Mr. Pettit and I drove the first 30 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway last week. Our views were obscured by clouds but we decided a rainy day was better spent on the Parkway than in our trailer. Besides, it was a section we'd never covered before, and we love new territory.
We took the exit for Steeles Tavern, Virginia, because an ad in a real estate guide had piqued my interest. Gertie's Country Store and Deli, along with an adjacent ranch home, was listed at $325,000. The price alone intrigued me since it's easy to pay that much for just a house in our part of the country.
The ad called the business "a Vesuvius tradition" (Vesuvius, Virginia, not the volcano that destroyed Pompeii) and said that back in 2012 Blue Ridge Country magazine had proclaimed it the best place to eat along the Parkway.
We almost passed the plain, flat-roofed building; there was no towering sign with a market-tested logo out front. The interior was just as unassuming: Shelves laden with chips, flour and canned goods alongside restaurant-sized plastic jars of ketchup; a simple black-letter menu of entrees hanging over the counter with an adjacent dry-erase board listing meats available by the pound, tables covered with faded flannel-backed tablecloths. Nothing designed at headquarters, trucked in and placed in its preordained spot.
Mr. Pettit and I went all out and ordered two cheesesteak meals. We normally split a combo when we go to our favorite cheesesteak purveyor in town, not in the interest of saving money but calories. But he wanted to sub in the sweet potato fries and I had a craving for onion rings so we threw caution to the wind. We were on vacation, after all.
We wound up with enough food to satisfy someone who had run the 30 miles we had driven. The sandwich was stuffed with meat and cheese and lettuce and tomatoes, all cradled in a fluffy bun with a perfectly calibrated coating of mayonnaise. The onion rings and sweet potato fries did not disappoint us either. I must confess that we left only a few crumbs on our paper plates.
But it's not the lunch we'll file away in our memories. It's the writing covering every inch of the walls and ceiling. Our server, Gertie's daughter, called it the restaurant's guest book.
What was Jan's inspiration for the blue-eyed bear back in August 2015? What does "No Hugh Her either!!" mean? Whatever happened to Karen and Brian of Rochester, NY, after their trip from San Francisco to Yorktown back in 2004? I think their drawing depicts the two of them on a motorcycle but I can't be sure. Not that I'm judging---my artistic skill is limited to stick figures and smiley faces.
I like to think each of these Sharpie sentiments was written in a moment of silliness or joy or contentment (especially if cheesesteak was served). To eat at Gertie's is to be surrounded by a gallery of happiness.
Gertie, a small lady of a certain age, told me the visitor's center in Lexington called her a while back about a group of Australians who wished to visit. The Aussies later told her they had heard about her restaurant as they came through Immigration.
I asked Gertie why she has decided to sell her business. She answered that she is fighting cancer for the second time and her daughter doesn't want to take over the restaurant. She hopes a young couple will buy it and leave the graffiti-covered walls alone.
Mr. Pettit and I didn't sign our names since all we had was a ballpoint pen. But next time---and I truly hope there is a next time---I'm bringing a bright red Sharpie and some well-considered words. However, I don't know if I'll come up with anything as provocative as this anonymous note:
"The thinker dies but his thoughts are beyond the reach of destruction."