Mizu Mission - Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia
Meeting in the Middle
You can tell a lot about a person by spending some time in their hometown. Sitting in a hand-built cabin in the heart of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, eating my second serving of lasagna made by his mother and drinking beer brewed by his father, I was starting to understand my buddy Christian in a new way.
After a rainy week on the Blue Ridge Parkway, riding our bikes amidst the burgeoning fall colors, our crew of 4 pulled off the main drag and then made a series of turns onto increasingly lonely roads. Christian had described his childhood home as “pretty rural,” and we weren’t quite sure what to expect as we wound our way down a steep gravel road, weaving through thick blankets of invasive Kudzu and obfuscating old-growth. Madison, VA: Population 229. It was hard to imagine Christian Van Os Keuls as hailing from a town several layers removed from standard amenities like grocery stores and gas stations. He’s Mr. Cool: cosmopolitan and progressive, Art Director at one of Denver’s lead creative agencies, marathon runner and tattoo collector. How had he sprung from a place with no cell service, an area where confederate flags still made the occasional appearance on barnsides and the neighbors were a mile away?
It all started to make more sense as we pulled in and were greeted like family. His parents Perry and Kim met us in the driveway, and we barely had a chance to wrestle our bikes out of the van before we had a drink in our hands and were getting the grounds tour from Perry, who crutched around nursing an ankle injury while we tried to keep up. With rain still spitting from the steel-grey sky, we huddled in the barn, a renovated, perfectly messy mashup of workshop, armory, and home brewery which had housed the family while the cabin was under construction. Perry’s Pale Ale was a hit, and before we knew it, Kim was calling us down for dinner.
After soldiering through laughably large portions of Kim’s homemade lasagna, we stumbled down to the basement for some billiards. Christian’s childhood photos and sports medals lay in a dusty box in the corner, and we combed through the years, making the standard jokes about bowl cuts and braces. I met Christian as we both entered our late 20’s, so it was a treat to see some history; I didn’t get to see him grow up in real time, but a condensed version did the trick just fine.
The next morning, after a rainy bike ride and pumpkin waffles made by Kim (who else?), we hopped in the van and made our way into Shenandoah National Park, just 15 minutes from the door. We grabbed our bottles and forged into the dense forest of the layered and disorienting Appalachian mountains, some of the oldest peaks on earth. Sweating up a storm in the unfamiliar humidity, I thought again about hometowns, how Christian was a byproduct of the Mid-Atlantic as much as I of Southern California, Jonny of Colorado, Colin of North Carolina. Somehow, we’d all met in the middle, forging a friendship along the thin air of the Continental Divide, watching the waters flowing both east and west from our new home to the places that formed us.
Upon our return to the homestead, we tucked into 10-hour brisket – which Perry had tended to all day like a proud father – and shared stories, now settling into the new environment just as it was time to leave. Perry, industrious and All-American, had lived in the South his whole life, with a quick visit to just about everywhere as a military and commercial pilot. Kim, more reserved, held a quiet curiosity, and could spend weeks alone at the ranch, immersed in nature and totally at home amidst the solitude. I could see in Christian pieces of them both, his discipline and structure from Perry, an artistic and free bent from Kim, alongside some traits entirely his own. The night stretched out long, ending on the quiet porch with one last chill session in the rocking chairs, staring at the twinkling lights of the barn against the backdrop of the dark hillside behind the house.
We awoke to clear skies, seeing blue for the first time in a week on our last day of the trip. Maybe it was the change in weather, but the roads out from the ranch no longer looked so foreboding and mysterious. They looked a little more like home.