Friday, February 15, 2008

Along The Road

As a kid, I waited for the school bus at the end of our driveway along VA Route 3 between Culpeper and Fredericksburg. You've probably traversed this length of highway in your travels. Several sections of Route 3 stretch out into long straightaways. I lived along one of those straights, and as I stood at the end of the driveway every morning, my attention was usually focused to the west where I could see a line of mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains, of course.

Nothing much ever happened a long that stretch of highway, at least it didn't seem like it to me. Not unless you count the rare flash of excitement when a fire truck or state trooper would fly by the house with lights blazing and siren blaring. I can still hear the sound of the trooper pushing his foot to the floor and the sound of a thirsty old V-8 roaring to life. Once in a while high school kids would use our straightaway for some old-fashioned drag racing. On any summer evening, you could stand out by the road, watch the sun sink over the mountains and wave to no more than a handful of cars over the hour. Not much happened along that road on my watch.

Over the years, I've learned a lot about that road. Turns out, a few things did happen. Not long after the Europeans first set foot on these shores, one of Virginia's early governors, Alexander Spotswood, commissioned a settlement along the banks of the Rapid Ann (now the Rapidan River) at Germanna Ford, named for the First Germanna Colony. Spotswood later went on to explore the Shenandoah Valley, famously passing over Swift Run Gap (today's US 33) with an expedition he called the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe.

Sometimes the action was in my backyard. Literally. The house behind mine, an old two-story that served as the village post office, was once a thriving, bawdy tavern known as Zimmerman's Cross Keys Tavern. It sat at the intersection of Route 3, known then as the Fairfax Stage Route (Fairfax being the original name for Culpeper), and the Carolina Road which ran from around Frederick, Maryland well into North Carolina.

Traveling west along the stage route for a full day brought you from Fredericksburg to the village, so Zimmerman's was a well known and popular respite for the weary traveler who'd covered some forty miles. Once when tilling our garden, I found an old Spanish silver coin from the 1700's, no doubt dropped by a passenger along that road and a tavern patron. Wonder if he found it missing when he went to pay for his pint?

In the mid 1800's there was plenty of action along that road. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia marched up and down that road and many others in the area as his troops roamed the central Piedmont. In wet times, the road was a muddy mess and simply impassable. Wagons would quickly become buried up to the cargo box. To fix this, Lee's army created a corduroy or plank road, the crudest form of early paving made by felling logs and laying them across the road. Can you imagine what it must have been like to ride a wagon across miles and miles of logs?

It's along this road that Stonewall Jackson's arm is buried. Along this road is the quarry where dinosaur footprints were found. It's the road along which Daniel Boone lived for three years before leading an expedition to some new land called Ken-tuh-Kay. It's the road that newlywed George Custer and his wife traveled to honeymoon at Clover Hill. It's the road Clara Barton followed to perform her first field duty in a Civil War skirmish known as the Battle of Cedar Hill. It's a road once traveled by Walt Whitman, George Washington, and Patrick Henry.

So there I stood, day after day, evening after evening, along that road. Waiting for the bus in the mornings. Watching the sun sink below the mountains at night. To me, nothing much ever happened along that road. Or, wait a minute. Did I just hear a siren in the distance?