Once, when I was a young newspaper reporter, a jaded executive editor who was Yankee to boot, was listening approvingly to a story I was pitching.
He leaned back in his swivel chair, locked his hands behind his head and said, “You’re not the best writer I’ve ever encountered but I’ve never seen any reporter better at spotting a good story. You have an uncanny instinct.”
I was so proud that I didn’t even notice what he said about my writing. Besides, I’ve always agreed with that: I’m not a great writer. I’m just a decent storyteller.
That is to explain how it is that I discovered a story in the high reaches of the gorgeous Shenandoah Valley which is wrapped by the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains. I believe this to be the most beautiful region in America. The drive along I-81 beginning just north of Bristol, TN, is awe-inspiring. Eight hours north of the Rondarosa, there is a spot in the road called Luray, Virginia. This past summer, when I heard what was happening over a two-day weekend in Luray, I knew I had to go.
It was going to be a great story. The kind of story that gave me the same kind of smile and excitement as when I was 20 years old and still new at journalism. Ben Jones is a story in himself. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina where he had the same bed and dorm room as Southern literary great Thomas Wolfe (“Strange things were always happening with me and Thomas Wolfe,” says Ben. The writer had been dead for decades by the time young Ben got his room). Ben is a former star actor and a legislator. And, apparently, he’s quite a savvy business man because Ben, who played the lovable Cooter on the long-running CBS series, Dukes of Hazzard, has parlayed an audience’s incredible loyalty to that show into big business. His Cooter’s Place has three locations – Gatlinburg, Nashville, and Luray, close to where he lives – and he loves to reunite Dukes of Hazzard cast. His last such reunion was in 2006 in Nashville where the city police declared that 80,000 of the loyal fans had shown up to see those Duke boys, Daisy, and all the others.
Ben, let’s just call him Cooter here to make the story easy (and it’s something he don’t mind a’tall) is now 75 and slowing down. He uses a cane to steady himself but he’s still lively of mind and spirit. He decided to throw one last bash with all his Hazzard friends and since he was going to host in the region where numerous Civil War battles occurred, he proclaimed it to be “Cooter’s Last Stand”.
There was nary a soul that I could gather up to go with me. It wasn’t because no one wanted to, it’s just that people pack their lives full these days and there’s little availability for a great opportunity like Cooter’s Last Stand. Tink was off, working.
“You’re going by yourself?” my sister asked when she cancelled out.
“I’m not going to miss it.”
As I drove through the gorgeous Shenandoah, I imagine thousands of Union and Rebel forces charging the hills. I could hear the gunfire and the neighing of horses as they charged. I thought of the men who laid there, bloodied, writhing in agony as they called out to God and remembered Mama or the girls they loved.
Halfway up the Valley, the rain started. It rained hard where visibility was almost zero. Three hours later when I pulled into Staunton, VA, for the weekend’s stay, it was still raining.
My memory peeled away years back to sporting events I had covered when mud made it almost impossible to get a car in or out. But I wasn’t backing down.
Like a stubborn Scotch-Irish Rebel soldier, I was planning to charge on into battle.
This is the first installment of a three-part series. Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.