(I made an exception to "if it plays it stays" and deleted the previous blog entry filed from the lake. No censorship here -- I just don't want to take away other people's right to decide which of their thoughts to share with others. For more, see comment one blog entry down.)
The distance between places around Smith Mountain Lake often seemed vast. The classic example was the defile of Smith Mountain itself, which dominates the landscape in this relatively remote part of the Virginia foothills: right across a channel, but more than an hour's drive away.
Partly it is memory: the endless drive from the DC area, three hours plus another hour down curvy country roads. (My brother-in-law still hasn't figured out the way from Lynchburg, after about a year of staying at the lake.) And the fact that my grandparents could make a trip to the pharmacy in Moneta into a big event. My grandmother would take at least an hour getting ready, and my grandfather would drive at 40-50 mph. It was like country folk going to the market in the old days. Which was ironic, because they never reckoned themselves country folk, even when they first came to the States and were on their sponsor's farm, and if there was anything they really cursed when moods were sour it was being "stuck in the woods" in their retirement.
Yesterday I ran from Moneta to the lake house. It sure flattens out the terrain. I remember being 14 and running the 1.1 mile from the main road to the lake house, in 6:30, and that seemed like a workout.
When the lake was first completed in 1969, you could still drink the water, and drivers of cars you passed on the road greeted you with a wave. It stayed that way well into the 1980s. My dad can tell stories of the weeks when he slept under the stars when he was building my grandparents’ house (which we now, thanks to the vagaries of life, I refer to here as “ours”).
In any case there seemed to be no bad blood with the locals. Somewhere, up to 200 feet below the surface of the artificial lake, you had to assume lay tobacco farms, homesteads, highways, maybe cemeteries. There is still bad blood in Nicholson Hollow up in Shenandoah National Park, people say, so one wonders about what people who lived on the rich bottomland of the Roanoke (and Blackwater) River thought. “Damn, survived the dam-building frenzy in the 1930s, and now this”?.
It took a long time for the lake to catch on as a living destination, for the billboards to appear, or even a sign pointing out the right road when you leave Roanoke. The lake is far from silty, but the freshwater clam population is thriving and some corners of coves can be mucky. The shores of the lake look far from manicured, but things have gradually changed. About half of the homeowners have taken down the yellow pine, oak, dogwood and laurel on their property to do various silly things with terraces and hedges and pampas grass and solitary fast-growing non-native trees. The same people who like hanging embroidered text on their walls and who overcook their vegetables and go to Baptist church.
Half have left the vegetation as it was. Almost no one has as many trees as we do – a combination of neglect and purposeful philosophy. You can barely make our house from the water, though we can see the water just fine. The acreages are all about the same, but we have a long section of lake frontage. So it looks like the boat dock is not connected to the house, though a "jungle trail" connects the two.
On the other side of the house from the lake of course is the garden, a lifelong project for my gradparents, and now a vegetable garden for my sister, who is now also learning her own life lessons on tunnelling rabbits and the limitations of chicken wire.
Our cove hasn’t been very fortunate, though. It does have one house, which for me comes closest to the ideal of a secluded mountain lake getaway. But it also has the house with the ugliest exterior on the lake, bar none.
Some kind of county detention centre cafeteria? We aren’t sure. Anyway, note the absence of a door.
There’s still some properties that are wooded and undeveloped. One is a location on a point with a view of the dam and the island. We used to hike to when we were kids. Still nothing there.
You can always row or paddle out to Rock Island, a 300 x 40 ft piece of no-man’s land a quarter mile out in the water, looking at the manicured properties and riprap /and imagine there will be a gazebo here at some point). Not many people come to Rock Island, but twenty years of picnickers have left a distinct trail from one end to the other and sometime during the last five years, someone has got around to making a firepit and what seems to be a corral for horses, or at least a boat.
Boat traffic is always getting heavier. It’s naïve to think that Rock Island, being one of maybe seven islands, would be overlooked. The lake is a backyard that is everyone's, like the unsecured WiFi signals that seem to float on the top of the sink. Just on Saturday after the skies had finally cleared I came down to the water and there were two guys fishing off our floating dock. Morgan was with me and I had been singing some sort of African-sounding nonsense song on the way down the jungle trail. Then in a moment of probably unnecessary racial hypersensitivity, I pulled up short, thinking it would be unfortunate if there were African Americans out on the cove, which of course would be highly unlikely. But there they were, a father and a son.
I was startled at seeing anyone there. I nodded hello awkwardly and I hope not unfriendly-seemingly and got to scooping the five inches of rainwater from the bottom of the canoe.