I came down Interstate 81 on Saturday morning. I turned east on 66 for a few miles, passed through Front Royal. A massive community yard sale sprawled in a dirt lot about the size of a football field. People ambled about, poked through baskets, rummaged over tables. There were a lot of large vans. There had been some fog, but it was burning off as the sun emerged.
I turned on 340 South, a two-lane road with sharp curves. It hugs the east side of Shenandoah National Park. I stopped behind another driver as a family of ducks crossed. It was not quite noon. Farm fences ran parallel with the road. Rows of grapes spanned outside a winery. Red, white, and blue striped antique signs waved outside old Victorian houses. The shoulders on the roads were narrow, the striping weathered. It felt like I had travelled back in time.
I did several hikes over the weekend; my favorite was Hawksbill Summit. It is not a long hike – the loop is less than 3 miles – but it is strenuous. Most of the ascent requires climbing over boulders, pulling yourself up over rocks. The physical exertion is thrilling to me, the burn magic.
I got to the summit ahead of a family of four that I passed on the way. While I was sitting at the peak, I saw a hand on a rock, finishing the climb, and thought it was someone from that group. I was mildly surprised when a German couple emerged, a man and a woman in their late 20s. The man sat down and said that the visibility was not as good as it had been yesterday. I said that I liked the lines that the ranges made, the different shades, that it looked like a painting. That exchange seemed to thaw any reservation he had about me; we started talking at length. I am not normally chatty, but I had spent a lot of time by myself alone in the woods. I was thankful for the conversation.
I asked what fascinated them about the US. “Your drinks,” he said. They have soda in bottles that are smaller than a 20-ounce, cans that are smaller than twelve. To see two-liter bottles of soda and gallon jugs of drinks astounded him. Also beef jerky. He didn’t understand that. The woman seemed more reserved, but she was vocal about the tap water here. She said that it tasted like chlorine and chemicals. We talked about their first trip to Wal-Mart. I thought that they would have been surprised by the size of the store. The soda was still more noteworthy.
The clouds were moving in, it had gotten humid, and I thought I felt the first pocks of rain. I left the couple and started the other half of the trail, which wound downhill and back under cover toward the parking lot.
I stayed in Luray, which sits along US Route 211, a divided 4-lane highway. Individual houses sat along the road, spaced at wide distances from each other. American flags flew from porches. Most houses faced the highway, perpendicular to the mountains.
There were a lot of pickup trucks. Some sat freshly waxed, tires gleaming in driveways with for sale signs on them. Motorcycles roared by occasionally, thundering down from the mountain, mufflers blaring.
The Days Inn was a couple miles outside of downtown, with an outdoor pool. When I arrived, I walked to the pool to see if it was warm enough to swim. It was 5:30 or 6. The three housekeepers, all women, were sitting on a bench outside the laundry area talking and smoking. Heat blew through the doors as I passed, a furnace of dryers running in the summer afternoon.
The water was not too cold. I got my swimsuit on and swam for a while. The women were still there when I returned and asked me if the water was good. I said it was.
Most of the people staying at the motel that weekend were families of a girls’ softball tournament team. The girls were around twelve to fourteen. At night, the parents leaned against the upstairs railing, drank domestic cans, bullshitted with each other. A couple people wheeled coolers out onto the walkway. The girls swam, roamed around, squealed at little brothers.
The first night I ate dinner at a place on Main Street called Uncle Buck’s. I sat on the bar side of the restaurant. There was college softball on ESPN, the volume low. Two SEC teams were playing. Alabama? Florida? It looked like a hot afternoon wherever they were.
The air conditioning felt amazing and the calm dim of the bar was doubly cool. I was glad to be out of the heat and in the shade of the restaurant. Noise filtered in from the dining room. I ate country fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and green beans. I ate that exhaustion eating, where food just tastes really good because you’re not sweltering and you’re sitting down.
One night I went out for ice cream. The place, named Flotzie’s, was on the edge of town, in the same shopping center as the Wal-Mart. It sat in a parking lot, near a Dunkin Donuts, 7-11, and McDonald’s. The stand was white, about trailer sized. There was a line several families deep. There were large steel picnic tables with benches on all sides. People sat and talked to each other. The sun had set.
At checkout, I asked the woman at the reception desk how her day was going.
“Monday morning falling apart,” she replied, shaking her head.
“Yard sale on Saturday.”
“Did you do well?”
“No not really. I thought my Betty Boop dolls would go but they’re still in the back of my car.”
I imagined a denim blue Buick sedan parked in the dappled parking lot. I thought how it would feel to lift the trunk and look at numerous pairs of startled eyes and red dresses.
One of the housekeepers who had been on the bench the previous night was already working, loading a cart with supplies. She was probably in her sixties. Her eyes were bright; her skin looked older. Her shoes had once been white but were now a heathered grey. The soles had compressed over time.
On the way home, I passed through Winchester and stopped at Bojangles. Bo’s is one of my favorite fast food places. My grandmother lived in North Carolina. We’d go to Bo’s every time we visited, especially on Sunday mornings before starting the long trip home. I know the color palette, the menu, the carpet. Whenever I’m in the vicinity of one, I try to stop.
I got a Cajun fillet combo. The sweet tea is consistently excellent, thick and perfect in the summer heat. The biscuit was good, the butter top melting in my mouth. The chicken was a little dry; the fillet is probably pre-packaged. In retrospect, it was probably a perfectly fine fast food meal. In the moment, though, something gnawed at me, I wasn’t quite satisfied, but couldn’t pinpoint why. I went back and got an additional chicken leg.
I was about halfway through the drumstick when it clicked. I wanted the experience to feel like the memory. I realized I was trying to resurrect my grandmother with fried chicken and a biscuit; I was putting that much pressure on a lunch combo. I put the chicken leg down, refilled my tea, and started for home.