“Nostalgia is a funny thing,” I said, looking at the flowers I’d forgotten to give to my friend, Ann, “Kind of like these limp roses.” We were standing on a weathered pier, looking out at the grey water of York River, trying to conjure up a connection with this place we had so often visited when we lived in Virginia. “You mean a loose amalgamation of something we once found meaningful?” Bob said. “Exactly.” And with that, we left Croaker Landing.
A few hours later, Val came to rest in a Hampton Inn parking lot. We unloaded our bags, the cooler, and my Ghanaian hospitality basket, hungry enough to make dinner plans at a Mexican restaurant a couple of miles up the road. “I’ll walk,” I said, eager to shake off the drive.
I started off down the main drag, but cut across a crunchy bean field to avoid the traffic. The sideways heat baked the bare asphalt and fried roadside weeds of Main Street. With few exceptions (there are kids goofing off in one of the playgrounds) Exmore, Virginia appeared abandoned, with more than its share of vacant real estate. Typical of small towns across Corporate America, the highway box stores thrive at the expense of the original town center.
I clipped on past consignment shops, churches, sunburned weeds pushing up through empty asphalt parking lots, a hot playground hopping with kids, and I stopped to stare at a pale green Statue of Liberty made of cement. It took a minute before I gave up trying to figure out why someone thought this was a good idea. I got a whiff of something goaty and traced it to the Smith and Scott Funeral Home. I didn’t even want to guess what that was about. Maybe I was just tired, but late Sunday afternoon Exmore seemed knackered and sad.
As I was about to write off this town, I reached the shade of some giant oaks outside a doctor’s office. A little further, gnarled crepe myrtles branched above the sidewalk. I could hear the highway ahead, and Bob drove by with a cheerful wave in our blue Chevy Volt. Moments later we were seated at a two-top in El Maguey Mexican Restaurant, looking forward to some good old beans and rice.
The next morning the sun rises over Exmore through air thick from an overnight rain, an orange ball that sends a blurry streak across the scum pond below our hotel window. We’ve got plenty of time before another five and a half hours of driving, so I head out for a repeat of yesterday’s walk.
At 7:30 on a Monday, Exmore is already shaking off sleep and getting to its feet. Whether from the energy of a new work week or my good night’s sleep, the town seems alive and upbeat. Even the chickweed-chocked landscaping pots, and the rats in the culvert strike me as fun and wholesome in a Disneyesque kind of way. Men peddling bicycles with cargo crates greet me with a respectful, “Morning, Ma’am.” Black-headed gulls pull fat worms from waterlogged turf while the robins sing from the crepe myrtle branches.
“Huh,” I think, wondering if this really is the same town. Perception is a funny thing. We get to decide whether a place is knackered or quaint.