The Angel Ernestine
We must have looked forlorn, standing astride our tandem outside the Virginia country store, when the angel Ernestine appeared.
We’d come 70 some hilly miles for the day and were looking in vain for a place to camp for the night.
“You two is lookin’ lost as could be,” she said, as she walked up to us holding her grocery bag. “Can I help you’all find someplace.”
We told her about how much trouble we’d been having finding camping places in the East and how we’d been asking in every town for the last 25 miles. People just looked at us like we were asking a really stupid question. Then they’d shrug their shoulders.
“Camp?” said Ernestine. “Don’t nobody camp ‘round here. Ain’t no place; woods is full of poison ivy.”
We told her about our trip around the country and how hard is had been to find camping in the East, and now the South.
“Well I be… If that be all you need, you can sure come put your tent in my back yard if you’all want to.”
She gave us directions and drove off in her yellow Volkswagen. About an hours ride later we found her smiling broadly on her front porch with her dog. As soon as her German shepherd BeBe saw us she went berserk, barking and running around with her ruff up. Ernestine had a time controlling her and kept apologizing for her dog.
“She always take right to strangers. BeBe, what wrong wit’ you girl?” She looked up apologetically. “She be eatin’ out your hand in no time, jus’ you wait.”
Well, BeBe didn’t take to us all evening. Ernestine landed on the idea that it was our bright cycling jerseys, or just the fact that we’d arrived on our most unusual bicycle, that made BeBe upset.
I began to have suspicions that BeBe wasn’t concerned with our jersey color, but with our skin color. From what I had seen in Maryland and Virginia so far, Ernestine was doing an unusual thing, mixing with white folks, and BeBe was just being protective.
Before we even got Zippy leaned up against the house, Ernestine offered us the option of sleeping in a temporarily empty garage apartment next door, so we wouldn’t have to unpack our tent. That sounded good to us. She showed us the place, and while we laid out our sleeping bag, she went in to fix coffee and cookies.
After she had us working on the coffee and cookies, she allowed as how, “You might jus’ as well set a spell and let me warm up some supper for you?” After an 86 mile day, we weren’t about to refuse food, and she began warming up turkey drumsticks and green beans and mashed potatoes. We were happy to hang out with Ernestine longer, because we were really enjoying hearing about her life.
She grew up poor in a big Tidewater family. “But we didn’t know we was poor, and we was happy as children, real happy. Kids these days don’t seem like that to me. They’s not happy actin’ even if’n they’s rich. And most of ‘em is rich in my book.”
She’s been successful as an adult, doing entrepreneurial things like selling cars, owning and running a grocery store and investing in real-estate. She’s the kind of woman who shows the confidence to achieve whatever she tries.
She doesn’t like to talk about race much, but she did shed some light on some things we’ve been noticing in the East and South. “You know those ‘Out of Order’ signs you see on bathroom doors in the grocery stores, the ones that say ‘Employees Only’?” I ask her.
We have noticed those signs and wondered about them. Whenever we ask if there is another bathroom, they tell us it’s not really out of order, or that we can use the employees only bathroom.
That’s not the case for Ernestine. She is told the bathroom is really out of order and that they can’t let her use the employee bathroom.
“Sometimes I get so mad,” she says. “I mean, when you got to go, you got to go! I can’t hardly believe some people can be so mean.” And she shakes her head.
I am surprised that people still limit the use of public facilities on the basis of skin color. I’ve heard all about the New South for years and figured that sort of thing didn’t happen anymore. But, the evidence is there, on country store bathrooms all over this area. It’s a wonder that Ernestine decided to take us in.
But, Ernestine is not one to hold on to the negative. We spent the evening talking about all that we have in common, like enjoying country living and country cooking and our shared love of travel. We toured her beautiful home and looked at family pictures. One picture was of her in a traditional African kanga, and we were able to share our experiences of our travel in the land of her ancestors. I hope that she is able to go there someday.
She insisted that we have breakfast with her the next morning, and we lingered long past our usual starting time.
By the time we left, BeBe was romping over the back yard, teasing us by hiding behind trees. We exchanged addresses with Ernestine, and said our good-bys. Ernestine’s enthusiastic and heartfelt hug is one I won’t forget soon.
As we rode off on Virginia Route 15, BeBe was holding her yellow ball and looking wistful, and the angel was waving.
Katy Hill Farm
It is September 21st., almost the first day of Autumn and it feels like it; still comfortable, but with cool weather, perhaps with rain, on the way. The raucous flocks of crows are telling me it is time to get ready.
We are staying with Steve and Wendy Richard’s at Katy Hill Farm near Lexington, Virginia. They are off at work today and we are doing laundry, seam sealing the fly of our new tent and doing minor bike maintenance. It is very quiet here with maybe one car an hour passing on the road; birds and the occasional distant hound dog song is all we hear.
They have a wonderful place, two dogs and a cat, quite a few steers, and a garden that is keeping them hopping with last harvest tomatoes and herbs. The house is a couple of hundred years old; Steve has done a lot of restoration on it and Wendy has it decorated perfectly.
As we’re eating lunch, we’re enjoying the bird feeder birding. It’s cloudy/hazy and like us, the little birds are stocking up for their trip South. There are lots of LBJs (little brown jobbies) and some with blue and buff and nice long bills and wonderful songs.
We are entering a more relaxed phase of our trip now, with only one more deadline, the national Storytellers Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee, October Sixth. After that, our plan is to keep ahead of the cold and get to Arizona by sometime early in January. At the rate we have been going we could be in Tucson before Christmas. I’m not sure we want to go that fast, but we may be ready for Arizona warm and dry by then. We are sort of hoping the deep South or Gulf Coast of Texas holds a surprise place for us to hole up for a week or so.
We are back in the Appalachians again. We crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway yesterday on the way here and it was our first sustained climb of several miles and a couple of thousand feet. I prefer that kind of climb to the ones we had the previous two days. Two-hundred steep feet of elevation gain in five-minutes hard effort, followed by a 30-second, 199 foot descent, then do it over again, and again and again and again. Give me the two and a half hour, 4,000 foot climb, to 12,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park any day.
On Saturday, I helped Steve fix some fence and cut weeds at a mountain pasture he has leased. Steve’s cows keep breaking down the electric fence because it gets grounded out by wet weeds; their new calves head for the brush and they follow. It was a cool fall day, perfect for working, and I enjoyed doing something physical besides bicycling.
It also reminded me of working with Steve at Allegheny Farm in West Virginia when I lived with them years ago. All we had for heat was a wood stove and the telephone was a wall hung crank phone that had to be about the last such system in America. And that was less than 20 years ago. There were cords and cords of wood to cut and stack, a couple of hundred cows and sheep to feed and watch after, fences to fix and calves to deliver. Always plenty of work, and afterward Wendy’s chocolate oatmeal cookies.
The farm was 1,000 acres abutting Dolly Sods Wilderness, one of the prettiest and most isolated places in the East. It is just a few miles from Seneca Rocks, West Virginia. Claire and I visited at Harpers Store there back in August on our way to Petersburg, but I didn’t want to go to the farm. Steve had told me the house burned a few years ago. Too many memories there to ruin by looking at a pile of ashes and a chimney.
The leaves are beginning to turn on the dogwood and poison ivy and the squirrels are very busy. Lupine, head beagle-dog in the Richard’s household, spent much of the afternoon with me, helping me between forays over the pasture in search of interesting sights and smells.
Wendy and Claire worked on picking basil leaves from the garden for pesto and the endless cooking-down of tomatoes continued. Fall is a busy time here.
The next day we visited the fourth and fifth grade classes of the local elementary school. They quizzed us for almost an hour and then got a (fully loaded) Zippy demonstration on the playground. They loved it and so did we. They are studying U.S. and Virginia geography and we managed to sneak in some lessons about the geography of the mountains and rivers, in particular the national parks. Mostly they wanted to know about things pertaining to our traveling method. They don’t think we’re crazy!
The questions were very good like: Have you ever been sprayed by a skunk? (no) What are some of the strange things you have heard? (moose munching willow beside our tent) What are some of the interesting things you have seen. (Grizzly bear paw prints on a campground outhouse) Where did you have the most wind? (Montana and Iowa) Did you ever have to get off and push the bike? (not yet) What are some of the funny things you have seen? (cows with grass hanging out of their mouths watching us pass) Did any of the bike parts break? (not yet) What do you do when it starts raining? (keep riding) Where do you sleep? (tent, motels and at the homes of friendly people)
We’ve agreed to keep in contact by email with Kay Brush’s fourth grade class during our travels.
On the ride back up Buffalo Creek we found two big puffball mushrooms which we added to the spaghetti dinner we cooked for Steve and Wendy.
The next day we awoke to hard rain today and it is still cool, below 60 degrees. The hard rain on the tin roof was too much for Claire and she slept until almost noon, and I barely managed to get up before ten. This is supposed to be unusual weather for this early. Steve promises a long Indian summer after this is over. We’re glad we’re here instead of having to pack up a soaked tent to ride off in the rain.
It’s September 28th., and we’re still at Steve and Wendy’s place, our last day. We are sitting enjoying the morning sun while our clothes dry on the clothesline.
The crows and other birds are busy after food and the pervasive insect cacophony has a distinct feel of desperation about it. The day is beautiful and will be in the mid 70’s, but a hard freeze can occur anytime now, or it could hold off until November. The butterflies are thick. We have few at home and this is a real treat to see so many of them, and such variety. Wendy’s flowers are as beautiful as Helen Ours were in Dorcas, West Virginia, and irresistible to the butterflies.
During the day the traffic is non-existent on the hard road out front and so the only sounds are the birds and insects. The crows are being particularly expressive today. A small group of them are checking us out as strangers in their territory.
I can see why the Richards love this place so much. The age of the landscape somehow contributes to the homey feeling. The rounded softness of the deciduous covered mountains surrounds softly and unobtrusively. Western mountains are more apt to demand attention with their grandeur, and engender a heightened sense of awareness and desire for action and movement. Old or new, mountains are good for the soul.
A cricket, practically beside my ear, seems to plead for us to take him with us so he might avoid the inevitable hard freeze, which we hope to miss.