The Spookiest Thing I Love About Blacksburg

Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Place love, Virginia

I am a complete and total wuss when it comes to scary stuff. When I was growing up in Southern California, my dad would take my sister and me every year to Knott’s Scary Farm, where mask-wearing maniacs revved their chainsaws on the Log Ride and 20-somethings in evil makeup chased us around the funnel cake stands. Eventually, after a particularly vibrant post–Scary Farm nightmare, I woke up and went, “Wait, I actually HATE that.”

So you will not find me standing in line at any haunted houses this holiday season (or watching The Sixth Sense for that matter … shudder). But spooky AND historical? That’s somehow okay. For two years I’ve been driving past West View Cemetery in Blacksburg, with graves dating back to before the Civil War, and one gloomy October afternoon last week, I took a solitary stroll through it.

Cemetery tree

The cemetery is still being used, but the oldest tombstones were clumped together beneath a golden maple tree.

Shattered tombstone

Time and weather had been unkind to some of the markers. They’d been shattered, or tipped over, or rendered tiny, weather-worn nubs.

Old gravestone

Others were speckled with an orange moss, but not enough to obliterate that Brooke Lawson, who weathered the Civil War in Blacksburg, died when she was just 28—10 years younger than I am. What was life like for her? She wasn’t from here originally. What did she think of the town where she ended up?

Blacksburg Confederate statue

And what of Blacksburg’s beloved Confederate dead? What was life like for them? The ground beneath the memorial statue has been worn bald by visitors, which I think that means they haven’t been entirely forgotten.

I suppose you could walk through West View and imagine Scary Farm–style zombies emerging from the ground. But the cemetery wasn’t spooky for me. Sad, a little, but also inspiring in a Carpe Diem sort of way. Their time is over and done with. Not mine, not yet. It makes me think of the Mary Oliver line:

“Tell me,
what is it you plan to do
with your one
wild and precious life?”

(According to Haunted Places, only two spots in Blacksburg rate as ghost-ridden: The Lyric movie theater and, oddly, the Holiday Inn. I will be staying far, far away this Halloween.)

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I Would Live There: Roanoke, Virginia, edition

Melody WarnickGreat towns, I would live there, Placemaking, Virginia

When people from, say, New York City ask me where I live, and I tell them “Blacksburg, Virginia,” sometimes I’ll add, by way of clarification, “Our nearest big city is Roanoke.” Then they sigh with relief and say, “Oh, I know where that is.”

But they don’t. They hear “Roanoke” and their brains waddle to the mental card catalog and pull out “Roanoke, Lost Colony of.” This is not that Roanoke.

This Roanoke is a city of about 97,000 far, far away from the Virginia cities you have heard of. It’s 3 hours from Richmond, the state capitol, and 2 hours from Charlottesville, where University of Virginia lives, and 4.5 hours from the beach and from Washington, D.C. I’ll admit it: since I’ve moved to this part of the state, I’ve been ever so slightly annoyed that this was our big city. With its rinky-dink, four-gate airport and expensive flights. With its boring, sad mall. With its itsy-bitsy zoo.

But a couple weeks ago, I went to Roanoke’s CityWorks Xpo, a big-ideas placemaking conference downtown, and after a diet of solid inspiration for three straight days, I had a completely different view of the city. It looked like this:

Roanoke from City in the Square

Beautiful, right? Inside that light-brick building, the City Market building, is this little indie food court, with beautiful salads and sweet potato fries from Firefly Fare, and dumplings from Marco and Luca. That spiky building in back? That’s the avant garde Taubman Museum of Art, designed by a guy who used to work with Frank Gehry. In the square below, they hold regular farmers markets. On Saturday, near the tractor display, a crowd cheered on a troupe of cloggers.

FullSizeRender-1

Thursday night, skaters from Roanoke’s roller derby team, the Star City Rollers, led the way to Kirk Street, where snaky lines were starting to form in front of the food trucks. This is the street where Quinn and I saw our folk rock idol Dar Williams perform at Kirk Avenue Music Hall last fall—one of the best music experiences I’ve ever had. We were shoehorned into this tiny brick storefront so it felt like Dar Williams was performing in my living room. Afterward, she sat out front and signed autographs, at which point I got to gibber unintelligibly to her about how seeing her in concert knocked a prominent item off my bucket list. (True.)

FullSizeRenderThen on the last day of the conference Beth Macy spoke about her new book Factory Man, and I got to gibber unintelligibly to her as well. She’s a Roanoke-based journalist whose book, about globalization and the offshoring of American businesses broadly, and the Bassett family of furniture companies specifically, hit the New York Times bestseller list. Tom Hanks wrote, “I give it 42 stars. No, I give it 142 stars. Yeah, it’s THAT good.” Then he bought up the rights, with plans to make an HBO miniseries out of it. So yeah, she’s famous. I was so wowed that I could barely remember my own name when I talked to her. (Also true.)

During CityWorks Xpo, I heard a professor from Hollins College, in Roanoke, talk about dramatizing the works of some of their most famous grads. (Annie Dillard went to Hollins; Tinker Creek is nearby.)

I heard a guy talk about revitalizing a sad neighborhood in Roanoke by living there.

I met a woman who started a nonprofit to teach kids how to cook and love healthy foods. After moving here from Maine she briefly thought, “What have I done?” Now, she says, she loves it. The city has changed in the past couple years. People are energetic. Things are happening. Everyone can feel it.

I can feel it now too.

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What I’m reading: Maine and Vermont edition

Melody WarnickBuy local, Reading and writing

I have historically been more of a book borrower than a book buyer, but in light of the fact that I want EVERYONE I KNOW to buy my book, in hardback, at MSRP, when it comes out, I’m trying to mend my ways. Plus, books make amazing souvenirs. Here’s what made it into my book bag on a trip to New England.

Books that I bought in Maine and Vermont

 

  1. Three magazines about Maine from the amazing Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine: Down East, Eat Maine, and Zest Maine. Would it maybe surprise you to know that I’m writing about food in Maine right now?
  2. Mud Season, by Ellen Stimson. About a woman who moves her family to a farm in Vermont and … rues the day? Stay tuned.
  3. Delancey, the wonderful memoir about starting a restaurant by Molly Wizenberg of Orangette. I’ve already read this one, but it was in Longfellow’s free pile of advanced reader copies. (Why do they give books away free in a bookstore? BECAUSE THEY LOVE US.) I’m happy to have an actual paper copy to highlight and wreck.
  4. Lynne Martin’s Home Sweet Anywhere, about an older couple who sells their house and travels around the world for a year. I think I’m just a sucker for any book with the word “home” in the title.
  5. Nick Hornby’s More Baths, Less Talking, a collection of his columns about books and reading from The Believer. When I say LOL, I very rarely mean it, but this—this deserves all the LOLs it gets. I love Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, but there’s something refreshing about a guy who admits he hates poetry and most classic literature and sometimes would rather watch TV sports. I’m a convert.

In case you’d missed the themes, it appears I’m gravitating toward books about finding home, leaving home, making great places, eating in said great places, writing, and, um, baths. If you want to follow along, friend me on Goodreads.

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Are people who move more creative?

Melody WarnickMoving

Some amazing writers have been on the receiving end of a MacArthur Genius Grant: George Saunders, Sandra Cisneros, Karen Russell. (I’m still waiting for my own phone call.) Today, the MacArthur Foundation released a report explaining that among the 897 innovators and creatives to receive its $625,000 no-strings-attached grant are an exceptionally high number of movers.

On average, 30 percent of Americans (and 42 percent of the college-educated folks) live outside the state where they were born. But for the MacArthur Fellows born in the United States, that number skyrockets to 79 percent. Which leads me to wonder: Do creative people move more often? Or does moving make you more creative?

Maybe a bit of both. Creatives tend to congregate in urban centers (an enormous amount were living in California when they got their award) because they’re attracted to cool, zeitgeisty places with a lot of diversity, culture, openness, and art supply stores. The more creatives who are there, the more come. Plus, even geniuses have to make money, and big cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles offer more job opportunities.

Where MacArthur Geniuses Live

But it’s not inconceivable that being highly mobile is one of the things that makes creative geniuses creative geniuses. According to research by social psychologists Adam Galinsky and William Maddux, living abroad increases creativity, perhaps because it exposes people to the kind of dynamic situations and novel ways of life that produce new ideas.

Sure, Paris would be nice, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t get the same benefit moving from Utah to Iowa to Texas to Virginia (ahem). At least there’s this assurance from the MacArthur Foundation:

We strongly believe that creativity exists everywhere, and one of our continuing goals will be to recognize and inspire others to embrace that creativity, in all of its many manifestations, both inside and outside traditional, expected locations.

Translation: Creatives in Idaho, North Dakota, Nebraska, and West Virginia–the only states ignored by the MacArthur Foundation so far–should be waiting for their phone call.

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The problem of residential FOMO

Melody WarnickGreat towns

While the Internet crawls with rankings of big cities, apparently fewer of us care about smallish towns. But the New York Times has got your back. In an August 21, 2014, Op-Talk piece, they reprint small-town rankings from Conde Nast Traveler, Fodor’s, Livability.com, Nerdwallet, Family Circle, and Smithsonian, with these conclusions:

Indiana is surprisingly livable!

The Golden State, predictably, cleaned up.

New Mexico: just as nice for tourists as it is for locals.

Don’t give up on the Rust Belt just yet.

Thinking of building a highly livable small town? Consider naming it some variation of “Carmel”!

A few towns show up across multiple lists: Cooperstown, New York; Beaufort, South Carolina; and Woodbury, Minnesota among them. (Meanwhile, none of the great towns I’ve lived in even earned a mention.) Now I’m seriously fighting FOMO here. And the desire to look up real estate listings in Woodbury, Minnesota.

Woodbury house

Just kidding, I couldn’t resist. It’s only $949,000! When I win the lottery, I may come calling, Woodbury.

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