Last Whistlestop on the Campaign Trail

I was chalked in on the message board at the Hummingbird Cafe in Tidioute, Pa.
I was chalked in on the message board at the Hummingbird Cafe in Tidioute, Pa.

Pittsburgh, Pa., Sunday, June 29, 2013, 10:02 p.m.

I had fun today. Tidioute is a charming little town hard by the Allegheny River, too small for my atlas but big enough to have a nice clientele filing in and out of the Hummingbird Café to watch me play songs and do a little reading from my novel, The Audacity of Dope.

I think I’m just going to make the long drive home tomorrow. I thought about knocking around Morgantown, W.Va. I thought about catching a minor-league baseball game in Salem, Va., but it would be tough and a bit out of the way to get there in time. Right now I think I’m going to take little Alex, my unofficial grandson, to see the Greenville Drive later this week.

If I had it do over, I would have caught the Pittsburgh Pirates’ eighth consecutive victory – it just ended about 10 minutes ago – but I played music until there wasn’t anyone left to listen and would have had a hard time making it to the game at PNC Park on time. It was sold out, but I’m fairly sure I could’ve found a single ticket somewhere. Also, it was raining fiercely north of Pittsburgh. I checked into a motel south of the city and attempted to watch the NASCAR race, which, naturally, was rained out.

Some gotta win, some gotta lose (Goodtime Charlie’s got the blues).

Now I expect I’ll be rumbling across wild, wonderful West Virginia tomorrow, trying to keep my bearings straight with Siri’s assistance and trying to tune the race on AM radio. My truck has Sirius XM, but my truck is in the garage at my house, where my nephew is house-sitting.

It still was a good day. I got up this morning in Warren, Pa., and managed to do a good bit of rehearsing in the room before I set out for Tidioute. I wasn’t scheduled to play until 2 p.m., but I got there by noon and played some covers for the people who were there for lunch. Then I stopped and had lunch (a reuben and fries) before playing.

I apologize for not knowing last names. Grady runs the place. He’s a graduate of Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, N.C. Pat is a fine, elderly gentleman who shares my love of the Boston Red Sox. Gail looked me up on Youtube before coming. I played a little Robert Earl Keen and Jerry Jeff Walker just for her, but I didn’t know she was a Parrothead until I saw the license plate on her van out front. I’d have played some Buffett. They all were there at the beginning and stuck with me till I finally packed up and left at about 4. The Hummingbird is a small place, but there was a good crowd for the whole time. Most everyone seemed to like my country/folk repertoire. I even played a gospel song I wrote, mainly because one lady kept scowling at me and I noticed she and her apparently significant other locked hands and prayed before they ate. I figured a gospel song might make her perk up … and I was right.

I sold some books, received some tips, ate lunch for free and hit the road, which wound up being the most complicated part of the day. About five miles out of Tidioute, a lady with a bright-yellow vest flagged me down and told me there was a wreck up ahead and the road was impassable. I spent the next 15 minutes on dirt roads, all the while driving Siri crazy. I didn’t think I was ever going to reach I-80, which I was only on for about 20 minutes. Then it was down I-79 to yet another thunderous rainstorm and scant visibility.

I’ve been gone since June 21. I went to Winchester and Chantilly, Va., Baltimore, Md., and I’m still in Pennsylvania after stops in West Chester, New Hope, Langhorne, Harrisburg, Somerset, State College, Warren, Tidioute and (presently) Pittsburgh. I’d have liked to spend more time stopping off at little bookstores, but the trip was pretty hectic as it was.

Now I want to get home, where there’s certainly grass to cut, bills to pay and some kind of sensor to be installed in my weary Honda, which has gotten 34, 33, 30 and 32 miles per gallon in fill-ups to date. The trip is going to top 2,000 miles by the time I roll back into the garage and give my beleaguered blue Accord a long-overdue rest.

I hope the Honda sticks with me like Grady, Pat and Gail did.

Raining on the Road

Pennsylvania is becoming a blur, but a great deal of it looks like this.
Pennsylvania is becoming a blur, but a great deal of it looks like this.

Warren, Pa., Saturday, June 29, 2013, 7:18 a.m.

In a few hours, I will be playing music in Tidioute, Pa., at a place called the Hummingbird Café. The fact that Tidioute – the lady at the front desk of the Super 8 said it is indeed pronounced “Tiddy-oot” – is a small place is attested to by the fact that I’m in a motel about 20 miles away. I called in yesterday, and apparently all is set for me to start playing at around 2 p.m. After driving in from State College, I sat around at the picnic,c table out back and played my trusty Taylor for quite a while.

Where do I go from here? Home sweet home. But I’m going to take my time. I may even go see the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are on a winning streak, play the Milwaukee Brewers tonight. It depends on how much I yearn to see baseball, how tired I am, how soon I get out of Tidioute and how willing I am to drive all the way back to South Carolina on Sunday. I’m guessing I won’t get home until Monday either way. If I don’t go see the Pirates tonight, I may catch a minor-league game somewhere down the line. I’m definitely not driving up to Erie. I need to make up ground, not give it.

The age of these Pennsylvania towns is evident. I find it rather charming, all these old buildings. A lady told me a few nights ago that the reason these Northern towns have so many old buildings is that the South had most of its buildings burned in the war. That’s the Civil War. I reckon if she made the point, it’s okay for me to pass it along. It’s a fact, though, that old buildings like the ones routinely on display in towns with names like West Chester, New Hope, Somerset and Warren are rare down south. What few we have left generally have historical markers out front.

Naturally, it’s raining right now. I never saw a drop of rain on the first three days of this trip. It’s almost been raining ever since. Rain makes me sleepy, not sleepy in the sense that it makes it difficult to drive, but sleepy in that I yawn a lot and want to go to bed at 10 p.m., which I seldom do otherwise.

Once I get home, I expect I’ll have some difficulty getting much work done for a time. I should be back to normal, though, by next Saturday when I will take part in a celebration of “indie” book authors at Fiction Addiction in Greenville, S.C. I’ll be “on” at 5 p.m. on July 6.

I once read a Larry McMurtry book called Roads, which was about the famed author, more celebrated for fiction, describing his long drives across the various interstate highways of the land. The book disappointed me a bit because I thought driving the back roads was more enjoyable than just setting the old cruise control on the four lanes. I now feel more inclined to agree with McMurtry, and perhaps that’s because I’m older now. Two-lane roads are taxing. They involve being stuck behind coal trucks and construction vehicles. They involve tricky twists and turns that would be quite a bit more vexing had I not brought my iPhone and the soothing voice of the Navigator Siri along.

For now, the words of the old Bobby Bare hit come to mind:

I want to go home / I want to go home / Oh, how I want to go home / BAWN-buh-BAHM-buh-baw-buh-BAWN-buh-BAWN-buh-BAWN-buh …

I hear it’s raining back home, too. I’m satisfied there will be grass to cut and bills to pay.

Rain at a Sad, Sacred Place

Pennsylvania 012State College, Pa., Friday, June 28, 2013, 6:34 a.m.

What rain. It washed me out and pinned me down. Now it’s just drizzling outside. Today looks manageable. The streets aren’t even flooded anymore. The chance is 40 percent now. That’s manageable. Yesterday, if Mother Nature had been interviewed, she would’ve said she was “giving 110.”

As best I can tell, the law in Pennsylvania doesn’t require – or must not – that motorists turn on their headlights when it’s raining. On I-99 yesterday, the absence of taillights made it seem as if I was on the highway with a bunch of ghost cars.

But today is a new day, and tomorrow, I will be playing some songs and talking about my novel at the Hummingbird Café in Tidioute, Pa., a town sufficiently small that my motel room is in Warren. I’ll be on at 2 p.m., after which I’ll get a start on a long drive home.

For the past few years, I’ve taken comparable trips to a music festival in Texas. It’s always the same. I love the drive out. I’m amused, curious and enthusiastic. The trip is charming. Then, when I head home, I can’t wait to get there, and it’s more than 700 miles away.

Thursday began the same as this one: me sitting in a motel room cranking out this blog, which I try my best to do daily. Then, in spite of the rain, I drove to the nearby Flight 93 Memorial to visit the scene of the crash on Sept. 11, 2001 in which passengers gave their lives preventing terrorists from completing the gruesome task that others that day accomplished.

After my maniacal iPhone twice directed me to entrances that had locked gates on them, I finally found my way to that gloomy hillside where the airliner bored into the ground. I’ve probably never been angrier than that day. I was determined that terrorists weren’t going to create any fear in me, that I wasn’t going to change my life one iota in deference to their barbarism. The NASCAR race in New Hampshire was scheduled for the next weekend, though later postponed until the day after Thanksgiving. Had it been allowed, I would have flown the next day and was getting ready to drive all the way to Loudon when the race was finally put off.

I remember that I took my nephew – Vince, the same one who is house-sitting for me right now – to school a day or so after the terrorist attacks. On the way, he asked if I was still planning to go to New Hampshire. I said yes. He said, “If you fly in a plane, hundreds and hundreds will get killed. If everybody drives a car, ones and ones will.”

It was a mild, clear day when Flight 93 crashed, but it seemed fitting to be standing there in the rain. I was walking back to the car when Vince called to tell me everything at home was cool and that he was watching a Jack Nicholson movie.

I’m planning to drive around Penn State today for a while, which I would have done yesterday had it not been raining so hard it made my skin hurt. I’ve got some stops at bookstores, where I’ll drop off a copy of The Audacity of Dope, ask the manager to read it and give him/her information on how he/she can obtain copies for sale.

What I should have done last night was work a bit on my third novel – the second, The Intangibles, is scheduled out in November – but, of course, I watched the NASCAR Truck race from Kentucky when I discovered that, miraculously, the room had Speed.

More of Life on the Road’s Greatest Hits

I hope to catch some baseball over the next few days. This photo was taken in Reading, Pa., several years ago.
I hope to catch some baseball over the next few days. This photo was taken in Reading, Pa., several years ago.

Somerset, Pa., Thursday, June 27, 2013, 7:54 a.m.

The road is finally getting old, and I’m starting to feel the call of home, though I’ve several more days between here and there. It’s been enjoyable and relaxing, touring the countryside and listening to music. Yesterday was mainly The Band and John Prine, zipping down the Pennsylvania Turnpike first to Harrisburg and then to here. Next it’s north to State College and then west to Warren, where I’ll spend the night before my gig – book signing/concert – at Hummingbird Café in Tidioute at 2 p.m. Saturday.

The State College Spikes (minor-league baseball team) are on the road. Rats. Somewhere between here and home, I’m going to find a minor-league baseball game to attend. Maybe Friday night in Erie. Maybe on the way back to South Carolina.

I watched last week’s NASCAR race at my friend Bernard Durham’s house in Chantilly, Va. I had a great time with my old racing buddy Andy Belmont, and his family in Langhorne, Pa. Last night I had dinner with Sheena Baker, an ex-colleague who, like me, had her job eliminated and now works here in Somerset, near her hometown. One pleasant aspect of this trip has been a rare chance to see people I don’t get to see very often anymore.

I’ve come up with some observations that will be of use in my third novel, Crazy by Natural Causes. If you’re keeping a scorecard at home, my first novel, The Audacity of Dope, is out and the purpose of this trip. The second, The Intangibles, will be out sometime before the end of the year. They’re all vastly different. They’re all fun.

Yesterday I found a bookstore in Harrisburg, Midtown Scholar, where I’d like to come back and do a signing, perhaps for The Intangibles. It has a stage for live music, and I like to combine my book signings with music. It seems to work well, particularly since I wrote the songs whose lyrics appear in The Audacity of Dope.

So far, I’ve enjoyed the drives through beautiful countryside, but I think I’ll have my fill by the time I get home. I’ll probably finish the Saturday gig and head south afterwards, where I’ll find a room from which to watch the Sprint Cup race in Kentucky. It’s going to be a long haul, and I’m planning on taking my time. When I get home, I’ll dig my way through a mountain of bills. On Saturday, July 6, I’ll be at Fiction Addiction in Greenville, S.C., for its celebration of indie authors. My spiel is scheduled for 5 p.m. on that date.

I’m not an indie musician. I’m an indie author.

I’ll try to come up with something more interesting for Friday.

Wandering Through the Keystone State

It's the Delaware River, but here it separates New Hope, Pa., from Lambertville, N.J.
It’s the Delaware River, but here it separates New Hope, Pa., from Lambertville, N.J.

Langhorne, Pa., Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 7:48 a.m.

Things are going well out on the road, where I will continue to traverse the Keystone State today, headed west to Harrisburg and beyond. Yesterday I spent a couple hours touring Valley Forge National Park, which was timely because I’ve been reading a lot about the American Revolution over the past year.

Tom Brokaw famously termed the World War II era as “the greatest generation,” and while I basically concur, I think the country’s founding generation deserves that distinction just as much. The Founding Fathers took on the greatest power in the world at that time, knowing full well that defeat meant that they all would have been hung. The debt we owe them is incalculable.

Then I drove here and spent the evening with my racing pal Andy Belmont and his family. We went out to dinner, then back to his house for, I guess, a private concert. Andy and I got to know each other well during my time on the board of directors of the Eastern Motorsports Press Association. He’s a big fan of my novel, The Audacity of Dope, and I’m positive he will be among the first to read my next one, The Intangibles.

I’ll always remember this trip for the help I’ve received from old friends: the Belmonts, Bernard Durham, Dennis Woods, Mr. and Mrs. Tim Randall, and Beth Wishard, whom I’d known through my writing for years without actually meeting her in person until she came to see me talk about my novel and play music in Winchester, Va.

I’ve got to make up my mind where I’m headed tomorrow: Pittsburgh, maybe, or north to State College to knock around Penn State. I’ll be in Warren on Friday night, getting ready for my book signing/concert at Hummingbird Café in Tidioute.

When Rowe Copeland, my book concierge, first mentioned Tidioute, I knew I had heard the name before, but it took me quite some time to remember. More than 30 years ago, I covered the Greenwood Pirates minor-league baseball team, now gone for almost that long. The team’s manager was Joe Frisina, who was from Tidioute.

I’ll be there on Saturday at 2 p.m. Come see me if you’re not too far away, and if you are, recommend me to someone you know in the area.

It’s been fun. I’m making progress. I’m trying not to plan things out so much that the trip loses its sense of adventure. I enjoy making up my mind on what direction I’m headed as I go along.

Out Among the Real People

I felll in with this motley crew while watching the Delaware River roll by.
I felll in with this motley crew while watching the Delaware River roll by.

New Hope, Pa., Monday, June 24, 2013, 8:23 p.m.

Today was not without its frustrations. My iPhone and I had a few issues regarding global positioning, and I got sparse results from a lot of driving. I saw the first rain of the trip, but it was spotty, too.

First I headed to West Chester, Pa., where the bookstore I was seeking recently closed. (I’m told an L.A. Fitness will soon be there.) A young woman at a gift shop told me I should give “the book barn” a try. It was quite a place. It looked sort of like an old winery and had a wondrous collection of books. The only problem was that they were all old. I briefly inquired, sighed and hit the road here, where I had partial success.

Between actual book signings, I’m sort of imitating Loretta Lynn and husband Doolittle, as portrayed in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” when they dropped off 45’s at radio stations. I’m dropping off copies of The Audacity of Dope, asking the owner to give it a read and leaving information so that he or she can order copies for the store.

No bologna sandwiches, of course.

New Hope is perched on the Delaware, and I dropped a copy off there with the nice lady behind the desk. I’ve found almost no exception to the rule that the nicest people on earth own or run bookstores. The second shop on my list was closed.

Bookstores, big and small, are dropping like flies. That’s such a shame.

Again, I was in a big hurry all day. I spent the morning editing video from my appearance on Saturday at Winchester Book Gallery in Virginia. I’m still getting it prepared to post on Youtube. You’ll probably see more than you need on social media for quite some time.

I hate I missed a chance to visit the Herr’s Snack Factory Tour. Went right by it.

I’ve always been amused by the messages on the highway in construction areas. “Let ‘Em Work; Let ‘Em Live” is a common slogan. Then there are the reminders to wear seatbelts: “Click It Or Ticket” back home. In Pennsylvania, signs say, “Buckle Up: Your Life, Our Law.”

Gotcha.

I ate the free motel breakfast in Maryland and nothing else until I’d gotten through in New Hope. I’m trying to hold down costs, and let me tell you, it’s hard to find a decent motel rate in these parts. For supper, I went to one of those rustic diners that dot the Northeast. I had the prime-rib special, which came with soup, salad and dessert. I had no reason other than being unwilling to give up part of the deal, but I had blueberry pie, which is strictly prohibited on my diet (and, I suspect, most anyone else’s).

Oh, well, regroup tomorrow.

As fruitless as it was, I love driving through the Pennsylvania countryside. The towns are charming. The rural North is as different from nearby cities as my hometown from Charlotte.

I stopped at a drugstore for a few items, and the cute girl at the counter inquired about what I happened to be doing here, my Southern accent making me an object of curiosity. I told her I was an author and was promoting my novel, which she then asked about. The conversation ended prematurely when an old man antsy for a carton of cigarettes said, “Hey, buddy, ticker’s running.”

Obviously, we weren’t buddies, but he had a right to the same prompt service I had enjoyed so I let it go. Outside I realized the man’s comment was literal. A cab was parked at the front door. New Hope is across the river from Lambertville, N.J., and I guess smokes are no cheaper in the Garden State. I don’t see how they could possibly be higher.

Taking It As It Comes

I'm still out there, making it up as I go along.
I’m still out there, making it up as I go along.

White Marsh, Md., Sunday, June 23, 2013, 10:18 p.m.

I’m tired. I’m about to edit video. The only reason I’m sitting here pecking away at this laptop is I try to blog every day.

It’s sort of strange. I’m on the second floor of a Hampton Inn. I can hear, through the window, people singing, or really more chanting, at the pool below. I don’t mind. Many times I have been the guy singing at the pool, though these people don’t have any musical accompaniment. They’re screeching. I think back home they would say they are “just-a goin’ to town.” The late David Poole would say, “Aye, law, you can’t hide money.” He might say, “Hey … get a room,” but they apparently already have one. So he’d probably call the front desk … or the law.

I’m cutting them some slack. Isn’t fun the greatest thing you can have?

I spent the morning rambling around the hills of West Virginia, arguing with Siri over which way to go. I spent the afternoon at the house of my college friend Bernard Durham, who came to see my book signing in Winchester, Va., on Saturday. We ate barbecue. I played guitar and sang songs for Bernard and Robin’s two children, Mitch and Mia, and some others from the neighborhood whose names elude me now.

Bernard and I watched the NASCAR race from Sonoma. After the race ended, we watched Mitch work on his baseball pitching in the back yard. Then I set out, without any clear vision of where I was going, and wound up here.

I also have no clear vision of where I’m going tomorrow, but I’m relatively confident I’ll be somewhere on the north side of Philadelphia on Tuesday.

I’ll ponder this matter carefully in the morning and come up with something approaching a plan that I may or may not follow.

Maybe It Should’ve Been “a Long Time Forgotten’

Gosh, what if I'd picked up a guitar before I was in my 40s. (John Clark photo)
Gosh, what if I’d picked up a guitar before I was in my 40s? (John Clark photo)

Winchester, Va., Saturday, June 22, 2013, 8:36 a.m.

When I started out in the journalism business, I thought I could change the world. When it came to an end, I couldn’t even change my insurance.

This morning I awakened at 4 a.m., found a notepad and copied down the above. Then I went back to sleep, brainstorming.

When I started out in the journalism business, I wrote such sudden realizations on cocktail napkins. I thought of the lines in a Tom T. Hall song: I said I was a poet / My soul was all on fire / He looked at me and said you are a liar, son / It’s faster horses / Younger women / Older whisky / And more money.

In the late 1970s, when I went to college, and the ‘80s, when I started writing for a living, Watergate was still fresh, not a relic from a bygone age. We went out and fancied ourselves as budding Woodwards and Bernsteins, not to mention potential Kerouacs.

I wasn’t making much money at the Greenwood (S.C.) Index-Journal. It didn’t bother me. Mine was an honest profession. Money? That would have been a corruptive element that only diminished my ability to look at the world around me and write what happened. Bill James wrote that if the baseball manager John McNamara ever wrote a book about strategy, it would be named Let Them Play and See What Happens. That was a hell of a knock on the manager, but it was a description of what I did for a living.

Besides, my world didn’t have anything to do with the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Council of Economic Advisers. My world consisted of the Greenwood (minor-league) Pirates and (high school) Eagles, the Lander University Senators (at the time) and Erskine College Flying Fleet. I wrote columns that included broader categories, but I don’t think Dean Smith was overly concerned at reviews of his coaching in the Index-Journal (which I was fond of calling the Index Finger).

Journalism was about having the guts to call it the way I saw it. No one was shutting me down. It was the age of Kris Kristofferson: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose / Nothing ain’t worth nothing/ But it’s free.

I drove a yellow Chevy Luv pickup that had a camper shell on the back, the better to sleep in if I didn’t have the bread for a motel room. Every now and then it stopped running, and I learned from trial and error that the problem was invariably a cracked distributor cap, the result of a design flaw in the faraway figurings of Isuzu engineers. I bought distributor caps two at a time and held my breath every time I was driving in the rain.

Seldom did I spend much time agonizing about right and wrong. I was too busy having fun. I once sang the national anthem at a baseball game as a result of a drunken vow the night before. We used to have fish fries in the Legion Stadium concession stands at the end of homestands. The fish were provided by the groundskeeper and his son, who spent a fair amount of leisure time at Clark’s Hill Reservoir.

I caught glimpses of the famous, mostly those who were out of the limelight. I spent an afternoon pinned in the motel room of Bob Feller by a fierce thunderstorm. Sean O’Grady, a boxer who had experienced a glimmer of fame, came to town to promote a show at the Civic Center. When I interviewed him, he was all about Christian testimony. After the show, he was all about chasing women at a country joint on the lake, and I saw him get religious about drinking. The wrestler Wahoo McDaniel told me stories about how he had alienated all his fans by becoming a “bad guy” and would never betray them again.

Within about month, Wahoo was a “bad guy” again.

Once a pitching coach and I took a six pack – “OK, just one more six-pack …” – to the paper and drank it while I wrote a story on the previous night’s pre-fish fry game. The Index-Journal was an afternoon paper – there was then such a thing – and I didn’t have to get the story in on deadline. I can tell these stories now. The statute of limitations has passed.

Those fish fries … I wonder how I would’ve tweeted them.

Now I’m old and the world has passed me by. I still think young. Part of me has remained the same. I’ve spent a career describing grown-ups playing children’s games and making a handsome profit (them, not me) doing it. It’s not an atmosphere conducive to maturity.

Deep inside, I still think maturity is the enemy. People get beat up and ripped apart by “the real world,” and at some point, they subconsciously decide, Well, no more Mr. Nice Guy. From now on, I’m looking out for myself.

I’ve heard this has happened to more than just sportswriters. I’ve heard that ruthlessness has made many people successful. I’ve observed that many have shed some humanity along the way.

By God, it never happened to me. I’m still poor and proud of it.

I’ll close with a little Roger Miller: I’ve been a fool / I’ve been a foo-oooool / Forgiving you each time that you done me wrong / I’ve been a long time leaving but I’ll be a long time gone.

Virginia Daydreaming

Monte Dutton
Monte Dutton

Winchester, Va., Friday, June 21, 2013, 8:10 p.m.

I wish I had been on my way back today. I wanted so badly to stop along the road – drive Skyline Drive, see a battlefield, visit the Natural Bridge – but I was just too antsy. I wanted to get settled in at the room and prepare for Saturday’s book signing/concert at Winchester Book Gallery.

On the way back, I’m going to be more adventurous, though I’m not sure yet just what course I’m going to take*. I’m going to be all over the place in the next week.

Nonetheless, here are some reflections from the road.

Playing music and writing songs have taken a toll on my music listening. Most of the time I really listen to music is behind a wheel, either that of my riding mower in the yard or one of my vehicles on the road. Lots of times, I write while having something innocuous – The Weather Channel, Sportscenter, one of the 24-hour news channels – on TV. I need to get out of that habit and play music at the house.

Today I spent most of the seven-hour drive listening to Alison Krauss and Union Station, Guy Clark, Steve Earle and Larry Jon Wilson. It fit the scenery. I almost listened to John Lennon, but I’ll save it for urban areas. I like scenery and music to fit. As I listen to music and ponder the scenery, lots of things occur to me that haven’t before and wouldn’t otherwise.

I haven’t been through Virginia via I-81 since I was traveling with Furman University’s athletic teams as sports information director in the 1980s. For instance, I’ve been to the Natural Bridge twice, once on a family trip in the ‘70s and once on a Paladin football trip to Virginia Military Institute. I would’ve liked to stop at the Natural Bridge again to take photos and to nearby Lexington, where there is a George Marshall Museum. Robert E. Lee is buried at VMI. When the late Steve Robertson was defensive coordinator at Furman, in 1978, he dispatched me and another student manager to gather up buckeyes from the tree-shaded lawn outside Lee’s tomb as good-luck charms.

Why do I know Christiansburg? It was the home of NASCAR’s second “Clown Prince,” Jabe Thomas, who drove a red-and-gold No. 25 Plymouth when I was a boy. Thomas succeeded Joe Weatherly, the original Clown Prince of NASCAR, upon Weatherly’s death.

No one in NASCAR has the slightest desire to be a Clown Prince today.

Here’s another fun fact I remember from one of my cattle-hauling trips with my dad years ago. The New River is so named because early settlers didn’t find it for quite a while. It’s actually the third oldest river geologically on earth, whatever that means.

I passed a transporter representing the Batesville Casket Company, “Committed to the Dignity of Life.” Ah, well, caskets have to get there somehow. I also passed a small truck and trailer representing Pump Organ Restoration.

Thankfully, nothing for Steel Erections.

Did you know Roanoke was the site of the National D-Day Memorial? I didn’t.

Another sign, on a small bridge, designated the stream below as part of the Chesapeake Bay National Watershed, I suppose because the waters end up tumbling into the bay hundreds of miles to the northeast. Under the designation were the words “Be Kind to the Chesapeake,” and I didn’t know quite what to make of it. I guess they didn’t want people to stop their cars and urinate over the side or something. I’m as kind to the Chesapeake as the next guy.

I drove past James Madison University – its football stadium practically looms over the highway – and remembered seeing Gary Clark play for the Dukes before he became a star for the Washington Redskins. I also went there on a basketball trip when Lefty Driesell was the head coach. In fact, I saw Driesell at the end of his career when his Georgia State team played at Stetson while I was in Daytona Beach for Speedweeks.

Harrisonburg also has a “factory antique mall.” An antique has to be old, right? How can there be a factory outlet for antiques?

Southern Virginia seems full of wineries. Northern Virginia seems full of caverns and caves. One was “Endless.” I don’t want to go there.

*Unlike Virginia’s Patrick Henry, who famously said, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”

The Brave New Swirl

To my knowledge, Cale Yarborough doesn't tweet, but he knows what a tweet-up is.
To my knowledge, Cale Yarborough doesn’t tweet, but he knows what a tweet-up is.

Clinton, S.C., Thursday, June 20, 2013, 1:15 p.m.

Two decades ago, when I was just getting started writing about NASCAR for a living, I often made the mistake of answering questions honestly.

I’m not talking about interactions with my peers. I’m talking about the guy at the convenience store, the waitress, the old hometown friend standing around the barbecue pit and the random fan at the souvenir trailer.

“Hey, so, like, do you know all the racers?”

“I see ‘em every weekend.”

“So you know [insert name]?”

“Yeah. Talked to him at Dover.”

“What’s he really like?”

Back then, I knew no better. I was full of myself and wanted to portray myself as an insider. It was at that point that, even though I interacted with the racer in question every week and the person in question had never met him, that person would invariably believe that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

I, who have never met him, know more than you, who sees him all the time. You, sir, see the trees. Only I see the forest.

In most cases, I was kind in my remarks. What I learned was that I couldn’t be kind enough to suit the fan. If I was unwilling to declare that the racer in question was, without doubt, the most skilled driver in the solar system and the most personable, humorous, charismatic, kind and beneficent man I had ever encountered, it wasn’t good enough for his fan.

One of my favorite sayings, often mumbled under my breath, became, Excuse me, ma’am, but it’s obvious that I can’t possibly agree with you enough.

I came to understand this. I’m guilty of it myself, if the topic of conversation happens to be Johnny Unitas or Willie Mays. As a matter of fact, while writing about NASCAR as my business, I took pride in maintaining my fan membership in other sports.

I thought I had found my balance

Then along came social media.

I suppose this is a wondrous exercise in democracy, this technologically driven commingling of the masses and classes. Once a sportswriter had only partners on press row and rich athletes to tell him he didn’t have enough sense to raise an umbrella in the rain. Now anyone can do it and half of them don’t even use their own names. Oh, there were irate callers and “letters to the editor.” Then there were emails, chat rooms and message boards. Those were all occasional. These are all persistent.

Years ago now, the newspaper where I worked had a slogan: “Think Like a Reader.” A big banner hung on the wall of the newsroom. I don’t think this is a worry anymore. Maybe I don’t think like a reader, but I certainly know what the readers think.

Now I’m watching a race from Dover in my Clinton recliner, with a half-drunk pipefitter from Butte, a sassy housewife from Effingham and a hot-shot college kid from Tucson virtually sharing the couch. Two of them think I’m the greatest wordsmith since Wordsworth, and the other thinks I couldn’t suck anymore if my last name was Hoover.

The “professional distance” is growing ever tighter, particularly since some of the tweeters started their own web sites, the better to run us stodgy professionals right out of business.

I wrote a song called “Facebook Friends”:

The world is changing / Always rearranging / From birth to the end / With my Facebook friends.

Meanwhile, I’m stuck with the old-fashioned sentiment of a Guy Clark song:

Mistakes are only horses in disguise / Ain’t no need to ride ‘em over / ‘Cause I could not ride ‘em different if I tried.