Afton's allure: A commuter's rocky affair
By Hilary Holladay
I’m in the waning months of a rocky relationship. It’s been almost three years now, and though I’ve taken breaks every Christmas and every summer, I’m not able to call it quits just yet. Making things worse, I know I’m one of many, all in hot pursuit, no matter the hour of the day or night. Let me tell you, it’s been one wild ride.
Charlottesville is a small town, so you may be wondering if you know the party in question. Well, the name’s Afton—Afton Mountain. When we first became acquainted, it was only on a passing basis. On summertime trips from Charlottesville to New England, I barely noticed when I reached the top of I-64 near Waynesboro. Preoccupied with my journey, I gave no thought to the perils of that busy, winding stretch of highway.
It was only after I accepted a teaching position at James Madison University that I began seeing Afton regularly. In the weeks leading up to my first day of work, I drove over the mountain several times in my eight-year-old car. It coughed and strained long before I reached Exit 99, where the real fun begins. How was it I’d never noticed this vehicular frailty before? Cars and trucks roared past me as I puttered along. And then, approaching the heart-pounding part, I’d end up behind an eighteen-wheeler barely breaking 40 mph. I wanted to pass, but common sense told me to stay put.
With just days before my teaching job began, I traded in the old car for a newer, sturdier model. This one had fog lights, which I had a feeling would come in handy.
On the morning of faculty orientation, I woke up to rain-heavy skies. OK, I thought, I’m prepared for this. However, I wasn’t prepared for the pounding deluge and heavy fog that greeted me on I-64 West. Fog lights on and hands clenching the wheel in a death grip, I made it only as far as Exit 107 before turning toward home. It was an inauspicious beginning.
Though I’d like to say I soon got the hang of things, my learning curve was literally quite steep. That mountain had gotten inside my head. Even with the reassurance of the new car, I would drive in silence—no music, no NPR—and then burst into song as I passed Exit 99. It was the only way I could distract myself from those bends that opened onto vistas too far and wide to contemplate. I exhaled in relief when I saw the sign announcing Exit 96. That meant the road had leveled out and my ordeal was over, at least until my return trip that night.
I came to dread the electronic sign announcing fog “six miles ahead,” though I was glad for the advance notice. I still marvel over the foggiest morning of all. My face pressed close to the windshield, I followed a large truck, its taillights guiding my way. Then, in an instant, the truck vanished. I couldn’t see its lights on the highway, nor was it in front on me as I took Exit 99, desperate to drop down to a level where I could see the road. The fog had swallowed that truck whole, or perhaps it was only a phantasm, its ghostly taillights delivering me to safety.
But my relationship with Afton hasn’t been all bad—far from it. After my rough start, I eventually found someone to carpool with and that helped a lot. And there have been many days, driving alone, when I’ve sailed through sunlight, my eyes feasting on the changing seasons. In the fall, Afton is a red and gold dream. In winter, a portrait of brown forbearance. On crystalline mornings, a snowy jaw-dropper.
But spring is my favorite. That’s when Afton softens. I think of all the birds and other wild creatures living up there and feel something like hope coming from its far reaches. With each passing day, there’s more green to behold.
Now, as I pass Exit 99 and round that bend that used to scare me so much, I take a moment, if traffic permits, to gaze out at the slanting forests and enormous sky. My regular commute is nearing its end. I won’t miss the traffic or the fog, but I’ll never forget this relationship. I still have a mountain inside my head, and I like it that way.