Galax, Virginia is a small town falling down hillsides above Chestnut Creek which breaks off from New River north of Stoneman Hill. The creek switches back and forth through woodlands until it disappears underneath a shadow of an abandoned brick furniture factory. It’s straightened by the town’s manufacturing district until folding over a dam where it is free to wander again, aiming for a mountain’s edge. Chestnut Creek is a pretty waterway.
From a birds-eye view, Galax is in a hilly farm region inland from a long ridge line which abruptly and dramatically rises from North Carolina. Again, from a birds-eye view, this ridge line looks like a crooked backbone or a winding pile of shoveled earth; as if a giant started at the sea and, with her massive shovel, scraped land until it formed this ridge-corridor; a beginning to a mountain range known as the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is here in Galax – a landscape of woods and pastures – where the annual Virginia barbecue championships are held in July.
The event is called “Smoke on the Mountain.” Knowing that Galax is a jewel in America’s crown of bluegrass music, it is understandable that the poetry of words like “smoke on the mountain” comes from people who write music about love, heartbreak, or tragedy. Of course, these words are also the title of a 1980s musical written by Connie Ray whose work was inspired by Psalm 104:32…
Whether the barbecue championship was named after music or faith is up for debate. Either way, around 80 teams of barbecue experts arrived with their trailers and their smokers for this 2022 event. The main street of this little country town was lined with quiet sentries of cavernous metal tanks percolating their abundant blue smoke. It was mouthwatering and divine.
I had the pleasure of visiting with a team from Memphis called “Will-Be-Que.” Craig Wilkerson explained that the team formed about a dozen years ago from families who enjoyed getting together for a barbecue. During those early days, Wilkerson was also helping out a friend at some barbecue competitions. He enjoyed the process of barbecuing and competition so much so that he decided to take up the torch. His friend shared some secrets of the “trade” and, before long, a kindling was lit for a very serious hobby.
This year, team Will-Be-Que installed their shade canopies on Galax’s Main Street. It had been a warm day and now, the evening air was exhaling from a mountainside and taking with her down the street, gusts of lingering blue smoke. A roaster, the size of a furnace, puffed away like a locomotive beside the Will-Be-Que canopy. One team member was scheduled to open the door and do some things – likely some magic things – so that the meat would be perfect and ready to eat in no less than 24 hours. I was invited to inspect this smoker’s contents. A door to the chugging tank was secured with something like a lock-and-key, or maybe it was a piece of wire. After a minute of “unlocking”, a masterpiece – partially concealed by tinfoil – appeared. I was certain that I was standing before a legendary supper.
This team had a small, supply trailer outfitted with a refrigerator, countertop, cabinets, and a small TV. Wilkerson pointed me around an open door to peak inside where, he explained, “the boss” was organizing ingredients. Traci Adcok tipped her head back and laughed; she was standing at a counter working with details of what was supposed to happen next. The trailer was immaculately clean and more organized than a church kitchen.
Up and down Galax’s Main Street, competitors were still arriving with supplies and unpacking wares. A semitrailer blocked off one end of the lane. It had been converted to a stage where a band was setting up. Booths with crafts lined sidewalks beyond rows of barbecue teams. People clustered in groups and roamed together through clouds of smoke and tables loaded with things to sell.
The mood of this event was not the celebration that one feels when you’re among event-goers in a city. The feeling of this country barbecue championship on a small town’s main street was a feeling of anticipation. People were politely looking through things to buy. We smiled at each other shyly; it was as if we knew that we were lucky to be here together.
Young men in blue jeans and cut-off shirt-sleeves cruised the street in smooth cowboy boots. Young women with perfect makeup smiled brightly. Men in their middle years, who knew things about meat and flavors and ingredients, walked with great purpose among the camps of competitors. Friends congregated in a murmur of lively conversation. All of the children were very well behaved.
Janes Addiction was spinning through speakers at a beer truck. A song written about the difficult life of a woman named “Jane” was somehow comforting and nostalgic. Released in 1988, the familiar melody had a unifying effect on a Gen X group near the bar; even Baby Boomers perked up with the tune. “Jane says I’m done with Sergio; he treat my like a rag-doll…”; as if these years of pandemic – something called “covid” – was, itself, like an abusive boyfriend. And we were collectively “done with” him; this pandemic thing was a great thing to send up in smoke and walk away from.
We were still smiling together when a cover band lit up the stage with everything we wanted to hear. We listened and we smiled deep into this smoky night where patience and heat worked flavor spells over savory meats and Chestnut Creek unfolded quietly, over and over again, underneath satin waves of waning crescent moonlight.
Be well, country… and be in touch.
Sara June Jo-Saebo is the curator at her history organization, Midwest History Project, and author of a book called “I Have Walked One Mile After Dark in a Hard Rain” which is coming soon in paperback through www.midwesthistoryproject.org