As we trek through the Blue ridge mountains, American history
is alive and kicking, or two steppin’, in the old time music and blue grass.
You can walk through towns and sometimes hear a fiddle or a banjo from a front porch, and please, no banjo jokes. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been warned to beware when I hear a banjo in the distance, but these instruments are played with true heart and raw talent in this area.
From the general stores in Bastian, Bland and Buchanan where local talent rips the roof off on Friday nights, to fairs and carnivals where family bands and old-time Gospel choirs praise the heavens. If you’re lucky enough to be in the area when they happen, the spirit of soulful mountain music bounces from peak to hollow (Pronounced ‘holler’) and back to your heart.
I cross the James river foot bridge, the longest foot bridge on the A.T., and dedicated to Bill Foote, and decide to head into Glasgow for a resupply. I wait by the trail-head parking lot and hitchhike thinking heck, no problem, lots of cars here.
In reality this is the longest I remember waiting for a ride thus far.
I would have walked the road but many people, including two hikers who wouldn’t give me a ride from the trail-head even though they were going the right way, told me the dangers of this narrow road filled with fast moving work trucks.
Their reasoning, “We don’t know you.” The fear that lurks in some people, even those of the same mind set is mind boggling at times.
So there I stood for two hours. I cursed and kicked and was stunned that no one would stop, even though this area is marked, well known and obviously a trail-head.
A port-a-john truck with a sign that said “Hamilton’s” slowed down and a small, thick tough-looking guy with a glare in his eye stared me down.
“What the hell are you doing?”, he asks.
At first I thought, is this guy wanting to kick my butt?
“Uh..trying to get to town to get resupplied.”
“Well, what the hell you waiting for? Get in!”
I walk over to the passenger side of the truck and climb in.
“Lou Hamilton.” He says with a tight handshake.
I introduce myself and he says, “I’ll just call you Griz cause you look like a damn big ol’ bear.” He shifts and grinds gears on the sewage truck and delivers me from hitchhike limbo.
“So, are there bigger grocery stores in Buena Vista? I only got a small resupply in Buchanan”, I say, leaning the conversation to a lift to a quality grocery store.
“Bwa-na Veesta? This ain’t Mexico. It’s ‘Bu-na-vest-a’ not ‘Bwa-na Veesta’. You say Buena Vista they goin’ know you ain’t from here. And it’s Buck-hanan not Bu-cannon.”
Lou stops his truck at a local dinner-motel and I climb out.
“Hey Griz…ya’ll coming back for the music festival this weekend?”
“Not sure, I saw the sign about it being in Buena Vista and…”
“Damn it, Griz-wald! What did I just tell you?”
“Bu-na Vesta, sorry.”, I respond, trying to get the pronunciation right. “I’m not sure, I don’t really have the fifty bucks to get in for the weekend.”
Lou pulls out a bit of paper and writes his number down.
“When you hit the blue ridge crossing after Bluff Mountain give me a ring. I run all over counties around here, if I can, I’ll pick you up at the trail and you can stay with us at the campground. It’s a good time, and if you need to earn money for it, I’ll put you to work for a day or two.”
I thank him as he drives off. He slows down to give some guy hell. They are cursing and arguing and again, I assume a fight may be about to erupt, but they laugh and say they’ll see each other this weekend. Interesting dynamics here.
The hike from the James River over Bluff Mountain passes by Ottie Cline Powell monument. Ottie was a student at a small school up on the mountain and legend has it on a cold winter day he volunteered to gather wood for the schools stove during a heavy snowstorm.
Ottie left and never returned. They found him in the Spring thaw and the monument is there as a honor to him. There are flowers, pennies and sometimes little kids toys left on the monument for Ottie. I left an interesting rock I’d found in the James river.
I get to the road and hitch into Buena Vista and call Lou.
“Griz-wald! Where the hell are you? I got shitters to clean.”, he says fast and furious.
Not the work I want to do, but if it will get me some extra cash and into a Bluegrass Festival, I’m down. I’ve never heard real bluegrass and in all honesty I wasn’t familiar with any other than what I’d heard in the film “O Brother Where Art Thou?”.
Lou meets me at a local burger joint and buys me lunch and asks me if I’m ready to work. I mention I haven’t had a shower in a few days so I may not be clean enough to work.
“Not clean enough to clean shit? Are you goddamn kidding me, Griz-wald?”
So Lou and I make the rounds. He introduces me to all his pals, his family, his wife and his twenty or more bear dogs.
Lou also runs a construction business. I spend the day digging foundation holes with a shovel, running a hose to port-a-johns, and picking up leftover wood at one of his building sites.
“That’s it Griz-wald, time to call it.”
We return to his house, eat a heck of a meal and he drives me to Glen Maury park for the Maury River Fiddlers Fest. If you’ve never been to a small town Virginia music festival, you are missing out. The talent is amazing. The stage is one thing, but where the music really comes to life is around all the little campfires and trailers and RV’s set up around the park.
Lou introduced me to the Mayor and the rest of the committee in charge of the festival. For a couple hours of directing traffic, I was allowed to camp for free for the weekend.
Terrie, one of the folks in charge, let me know there were a couple of other hikers already there and working the other parking lot.
“Do you know Ox and Hat?”
Yes I do!
As I wear my bright orange jacket and show people where to park, a man in denim, a cowboy hat and walking with a strange gait approaches me.
“You one of those…hikers?”
“Yes sir.”, I say waving my hands at the onslaught of vehicles arriving for the weekend.
He hands me a Dixie cup full of what looks like water.
“Go easy on this.”
I look at it and take a sniff.
“Don’t sniff it, son. You ever have shine afore?”
“It’s sippin’ whiskey, take a small sip in your mouth, swish it around a bit, swallow slow and easy…but only a small amount.”
I do as instructed, and the first sip…well I felt like I was about to shoot straight into the sky like a rocket. I felt a fire go from the middle of my throat to the pit of my stomach.
The burning only lasted a few seconds, but damn.
“Good, ain’t it?”
I agree, but I’m not sure.
“Me and the wife are campin’ over near the Hamilton clan, if you wanna’ stop in later we got Bear meat on the grill and rabbit stew brewing right now. You’re more then welcome to join us when you finish.”
I thank him as he walks away. I realize that his strange gait and stumbling stride probably was due to more then one Dixie cup of this.
I finish it off, and I swear, for not more then eight ounces of fluid, this stuff hit me like a freight train.
Night is on us, soulful music is in the air and laughter and good times abound.
I know the voice.
Hat is stumbling towards me, a large red plastic cup in hand and a larger smile on his face.
“This is the shit, ain’t it?”
He informs me that Ox is already at the Hamilton’s campsite eating like a horse and that we can take off of work if we want.
So he and I join the party. I sample the local delicacies.
The bear meat is surprisingly good. Sort of like a tough version of a quality steak. The rabbit stew is delicious. Not sure if I taste rabbit or all the fresh vegetables, either way, it is filling and much better than I expected.
“Here ya’ go.” Says someone as they hand me a large red cup filled with a peach smelling clear liquid.
“Thank you, very much!”
Ox, Hat and I do the rounds, hanging at different camps enjoying various musicians. From Grandmas jamming out the clawhammer banjo to five year old kids playing fiddle better then Charlie Daniels, it is a heck of a night.
Something is different. All the lights seem really bright, all the music seems really clear and the air smells great. Yet my feet don’t seem to be working as well as they did a few hours ago.
“Guys…I’m done.” I say as I realize I may very well fall over from an overindulgence of ‘shine.
“It’s only three! The sun won’t be up for another four hours!
Come on L.K.!”, says The Hat nudging me.
Ox says nothing, but he too looks finished.
“I’m good. See ya’ for breakfast.”
I stumble along and stop at a couple more campsites to listen to the late night pickers on the way to my tent. I think more than anything I was happy to sit down for five minutes between hundred yard walks.
As I stumble through the lines of parked vehicles making my way to my tent, I take a step and hear a loud metallic sounding thud. The sound you hear when you slap your hand on the side of a car door. As I take one more step, I fall to the ground.
“Owwwwwwwww!”, I said without knowing why.
I looked down and my shin has a five inch indention that is flowing blood freely.
I look back and a truck has a trailer hitch that is sticking out about a foot and a half. Now, I was raised with boats and tractors and trailer hitches and I think at some level I know the distance I need to keep from the back of a pickup truck to not hit these, but this one is sticking out a foot and a half, minimum.
I stand and touch the wound. I can actually put my index finger inside the gash.
“Jeez.”, is about all I can muster.
I limp and stumble to the campsite and grab a water hose that is attached to someone’s RV. I turn it on and spray the wound; blood and water flow into the grass.
I turn the water off and stumble to my tent and pass out.
The next morning I awake to see flakes of brown metal, rust
and various particles from the trailer hitch imbedded in my wound.
Two weeks later little pieces were still coming out.
I have a scar from that night, and the memory is still pretty cool. A night of firsts; bear meat, bluegrass and moonshine all marked by a permanent natural tattoo.
I still like bluegrass and when I run into old friends, I still enjoy moonshine or ‘Kill Me Quick’ as some folks I know call it, but now I know a little is plenty.