Reading the roadside

By Bruce Preston

Since I’m new to Rappahannock County, I keep an eye out for what there is to see and what used to be as I drive along U.S. 522, which is close as anything to the spine of this county.

The road before me conforms to contemporary highway design standards and cuts straight through rolling farmland relieved only by the occasional graceful curve. In a pasture that climbs gently up the side of a foothill I see two horses grazing side by side. They move together as if choreographed.

Some farmhouses sit comfortably near the road, yet I can see evidence of earlier, perhaps original, abandoned roads closer to the houses. They are hidden behind stone fences or shrubbery, and are revealed only by the contour of the land or the absence of trees. These old roads once carried horse drawn wagons and Model Ts and perhaps General Lee himself.

Today the sound of hoof beats, once as common as birdsong on a May morning, lives only in memory. The new, well-engineered road has prompted landowners to build stone-faced retaining walls with built-in steps to get up to their front yards.

The steps are rarely used and my guess is that visitors will probably park around back and knock on the kitchen door. But the new, uninviting steps remain as a testament to poor site planning. The retaining walls mark the sharp boundary between the hard surface public road and the private lawn.

Where the road crosses a bridge over a stream — or a run, as I am learning to call it — I see the water curving off through the trees to pass beneath a spindly old rusted iron bridge. I am happy to see this aged artifact has been allowed to remain to show us how things used to be. I imagine a barefooted child fishing in silence with a bamboo pole from this ghost bridge.

I note small buildings with broken river rock foundations and leaning wooden walls valiantly standing to support a sagging roof structure. The metal roofing has been peeled back by the seasons to reveal the weathered framing below. Then I pass a compact abandoned brick building placed at an odd angle to the road.

It is certainly not a stable and it looks too small to be a garage. What could it have been used for? And why has it been abandoned? Who would put the money in a brick building when there was abundant standing timber nearby? But this is a question of economics or local custom I cannot address here. Not today, anyway.

In a pasture beyond, I see black angus cattle graze contently — yet indifferent to their location or local custom, for that matter. But these cattle affirm — in a graphic and poetic way — our connection to the earth.

I also see buildings called log cabins, which are not built from logs at all, but incorporate milled (or hewn) wooden structural elements between which chinking or “wattle and daub” is placed to keep out the weather and the forest creatures. These old buildings are usually seen near the original roads and feature later additions grafted on them. Nearby you will occasionally see vintage farm equipment proudly displayed out front.

Retired architect Bruce Preston moved to Flint Hill two years ago.

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