by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – A covered porch extends the entire length of the Valle Crucis Conference Center. Seated comfortably in one of its many rocking chairs, I look out over a valley of open fields with thick woods and steep mountainsides beyond. This is the Blue Ridge, which extends on north into Virginia and the Shenandoah National Park. The Appalachian Trail passes by not far to the west, following the mountain crests, with Mount Katahdin, at this point, only a dream.
Given its Latin name, which translates as “Vale of the Cross,” you could guess there was a priest involved in the valley’s christening. Sure enough, the founder of the community whose peace, quiet, and rocking chairs we’re enjoying this evening was a bishop who, standing on a hill above the valley, noted the confluence of three streams below. My environmental engineer pals would note (correctly) the potential for flooding. The bishop saw the cross of Saint Andrew, who was crucified, according to legend, on an X-shaped cross. The native stone Gothic Revival church almost beside us is called Church of the Holy Cross. All well cared for and neat. But most of all, quiet.
It’s possible that the day after we leave, it may be a lot less quiet here. When I called to make our reservations a few weeks ago, the genial host on the phone allowed that we’d have to skedaddle early on Sunday to make room for a convention of “poppers.”
Forgoing my normal use of genial profanity, I asked, “What in the world is a popper?”
“Oh!” he answered. “You know. Them fellers that dress up in skirts and walk around playin’ on the bagpops.” Aha! I resolved not to be skedaddled; I wanted to see that.
I’m here to celebrate the life and friendship of an old college chum who served as my best man long ago in Harrisonburg, Va., and then went on to become a distinguished professor of history at the University of North Carolina. His main interest was the influence of the middle of the American political spectrum, the moderates. I first knew him as a Presbyterian (our college life was dominated by that profession); later he became a Lutheran; and finally he found his way to the true faith (coincidentally, mine) the Episcopal Church. After he retired, he moved here to the unincorporated villages and hamlets of the Blue Ridge and spent his last years in an old farmhouse he called Willkie House, after a moderate politician he admired deeply. It’s been decades since we last met – we did an epic hike some years ago from Zealand Notch to Franconia Notch – and it will be a strange thrill to be limping up the aisle tomorrow with his ashes in a small hardwood box.
I wanted to show up here with a bit of dash, so I ordered a convertible at the car rental agency in Charlotte. I hoped for a red Mustang; I got black. Big mistake; not the color, the car. I thought it might be a snake on these mountain roads – a fantastic route hairpins up the mountainside from Valle Crucis, over the crest, and down into Banner Elk – but it turned out to be a dog. Often as not I was looking in my rear-view mirror at the close-up grille of a large pickup truck. Sigh…
With a day to rest between arriving and departing, my traveling companion and I joined dozens of other hikers on a climb to a waterfall high above the conference center. The trail description, as well as returning hikers, pronounced the last bit, a descent to the falls, treacherous; so I adorned a bench at the high point and like the Ancient Mariner, accosted the passing parade. I’d been given a bottle of ice water by a Latinx family who’d deemed me a heat stroke candidate. It was lovely!
This evening we’ll join my old friend’s daughter and her husband for dinner down in the valley, in an old house-turned restaurant – as many locally have been – and perhaps talk about Bob’s life, his work, his influence, and his declining years. It was a long time ago that his fraternity brothers nicknamed him Firebrand, and that, because of his mildness, elected him Sergeant-at-Arms.
So tomorrow morning we’ll flog that open Mustang over the mountain for breakfast. A bit past one we’ll celebrate my buddy’s life with the old familiar service that not long ago saw my wife off to Heaven. Monday, an early flight out of Charlotte will have me back in my own quiet vale for lunch.