"I don't know what's wrong with this town. It's like they don't want a person to make anything of herself."
-- Patsy Cline, according to biographer
Margaret Jones, from "Patsy: The Life
and Times of Patsy Cline" (1994)
Winchester, Va., and Patsy Cline are locked together forever, and what's past is past: Patsy forgives Winchester its shortcomings, and the town forgives her the less flattering details of her ambitious rise to fame. This is where Virginia Patterson Hensley Dick was born and reared. Before she became what she became (Patsy Cline, a jukebox icon, a tragic loss, a postage stamp), it was her wildest ambition to ride in an open convertible in the big parade at the city's annual Apple Blossom Festival. It took a long time for the town elders to pick her for that honor, finally, in 1957. Some people thought she was too brash. Some people didn't think much of a girl who wore pants.
Now they would do anything to have her back. Because if you're not really into Civil War history, and you don't golf, and you're not much in for kountry B&Bs or lazy Shenandoah drives, you won't find much reason to kill a weekend in Winchester.
Unless you have a thing for Patsy. People come a long way to see or experience firsthand any shred of the life she lived here. Of his time spent in and around Winchester writing a book about Cline, Nashville music journalist Brian Mansfield wrote: "There are the ones who feel their memories have been picked clean already, and they don't want to say anymore. Then there are others who feel their memories have been picked clean already, and they don't know what more they could possibly say."
Yet it is possible here to check into a motel, feel lonely, get a bucket of ice for your whiskey and think about one of the greatest voices in American country and pop. (It will probably be a corporate chain motel, but I would also recommend the slightly worn though era-specific Echo Village Budget Motel on Route 11 in Stephens City, just south of Winchester.)
Be sure to put on the music while you drive around Winchester, sitting in its traffic, coming around corners through its older neighborhoods or bumping along Route 11 north out past the apple juice plants, hearing the spookier snippets of her songs: I fall to pieces . . . Crazy for feelin' so lonely . . . I was so wrong, for so long . . . It's you that I am thinking of . . . Strange how you stopped needing me when she came along . . .
I downloaded most of Cline's oeuvre to my iPod the night before I came to town and did not queue it up on the car stereo until I'd merged onto Interstate 81 north from I-66, a few miles south of Winchester (pop. 23,585, almost twice the size it was when Patsy left it). She was so sad, Patsy Cline, or is that the only way we're trained to think of her now? Maybe the sadness is tangled up in her early demise, at age 30, in a small-plane crash near Camden, Tenn., in March 1963. Either way, it's the soundtrack of languish.
Patsy's girlhood home, a simple white house at 608 S. Kent St., was purchased a few years ago by her Winchester-based fan club, but the goal of restoring it and turning it into a museum remains elusive. (It's open to the public once a year or so.)
Dead celebrities and pop icons present a formidable challenge to their home towns: People talk about opening museums or re-creating some part of the past as a living exhibit, erecting a billboard or painting a tribute on the water tower, but the money is never quite there; fans show up for annual pageants or singing and costume contests (Winchester's yearly ode to Patsy occurs over Labor Day weekend, near her birthday); and certain obsessed devotees knock on people's doors and ask to see some scrap of arcana.
As for quiet, simple regard, Winchester has done right by Patsy: In addition to the annual festival, the stretch of U.S. Route 522 leading to the Shenandoah Memorial Park cemetery, where she is buried, has been renamed for her. Her marker -- "Virginia Patterson Dick (Patsy Cline)," near the first bench behind the funeral home -- is no different or more special than the rest here, but if you wait long enough, you'll be joined by another visitor. People leave pennies and nickels on her grave, as a form of wishing, or hoping, or remembering.
A third of the Winchester-Frederick County Visitor Center next to the Shenandoah University campus (Exit 313A off I-81) is devoted to Patsy, with memorabilia, a jukebox and some souvenirs (T-shirts, a reproduction of a concert poster) for sale. The ladies who work there will point you to the rest: Have lunch at Lynette's Triangle Diner, across the street from the high school Patsy attended. It's a matter of small debate whether Patsy worked here as a teenager; nevertheless, there's shrineage honoring her (and also an excellent Angus burger), with pictures above the counter and a jukebox selector on every table.
Past the McDonald's, you'll find Gaunt's Drug Store on the corner, where the Patsy credentials are not in dispute: She worked behind the soda fountain in the late 1940s and used to come back and visit after she got famous. In the front window, a life-size cardboard cutout of Patsy stands, fading, with a display of wheelchairs. Store owner and pharmacist Harold F. Madagan, who's worked here since he was a stock boy in the '50s, will get up when he realizes you're a Patsy pilgrim and walk over to where the soda fountain once stood (it's a merchandise shelf now). Next to the Preparation H, he pushes a button on a CD boombox that's always ready to play some Patsy songs. Most of the memorabilia is on the back wall.
You can spend the rest of the afternoon wandering downtown Winchester, with its refurbished pedestrian square, shops and restaurants. The excellent Winchester Book Gallery was busy on a recent Friday gearing up for the big announcement of the next citywide group reading selection. (The committee picked "Seabiscuit.") Friday night, bereft of any other ideas of what to do (and wondering, WWPD?) I went alone to Dalke's Family Drive-In Theatre on Route 11 and reacquainted myself a bit with a charming sense of yesteryear. There was a light drizzle falling and, between occasional swipes of the wiper blades, I saw "Mean Girls."
Speaking of whom, if Patsy were around today, she'd as likely be hanging out where she could be noticed, toward the unzoned knot of interstate off ramps, strip malls and service roads, among the Ruby Tuesdays and the Hampton Inns or the Chili's and the Wal-Mart supercenter. (Winchester just approved its second Wal-Mart.) She'd be 71 now, and I can almost picture her here, if her life had played out differently. I can also see her in the faces of teenage girls wandering around the Apple Blossom Mall, whose wildest dreams, unlike Patsy's, wouldn't be to sing on the variety show on WINC-AM. (It's now a conservative talk-radio station.)
No, these modern-day Patsys would dream of getting out of town and becoming an American Idol. But only one girl from Winchester pulled off that trick, and she did it a jillion years ago. I feel a little of what I imagine Patsy felt, that strange sense of happy and sad: She loved the place, but it gave her the jits, and she had to go.