Growing up, my sister and I often visited my mother’s family, The Critzers, in Waynesboro, Virginia. We’d stay the weekend, eat too much, and sit on the seafoam-green porch glider sipping sweet tea and rifling through the Sears catalog. Pretending we were rich, on each page we were “allowed” to shop for just one item. Whoever pointed at it first, got it. The humidity made you feel like you were visiting Scout down in Alabama. Muddy’s marigolds smelled peppery, the boxwoods woody and sweet. Granddaddy would be out in the yard trimming his roses and their white Pekinese Fluffy would bound through the sun like a fuzzy butterball.
Inevitably, Granddaddy would stop trimming and come up on the porch to regale us with stories of “Down the Valley.” These stories were long and colorful, involving scrapes he got into, hardships the family endured, and descriptions of where he grew up in Nelson County. When we took Sunday drives along the Blue Ridge Parkway or Interstate 64, he’d even point out “Down the Valley” when we crossed Afton Mountain. The scenic overlook would go by and he’d point off in that direction absent-mindedly and declare, “That’s where me and your Aunt Ann grew up. Down the Valley.” Sometimes we’d stop at the overlook and gaze out across this expansive green space and imagine. To a child, it seemed a magical place, and very far away indeed.
We finally went when I was 12. Memaw died, Granddaddy’s mother. At her request, she was buried “Down the Valley” at Rose Church. I remember feeling confused. We were actually going to drive down there? That would take days! To a 12-year-old sitting in the back seat of our AMC Javelin in the late 1970’s, it did. Down the mountain, driving along 2-lane byways lined with fields and barns and houses. When we finally arrived at Rose Church, it seemed so far removed from anything else I’d ever known I thought I was in some English fairytale and this was a heath in the middle of nowhere someplace. A true country gothic church with a tiny cemetery. The funeral was small and sad, full of old hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross” and the drive back took too long. Afterwards there were ham biscuits, potato salad, and cakes as high as your head. Like you do when there’s a funeral.
I grew up, lived my life, and forgot about “Down the Valley”. Occasionally I’d visit my grandparents and look off in that general direction on 64 and get wistful at how strange and surreal that part of the country felt, like an old-timey sepia photograph.
Eventually I married and we moved away. Every so often “Down the Valley” would come up like the time my aunt mentioned how she took Granddaddy back to his old country home. The man living there took them out to his barn and they found a huge cache of old framed portraits. Turns out they belonged to the Critzers and Granddaddy cried when he saw them. They hang in my aunt’s house now.
Fast forward eight years. We move to Charlottesville and I start writing about food. I start to hear some exciting things about Route 151 in Nelson County. Overnight it seems breweries, cideries, wineries, and farms chock full of produce have sprouted up like weeds along Route 151 from Route 250 just outside Charlottesville all the way down to Nellysford and beyond. So of course The Hubby and I had to check it out. Nothing better than a weekend drive through the country with tons of lovely food and libation stops along the way.
Our first visit was to Blue Mountain Brewery at the north end of 151 for Bratwurst Pizza and Bourbon Barrel Stout. We followed this up with a visit to Cardinal Point Winery for their Oyster Festival, Veritas Winery for their tasting room, and Devils Backbone Brewery for Saturday lunch, Vienna Lager on the side. Every trip felt like a journey back home somehow but I didn’t know why.
I’m not even counting the stops for side-of-the-road barbecue at Blue Ridge Pig, cider at Bold Rock, or peaches and strawberries at Critzer Family Farm. Sure I remember Granddaddy saying his grandfather and the original owner’s grandfather were brothers. But it still didn’t click.
It wasn’t until we’d passed Rodes United Methodist about a bajillion times that I had an epiphany. A real Homer Simpson “Doh!” moment. Rose=Rodes! In my 12-year-old mind I pictured Rose Church. Granddaddy’s roses melded with images of Memaw and funeral roses into a country church conglomeration of flowers and magical “Down The Valley” trips. When in fact it was Rodes Church.
It hit me like a blast of late-July heat. All this time, all those weekends, we’d been traveling “Down the Valley” for fine food and libation and didn’t even know it. How about that? Funny how life works. All this time I’d been traveling such a short distance to find topics to write about. And the whole time my spirit was turning my inner compass to true north. Toward home. Toward my past and toward the person I really am. The kid who’d imagined this magical country full of hills and hidden gothic secrets, instead of this modest little brick church that you could blink and miss on the side of a fairly busy 2-lane highway. Just goes to show you can travel great distances to get away from your heritage, but somehow something will always end up bringing you back.
With that realization, things in my life fell into place. I visited Rodes and found about a thousand Critzers buried there. Including my Memaw, Allie Cook Critzer. This renewed my interest in the family tree which sparked an interest in Southern food and in particular, my own Southern food heritage. As a result, my writing has taken a completely different direction, one that feels more personal, and certainly more profound.
The kicker? That came 2 years ago when I was at the funeral for my Granddaddy, David Henry Critzer. We’d just said our prayers at the cemetery, Waynesboro this time, placed roses on the coffin, and were reluctantly leaving to walk back to our cars in the early-summer swelter. I remember the heels of my shoes sinking into the soil. An elderly man approached, hand extended, to say he was a distant cousin of Granddaddy’s and was so sorry for our loss. I wasn’t surprised, if you live in the Waynesboro area, you know there are hundreds of thousands of Critzers.
This cousin just wanted to tell us about the huge Critzer family reunion that’s held every July 4th just off Route 151. How about that? After all these years Critzers are still venturing “Down the Valley”. And as it turns out, it doesn’t take days to get there. His directions? “Drive about 6 miles and take a right onto the dirt road just past the junkyard. Bring a covered dish and a lawn chair.” I laughed and he grinned. And just like that I was back home again.