Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

April 23, 2004. Oh, the people you'll meet!

Wherever I go I meet people. In the woods of a Virginia state park, I met a couple who have been RV gypsies for seven years. Originally from North Carolina, they sold their home when they retired, and bought their first mobile home. Since then they have criss-crossed North America several times. Interested in the Lewis and Clark expedition, they traced the route of the explorers, seeing what has changed since the original trip two centuries ago. A chance meeting with a scientist on a ferry in Nova Scotia led them, months later, to spend three weeks helping band birds on an ecology research project in Arizona. When I met them they had come from visiting their daughters back in North Carolina, and were en route to the side of a dying friend in Tennessee. Their lives seemed a smooth duet, much more so than most marriages, as their only permanent community was the partnership they form in their cozy mobile home.

In a coffee house in the small nearby town of Stuart, I talked to a trim, well-dressed young man wearing a red, white, and blue ribbon lapel pin. He had grown up in the area, spent a few years studying and working in nearby North Carolina, and had now returned. He said Stuart was the proverbial “great place to raise a family.” Everyone knows each other in the community, everyone looks after the children, it’s a small safe world, decorated with American flags, yellow ribbons, and banners proclaiming that “we support our troops.” The area used to run on the fiber and textile industries, he said, but the manufacturing is gone, though there is still some logging and furniture-making. It’s a community in transition, he said – more clear, though, where it has come from than where it is going. Tourism had to be the future; they are near the Blue Ridge Parkway, which brings people in. The town doesn’t market itself well enough, though he told me, they will have to do better if the tourists are to replace the economic base once provided by the factories.

By Philpott Lake I talked to a man donning scuba gear, about to go under in search of a piece of equipment his brother-in-law had dropped in the lake the day before. He works in Stuart for the Patrick County sheriff’s office, he said.

He and his wife moved to the area eight years ago, when he retired from a military career in Newport News. He was affable and chatty, curious about my life in the van, eager to tell me about his county. Why had he picked this place to retire? It’s beautiful of course. It’s quiet, a slower pace than Hampton Roads. He’s from Virginia, and didn’t want to go further afield. And of course it has good NPR stations; he wouldn’t have considered a community too remote for his daily doses of Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and the other public radio staples. I had to laugh at that. How did he know that NPR was an essential of my existence as well?

At a small bakery and restaurant in the country I had lunch with Henry, a former boss and colleague – the person who introduced me to environmental accounting when I was his research assistant after college, in fact – and his wife Jan. They built a house on the side of a mountain ten years ago, and retired here from the Washington suburbs. “It’s not paradise,” Jan said, “though some people think it is.” Politics are the problem. Their home is an large tasteful development spreading up the mountain, and their neighbors are all Republicans. Disinterested Republicans, moreover. Not engaged people who know the facts, analyze the issues, and arrive at their views after careful consideration, but wealthy people who automatically vote with their social class. The locals are more liberal, Henry said, but there is a gaping social chasm between these two retired public sector economists and the families who have lived in the Blue Ridge for generations. They are thinking of buying a small condo in Charlottesville, where they would find a community at the University of Virginia that might suit them better.

Back at Philpott Lake, four guys drove through in two pickup trucks, towing a pair of small fishing boats. They were from Wytheville, a town half an hour away. They chattered about fishing and boats, kidding each other in a thick accent that I found hard to understand. “Oh yeah,” they laughed, when I remarked that they didn’t sound like Virginians in Arlington, “we’re hillbillies, red-

necked hillbillies.” And proud of it, too, from the way they spoke – though not yet as defensive of their homelands as the “true locals” in Ocracoke (see April 12th.). I didn’t ask them about politics, or what makes their communities tick, or what they do when they’re not at the lake fishing. It would have made me too much the observing outsider, instead of just some lady in a van hanging out at the lake, who asked them to help carry her kayak and joked about the big fish that they said got away. Nice guys.

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