Thursday, August 17, 2006

See Beautiful Bland County, Virginia

Greater Bland. That's the name I use when I think of Bland County, Virginia, that tennis racquet-shaped swath of land that lies between Bluefield to the North and Wytheville to the south. Most people experience Bland as little more than a swath of green (alternatively, in the fall a swath of red, or of white-brown-gray in the winter) as the drive madly north or south along Interstate 77, slowing only in "flatlander" fashion as their cars enter East River or Big Walker Mountain tunnels.

If you judge a place only by the number of restaurants, theaters, or shopping establishments available, well, yeah, you've probably seen all you need to see. Bland County is an incredibly rural place, the vast majority of its territory composed of National Forest and farmland, with only a tiny proportion dedicated to its very small, unincorporated settlements (Rocky Gap, Bastian, Grapefield, Bland, and Mechanicsville). On the other hand, if you're looking for the kind of artistry that only the Deity or callused men can make, well, you'll like this place.

I won't go on and on about Jefferson National Forest. The National Forestry Service will give you infinitely superior data than I will. But I will tell you that the woods of Bland are virtually Tolkein-esque - the amount of biological diversity incredible. Don't believe me? Well, to get a sense of just how rural Greater Bland is, consider that it was one of the last two counties in Virginia to play host to packs of gray wolf (into the Twentieth Century, in fact) - a fact immortalized in by the county's primary body of water - Wolf Creek. Why come to Bland County? To camp, to hike, to think, and if you can afford the gas money, to drive (some of my favorite memories in life are of my midnight drives from Bluefield to my cabin between Grapefield and Bastian in my little blue 1994 Ford Ranger under full moons, my headlights only just cutting through the valley fogs and the blue-green-purple shadows).

When you come to Bland, I suggest starting your trip either at Big Walker Mountain Lookout or on top of East River Mountain (pull over at one of the overlooks after crossing the West Virginia/Virginia border). Look down into Bland and you'll see the pattern of things here - the long mountains that run southwest to northeast (and their parallel valleys), the huddled settlements, and the relatively few gray roads that cut the wild. Then, taking your time, roll down into the county. I suggest getting a map and being prepared to backtrack (you'll see infinitely more that way) almost as much as I suggest avoiding the interstate - they're for getting you there quickly, not philosophically. Cut up the Laurel Fork, for instance, or head north towards Pearisburg and Narrows, to see just how powerful Bland's little creek really is, slicing rock for millenia along its course to the grand old New River. If its fall and its Friday, and you don't already have an appointment, you might want to park and watch the Bland County Bears, a high school football team made up of two different high schools (neither had high enough populations to field teams alone), Bland County and Rocky Gap. There are a couple little shops in the county seat of Bland, but the main reason I stop there is hit up the ol' IGA for picnic or barbeque supplies - the people are damned nice and the size and shape of the place reminds me of the Food King in Animal House. Ah. Food King. And of course you can't miss the Wolf Creek Indian Village and Museum.

I can't recommend Bland enough for folks looking for a relaxing day, weekend, or even week - that is to say if your interest genuinely is relaxation. The restaurant scene is a little underdeveloped, sure, but if you need to eat out you can be in Wytheville (ah, Skeeter's) or Bluefield (ah, Macado's), or Tazewell (ah, Cuz's) in short order. I have never spent the night in a hotel in Bland County before, but I have stayed in virtually every hotel in Bluefield, just outside of Bland, and can say that they meet the general requirements - clean rooms, cable, warm water, decent service, and prices that don't make you sweat. Don't miss the summer, and please, for the love of God, don't miss the fall - seriously, its like Whistler painted with Hopper's palette.

Not satisfied? Of course you aren't. Because you're headed to Bland and you want to know the game before you play the game. Well, thank the Deity for the internet - I think I can help.

The Government of Bland County

The Bland County Messenger

Bland County Historical Archives

Bland County Public Schools

University of Virginia - Wise's Southwest Virginia Graduate Medical Education Consortium's Review of Bland County Medical Conditions

The Bland County Library

And remember ladies and gentlemen, Bland's county seat is the first in Southwest Virginia to have free wireless internet service through the entire town. No need to give up your techishness for trees. Unless you want to.

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