They say, Write what you know … Ah, the all-knowing “they.” For 18 years, what I knew was a bucolic county known as King George, just across the Potomac River from Charles County, Maryland. Have you heard of it? No? Well, neither has most anyone I’ve met out here. I usually just describe it as “30 minutes away from the heart of Fredericksburg.” To my college friends at Virginia Tech, I always said, “Northern Virginia” to avoid any confusion, knowing full well that this town does not qualify as part of that sprawling suburban mecca.
I lived in the same house my entire life … a four-bedroom, two-story dwelling on five acres of mostly wooded land. Our yard’s soil was much too acidic to grow anything but weeds and moss, but my mother’s wondrous green thumb easily coaxed a fairyland of plants and flowers out of the mulch and grass seed that my father would put down for her. My older sister and I spent hours running around in that fairyland, following the stream that wound through the back of our property into new territories (meaning other people’s backyards!). We loved exploring, whether it was our hometown or the numerous places we visited on our family vacations, which we took a few times a year.
A little less than a mile back from the main road we lived off of, we slept at night with almost complete silence and near total darkness. Peering from the windows of my bedroom, I could see the little garden lights glowing eerily way out in the darkness, occasionally shadowed by a herd of deer prowling through my mother’s gardens. In the summer, the sound of locusts, bullfrogs, and owls was almost deafening, but it lulled me to sleep somehow.
Needless to say, my current town of Arlington, Virginia is not this bucolic piece of paradise. The smallest self-governing county in the United States, Arlington is noise and light. Arlington is fun and food and friends, but it’s also people crossing the street outside of the crosswalk, right in front of my car. It’s inching up a two lane road, taking 20 minutes to make a 5 minute drive to the office. I live right next to a main county thoroughfare, and the sound of car alarms, lumbering garbage trucks, and announcements from the military base next door pierce my slumber. Even with the blinds down in my bedroom, light falls across my face. I often can’t sleep without a sleep mask on. But when I glance off my balcony, I see a rose garden, tennis courts, a giant swimming pool, and families out walking from my window to one side, and the towering monuments of Washington, D.C., on the other. There is something that relaxes me about those sights, even as sirens blare on the street behind me. It’s wonderful, but a different kind of wonderful that doesn’t always agree with my Circadian rhythms.
My Circadian rhythms love returning to my parents’ house. Heading down Route 3 from Fredericksburg toward King George, I see now how all the sprawling farmland and open, empty skies looks like true country to a real Northern Virginian. It’s beautiful. At night, fog rolls across the grassy plains like it’s trying to follow your car home. My mother’s plant and wildlife friends (and showers of falling dogwood petals) still greet me when I pull up our very steep driveway into the front yard. High school friends used to refuse to pull all the way up the drive when dropping me off after nights out, for fear they’d go into a ditch upon backing out.
My room at home is like a portal to pasts I left behind long ago. Step in one direction and you’ll see my high school diploma, swimming ribbons and plaques, and a pom-pom on the wall. Turn the other way and boxes stuffed full of useless dorm room leftovers wait to be thrown in the garbage. (What was I doing bringing an old mildewed sponge home, anyway?) Stacks of magazines read and tossed aside from years before tell stories about bands that are now broken up. The top of my chest of drawers displays a few obituaries for young acquaintances who passed before their time. In one of my closets hangs a succession of homecoming, prom, college formal, and bridesmaids dresses. A bookcase displays stuffed animals from old boyfriends – and, quite funnily, picture frames of same boyfriends, turned facedown!
How can I describe King George to a person who hasn’t lived here, in a way that makes them actually want to visit? Surely depictions of my coming-of-age memoriabilia isn’t going to entice someone to stay in the one decent hotel in town. Well, as you can already tell, it’s not a place to go on vacation or even tour for the heck of it. It’s true that there isn’t much to do. It’s a place to go if you want to sit in complete, dead silence and actually hear yourself think, if you want to go into a local store and strike up a friendly conversation with the person behind the counter. It’s a place with a one-screen movie theater on the neighboring naval base, which rarely shows first-run movies, but does have a rousing opening reel of the national anthem as sung by Whitney Houston circa 1987. It’s a place that is trying to develop McMansions as fast as it can over some of the farmland I used to ride through after dinner with my family. Yes, it’s still a place where families take after-dinner rides – or walks. It’s a place where I know I’ll run into someone (if not several someones) I know every time I step into one of the Food Lions. It’s a place where people rejoiced when we finally got a Sheetz and literally took rides out there just to watch it being built. It’s a place where the Edgehill Exxon used to pump your gas for you and check your oil while you sat in your car. They knew your name, and they greeted you like family every time you pulled up. It’s a place where you can stop in Dutch’s Mart and enjoy some casual banter with the cashier for a few minutes as you lazily pay for your gas and pick up some snacks. It’s the home of Caledon Natural Area, where trails wind through the woods and to the river beach, and you can sit and watch bald eagles fly right over your head, if you’re lucky. No one seems in a hurry here. There’s no reason to be in a hurry. Time almost feels like it will wait for you.
It’s the opposite of loud and fast and exciting. It spelled almost stifling boredom to me, at times, as a teenager and later as a young adult returning home from college. Why, we had to drive 30 minutes just to do any real shopping. The drive itself never bothered us so much; we enjoyed the ride “into town” with summer breezes whipping through the window. It was just the “What do you wanna do?” “I don’t know; what do you wanna do?” “Let’s drive to town.” And it’s my King George upbringing that made Blacksburg, Virginia (another small town that would be nothing were it not for Virginia Tech) look huge to me as a college freshman. It also looked like some kind of promised land, letting me grow into a different person and find the real me, outside of cow pastures and long stretches of empty nothing (although Blacksburg has those too!). I was glad to leave King George behind.
But when I stand in my old bedroom at home now and look out over those gardens, and into those woods, I realize I never left King George behind. It’s true not just in the sense that KG people have a tendency to stick together and track each other down, stay in touch, find out what we’re all up to — who’s getting married, having a baby, trying a new job, going back to school, living overseas. When I go home, people still recognize me as my parents’ younger daughter in the middle of the store aisle. But King George is part of me now as much as it was for 18 years. An appreciation for long drives and big sky and empty stretches of grass, and daydreaming and wandering and exploring, unafraid of a snake or a lizard or a bug, trying to find what’s really at the end of the stream — that is me. I am King George wandering through the pseudo-cityscape of Arlington and all the little pieces of the world that I can reach. And I feel something strange when I think about it that way. It is gratitude.