Monday, June 19, 2006

Day 11 - From Monticello to the Cookie Lady

Eating Cherries at Monticello

In nine days of bike touring one phrase has come out of my mouth again and again. “This is the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.” My every day is an adventure unto itself, each place worth describing, and each encounter worthy of an article, a chapter, something to allow the awe to settle into wisdom. And yet, there isn’t much time for reflection. Something big is right around the next bend in the road.

At the bike level, the world is a very different place. You are able to absorb the essence of your surroundings in a very unique way. All the sights, sounds and smells are connected and the changing world beneath your tires begins to feel like home. I have slept in forested parks, churches, civil war battlefields, homes, barns, and a cross country bicycling museum. I have spoken to vegetable and livestock farmers, farm managers, communal participants, book authors, survivalists, and people with hearts as big as houses. I’ve seen corn, wheat and soybeans fields, vegetable farms, peaches, wine grapes, goats, seed plants, and the gardens of Thomas Jefferson. I’ve ridden upon equipment that sprays fertilizer based on the chlorophyll content of the plants beneath it, harvested carrots and cabbage heads, pulled onions, washed turnips, filled orders for a community supported agriculture operation (CSA), scrubbed the communal dishes, and attended meetings hosted by farm organizations promoting local farming.

Of the farms I’ve visited, one was once owned by the very first man to ever apply limestone to his fields; a true agricultural pioneer. A small family farm further west was started from scratch just eight years ago as a way to instill a strong work ethic and “the value of a dollar” into their kids. Their once poor clay soils now yield a growing bounty for the weekend farmer’s markets, and the kids receive five percent of the day’s earnings. Further still, an egalitarian alternative community (yes, they’re still out there) operates the most successful organic seed business in the southeast. And, as a great example of how wealth and community ideals are influencing agriculture, famous singer, songwriter Dave Matthews is reutilizing some of the best lands south of Charlottesville to feed over 160 families organic produce.

In the midst of all of this, I’ve learned a few things about bicycle touring. 1) Don’t go too fast, but don’t dawdle; 2) At least part of every day is going to be intensely frustrating; and 3) The single biggest challenge is trying not to lose your stuff along the way. Most importantly, there is no such thing as writing too much or taking too many pictures.

I have arrived in the Shenandoah Mountains, and the most grueling part of the entire 4500 mile journey is about to begin. To strengthen my constitution, I am refueling at the home of June Curry, the Cookie Lady, the most famed supporter of bike tourers anywhere in the world. For three decades June has opened up her guest house for traveling bicyclists to stay for free, and today it is filled from top to bottom with postcards, photographs, newspaper articles, and other memorabilia commemorating these adventures and thanking June for her unending generous spirit. I arrived after 8 pm with only a smattering of daylight remaining. As it appeared I would be the only one visiting that evening, I went to ring June’s buzzer. June is the kind of person that you just know instantly. With a twinkle in her eye she invited me in, and for the next hour we exchanged our histories at a lightning sharp pace.

Though she is 85, June tends to the house and greets each biker herself, and until recently would meet them at the road with a plate full of cookies. Her sense of humor and energy are contagious. Her self adopted role as the un-official historian of Afton, VA has been a recent, rising passion. June remembers the good ole days of Afton in vivd detail. In the 1920’s the Afton area was the fourth largest shipping locale in the state for fresh fruit. Each week farmers for miles around would travel by wagon, carrying barrels filled with apples and peaches. In the ‘20’s, Afton had one of the only train routes that cut right through the center of the mountains. The Afton hotel was bustling with visitors coming to escape to the cool, clean air of the mountains.

June’s history comes to life in a rather unique fashion. On her coffee table in the living room, she has built a miniature replica of Afton as it was during her youth, from the cooper building (where they make barrels) to the duck pond where she and friends would ice skate during the winter.

June is a good example of the quality of people I am not just meeting, but learning from, as I pedal across this fascinating state. People with vision and passion do in fact change the world, and they often do so simply by making an impression on the people they encounter.

Just a few days before, I decided to pay a visit to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (which means “little mountain” in Italian). Jefferson’s plantation, and lifelong experiment sat at the edge of the western frontier in the mid 1700’s. His home is a good stop for a tour examining farmland as his agrarian vision for the country was implicit in his philosophy, writings, and in his own farming. Jefferson believed that “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue,” Jefferson believed that farmers were able to intuit the laws of God by observing the laws of nature and that by the very nature of their work, became resourceful, neighborly, free thinking, inquisitive, and independent. He contrasts this condition with that of the manufacturer, who by operating as a
specialized yet faceless cog, becomes dependent, subservient, and susceptible to the designs of ambition.

Such heedy thoughts lingered distantly in my mind as I walked President Jefferson’s southern orchards. The grounds were closed, the plantation was empty, and as the sun settled behind the hill, I was enjoying myself on his Montmorency cherries. Fruit trees can offer a permanent reminder of the bounty inherent in the wise planning of a farm. The seeds of Jefferson’s vision still exist today, in every one of those cherries.

This entry was posted on 6/19/2006 3:21 PM

  • 6/19/2006 3:57 PM Kit wrote:
    These entries are great.
    Keep it up.

  • 6/19/2006 7:50 PM Sherri wrote:
    The kids and I enjoy reading about your journey. Have fun.

  • 6/20/2006 9:15 AM Lee and MC wrote:
    Great stuff, Justin! Keep it up, be safe, learn, and most of all- have fun!
    Lee & MC

  • 6/21/2006 8:45 AM Anna wrote:
    Your blog is wonderful...Sounds like you are orbiting more closely to The Center than usual, you know what I mean!!!? Wonderful, just wonderful.
    I took the youth group to Heifer International's ranch in Arkansas last week. I mostly worked in the CSA garden...I orbited with the ladybugs for a while. Happy travels, old man.

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