When I turned on the television and viewed the news that 32 people died in a Virginia Tech classroom in Blacksburg, I thought at first it was a movie. I changed the channel repeatedly, making sure. Deeply concerned, I called my college friends who live in or near Blacksburg. They were all right physically, but equally as shocked.
I can't imagine what the entire town feels like. I can't imagine the post-traumatic stress they'll endure in the near future. I can't stop thinking about it. And I can't stop thinking about the Blacksburg I know.
I went to undergraduate and graduate school at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, a half hour away from Blacksburg. Often, after class, I'd take the trek from Roanoke down 81 South, getting off at the 460 exit, feeling the familiar, long curve.
Each time, 460 got more crowded, but curiously, people drove slowly. No rush, no big deals.
Always, my stress lightened as I came upon the quaint downtown. I breathed slower, more fully, kicking back in the driver's seat. Blacksburg had a small-town, serene Southern feel, a place where gas station attendants chatted with me for the hell of it, whether or not there was a line, a place where no one got arrested for smoking. I never saw anyone get arrested for anything in Blacksburg, in the good part of six years that I spent there.
Whenever I arrived, morning or night, a parking space magically opened up. The town had the "There are no coincidences" feel, a presence of peace.
Often, I headed to Bollo's Coffeehouse, a tiny shop at the downtown's entrance. Writers and musicians sat outside, chain smoking and shooting the shit. People weren't intrusive. If I didn't approach them, they left me alone. Bollo's had the dim lit, claustrophobic feel of an old fashioned coffeehouse with dark wood, bench seats. People stayed for hours. Give up your seat, you were a sucker.
When anyone walked in, everyone, including the workers, turned to look. A universal gawking. They'd keep staring, not judgmental, but more curious, in a "you seem interesting" way.
I usually chilled outside on the curb, playing guitar, writing or reading. The town held a strange mix from students to bikers to certified hippies to homeless addicts, and due to close quarters, there was no room for segregation. I'd sit down next to some cat on acid who was next to an engineer. Everyone was eccentric.
Blacksburg had a large population of the crunchiest of granola heads you can imagine. I'm allowed to use that term, because I've done the communal living thing myself. But Virginia mountain hippies were authentic. Had organic gardens, shared money. Their skin looked so clear, it was nearly see-through. There were several self-supporting communities there, and Blacksburg was well known as a spiritual retreat.
I spent too much time in Blacksburg bars, partying at random houses, seeing talented bands, and doing a hell of a lot of nothing, which still felt weirdly productive. See, there, nobody cared what you were on or where you were from. Used to mixing, the locals were laid back and accepting. People rarely bugged me if I looked busy, but if we did talk, it lasted for hours. Sometimes all night long, as was the case the night I met M.C.
One freezing evening in 1997, I was barely one month sober. I was having severe panic attacks at school. So I drove to Blacksburg because nothing else was working. I went to Bollo's, sucked down tea and sat outside on the curb. I clearly remember swallowing multiple times; honey coated my tight throat.
Next to me on the ground, a dark-haired fellow crouched, head in his hands.
I said, "Hey, what do you do here in Blacksburg?"
He looked up. His eyes were huge, nearly black. He said, "All I'm thinking about is trying to keep from drinking."
Shocked, I said, "Me too."
He slightly-smiled. M.C. was a disc jockey at Virginia Tech. He led me into the school's radio station studio, spinning records for me for hours.
We didn't talk much, but being a music nut, this scene, to me, was like a dream. For a while, M.C. helped me forget my awful withdrawal. He had no idea how much he helped me. I guess, struggling through the musical night together in Blacksburg, we helped each other. In Blacksburg, there really were no coincidences.
The land itself became like a living, breathing being. Driving into town, seeing the Blue Ridge Mountains, I felt a part of something greater. The land changed me. Like Roanoke, Blacksburg and the surrounding areas felt like home, inside and out. Even today, in the face of the school's tragedy, the land cries out to me, and I call it my own, deep inside my chest's center.