Bull castration, mountain bikers and other joys of returning to the Star City

Star-topped Mill Mountain in the distance

My  first solo mountain bike on one of my favorite paths: I’m less than a quarter-mile up the Monument Trail when I nearly slam into him. Actually, I hear his rattletrap bike long before I see him. His brakes are squealing from several bends away, like the sound of Norfolk-Southern rail cars screaming to a stop.

He’s not your typical mountain biker. He is helmet-less with baggy gym shorts, a T-shirt and Malcolm X glasses.On his feet are black dress socks and blue Reebok flip-flops, the kind soccer players wear when they’re off the field. I pull over so he can ride past me, but he stops and gives me a friendly stare.

We’re near the edge of this Mill Mountain trail, Frisbee-throwing distance from residential traffic, when the stranger asks: “If I keep going, will I end up in Roanoke?”

I assure him he will. He thanks me and white-knuckles it down the trail.  I’m half weirded out, half wondering if my imagination has just conjured him up.  I turn to make sure he’s really gone.

Home again, home again, jiggity jog (and Tom, bless him, did DMV duty).

If I keep going, will I end up in Roanoke? It’s a question a lot of people have asked me lately. It’s been exactly a year since we left this small Southern city for the bustling (and R-less) Beantown, the land of crazy drivers, fabulous grocery stores and genuinely big news. We’ve been back for nearly two months now, and some people want to know: How was your year at Harvard? Are you glad to be back?

I’m never sure what to say. The first question is a no-brainer: My year at Harvard was amazing. I was paid — for the first and only time in my life, I’m sure — NOT to work.

But no one really wants to hear that, and I get it. I really do. They’re more likely to want to hear how awful it is leaving it behind. I get that too.

Will I ever again know this many people willing to help me move?

I know of one former Nieman who cried at her desk her entire first week back on the job. Another told me his readers picked apart everything he wrote  — either he was trying too hard to sound high-and-mighty Harvard, they complained, or he was not sounding Harvard enough. Yet another told me she returned to her paper with renewed rigor— but, honestly, she seemed depressed. An international fellow from 2009,  she kept referring to our class as “the robbers” and said it was too painful to re-enter Lippman House.

No wonder they brought in counselors to talk to us about re-entry.

I’ll admit, there were days when I worried that returning to the same job I’ve had for 21 years would feel like a step backward. And then I actually stepped back into the old job, occupying the same old dusty desk , with the same old desk lamp (sorry, Rex; I had it first) and even the same telephone number.

I checked in with my editor and then I did what I always do when I want to find a story so good I can get lost in it: I promptly left.

I don’t care how many meetings you sit in, or how much computer-assisted research you say you’re doing, or how much office face time is politically wise. This is one of my story idea mantras: There are no good stories in the newsroom.

My first story back ran Saturday. Found it at a gas station when I ran into a trusted source and old friend who runs a Mexican store. He’d already pitched it to a younger colleague, who confessed he hadn’t known where to begin. I began it with this question: Are Hispanics really being rounded up and deported from our region and what happens to the families that are left behind?

My second story also ran Saturday. As someone with the so-called families beat, I got a tip about a story that explored the very definition of family. A relative of the source had recently passed away, and his same-sex partner opened up their rural Franklin County newspaper — only to find that the editors didn’t consider a gay partner family enough to list among the survivors.

I drove deep into the country to meet Chris Nichols — past two Bojangles, past the trailer parks, past the tanning/hair/movie-rental salons. He showed me the kidney-shaped swimming pool that he and his beloved had recently built, complete with a sign, “Welcome to Paradise,” and Key West colors inside the trim house. He showed me the cross necklace the nurse handed him moments after the doctor pronounced his partner of 23 years dead; and the note he later found tucked behind some bills he’d been about to mail — expressing that it wasn’t enough just to call yourself a Christian, you also had to express it in deeds.

I found my next story through my stomach, having become addicted to the  bread sold at a nearby farmer’s market before I knew anything about the hands that baked it. I still don’t understand what spelt is, but I’m grateful to have gotten to know Ginger Hillery, a recently widowed farmer and baker who raises five wonderfully quirky kids and runs a church under a willow tree next to her barn. I hope I’ll know her for a good, long time. She’s spiritually advanced, funny and — it might seem like I’m piling on praise here, but admit it, this is impressive: She castrates her own bulls.

“The definition of grace is unmerited favor,” she told me, explaining how she’s managed to keep the farm and the family going in the face of her huge, monolithic grief.

Will I end up in Roanoke? Perhaps the better question is: Will I be blessed to keep meeting unexpected people around the next delicious bend? Will I get to keep writing stories that otherwise would not find their way into anyone else’s definition of a traditional newspaper beat?

And why didn’t I ask that guy on the falling-apart mountain bike: What’s your name, and where on earth have you been?

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.

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