Saturday, August 18, 2012

Big Stone Gap, Virginia....or, "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine"

Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Randy and I have made our third trip to Big Stone Gap, Virginia, this week.  Odd to visit a town that has a population of barely over 5,000, and none of them relatives, so many times, but believe it or not, this trip was on my proverbial "Bucket List," and here we are!

The people of Big Stone Gap have put on a summer outdoor theatrical event every summer for the past 49 years, called "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine." John Fox Jr. wrote the bestselling book, a love story by that name, in 1908. It was made into a Cecil B. DeMille silent film in 1916, and later a movie starring Fred MacMurray, in 1936. A song, also by that name, was published in 1913. Just so you know, I have not read the book or even seen a movie, nor have I heard the song, but a copy of it hangs on the lobby wall of our motel.

What do I know (or care) about such an old book?  Actually, my interest came from a more recent book, titled Big Stone Gap, written by Adriana Trigiani, who grew up here in the 70's, and wrote several stories about the town before she wrote her best seller. Since then, her main character has been in several other books. When we were here some years ago, a huge banner was hanging across a main street. It read, "Thank you, Adriana!" She helped to make this town and play well-known. Adriana Trigiani has written several books since then, and a cookbook as well!

In Big Stone Gap, the main character falls in love.  Great plot, right?  That's not what piqued my interest. What I fell in love with was the story about the play, the townspeople, the little shops, and the intricate interactions among the play and the characters of that book.  When, years after I'd read it, I suddenly realized that I was again reading it, the idea to actually go see the play was hatched. (I had taken the book out of the library a second time, and halfway through it realized I'd already read it. I finished it anyway.  It's a good read.)

Why is this our third trip to Big Stone Gap, though?  Teachers travel in the spring and summer.  Both other times we've driven here have been in springtime. The play only runs in July and August, three nights a week, and we haven't been here then.  One time, Randy even lifted me up onto his shoulders so I could peek over the gates of the outdoor theatre to see the set for the play. I suppose he thought I'd say that was enough, but all that did was whet my appetite to come back "in season" to see the real deal!

Think about it: A town does the same play for FORTY-NINE YEARS in a row!  A small town.

I lived in a small town for many years, and I can only imagine the people vying for roles, working together to practice lines, sewing groups making new costumes, construction and artistic types working together to create fresh scenery each other words, I see this production as a work of community love.  And, by God, I am going to be here to see it. Tomorrow night.

Jerry and Susan Kornegay of Knoxville, Tennessee, will join us in the morning at the Comfort Inn here in Big Stone Gap.  We will do the "walking and driving tour" of the town,  have lunch and dinner together, then attend the production at the June Tolliver Playhouse.  Pray for good weather.

Big Stone Gap lies in the midst of some of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Right now those mountains are covered with lush, leafy green trees, and today we drove through them on Rt. 119 which we took, following an inner-city picnic in Charleston, West Virginia. We audibly applauded the beauty of the drive, and as we rounded new curves on the highway and whole new vistas of greenery appeared, we understood the meaning of the word "breathtaking." Route US 23, also known as the Country Music Highway, brought us right into town. This highway was created to honor the many professional country music stars who grew up along this area, and the scenery is gorgeous.

The town of Big Stone Gaps covers fewer than 5 square miles. They do not roll up the sidewalks at night, and Barney Fife was not in sight when we went downtown after dark. It is a small and friendly town. The grocery store seems to be where most of the night life was happening on a Wednesday night, but we did hear some loud shouting coming from a storefront church, and apparently there was a Bible getting a good beating inside there. The streetlights are actually numbered, which we found helps one to get around. The historical buildings have signs that clearly identify them, and there is a historical marker on one street corner that tells of a songwriter who was from Big Stone Gap. Homes looked homey, and people we passed on the street were friendly.  I love small towns, and of course have mentally searched the real estate and moved here already.

Our motel, the previously mentioned Comfort Inn, is where we have stayed each time. This is a very lovely place.  When we first came here, twelve years ago, it was brand new and squeaky clean. We joked about the lonesome pine tree that was trying to gain a footing near the parking lot. The piney Western-type furniture added atmosphere and was homey.  A few years ago, on our second visit, the pine tree had grown a bit, but still looked scrawny and lonesome. The furniture remained clean and cute, and the maintenance of the motel continued to be immaculate and welcoming. Today we arrived, got our mountain-view room on the second floor, noted the cleanliness and good maintenance, and visited that lonesome pine tree out front once again. We found it flourishing and healthy-looking.  Our friendly hotel clerk told us that he had been part of the community play when he was in high school. He gave us a map of the town with each stop light numbered, a copy of the walking and driving tour, and made us feel as if we were welcome here. A signed photo of Tim McGraw hangs over the front desk, as he has stayed here, too. The motel manager told us to look for a talented little girl, her great niece, when we attend the play. Every person we met was involved, had been involved, or had a family member involved in the community play, it seemed!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Kornegays arrived right on schedule, and we wasted no time dragging them downtown to the Mutual Drug Store, and hustling them into the rear, following the smell of the cafeteria food. In the book Big Stone Gap, I believe I recall that the main character worked in this drug store during the day and worked on the town play at night, so I had to go there. 

The main entrees for today were chicken livers or steak with gravy.  We had to go through the cafeteria line, just like in school days, and I decided to be bold and get the chicken livers, flat green beans, and mashed potatoes without gravy.  Randy had the steak and gravy, and the Kornegays chose to be served at the table and ordered from the breakfast menu. Randy and Jerry enjoyed some blueberry cobbler for dessert. The experience of eating at the Mutual Drug Store was what mattered, to me. It was all served by cheerful and friendly people, just like the rest of the folks we've met here.

Susan and Jerry Kornegay

We went to visit the train car that sits at the entrance to downtown. It is "Stop 1" on the Big Stone Gap self-guided tour.  A wonderful lady gave us a free tour, explaining how this 1890 Pullman car, used by the president of the railroad company, was designed.  It had tiny little sinks in the two "bedrooms," covered toilets, and an emergency cord that ran the full length of the car. I had mistaken that cord for a clothes line. We felt welcomed by the lady working there, and she gave us another copy of the walking and driving tour of Big Stone Gap, so if you don't already have one, you can go there to get it.

We walked, we drove. We made a side stop at a second-hand book store and met one of the former musicians for the town play, a Scotsman who runs the book shop.  We visited the June Tolliver House museum, which was filled with great antiques. We drove by the John Fox Jr. home, which looked dark, saw the miner's park and statue, and then went to the Southwest Virginia Museum.

This museum is actually in the former home of some wealthy people named Ayers.  The home was built in the 1880's for $25,000.  Now, my first home cost $25,000, and it didn't look anything like this! The outside is made of limestone, and the inside has a massive amount of red oak flooring, ceiling covering and staircases. The floors, also red oak, are laminated 3/4 " flooring. The wood of this interior was absolutely stunningly beautiful.  Hand carved pieces of wood decorated edges and posts.

The things in the museum were interesting, also: spinning wheels, vintage Victrolas and Dictaphone machines, early farm and household tools, and china.  But the real star of the show was the house, and it was well-worth the $4 price of admission to see.

We came back to our motel, enjoyed some cheese and fruit together, and prepared for Pizza Hut take-out for dinner and then the main event:  The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.

The Play

Our dinner was eaten in our motel room, the four of us gathered around two large Pizza Hut boxes with a couple of bottles of wine and some lemonade. Nothing fancy, but dinner wasn't why we were here, after all.

At 7:00 we were seated in the outdoor amphitheatre and ready for the show.  The rest of the seating was  probably half full, but this was a Thursday night, after all, and I am told that the weekend shows are full-up. Most folks lined up and bought their tickets on the spot.  I had reserved tickets weeks in advance,  to be sure of good seats.

We were entertained first by a mountain music group of folks called Mountain Harmony, who played dulcimers, guitars, spoons, a banjo, and an autoharp. They sang, told a few jokes, and entertained us with very lovely mountain music.

An announcer welcomed the audience, told us the rules to be good guests, said we could take photos this year as long as we did not use a flash, and told us that some men in the audience had volunteered to be "jurors" for one scene. He gave a bit of history about the play. The he introduced about ten people in the audience who had been involved in this play over the years, told what parts they had played or what they had done, and welcomed them back to see the play and its evolution over the years. In forty-nine years, you can only imagine how many people have appeared on this stage, or worked behind it!

Lights came on, and the play began with singing and the appearance of two young people who are the main characters.  I am not going to give away the plot of this story, but suffice it to say it had "boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" strongly in the story.  Throw in a hillbilly drunken aggressive uncle, siblings, inlaws and community issues, and you basically get the idea.  Add a jury trial and a double hanging for a couple more thrills.
Randy was called onstage, along with eleven other men, to act as jurors for the court scene, and you can see that he was delighted to once again be on stage.  Unfortunately the man who had been told to be the foreman of the jury apparently did not understand his role. We realized that when the judge asked for the verdict, and no one spoke!  The twelve volunteer jurors sat looking at the judge and each other for awhile, until the judge declared (and apparently he has had to do this before) that since the jury had not reached a verdict, it was up to the judge to declare one!
Randy Onstage
(third juror from the left)
There were two acts to the play.  The second act had much drama, some gunshots, and some music. In the last scene, the entire cast showed up to sing the song, "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine," the melody of which I immediately realized had been played on the piano by my mother over the years. This cast included several little children who really got into the singing.  It was a rendering of song filled with local pride, and I was thrilled to be sitting there taking it all in.

Once over, the most amazing thing happened.  The entire cast of the play came out into the audience TO THANK US, individually, for attending the play!  They shook our hands, asked where we were from, told us how glad they were that we had come, and made US feel good about being there. Usually we end up shaking hands and thanking actors for their efforts, but this group thanked the people who had spent money, driven distances, waited in line, and made the effort to show up for their play. What a lovely feeling with which to go back to our motel!

Friday, August 17, 2012

At our motel breakfast, one of the Comfort Inn breakfast hostesses went out of her way to get me a hard-boiled egg. I'd had one yesterday, so knew they were available. She called the Huddle House next door, had them cook me one, and personally delivered it to me at our table. There was a short wait, but I don't see that kind of dedication to serving a customer often. Kudos!  She typified the friendliness of everyone we met.

After breakfast we said our goodbyes to the Kornegays, and they were on their way home. We took one last trip into town so I could purchase Adriana Trigiani's cookbook, which is titled Cooking With My Sisters.  With her Italian roots and her Tennessee background, this should be full of delicious things to make!  I'd hoped to get a signed copy, as they seemed to be available in many of the shops, but since we had to leave town I was lucky just to find the cookbook before Randy took off for home!  I waltzed into the Mutual Drug Store to purchase it, and checked out today's cafeteria menu: baked chicken or fried catfish with hush puppies. I was sorry it wasn't lunch time!  I will have to write my own inscription into my book, since it was not signed, so that my children will know, someday, that it was a souvenir of a wonderful time in a wonderful little town.
On our way home, we stopped off to see what some have declared to be the Eighth Wonder of the World.  We actually pulled into Pikeville, Kentucky to do some poking around at the Hatfield and McCoy Feudal trail, our interest aroused by the recent movie about this heated feud.  At the tourist information bureau, however, we realized there was too much feudal stuff to see on this trip, but anytime someone says they "dug something enormous," Randy gets interested, so the focus shifted.

In 1973, digging began in Pikeville on the second largest cut-through, second only to the Panama Canal  (Who KNEW that this was going on south of us?) Finished in 1987, this 80 million dollar project moved the railroad out of town and prevented the Big Sandy River from flooding the city in the future. Eighteen million cubic yards of earth were moved to complete this project. (I know how much a yard of peat moss looks, to help me get the mental picture.....) It cut a 3/4 mile channel through a mountain to accomplish this. We drove a mile out of town, then up a narrow lane to the top of the Scenic Overlook, where we literally stood in a metal cage-like thing that projected out over the cut-through, so we could get a full view and photos. I developed weak knees at this point, Randy got nervous about my driving skills to come down the mountain, and we held our breath a bit.

No more stops except a Chester Chicken to fill up on the last "vacation meal," and we were home, with the car unpacked, by 9:00 PM.  Traveling lightly has its rewards.

We've been to small-town America.  We were welcomed by strangers, saw beautiful scenery, attended a play that is pure Americana, and came home safely.  This short trip ranks as near-perfect!


Copyright: KP Gillenwater

You can read more about this area at these websites: