Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Route 29 - Upper Piedmont of VA

South of Lynchburg, VA, on Route 29, there are a series of small bypassed towns. I took the Business 29 options through them all.

Altavista had a long waterfront park, with lots of open space, picnic areas, sports facilities and playground equipment. It was nearly deserted in the late afternoon, but an older couple were sitting at the river's edge, with their heads together, asleep, and there was a family further up the Otter River, with two boys splashing around and their dad fishing. I worked my way along the sandy/muddy bank and tumbles of large rocks (in dress shoes and bowtie) to the spot where I took this photo.

Altavista's business district had a wide main street, diagonal parking, and sleepy businesses. Some buildings looked unoccupied. That was true for all three of the towns I drove through. They have banners bravely posted about their historic charm or unique qualities, but I didn't see much sign of new businesses or an influx of commerce. The people on the streets probably had an average age of 65. The barber was sleeping in his chair the first time I passed, and had an older gentleman client, not much younger than he was, just starting a haircut when I returned ten minutes later.

Gretna was even smaller than Altavista, and boasted a railroad history. I bought a small shot glass on a stem, like a cross between a wine goblet and a shot glass, in an antique mall that was mostly empty. The owner (the only other person in the place but myself) told me I should come back that weekend; there would be a shipment of furniture. He sounded a bit desperate.

A number of the buildings in Altavista and Gretna were closed and empty. Traffic mostly passed through without stopping, what little traffic there was. I found both towns a bit depressing, and I almost skipped the next town on the way down.

Chatham was the largest of the towns, and the county seat of Pittsylvania County. The approach to town is lovely, with winding streets, big trees and old houses. The photo here shows the largest China rain tree I've ever seen.

The courthouse in Chatham was an interesting old building, with very portly law enforcement on the high front porch, joking and laughing amiably. There were other historic preservations and beautiful homes and churches, as well, and a sense of place in Confederate history, in particular. I spent the longest there, because there was more to see and photograph. Chatham seemed like it might be stable or even growing a little, and I got a feeling of more business and optimism about the place.

All three towns were neat, well kept, and obviously loved by their residents. It was sad to think of Gretna and Altavista in decline despite that attention. It's a rural part of VA, far from any major urban center (Lynchburg is the closest city), and there didn't seem to be many younger people in the area. Americans are on the move - into and out of cities. I could see the recent demographic shifts working in favor of Lynchburg, but I think the departure from the rural areas, which started decades ago, is still working against these smaller towns.

>>>> Appendix de Grenouille #13 <<<<

Grenouille calls his banker once a month to make an appointment. The bank requires the advance notice because when Grenouille visits he likes to see his money. Up close. All of it. Being an international traveler, he sometimes requests to see it in Euros or Pounds Sterling, but generally he is content to look at in American coinage. He does wonder why, in the last 100 years, Americans have only had one lovely face on their coins (if you don't count that pretty boy, Mercury). Don't we like pretty girls? Look at French money... Afterwards he takes a long swim in a local pond, to wash off the metallic smell of all that filthy lucre.


linda said...

I was thinking "how depressing" those little old towns were before you said they were in a long sad decline...and so it is, to the cities we go! well, some of us go, I suppose...my son went from a country boy with 100 pigs to living the high life in a condo in SF with his very urban wife. You just can't keep them down on the farm I guess...couldn't keep me on THAT one :)

and Grenouille is a frog, I do believe...not a toad, upon closer inspection (I had to look at a few pics to make sure!)...one would think I had better things to do but I don't just now so I travel vicariously around the country with you ...and Grenouille?.....xoxo

linda said...

and OMG!! there *I* am on your list!!! *grin*

Steve Emery said...

But certainly there you are on my list. I check your blog every day - if I'm on the computer.

So did your son, a "keeper of 100 pigs," move to SF before he met the very urban wife, or after? Did he leave or was he lured? Just curious. Does he miss the country life sometimes?

It sounds like you live the country life - the bumpy drive to town, a cowboy on staff (I guess that means you run some cattle?) etc.

Anonymous said...

I love pictures of old small towns. You've captured some really beautiful scenes.

Recently, I drove twice through the Shenandoah Valley in VA and PA and I really want to go back and do it slowly and explore and take more pix. I think there's so much to see, so much living art.

I grew up in a small town and in some way, they all feel a little familiar.

That GMan is quite the gad about, no?

linda said...

Brian, my eldest son, left home for UofOregon and never looked back, not that Eugene is remotely urban! So no "luring" to SF but then came back to bay area, got married, divorced and remarried last July to a delightful Chinese woman. SHE had a condo in SF and he was in Palo Alto but ALWAYS had wanted to live in the City. So, he moved into his dream condo, with views of the bay. But sometimes he does miss the country so they head home for a weekend. They are the ones off to Singapore for a year or two! Talk about city!

Yes, I am out in the country, with a vineyard and cows-34 years later still have those cows! I really could do without the cows....

Steve Emery said...

DCup - I know what you mean about going back to take time and pictures - that feeling goes over me so often as I rush through somewhere on the way to somewhere else on a @#$% schedule. And by the time there isn's a schedule anymore I expect I'll only be good for sitting around and playing cribbage (which I actually like a lot, but... LOL, I just was looking back for the link below and discovered I'd blogged about cribbage! I forgot.). I know that small towns feeling familiar thing, too. The one I grew up in was just a "T" in the road, and we were a mile from that!

Linda - I hadn't connected all the dots from 100 pigs all the way to Singapore. Wow. Life sure is a surprise. And cows... I have some unusual attitude about cows right now, due to my current religious dilemma. I've never been tempted to raise any.

linda said...

LOL, don't raise any cows Steve...stick to frogs, they're smaller!

hmmm, religious dilemmas....been there, done that!