The Fog of Rural Virginia

by bicyclemark 2 Comments
The Fog of Rural Virginia
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Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM via Flickr

I didn’t see the sign that would have said “Welcome to Virginia” accompanied by what I assume is still the “Virginia is for lovers” tag line. All I saw along busy Interstate 77, through the pouring rain and looming fog, were some impressive hills that caused our fragile little compact car to wince as its engine revved in search of some non-existent muscle.  I was hoping to see the sign as an indicator of progress, as we passed hour number 7 on what should have been an 8 hour drive, but the large dark figures that began to line the road were sign enough: we’ve arrived in Appalachia, sacred region of culture, lore, and some crazy beautiful nature. Of course as far as the highway is concerned, it’s just more asphalt with slightly better scenery for the next 6 hours.

And so it was, that the day before Christmas eve a little car with New Jersey plates struggled its way to a beautiful town called Luray, Virginia. To visit friends, rest, but also to get a quick glimpse of what life is like there; another world that seems cut off from most everything, at least in my head.

Arriving in late evening in a rural American town in the mountains of Virginia, what you get is an extremely silent and still atmosphere. The craziest thing one can see are the winding roads and the tasteful Christmas lights decorating main street. Shops seemed to have closed hours ago, while the windows of closed restaurants still reveal some condensation from customers who were very recently enjoying a meal. Luray is sleepy at night, but there are plenty of signs that when the world wakes up tomorrow, this place will be busy.

photo by Rory Finneren via Flickr

photo by Rory Finneren via Flickr

There is nothing quite like waking up in a perfectly silent farm house made of stone and wood surrounded by nature and little else. Not too surprisingly, next to the bed of this fantastic bnb, there is one of those artificial noise machines so you can listen to the wind or some soothing white noise, if silence is too off-putting to fall asleep to.  Looking outside I see the vast green of forrest and fields that last night were nothing but shadows around my headlights. Scanning the horizon I see a house or two and wonder if those far away neighbors wake up the same way every day. Or maybe they just curse life and get on with it.

Sadly there is only time for oatmeal, tea, a quick walk around the building to listen to the rustling of leaves in the wind, water from a nearby stream, a cow or two somewhere nearby. We take it all in as quickly as possible, as the highway is a-callin’ and Christmas in New Jersey waits for no man (or woman). Driving past the farm houses, some in excellent condition, many abandoned, I can’t help wonder what happened to those people. Did they move away in search of more profitable work? Did they die in their now dilapidated homes, no one to take over and fix things up. How many family lines ended here?  – This was not surprisingly  followed by another typical line of thinking: what would it be like to take up residence here? Would a fool like me feel at home making a life next to Shenandoah National Park? Would every day be interesting and rewarding in some way? Wait, what am I talking about.. isn’t the grass always greener somewhere else? Don’t we typically trade good and bad aspects in one particular place for a set of mixed circumstances elsewhere? Is this part of being human, in the end? Few of these questions will ever get an answer. They are mostly just sparks in an over active imagination. But when you spend even only a few hours surrounded by such peace and beauty… sparks sure do fly.

Scavenging with Jay and Ryanne

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Scavenging with Jay and Ryanne

Today on the program we’re scavenging in Amsterdam with Jay and Ryanne. Plus, a bonus appearance but the one and only Macdocman, as he discovers how the scavenger life works and marvels at the details.

Relevant Links for today’s scavenging adventure:

What Remains of You

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We moved into a new apartment last month, my partner and I, in a beautiful and lively neighborhood of Amsterdam. Strangely enough on our second day in the house, as we unpacked the massive pile of boxes, a loud discussion burst out in front of our building, which included a good amount of crying by at least one female. When I looked outside to see the source of the noise, two police cars had pulled up and officers slowly put on blue surgical gloves as they tried to calm down the young woman. They seemed in no hurry to enter the building, but when they finally did I could hear their footsteps just above my head. Within minutes they thumped down the stairs and were back outside. More civilians arrived, these men and women would also join the vigil outside. An hour or two went by. A city medical examiner arrived, solemnly greeted the people, and continued up the stairs, again the action going on just above our bedroom. Hours later, in the middle of the night, a large funeral car with a team of two formally dressed individuals is outside. I’m awoken from my brief sleep to the sound of thunderous footsteps and struggling in the narrow Dutch stairwell. I peer through the keyhole just as large objects thump against the door. 3 or 4 men are  struggling with a human body. The final piece of the story, the upstairs neighbor had passed away in his own bed.

19499706524_df2d03b34c_zFor the next week(s) as family members arrived and I listened to the faint sounds of suffering and commiserating, those famous topics of death and how quickly life can change or even end rattled around in my over active brain. Here’s a man who lived alone, older but not old, loved by friends and family, yet isolated in his home in many ways. It is a common reality, in both cities and rural areas. It happens.

Twice a week in this neighborhood they have large garbage night. All month, twice a week, I’ve watched as pieces of a man’s life are painstakingly carried out to the garbage pickup spot. Trash bags. Bits of furniture. Worn carpets. “Unfortunately, my father was a hoarder,” one of his children tells me as she passes me in the stairwell carrying more trash bags. I recognize her as the daughter who stood outside all those hours when the discovery was made. She tries to laugh about it, but the sorrow and pain leaks out as she gives up on a smile.

Each night after the trash is put out, things get quiet upstairs, as family members go home. Then another kind of ritual begins, they come by car, scooter, truck, bike and on foot, to sort through the garbage pile. These are the scavengers, professionals, amateurs, random passer-by’s that see these things and decide to take them home. I watch from my window as they each show up. They scour the piles, feeling the bags, finding sets of things, occasionally accidentally dropping something that makes an attention grabbing crash. Sometimes there are 4 people surrounding the pile yet no one looks at each other, they focus on the pile and the possibility of finding what is treasure to them. By morning there are mostly only scraps and shards of broken things left. Pieces of what were once a person’s life, are sorted and transported all over the city.

It has been one month since the death of the man upstairs. A truck came to take away whatever was deemed of value for the family. His children have worked themselves to exhaustion cleaning the place. There is no more noise upstairs. Soon the landlord will come and paint, renew, whatever is needed to prepare the place for new people. Within a month new human(s) will live their lives upstairs from me. Occasionally they might throw out a large piece of furniture. A scavenger will have it loaded into a van within minutes. Life just goes on.

Remembering Raja Oueis

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On February 11th, 2015 my friend Raja Oueis passed away at the age of 27. I was lucky enough to meet Raja at hacker camp (OHM) in 2013. We spent several happy days exploring that crazy carnival of creativity, an event that we always looked back on with fondness. Not long after we were able to meet again, in Amsterdam and at the Hacker congress in Hamburg. Each in person meeting would be a joyous occasion for eating, laughing, thinking out loud  and plotting future hanging out oppertunities. It seemed only right, I think for both of us, that we did meet and become friends. One of those classic cases of someone you feel like you always knew from the first moment you speak.

Sadly over the past year, as Raja fought a daunting battle against cancer, our communication would be limited to short conversations online. I convinced myself that there would be time, that despite everything, we would get to sit and talk and drink chai and discuss matters of the heart one last time. Just as it felt meant to be that we would become friends, naturally fate would allow us one more chance to talk til the wee hours of the morning. But time ran out on us. My ticket to Beirut reads March and Raja’s ticket to another dimension seems to have been set for February.

Thankfully, though it is hardly enough, during those happy days camping among some of the kindest and most creative people on the planet, we turned on a microphone and together with many friends and strangers, talked about what we were experiencing and why it was special to us. In this podcast I’ll revisit those moments with Raja. Though his voice is one of many in these recordings, his wonderful answers mean even more to me now. I wish we had left the recorder on for so many more hours and days. But thats not how it works, I suppose. Nevertheless, I consider myself lucky to have known him and I’m pleased to be able to share this little tiny piece of such a larger than life human being.