Day 27/ Mar 25th – Atkins, VA to Chilhowie, VA: Signs of progress

It’s very important on a 3,000-mile walk to celebrate signs of progress, no matter how small, to stave off the regular waves of despair at the enormity of the distance being tackled.  Today, over my cornflakes in the breakfast room of my motel, I noticed that all of the local news items on TV were from towns in Tennessee; given that I’m walking towards Tennessee, this seemed like excellent news, and I celebrated by stealing a carton of yoghurt from the buffet.  Sally and I have long since reached the stage of exclaiming excitedly to one another if the local news teams change as we move from town to town; indeed, in north-western Virginia, there was one anchorman who was so enormously fat that we used to tune in every morning largely out of curiosity to see if he had survived the night.

Trailers in Atkins, VA

Atkins, VA: Trailer city

Local media are one of our most reliable barometers of progress.  Local ads in this part of America still follow the tried and tested strategy of having the untelegenic owner of some joyless retail outlet – say, a car dealership or furniture warehouse – scream dementedly at the screen about how inexplicably, even dangerously, low their prices are and how this state of affairs cannot long endure.  They sign off with a strangled shriek of exhortation to the viewer to get down and see them this weekend.  It’s become a matter of profound importance to us whether these ads are for Berglund Chevrolet in Roanoke or the Sleep Cheap Mattress Showroom in Bristol.

We can also follow our passage through the circulation districts of local newspapers with considerable precision thanks to the branded newspaper boxes that many Americans have installed at the end of their driveways.  Over recent days, for example, the white boxes for the Roanoke Times (its HQ 70 miles behind me) have slowly been losing a bitter turf war with the blue boxes of the Bristol Herald Courier (40 miles ahead).  I’ve been cheering for the plucky Courier, but the time will come when I sight the first box for the Kingsport Times-News, and then my allegiance will have to shift again.

The local retail chains also offer us a way to gauge our progress.  As we’ve moved across Virginia, the Food Lion supermarket, source of many a tasty packed lunch this month, has been slowly replaced by the similar, but not-to-be-confused Food City.  This isn’t entirely a source of regret for us, because the Food Lion truck drivers have established themselves as the least considerate on the road, rarely moving over to the far lane when they pass us and rarely returning our friendly waves.  Before I leave Virginia, let the record state: you suck, Food Lion drivers!

By contrast, the official signs marking county lines or indicating distances to towns down the highway haven’t been nearly as satisfying to mark.  I spent the day walking across Smyth County, the penultimate county on our route through Virginia, starting in Atkins, a small town that was essentially one huge trailer park.  They were arranged in neat rows ten deep between the highway and a railway line, and continued for a solid mile through the town.  It was a like a well-kept internment camp.  The county town, Marion, is famous as the birthplace of Mountain Dew, though, wisely, they were keeping pretty quiet about it.*

Mountain Dew sign in Marion

Marion, VA: Dew Country

I stopped in for food, after ten solid miles of walking, just outside Marion at a small kiosk in a clearing by the roadside – a local institution called the Dip Dog Stand.  It had been in the same family since 1966, and its current owners, Grant and Pam, told me about Mountain Dew while my Dog was cooking.

“I can still remember my first one, in the Sixties,” said Grant.  “We never knew it would get as famous as it is.  Do you have it in England?”  I broke the news that we did not.

At the Dip Dog Stand

Grant, the heir to the Dip Dog fortune

My Dog arrived – essentially, a gristly hot dog encased in a solid, crusty bun, and slathered with mustard in a violent shade of yellow.  I made a mental note that I had stumbled upon a useful new simile: ‘hungry enough to eat a Dip Dog’, and then did so.  I told Grant about the walk, angling for a freebie that might make the experience more palatable.  He fixed me with a pensive stare.

“Could I give you something?”

He walked me round to the back of the kiosk, to a small wall festooned with photographs.  On closer examination, they were all of people in far-flung parts of the world, holding up a red bumper sticker reading ‘Got Dip Dogs?’  There were patrons pictured all over the US, in Paris, Athens, Beijing and even a bemused Afghan tribesman holding up the sticker next to a beaming US Marine.  And I hope, all being well, that in October they’ll be joined by a photograph of two sun-tanned Londoners holding one up in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.  And that really will be a sign of progress.

*Rarely have I felt more proud to be British than when reading this note on Wikipedia: “Mountain Dew was originally released in the UK in 1996, then removed in 1998 due to low sales.”

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2 Responses to “Day 27/ Mar 25th – Atkins, VA to Chilhowie, VA: Signs of progress”

  1. Alece Says:

    Hi you two – I’m a friend of Christine Simon’s. She introduced me to your blog…… and also was soliciting friends with whom you may stay on your trek! I have some folks in the St. Louis area, Columbia, MO area, Kansas City, Lincoln and Omaha areas, Denver, CO, Salt Lake City areas…. let me know if you will be any of those spots and need contacts.

    I moved a couple of years ago from Kansas City (where I had lived my whole life) to Knoxville, TN. Your blog makes me smile as I’m you seem to be as amused and sometimes mortified as I am at some of the cultural things of east TN.

    Safe travels – keep up the good blogging!

    Alece

  2. René Smits Says:

    I love to read your blog . I’been many times in the US , driving a car , thank you ,and I know something about the distances in the US .Wish I had the courage and the age to do what you did .( By the way , Food Lion is a Belgian food chain ,well presented in the eastern US ).
    Thanks for the great reading .
    René .

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