Feb 7, 2023
“Can you believe this road?” David asks on a January afternoon, driving us down the Old Pike in my Silverado. It’s five miles to Route 250 and about an hour from there to town, a place big enough for a grocery, which is our destination.
I’m not sure what he’s getting at. A reverie, perhaps, on the relative smoothness of the limestone surface, since the Department of Highways recently completed the first serious repairs in nearly 30 years. While I silently agree it’s a good thing to remind ourselves of our good fortune up here in the outback, it also seems we’ve talked that topic to death. Perhaps he’s noting the look of the road today, a stubborn ribbon of white through a forest where most of the snow has melted off, where shades of brown, umber and ochre lend a subtle glow to the road, by way of contrast. As if it were lit from beneath, most especially on an overcast day like this one. Or maybe he’s referring to the weird inverse reality of living where the snow melts on the land before it melts on the tree-shaded byway that leads to our driveway, visual proof of the remoteness of our chosen residence, and just how few vehicles travel this road. Reminder that regardless how accustomed we’ve become, where and how we live is truly odd and therefore, my dear, inevitably are we. He might be going there, a juicy topic of conversation to be sure, akin to gossiping about ourselves. But I’m not sure.
“What do you mean?”
“Just look at it!” His tone is one of captive wonder, as if he’s helpless before the vision he beholds. As if, and this seems clear, he’s seeing the Old Pike for the first time, when in fact it is the umpteenth. The gift of new eyes has been given to him, as it always is, unexpectedly.
“Yes.” I giggle a little. I reach over and put my hand on his arm.
This road is more than a place, it’s a presence. More than a mere means of conveyance, it is the bearer of witness, the container of dreams, celebration and war.
We continue toward pavement, the 21st century, the so-called real world. “I think of it almost as a person, a character in my life for sure.”
My beloved smiles at me. “I know.”
The 10-mile stretch of the Old Pike, the original Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike off of which our driveway descends, was constructed in the early 1840s, part of the first government-funded transportation route connecting the upper Shenandoah Valley to the Ohio River through some of the most rugged, mountainous terrain in the east. At the behest of the Virginia General Assembly, the road was engineered by Claudius Crozet, a polymath who served under Napoleon during his invasion of Russia in 1812, emigrated to the US in 1816, taught at West Point, wrote a geometry textbook, and became Virginia’s principal engineer for public works in 1823. By the time he was charged with mapping a road through the Alleghenies in 1826, Crozet had acquired a reputation as a difficult man, variously described as irritable, intolerant of disagreement, and unpopular. Just the type of exacting personality I imagine to rant and rave, even as he met the demands and suffered the delays of politicians and administrators. Virginia law required a maximum grade of 4% and a width of no more than 20 feet and no less than 15. Can’t you hear his French-accented pique? By the time the funds were appropriated to begin construction in 1838, he’d quit and been rehired.
The sharp switchbacks along “our” portion of the Old Pike, as well as along current day Route 250, which largely follows the original road southeast from the Virginia state line to Churchville, VA and northwest from Durbin, WV to Huttonsville, reveal Crozet’s commitment to a 4% grade, even as he didn’t always achieve it, nor has anyone since. When I find myself driving behind a slowpoke, it’s good to remember the astonishment with which I beheld 55 mph speed limit signs 30 years ago, when I first traveled Route 250 and couldn’t imagine how anyone drove anywhere near that fast on such a vertiginous hairpin-turn of a highway. A road that attracts fog like corduroy attracts cat hair. Where it remains a thrillingly unexpected event to see the view from the top of Shenandoah or Cheat Mountain, even on an otherwise pleasant day. And where, when the weather is bad, driving over either mountain feels existential with an intensity few other modern experiences match.
When I lost control of my truck and slid over the side of Cheat Mountain late one frigid February afternoon, the fact of my vulnerability was one of the truest truths I’ve ever encountered. A kind of birth, impossible to deny, rewind and redo, or forget. And, indeed, although I was not physically hurt, I was forever changed by my momentary lapse in the sort of attention these mountains demand. As I climbed up out of the driver side window and onto the shoulder of Route 250, in the middle of a vast mountain expanse with no cell-phone service and very little traffic, I castigated myself for behaving with a contempt no depth of familiarity could ever warrant. “Let this be a lesson to you,” I told myself, as I stood shivering with shock and cold until rescued, serendipitously, by a passing off-duty EMT. Lesson received. Drive humbly here so that you might live; the inverse being equally accurate. Humility in face of the familiar is the opposite of contempt, and for the chance of long life in these mountains, required.
Although not solely. There’s nothing humble about engineering ancient migratory trails for state government-funded transformation into a By-God Highway. No humility expected when you’re tasked with hiring the laborers to build such a road, un-propertied Irishmen imported for the job and German immigrant landholders such as they existed, the Varner and Yeager families predominant along the stretch of the Old Pike where I reside. When transformation of the land is the stated intention, humility becomes a quaint, reverent caution tied to an absence of gumption. Whatever its moral merits, humility falls away.
Which is just another way of saying that if Crozet and the esteemed members of the Virginia Assembly were more properly humble, this road would not exist. And if I were more properly humble, I would not dare to live along it.
Yet here I am. A woman born near the middle of the 20th century living in a liminal space between the 19th century and the 21st, between hubris and comeuppance, between gumption and caution, and frankly feeling all of it most acutely when I’m in my truck, turning out of my drive onto the Old Pike, a road that has much to say. The least I can do is tilt my head and listen.
What do I hear? Some days I hear the dull thunk of axe head smashed into tree trunk, the fulsome swoosh and clatter that follows, and then the dry rhythm of a two-handled saw cutting through wood. I hear the rattle of a chain tied around stump and harness. An Irish brogue that commands horses forward and the snap-crack of leather whip that compels struggle between horse flesh and tree root. A struggle that must be endured until this stump, and every other (for a total of 235 miles), is separated from the stone-tangled earth a few men in Richmond envisioned as a roadbed. I hear the metallic chink of mattock swung up overhead and then down, with all a young man’s power, to pierce a shelf of shale. The chorus of sledgehammers busting big rocks into fragments that, once packed together and rolled, will form the road’s macadam surface. A chorus not unlike the tumbling sound of a bowling alley in the heat of tournament play: strike after strike after strike.
Other days I hear the German-accented voices of grandmothers and daughters, each with a child in her lap and a basket by her side, traveling by buggy to a day of worship and picnicking at the Dunkard church on Top of Allegheny. Women with ways, if not memories, from the old country: recipes and fairy tales, lullabies and curatives. Over the creak and squeak of wooden wheels and axles, I detect in the timbre of their tone unyielding determination to survive. I hear the doggedness that brought them through a war that took fathers, sons, and husbands, that war’s dismal aftermath, and then carried them all the way to the beginning of the 20th century. Here they are, wearing high-collared dresses and straw hats with bows, riding to a mountaintop church service and discussing in July, perhaps, whether there might be huckleberries to pick in the afternoon.
There are so many voices to be transcribed, stories to be imagined, sounds to be translated. But most often, to be honest, what I hear when I pull onto the Old Pike road, those days my memory isn’t muted by podcast or radio, is the story of me. The sounds of me learning how to live, somewhere between hubris and comeuppance, between gumption and caution, one near-calamity and relative-triumph after another.
The delicate, celebratory woosh of an apple tree limb rebounding after the fruit is picked. The silent horror of the truck sliding sideways through snot-slick mud. The satisfying squish of a digging knife plunged into wet dirt and the subtle crunch of the tip-up, revealing a perfect handful of bright white ramps. The crisp snip of scissors cutting bee balm and heal all and nettle and yarrow once I knew for certain what I was cutting. The back of the throat burble in a very sick chicken. The yelps of wilding bear dogs when I can’t tell how far-off they are. The cellophane crackle of ice-coated plants moved by a gentle wind. The belltower clarity of a melting icicle dripping on metal. The satisfying kerplunk of blueberries dropped one-by-one into an old yogurt tub saved for the purpose. The joyous crescendo of water pumped uphill from our spring crashing into the tank in our basement. The first summer Towhee commanding me, at sunrise: Drink Your Teeeaaa! The sound of my heart beating in my ears the first time, so many years ago, that I drove this road in cottony fog. I’d never seen anything like it. I’ve never stopped needing to see and hear more.