My wife and I are on the way to Virginia, driving northward on a bumpy two-lane highway. We have a long way left to drive.
I have spent the morning riding through Tennessee, tailgating a beat up Chevy with a license plate that reads: “Virginia is for lovers.”
I’ve been staring at these four words for nearly two hours. And the slogan has started to aggravate me. What a corny phrase. I wonder what yahoo came up with that one.
Then we cross the state line into Virgina.
All of a sudden I am driving through steep green hillsides that look like they belong in Scotland. Every two minutes I pass a rural scene so arresting that I have to pull over to see if it’s real.
The mountainsides are quilted in uniform grass, dotted with trees, and the cattle are grazing. Every wildwood barn, vacant schoolhouse, dilapidated RV, and abandoned water heater is swallowed in kudzu.
“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” my wife asks.
No. I have not.
This is my first visit to Virginia and nobody prepared me for what it would look like. In fact, I feel silly trying to describe to you all that I’m seeing.
The pavement carries us into valleys that slice through the Middle of Nowhere. We take horseshoe curves that shoot us into highlands, grasslands, forestlands, and farmland.
The farther we drive, the more churches we see. We see a new chapel every seven feet. Sometimes closer than that. There are so many churches in the state of Virginia, Bill Gaither could run for governor.
And old homes. I’ve never seen so many American farmhouses. Many of these homesteads sit on gracious cliffs. Other houses have as many as two, three, or four axles.
I pass a cow bathing herself in a craggy mountain stream, she’s looking at me. I pass a man plowing a field with a red belly Ford. I see children playing tag in a hayfield. What year is this?
I pull into a pasture. I park on a trampled dirt path. My wife and I jump out to look around. Before us are hills. Miles and miles of them.
This part of Virginia is so big, so untouched, so spacious, so green, that I feel like a gnat lost on God’s front lawn.
I’m going to level with you. I am a middle-aged man. I haven’t been to many places in this world. Certainly, I’ve had a good life. I’ve sipped beer on Cape San Blas. I have shaken hands with a Ronnie Milsap impersonator in Branson, Missouri. I have seen the sunset over Talladega Superspeedway.
But I have never—not in my life—seen anything like old Virginny.
Behind us are acres of wildflowers spilling down a mountainside, avalanching into valleys, becoming a rainbow of crippling hayfever that makes my eyes water and my nose fill with snot.
And there are no cars. For nearly an hour on this empty highway I don’t see a single vehicle.
Each mile we travel, the cliffs get taller. The clumps of forest and greenbrier grow so thick it feels like we’re driving through a house salad. Pretty soon, I realize we are totally lost. I have no idea where we are.
So I stop at a country gas station. It’s your basic one-pump establishment. No overhang. No card machine.
The dinging bell above the door rings when I enter. A cashier sits behind the counter, wearing a surgical mask and reading a “Prevention” magazine.
She doesn’t even glance up. She says, “You must need directions.”
“How’d you know?” I say.
She half smiles. “Nobody’s GPS works up here. And we ain’t got cell service, neither.” She points out the window. “That’s why we still have payphones.”
Then the woman gives me directions, if you can call them that. Because what she really does is describe local landmarks by shape and color so that her directions sound more like:
“Turn left at the barn with the Red Man billboard; turn right at the lumber mill; left at the broke down school bus; when you see the Church of Christ, slow down because deputies love to grease out-of-towners…”
It is as though I have stumbled into 1947.
I don’t want to get melodramatic, but for a brief moment, I am in a world that has disappeared. A simple era where there is no coronavirus, no unemployment, and nobody is arguing about little paper masks. There are only hills.
A guy could get used to this.
We are driving again. I follow the lady’s directions to the letter. Eventually I am about to cross the state line again and enter West Virginia. But before I do, I pull over one last time.
I stand in tall grass beside a wire fence. The crickets swell like they’re singing a finale. A breeze blows. I see a few horses. I hear a distant tractor. And I feel the sunlight on my bald spot.
I close my eyes and replay what I’ve just seen. Because this can’t exist. Can it? An America like this doesn’t truly exist. If it did, why wouldn’t they write about it in newspapers? Why isn’t this discussed on talk radio, or shown on 24-hour news channels? Why don’t you ever see anything good on TV?
This must be an elaborate hallucination. It has to be. Nothing can be this magnificent.
But when I open my eyes it’s still here. Every acre of it. Just as clean and crisp as the day it came out of the oven. And there are simply no two ways about it.
Virginia is for lovers.