The rain splashed against the windshield as we passed the green fields and high mountain ridges a few miles from our new home in Staunton, Va. We slowly wound our way along the thin ribbon of highway on the Blue Ridge Parkway as a gentle fog and light mist fell on the rugged Afton Mountain, far above sea level.
As we drove up the high roads past the Peaks of Otter, we could see smoke curling from small shacks and cabins nestled in the hollers.
The mountains are full of stories. The cabin smoke reminded us of an afternoon at our local Food Lion grocery, where we came upon a couple who caught our attention. His tattered bib overalls were dirty with oil and grime, and his red flannel shirt betold a man who worked on the land. His hat was pushed back on his head, cocked to one side. The lady was wearing a long, flowered peasant dress that hung loosely on her petite frame.
He was unsmiling and appeared uneasy. The woman with him was softer. There was a hint of a smile and a slight nod as we passed by her.
A friend saw us and called us over. “Do you see that man and woman?” he asked. “They’re mountain people. They come down from the mountains three or four times a year to stock up on groceries. It’s the only time you might see them in town.”
Our friend went on to tell us how the government had forced the “People of the Blue Ridge” from their homes and seized, sometimes violently, their land to make way for the Blue Ridge Parkway National Park. The government’s indifference was heartbreaking to the mountain people who had known no other home for generations.
The Hamner families were people of the mountains, settling in a small town called Schuyler, Va. at the turn of the last century. The eldest of a large family, Earl Henry Hamner Jr. was born into the family home that had no telephone and only two books: a Bible and a beekeeping manual.
Hamner was famous, of course, as the author of “The Waltons,” an autobiographical story of growing up in a large family during the Great Depression in the Blue Ridge Mountains above Charlottesville in Albemarle County, in a place to become known as Walton’s Mountain.
Hamner wrote wonderful stories about his life growing up in the mountains. He stressed family values, hard work, and the closeness of the mountain people. America opened its homes and its hearts to John Boy and Jim Bob, their brothers and sisters.
When we moved to Virginia my wife, Brenda, wanted to visit Walton’s Mountain. We drove south on Route 29 out of Charlottesville for 20 miles. Virginia is notorious for its many desolate, country roads that dot the countryside. We took one of those roads and headed north to Schuyler.
We followed the signs that pointed straight-up. After miles of twists and turns along the mountain road, we finally reached Schuyler. At least we thought we had. We weren’t sure. Schuyler wasn’t much of a town. It consisted of only a few houses and old buildings scattered along the hillside.
We finally reached the top of Walton’s Mountain. To our surprise, there was nothing there except a small store with a sign on the roof that said, “C and P Market and Deli,” and a tiny sign tacked to a tree. “Walton’s Mountain” it said. Nothing else denoted Earl Hamner or Walton’s Mountain.
That was OK. We weren’t disappointed. In fact, we looked at each other and smiled. We knew that Walton’s Mountain, like Andy and Barney of Mayberry, or George Bailey of Bedford Falls, lived primarily within our imaginations.
Nordby said, “You know every once in awhile you do something and the little voice inside says, ‘There. That is it. That’s why you are here.’ And you get a warm glow in your heart because you know it is true.”
It was that way on Walton’s Mountain.
Hamner once wrote: “Some men are drawn to oceans; they cannot breathe unless the air is scented with a salty mist. Others are drawn to land that is flat, and the air is sullen and is leaden as August. My people were drawn to mountains. They came when the country was young and they settled in the upland country of Virginia that is still misted with a haze of blue which gives those mountains their name. In my time, I have come to know them. I have walked the land in the footsteps of all my fathers. I saw yesterday and now look to tomorrow.”
You might expect me to end this story with the words, “Good night, John Boy.” I will resist the temptation.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner.