Day 28/ Mar 26th – Chilhowie, VA to Abingdon, VA: The size of America

 “Virginia went on and on.  It never seemed to end.” – Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

When we planned our route across America, it’s fair to say that we didn’t give a lot of thought to Virginia.  When we thought of it at all, it was as a period of limbering up before the walk proper began, a short prologue before we plunged into the Appalachians.  Well, boy, were we wrong about that.  As the title says, it’s day 28 – and after 375 miles and 17 counties, I’m still in Virginia.

Map of Virginia

Virginia: Roughly a month wide

 On the map, it doesn’t look that big a state.  It’s shaped roughly like a slice of pizza with a bite out of its top side, and we’ve been walking west across more or less the full length of the slice.  Although we knew the distances we’d be hiking and have planned our route across America in some detail, it’s taken this month’s walking to drill into us just how far 3,100 miles is going to be, and how vast America is.  I thought back to the smiling young official that we’d met at the US consulate when we went to get our visas.

“Well, I got no problem with what you’re tryin’ to do, and I’ll be impressed if you do it.  But you realise, don’tcha, that America is a whole lot bigger than the UK?”

We laughed and said we did, and chuckled at his question afterwards, but he had a point – it is hard to visualise the size of America from the vantage point of Britain.  No fewer than 31 of the 50 states are larger than England (Virginia, almost incredibly, isn’t one of these) and 11 of them are larger than the whole of the UK.  It’s not difficult to see why we’re not taken terribly seriously in the UN Security Council.  The 3,100 miles that we hope to cover across the country are equivalent to walking from London to Mecca or, more prosaically and in the other direction, Montreal.

So, here’s the latest penetrating insight: America is a very, very big place.  And because such a large proportion of its vastness is habitable, usable and fertile, this creates the illusion among of its population that its space and its resources are infinite.  America’s sheer size must be a huge disadvantage for its environmental movement.  It must be hard to worry overmuch about saving the earth when you’ve just driven through 500 miles of cornfields, or for that matter, twenty miles of empty forest between towns.

Twenty miles was about the distance I walked today, into Abingdon, a “real historical place” as a man in the McDonald’s in Chilhowie put it to me this morning.  After an unpromising beginning walking past self-storage warehouses, truck rental yards and the Abingdon Propane Exchange, I came onto a captivating main street of clapboard houses with deep, shady porches and brick Federal mansions housing doctor’s surgeries and bank offices.  Its history was pretty typical of this area: Daniel Boone had passed through here in 1760 and named it ‘Wolf Hills’ after his hunting party was attacked by wolves, and shortly afterwards a fort was built which protected settlers from Indian attacks until they could be discreetly annihilated.

Heritage Propane

Heritage Propane: Just like the propane the Founding Fathers used

I stopped in at a bookshop – the first one for over 100 miles – to replenish my bedtime reading, and looked in at an Abingdon landmark, the Barter Theatre on Main Street.  It was founded during the Depression, and got its name from its practice of allowing local patrons – often farmers – to barter for their theatre tickets with food instead of money.  The tradition extended to the payment of royalties to playwrights whose plays were performed at the theatre: Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder were among those who accepted payment in ham.  George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian, took his royalties in spinach.

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