The weekly street dance in Brevard, North Carolina, took place under a rainbow. Lots of spectators, plenty of dancers. (Photo by Timothy Collins)

During the June and July lull in Covid-19, my wife and I took two extended road trips “back East.”  We found small towns full of friendly, optimistic people eager to rebuild their communities and ways of life after a difficult year. The current surge may put some of those plans on hold even longer. But our experience tells us that many rural areas will be ready when safer conditions return.

My wife, Shannon L. Price, and I returned to Appalachia to see new small towns and catch up with friends and family. We tried to avoid interstates on our two 3,000-mile-plus jaunts from our rural western Illinois home to New England and then across North Carolina. Both sagas included Baltimore, where our son lives. 

With hours and hours on rural byways, long days in the van stiffened our aging bodies. We still wonder why we chose the slow way. 

We’d do it again. Sure beats the boring interstate.

We met wonderful people, ate mainly at local places with delicious desserts, stayed mostly at bed and breakfasts, and scoped out the richness of rural America. The trips reconnected us with rural diversity. We found communities trying to overcome Covid’s impacts, maybe trying to forget, certainly hoping they never face anything like it again. The lull brought newfound optimism, evident wherever we traveled. 

The Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, “semi-closed” during the 2020 pandemic. It started curbside deliveries. Online sales helped make up for lost traffic in the luscious, small-town store. (Photo by Shannon L. Price)

Different places, different attitudes: Sometimes we had to wear masks. Not always, like in Vermont where the vaccination rate was 90%. But we went on our trips before the new surge in Covid infections prompted many areas to return to more conservative protection measures.

Unfortunately, we found too many vacant storefronts, dreams shattered during 2020. Surviving business owners were adapting and expected a healthy recovery. They regretted the losses and worried that the vacancies might diminish tourism.

On the other hand, a Burlington, Vermont, lunch counter owner was quite happy with her time off, which allowed a break from the daily grind. She was delighted to reopen after a couple of months with all her staff and a plan for masks and social distancing. Her experience seemed unusual, given so many “help wanted” signs in restaurants and stores, on truck trailers, and along highways.

Newly reopened restaurants fed us well. Staff shortages forced reduced hours or closings, often Tuesdays and Wednesdays, in New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Service might have lagged a bit. Ingredients for some menu items were in short supply. 

Some patrons weren’t in the best of temper. A kind word and smile from a customer went a long way, even garnering a friendly wave from one of our servers when our paths crossed on the street in Lenox, Massachusetts. Lenox is home of the Tanglewood Music Center, which was due to reopen in July. Already, parking was scarce, restaurants full.

Closings were not universal. An ice cream shop/restaurant in Ohio reported a good year in 2020. The walk-up window stayed open, even when other places were closed. 

Seneca Falls, New York, on the Finger Lakes, was a delight. It is home of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. The city’s radical role in pushing for women’s voting rights before the Civil War sealed its place in history, more noticed recently because of the 2020 centennial of women winning the vote. 

We found communities trying to overcome Covid’s impacts, maybe trying to forget, certainly hoping they never face anything like it again. The lull brought newfound optimism, evident wherever we traveled. 

The lovely downtown may be the prototypical setting for Frank Capra’s Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life. Some question the assertion, but the museum and annual festival offer plausible evidence for the claim. In December, Seneca Falls will mark the movie’s 75th anniversary.

In North Carolina, the reopened Isis Music Hall in West Asheville offered a fine sit-down meal and enchanting performance by Appalachian roots singer/songwriter Alexa Rose of Clifton Forge, Virginia. She and her group were just hitting the road again. Her lyrics, singing, and lovely stories touched us. The evening made the long day’s drive down winding U.S. 23, including Kentucky’s Country Music Highway, worthwhile.

A morning hike at the 10,000-acre-plus Dupont State Recreational Forest near Cedar Mountain, North Carolina (where Hunger Games was filmed), was cool and pleasant. Ironically perhaps, we had no lunch plans. But the odds were in our favor. Whimsy took us west to Brevard, North Carolina, which greeted us with a “Black Lives Matter” sign at the edge of town. 

The historic Barrister’s Bed and Breakfast, built in 1860, was a perfect touch for our visit to Seneca Falls, NY. Ken and Diane, proprietors of the beautiful inn, cook scrumptious breakfasts accompanied by wonderful banter. (Photo by Shannon L. Price)

We had no clue what to expect. The magical downtown rests in a valley by the Pisgah National Forest. The world-famous Brevard Music Center was reopening. Shops were busy. Lunch was quite good, and we settled on the Blue Ridge Bakery for dessert. 

After more than a year of Covid restrictions, Shannon and I couldn’t have asked for better adventures. With the exception of Interstate 95 from Wilmington, Delaware, to Richmond, Virginia (no longer a youthful driving challenge, but a creeping nightmare of overdevelopment), we discovered positive places, positive people, and positive memories to counter our turbulent times.

Timothy Collins is the proprietor of a hobby publishing house, Then and Now Media. A resident of rural western Illinois, he retired as assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in 2016. He is co-author of a forthcoming book, Go Down, Moses: The Wings Over Jordan Choir.