Appreciation: Mill Mountain

old_roanoke_pic It takes less than an hour to scale it, and when you do you’re confronted — I’m not kidding — by the world’s largest neon star. Last year I broke my hand on one of its trails. I was riding my new mountain bike too fast when I vaulted head-first over a bump that seemed mythically large at the time. One titanium rod and three screws later, a return visit revealed it to be pathetically small, about the size of a three-layer cake. (Damn hand still hurts.)

It was named Mill Mountain for the Scots-Irish millers who first harnessed the power of its underground spring, back when Roanoke, Va., was still known as Big Lick. One of the mountain’s early owners had wanted  to turn it into a tourist attraction by chiseling out the likeness of Robert E. Lee at the top — and charging visitors to walk on the brim of the general’s hat. But when the Great Depression intervened, it ended up in the hands of one of the city’s founding fathers, a newspaper publisher and bank president who turned it into a city park. (He watched it catch fire once, from his mansion in the valley below, but had the fire department dispatched in no time.) God bless the non-idle rich.

Developers and officials have been fighting over what to do with Mill Mountain ever since, as if letting it be isn’t enough. At least one native Roanoker, a 76-year-old named Betty Field, has walked the equivalent of the earth’s circumference on it — three times. No one knows how or why a rusted-out 1953 Chevy came to rest upended and whopperjawed in the middle of the woods, but every time we walk the so-called car trail my 11-year-old likes to zing a rock at it just because, well, he can.

When a disturbed young man decided to massacre 32 Virginia Tech students and himself in 2007, I sought solace on it, in between my sleepless nights and my 14-hour newspaper shifts. I thought about Jarrett Lane, the young engineer who was the light of Narrows, his tiny mountain town, and whose life and death I’d been tasked to tell. I pictured him there, heaving a rock at the Chevy. It kept me sane.

I’ve walked it in the predawn (heard a coyote once) and at dusk, though usually I go around 8 in the morning, just before work. (I’ve become a master at changing clothes in the car, even though my husband reports that I smell “a little gamey” by the end of the day.) I’ve climbed it in rain and snow, sketching out stories in my head, and grocery lists, and magical conversations I plan to have with my teenager that will inspire academic excellence — or at least to pull up his jeans so his boxers don’t show.

I’ve measured seasons by the passing of the mountain’s bloodroot in spring, wineberries in July and the rustling roar our dumb mutt, Lucky, makes along about January after a big wind has blown through and rearranged all the leaves. “I can’t find the trail! I can’t find the trail!” he seems to be saying as he sniffs and circles, sniffs and circles, searching out bare ground. He is freaked, apoplectic, utterly lost without his trails.

Twelve hours away from my mountain, there are days now when I know exactly how he feels.


Leave a comment


  1. Tracy

     /  October 17, 2009

    It was our teenage kissing spot until i was banned by the police, or maybe it was the park ranger.. or maybe the park ranger banned me from another place… i miss the mtn.

  2. pam

     /  October 15, 2009

    It was one of the first things I fell in love with on my first visit to Roanoke almost 30 years ago and I am proud to say that I can see it from my window at night. Hope this finds you al well.

  3. duffie

     /  October 12, 2009

    How beautiful.

  4. Kelly

     /  October 9, 2009

    Mill Mountain Star is a bizarre attraction to explain to non-Roanokers. To us, it has always been how we know we are home after a journey. I am trying to keep the mountain trails warm for you. It is gorgeous right now. How is it we never shared that hike? Missing you all.

  5. christina

     /  October 8, 2009

    Isn’t nostalgia a crazy thing? I was up in Cambridge/Boston this weekend and though my years in Beantown were not my fondest, when I stepped onto the Red Line Saturday morning, tears from nowhere sprang into my eyes. Yes, the subway made me cry! I don’t know, it was the smell and the sound and how much it had not changed at all in the 12 years since I left. Every experience molds us into who we are. So often we can’t see how or how much until we don’t have those experiences any more.

  6. Tonight, riding back from Hollins with Isha and a young friend who also grew up in Roanoke, they shared stories about when the star used to change color with the holidays and seasons, and even to mark a highway death.Your story makes me appreciate how that mountain and its star connects us, a shared community childhood memory.

  7. nancy

     /  October 6, 2009

    Thanks for reminding us how blessed and grounded we are

  8. It was so good to hike the Mtn. with Lucky this week before heading back to Cambridge. People in Roanoke have no idea how lucky they are to have that sacred spot right in the middle of it all!

  9. krt

     /  October 6, 2009

    Beth – MM is still there, a little shrouded in a cooling fog this morning. Thinking of you and Tom.

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