The following is the second entry in Our Land’s summer travel series, “A Summer of Unremarkable Travels.” Enjoy.
Roanoke, for those who care to know, is one of the more underrated cities in the Southeast United States. Located in a wide valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this town of almost 100,000 has a mellow air about it, not to mention miles of greenway trails and an enormous steel star that towers over its citizens like a trusted protector. In toto, Roanoke is comparable to widely-beloved Asheville, except it has far fewer tourists and a housing market that’s actually affordable.
I know all of this because my wife (Caitlin) grew up just outside the city, in a place called Botetourt County (pronounced: bot-ah-tot). Many of her friends still live in the area, so we return often for various shenanigans. She has stories to accompany random landmarks around town, including the apartment complex near a cemetery that she lived in for just one night during her immediate post-college years. She was driven away by a creepy hippie girl who insisted that my wife had fit in with all the tenants because they were “like family, man.” Plus, one of the guys who lived there mentioned he liked how Caitlin had rearranged her apartment, despite never having been inside (hint: he was peering in through the window). There was a strong Manson family vibe to the scene, so she split as soon as she could.
Caitlin (who is now pregnant, by the way) also told me about the convenience store where she and her friends once bought beer underage. The cost? Her friend flashing her butt to the cashier. Though at the time my wife was happy to obtain alcohol, she was creeped by the fact that an adult wanted to see a 16-year old’s ass. “I don’t think we should go back,” she told her friends. They didn’t listen, and shortly thereafter those same friends were mugged in front of the store. So it goes.
I realize these stories paint Roanoke in a bad light, but really, it’s a charming town that I wouldn’t mind moving to some day, if things happen to shake out that way. We were there a couple weeks ago for a friend’s birthday, and had a chance to do a little exploring between buying food for the party and playing cornhole. Our top adventure of the weekend was a trip to the aforementioned star, which is located atop Mill Mountain and offers a panoramic view of the city. At 100-feet tall, it’s the largest man-made star in the world.
At first, I found that fact hard to believe.
“It’s big,” I said to Caitlin. “But the biggest? I don’t know.”
“It’s pretty big,” she replied. “I mean, how many people out there decide to build a humongous star? It probably doesn’t have much competition.”
I couldn’t argue with that logic.
Our top adventure of the weekend was a trip to the aforementioned star, which is located atop Mill Mountain and offers a panoramic view of the city. At 100-feet tall, it’s the largest man-made star in the world.
The star gave Roanoke it’s nickname — the Star City (of the South) — not the other way around. At night, it lights up like the top of a Christmas tree, and because there aren’t many bright things on that side of the mountain, it seems to hover, weightless, over the city. It’s cool sight to see, and on the day we paid it a visit, we discovered a surprise that perhaps overshadowed even the gorgeous view from the top: hoards of delicious wineberries. Wineberries, for the uninitiated, look like red blackberries. They have a sweet-yet-tart taste, hence their name. We discovered hundreds of these delicious little suckers, and used a (clean) dog poop bag to collect our haul. We powered through briars to pluck the perfectly ripe ones, and about half way through our search — after we’d already eaten several handfuls — Caitlin casually threw out the following comment:
“At least I think these are wineberries. If we start vomiting in an hour, we’ll know I was wrong.”
We never yacked, so her berry identification game must have been on point.
Wineberries, for the uninitiated, look like red blackberries. They have a sweet-yet-tart taste, hence their name. We discovered hundreds of these delicious little suckers, and used a (clean) dog poop bag to collect our haul.
Prior to our journey to the star, we spent two hours walking along the Roanoke River Greenway, which hugs the river like a glove. Despite the urban setting, the trail offers a fair amount of luscious vegetation and peaceful solitude. There were no other walkers, and only a few bikers. Sensing this intimate aloneness, the wife and I got to talking about her nascent pregnancy: were we ready to be parents? Would we be good ones? How well could we raise it down in the mountains of North Carolina, all by ourselves, with our closest friends four hours away and closest family six hours away? Should we move back to Virginia? What if there’s a miscarriage? Anxieties. Uncertainties. For the longest time, Caitlin was on the fence about even wanting a child. “We can just save money and travel instead,” she’d said many times. But over the past year, she’d caught baby fever. She’d come down with the affliction during trip to St. Petersburg to visit our friends, Bobby and Elayna, and their perfect daughter, Sydney. Seriously, Sydney is a flawless child: cute, funny, well-behaved. When we returned from Florida, Caitlin’s opinion of becoming a mother was suddenly much rosier: she wanted my seed, and now.
But now the reality is setting in. Nine months with this thing. The mood swings, the hormonal changes, and — of course — the brutal and beautiful act of actually giving birth. She’s worried about gaining weight and not being able to shed it. She’s worried about drinking caffeine, about ingesting other substances that might somehow harm our unborn child or alter its growth. There are so many factors, so many questions, so many decisions, that it’s hard to know where to begin. As we walked along the greenway, the slightly pungent stench of the Roanoke River filling our noses, it was clear that our lifestyle — perhaps even our very personalities — would soon change. We felt young and unprepared, even though we’re both in our 30s. Objectively, though, we’re in a good place, perhaps the best place we’ve ever been. We have steady jobs, a home, a solid relationship with one another. Now is the time. It’s the logical next step. “We’ll power through this thing,” I said. “Everything’s going to be alright.”
“Easy for you to say,” she replied. “You’re not growing a life inside of you. Why can’t you do this? It’s not fair.”
I agreed that it wasn’t, but informed her that unless she found a way to turn me into a seahorse, the chances of me carrying a child were pretty slim.
The following morning, the day we were set to return to North Carolina, I woke up at 6 o’clock with the goal of walking to the top of Mill Mountain: back to the Star, back to the sweeping view of the City in the Valley. I parked at a nearby recreation center and set off on the greenway that would lead me to the top. Along the way, I passed Roanoke Memorial Hospital at shift change. Dozens of nurses, dressed in scrubs, streamed into the building. What would they would see that day? Who would live, who would die, who would be born? These thoughts crossed my mind as I walked on, past gorgeous southern homes — homes I’d love to be able to afford one day, but probably wouldn’t. I saw a strikingly handsome homeless man, who wished me good morning with a tip of his hat. It was humid. The sun was up, rising higher by the minute.
I made it halfway to the Star before I ran out of time. Caitlin wanted to leave by 8, and it was already 7:30. Less than 30 minutes from the top, I turned around and headed back to the car. On the way down, I saw wineberries growing alongside the road. I didn’t have a dog poop bag, so I had to eat them right there, directly off the plant. I found they were still sweet and tart as ever — like most things are, and probably always will be.
Reflections on fatherhood and family history.
We spent a lot of our free time throwing rocks at cars. That’s just sort of what you did growing up in the sticks with not a lot of stuff to keep you entertained.
When I was in my early 20s, I took a bus to New York City for no reason other than to do it.