My rental car swings into a spot outside the hotel and finally comes to rest. With the lights of oncoming traffic now gone, my eyes adjust to the darkness revealing a very old, architecturally glamorous bank in front of us.
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“Please tell me you sleep on money here, because I’m not sleeping in an old vault like that one time in Ottawa,” hissed my travel companion Erin.
“That was an old jail cell, not a bank, besides, this place looks ‘money’,” I chortled, my pun falling flat on the Roanoke, Virginia foot path as we gathered our belongings from the boot.
Much to Erin’s excitement, we’re soon checking into The Liberty Trust, a stunning old bank harking back to 1910 which has been converted into a luxurious boutique hotel with 54 huge rooms, right in the heart of downtown Roanoke. It’s a fine place to launch our expedition into the heart of America’s south.
At first, I didn’t trust the city of Roanoke. It didn’t fit the mould.
Aside from our quirky-hip hotel, the town was also full of pop up shops, farm-to-table restaurants and lively bars swimming in modern-American cocktail culture. Our first stop is Well Hung, a swanky winery offering frose on tap and amazing tuna tatar cocktail nibbles. Down the street we also find a black and white tiled alcoholic temple named Sidecar.
But the biggest surprise were the mouth treasures on offer at the farm fresh and regionally inspired River and Rail restaurant.
No, I didn’t trust Roanoke; this was (weirdly) an eclectic, modern town that still comfortably retained an old-school southern charm. As we walked the streets, it was not the South that I thought I knew.
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Rising with the sun, our goal is to take on the state’s famous Crooked Road; Virginia’s heritage music trail that takes you back in time to the birthplace of country music in the town of Bristol, a small city in the state’s Southwest.
But not before tackling the Treetop Quest at Explore Park where we’re set loose on an elaborate self-guided obstacle and zipline course high above the Virginia forest.
Coming down to earth, we’re then handed two innertubes by Roanoke Mountain Adventures allowing us to float effortlessly down the Roanoke river while still baking in the gloriously-strong southern heat.
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Having passed the physical, we barrel down U.S. Route 221 to the town of Floyd, which you hear well before you ever see. There is simply music everywhere in Floyd. In the evenings local families pour out onto the streets with their dulcimers, banjos and limberjacks (a type of percussion toy) to play old-timey country music that has generational roots in these parts.
The backbeat to this town is the old Country Store, which besides being an ice cream parlour, cafe and sundries shop is also a century old music venue. Rows of chairs support a sea of knee bouncing and thigh tapping locals who watch barefoot dancers stomp and whirl in a classic southern jamboree. Before we could make sense of this almost Hollywood-esque scene, we’re pulled into the pit and set in motion, learning that the only way to dance badly to this music is to decline the offer.
Desperately needing a drink, we continue our shindig into the Buffalo Mountain Brewpub, a charming log cabin that offers amazing craft beer and homemade nibbles. Stepping up a notch we then sniff out 5 Mile Mountain Distillery to try some of the famed moonshine found along this iconic stretch of southern road.
A long way from its underground, clandestine roots, the moonshine here is as refined as good bourbon, with fanciful flavours like saffron-infused corn whiskey and cool espresso ‘Moontini’ cocktails. To cap the night, we shed Floyd’s thick southern coat and slip into secret Lush Lounge.
After procuring a wooden ‘Buffalo’ nickel (five-cent coin) for the ancient coke machine masking a hidden door, the wall slides open to reveal a proper speakeasy from the turn of the century, slinging prohibition-style cocktails. Bartenders serve elevated smoked gin drinks for you to sip while exploring the themed rooms.
The next morning, hungover, we continue on the Crooked Road heading north over the Blue Ridge to the sleepy town of Tazewell. It’s here we have a date with a dragon.
Standing 10 metres high, this lava red lizard stands with its wings open and gnashing teeth.
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This scary monolith is the Back of the Dragon, which is a visitor centre marking the finish line of a 50 kilometre, stunningly beautiful, scenic road. Our host, Larry, greets us with an outstretched hand, dangling a small replica of the beast standing outside. It’s a key to the ridiculously mean looking Slingshot motorcycle parked out front.
We feed the dragon every day,” Larry warns. “But she’s always hungry. Be safe and don’t be a snack.
“We feed the dragon every day,” Larry warns. “But she’s always hungry. Be safe and don’t be a snack.”
Before we have time to let it sink in we’re tearing up the Back of the Dragon as if we’re on a driveable rollercoaster. Switchbacks follow chicanes and the Slingshot’s tires struggle to grip the immaculately paved road that Larry personally looks after to ensure guests are guaranteed a smooth ride.
Trading out our rocket for our rental barge, we head further down the Crooked Road to our final port. Bristol rises out of the green hills on the horizon like a ghost; a somewhat forgotten industrial town, it has a patina of well worn history that makes it perfect inspiration for a Bruce Springstein song.
In Bristol you can find the aptly named Birthplace of Country Music Museum which as you can imagine does a watertight job explaining how this deep Southern town is the true and only birthplace of country music and American culture. Irrespective of musical taste, Jazz, R&B, Rock, Rap, and all the culture that springs from popular music can be traced back to country music’s humble roots, and right to the town of Bristol.
“We’re close now,” I say with my hand grazing the side of the brick walled museum, “Carter is very close.”
“Who the hell is Carter?” Erin replies. She’s not buying into my over-dramatisations.
It was this history of A.P. Carter whom I was tasked with tracking down by the publisher of this story. I was to travel down the Crooked Road to find A.P. Carter’s historical roots in the Poor Valley region, just outside Bristol. If I made it there, I would find the roots of country music, and with it, the very basis for much of American culture.
To find Poor Valley we needed hand written directions, much like our headlights, the GPS was powerless against the darkness of the valley. And just when we thought we were lost, we saw a row of cars parked in darkness along the roadside. We’d found it.
We travel the rest of the way by foot as the twang of a string instrument lures us in the direction of a giant timber structure. We’d finally reached the Carter Family Fold.
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“Well well well, there you are,” a voice pops out from behind the fence. “You must be Roberto and Erin, how wonderful. I’m Rita, granddaughter of A.P. Carter.”
Rita pulls us inside the 800 person amphitheatre that’s filled to capacity. On stage the McLain Family Band croon, as a crowd of all ages dance up front.
She then opens up the museum just for us, and as she guides us in, instantly a fuse has been lit and there is no stopping the fireworks of family stories that explode out of her.
“On the left, that was A.P’s suit which he wore to the White House,” she recollected before pulling us even further back in time, showing us the actual log cabin that her grandfather was born in. “It happened right here, in this room.”
Her voice slowed in the moment. Immediately we felt the gravity of the place. We were standing on hallowed ground. Regardless of your appreciation for country music, A.P. Carter’s family recorded the first country album in 1929 in Bristol setting in motion an unstoppable wave of American culture and music revolution.
Rita was as proud as an American could be. It oozed from her pores. While I was born in New York City, I can’t say I’ve ever been proud to be an American. I was the American that travelled to Europe and pretended I was Canadian. It was here, the historical misgivings of the deep south, which was the major source of my shame.
I had one question that I knew only a Carter could truly answer with authority. “Rita, why are you proud to be an American?”
“Well,” she offered without pause, “America is so many things to so many people. I like to think I took a little bit of all the good stuff and that’s what makes me an American. And I love the way America has their arms wide open to everyone. That’s the way my family always was. That’s how we’ll always be. That’s being an American.”
As we leave, Rita hands us a colouring book from 1982 that has her family on the cover. It’s a nice gift and metaphor for this unexpected journey through Virginia. The dark, empty black line drawings on each page will now be filled with my own choice of colour.
This unexpected visit to a state I misunderstood has helped remind me exactly why I’m proud to be an American.
get in the know While well known for Moonshine, Virginia is actually the birthplace of American whiskey.
Roanoke is a great place to start exploring the Crooked Road of Virginia. The easiest way is to fly to Roanoke via Charlotte, NC. Flights depart from Sydney and Melbourne on United Airlines.
From AU$4,200 return
Tazewell: The Litz Mansion
115 Thompson St, Tazewell, VA
From AU$1800 per night
Roanoke: The Liberty Trust Hotel
101 S Jefferson St, Roanoke, VA
From AU$211 per night
Floyd: The Hotel Floyd
300 Rick Lewis Way, Floyd, VA
From AU$168 per night
Bristol: The Sessions Hotel
833 State St, Bristol, VA
From AU$285 per night