In 2013 we spent a week in Missoula, Montana before heading over to the East coast to spend time in Maine and Canada. You can find the full story about the trip in the Travel Adventures section of this blog. We loved Quebec and Montreal, and Maine continues to be one of our favorite places but, I feel compelled to make Appalachia a story of its own. Appalachia is unique and so different from Montana, Maine, or Canada that I reserved a special place for this part of the journey.
After enjoying escargot and duck confit in Canada and lobster in Maine we are heading to the land of hush-puppies in the South. Duck confit was good but I love hush-puppies. Our next destination is the Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, known as the Crooked Road.
We learned about the Crooked Road, from a couple we shared a lunch table with at Lunch in the Park, in Missoula. We love traveling, we meet so many nice people and we find RVers eager to share their experiences, tell us about their home, favorite trips, etc. (etc, sometimes equals worst travel nightmares!). In this case the couple had been sitting in Missoula for a week waiting for a new refrigerator for their RV.
They extended, what we have come to know, as typical Southern hospitality. They told us about the Crooked Road and invited us to come and see them in Roanoke, Virginia and they would be happy to show us around. We didn’t plan to take them up on the offer but if we did, I’m sure they wouldn’t have been surprised.
On our way through the Roanoke area we happened upon a ‘slight’ delay. With what seems like, the entire US highway system under construction, we weren’t surprised to see the detour signs start springing up. We were, however surprised and dismayed at this situation. Apparently during road construction a huge boulder was found to be cracked and it was decided to reroute traffic away from the area. That sounds relatively simple but there was no where for this highway traffic to go except to be shuffled through a series of small towns. We saw a lot of lovely small communities but after three hours we were ready for this housing tour to end. Picture semi trucks, senior citizen vans, trucks with boats, passenger cars, and motor homes snaking through four way stop signs and school zones. At least we had cold drinks and a potty but the stop and go was exhausting.
Poster for the Crooked Road
We were having a difficult time finding accommodations anywhere on the Crooked Road, but finally found the last spot in an RV park in Hillsville, Virginia. When we were getting parked the hosts wanted to know if we were there for the flea market. He was surprised at our ignorance about this biggest weekend of the year. This was the weekend that Hillsville hosted the largest flea market known to man. Apparently people come from all over the country to browse the tents for five dollar sunglasses, chainsaws, quilts, soft serve ice cream and deep fried Oreos. When we headed out of town the next morning, there must have been thousands of people, most with treasures in their arms. It was a carnival atmosphere and everyone looked like they were having fun. We, on the other hand, were trying to drive through the congestion, but it was a sight to see. Flea markets and such seem to be a big deal in the South. We’ve noticed, what seems to be, houses with perpetual yard sales. As someone told us, it’s an Appalachia thing.
RV Park in Hillsville, Virginia
The RV park we settled in turned out to be delightful. It was more like a campground than an RV park so we had green grass and our front window looked out on two nice ponds. The Mennonite family that just took over the park were very helpful. When we asked about outgoing mail they didn’t have a post box but offered to take our mail to town for us. We started down the road to take our trash to the dumpster and one of the young men offered to take it for us. On the weekend the few people who weren’t at the flea market brought their kids to fish in the ponds or rent the paddle boats.
The Crooked Road extends about three hundred miles through southern Virginia. We didn’t plan to travel the entire route but we are curious to see what is happening on the Road.
We were eager to see the National Park Service, Blue Ridge Mountain Music Center. We picked up the Blue Ridge Parkway at Fancy Gap, Virginia, REALLY, it is a real town, welcome to Appalachia! We followed the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Music Center. The Park Service has created a wonderful place to celebrate the people and music of Appalachia. There were story boards and recorded music to illustrate the earliest music of the region. The displays were very professional and the whole area was beautiful. They have a large amphitheater for concerts and on this Saturday morning about a dozen neighbors played music out on the porch. Most of the rocking chairs available for grinners, were filled, but we managed to snag a couple to listen for a spell. Fiddles, guitars, mandolins, and bass kept our toes tapping. Missing was a dobro but my dobro player left his instrument back in the motorhome.
Love this Town Sign
That night we went into the town of Galax to the old Rex theater and enjoyed a live radio show. Five dollars for a night of great bluegrass music was a bargain. We met some people from South Carolina that have a summer home in Fancy Gap. I guess you can get away from the madding crowds in Fancy Gap, and it is located right on the Blue Ridge Parkway so the scenery can’t be beat. We picked up some BBQ from the old fashioned soda fountain/BBQ place down the street.
We took a road trip to the country store in Floyd hoping for some music but the usual jam was cancelled.. We did enjoy the store though, so many unusual items. In hindsight I wish Monty would have gotten a Crooked Road T-shirt. Yep, it’s 20/20! Post Script here: our grand daughter, Jordan, is going to school in North Carolina. She and her room mate took road trip and used the Travel Adventures section of this blog to follow the Crooked Road to Floyd. Jordan brought us two T-shirts from the Floyd General Store.
Leaving the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Crooked Road we headed toward Nashville to visit our friends Ruth and Charles. One of our favorite travel resources is our volume of ‘One Thousand Places to See Before you Die’ and I’m happy to say we are making progress thru the pages. On page 476 we found the Museum of Appalachia. The location was perfect, just outside of Knoxville, there was even a KOA nearby.
We understand why this museum was included in the book, what an American treasure. We were welcomed into a country store with everything you would expect in an old country store. We purchased our tickets and proceeded out the door into a beautiful meadow surrounded by a split rail fence. The museum encompasses sixty-five acres of lush, pastures, meadows, and farm land with twelve or fifteen buildings. The first stop on the self-guided tour was an 1800 era two story plantation house. The wood beam above the door was inscribed with the words, ‘The Hall of Fame’. We had no idea what to expect inside, but what a pleasant surprise to walk into an entry way lined with black and white photos on the ‘Wall of Fame.’ This old mansion housed hundreds of items belonging to the members of this Hall of Fame. But more than that, it was a personal look at the lives of the people of Appalachia.
I can’t adequately explain how touching it was to see the weathered faces of the people framed with the words of the museum creator ‘These are my people, my family, my trusted friends, my neighbors, this is my Appalachia’ Honestly I can’t read these words without tearing up. Each face told a story.
The Wall Of Fame
This is not a museum on the Smithsonian scale, this is a much more personal story of the people of Appalachia. Each hand lettered poster board tells the story of a life lived in the hills of Tennessee.
According to One Thousand Places to See . . . John Rice Irwin, a former Anderson County school superintendent, whose grand parents settled in eastern Tennessee in the 1700’s collected stories from his ancestors, but he didn’t stop there. As the old mountain folk died or moved away he began collecting discarded farm implements and household items – hand-carved wooden dolls, corn-husk brooms, and even banjos made from bedpans and ham tins. In the 1960’s those treasures became the core of the Museum of Appalachia with some 250,000 artifacts.
There is even a perpetual motion machine built in the 1800’s, it isn’t completely assembled but the parts are there and a small sign requests help from anyone who can figure out how to assemble it and get it running, then I guess it is on its own. Apparently it was built during the Civil War and hidden in a cave for many years so no one would destroy it.
There was a room devoted to music, with all manner of instruments. Most were home made and yes there was the banjo made from a bed pan. All kinds of mouth harps, guitars, and even a couple of small pianos. There were hand written notes from Dolly Parton, and June Carter Cash.
We loved the three foot long horn used by Grannie Nell to call the family and neighbors to a corn shuckin’, funeral, or warn of the revenuers approach. The reassembled doctor’s office, was a shack with two chairs, a cot, and old medicine bottles on the shelves, a peek into the past that held fascinating stories.
I have enjoyed several novels about this area and I’m intrigued by the folklore, traveling preachers, gritty people and their way of life. When you compare their daily lives to ours it seems like it should be centuries ago, but it’s not. In fact one of the most touching stories from the museum is about a man who cared for his bed-ridden wife for fourteen years. This man sat by his wife’s bedside and whittled. He created some whimsical figures as well as many intricate designs. The display of whittling also included a picture of the small cabin where they lived without electricity or running water in the hills not far from the museum. As a young man he had been miner and done various other jobs but he had no formal education. The dedication of the husband to his wife was touching but to realize this was not a scenario from bygone years but a relatively modern story, she died in 2001, it was astounding to us.
Every item had its history included with the display. We could have spent hours just in this one building but there was so much more to see. To name a few that come to mind, the one room school house with books on the desks, a church complete with hymnals, the loom shack had a very large loom, a saw mill, grist mill, Mark Twain’s log cabin. The barn was a huge building filled with farm tools, many we couldn’t even figure out their use. The general store was intact and a post office had an old wanted poster, there were two very small jail cells. The size was explained by the note that read after a speedy trial, prisoners were held here overnight and were hung in the morning, they didn’t need large cells. There were ducks, peacocks, chickens, roosters, cows, horses, and a small buffalo in residence.
In October the museum has a living history, Fall Homecoming with the rural community coming alive to show life in the early 1800’s. We’d love to return sometime to see all the activity, I think it is a bucket list item.
Old School House – Note the Outhouse to the Side
Zoe waited in the motorhome parked next to a grassy yard. When we returned to the motorhome she got out for a few minutes but there were some goats in the yard and she didn’t want anything to do with those goats. If she was unsure about something she won’t even look at it, she holds her head real funny and her eyes roll to the corners. We couldn’t get her to look through the fence at those goats for anything. She wasn’t sure what they were but she wasn’t taking any chances.
While walking Zoe in the RV park we met a couple of boys on bikes, they were probably about ten years old. They stopped to see Zoe and in a typical southern drawl asked, “What kin a daaaaaawg is that?”, “She’s a poodle”, “Does she biiiiiiiite” We found them delightful and they used the same Southern expression we hear when traveling, ‘that’s a POOdle!!!, ain’t never seen a POOdle that big”.
We stayed on the back roads while we worked our way to Nashville. Most of the people represented in the museum lived within five miles of the museum. I can see how Grannie Nell needed the horn to contact family. There are plenty of hills and thick forest. Walking from place to place must have been difficult.
One thing you can’t miss on the back roads is the number of churches in the small communities. There must be a Baptist church every half mile. Which makes me wonder, can’t these Baptists get along? Or is there a church for each family? We love the message boards, ‘Prayer, your best wireless connection’. ‘People, like fish, would be better off if they kept their mouths shut’ ‘Be a fisherman, you bring them in , God will clean them’.