Days 14-15/ Mar 12th-13th – Lynchburg, VA: It’s a wonderful life

 “I consider it as the most interesting spot in the state” – Thomas Jefferson on Lynchburg, 1817

Opplemans in Lynchburg

Lynchburg: All of the essentials of life are here

We stayed in Lynchburg for two days with the Doyles, John and Dee, the parents of a friend of ours in London.  We’ve been receiving small doses of Virginian hospitality on our way across the state, but here we experienced it in its most refined form.  The Doyles housed, wined and dined two sweaty strangers as if they do it every weekend, and gave us an insider’s guided tour of the city.

And what a fine city it is – as handsome and thriving as Richmond was bleak and derelict.  It’s built on a series of hills on a bend in the James River (which we’ve been roughly following west since we began our walk), and a tobacco boom in the 19th century has left it with an unusual endowment of fine old houses and neighbourhoods along with a pleasant atmosphere of ample sufficiency that lingers even today.

Touring the town with John was a unique experience.  He’s lived here all of his life, and his family have been in the city since the 1850s, so it’s fair to say that his roots here run deep.  Everywhere we went – every shop, restaurant, street-corner and museum – John ran into people he knew.  And not just on nodding terms, but on handshaking, back-slapping and even hugging terms; he knew their wives and children, and they knew his.  It was wonderful and entrancing, like being shown around Bedford Falls by Jimmy Stewart.

While Sally enjoyed a well-deserved lie-in, John invited me to attend a Lynchburg institution; a daily breakfast gathering of what I hope they’ll forgive me for calling the city’s elder statesmen, a sprinkling of bankers, judges and city notables – some retired, others on the way there – who meet each morning to put the world – or at least the portion of it within Lynchburg’s city limits – to rights.  The group has been meeting every weekday morning since Kennedy was president, though this is no outmoded set of fogeys – one venerable member was reading his morning paper on a Kindle.  Over a breakfast of Virginia ham and eggs, a dozen of them gave me amiable advice about the walk, differing over which routes would be the most scenic, but in unanimous agreement that we ought to be carrying some sort of powerful pistol.

Breakfast in Lynchburg

At the Lynchburg Gentlemen's Breakfast Caucus

This was also the first place in Virginia where we’ve really felt we were in the South.  Although the state is south of the Mason-Dixon line, much of its northern half has become a sort of extended suburb of Washington DC, and near the coast we’ve also seen little sign of the proper South yet.  Lynchburg has an aura of well-mannered gentility – doors are held, family members are solicitously enquired after – and a clear identity rooted in the Civil War (there are several prominent Confederate memorials and cemeteries, and John referred to it, his tongue only partly in his cheek, as ‘The War of Northern Aggression’).  Most strikingly to us, several people we met talked plainly about ‘white neighbourhoods’ and ‘black neighbourhoods’, demonstrating a southern frankness about the realities of American race relations that is often misinterpreted by outsiders as institutional racism.

Liberty University logo

The subtle hillside topiary of Liberty University

Perhaps the oddest thing about Lynchburg is Liberty University.  Founded as a small Baptist Bible college by the right-wing preacher Jerry Falwell in the 1970s, Liberty has grown into a behemoth, with an astonishing 57,000 students.  John drove us past its campus, an area the size of a small town, overlooked by the initials ‘LU’ carved subtly into a nearby hillside in letters several acres long.  Its church was the sort of building in which you might expect aircraft to be serviced.  Although, for Baptists, Liberty is a success story, the rest of Lynchburg is more ambivalent: it recently acquired a shopping mall next to its campus, extending its sprawl across the edge of the city, and has begun funding Baptist candidates into positions of local power.

We were sorry to leave Lynchburg, and to leave John and Dee, but a keen desire not to freeze to death in the Rockies impelled us on.  It was by some margin the most pleasant place we’ve yet seen, and although we have more than 3,000 miles left to walk, it’s going to be a difficult place to beat.

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One Response to “Days 14-15/ Mar 12th-13th – Lynchburg, VA: It’s a wonderful life”

  1. Meade Says:

    This is an old post, but I think there are many places in Virginia that are still Southern- especially Richmond, Charlottesville, and Fredericksburg. And Lynchburg just happens to be smaller. Eastern Virginia is Tidewater culture with the Cheasapeake Bay, but its still Southern. There are many Souths.

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