Seeing the seams of America

After a Friday night that was probably a little too much fun, Laura came into my room at 8:30 AM, her hair a curly halo. She stared at me through black plastic framed glasses as I squinted up at her from beneath my comforter.

“Do you want to go hiking?”

She sat down on my bed and opened up her laptop. I knew that it didn’t matter whether I wanted to go or not. Sighing, I sat up in bed.

Marian, who had spent the night after our adventures, came into my room and sat on my bed, sipping a glass of water. We watched as Laura typed away on her laptop, googling hiking trails. Food and coffee were my main priorities, so I looked up some coffee shops on Urbanspoon. By this point in the summer, our usual haunts are beginning to feel stale, stacked with memories.

“Wait, I have the perfect plan.” Laura said. “Guys, I’m brilliant. Okay, get ready.”

Thirty minutes later, we found ourselves leaving Charlottesville behind us, wind whipping through the open windows of Laura’s car as we headed down a curving country road toward Crozet. On the way, we had picked up Hannah, who jumped in the car in a purple tie dye tshirt, ready as always for an adventure. The new Vampire Weekend album played sunnily through Laura’s car speakers even as the lyrics emphasized the mortality of our youth.

Later, while reading a free guidebook I picked up, I learned that Crozet started as a whistle stop on the railroad where trains would pause to load crates of peaches and Pippin apples. Like most places in Virginia, Albemarle County was established by a British aristocrat and the economy and development of agriculture and infrastructure was largely produced by slaves. As the years went on, “Crozet was the town whose name was synonymous with the peach” (Phil James, “Crozet: A Thumbnail History”). I’ve picked pumpkins and apples in Crozet before, but peach picking still hasn’t been crossed off my to-do list.

After breakfast at Mudhouse, a local coffee shop with locations in Charlottesville and at the Bellair Exxon station, we walked the entire town center in a matter of minutes. Last time I ventured here with Billy, we had spotted a painter set up with an easel by the train tracks, if that gives you an idea of how picturesque Crozet can be. I say “can be” rather than “is” because it depends on your vantage point. The hub of the town seems to be a gas station/Dairy Queen combo that’s always buzzing with traffic, and the large Starr Hill brewery is a bland concrete building surrounded by a chain-link fence. However, if you turn the other way, you’ll see lush forest interrupted by the railroad tracks. It reminds me of “The Lackawanna Valley,” a painting by George Inness.


When I visit Crozet as an outsider to the community, I get the sense that Crozet is in development. It’s not because of the suburban neighborhoods that have popped up nearby – although those exist. It’s the presence of the railroad tracks so close to the road that you can see all the gravel, all the broken wood, the spine of metal rails gripping the dirt. There’s the sense that any moment, a train could barrel through, carrying who knows what to who knows where. It’s a sense of possibility and change. Whether Inness meant for viewers to come away from his painting with impressed the power of industrial progress or devastated the destruction of the natural wilderness is something that my American Studies class debated inconclusively last fall. But there’s undeniably something powerful in that juxtaposition of metal and forest.

However, what we really noticed was just how nice the town was. All around us, we spotted signs of kindness.

We found some particularly friendly graffiti stenciled on a wall.

We found some particularly friendly graffiti stenciled on a wall.


Someone pinned this friendly ad on Mudhouse's bulletin board.

Someone pinned this friendly ad on Mudhouse’s bulletin board.

Did someone plant this card, or was it created by the smokers who once occupied this table?

Did someone plant this card, or was it created by the smokers who once occupied this table?

When I ran back to snap a photo of the playing card, I turned it over, curious to see what kind of card it was. It was a queen. Someone had drawn a penis on her face.

So much for simple beauty.

Underneath innocence is always the potential for crudeness, for vulgarity, for corruption. Although I was startled, it somehow seemed appropriate. Is anything really pure forever?

We put that question to the test on the next part of our day trip. Continuing past Crozet, we drove into Shenandoah National Park. If you live in Charlottesville, you’re within 30 or so minutes of this resource. We drove into the park and paused at overlooks along the way; each overlook gives you a different vantage point of the Shenandoah Valley. You can see long, bare stripes where the forests have been removed to make way for power lines, a geometric quilt of brown and green farmland, tiny soundless cars gliding by, tree tops swaying. Resisting the urge to Instagram and Snapchat every beautiful thing I saw, I looked around me.

A long and dangerous hike...just kidding. This particularly unflattering photo was taken in a parking lot. (Photo credit: Hannah Patrick)

A long and dangerous hike…just kidding. This particularly unflattering photo was taken in a parking lot. (Photo credit: Hannah Patrick)

We watched a tiny inch worm flex and drag itself across a piece of grass. We found a burn site and sat quietly among the blackened trees, watching the scenery around us change as the clouds shifted. We watched a bee pollinate a thistle.

Before long, our eyes adjusted to catching the myriad of details around us.

Before long, our eyes adjusted to catching the myriad of details around us.

I felt the story of our day sit in my chest, warm and weighty like a lap-sitting cat that won’t let you ieave your armchair. We were seeing facets, and in my mind, I stitched them together. Small town. Railroad. National park. Laura’s Japanese-made car. It felt like looking at the seams of America, where it all came together but could easily be torn apart into separate, compartmentalized components.

We wandered down a trail until we reached a fallen tree and stopped to perch on it. Our conversation at this point turned to reflection on solipsism. Marian believes that most depression is caused by feeling so, so alone. She then said something that I thought was quite profound – she believes that depression could be eased by treatment requiring time in nature because in nature, it’s hard to feel alone. It’s easier to feel part of something. Nature doesn’t know boundaries.

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I watched Marian’s theory come to life during our hike. Laura watched an ant crawl on her leg and just let it be there. Nature will get in your way, as it did when a fallen tree claimed some skin from my shin as I stepped over it. It’ll hit you in the face with a branch. Lacy ferns will gently caress your knees. A bug will whine in your ear. A thistle will scratch you even as it lures you in with its beautiful pink blossoms.

When I was younger, I was utterly uncomfortable with this boundary-crossing. I had horrible allergies; spring blossoms would lure me in only to send me reeling, eyes swelling shut, exploding with sneezes, gasping as bumps rose on the back of my throat. Even indoors, nature encroached: dust mites plagued me even in the winter.

Five years of allergy shots and a hundred pinprick scars later, I’m finally able to enjoy being outdoors again. This summer has trapped me in air conditioned libraries and an air conditioned clothing store during prime sun hours; I’ve started leaving for a few minutes of the day just to feel the fresh air. I don’t even mind the Virginia humidity any more; warm and wet, it clings to me like a familiar blanket when I walk to work.

I’m not sure what kinds of outdoor experiences Scotland will bring. I know for sure that the scenery will be stunning, but I want to know what it will feel like. How will Scotland’s frequent misty rains compare to the violence of a Virginia summer storm? How will Crozet’s tiny lake compare to vast, glassy Loch Ness? It’s hard to believe that roughly five weeks from now, I’ll know the answers to these questions.




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