Inevitable Virginia

The first lesson for any serious trip: How to abandon your plans.

Virginia was an inevitability, a shade of a homecoming before setting off in earnest. Beth and I found each other here, spent the first shaky years of our love together, here. The tangle of crooked county roads, the red brick of a 400-year-old downtown, the close and fierce shadow of the Blue Ridge—all of it felt like climbing into a familiar bed.

I needed the comfort. The reality of leaving everything behind had spun me about; I’d never felt so entirely uncertain. We’d spent six months building and packing and wrenching at hell’s own pace and we needed to catch our breath. The original plan was to churn south and east for warmer weather and a salt breeze. Instead we were leaving the green of the Tennessee Valley for bare trees and cold, muddy ground, running north again towards winter. Spring takes its sweet time making its way to the Virginia hills.

We landed at my father’s place on a bright Monday morning. Dad was already at work in the garage, the doors flung open, his breath hanging in the sharp March air between him and two decades’ worth of junk. It was the amassing of a man’s various lives.

Zach Bowman/

There were boxes from our first house in Knoxville, a place we left when I was 10 years old, and boxes from every move since. Crates full of parts: Kubota, Ford, Chevrolet, Nissan, Mazda, Acura, Honda. A complete 1.6-liter long-block from an NA Miata. The rear differential from a long-dead Hardbody. A complete Honda Sabre and the skeletal remains of a V65 Magna. Toys, tools, whiskey and beer bottles, chemicals and—somehow—more tools. Piles of 35mm stills and VHS home movies. Pieces of hot tubs long since scrapped. Half-sheets of drywall and carpet remnants and building materials of every ilk. All of it crammed and dumped and piled into a two-car garage just deep enough for a Chevy Suburban.

Detritus, yes, but more than that: every piece of scrap held some pang of a memory, a shadow of something he’s worked to forget.

I’m lucky the old man’s still around. He barely survived the spiral of a divorce seven years ago. Wound up alone with nothing but the house we built together. The house, empty save all those clawing ghosts. He shoved them all down here and shut the door. Left the piles to sit. No amount of convincing could get him go through it, to drag it all out into the sunlight, piece by piece, and burn whatever hurt him.

Until last week. Something about watching us shed our own skin, he said, about watching us abandon the things we’d worked for. That we needed a place—his place—for what remained of our belongings was just the excuse. It was time.

Beth Bowman

We made piles: Trash, Scrap, Donate. And if it was hard or embarrassing at first, it didn’t take long for him to enjoy shedding the weight, escaping the tyranny of things. He’d pick up a relic, turn it over in his scarred hands and laugh at whatever image it conjured in his mind. Then he’d huck it away without a second thought.

Halfway through he reached into the pile at his feet and whooped a wild laugh. He smiled his wide smile, showing that one crooked incisor, the gift of a pool-cue kiss from a bar fight he swears he didn’t start.

“She may have gotten the canoe,” he said, “but I got the paddle.”

He hoisted the length of plastic and aluminum over his head like a gold trophy. There’s a joke in there somewhere.

I work better with my father than anyone I’ve ever met. Doesn’t matter if we haven’t seen each other in a year, if our last interaction was tooth-and-claw cursing or a heart-to-heart. Maybe it’s because he raised me, programmed me with his problem-solving mind. Maybe it’s the six years we spent shoulder to shoulder, scratching this place out of nothing amid the poplar and clay and blue limestone of a runt hill. We have a quick rhythm, each of us anticipating the other’s actions, moving in concert. It makes for good work. Natural work.

Beth Bowman

It felt right to be laboring on a distraction that wasn’t mine. We had the place cleared out in two days, our belongings neatly stacked in one corner, tools in their boxes, the tractors and bikes neatly arranged and accessible.

If I’d envisioned a romantic launch for our trip, camping in my father’s driveway wasn’t it. But it was the right beginning. We weathered a pounding spring storm the first night, freight-train wind swaying the truck like a basket on a rope, trees groaning in the rain. The next night the temperature fell into the low 20s, the sky so still and clear I could drink from it. In the darkness a pack of Virginia coyotes loped around the camper, yipping back and forth as my daughter slept.

I had time to complete a few things on the truck. I wrenched out the old A/C compressor and installed the new one. Charged the system just in time for three inches of wet, heavy snow to fall overnight before vanishing by mid-morning.

We left on a gray Saturday, the skies low against the Blue Ridge. We rolled up I-64 for the coast, heading for the Atlantic, pushing on towards the ocean of our younger days.