The sun was at our backs, slowly disappearing behind the comfort of Virginia hilltops. We hadn’t said anything to each other in about a half hour. Somehow to talk would slow us down. Laura driving, me in the passenger’s side, messing with my camera gear. We had twenty-five miles to go, and the darkness was already creeping in. I had given up and had my hopes raised three or four times in the past ten minutes. Nagging doubt. I was going to miss out once again.
A week earlier: the opposite direction, another time of day. Morning, 7am. I’m driving, clutching the steering wheel. The sun was reluctant to remove itself from the same Virginia hills. It had been raining since we had left in a crazy fit of vacation-fueled excitement at two in the morning. But now, for the moment, the rain had subsided and there was a chance. Clouds had swallowed the light of the sun and the skies were still practically dark as night.
Three miles from Staunton, Virginia. My goal was Wright’s Dairy-Rite and the Stonewall Jackson Hotel, two terrific landmarks in the same basic neighborhood. Three years before, when my sister-in-law got married and they were to drive down this same highway to get to their eventual home in Texas, I suggested Wright’s as a possible stopping place. Car-hop service. Drive-In. Grand old sign. How road food used to be. I had never been there, but they stopped and enjoyed. Next year, on our way to Florida, I hoped to stop, but time and circumstance had kept me away. Ditto the following year.
I got off I-81 at US 250, despite the darkness. After all, how many times had the darkness been an illusion, and once I had reached my goal, the clouds had parted and the sun was shining bright? This is an act of faith.
By the time I had gotten to the end of the off-ramp, my hopes were already scuttled against the rocks. Rain. Not just rain. A curtain, a wall of rain. Impenetrable. No chance for a good shot. I made it to the next stoplight before I admitted the futility. Wright’s would have to wait another year.
Back to a week later: going through South Carolina, plans to stop at Bar-B-Q King in Charlotte. Laura driving. She asks me if I’m thinking about Staunton, could we actually get Staunton this time? I shake my head. I was trying not to think about it. I’ve missed out too many times to think about it. But the math works out in my head: Staunton by 5:30. Neon magic hour. Perfection, better than it would have been at 7am. I try not to think about it.
Bar-B-Q King. I saw a bit on them on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and knew we’d be hitting Charlotte about lunchtime, so this was ideal. I’m driving and we find it pretty easily. I pull in and everything seems familiar, and I think: my aunt used to live in Charlotte, over 30 years ago, had she taken me here? The place is awfully familiar, too familiar. I figure I’ll ask her later. In the meantime, I’ll have some great old Carolina Barbecue and take a picture or 46 of the sign.
We drive on. The taste is still in my mouth. That will have to be a regular stop, I say, and Laura agrees. The gradual climb into Virginia begins. I’m thinking about Staunton again and I don’t want to. We made good time in Charlotte and my original estimate of 5:30 has been pushed up to 5. Maybe too early. It’s going to happen, I think. Clear skies all the way.
The turn off of I-77 to I-81 and Laura’s driving again. I’m distracted from Staunton, thinking we may get there too early. I’m thinking of something else: the previous year I had spotted an abandoned motel nestled off the side of 81. Then it was too late in the day to do it justice, and it came upon us so quickly there was no way to get off the exit in time, but I had bookmarked it in my mind. And just as I think of it, I see it up ahead. It’s early enough that the sun is on it. Laura asks me if I want to go for it and by now I’ve already grabbed my camera from the back seat. “Yesss,” I say, and she pulls off.
To get in position for a shot of this is easier said than done. Although it looked like it was going to be right by the side of the road, we had to go down a hill to get to the entrance and climb back up. The sign was located at the end of a steep, steep road. Laura was nervous. The area looks untouched for a number of years. We make the climb and see that the Motel had an old restaurant attached to it, and that it has a sign, too. I sneak a shot or two before moving on.
And then, our hearts stop.Far in the distance, to the side of the abandoned lot and across from the Motel’s sign, is a pick-up truck. Flanked by another vehicle. A couple of guys milling about suspiciously. Out in the middle of Nowhere, Virginia. Could be innocent but it doesn’t look it. And I’m sitting in a parked car wielding a camera. Laura’s sense of panic hits considerably before mine. But she’s right. I don’t know what was going on but I didn’t think it was a bright idea to find out what it was. We head back down the hill.
Laura’s emotions are churning. She thinks I’m mad at her because we miss out on the Motel sign, but I’m not. I’m still thinking about Staunton but I don’t say anything. I assure her that our safety is more important. I remind her of the end of L.A. Confidential, and although Dudley Smith had it coming I wasn’t about to end up like him. She’s calmed down somewhat. But just below the surface we’re thinking the same thing: that stop may have cost us Staunton. Again.
We carry on in silence. Enter Salem. Leave Salem. Past Roanoke, which hangs us up a little bit but not near as bad as it has in the past. The sun diminishes. Two lanes through this section of I-81 and we’re riding in the fast lane. Laura breaks the silence with many words of scorn directed at the driver of whichever car or truck that gets in front of us. By now I’ve given into my thoughts and I’m looking over my shoulder, watching the sun, and Laura senses it. Still a long way, and I say what I’m thinking: “Not a chance.”
Laura has none of that. She chokes the life out of the wheel and pushes all would-be-obstacle drivers back into the slow lane with the power of her thoughts and her speech. Twenty miles away, ten. The last vestiges of daylight still hanging on. The quest is still alive and I don’t know how, but I believe it can still happen. She asks me what she needs to do and I give her the directions. We’re on route 11 in a moment and the traffic is thick. The stoplights seem to take forever and Laura is still talking ill of the local drivers.
And then we turn the corner, and a flash of neon hits my eye. We’ve done it. A scrap of light still left in the sky. Laura pulls over and I literally bolt out of the car before the power of the sun completely dies.
Nothing worth doing is easy. And now that I have this shot, it serves as a reminder of what hard work and perseverance means. To anyone else this would mean nothing and perhaps rightfully so, but we know, our eyes are open, and all we have to do is think about a chilly night in Virginia to think of what can be accomplished.
And a bonus: we were just going to head out of town, but I spotted the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in my rear view and I had to turn the car around. It was perhaps too late, and I had to crank the ISO on the K-5 to get the shot I wanted, but when in Staunton, and while the neon is glowing, I figured why not?