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Monday, May 28, 2012

Southside Ramble - warning, long and picture laden

It's well known that I'm unabashedly provincial, deeply, perhaps even ridiculously proud of being a Virginian and thoroughly rural. BD and I love to get in the car and roll on down the back roads exploring our home state, our favorite tool the DeLorme's Atlas.  I still haven't given up the dream of driving down every back road in every county in VA, although - maybe I need to limit it to counties with populations under 25,000. I'm not really interested in every cul de sac in every subdivision in Fairfax County. Besides, I like to head south and west whenever I get in a car. 

Every spring we have to clean the winter's mold and mildew off our north facing porch - a job always performed by the big guy since I'm deathly allergic to chlorine. This year I was determined to get outta Dodge while the fumes evaporated so I arranged to pick up BD once he was done and take him back to Chase City, VA - and the most magical garden I've ever visited.  A surprise decree from the county got me out of the office by 2:30 and by 3:30 we were heading west along the Caroline County route through Sparta and File and down 301 where we could take the fast roads around Richmond and head southwest.  

As we crossed the James on 288 I began to feel a pinching ache in my throat, because I almost never drive that bridge any more. This was the way I used to go to visit my parents. A year ago I was driving it all the time, visiting Daddy. It's hard to believe that it's been almost a year since he died. Most of the time I'm okay, but there are still those moments when the missing him hits hard and this was one of them. It grew even stronger as we neared the megalithic brick shopping mountain that used to be Watkins Nursery but is now called something more suburban ... Watkins Shop-a-rama or maybe Watkins Center - you know - something that would come out of a committee meeting. Anyway - the tears were pricking me by then when my truly darling Big Darling (whence BD) reached over and took my hand, squeezed it and said "Makes me think of Hank".  God I love that man!

Usually we don't get in cars on holiday weekends and usually when we go on a ramble I get to be the passenger, but this time I did most of the driving. BD was tired and I was not, plus, he is a better navigator (though I am no slouch) and he took me through places in Chesterfield I'd never heard of. Just past the Land of Brandermill on 360 we turned south onto Winterpock Road and drove right to Winterpock itself! who knew? And there was Crump's Store! Everything looked like home to me, since I grew up in this rolling piedmont  land. As soon as I climb up out of the flat fields of Essex I begin to feel like I'm going back in time. Old country stores and white farmhouses with huge hay fields and black cows dredge up all sorts of nostalgic emotions - most of them good, some of them funny. Boy do I love me some Virginia landscape!

We wove our way through beautiful undulating Amelia county, picking up Wills Road to reach a corner where Amelia, Nottoway and Dinwiddie converge along Namasine Creek.
Dinwiddie Co. is where the old Tobacco Belt begins - though tobacco was grown as far north as southern MD a generation ago. It's dying out now but there are still some farmers who know what the plant is and how to successfully coax it out of the ground. There is even a sobering and disastrous tale of our own failed attempt to grow the evil weed - but that is a story for another day. And  yes - there you see Himself - investigating one of the few tobacco fields we saw on our trip. This beautiful plant still supports some of the small towns that dot the lower tier of Virginia counties. 

 We drove about 35 mph most of the way so we could keep the windows rolled down and breathe in all the fragrances of the Virginia countryside in springtime - sweet grass, some few magnolias, the sharp tang of pine forests. All the roadsides were fringed with yarrow, daisy, mustard and roses - now and then a bit of Queen Anne's Lace and even a few Black Eyed Susans.

At the Nottoway River we crossed into Brunswick County - cooking pot of that delicious autumn offering, sold at church yard and women's auxiliary functions - Brunswick Stew. Yum! I could eat some right now - but it does taste better once the weather grows nippy. I was at the wheel and I always slow down for creeks and rivers - I frequently get out and photograph them - now and then I even get captured myself - smiling and relaxed on a warm May evening.

Since I was doing the driving, though, I didn't get all that many photographs - though - with a digital camera it was easy to snap 100 shots on this 24 hour ramble. The sky was filled with cumulus clouds, some grey with the hint of rain, but we rode the whole way dry. 

Again and again we slid down green tunnels, past white churches

over brown flowing creeks

beside long forgotten ruins.

The only real town we drove through was Alberta. There was not much business left and what was there was closed for the weekend. We saw only a few commercial buildings, faded to raw wood, and a dozen or so well kept modest homes.

We spent the night in South Hill, a substantial town in Mecklenburg, strung along old Rt 1, which, once you get well south of Richmond, is a lovely road. South Hill is also kissed by I85, where we had a room booked at a chain motel. We had dinner at the oddest oriental buffet restaurant I've ever dined in. Along with the ubiquitous oriental dishes were hushpuppies and fried pork rind. Ah well. It's a southern thing.

The next morning we continued the slide down beautiful green-tunneled, flower edged lanes, heading west. Along the Sky Line Rd I saw a girl calling to her goats, who scampered up a rise like so many hooved puppies.

As we pulled up to the intersection with Union Level Road we found this abandoned schoolhouse. Can't you just hear the whispering of little girls, the twang of a rubberband as it flies from the fingers of some naughty boy?

Expansions in the 40's and 50's accommodated the baby boomer kids who must have swelled the neighborhood.

With slow creeping wheels we pulled into Union Level itself, first to be greeted by this exquisite Victorian beauty

and then this extinct little town  (the pink 'dot' at the far end of the road is a car parked in the driveway of the previous house)
The final boarded up business was an ancient filling station where, the last time anyone bought gas, he paid ... what's this? ...

Yup. 36 cents a gallon.

We passed scenes like this time and again - white houses, green slopes, blue skies, rich fields. But we were not just poking down country roads. We had a destination!

Chase City, Virginia

A beautiful town chock-a-block full of tidy spacious southern charm  

and the most magical garden in the world.

21 years ago, BD and I took a drive across southside Virginia, heading for Danville - a place I had visited in my teens, when I played a concert at Averette College - I guess it's a university now - but I believe it was a teaching college long ago when I was young. Coming into Chase City from another back road direction we stumbled upon the MacCallum More Gardens.

Well - at first we didn't realize it was a garden. First I thought it was someone's fascinatingly decorated back yard wall - adorned with with friezes and plaques. It wasn't till we rounded the block that we realized this was more than just a yard  - and that maybe it would be open to the public.

The most wonderful circular iron gate, painted glistening white, hinted at delights within - as did a peek through one of the iron trellised windows cut through the stone.

View through a window in the wall

There was a small sign posted that said "This garden is entrusted to the care of its visitors." and that was enough for us. There was another plaque that told us about Mrs. Hudgens, who planted the garden. We went inside. Back then there was nobody else around - except a cat, who met us by the fountain and took us on a guided tour. The silence of that May day filled us with enchantment. At the time the gardens seemed a little neglected but still healthy. It was crowded with statuary and iron, its beds woven with footpaths.

The most stunning thing of all was this bronze samurai warrior-vase, exquisite in proportion and detail. Alas - I didn't get a good photo of the whole thing - but the samurai is holding the vase on top of his head. 
There were ponds with rushes, statues and frogs ... 

There was a glorious mossy lawn which I would give anything to replicate in my shady front yard.

Emperors and goddesses, all cast reproductions of famous European sculptures, constantly demanded attention. 

Of particular delight were the wrought iron and twisted metal pieces - graceful even in their decay. I would love to have tried sitting on this bench but it seemed a bit delicate and I didn't want to chance it. This crumbling wheel is the pulley of a well

For all that these beautiful gardens offered of tranquility and green beauty, there was even more to see.  Twenty one years ago it seemed a little abandoned but since then the wonderful people of Chase City have formed a NFP Corp., now called the MacCallum More Museum and Gardens, to care for both this horticultural gem and an amazing collection of Indian arrowheads, stone tools and other prehistoric artifacts collected from the area. On this visit we were given the museum tour by the president of the NPF, herself a local woman with a wealth of Chase City Lore, who made this visit as magical and fey as our original trip.

In truth - every Virginian ought to make the drive south to visit this glorious surprise, tucked into the pretty Soutside Virginia landscape. I am thinking I need to come back again some year during Garden Week. Ooooo. Bring some girlfriends. Yes. The wheels turn. Plans develop. Hmmm.

We finished up our visit around 1:30, hot and thirsty and a wee bit hungry. All I could think of was watermelon - and at the local grocery store I bought some, along with a box of plastic forks. We found a shady spot among some beautiful Victorian and Edwardian architecture and refreshed ourselves.

But it was not only in the old established parts of town that we found beauty. Down a dead end road where modest trailer homes clustered we discovered this beauty - Patricia D has landscaped her Chase City yard to perfection and put the prettiest colors right out front to share with her neighbors - and snoopy tourists like us!
But finally it was time to leave our pretty destination. I wanted to see Clarkesville too, further south and west on Buggs Island Lake. On that long ago trans-Virginia trip we had spent the night there and breakfasted at a little drugstore on the sloping hill that took you down to the lake. I remember a quilting shop next door - this was in my pre-knitting days when my tool of choice was a sewing machine and the irresistible souvenir was a length of fabric.

Of course - we missed the turnoff because now there is a hideous mega-bridge that swoops east of the town, loomingly bypassing the town with it's gentler flat bridge. I suppose it keeps the trucks out of downtown - but it's massive industrial bulk is the sort of thing I try to avoid looking at. Swept across the narrow part of the lake we curved onto Highway 15 to get back to town where, right away we were greeted with more beautiful architecture.

We really love to gaze at architecture - both private homes and the public expression of community that one sees in civic construction of the 19th century. There's never an old courthouse we aren't ready to park by, walk around, and record with film - and sometimes even pencil. Here's a beauty that can't be hidden even with modern brick and cement.

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We took the flat bridge out of Clarkesville, truly on the drive back. Of course we had a long way to go and by now, in the late afternoon, we were thinking as much about home as we were admiring the scenery.

We took 58 into Boydton, the county seat of Meckllenburg, with it's white columned courthouse complete with defending Confederate soldier 
and stunningly restored tavern. 
The trip home included a final look at Chase City before heading north east on 49 and crossing into Lunenburg County, singing John Prine's Paradise, but substituting the Virginia county for Muhlenberg.  
We were particularly charmed by the outdoor staircase on this brick courthouse. 

Once through Victoria - another well - if sketchily - remembered town we visited on that long ago trip - we continued on into Crew where I took over the driving the rest of the way home. BD guided me down new, if similar, winding, fragrant, evening brushed roads in Amelia and Powhatan counties, on up to 522 - which took us across the James and into more familiar territory. By then it was well into dinnertime and we debated taking this road through Ashland or that road to Hanover Courthouse, deciding, in the end, to take our chances with the chain restaurants along 95. But even then, the trip had one more new and lovely bit of landscape to offer - along Dunns Chapel Rd - past Dunn's Chapel in fact. Proof that you don't need to go far in Virginia to find a beautiful marriage of man's industry and mother nature. 

Home at last, we pet our dogs and showered off the stickiness to tumble into bed - with two more happy holiday days left on this Memorial Day weekend. 

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