It blunts your responses, distorts your perceptions, weakens your judgments and makes you reluctant to do simple yet vital tasks like shoulder checking before changing lanes. And I manage to get chilled every single goddamn time I go riding.
The passage of the front left a jumble of confused weather in its wake. A short stretch of road would bring foggy mist, bright sunshine, dry pavement, cold stinging rain and blue sky vistas. My attack on the summit was slow and clumsy, made more laughable by my unfamiliarity with the gnarled, convoluted road. I was relieved to make it to the top, only to begin a steep and dauntingly twisted descent on wet asphalt. And as a sidenote, when West Virginia posts a sign about the road conditions, you’d best take it at face value; they aren’t kidding.
By now, I had been riding for some four hours and I was ready for a break. In a few miles, the road calmed down, leveling out and straightening. And to my amazement, there just off the right shoulder of the road was a Barbecue wagon! Huzzah!
Pulled pork, sweet potato fries and a lemonade. Standing right on the side of Rt. 33. Couldn’t ask for anything better after hours on the road and a chilly, challenging traverse of a foggy mountain. The milder air lower down the mountain helped relax me a bit, though I could really go for a cup of coffee right about now. At this point it’s about 3:30, and I am still heading outbound to an apogee I am still undecided on.
Well, Franklin, West Virginia ended up being the apogee, pretty much. Franklin is where U.S. 33 and U.S. 220 intertwine briefly through the center of town before resuming their respective courses west and north. With a few more hours in my pocket, I would have opted for more of 33 west, through Judy Gap and then on to Seneca Rocks, then maybe on to Canaan Valley. With another day, maybe on to Rt. 50 through Mount Storm for the return trip. Or 220 south to Monterey and beyond. But not this time…
On the back side of the cold front, the air remains unsettled; along the flood plain of the Potomac’s south branch it is steamy and muggy with the strong late afternoon sun. Now I find myself chasing the remnants of the straggling storms, staying just out of reach of the frayed hems of rain but tracking through spray over wet pavement. A rainbow plays hide-and-seek with me, perpetually running ahead to just beyond the next hilltop.
I have been on the road for more than five hours, and have probably gone about 200 miles. I am still jonesing for that cup of coffee, and right about in the middle of Wardensville, pull an abrupt u-turn in order to stop at Star Mercantile. I park in front of the store, noting the gritty, sodden bicycle locked up nearby with a full load of camping gear from front panniers to rear panniers and everywhere in-between.
I walk in and sit down on one of the old stools bolted down at the counter. At my back, seated sprawled in a booth is the owner of the bicycle, a hirsute, spandex-clad young man in a state of dampness similar to mine. I nod and smile to him, and we share a brief moment of commiseration though I’m pretty sure he’s got the worse of it. I order a cup of coffee—heavy white ceramic mug, with saucer, natch—and a cake cone with salted caramel ice cream, which is wonderful. A follow-on cup of coffee helps to rejuvenate me and after twenty minutes or so, I am ready to go again. I nod to the bicyclist on my way out, and wring my gloves out thoroughly before firing the bike up.
I am determined to stick to “Old” Rt. 55 as much as possible or practical until I cross back into Virginia. “Corridor H” and new “U.S. 48” have made a hash of the old road, slicing and dicing it into little chunks then casting them aside into disrepair. I follow its track from town to town as best I can, at one point riding up one stretch of road I began to think was truly abandoned, given the amount of debris and rain-washed gravel and fallen branches across the roadway. The handful of deer grazing along the road seemed to share my impression. I picked my way judiciously through the litter and persisted until the faltering pavement rejoined its newer counterpart.
Along the old roadway, I find that places I remember from a decade ago have literally fallen by the wayside; I assume the diversion of traffic to the newer, faster, limited-access road slowly starved these old holdouts to death. I am somewhat saddened, recalling that at least one or two were pleasant stopping points on previous outings. Despite these minor distractions, old 55 is beautiful and more importantly, it is immediate. The world is right there at the side of the road, for better or for worse. Dogs and trash, laundry and wildflowers, broken bottles and babbling brooks, gardens and garbage, homesteads and hovels.
From the state line on, it is common knowledge, a road more-or-less well travelled. I close the loop below Signal Knob with the recrossing of Passage Creek; in another hour or so I am home, having ridden just under 300 miles in about under seven hours.
II. I like the idea of randomized riding. Mid-afternoon of one Tuesday early in October, I decided it was too nice to not be riding so I grabbed my gear and headed out. With the bulk of the day already behind me, I decided to stay relatively local and poke around the back roads of the county I’ve never seen. Again, with that little bit of guidance in mind, I thought only as far ahead as the next intersection, and soon found myself meandering down road I hadn’t ridden that went places I was entirely unsure of.
I encountered that neat sleight-of-hand back roads can pull, the trick of starting out broad and well-paved, then gradually and seamlessly devolving into narrower, rougher, less paved, losing any sense of what it means to be a road. The 1150 is better suited than Beast for roads such as these that suffer from identity crises, with its broad bars and pragmatic posture; the stretches of gravel, dirt and mud were easy to handle even at low speeds, and at each moment when I expected to have to turn back for the way petering out, it magically reappeared and began to improve.
I made my way back out to main roads somewhere deep in the F.T. Valley, staring at Old Rag. I didn’t want to head home yet, but really wasn’t sure of which way to turn from here. South towards Madison, Orange or Charlottesville didn’t particularly appeal to me. Nor did east in the general direction of Culpeper, though I was confident I could easily find lots of good roads that way. I would cross the mountain, then figure out a route. But the fuel light was on. There’s no gas in Sperryville, no gas on or over the mountain until Luray. I knew I couldn’t make it that far even if I coasted all the way down off Thornton Gap. So much to my consternation, I had to backtrack halfway to Little Washington just to get gas, an irritating waste of daylight that I couldn’t work around.
Nearly forty minutes later, I get back to the business of going nowhere in particular. I am crossing the Blue Ridge on U.S. 211 for the umpteenth time in my life, no idea how many times I’ve done it on a bike, but maybe the first time on this particular bike. It’s fun, and nimble, and I put great effort into planning my lines and executing them as fluidly as I can. I track from lane to lane as I follow the sinuous road upwards, meticulously avoiding the yellow line to my left or the white line to my right. I have both lanes to myself from the point where they split to the crest of the mountain, and it is a good run, with few missed lines and a soothing rhythm. It is always good to attack the hill, and the quality of the descending ride is never quite as satisfying. But I am happy with my efforts by the time I reach the valley floor, feeling neither fear nor frustration.
I do not want to cross the valley this afternoon. I have no interest in Luray either, so I divert onto the first side road I find, and it immediately carries me northward into flat pastures lined with cedar fencerows. The road snakes amid the low hills and stream cuts, with neat houses close by and rock gardens at the roadside. I admire the gardens and feel an immediate kinship with the occupants of the homesteads so adorned. The railroad also runs through here, which adds a certain indescribable character and timelessness to the neighborhood. I remember the sound of the trains that pass down the valley; I’ve heard them in the night from the solitude of a lonely tent high atop the mountains and I’ve heard them in the night from a house packed with family atop Windy Hill.
I leave the community of Kimball behind when I pause at U.S. Rt. 340. I have sour recollections of the last time I rode U.S. 340 from Luray to Front Royal. Mary rode with me, and the bike was not properly configured for two of us. It was uncomfortable and the road seemed to go on forever. We grew cranky and ill-tempered as we went, and by the time we returned home we were anxious to be off the bike and little disposed to do it again anytime soon. Yet this day, on a different bike and under different conditions, I find the road to be pleasing and engaging. I note that there are many intriguing side roads that break off both east, toward the western foothills of the Blue Ridge, and west, towards the flank of Massanutten. One could well spend a full day—or two—just backroading the northern half of Page County hereabouts. I make a mental note to do so, eventually.
One road in particular catches my eye, and I divert long enough to find out that it goes well up the Blue Ridge, near Matthew’s Arm, before petering out in a dusty single lane. But that vantage point offers a spectacular view of the valley both north and south, and as is so often the case, the return trip on a road offers a subtly different experience than the outbound does. A final thought for this trip: I need to find a different way to come home.
III. So my earlier foray to Harrisonburg and points beyond really piqued my curiosity. For some time I have wanted to get back out and pick up that thread, and I finally cleared my plate and decided that today would be the day. I tried to get out a little earlier than my previous ride, but one thing after another conspired to delay me, and as before, the morning was pretty much done before I geared up and rolled down the gravel road. While I still planned to not overthink this ride, I knew for certain I wanted to get at least a certain distance into unfamiliar territory before tossing any coins.
|You thought I was kidding, right?|
It commemorates the role of Big Poultry in the fortunes, folklore and history of this part of the Valley. Or something. But you don’t pass up turkey statues without paying some notice. And taking pictures.
I stuck with U.S. 11 as it traced the interstate first to its east side, then for many miles along it to the west, until I arrived once again in Harrisonburg, just a block or two removed from my most recent ride. My goal this time was to connect somewhere with Route 42, a route we used to travel fairly frequently in the decade or two when we escaped to the Dice Cabin in Buffalo Gap.
At some point, I had the great misfortune of getting stuck in traffic close by a manure tanker with a thick encrustation of foul-smelling sludge all about its mess of pipes and valves. Spatters of liquid manure trailed behind it in a nauseating miasma; I held my breath as best I could as I rode in its wake, and was greatly relieved when it finally turned off the highway, leaving a trail of filth behind it. It was several minutes before the stench cleared away, even riding at highway speeds.
Sometime in the spring of this year, I started to recognize “The Lark Ascending” when it was played on the radio. It’s another one of those mysteries to me, how I got to this advanced age without having taken notice of it before.This stretch of two-lane road may be my ultimate expression of ‘The Valley.’ It traces its way through small towns and clusters of houses, through farms large and small. It rolls through a landscape that is beautiful and storied, maintaining a practical, pragmatic, functional edge and side-stepping the preciousness that so frequently flavors rural beauty. It is Mennonite country as well, and the limestone hills well suit their way of life.
It’s a fairly famous piece in the classical canon, was selected as Britain’s top “Desert Island Disc,” ranked second in WNYC’s listener poll of songs to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, and held the top spot in Radio New Zealand Concert’s New Year’s Day countdown so long that some listeners formed a Facebook group to promote alternatives.Riding this road solo, after being away for—what, more than 25 years?—was fascinating. Some stretches were exactly as I remembered them from so long ago; others were as if I had never seen them before. And there was no rhyme or reason to my recollections. All I could note was the apparently languid pace of change here, in stark contrast to the eruptive, disruptive patterns of Northern Virginia.
Some see 'Lark' as the high water mark of romanticism in English classical composition, the last great work composed on the eve of the first world war.Dayton, Bridgewater, Moscow. They slide past under the clear blue sky. A short two hours after my departure, I roll downhill into Churchville. I recall it as the last vestige of civilization on the road to Buffalo Gap and to the cabin, with a Dairy Queen, a gas station and a small strip mall of weary stores. I stop for a quick lunch at the DQ, unchanged over the decades. Middling, generic barbecue and fries made for a functional if uninspired meal, and as I wolfed my food I pored over my dog-eared map book for inspirations what to do next.
‘Lark’ runs about sixteen minutes. It was composed by Ralph Vaughn Williams* in 1914, and premiered in 1920, scored for piano and violin. Vaugh Williams then rescored it for solo violin and orchestra; that version, the version most commonly heard, premiered in 1921 under conductor Adrian Boult. Vaughn Williams is credited with setting a new course for English music, embracing Tudor, Stuart and folk music themes and motifs and rejecting the Teutonic influences which had up until then had shaped English music. Vaughn Williams was tutored by Maurice Ravel and became good friends with Gustav Holst; the two were mutual critics, shaping each other’s works.After gassing up, it was near half-past two. I was at a logical apogee, and there was no shame in heading back to Harrisonburg at this point, perhaps trying a different, more southerly route. But as I have recently discovered, choosing to go farther rather than turning back is liberating. And realistically, from Churchville in the middle of the afternoon in early fall, the only option is west to Monterey.
‘Lark’ was inspired by the poem of the same name, written by English poem George Meredith in 1881. It is written in rhyming tetrameter couplets in two sections. It is described as a paean to the song of the Skylark.For the next hour or so I will be riding what I am fairly certain is terra incognito. Had I ever travelled this road before, it would have been when I was a very young child, so I will simply declare this is new to me. I am taking U.S. 250 west through the George Washington National Forest to Monterey.
Curiosity piqued, I was disappointed to find out that with one exception, larks are Old World birds. They are passerine—perching—birds, typically living in open country and nesting on or near the ground. They are renowned for their elaborate songs, and are relatively comfortable living in or near human environments. Larks typically lay clutches of two to six eggs, which hatch in eleven to sixteen days. Larks are the only known Passerines that lose all their feathers in their first molt.Almost immediately after leaving Churchville, I encounter road construction, which brings our traffic to a halt for the single lane road. This present an unexpected and mildly annoying delay; it makes the otherwise sparse vehicles to bunch up, and casts a pall on the afternoon. As I sit, waiting, I observe that the foliage hereabouts seems to be about at peak color, putting it a week or two ahead of the trees at home; this thought makes me aware of the road being buried deep in the cold shadows of a mountain stream valley. A quick mental calculation makes me realize that if Monterey is my apogee, I will make the last leg or two of the ride home in twilight or darkness (with its concomitant chill, for which, as always, I am ill-prepared). And the days have already lost the better part of an hour since my Labor Day ride.
The only New World lark is the Horned Lark, whose habitat stretches from the Arctic Circle to southern Mexico. Unlike the less conspicuous Old World larks, the Horned Lark has a striking black-and yellow facemask. In 2013 they were listed as Threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.The construction logjam finally breaks after ten or fifteen minutes. Once the bolus of vehicles dissolves and we reach speed, I pull off at a gas station at a minor crossroads to take stock of my resources. I’d rather get warm at this point and stay warm the rest of the trip than have to try and make up a deficit and fail. I add a jacket liner, a bandanna around my neck, and warmer gloves. All that, plus heated grips for backup, should manage the chill.
The poem, and the piece of music inspired by it, reflects not only the song of the lark, but the flight during which the lark sings. Absent, to my knowledge, the example of the Horned Lark, I fill the void with what I have seen of two well-known and locally common birds: the Barn Swallow and the Hummingbird. The Barn Swallow, like the Lark, is a bird of open country which has made its peace with human habitation, hence the name. Barn Swallows build elaborate nests of mud and grass tucked into the crevices and spaces of human structures, and are best known for their dazzling acrobatics, typically seen morning and evening as they feed on flying insects. Swallows have a well-earned reputation as voracious predators of nuisance insects, and are typically welcome for that benefit alone.U.S. 250 is two-lanes, beautiful, challenging and amazing. At roughly its midpoint in traversing the eastern section of the George Washington National Forest, the road seemingly crumples up in succession of hairpin turns and switchbacks. Without any prior knowledge of the road, I was reduced to taking the turns at single-digit speeds in first or second gear. The road continued to writhe and undulate as it crosses the Bullpasture River, rolls through the village of McDowell, then ascends one last set of ridges before the spectacular, vertiginous reveal of Monterey.
I started listening almost non-stop to ‘Lark’ around the beginning of October, somehow making up for lost time. It formed an indelible association with warm Indian Summer sunlight shining on yellow leaves beneath a crystal blue sky. I can feel the warmth on my face, smell the crispy leaves underfoot, hear the breeze rustling through the branches sweeping out the fluttering remains.As Monterey spread before me, I was struck by how lucky my timing was. The oaks, maples, hickories and gum trees were all at the peak of their colors, with few trees showing full green crowns and even fewer showing bare grey crowns. What was not bright, saturated color—tree or sky—was deep graven shadow.
The hummingbirds we see are best known for their nasty dispositions and territorial display around nectar-bearing flowers and the sugar-water feeders we provide for them. But on occasion though, you may be fortunate to see a male perform a courtship dance which consists of a straight vertical ascent to about one hundred feet, then a dramatic plummet downward to buzz the female hummingbird of his fancy. This descent is the fastest descent of any animal, exceeding even the falcon, and subjects the male to something like 10 Gs. (Fun hummingbird fact: male hummingbirds are smaller than females exactly because of this courtship behavior; smaller bodies can accelerate and maneuver faster and more easily, obviously making them sexier).I rolled into Monterey up Main Street towards its intersection with U.S. 220, and smiled as I looked over towards Trimble Knob, that odd little lump of a hill stuck on the south side of town. Supposedly Trimble Knob is the remnant of one of the few volcanoes found in Virginia, the weathered remains of a 35-million year old Eocene epoch eruption. That in itself is a pretty cool story…but an alternative origin story ties Trimble Knob to the Chesapeake Bay Bolide impact also of roughly 35 million years ago.
So when I read “The Lark Ascending,” and when I listen to it, I am picturing some hybrid of the acrobatics of the Barn Swallow and the courtship dance of the Hummingbird. I think that fits the bill pretty well as a visual.The theory is that what is now the Chesapeake Bay (and the courses of all the rivers in Virginia east of the Blue Ridge) was shaped when a bolide somewhere between two and three miles in diameter, travelling at “many kilometers a second” smashed into the shallow waters of the ancient continental shelf, fracturing the basement rock five miles deep and leaving a crater twenty-five to fifty miles in diameter. That impact ejected vast quantities of shock-fractured rock, including, so the theory goes, at least one massive chunk which landed two-hundred miles west...the future Trimble Knob. Or so they say. Both stories are pretty cool for such a sleepy little village.
Vaughn Williams introduces the Lark motif at about 0:15, with a solo violin. The orchestra joins around 2:30, including flute, oboe, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, horns and strings. Around the seven minute mark, another pastoral theme is introduced, woven around the ongoing ‘Lark’ motif. Then the ‘Lark’ theme is passed back and forth between the orchestra and the solo violin, with the solo violin closing out the last minute and a half.Well, it took me far longer than I had bargained to cover the thirty-five miles from Churchville to Monterey, and my shadow already stretched long in front of me when I turned north on U.S 220. In a few miles I crossed into Pendleton County, West Virginia at the village of Harper, making the first of many crossings of the south branch of the Potomac River.
The violin cadenzas in ‘Lark’ are written ‘senza misura,’ or without written measures or beat. Instead, they are meant to fill a certain period of time, making the piece additionally challenging for both the violin soloist and the conductor.The south branch, or south fork, of the Potomac begins just a couple of miles up the Alleghany slope from Monterey at Hightown, Virginia, on a 140-mile course to join the North Fork at Oldtown, Maryland near the Paw Paw Bends. This branch of the river and the road I ride share a common valley much of their routes from here to Franklin, diverging again until Petersburg where they reunite as far as Moorefield. At Moorefield, the road strikes off north-northwest while the river maintains a northerly course.
Iona Brown is widely quoted as saying her canonical performance of ‘Lark’ was informed by the songs of larks she heard on long walks at Marleycombe Down, near the village of Bowerchalke in Wiltshire, Salisbury. The area is a chalk grasslands area, renowned both for its rich and diverse plant and animal life as well as numerous sites of historical interest including a bronze-age bowl barrow. Brown was one of the few women performers who successfully transitioned from performing to conducting. She died in 2004 at the age of 63, having given her last performance as a violinist in 1998. Ironically, Vaughan William’s widow, Ursula, is quoted as saying that Ralph “…was good at growing green beans but rotten about anything else to do with the countryside…I don't think he could have spotted a lark if he saw one." .At Franklin, I pick up the track from my ride in early September, where U.S. 33 crosses U.S. 220. The thermometer at the bank downtown tells me the temperature is in the upper eighties, the generous warmth of an Indian summer day when the leaves are peaking. I realize the thermometer is probably correct; the chill I had experienced just an hour or two earlier has been supplanted by a growing sticky steaminess. I pull over along Main Street and take the bandanna from my neck, and swap out my gloves for the lighter pair I wore on the first leg of the ride. Equilibrium restored.
Anyway. I added ‘Lark’ to my riding playlist. It’s not ideally suited for riding because of the large dynamic range; long passages are inaudible at anything above a crawl. But the parts you can hear are so…magnificent…that it’s worth the downtimes. This was the first ride that included it, and it didn’t come up until I was somewhere near Dayton.This road is still fairly fresh in my mind from a few weeks ago, when I passed through here amid sultry, steamy air and road spray, dodging thunderstorm and rainbows. I know what to expect from here on out, and from Franklin to Petersburg to Moorefield to Baker, I am only interested in keeping up the pace. I know twilight will be awaiting me when I reach the Blue Ridge again. I willingly, nay, eagerly embrace the “Corridor H” route eastward, that odd amalgam of new superslab U.S. 48 and old decrepit two-laned S.R. 55. While previously I had eagerly sought out the disconnected snippets of old 55, this time I am deliberately using every mile of superslab and using every bit (plus some) of its generous speed limit to bump up my consistently feeble average speed.
And after hearing it, I didn’t want to listen to the rest of the stuff on my playlist that was so tired and I’d heard countless times before. At my lunch break, I took my earphones out and wore earplugs instead. For the rest of the afternoon, the ‘Lark’ motif played in my head.Admittedly, U.S. 48 is a pretty nice stretch of road, and it’s a pleasure to ride on new pavement when so many roads, large and small, have been ignored into utter disrepair and collapse. High, wide, and open, the roadway seems in places to glide along the hilltops. The air here, high up from the darkening valleys in the clear sunshine is warm and smells of pine and dry leaves; riding this unfaired bike at highway speed with its upright posture is both a pleasure and a challenge. The wind is invigorating, and I naturally gravitate towards a pair of riders until we share a loosely staggered formation. We smile, nod and wave in mutual acknowledgement.
And in a moment somewhere on the Highland Turnpike high above Monterey, it all came together.
And ever winging up and up, our valley is his golden cup, and he the wine which overflows to lift us with him as he goes:
Here was the valley, his golden cup; the lark—or what we have here that passes for a lark—the wine which overflows, lifting us up with him as he goes.For the last stretch, where the two-lane prevails, I tuck in behind a small group of baggers. I follow them at a respectful distance until somewhere just across the border into Virginia, where I make one last stop in preparation for the homeward leg of the trip. It’s a small, roadside convenience store, selling supplies for campers and hunters and locals who find themselves disinclined to drive all the way to Middletown for some Doritos or ice. The signage out front is a polyglot of misspelled English and Hangul, and the woman behind the cash register speaks to me with a heavy Korean accent. I purchase a diet Pepsi and an ice cream sandwich that from all appearances is either locally made or hand-made, two waffle wafers with a thick slice of Neapolitan ice cream, folded neatly in wax paper.
I sit outside on a picnic table beside a low cinderblock wall, feet on the bench, watching the traffic on the road and the people coming and going at the gas pumps. The lowering sun dazzles me from its perch squatting over Great North Mountain; it seems it will set locally in a couple more minutes. I stretch my legs and slowly wend my way around the stacked cars at the gas pumps to pitch out my trash. There’s always that funny look you get from car drivers…particularly when they’ve got their kids with them. Like you’re a carrier of some dangerous notion or something. It always makes me smile more.
I gotta get out here more often.
The Lark Ascending, George Meredith (1828–1909)He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one,
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet,
Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear
To her beyond the handmaid ear,
Who sits beside our inner springs,
Too often dry for this he brings,
Which seems the very jet of earth
At sight of sun, her music’s mirth,
As up he wings the spiral stair,
A song of light, and pierces air
With fountain ardor, fountain play,
To reach the shining tops of day,
And drink in everything discern’d
An ecstasy to music turn’d,
Impell’d by what his happy bill
Disperses; drinking, showering still,
Unthinking save that he may give
His voice the outlet, there to live
Renew’d in endless notes of glee,
So thirsty of his voice is he,
For all to hear and all to know
That he is joy, awake, aglow,
The tumult of the heart to hear
Through pureness filter’d crystal-clear,
And know the pleasure sprinkled bright
By simple singing of delight,
Shrill, irreflective, unrestrain’d,
Rapt, ringing, on the jet sustain’d
Without a break, without a fall,
Sweet-silvery, sheer lyrical,
Perennial, quavering up the chord
Like myriad dews of sunny sward
That trembling into fulness shine,
And sparkle dropping argentine;
Such wooing as the ear receives
From zephyr caught in choric leaves
Of aspens when their chattering net
Is flush’d to white with shivers wet;
And such the water-spirit’s chime
On mountain heights in morning’s prime,
Too freshly sweet to seem excess,
Too animate to need a stress;
But wider over many heads
The starry voice ascending spreads,
Awakening, as it waxes thin,
The best in us to him akin;
And every face to watch him rais’d,
Puts on the light of children prais’d,
So rich our human pleasure ripes
When sweetness on sincereness pipes,
Though nought be promis’d from the seas,
But only a soft-ruffling breeze
Sweep glittering on a still content,
Serenity in ravishment.
For singing till his heaven fills,
’T is love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes:
The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labor in the town;
He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins;
The wedding song of sun and rains
He is, the dance of children, thanks
Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,
And eye of violets while they breathe;
All these the circling song will wreathe,
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.
Was never voice of ours could say
Our inmost in the sweetest way,
Like yonder voice aloft, and link
All hearers in the song they drink:
Our wisdom speaks from failing blood,
Our passion is too full in flood,
We want the key of his wild note
Of truthful in a tuneful throat,
The song seraphically free
Of taint of personality,
So pure that it salutes the suns
The voice of one for millions,
In whom the millions rejoice
For giving their one spirit voice.
Yet men have we, whom we revere,
Now names, and men still housing here,
Whose lives, by many a battle-dint
Defaced, and grinding wheels on flint,
Yield substance, though they sing not, sweet
For song our highest heaven to greet:
Whom heavenly singing gives us new,
Enspheres them brilliant in our blue,
From firmest base to farthest leap,
Because their love of Earth is deep,
And they are warriors in accord
With life to serve and pass reward,
o touching purest and so heard
In the brain’s reflex of yon bird;
Wherefore their soul in me, or mine,
Through self-forgetfulness divine,
In them, that song aloft maintains,
To fill the sky and thrill the plains
With showerings drawn from human stores,
As he to silence nearer soars,
Extends the world at wings and dome,
More spacious making more our home,
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.
My analysis of “Lark” is based on the 1972 recording of Iona Brown and the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields with Sir Neville Marriner, which can be heard here.
*Who knew that was pronounced 'Rafe?'