I have to admit that it’s all my fault. I was the one who spotted the house online—that beautiful, hundred year old Victorian with the hardwood floors, the three fireplaces, the deeply stained banister that seemed to move up the stairs and into another time. But more than anything else, what I liked about the house was the way it made me feel intoxicated. After a number of years of being sober and responsible, during which I felt completely sane and utterly stable, I welcomed the possibility that this was a place where I might actually feel drunk again.
Because for many years, alcohol—be it Jack Daniel’s or Maker’s Mark bourbon, Absolut or Smirnoff vodka, Bacardi or Myer’s rum, or beer, (and whenever I drank beer it was usually because I couldn’t afford the hard stuff)—was like fuel for me. Whether it was high grade or low grade, I was running very well on this fuel, with cigarettes being the equivalent of the air freshener dangling from the rear view mirror. And when I first spotted a beer-bellied, shirtless middle-aged good ole boy strolling down the street with a can of Pabst in one hand and a cigarette in the other, I felt that moving there, in certain ways, would be like coming home again.
Home—that was the key word here. Home, even though I felt out of place as early as the day after we’d moved into the house. Home, even though the name of my new home town, “Front Royal,” had really only entered my consciousness on two previous occasions.
The first was during a trip with my old college friend Michael Randall to visit another college friend of ours, Michael Waters, in Sylva, North Carolina. Waters was the bag-piper in our crowd—he brought his pipes everywhere he went. The scenario for many a drunken night would be for him to disappear from his barstool at some point and for us to suddenly hear, coming from just outside entrance to the bar, the loud wailing of his bagpipes. Depending on the state of his intoxication, Waters would either continue his bagpipe serenade on the street or else walk confidently into the bar as the wail and hum of his bagpipes grew deafeningly loud. Because of Waters there were a lot of bars that hated us—though there were also a good number where we were loved. But that’s the way it was when you were a serious drinker. Some places got you and accepted you, eccentricities and all, while at other places you remained a stranger no matter how many times you went there.
Waters had helped to arrange a showing of Michael Randall’s recent paintings, plus a classical guitar recital by yet another of our friends, at a gallery down there. So Randall took the train to Washington, DC, where I was living at the time, and then we rented a car for the drive to North Carolina. It was on the way there, while heading west on 66 and looking for the exit where we’d turn off onto 81, which would lead us out of Virginia and toward the western tip of North Carolina, when I noticed a sign for the oddly named town of Front Royal. Even though it was only some seventy miles west of DC, and just a little over an hour away, I believe this was the first time I’d ever heard of the town. And though I knew nothing about the town, there was something about the name that I found appealing. There was something exotic, even poetic, about it, and as we floated past the signs at seventy miles an hour I wondered if somehow we’d been transported somewhere else, across the Atlantic, to Spain, to France, to Italy, where someone had decided that the words Front Royal would be a great name to embody their concept of an American city.
No, it didn’t make any sense then, either, and it was probably my hangover stretching logic and imagination in ways they were never intended to be stretched, but that’s what I felt, and what I imagined, upon first seeing the words Front Royal.
Then, ten years later, I thought about Front Royal for the second time in my life. This involved another trip west on 66, to Markham, Virginia, where Heather and I went to collect on one of our wedding presents: a hundred dollar gift certificate from Naked Mountain Vineyard and Winery. It was a gift from our friends Debbie Martin and Ed Hamilton who, although they were die-hard city people, enjoyed frequent excursions to the country. They had discovered Naked Mountain during one of these adventures and thought, quite correctly, that we might enjoy it as well. But for them, the country was only a hobby, and even after being in New York for ten years they’d never seriously entertained any thought of permanently leaving their closet-sized apartment in the Chelsea Hotel for anywhere else.
Heather and I had gone to Naked Mountain with my brothers, Tony and Pat, and my Dad. Exiting 66 at Markham, our directions to Naked Mountain had us taking a one lane road going uphill. I wasn’t much for the back roads. I’d been on two lane roads before, but a single lane, for cars going in either direction, was something new to me.
“Are we going the right way?” I asked nervously.
“Yup, this is it,” Heather reassured us, and we headed up the hill until we reached a clearing where we could see that we were really were in the right place. Stepping out of the car, Heather and I were immediately enamored of the place: the green that surrounded us, the view from the mountain, and, most importantly, the distance from the city. It was, for me anyway, the first time I’d been seduced by my distance from the city, and the idea that both art and business and ugly office buildings and monuments I’d grown tired of were far off and, ultimately, for my purposes—whatever they were—insignificant.
If it’s like this here, I thought, what would it be like if we’d stayed on 66 until the next exit, which was Front Royal. All along the way to Naked Mountain on 66, the road signs posted Front Royal as the ultimate destination. Again, it was the name that got to me. It was beautiful, but what did it mean? And, most importantly, where would it take me if I followed it?
Another ten years passed, during which I, as they say, “cleaned up my act” quite a bit. By the time our daughter, Maggie, was born, I’d quit smoking, could handle maybe one drink a week, and, of course, because I was a normal working stiff, kept regular hours—no more staying up all night until seven or eight in the morning (as I’d been doing for a number of years before I met Heather), then sleeping until the afternoon. During these ten years Heather and I also slowly made the move further and further from the city. A couple of years after we were married, we made the first move, from renting a one bedroom apartment in DC to renting a small row house in old town Alexandria. This, I thought at the time, was a long way from the city—but in reality, Alexandria, Virginia was simply an extension of the DC metropolitan area. Then, after Maggie was born, we decided it was time to actually own something—namely, a house—and where we thought we could afford to own a house took us even further away from town to neighborhoods we’d never heard of before. We looked at cape cods in Bucknell Manor, split levels in Kirkside, contemporaries in Ridgeview, raised ranchers in Virginia Terrace. What we ended up with was a rambler in Hollin Hall.
It was a nice house, in a clean and pleasant neighborhood—not the sort of thing I was used to, and it’s not like I didn’t have any problems with the area in the three years we were there—but we probably would have stayed if I hadn’t gotten laid off. With our income cut in half—well, actually it wasn’t cut in half, because Heather has always made more money than me; but the loss of income was significant, especially considering the cost of paying the mortgage for our house in Hollin Hall, which, at least compared to what we were used to, was a rather upscale neighborhood. With the housing bubble starting to burst, and the value of our house slowly starting to fall, it seemed like a good idea to sell before the value of our house went below what we paid for it—and to move someplace cheaper.
So I looked at all the online listings for real estate. At first I looked at Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Frederick in Maryland, but there was nothing in our range. Then I checked Manassas, Woodbridge, and Fredericksburg in Virginia, but still, everything was out of our range or just looked too depressing (admittedly, our three years in the suburbs had spoiled us to a certain degree).
But maybe it was really all about the names. Springfield, Reston, Centreville: nothing about those names moved me, and I’m sure nothing about them moved Heather either. But Heather is much too practical to let a name, no matter how beautiful or intriguing, lead her anywhere she doesn’t want to go. So, I have to say it again: it was all my fault. And in the back of my mind, after lying fallow for nearly a decade, were those words—that name. And I looked further and further away from town until I got there. Until the magical words “Front Royal” once again entered my consciousness.
Then, one Saturday afternoon, when Heather, Maggie, and I went out to Front Royal and saw the house in person, that was it. It was more than a name now. And, although we still knew almost nothing about Front Royal, it was where we wanted to be.