"Where the he-- is Roanoke?" read the sunglasses band I was handed at Go Outside, the second annual festival for outdoor activities in that city. The man who offered it to me laughingly said he gets that question a lot at conventions. He has embraced the common question and made it into his logo, but it did make me think: Where IS Roanoke?
The answer is that it is in the breadbasket of the South, the heart of the Confederacy, the launching point for a nation and an increasingly interesting place for visitors to explore. In the few days I was there, I learned American history, astronomy, viniculture and art.
On my first night in town, I looked out my hotel window to see the Star City's namesake glowing bright white on Mill Mountain, and in the morning I headed up to take a closer look. The giant star was built to celebrate the Christmas season in 1949 and stayed on to become the city's symbol. From the star I could see across the city of Roanoke and up into the Appalachian Mountains that surround it. When I was there, the trees were aflame in color, but the vista would be spectacular any time of year. And a night view from the star is equally magical; the city below twinkles like its own universe.
Virginia Mountain Vineyards, just north of Roanoke, provided another opportunity for me to enjoy the stars, but this time they were the celestial kind. The vineyard occasionally invites musicians to entertain guests who come up the curvy mountain roads to enjoy a casual dinner and wine, and for six years they have had an annual October event that includes stargazing. John Goss, vice president of the Astronomical League, a national federation of more than 270 clubs and 15,000 members, was the vineyard's guide to the stars. He set up several telescopes in the dark vineyard where guests could wander out with glasses of wine to see the stars more clearly than they could in a light-filled city.
From his telescopes, I saw closely the craters of the moon and the stars of Cassiopeia that pointed to the Andromeda galaxy. A 9-year-old astronomer and his dad pointed out the galaxy, first through binoculars and then, when I had the location figured out, with my naked eye. They directed me to a telescope for a closer look and were as thrilled as I was with my discovery.
In town the next day, I learned more about Roanoke's history. Originally called Big Lick, the city was developed at a crossroads of trails used by animals that came to lick the naturally salty soil and hunters who tracked them. When trains began to weave a web of tracks through the nation, developers changed the city's name to Roanoke, the Algonquian word for shells that were used as money.
I had traditional peanut soup and rich, succulent spoon bread for lunch at the grand Roanoke Hotel, one of the first structures built to welcome the new railroads to Roanoke in 1889 by the original Norfolk and Western Railway Co. It was expected to house an increasing stream of visitors as the railway grew its Roanoke headquarters. In its 123 years, the hotel has hosted presidents, endured fire, celebrated special occasions, withstood six years of closure that almost led to its demise and is now, again, a grand hotel that is both a destination and a neighborhood haunt. A pool table in the Pine Room Pub is the regular meeting place for a group of good-natured businessmen who pick up a game and unwind at the end of the week.
To learn more about the trains that helped to establish the town, I went to the nearby Virginia Museum of Transportation. Housed in an original freight station, the museum is home to the only surviving steam engine of its size in the world. The huge engine was built in Roanoke and now retires there. Another exhibit invites people to walk through a vintage passenger car under restoration, and in one corner of the museum a moving display addresses the role of skin color in railways. Photos of black railroad employees line the walls, and a video shows interviews with the workers as they discuss the ways in which color affected their jobs. One man remembers a curtain that was hung in the dining car when the train crossed from the North into the South to separate the black and white diners.
From that museum I walked a half-mile along the Railwalk to the O. Winston Link Museum and was entertained by an interactive display.
I pushed buttons that illuminated lights like those used on real railroads, flipped a switch that lowered a mock train guard, clanged a bell and blew a train whistle. I also read plaques that detailed the railroad's history and showed vintage photos of the city as it grew around its railroad arteries.
This museum is housed in the former Norfolk and Western Railway passenger station, an appropriate location for a photographer famous for photographing trains at night. Although not a photographer by trade, Link used his engineering skills to make light the key element of his photographs. He did this by winding trails of wire to flash bulbs so that only the points in a photograph that he wanted to emphasize were illuminated. It was his opinion that light was the only thing he could really control, and his photographs are an impressive nod to the bygone days of steam engines.
Across the tracks is the Taubman Museum of Art. The collections in this museum are small but interesting. I enjoyed an exhibit of Faberge artifacts and a room full of sparkling Judith Lieber handbags. A traveling collection of dramatic photographs by Edward Burtynsky made me appreciate the vast and far-reaching life cycle of oil.
My favorite sculpture, however, was that of a woman with her hands in her lap and her head bowed. She had no official plaque or information, but I learned that her artist was Mark Jenkins. He offers no title for her, but locals call the sculpture "Suicide Sally" because she sits on an upstairs balcony ledge that overlooks a busy road. She used to be positioned with her legs hanging toward the road, but several passersby called 911 to report a potential suicide. Now she is positioned with her legs facing in toward the balcony, and she looks a bit more like a "Texting Theresa" to me.
Back at the Go Outside festival, conveniently across the street from my hotel, I spent an evening listening to bands and meeting locals by a fire pit. Hillary, it turns out, works at the Taubman Museum of Art, and her husband told me secrets about Virginia moonshine history. I thought of the pool players who talked to me about their town, the father and son who taught me to see the stars, and the winemaker who showed me the tools of her trade in a back room. There is a lot to do in Roanoke, but the real stars remain the people who stand side by side in welcoming newcomers to town without affectation.
A man at the wine and stars night had explained it when he slung his arm around the man next to him and said, "I'm a river guide, and this fella's an astronomy professor, but we sit on the porch and talk. No one cares what you do. This is a place where life slows down, and you are who you are."
WHEN YOU GO
The Roanoke airport is served by connecting flights operated by Allegiant Air, Delta, United Airlines and US Airways.
Cambria Suites is very near the Roanoke Star and downtown area: http://www.cambriasuitesroanoke.com.
For a more intimate stay, the Inn on Campbell is an upscale bed and breakfast worth consideration: http://www.theinnoncampbell.com.
The Historic Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center is located downtown and very near museums, restaurants and activities: http://doubletree3.hilton.com/en/hotels/virginia/hotel-roanoke-and-conference-center-a-doubletree-by-hilton-hotel-ROASWDT/index.html.
Breakfast at the Roanoker has been a tradition of Southern hospitality in Roanoke since the restaurant opened in 1941: http://www.theroanokerrestaurant.com.
Farm-to-table cuisine is emphasized in the colorful and creative dishes at Firefly Fare: http://www.citymarketbuilding.com/firefly-fare.
For a truly Southern meal, visit the Homeplace Restaurant, where dinner is served family-style and visitors wait for tables on front-porch rockers or leaning on fence posts in the yard: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Homeplace-Restaurant/115564841808913.
Virginia Mountain Vineyards: http://www.vmvines.com
Blue Ridge Vineyard: http://www.Blue Ridgevineyard.com
Roanoke Star, Mill Mountain Zoo and the Discovery Center: www.visitroanokeva.com
Taubman Museum of Art: http://www.taubmanmuseum.org
Virginia Museum of Transportation: http://www.vmt.org
O. Winston Link Museum: http://www.linkmuseum.org
Lesley Sauls is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.