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Small towns: short on size, but big on charm

(This is the fifth in a weekly series of articles on road trips within reasonable reach of the University.)

Back when he still was the Cougar, rocker John Mellencamp belted out odes to small-town America, and he did it well. He had a love for the place that taught him the fear of Jesus, made him a boring romantic and let him be just what he wanted to be. His "Small Town" song may seem a bit provincial, but the Cougar was on to something.

Small towns have taken the backseat to suburban sprawl for years, but as hard as it may be to imagine, there still are places where multiplexes don't exist, where the nearest grocery store is in the next town, where the air is clean and streets only recently have been named.

These places exist, and they exist quite beautifully in a region of Virginia that hardly is known: the Northern Neck.

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  • Northern Neck

    To get there, follow Route 64 east to Route 33 at West Point. Take 33 toward Saluda and proceed onto Route 3 toward Kilmarnock.

    In the Northern Neck there are no suburbs because there are no cities to surround. These settlements put the small in small town. Strip malls are few and far between. People tend to wave at passing cars, whether they know the drivers or not. It is a slow life.

    But it is a good life.

    The Northern Neck is home to a host of charming towns, many of which are too tiny to even warrant a dot on the map. Remo, for instance, which borders the Great Wicomico River, has a town sign, but no visible center. There is a Baptist church, appropriately run by Rev. Scripture, but there is little else. It was a place where the streets had no name, but its roads acquired titles other than Route Such-and-Such within the past three years, and houses finally were given numerical addresses.

    (One of these streets, Tocky Lane, which runs between Sandy Point and Remo Roads, was named after a neighborhood favorite, Tocky Smith, who would grow produce and give it to his friends and neighbors, and walk the road to collect recyclables. His house burned down toward the end of his life, and the neighbors gave him a place to stay. After he passed, he was immortalized via the street sign.)

    Remo is a hole in the wall, that is pretty much true, but driving its newly named roads can be very enlightening, even if there's not much on their sides. (Though there may be things in their middles -- on this journey, I had to brake quickly to avoid squashing a crossing turtle. Have no fear, with a bit of help I picked up the animal and moved it across the road.)

    In nearby Burgess is the Horn Harbor House, a waterfront seafood restaurant accessible by both land and sea, which serves the best Bloody Marys I have ever tasted. Pretty great crabcakes too. Also worth a try is Lee's Restaurant in Kilmarnock, where the Oyster Stew is to die for. There are other great sites to visit, like historic Christ Church outside of Kilmarnock and Smith Seafood in Reedville, where the crabs are sold by the bushel at a high price. (In the middle of the summer, it's worth it. Nothing beats a picnic table covered in newspapers with steamed crabs, Old Bay seasoning and Budweiser).

    But the Northern Neck doesn't have to be a prescribed destination. Small towns aren't relegated only to the tidewater region, and there are plenty in the Commonwealth that make a good trip. Just get out a map of Virginia and look for the little dots. Pick one and go for it. You'll be pleasantly surprised.

    As I started these road trips, I quoted the perennially quotable American poet Walt Whitman, who challenged readers to go like him and be "done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms" and travel the open road. He says in "Song of the Open Road" that he does not "offer the old smooth prizes, but ... rough new prizes."

    Taking to the road harbors the discovery of many rough new prizes, and the Northern Neck is one such reward. It's not easy to find what is so beautiful and endearing in a place like this. To many, it can seem to be incredibly boring. The modern conveniences -- CVS, Holiday Inn, Old Navy -- are absent. If you're lucky, you'll stumble upon the familiarity of a Wal-Mart or McDonald's. But that kind of familiarity is exactly what a trip to a place like this is not about. There are few towns like Wicomico Church or Kilmarnock, and even fewer attempt to emulate their status these days. But there's a beauty in the simplicity of life in these communities that is noticeably absent in cities like Charlottesville, or especially Northern Virginia.

    It is the ease of operating out of need, rather than want. Simple trips like going to the grocery store may take 15 minutes one-way by car, and you better believe you can't forget the milk.

    In Charlottesville and similar communities, we live in a fast-paced world. We can order our textbooks over the Internet and expect them at our doorstep the next day. We drive through everything, getting items from money to food to pharmaceuticals without even leaving our automobiles. We can demand immediate service because we have immediate options. But we're missing something, and those in the Northern Neck and other small towns have it.

    It's called proximity. Not accessibility, but closeness. Everyone may or may not know each other, but they know each other's situations well enough. The community is not so much an intricate weaving of neighbors as it is an unspoken code of conduct. It's a kind of support system that is never recorded. It just is.


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