This is where I learned to drive, up and down these winding roads, into and out of the valley below. “Brake into the curve, not out of it,” Dad would say on our way down the mountain. His voice pops into my head just now, while the same road carries me past the billboards announcing Luray Caverns ahead, beside the wooden fences, the apple stands, the folksy stores. “Antique Tables Made Daily,” one sign boasts.
Along Skyline Drive, in the Shenandoah Valley, trees beckon drivers on this bright fall weekend like a green flag at a NASCAR race. But it’s the loss of green — on leaves beginning to turn crimson, orange and gold — that signals a lucrative season around Luray. Chlorophyll’s retreat is the tourism industry’s advance.
It’s been a while since I’ve been back. Long enough for Mom to call with a reminder: The nights get cooler here than they do in Richmond, she says — so pack a jacket. And maybe I do need reminders of this place. This may be my 20-year high-school reunion, but I feel like one of those tourists lining up for a caverns tour.
At dusk, the town breaks into view far below, and I start down, braking into the curves, not out of them. I head down Main Street, through what I can still recall as a two-stoplight town. Not any more. So much is the same, so much is different. The two high schools are new. The McDonald’s has moved. The movie theater is still the only movie theater here. It’s where I saw “Back to the Future,” in which a perplexed Marty McFly tries to get his bearings in slightly altered realties of his hometown.
Off the highway and just past town, I find a spot to park in the grass. High above the football field, the lights are misty, shining down on the Luray Bulldogs, whose marching band is lined up to take the field. I head into the stands, bracing to see some of the friends I haven’t seen in five, 10, 20 years — except on Facebook.
In person they are older reflections of the scrapbook in my mind, the one we piece together though our lives. Highlighted photos in the mind’s eye of the things we want to remember, shoving aside what we’d rather forget. Some of my classmates watch their own children on the field, on the football team or in the marching band. High school students who look. So. Young. We cheer them on, and then leave the game for an after-party at a restaurant owned by our senior class president. The next day, a picnic. A dance at the Moose Lodge. A farewell breakfast.
It’s a zip through a weekend, a dash through time. A getaway that stands on its own. But the most important trip is the one we already took together, way back when.
No matter where you go, there will always be people who knew you when you were you — or at least on your way to being yourself. They were there for the first crushes. The senior play. The teachers, the trouble. The fighting and laughing. The pep rallies. The prom dates. The big hair. The zits.
So much has happened since the winding roads took us on separate journeys, toward the grown-up life we tried to plan for. In the Moose Lodge, we huddle around a worn copy of a sixth-grade yearbook someone has brought. Tiny faces who seem so vibrant, like they were just sitting next to you yesterday. Some are here, some aren’t, and some won’t be coming back. But they’ll always be a part of that scrapbook. S