The story below is an excerpt from our Sept./Oct. 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
For two decades—since back when “greenway” was a largely unknown term— Liz Belcher has been the driving force behind a phemenon that has seen the Roanoke, Virginia area build some 270 miles of greenways and trails, both urban and wooded.
I am. Twenty minutes, one stoplight. You may be quicker. Is this why we love living in the Roanoke Valley?
I am home here. Did I grow up here? No. I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, a tourist mecca; it should be on your bucket list to visit.
I used to wonder why my mother had a great longing for Virginia. She grew up in Charlottesville, a small city similar to Charleston with lots of old buildings and blue-blood value of heritage. We drove the Blue Ridge Parkway one October when I was a child, and I kept waiting to see the mountains. Virginia seemed like hills to me, having only seen the mountains of North Carolina. What was special about this?
I moved to Virginia in 1976 and to the Roanoke Valley in 1979. I can’t say that I knew I was home. I started picking wild raspberries, asparagus and wineberries. I planted a garden, cut firewood, and hiked on the Appalachian Trail. I explored the many trails of our national forests and fruits of our orchards and farms. I learned Virginia could feed my hungers.
But when are you home? Is it when you have lived in the same house for 25 years? Or when you know every shortcut for 100 miles? Or when you walk through a cemetery and feel your ancestors tugging from the ground? Maybe it is when the morning mists of summer curl in a smile from all those hollows you can name.
Recently, people (not perfect strangers, just people I don’t know) have been saying to me “greenways are the best thing to happen to Roanoke.” I agree, of course. It has been my work for almost 20 years, but it takes a village. It takes advocates, engineers, donors, politicians, friends, contractors, clean-up crews, urban foresters, volunteers. Are greenways what have made Roanoke home to me and to so many others? I think so. They sure have helped.
Greenways and trails connect us to the land in a way that makes this space become home. We learn to breathe and look and see the daily changes in the river and the grass, in the natural world around us. We also learn to see each other. The lady with the two white dogs named Sasha and Siesha. Gosh, no, I don’t know her name, but yes I know her. She has two kids, three grandkids, and a bad left knee. I saw her almost every day when we were building that bridge.
On the greenways we are forced to practice those things we were supposed to learn in kindergarten – “share . . . don’t hit . . . clean up your own mess . . . watch out for traffic.”
Share. Greenways let us share a love for something other than ourselves. That thread binds us. It lifts up our eyes to the hills where we see the play of the rising sun or the glint of last night’s frost. When we are frustrated or discouraged or jumping out of our skin, it lets us release our energy into the cosmos. It ties us to the land and to the sky.
Nostalgic? No, I am not looking back. We are better than we were when I moved here. Roanoke, Virginia. Roots and wings. It’s home to me.