Day 12/ Mar 10th – Elam, VA to Appomattox, VA: War is hell

Church sign

I wouldn't bank on it

We’d been hoping to get a ride out to yesterday’s stopping-point with Larry, who had picked us up yesterday afternoon, so that we could submit him to a Paxman-like interrogation about life in Abu Ghraib.  Instead, we were favoured with Dorothy, his boss, who had both done our laundry yesterday and sent Larry to rescue us from the roadside.

Dorothy was a large lady, a force of nature, and an almost non-stop talker.  She had heard about our walk and wanted to find out more about it, but during the drive out we struggled to get a word in edgeways as she told us about the various businesses she owned in Farmville: a laundry service, a party hire company (“we used to have to hire tablecloths from the funeral home, but if people would die, we wouldn’t get the cloths”), a health and safety consultancy for miners and loggers and, most curiously to us, a drug testing company that would perform tests on workers if employers suspected them of being addicts.

This brought Dorothy onto what was evidently a favourite theme: the iniquities of the American health-care system (“anything’s wrong with you, they give you a pill; if that screws y’up, they give you another pill to deal with that”).  She railed against the evils of antibiotics, and then took a turn for the eccentric:

“You know they got a cure for cancer.  You know they do.  But the doctors, and the anaesthetists, and the oncologists, they won’t ever let it out.  Not ever.”

She looked across at us conspiratorially, as if daring us to disagree.  As she had just driven us fifteen miles out of her way, and as we were keen to start walking to Appomattox, we merely nodded our heads slowly, as if absorbing the awful gravity of this news.

“Here!  I got something for y’all.”

Dorothy reached into a paper bag and pulled out a large specimen jar of shimmering liquid, which she proceeded to decant into four small bottles.

“This is called ‘colloidal silver’.  We make it right at home.  You put silver electrodes into really, really, pure water, hook it up to a battery – I use one from my old printer, it was perfect for some reason – and bam!  I want you to take one of these the minute you feel even a tickle of a sore throat.  It’ll make you better same day, I swear.”

We thanked Dorothy profusely and set off along the rail-trail where, I must confess here, the four bottles of liquid tickled their way into a drainage ditch almost immediately.

It was seventeen miles into Appomattox, most of it along the highway, during which the most notable event was the passage of seven eighteen-wheelers in close succession, whose combined slipstream almost sucked us both into the road.  On the way we passed through Pamplin, a beaten-looking, dying little town of trailers and bungalows with a bewildering array of industrial appliances – deep fat fryers, washing machines – rusting in the grass in their yards.


Pamplin: Has seen better days

Appomattox was a great deal better – a pleasant town of turn-of-the-century houses built around an old station house and a cluster of antique shops.  It’s most famous as the place where the Civil War ended with the Confederate surrender on April 9th 1865.  My knowledge of the Civil War was shamefully thin, and I was astonished to learn how bloody it had been – fought with modern weaponry and explosives but before antibiotics and modern surgery, it killed 620,000 Americans, roughly 1 in 50 of the population at the time.  In fact, as many Americans died in the Civil War as have died in all subsequent wars in which America has been involved.*  This first-hand experience of carnage must go a long way to explain America’s much-mocked reluctance to get involved in later conflicts overseas, including both world wars.

I shared all of these fascinating revelations with Sally.

“That’s great, Rich,” she said, “but I’m going to the motel to have a bath and watch Law & Order.”

I got a lift to the ‘surrender grounds’ a few miles out of town with Jeff and Linda, an Anglo-American couple, who very discreetly and politely wound down their windows halfway through the drive to dissipate some of my ‘hiking smell’ from the car.  The surrender grounds are centred on a small village – called, confusingly, Appomattox Courthouse – preserved in aspic as it was in 1865, in the middle of gently rolling, landscaped fields neatly fenced in with rough wooden diagonal palings.  The whole place had the feel of a very exclusive ranch.

Early March is not the high season for visitors, so we had the place more or less to ourselves.  I walked through the village to the ‘McLean House’, where General Lee formally surrendered to General Grant.  The owner of the house, a grocer called Wilmer McLean, must have had an interesting time that day.  In one of the great coincidences of history, the first major battle of the Civil War, four years earlier, had been fought on his land in Manassas, some 100 miles to the north, damaging his house; he had moved his family to Appomattox to try to escape the war.  Nice try, Wilmer. Almost immediately after the surrender, the house became an infamous monument, and departing soldiers stripped it bare as they left for home.  As if that were not enough, Wilmer spent the last three years of his life working for the IRS.

I got a lift back into Appomattox itself with Jeff and Linda.  Violent death hasn’t entirely left the town – earlier this year, a security guard called Christopher Speight gunned down eight friends and family members here.  I asked a woman at the visitor centre about it.

“He’s saying he’s crazy,” she said, “but I don’t think he was.  They all say that.  I think he was just pissed off.”

Mass killings like this are such a depressingly regular feature of American life that you probably hadn’t even heard about this event, or about another very recent one in Farmville, where we were two days ago. We’re not even a fortnight into our walk and already we’ve passed the site of two mass murders – and we haven’t even been through Virginia Tech yet.


'Downtown' Appomattox

* For those of you who can’t live without the stats, roughly 636,000 Americans have died in wars since (WW1: 117,000, WW2: 417,000, Korea: 36,000, Vietnam: 60,000, Gulf: 300, Iraq: 4,400, Afghanistan: 1,000)

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