Saturday, August 29, 2015

The old New River, still magnificent

    It was a little over 40 years ago when I first began hearing about the New River -- not the one down near Camp LeJeune on Carolina's coastline, but the one up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina.  It caught my attention because U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin -- not widely known as an environmentalist in those days -- was talking about what a shame it would be to lose that old waterway for a hydroelectric project that would inundate one of the oldest river valleys on Earth.  I was a green-as-grass Washington correspondent for the Landmark Newspapers -- Norfolk, Roanoke and Greensboro -- and covered the dad-gummedest fight you ever saw in Congress over Appalachian Power Co.'s plan to dam the New near Mouth of Wilson and drown one of the most gorgeous rivers in America.

I won't rehash that fight, but suffice it to say it took an alliance of Republicans and Democrats -- that's right, that's how it sometimes worked in the mid-1970s -- to adopt legislation putting the New River in the Wild and Scenic Rivers system and thus make it off-limits to damming and flooding.  There was Republican NC Gov. Jim Holshouser and Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin and Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and Republican Congressman Wilmer "Vinegar Bend" Mizell and later Democratic Congressman Steve Neal working side by side to keep that river open and flowing. They won, in what was an amazing set of circumstances that culminated in a huge victory for environmentalists when President Gerald Ford signed the final papers.

A few weeks ago I was cycling with friends along the bike path that runs alongside the New River in Grayson County, VA -- well downstream of the old proposed dam site, and was once again astonished at the beauty of this rugged old river -- wide and slow in places, then rough and wild in others with big jagged boulders primed and waiting to tear up canoes and kayaks just a few hundred yards downstream.  We biked along the path of the old Norfolk & Western Railway, where trains ran for nearly a century alongside the river from the vicinity of Galax on to Pulaski.  The late bluegrass musician Jim Marshall -- who died in a funeral home just a few weeks ago -- wrote about this in his song "The Old New River Train Won't be Coming Back."

That New River bike path is part of the New River Trail State Park -- running for some 57 miles though that area of the Blue Ridge as the river makes its way north to West Virginia and into the Kanawha and the Ohio and then to the Mississippi down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Joe Tennis, in his fascinating book Virginia Rail Trails: Crossing the Commonwealth, reveals some of the details of that old railroad. He wrote about how the work began in 1882 and eventually  "pulsed like a main vein through these Virginia villages, where mining -- and dining on the legendary catfish of the New River -- was a way of life. Mile after mile, the railroad followed the river's course on a shelf, just above the floodplain."

So it is today as you leave the town of Fries, Virginia, on the New, for a leisurely bike ride heading north -- down the river, interestingly enough, on that shelf just above the river and its banks.  It's a lovely way to break back in on biking. It had been decades since I biked regularly, and everything about biking has changed, it seems to me. The first day Kerry Hilton and I went about 5 miles -- hardly enough to warm up for veteran bikers, but it was enough for these old legs and hindquarters.  The next day we put in about 12 miles -- and when two rockets passed us on the old railroad bed that now serves as a hiking/biking/horseback riding trail, Kerry informed me they were not FA-18 jets, but our friends Lee Chicester and Jack Russell, racing along toward Pulaski as they trained for a 400-mile expedition up in the Northeast.

I never got anywhere near Pulaski, but then again my goals were much less ambitious than theirs. This seemed appropriate for a railway that was never quite finished. Tennis relates how the New River Plateau Railway Company "had ambitions to keep going," with plans to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains and "take a dive" on down into Mt. Airy in Surry County, N.C.  By the early 1890s, Tennis writes, the New Rive Plateau Railway had become part of the Norfolk and Western (now the Norfolk Southern) and got as far as Galax.  This line was part of the planned North Carolina Branch. The state line is not far south of Galax, which the line reached in 1904, "But there, the North Carolina Branch would stop -- still a few miles short of the North Carolina border."

The branch line to Fries -- pronounced locally as Freeze in the winter and Frys in the summer -- ran well into the 1980s, when the property was donated by the railroad to the Commonwealth of Virginia. It then was turned into the New River Tail State Park, and has a bit of everything -- trestles and bridges to traverse, tunnels to zip through and such historical oddities as the Shot Tower, visible from the highway just off I-77. The 75-foot tall tower was built of limestone  by Thomas Jackson in 1807, Tennis wrote.  "In the tower's top room, melted lead was poured through various sizes of sieves. That hot lead then fell 150 feet through a shaft to a large kettle of water, which acted as a cushion.  Jackson reached his finished shot by an access tunnel near the river. The shot was sold on site to hunters, traders and merchants or sometimes shipped downriver by bateaux."

In coming years I plan to see more of the old New River's sights and sites.  I expect I'll start once again in Fries or maybe nearby Galax, and enjoy that gentle ride down the river, heading north. And when I stop I'll lift a glass to all those who in the 1970s saw in the New River a place of unparalleled beauty and rugged splendor, and voted to keep it like it is. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

High 'mater season in the Blue Ridge

  Almost everyone I know is a better gardener than I am and they grow a whole lot more stuff than we do here at 3,186 feet of elevation.  But this has been a wonderful year, starting with a long slow spring without a bad late freeze, enough rain often enough, and some unseen hand from a higher power constantly helping things along. There are tassels on the corn now, 'taters are lovely, onions seem to be holding their own, zukes and cukes and crooknecks still put out, the peppers come and they go, but mostly they come in batches, the rabbit-eye blueberries have come in strong and the 'maters, by golly, we're getting enough to start a produce stand. Here's 
one 15-minute harvest, not counting the slightly nibbled 'maters I threw in the crick:

Let's see, those red things include cocktail tomatoes, Romas, Dolly Partons,  German Johnsons and I think a Big Boy or two. Jane Kendall and I used to laugh about how we liked our 'mater sammiches: "Made at 8 and eat at noon."    Now that we're knee-deep in this 'mater bounty, I think I'll fry a mess of 'em up in cornmeal and bacon grease for breakfast tomorrow.  Reminds me of what Woody Durham used to say when the Tar Heels were on a roll:  Go To War, Miss Agnes!

P.S.: I always wondered what that meant, and a few minutes after posting about 'maters, I looked it up on the world wide interweb. Turns out to be one of Chuck Thompson's on-air gems, some years before Woody. Here's what Wikipedia has to say:

Charles L. "Chuck" Thompson (June 10, 1921–March 6, 2005) was an American sportscaster best known for his broadcasts of Major League Baseball's Baltimore Orioles and the National Football League's Baltimore Colts. He was well-recognized for his resonant voice, crisply descriptive style of play-by-play, and signature on-air exclamations "Go to war, Miss Agnes!" and "Ain't the beer cold!".

So there you go. How 'bout them 'maters?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Lost in the Fifties Tonight

About, oh, 50 years ago, when Wood Allen and Fred Birdsong and Jimmy "Squirrel" Garrison and I were figuring on a big show biz career displacing the Kingston Trio and other giants of the 1950s and early 1960s  entertainment business, we didn't know much about how to do it.  I had a an old sawed-off Roy Rogers (or was it a Sears Roebuck?) 6-string guitar that Wood gave me, and that I had tried to turn into a 4-string tenor guitar like Nick Reynolds played. When  we needed some serious gravitas and percussive thump, I used to borrow an old Alcoa aluminum guitar from the next-door neighbor of a friend on West Market Street in Greensboro.

We didn't know squat, but we didn't know we didn't know squat, so we were deliriously happy in our ignorance, bound as we were for the top, like a rocket ship about to be fire off of Cape Canaveral.We were saved from a degrading life of too much money, too much fame and too much substance abuse when we didn't go straight to the top, or the middle, or anywhere close to it.  But we had a lot of fun, over the years playing in sometimes odd, out-of-the-way places.  That live on-air performance at a little AM radio station in Danville was a thrill. Helen, GA., was fun.  And we set the place on fire a couple times at weddings of daughters in Iredell and Buncombe counties. 

By then I had bought an old 1946 Kay doghouse bass with a partly broken neck, dings all over the body and some ancient strings.  Scrangs, Fred called 'em. But it sure did sound good when we got together.  We lost Fred one night in Alabama when he was returning from a prison ministry session where he counseled inmates, and was killed by a drunken driver.  The bass burned up in a 2010 house fire.  Squirrel died after a noble five-year fight against three or four kinds of cancer.

Wood and I still play, mostly a lot of folk music from the 1950s, but some newer stuff as well.  A few years ago I discovered a nice 1959 Kay bass up at Jerry Fretwell's bass shop in downtown Staunton, VA, and bought it up with a nice soft set of Silver Slap scrangs.  Easy on the hands, and sounds good.   Enjoyed playing it, and was taking up the tenor guitar again with a Martin knock-off made in China.  Cheap, and a thing of beauty, though what I really wanted was a Martin.  Just too costly.

Then just the other week, after a household emergency forced me to cancel a long-planned trip to hang around the Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp in Scottsdale, AZ, a fellow there let me know someone was selling a 1957 Martin tenor guitar, with a hard case, for a very good price.  Wood was flying out there to perform, and he and several friends took a look and bought it on the spot, found a shipping box and dropped it off at UPS.  It arrived here at the Rocky Knob Tractor & Yacht Club Thursday afternoon, where it took up residence in the conservatory right next to my '59 doghouse bass.  When I took it out of the box, the Martin was still in tune -- though an incoming storm front here soon took care of that.  But it plays as sweet today as it must have for its other owners over time.

Here's a look at the Kay Martin duo:
1959 Kay bass, left; 1957 Martin 0-18t tenor guitar, right.

I am mindful that since becoming an age-eligible geezer, there's some danger in acting as though everything was wonderful in the 1950s, when it wasn't at all. But some things were right.  We passed a '55 Chevy on U.S. 58 the other day, and I got the sort of twinge I usually get when I think about that old '56 Chevy Bel Air two-toned sedan with the small-block V8 that I sold for $65 right before going off to the Army in 1969.  Some days I wish I had that old boy back.  Not that I could put it in the conservatory, of course, but the back seat was big enough to carry a doghouse bass AND a tenor guitar, at least with the seat yanked out.  If you see a '56 in good shape for a good price, do me a favor and don't give me a call.  I got more old stuff than I need, including some really old knees.   But thanks just the same.