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Va.'s Blue Ridge Beauty: Music to the Eyes

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By Roger Piantadosi
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 8, 2008

Although it's more than five hours southwest of Washington, tucked away on the North Carolina border amid the endless up and down of the Blue Ridge Highlands, Virginia's Carroll County is reachable almost entirely by interstate. This makes it easier to get to.

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It does not make it easier to . . . get.

Luckily, Google Maps hiccupped the day I requested directions and sent me there the back way -- at least for the last 30 or so miles. The directions suggested I leave the four-lane, 24/7 truckfest of Interstate 81 a few exits before reaching I-77, which would have taken me south to within a couple of miles of my destination of Hillsville, the county seat and approximate center of Carroll County. Instead, I was routed down Route 8 toward Floyd, and then, after a quick right and a sketchy left onto some narrow, going-nowhere-looking blacktop, I passed through Indian Valley.

And . . . wow.

That, at least, comprises the majority of my out-loud thinking for the next hour. Making its way that gray and drizzly afternoon through the hollows and folds of the bottom of DeHart Mountain, Indian Valley Road at first roughly followed the switchbacks of Little River, past steep waterfalls and swirling pools just beyond the guardrails, past random clusters of postage-stamp-size tilled fields bordered by well-worn pickups parked at odd angles.

Then it slowly climbed at least a thousand feet, tree cover yielding to sky just as the clouds were breaking up to reveal patches of blue. It continued along a series of ridges, skirting cattle and hay farms, mist-covered hillside Christmas tree farms and distant mountains whose tops were lost in low clouds, on past deep-green high meadows that seemed to me -- and to many of the area's original European settlers, I'm told -- to have been transplanted straight from Scotland.

Atop one especially transcendent knoll, a roadside church billboard asked: "Where will you spend eternity?" I know this isn't the answer the pastor was hoping for, but I confess to thinking: That hillside over there would be just fine.

* * *

Virginia's Carroll County, though much less well-known among Washingtonians than its Maryland counterpart, is known well enough among those who appreciate what's hidden among these hills. That includes: music, most of it old-time and bluegrass, well-preserved and well-promoted by the locals; nature and outdoor pursuits, from fishing, canoeing and kayaking to biking and hiking the New River Trail and nearby Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, home of Virginia's highest peak; and, especially, quiet -- also found almost anywhere, a turn or two off any major highway, but particularly easy to find along the Blue Ridge Parkway, two lanes of ridgetop, commercial-vehicle-free pavement, with its low-key attractions and high-altitude serenity.

It's hard to call an interstate-connected place like Carroll County remote, but it's worth noting that it was this mountain-made remoteness, through the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, that would regularly bring so many folks here together with whatever few neighbors, friends and relatives were near -- to play instruments, sing songs and dance steps that everyone knew or could easily learn. It's no accident that bluegrass came to be called the "high lonesome" sound; other than these gatherings, there weren't a lot of entertainment options available.

These days, especially as manufacturing jobs move overseas from small-town America, small towns like Hillsville -- and the somewhat larger city of Galax, straddling the Carroll-Grayson county line to the southwest, and the smaller but more artsy town of Floyd, over a county to the northeast -- are coping in part by embracing the past. In this case, the draw is the indigenous and uniquely American sound of bluegrass and old-time music.

Thus, in warmer months, visitors can find mountain music being performed nearby almost every night, from the informal Wednesday night jam at the Hillsville VFW to the Friday live radio show at Galax's art deco Rex Theater, from the outdoor concerts at the new Blue Ridge Music Center on the parkway to the original Friday night jamborees at the Floyd Country Store. There's a festival in Floyd nearly every warm-weather weekend nowadays, it seems; Galax hosts two big music festivals at the beginning and end of the summer -- the Leaf & String Festival, which is next weekend, and the week-long Old Fiddler's Convention, for which Galax is best known, held every August since 1935.

Local bluegrass legends are among many topics covered at the modest Carroll County Historical Museum, on the ground floor of the historic Carroll County Courthouse, which dominates downtown Hillsville. There's also a walking-tour brochure available here, plus a fabulous hand-carved diorama of the 1912 courthouse shootout, Hillsville's biggest claim to fame (next to its annual Labor Day weekend flea market and, um, gun show).

And if you'd rather get your local history in conversation, within a block are both the year-old Court Street Coffee Co., which serves espresso drinks and an excellent selection of sandwiches, and the Hillsville Diner, the oldest continuously operated streetcar diner in the state. It was moved here in 1946 from nearby Mount Airy, N.C., where local boy Andy Griffith is said to have frequented it. The coffeehouse has a big flat-screen TV; the diner has its original sliding center door. Across from the diner is the hardware store. Across from the courthouse is the Hardware Co., former site of the hardware store and now a decent restaurant.

This whole old-and-new theme is magnified further in Galax, which is about to turn a former bank into a school for the traditional arts.

"Galax is doing what it can to move forward," says Sharon Ritchie, who's been doing what she can: Her newly relocated and renovated Chapters Bookshop is the center of an annual literary festival that coincides with the Leaf & String Festival.

Finally, though nearby Floyd isn't technically in Carroll County, its success these past 25 years with merging all things artsy and woodsy makes it more than worth a side trip. Besides the general store, I'd most enthusiastically recommend lunch at the Over the Moon craft gallery/cafe above the Harvest Moon natural foods store, where I had the best Greek salad ever, and maybe dinner at Oddfellas, a comfortably urbane cantina with a creative Mexican and American menu and national and local music acts nightly.

And then, though I can't seem to get Google to do it again, I'd recommend you head back to the interstate by way of Indian Valley.

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