Your leaking thatched hut during the restoration of a pre-Enlightenment state.


Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


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Like my brownhouse:
   Natural Bridge, Virginia
Tuesday, January 1 2002

setting: Lexington, Virginia

Oh yummy, the "free breakfast" options at Comfort Inn included bagels! I've become an even bigger bagel eater since moving to New York, but alas, I'm spoiled on the good kind. I can never go back to eating Lender's bagels, in much the same way I can never go back to drinking Maxwell House Instant Coffee. The former bears too much resemblance to leavened Elmer's Glue-All, and the former has a disconcerting mashed potato after taste. The only reliably good Comfort Inn breakfast options are the small containers of dry cereal; as I was coming back from downstairs, having absconded with three more, I accidentally dropped the tiny poppy seed muffin I was carrying, but by then I was so familiar with its dreadfulness that I didn't care.
We didn't get out of the Comfort Inn until the afternoon. It didn't much matter to the staff; it's not like New Years is a big day for the Lexington hotel industry. As we were loading up the car, Sally left her own variety of "Big Boy" steaming near the adjacent Shoney's.
As we were in Lexington and it was a sunny (if cold) day, we decided to walk around the town and get a sense of the place. We were virtually the only people out and about.
In front of a real estate office, we stopped to check the prices of houses, mansions, and estates. A fairly nice mansion on fifty acres outside of town runs about 300K, though we also saw a downtown condo optimistically prices over 200K. Imagine carrying the mortgage on that place just to live in a town like, well, Lexington.
Still, Lexington did have its charms, especially in the upscale neighborhood just south of downtown on US-ll Business. All the houses had wide front yards, and many came equipped with deep-dish wrap-around porches. Most of the more oppressively neo-classical colonial elements were balanced by refreshingly Germanic touches. After we'd turned around and started heading back towards downtown, we saw some people getting out of a minivan and I remarked to Gretchen that Sally was probably the only non-white then in the neighborhood.
Since it was New Years and we had a tank full of gas, we set a course down US 60 to Buena Vista. "It's pronounced "Byoonah Vihsta'," I explained to Gretchen. From there we headed south along the base of the Blue Ridge down US 501 until we came to the place where the mighty James River slices through the 4000 foot mountain as though it isn't even there, capturing all the rivers of the southern "Shenandoah" Valley. From there we continued on to the town of Natural Bridge, site of the largest natural arch in Eastern North America and one of the seven natural wonders of the world. I'd never been to see the "bridge" before, though I'd crossed it a number of times on US 11, which actually uses this natural landform to cross the gorge below.
The site of the bridge is highly commercialized, complete with a large hotel and even a wax museum with creepy-looking figures poking out of it. If you wanted to walk across the bridge on US 11 and gaze upon it from above, you'd be thwarted by the high wooden fence built on both sides of the road.
We decided to go look at the arch, hoping that because of the cold weather no one would be collecting money at the bottom of the stairway down into the valley. Unfortunately, the cold weather wasn't stopping the money man, and as we reached the bottom we found he'd already scared away a group of college kids with his steep toll of $10/head. But we're not college kids anymore and we can afford to live a little. What's more, the guy didn't seem to have any issues with our bringing Sally, and she seemed poised for great adventure.
So yes, the bridge is indeed spectacular, much more so in person than in photographs on promotional literature. It's unnerving to walk beneath its rude, uneven bulk, 70,000,000 pounds of limestone, 10% the mass of one World Trade Center tower, 200 feet overhead. Later today my father told me that a woman was killed not too long ago by a rockfall at Natural Bridge.
We followed the trail beyond the bridge, eventually encountering a tiny two-entrance cave a short climb up the valley. Sally hadn't even noticed the main attraction, but the small dog-scale cave clearly captured her imagination and she charged back and forth through it several times.
Even more spectacular was the site of a saltpetre mine at the end of the trail, beyond an ersatz Indian village. Back during the Civil War men had come here and dug accumulated bat feces from the remains of an ancient cave, tunneling diagonally downward from the surface in the process. When properly treated, these ancient urine-soaked turds yield saltpetre (potassium nitrate), a crucial ingredient for the manufacture of gunpowder. Once we were down at the end of the mine, there was still plenty of daylight from the mouth, but the warmth of the overlying rock was enough to counter the chill of the winter air. Sally soon had her fill of the mine and was seen bounding enthusiastically between tiny ledges of a cliff face outside. By now I was so hungry that I would have eaten salt petre had any been available.
Once we made it out of the gorge and back to the car, we were so hungry we snacked like Muslims at a Ramadan sundown. We had this salsa containing black beans and corn and it was like heavenly succotash.

I drove us north up US 11 all the way back to Staunton, stopping on 701 at Riverheads, my old school, to show Gretchen around. Since my days as a student there, new creamy-white accents have been added to the front of the high school, making it look a little less like a dreary brick factory building. What I especially wanted to show Gretchen, however, was the "bible trailer" off to the side of the elementary school. Readers not acquainted with the rural south are probably unaware of how pervasive religion is there, even in the public school system. Back in April of 1976, a transplant from the enlightened DC public school system, I was in for something of a disconcerting culture shock when the school day began with a prayer, lunch began with another, and the afternoon included a period-long trip to the "bible trailer." Most elementary schools in the South feature a bible trailer somewhere just off public property, and students from first through fifth grade are "excused from class" one period each week so that they may receive Christian education in these trailers. It is the overwhelming norm to attend these classes. Those who do not stand out, especially since there is no class to be "excused from" during the bible trailer class. It's important for me to add, however, that Riverheads was, on the whole, a good school. It featured an unexpected number of excellent teachers and I have many fond memories (as well as the usual horror show of adolescent regrets) from my experience there.
When we made it up to the bible trailer at Riverheads Elementary School, we found someone was inside on this New Year's Day, evidently straightening the place up. If there was any doubt in Gretchen's mind about the true nature of the trailer, it was erased by the keychain, which (I kid you not) featured a large white cross. Gretchen peered through the window and saw a poster of the "Our Father" prayer. The woman inside noticed us snooping around and came out to ask if she could help us all and Gretchen explained that I, her fiancée, used to go to school here and I was showing her around. Meanwhile I snapped pictures and Sally dashed around. Up until I'd told Gretchen about my experience with bible trailers, she'd never heard of the phenomenon. Neither had her parents.

Gretchen and Sally at the Riverheads Elementary School bible trailer.
Sally clearly wants to go inside.

The Riverheads Elementary School bible trailer.

Me in front of the Riverheads Elementary School bible trailer.

We did an early dinner at the Chinese restaurant in Statler Square in Staunton, served by the adolescent girl in the family. Being older than the 12 year old boy working the phone, her command of English was poor and it was always a mystery what she was saying. Meanwhile the youngest in the family were in a booth destringing a bulk shipment of string beans, occasionally throwing them at each other or threatening to "tell." Gretchen ordered something vegetarian and I ordered the buffet. What a strange assemblage the buffet was! In addition to the usual Chinese things, there were also room temperature french fries and clams on the half shell.
On the drive back to my parents' place, I showed Gretchen two other bible trailers. The first was at Betsy Weller Elementary inside the city limits of Staunton. Being on valuable private Staunton real estate, though, it seems this trailer was now serving as a private residence. But the bible trailer at Beverly Manor Elementary was still in full operation, undaunted from its medieval purpose by the futuristic promise of a new millennium.
When we were back at the Shaque, I did some work on my mother's PC computer, which has been unable to check email since a virus attack on December 18th. As computers become increasingly sophisticated, their continually changing conditions increasingly resemble what we call health in organisms. And the process of fixing them can at times resemble the antics of a witch doctor.

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