Monday, October 31, 2016

Back to High School and Points East

Went to my my high school Class of 1966 50th class reunion last weekend in Danville, Virginia. Had a very good time catching up with friends from those days and meeting many classmates I did not know then. Danville is always a place of mixed feelings for me but reunion certainly gave me some good memories to add to the mix.

The reunion was part of a week-long trip east that also included cycling with my brother and seeing my closest friend. Maggie and I flew into Raleigh, North Carolina and stayed with friends from my Richmond days. We had seen each other once or twice in the past 40 years but had kept in touch. We talked late into the night and for much of the next day. Long enough that Maggie and I ended up driving north out of the Raleigh-Durham area just as Friday rush hour was getting under way. Throw in a traffic-blocking accident on I-85 and we ended up reaching Danville about fifteen minutes before the reception.

My brother, Neil, and his dog, Chloe, had already arrived. It was our first time meeting the dog, a sweet beagle-whippet mix. We immediately bolted for 2 Witches Winery and Brewery for the Friday reception. That Danville has a brewery and winery is change enough to be significant but that it's name celebrates (or at least gives it a positive spin to) witchcraft is mind boggling. Walking in the door I immediately ran into a friend and the conversation began. That pretty much repeated itself throughout the evening. Fortunately, we all had stick-on name tags—recognizing each other after 50 years would have been daunting. Many names had long been out of mind but I remembered them instantly upon seeing the name tag.  Maggie brought her own name tag from a previous meeting where she was Assistant Grand Wazoo of Dot Dog Enterprises which was made for interesting conversations. The beer was good. I had a couple pints of Danville Lager but several IPAs were also on tap.

Saturday was cycling day. My brother and I cycled together in Danville in 2014 when he was here for his 50th reunion. Like then, he borrowed a bike for me but it needed some adjustment. We found a bike shop not for from our motel. The owner/mechanic had just bought the business after building (I think it was) race cars He said inventory was scarce since he was still working out the relationship with bike companies. Neil had also worked in a bike shop so a fair amount of shop talk ensued during work on the bike. The mechanic was able to adjust the dérailleur but the brakes were hydraulic disc brakes and he lacked the fluid to was unable to restore the back brake but got the front to work.

We took off down the Riverwalk Trail along the Dan River. I discovered quickly that the front brakes worked hardly at all. I could stop at slower speeds with some distance but would not be able to stop at the bottom of even a mild hill or suddenly, if necessary. I figured I could pull it off if I was careful so we followed a route that had no hills and the most minimal traffic. We crossed the river on the bike/pedestrian bridge near the Warehouse District and made our way uphill through the old neighborhoods to Danville National Cemetery where our parents are buried. We spent some time reflecting on Frank and Kay Fleming and our relatively short time together before working our way up to Main Street. We continued out West Main and into Forest Hills where I learned that I could pick up speed going downhill with my front brake fully engaged. Fortunately, no traffic was about but I decided then that lack of brakes is reason enough to end a ride and we headed back to our start. To do that, we had to descend back to the river, a dicey proposition with no brakes.

That evening Maggie and I headed to the Danville Golf Club for the the reunion event. This was a more formal affair than the previous evening. We began with a class photo which required a certain amount of “herding cats” as we assembled, first in one and then another location as the the evening twilight faded. That done, we set about eating, drinking and conversing. I listened to classmates' stories and told my own. The evening's program recognized couples married 50 years, veterans, class officers and a few faculty members from our high school years. One was Ken Miller who taught me that English literature made for good reading. As part of the veterans' recognition, a classmate killed in Vietnam was remembered. We also remembered other classmates who died. Among them was one of my first new friends in high school and the first friend to serve in Vietnam combat. He came back with problems. I don't know what happened to him but can't help but think that experience contributed to his early death.

Beyond the program was more conversation, food drink and music from the mid-60's. The environment was far more inclusive than I remember from high school. The Class of 1966 was large—461 if I remember correctly—divided by geography (north vs south Danville) and the junior high school attended. I went to the small Catholic grade school (10 in my graduating class) in south Danville but lived on the north side of the river so I had friends in both groups but never felt quite like I fit in with either. I was also shy and reclusive so I did not leave high school with fond memories of friendship, participation or achievement. None of that was evident at the reunion, though. The five decades since graduation pretty much obliterated whatever divisions I felt back in high school. We were all just old friends who shared an important time in our lives together.

Neil and I had planned to cycle on Sunday but lack of brakes killed that plan. Maggie and I met a few classmates at the hotel breakfast bar. All were among the ones I met for the first time over the weekend. We chatted with them for a while before heading out to run some errands and see the town. We mostly drove through my former North Danville neighborhood and environs. We saw a lot of older, dilapidated housing along with signs of renewal, especially in the North Danville Historic District. Walking around that area, we met the owner of a new farm-to-table restaurant that opened in the old business district there. He told us about plans for further redevelopment in th area. From what I saw it still looks like a heavy lift. Among my classmates still living in town I heard varying assessments of future success. The city is still reeling from de-industrialization that closed the large textile mill that was its economic anchor for much of the 20th Century along with other industries that located there in the late 50's and early 60's.

One thing that the city has going for it is a beautiful natural setting centered on the Dan River which bisects the city north and south. When I lived there the river was simply the “muddy Dan” and was rarely visited. Some people fished in the river but the catch was mostly catfish and some friends had a raft above the Schoolfield Dam. But the river was mostly just a barrier to cross-town travel. These days, with the mill buildings removed on the north bank, the river is flanked by a seven mile paved bicycle/pedestrian path that leads to a major recreation complex on the city's east side. The path provides access to the river that was completely lacking during my years in the city and includes a river crossing that links it to the old Warehouse district which is now being converted to residential use. It's something to build on but the city's prospects are uncertain.

Monday morning Maggie and I headed up Route 29 to to visit longtime friends Peyton and Carol Coyner in Nelson County. Route 29 is a familiar one to me—I drove it many times during college in Charlottesville. Despite its familiarity the road has changed greatly since those days. Not only is the highway a four lane divided road but bypasses now skirt the small towns and City of Lynchburg that were always bottenecks. The route follows Virginia's Piedmont region, more or less paralleling the Blue Ridge Mountains, drawing closer to them as it travels north. Fall colors were just beginning to turn; those that were out were brilliantly highlighted on this sunny day.

By the time we reached the Coyner's place in Nelson County we were well into the Blue Ridge foothills with high peaks and ridges to the west. As always, we fell into immediate conversation, catching up on news since my spring visit. Next day we drove with Peyton to Reeds Gap on the Appalachian Trail. Maggie and I hiked south up the ridge to a rock outcropping that I used to visit with my dog Toby in the late 70's and early 80's. Maggie buried a small portion of Toby's ashes there in 1989. On this trip we to buried a small portion of our Dalmatian Prince's ashes. Reeds Gap has been a spiritual center for me since the mid-70's. It's not far south of Humpback Rocks where I first discovered the Appalachian Trail and experienced a genuine environmental epiphany. It seemed like a good place for remembering another dog that has been so important in my life.

After Reeds Gap we drove to the western trailhead of the Blue Ridge Railway Trail, a rails-to-trail project that Peyton helped create. The site has a restored station—not open to the public but looking fine. Volunteers are now rebuilding a caboose on the frame of an original caboose from the railroad. We drove over to the Roseland trailhead, about two miles up the trail and walked a bit with Peyton who explained the challenges of keeping poison ivy under control. Some older vines, now cut at their base but still clinging to their tree, are as thick as a man's forearm. After dinner we watched “The Last Waltz”.

Our last full day in Virginia took us to the Nelson County Humane Society Thrift Shop and to the Almost Home Animal Shelter the society operates. Peyton is active with the society and was project manager for constructing the new shelter. He continues to haul dogs and cats as far north as Boston for adoption. The thrift shop has an extensive inventory and supports the shelter's operation. After the store we drove a few miles north on Route 29 to the shelter itself. The lobby and adjacent rooms are filled with cats. Deeper inside we can hear the dogs barking. Once inside the dog runs the cacophony is overwhelming. Maggie and I took dogs out for walks. My first dog was Tucker, a foxhound mix, I think, about 50 pounds and strong. When we were done, a volunteer had me release him into one of the outdoor pens. My second dog was Victoria, also a hound of some sort, who didn't require a leash. She got to run as much as she wanted. She was, however, fixated on the shelter because all of her runs ended at the gate leading back. Each time I would make walk away from the gate with me. When we were done, she made a beeline back to her room.

After the dogs we went back to Peyton's. I helped him stack firewood. Maggie began cleaning the glass doorway facing the trombe wall. We walked with Peyton through his nine acre woodland on a bright fall day. Fall is clearly in progress—some trees are already bare while others are just turning color and some trees still sport green leaves. Even those have a diminished appearance—not as robust as when I was here in spring.

On Thursday morning Maggie finished cleaning the trombe wall. I read my last in-hand Washington Post newspaper and loaded the car. Then we said our good-byes and headed south. After a quick side trip to Lowesville to buy locally stone-ground grits we followed Route 151 to 29 and back through Danville. We found the Raleigh-Durham Airport with the help of a kindly southern lady at the Hillsboro Visitor Center and a North Carolina highway map. Afer an hour gate delay we made it home to Olympia around 1:00 am.