Copyright 2012 by Ralph Couey
Change is a concept that is at the same time glorious opportunity and seemingly endless adversity. It rarely goes smoothly, not unlike a drive down a pitted and rocky backroad. You know the eventual destination, but around each curve and behind every hill a hundred different predators lie in wait, crouched and ready to spring.
Change can be brought on by either choice or necessity. In our case, it was the latter. Because of downsizing, my day job in was eliminated and I was transferred from a small town in the mountains of Pennsylvania to the crowded and bustling suburban nexus of Northern Virginia.
I’ve lived in a lot of places in my life, both big cities and small towns. In fact, I’ve moved so often that when people ask me where home is, I reply, “Wherever the motorcycle’s parked.” To which my wife often grumbles, “What am I? Chopped liver?”
But that’s me. I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities of what lay beyond the horizon. My chronically itchy foot has taken me to 49 states and 28 other countries in my lifetime. I do understand the emotional need of some to put down roots in a place where the story of their family lies on the landscape like an autumn fog. But I don't do well with roots. I am the proverbial rolling stone, quick to throw off even the smallest strand of moss.
Each state, each region has its own collection of qualities that take possession of the human heart and create that unique sense of belonging we call “home.” Californians have their ocean, Coloradans their mountains. Midwesterners look to their mighty rivers, the highways of another age. Even Kansans are inspired by the simple beauty of the endless prairie.
I’ve always known of the affection that bonds native Virginians to their commonwealth. But it wasn’t until I read the Civil War epic “Gods and Generals” that I really began to understand the depth of that emotion. Now, I know that the ante-bellum Virginia of the Civil War years no longer exists. But for those born and raised here, that passion still lives. For them, Virginia is home.
Virginia has always been something to fight for, from the struggling settlement at Jamestown, through the stormy colonial era, the revolution, and the difficult birth of the United States, the final arguments of which were not settled until the end of the Civil War. In fact, it seems that nearly every vital story about America carries Virginia as its byline.
Last fall, I took a ride out US 50 to the Shenandoah Valley. It was a sparkling autumn day, the leaves just past peak. As my motorcycle glided along, I was embraced by the rolling hills, the mountains, and the still-verdant valley of the Shenandoah. As the landscape rolled past, I finally understood what it was that drove the Virginians of that day and time to so vigorously defend this beautiful land.
Around here, native Virginians seem to be rare. This has become a gathering place, drawing people from across the country and the world. They are a transient people, having stopped here for a time before moving on, riding other dreams to other places.
Times have certainly changed. Once upon a time, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia rolled like a juggernaut through the countryside. Today, the only “Army of Northern Virginia” is the hundreds of thousands who daily invade and take possession of the nation’s capital, only to surrender it again each afternoon. None march in formation, dine on hardtack, or carry muskets. But they all come from places which still bear the names Lee, Jackson, and Mosby. The Potomac is no longer the barrier between two warring nations, merely just another river to cross on the way to work.
I don’t know how long I will live here. But my strong sense of history will send me in search of those places that reflect the proud history of a great nation. It is here that I know I will re-discover the dreams that carried them to these shores, brought them defiantly to their feet in independence, and healed a people torn by war. The history of the Commonwealth of Virginia is inextricably intertwined with that of the United States. You can’t tell the story of one without the other. That, by itself, makes this a pretty special place.