Old Virginny

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.

55 comments

  1. Virginia Madison - September 7, 2020 10:07 am

    Don’t be strangers, now. Come back again when you can spend more time!

    Reply
  2. Virgina Russell - September 7, 2020 10:17 am

    I hope you haven’t just killed it. (call some place Paradise, kiss it goodbye)

    Reply
  3. Jesse Brown - September 7, 2020 10:36 am

    As a boy I grew up in Madison County in a little village called Syria in the shadow of the Skyline Drive. This was the house my dad grew up in. But then when I was about 10 we moved to Maryland just outside DC for my dads work. A few years ago I went back to visit and show my then girlfriend the place where I spent some of my childhood. It hadn’t changed much and it’s just as you describe. The old house that was my grandmothers. The old country store with a single gas pump. The old baptist church where we went to Sunday school and even the old 2 story brick schoolhouse (now abandoned) where I went to second thru fourth grade and my aunt was the head cook in the school cafeteria. When I retired a few years ago I moved to Ashe County NC in the far NW corner of the state just where NC, VA and a Tennessee meet. And it’s the same as you describe.

    Reply
  4. Gwynn - September 7, 2020 11:13 am

    I was raised in the mountains of North Carolina and you just described home. I can see every bit of this in my mind’s eye. It is all very familiar, but your description made me love it a little more. Nothing like hearing an out- of-towner describe your mountains and hills. My husband’s family is from Texas and they felt the same way when they visited “my mountains”.
    Yes, Virginia is for lovers, and its neighbor, North Carolina ain’t half bad either. If your route home takes you through Boone or Blowing Rock, you’ll have a week’s worth of stories to tell of mountain vistas and homemade apple butter from a roadside stand. And if you do head that way, don’t miss The Grandfather!

    Reply
  5. Naomi - September 7, 2020 11:20 am

    Actually, Sean, there are states like Virginia once you get out of the big cities–America is beautiful, from sea to shining sea.

    Reply
  6. Robert M Brenner - September 7, 2020 11:43 am

    Well stated and true! Your description brought back memories from when I sold furniture for a living in Virginia for awhile. My main territory was North and South Carolina, but Virginia was also a small part of my travels. A little slice of heaven!

    Thanks for the memories ❤️

    Reply
  7. Liz - September 7, 2020 11:45 am

    I found myself wanting pictures :-). And wanting to visit Virginia

    Reply
  8. PWS - September 7, 2020 12:02 pm

    Agree! Backroad trip to Virginia sounds grand. North Georgia has similar spots and lots of curvy two lanes and fields.

    Reply
  9. Dee Thompson - September 7, 2020 12:26 pm

    My uncle was a college professor at Hollins College in Roanoke so we grew up occasionally driving to Virginia. It IS a beautiful place. West Virginia is even more lovely. The only area I don’t care for is the area that’s right next to Washington DC, where the house prices are ridiculous and member of Congress… well, you get the drift.

    Reply
  10. Linnea Miles - September 7, 2020 12:41 pm

    Yes, Sean. There is a Virginia. Isn’t she God’s country? And my North Carolina is there, too. Drive on I-77 across the NC/VA border, preferably going South. Breathtaking as you see the expanse, Pilot Mountain ( or Andy’s Mt. Pilot) rising in the distance. You’re coming into his and my home county of Surry, heaven on earth. Safe journeys! Linnea Miles, Black Mountain, NC

    Reply
  11. Dave W - September 7, 2020 12:55 pm

    What a GREAT writing!!!

    Reply
  12. Jenny Young - September 7, 2020 12:56 pm

    Virginia is truly amazing…..but you haven’t seen West Virginia yet! Where did you cross the state line?

    I grew up in Monroe county WV. To this day there is not one stop light in the whole county…a few flashing red lights at 4 way stops but that’s it. Just be careful if you drive the back roads. They’re paved only in the center. If you meet a car coming 60MPH you have to drive half off the road.

    Reply
  13. Linda Mann - September 7, 2020 12:59 pm

    This takes me back to our trips into Virginia when our daughter and her family lived there.. I’ve said if we ever leave Alabama, Virginia is the State I’d like to live in.. you have described it perfectly.. thank you for letting me reminisce…

    Reply
  14. Robert Chiles - September 7, 2020 1:03 pm

    Almost as pretty as Skye, but not quite. You must go to Scotland before you die.

    Reply
  15. Nita Byrd Lumpkin - September 7, 2020 1:10 pm

    Yes, Virginia is awesome & diverse; but I loved your column about SW Virginia.
    BTW, West Virginia is “almost heaven” because it’s next to Virginia,

    Reply
  16. Gary Brookins - September 7, 2020 1:17 pm

    I, too, grew up in Northwest Florida, near where Sean calls home. But I left in 1979 to come to work at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. In the ensuing years, I had offers to work for other large newspapers on the East Coast and the West, and several in-between (including Birmingham). But I turned them all down. Virginia had become our home … a wonderful place to raise a family; history everywhere (you can’t sling a dead cat in Virginia without hitting a historical marker … just a ten minute drive west of our house is Tuckahoe Plantation, the boyhood home of Thomas Jefferson); and breathtaking beauty from the mountains of southwest Virginia to the Eastern Shore. If you’ve never been here, please come for a visit. You, too, will fall in love with Virginia.

    Reply
  17. Linda Clifton - September 7, 2020 1:23 pm

    I grew up in a small farm town in Piedmont Virginia. Ivor, Va. All flat land, my Dad was a peanut farmer. But the ocean & the mountains were not far away. We had it all. It was truly God’s country. Now I live in Murphy NC in the mountains & I feel the same. ❤️

    Reply
  18. Linda Adams - September 7, 2020 1:24 pm

    Everything you described is the reason I left the family farm in N.J.(now 3sub-divisions) and settled in the Shenandoah Valley of Va.

    Reply
  19. Michelle Bethune - September 7, 2020 1:25 pm

    Sean, I have lived in Virginia for over thirty years. When you travel through the “Daughter of the Stars” you realize there are few places in America that provide more beauty and wonder. I would warn you though, from Richmond to Culpeper to Gainesville north are suburbs of DC with all it’s incumbent issues. If you stay in the Tidewater area and back to the mountain regions, you can truly enjoy the beauty that is Virginia.

    Reply
  20. Jane Chandler - September 7, 2020 1:28 pm

    Thank you, this is a beautiful story. Virginia is beautiful.

    Reply
  21. Mary Collier - September 7, 2020 1:38 pm

    Love your unique and descriptive similes and metaphors. Every. Day. Thanks for fun reading.

    Reply
  22. Polly McCallum - September 7, 2020 1:46 pm

    I was born in Virginny (A small Appalachian town called Richlands, between Bluefield and Bristol) but my family moved to FL when I was little. (They didn’t ask me 😑.)
    I still call Virginny home. I am overwhelmed with a feeling of love, closeness of family and tears each time I go back for a visit. This is where my heart still is ❤️
    Time does stand still there in some areas around here.
    It is Precious and priceless.

    Reply
  23. Patti Casey Headley - September 7, 2020 1:49 pm

    How ironic that I sit here this morning reading your blog on my first official day as an empty nester. We dropped my daughter off in Charlottesville as a first year at UVA this weekend. Drove through some of the most gorgeous scenery I’ve ever seen in VA and WV on our way to/from our home on the north shore of Chicago. The breathtaking views, beauty and simplicity allowed my tears to dry and my heart to swell as I imagined myself buying a little piece of VA heaven and beginning my new life adventure as a floral farmer – something I’ve always dreamed about – although those wildflowers growing beside the road are prettier than any I could ever imagine growing.

    Reply
  24. Diane Toth - September 7, 2020 2:29 pm

    Back road trips are the best. Come upstate New York in the fall and see the trees ablaze in rich colors. Drive through the Adirondacks to breath in the fresh clean air. There are wonders everywhere, in every state, if we choose to stop and take it in. Happy road tripping. ☮️

    Reply
  25. Deborah (Debbie) Gillespie - September 7, 2020 2:39 pm

    These marvelous oases of tranquility and simpler times do exist, not only in VA, but throughout the Appalachians. I wish y’all could have visited a little longer in our area when you were in Knoxville. I live in the Great Smoky Mountains (Sevier County. Gatlinburg), where there are still such places when you drive away from “civilization” and tourists attractions. While I do want to whole world to know about “Sean of the South” and read your writings, I hope not too many folks read this article and decide they need to move to Virginia (or any such “frozen-in-time” place). It will be ruined and lost forever. I know. All I have to do is look out any window of my house here on top of a mountain between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge to see all the “progress” that has come from people wanting a part of what once was. Stay safe on the road. Soak it all in and keep sharing your reflections with us.

    Reply
  26. Diane Cochran - September 7, 2020 2:42 pm

    Sean, I live in Virginia about three miles from the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway and you have just described home. I attend Oronoco Church of the Brethren and believe it or not we still love everybody, I mean EVERYBODY. Next time you are in this neck of the woods, please stop and stay a while. We’re always home. I read your writings (not sure what else to call them) every day and they really give me a boost. Keep up the good work and thank you for just being you.

    Reply
  27. Betty F. - September 7, 2020 2:44 pm

    Thanks for the calming beautiful picture you painted this morning. The comments extended the peaceful bubble in time this morning, too.

    Reply
  28. Tammy S. - September 7, 2020 2:52 pm

    Wow! Thanks for such a descriptive of driving through Virginia. Such beautiful countryside!! And so peaceful those drives on the country roads. I was born and raised in TN, just beautiful!! Have lived in NC for coming up on 32 years and like others have said, Boone, Blowing Rock, Grandfather Mtn, Asheville area and our personal favorite, mountain town anyway, Black Mountain, NC are all breathtaking! They have a beautiful church that sits midtown and on every hour during the day plays the most beautiful hymns by church bells. You can hear it all over town. And more creeks to stomp in than you can count. Our daughter and grandson live in the area and we love that he is being raised as a mountain boy!!

    My husband and I are both southern born and raised! And proud of it!! We just took a 4 State trip, though. Landed in Utah, saw a little then drove to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to see the Tetons (do NOT miss Jenny Lake), then to see Yellowstone and Old Faithful. We left Wyoming and headed to Whitefish, Montana. I have always wanted to visit Montana!! Did not disappoint! The drives through and between states was just as fun as the National Parks we visited. Time together on the road, with wide open farmlands, or majestic mountains rising up around every turn, or long stretched out lakes, kept us saying, “WOW!!” Our third park was Glacier National Park and hiking to Hidden Lake at Logan’s Pass. No words, breathtaking beauty!! We reluctantly left behind Montana to head to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. We stayed on the lake there of the same name. Such a trip! So many American flags, along the way, everywhere. So much love for all our country! We will probably never live anywhere else but the south! It’s who we are, and we are proud southerners. But as you shared, so wonderfully as always, and as we saw on our trip, we really do have a beautiful country, from sea to shining sea!!
    Adding Virginia to our list!! 🙂

    Reply
  29. Judy - September 7, 2020 3:35 pm

    We are no longer friends Sean. This used to be the best kept secret, my home.

    Reply
  30. Creg Smith - September 7, 2020 4:06 pm

    Virginia Is For Lovers has been the Commonwealth’s slogan for more than 50 years. It was developed for people who lover all the things that are in Virginia — all the things you described and more. As a former resident after living there off and on for nearly 40 years remembers there are two parts of the state NOVA or northern Virginia the suburbs surrounding Washington, DC, and ROVA, rest of Virginia. You have seen and enjoyed ROVA. NOVA is like any other metropolitan area — Atlanta, Birmingham, Jacksonville, etc. Stay on the highways and byways of ROVA, you can see beauty everywhere, particularly on the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive.
    Now my family roots are in WVA and “it ain’t to shabby either”. Go to Clarksburg/Fairmont area and get one of the true WVA delicacies — a pepperoni roll. FYI, Fairmont is the home of Nick Saban and Mary Lou Retton. Should be a couple of columns there.
    Enjoy!

    Reply
  31. Bill in Tennessee - September 7, 2020 4:08 pm

    As an east Tennessean, I am always looking for such road trip itineraries to take road trips on. Can you share anything you can about actual state roads / routes you took on this trip? My wife and I have the time and inclination to retrace this trip, even willing to “get lost” for a bit. Thanks!

    Reply
  32. Ella Herlihy - September 7, 2020 5:11 pm

    Virginia through and through. God’s country for sure. Try to go through Charlottesville and Danville on your way home. Way better than the highway. Worth the extra time. Grab a Bodo’s bagel sandwich in C’ville and breakfast from Biscuitville in Danville. Then you will really have to pinch yourself to prove you’re not in heaven. Virginia IS for lovers.

    Reply
  33. Linda Moon - September 7, 2020 5:18 pm

    “What Yahoo”! I haven’t heard “yahoo” used in that context in a long time! The old guy who often said it has been gone a long time, too. Country roads and flights have taken me to Virginia to visit family and places where I belonged. So, on behalf of us people who love, thank you for sharing reminders of beauty, Sean. God knows we need some…..love AND beauty!

    Reply
  34. Laurence w church - September 7, 2020 5:51 pm

    Sean, Virginia is For Lovers was created by Kent Puckett in the late 70s or early 80s. He won an award for that line and Virginia has been getting mileage from it ever since. If you ever meet Kent you are bound to like him🤓

    Reply
  35. Mary Blair Valentine - September 7, 2020 6:17 pm

    John,love reading your descriptions of the traveling through the mountains. Please publish them. You are a talented writer. I think I’m seeing you soon. Mary Blair Valentine

    Reply
  36. Joyce W Moorman - September 7, 2020 6:52 pm

    Over a 40 year career in retail, my husband and I have traveled into all 50 states, through all of the provinces of Canada and a fair number of foreign countries. Each state and place we have traveled had it’s special interests. However, we have always been happy to get back to our home state, Virginia. Actually, one time the trip had been so hard that I kissed the ground when we arrived home. Virginia is not just beautiful, it is a comfort.

    Reply
  37. Frances Simon - September 7, 2020 7:52 pm

    For years, traveling through Virginia as a little girl in the back seat of the family car, I fell in love, too. My future husband would be a boy my age growing up on one of the beautiful farms with acreage, cows, horses, pasture, and a white barn with 2 side-by-side silos just a short walk away from the large, white, rambling, two-story, big front porch house that would be our home.

    The framed photograph of that place of dreams resides on a wall beside my kitchen table. It was taken by the non-farming gentleman I married. Lucky for us, one of our sons went to college in Virginia so we have had at least 4 more years of falling in love with Virginia.

    Reply
  38. georgethodgesgmailcom - September 7, 2020 8:15 pm

    Drove I-81 south through the Shenandoah Valley yesterday. Marvelous!

    Reply
  39. Chsrlie - September 7, 2020 8:15 pm

    Sean…Thanks for the kind words for the State I was born and live in.,…I have the best of both worlds….My wife is from Bama and her folks still live in B’ham….So I am blessed to be able to enjoy the beauty of both….And we have friends Who own a Beach house in the Panhandle Of Florida which is so pretty as well….. I am one blessed lucky dude!

    Reply
  40. Leslie Schmidt - September 7, 2020 8:40 pm

    It sounds perfectly wonderful.

    Reply
  41. Kathleen McAbee - September 7, 2020 10:52 pm

    My home state! From Tennessee to W.Va., up and down I-81

    Reply
  42. Paula Beard - September 7, 2020 11:44 pm

    Welcome to God’s country! My family has been in Virginia since the 1600’s. Our home looks out to hilly Piedmont farmland from the back windows and the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains from the front. It never gets old. Just, whatever you do, DO NOT go to the northern Virginia suburban sprawl near DC. That is the devil’s country!

    Reply
  43. Virginia Madison - September 7, 2020 11:47 pm

    Mr. Brookins,
    I have enjoyed your cartoons in the RT-D over the years and am certain you are enjoying your retirement. This Plugger sees her own retirement getting closer every day and is eagerly anticipating it.

    Reply
  44. Jane Elder - September 8, 2020 12:42 am

    Been down that road. Nothing’s like it. Thanks for the tour.

    Reply
  45. Gary Brookins - September 8, 2020 1:11 am

    Thanks, Virginia. I really appreciate it. And congratulations on your upcoming retirement … it seems to be just about everything it’s cracked up to be ! 😉

    Reply
  46. Christina - September 8, 2020 2:43 am

    When are we going to see you at “Beautiful American spots with Sean of the South” on PBS?

    Reply
  47. Nancy Bauer - September 8, 2020 5:13 am

    Wildwood barn. Red belly Ford. Ronnie Milsap impersonator! Count me as your newest fan girl.

    Reply
  48. Karen Rankin - September 8, 2020 1:34 pm

    Spectacular! I love your words and your thoughts, Sean. Thank you. 🙂

    Reply
  49. Nicole Johnson - September 8, 2020 3:23 pm

    Wonderful write-up about my home state! When you have a chance, visit us in Bedford! Blue Ridge Mountains to the north, and Smith Mountain Lake to the south. Lots of beauty in between. Would love to have you!

    Reply
  50. Brad Mullins - September 8, 2020 4:10 pm

    Unfortunately the liberal urban areas of Virginia elect liberal politicians. The worst being their Governor.

    Reply
  51. Catherine - September 8, 2020 5:28 pm

    I’m guessing you took a non-interstate route on your drive through the mountains. I’ve always wanted to get off the highway and trave like that. What you discribe reminds me of all my visits to the NC mountains as a young girl. I’m a recent newcomer to Virginia. Your story makes me want to use my covid freedom to go for a long drive through the Shenendoa mountains. I’m glad that there is so much in Virginia to love!

    Reply
  52. Sharon Clark Chang - September 9, 2020 12:18 am

    As one whose family has been here in VA since the 1600s, I’m so glad y’all had these glimpses of the many beauties of Virginia. And to think you haven’t even been to the Tidewater area yet! Get ready to be waved at by every person and vehicle you encounter on its less-traveled roads, and to be told to “Come back soon now, y’heah?” in every business establishment you stop at.

    Reply
  53. Pat McGilberry - September 9, 2020 1:23 am

    You make me want to go there.

    Reply
  54. Rita - September 10, 2020 1:12 am

    Just watched your segment on Art on Demand! It’s so nice to put a voice to your writing! You happened to mention the Carter Family. The next time you’re in Southwestern Virginia take a little detour off I-81 and visit the Carter Fold. Definitely worth the drive! Abingdon and Bristol are both great little towns just up the road from “The Fold.” I’ve called North Georgia home for over 30 years and have spent many vacations in Walton County. Both are beautiful areas, but it’s so nice to have someone appreciate my home state of Virginia. We can often take for granted the beauty around us until someone else sees it with fresh eyes.

    Reply
  55. Cynthia Woods - September 21, 2020 4:14 pm

    I think it must be a conspiracy to just leave some of God’s Country to Him and to those who will appreciate it. Virginia is for lovers. Congrats! UR1!!!

    Reply

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