Last September, Katalina and Emma from the El Camino team headed five hours south of Washington DC to explore a region of southwest Virginia known as the Appalachian Crooked Road. The Road is 333 miles of rambling highway and dramatic switchbacks where mountain music and bluegrass were bred. It is the inconspicuous road that hosted Johnny Cash's last performance and one whose spontaneous jam sessions can be found pulsing from corner stores to courthouses.
Our reasons for wanting to explore this low-profile part of the country were simple. We heard the jam sessions were a cultural experience that defined a significant portion of rural America, and precisely because we had heard so little about it. However, the few individuals we knew who had traversed this road spoke so fervently about the region; we knew we had to get there before the secret was out. We decided to head out on a Tuesday for two nights. We assumed going midweek meant we would not hear much music; we were gladly mistaken. Before our departure, we reviewed the up-to-date jam session calendar for the region and quickly realized the actual conundrum would be deciding which of the several jam sessions we would go and try to see. How could we choose? Each one was unique and held at intriguing venues. Case in point, the Thursday morning jam session at the Rocky Mountain Dairy Queen.
Without a hotel reservation or too much of a plan-- other than follow the music-- we hit the road not too sure what to expect.
We decided to post up in Galax, Virginia, population 7,000. We had only planned to stay there one night, but as you will read further ahead, the people of this community's incredible warmth and stories kept us there both nights. The town is outlined by a few remaining furniture factories. We learned later on, over some backwoods moonshine, that Galax and the surrounding area for several decades had been the heart of furniture making for the country, but with China being able to replicate many of the handmade designs, faster and cheaper, the industry was completely decimated in the late 1990's.
We decided to head to a dueling jam session being held at the Stringbean Coffee Shop. On one side you could find homemade peach pie for purchase, Foldgers coffee, several town residents engrossed in cards, and a band of five playing some lively bluegrass. We were clearly the only out of
Banjo player into the
Banjo player: "We got some city folk y'all. Well, you know what they say about DC...."
Us: "No. What do they say...."
Banjo player: <Silence
On the other side of the coffee shop was another jam session underway that paid reverence to Old Time Mountain Music. We sat in worn theater seats, closed our eyes, and took in the beautiful sound that filled the room. Taking a second to reflect, we now understood why the Roads previous visitors spoke of it with such zeal. This was the America that we knew little about, whose stories were rarely heard, but in a short few hours had us enthralled and beaming ear to ear.
This is a part of America where the family fiddle is the treasured heirloom that is passed down from generation to generation, whose musical roots are so deep that it hits every aspect of society, and whose beats are so infectious, that a newbie soon finds themselves passionately tapping their foot and slapping their knees.
The next morning, we trekked out to nearby Grayson Highlighads to find some wild ponies. Grayson Highlands provides access to the Appalachian Trail, a 2,180 mile trek that crosses 14 states.
While we found some wild ponies, we also found several hikers who had been on the trail for weeks to months.
After a long day of exploring, we went straight back to The Galax Smokehouse.where we ate dinner the previous night. Yes, we came back or the award-winning spare ribs, the pulled pork, and the beef brisket, but the main driving force behind our return was to hear more stories from one of the owners Kenneth David (pictured above). Kenneth David was born a storyteller. Over the course of two meals we had heard stories about the ghost that haunted the restaurant, the former washroom, and the apartment upstairs; Kenneth's trial and tribulations of being one of thirteen children; the process of smoking their meats that begins at 4AM in the morning each day; the town's history; gossip about a judgmental priest and; of course politics.
Kenneth David: "You know what they say about priest and politicians?"
Us: "No, what?"
Kenneth David: "Keep one hand on your wallet and one hand on your wife.
Several plates of perfectly smoked meat later we got in our car and headed to the Wednesday night jam session hosted at the 1908 Historic Courthouse of Independent, Virginia. When we entered the courthouse the jam was fully under way. The group was a little surprised to see us, we were the only audience members. They asked us a few times if we really had come all the way to hear them play. We always responded by enthusiastically nodding our head yes and they always responded to us with a bewildered, but flattered smile.
Thursday morning came unexpectedly. We were not ready to leave Galax, we were not ready to stop exploring this corner of the South. We still had so many more stories to hear and some much more music to hear. Unfortunately, prior obligations had us heading back to Washington DC.
If you have time, check out the above cuties at the Peaceful Heart Alpaca Farm. Mike and Linda, the owners, were generous and patient hosts who answered all our Alpaca questions. We had a lot.
They proudly showed off Ima Joy, Lord Tennyson and the others that roamed their farm.