Caldwell Walk — The Walk

Two colleagues agreed to walk the first half: Grace Hemmingson, a grad student, and Peter Schmitthenner, a faculty member (in both History and Religion and Culture). Another grad student, Katie Brown, wanted to walk but had a conflict, so agreed to do the last 5 miles of the walk. Mindy Quigley, a friend and the wife of a colleague, agreed to jump in for a couple miles in the second half. One more colleague, Danna Agmon, made me a period lunch based on a passage from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book — a sausage roll, a butter sandwich, apple turnovers, cookies, and apples.

Peter, Grace, and I arrived at the Cassel Coliseum parking lot to get onto the buses out to the Caldwell homestead in Craig County, which still exists. We left about 8am and I sat on the bus and talked with Mike Weaver, deputy commandant for the corps, who is a Tech alumnus and came back to VT after a life in the military and a Masters in Divinity from Duke.

Cassel buses

Caldwells had been living in the area for about a hundred years when Addison made his walk — descendants still live there now. We stopped in front of Mt. Carmel church, which was all closed up, got off the buses, and followed the cadets as they formed into two lines, one on either side of the rural road — 624. Peter knew the parts of the route — as a hiker and cyclist, he has been over all of these trails and roads many times. The weather was cool but clear and sunny. The cadets were loose and relaxed, joking with each other along the way. Their lives were going to get much better because the Fall Caldwell March marks the close of the Red Phase for freshmen, one of strict control of their lives. Peter, Grace, and I chatted about our backgrounds and generally caught up, passing the time pleasantly. The route was gently rolling, without too many big ups and downs, surrounded by farmland, for the first 3 or 4 miles. We turned onto 626, then onto State Route 42/CR 629, then stopped for a break of about ten minutes at Bethel Church. I saw one or two cadets I knew in the course of things, Grace knew several cadets from her undergrad time at VT, and Peter knew many cadets from his classes.

After a downhill walk in single file along 42, we turned off onto a farm property and the cadets got their MREs (Meals Ready to Eat, a mediocre but multi-course and portable meal), then we started the long trek up Sinking Creek Mountain. It was about a mile on the horizontal axis, but rose from 2400 to 3300 feet. The first 2/3 was grassy, so it was just a matter of walking slowly or taking a break after short segments. The moderate altitude and the steepness made everyone short of breath. About 2/3 of the way up or so we reached the edge of Jefferson National Forest and the trail turned to some loose dirt, which was hard to keep your footing on. I fell in with the first group going up, E20, who recited Jodies, military cadences, to keep their spirits up. We made it up to the top, and the Appalachian Trail followed the top of the Sinking Creek Mountain ridge. This was where everyone stopped for lunch, so we had about a half an hour to sit and eat. Peter and Grace came up with the last group — Grace had an especially heavy pack and Peter switched with her to even things out. It was cool and a little breezy, which was a nice contrast to the heavy sweating everyone did on the way up. This was about 9 or so miles in and I was feeling a little worn, but basically strong. I had a delicious lunch. The sausage roll, especially, was dynamite. The only thing missing was some coffee. (Next year remind me to swing by Idego with a Thermos in the morning.) In the month leading up, I had taken 2 ~10 mile walks with the same socks and shoes that I was using, so I was feeling pretty good. I didn’t sit down much, even on the breaks, so I didn’t stiffen up and I didn’t have any problems with blisters. One of my key worries, based on my marathon experience, was chafing, so I had made provisions by getting some body glide, an excellent and simple product.


There was some disagreement with the Jefferson National Forest where the Corps can get permission to walk in the forest with a large group, but not on the trails, on the thought that it would be too destructive to the trail. Thus, they have to blaze a new trail themselves each year. I don’t understand this and it seems like there must be something missing to the story. The takeaway is that once we started moving again, we had to veer off the trail and trek through brambles and what not, winding back and forth over spongy and rooty ground that was not very sure, and heading down at a fairly steep angle. Overall, not pleasant, and I was a little worried about rolling an ankle or slipping and banging a knee or something. I had several tiny slips, but there was one where I slipped on a steeply angled flat rock and landed on my butt, with my leg bent back. Fortunately, there were no weird forces or pressures — my weight went onto my butt, instead of onto my knee, and I didn’t hurt anything. This is a serious drawback to going with the Corps. This a nonsense solution and should not be tolerated. We got word that one cadet twisted her knee badly and limped down to the logging trail where a truck could pick her up, and was done for the day. I saw several slips and falls — fortunately, a Corps EMT was along for the trip — and there could have been much more serious injuries.

The roundabout route seemed to have put us about 45 minutes or an hour behind schedule. We had been planning to get to Caldwell Fields, on Craig Creek Rd., by about 2:30, when buses would take people back to campus. We got to Caldwell Fields about 3:00 or 3:10. Peter and Grace peeled off, we said our goodbyes, and I headed east on Craigs Creek Road for the second phase.


This route, being closer to Blacksburg, was more familiar to me and wast totally straightforward with the exception of scaling Brush Mountain. I walked solo for about an hour, texted supporters with updates when I had cell service, and listened to music. I was feeling tired but still good — no trouble spots on my body, I had drunk plenty of water throughout the day, and Craigs Creek Road was fairly deserted. It didn’t have much of a shoulder and cars were driving fast when they came through, but overall it was fine. The challenge was going to be Brush Mountain.

The Brush Mountain climb was just as high and nearly as long as Sinking Creek, but all wooded — tougher to get your bearings visually. I had found a spot to step into the woods on Google Maps that approximated the Corps’ route, so when I got there, at a crossing with Craigs Creek, I started heading south. The plan was to head due south up to the Brush Mountain ridge. I made the mistake of reading my surroundings and going a bit by feel, climbing to the top of a ridge. Once to the top, I saw a drop and another, higher ridge. These were steep, so I had to climb on all fours at times, and had to stop every three or four steps. I did this a couple times and got a bit discouraged. I could see the sun through the treetops and had a compass, but aimed roughly towards the sun to have a consistent navigation point, in the southwest at this time of about 4:30. After another ridge or two that then took me down to a little creek again, I was getting discouraged and worried. Down at the bottom of a ridge it was dark, and there were lots of fallen trees and things to twist your ankle upon. It was chilly in the shade, and I was lamenting not having a jacket (which was mostly unnecessary for the day’s hike), because what if I got lost and was out there after dark? I was cursing myself for not packing for a worst-case scenario — matches, a blanket, an extra phone battery. On one of the ridgetops I still heard a car on Craigs Creek Road and realized I had been moving too much to the west and not enough to the south. I pulled up the compass and map apps on my iPhone and, though the compass had precise position down to the second, the map app put me south of the VT airport. It did not inspire confidence. Worrying scenarios were playing out in my head. Should I press forward or head back to Craigs Creek Road? I scrutinized the topographic map again and concluded that I had been crossing a series of finger ridges that led down from the Brush Mountain ridge, and I needed to get to the top of a ridge and head due south on the ridge until I made it to the top. The way was brambly and I got quite a few scratches, some serious. There was evidence that a path had been lightly trod, but I couldn’t tell if this was by humans or animals. A due-south path made sense, but after 45 minutes in the woods I hadn’t seen another soul and was late to meet my fellow walkers. The good news was that I could see flecks of sky through the trees at the top of the ridge up ahead. It could very well be the top of Brush Mountain, or at least someplace where I could see the lower surrounding land.

I plodded on for another twenty or thirty minutes and finally came to a clearing. Just 30 feet away was a paved road. I stepped out and wondered weather it was Jefferson Forest Lane, my goal street, or if I had gotten totally turned around and was back on Craigs Creek Road. 50 meters on I saw a house and walked towards it. No one seemed to be there. A little farther on was an intersection with a street sign that was turned around. One of them was Jefferson! But which one? I looked down one road and saw buildings that had to be Blacksburg. I thought about walking down without confirming but decided on caution, not wanting to head in the wrong direction. I walked back towards the house, and saw a car come to the intersection. I flagged down the driver, asked which road was which, and where Preston Forest Rd. was. She told me, I walked a quarter of a mile on and found it, and was back on my way. I had felt tired and my legs were burning on the Brush Mountain ridges, but once I set foot on Preston Woods Drive, I knew I would make it. I reconnected with Mindy and Katie, who had arranged to wait a little bit and meet me later, but together, and after a half mile down Preston Woods Drive, Paul drove up with those two and Alice. Paul joked that the registrar’s office was closed so, unlike Caldwell, I would not be able to enroll in classes when I got to Virginia Tech. I had run out of water, so Mindy gave me some, and, in just a minute, we were happily chatting, three quarters of the whole walk done and the two hard parts in the rearview mirror.

We got to Mount Tabor Road, which was just about the only danger we faced on the whole walk. Traffic was light, but there was little to no shoulder, and of course no sidewalk, so in a couple of cases we had to really crowd against the edge of the road and hope a driver would be responsible as they came around a curve. I had brought bike lights, but it was still light enough that they wouldn’t show to drivers. After about 45 minutes or an hour, Paul and Alice pulled up to collect Mindy and gave me a Gatorade, which I downed quickly. I had a 3-liter bladder in my backpack and refilled it once during the hike, but I had anticipated one more water stop at Caldwell Fields that wasn’t there. Katie and I were about a half mile from North Main Street and started getting walking/biking paths, which tided us over until we reached the place where the sidewalk ends. The sun was setting, and that part of Main Street is bleak. We got to Patrick Henry and cut across to Giles, in order to pass my house and the Agmundzas, where Ernest was staying and ready to cheer us on. We got there with the last light, stopped and talked for about 10 minutes. I didn’t sit down because I was worried about stiffening up. When we were done catching up, Katie and I headed off into the darkness for the last half-mile to the Caldwell statue on the upper quad.

My feet were really sore and my left hip was hurting with each step, and a scratched leg was a little bloody, but I still had energy and a decent stride. It was fairly anticlimactic getting to the statue. No one was around, and since I had gotten back onto paved roads I knew I would finish, so it wasn’t too much of a relief. Katie and I took some photos with the statue, then headed off to The Cellar to meet up and debrief with Peter and Grace, which we had arranged earlier.



NOTE: My best calculations using web-based distance-measurers indicate 8.25 miles to the base of Sinking Creek Mtn, on the private farm land; 12.5 miles to Caldwell Field (possibly more based on the winding, bushwhacked path); 16.75 miles to the turn-in point for Brush Mountain; 18 miles to Jefferson Forest Rd.; and 24.5 miles to the Caldwell Statue.

Caldwell Walk — The Prelude

William Addison Caldwell

William Addison Caldwell

I first heard of Addison Caldwell’s walk when I took a Historical Methods class to the library for a tutorial on library resources. The online catalogue is named “Addison,” and the librarian made reference to the Caldwell legend. Caldwell is deemed Virginia Tech’s first student (way back when it was Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College). He lived in Craig County and is reputed to have walked to Blacksburg to register for classes. There is a statue of Caldwell in mid-stride in VT’s upper quad near Major Williams, the home of the history department.

This intrigued me, since I am always thinking about placemaking and what makes a community special. This founding legend, like Pheidippides and the Battle of Marathon, seemed like a powerful story to tell about Virginia Tech’s service to rural Virginia, the powerful desire for education and the economic mobility it enabled, and the importance of overcoming difficulty, as Caldwell dropped out and later came back to complete his degree.

But the fundamental feature of this story to me was the walk. 26 miles (or however many we estimate it to be) was a challenging but manageable distance. I used to run marathons, so walking the same distance, even as a former runner, seemed achievable. A year ago I started looking into the possibility of this, and found some research on Caldwell, and started speculating about a route. When I found that Caldwell’s walk happened on October 1, I announced to my public history class of graduate students last fall that I was doing the walk in 2016. I learned that the Corps of Cadets does the walk in two segments as a freshman rite of passage, with the first half in the fall on the Saturday nearest October first.

One of my key concerns was finding a reasonable route that was not on highways like 460 and as little as possible over rough, untrammeled brambly forest. I wasn’t looking to kill myself, and I suspect Caldwell would have tried to take as easy a path as possible, over existing trails and dirt roads. Just as today we would drive on paved roads and highways now to get someplace far away, we wouldn’t even consider dirt roads or two-track (or going off-road) unless they were the only possible route.

A few weeks ago I got ahold of Lt. Col. Chuck Payne, deputy commandant of the Corps of Cadets, who organizes the Caldwell walk. He has the route that the cadets take each year and showed and explained the route to me. He invited me to come along with the cadets as an outreach effort, and I accepted — it seemed reasonable to see and undertake the route with the support of the Corps, at least for the first half.

The walk was on. I had about a month to get ready, including upping my walking game, and I announced my intentions to some friends and colleagues, inviting them to come along.

Re-Time Shifting and the Single Parent

A couple years ago Sean Takats described a process of time-shifting archival research that was a pretty good description and assessment of the power of digital tools in archives. One of his key points was that “we’re simultaneously escalating the evidentiary basis for any research project.” As he said at the time, that wasn’t news to anyone who had been to an archive in the last five years. I bought a good point and shoot digital camera in 2004 for several hundred dollars in order to collect more documents and deal with the growing cost of photocopying. It was a great investment, a workhorse that I made tens of thousands of images with.

My visit to Philadelphia archives last fall and this research trip to Austin-area archives has illustrated a countershift. Takats indicated that the Bibliotheque National de France had become just a very nice library to do research. I find as a single dad that archives have become almost the only place I have the ability to do research. The place I used to time-shift my archival reading to — nights and weekends, are no longer available. After a brief bout of exercise I pick up my son from day care, play out in the yard and make dinner, read some books, take a bath, and then go to bed. After twelve unrelieved hours of work and kid care, I don’t have the emotional energy to perform any work tasks unless a painful deadline is approaching. Even the regular hours of the workday are taken up with teaching and prep, meetings, and mundane bureaucratic tasks. The notion of a 40/40/20 division of Research/Teaching/Service responsibilities is a joke — it’s more like 10/60/30. The special trip to an archive has become again just about the only place I get the uninterrupted time and space to read through a lengthy document or set of primary sources in full.

What are the implications of this? First, it’s that I’m shifting the most important part of my work life to time that I’m not getting paid — the summer. Second, I’m shifting it out of the evenings and weekends I used to cram with work until the birth of my son. That was productive in a sense, but not very healthy overall. Prior to her death, my wife and I only took a single one-weekend vacation in the 8 years we were together. All other travel was for work or family. So that’s good. I realized after a couple of months as a single dad that I could not and should not make my son compete with my work for my attention. I had to find a way to get the work done without compromising how I was raising him. Shifting back to intense archival visits seem to be the answer. Even though I still do take many digital images in the archive, I’ve got to spend more time reading the documents there to have at least a mental index of the documents, and in some cases a pretty full recall of the source contents.

This also means I’m lowering the evidentiary basis for my research. On its face we could say that is a bad thing, but we could also conclude (and I’m trying to do so) that it will be possible to have a meaningful project based on a smaller but concise set of sources.

Week 5 Renovation

Down to the wire. We were aiming for December 6th and it would be close — finishing the project before I left or leaving some stuff hanging over. And how much?

Basically, it was a couple coats of paint. When I decided to refinish the kitchen and half-bath floors, that more or less needed to happen while we were traveling. So then we pushed back completion of the half-bath in order to do as complete a job as possible (getting under the sink and stool). That was already planned to be incomplete. What we mostly didn’t get done was the large amount of painting.

I was a bit worried earlier in the week. I had invited some friends over for dinner Saturday and expected to be able to do a nice job of hosting. But the plumbers had a problem with my old sink and all the workers were stepping over one another and I didn’t see how it would get done.
Continue reading

Week 4 Renovation

Thanksgiving Week. A few short days then one full week to get it all done. But we’re putting things back together now, rather than pulling them apart. At the end of last week the plaster was finished and we were ready for cabinets in the kitchen and resurfacing everywhere else, then fixtures.

The shelving and cabinets are custom built. The shelving arrived last week and started to go up Monday and Tuesday. The whole kitchen project is idiosyncratic, so the cabinet design is equally idiosyncratic to suit our situation.

Continue reading

Week 3 Renovation

Week 1 got us off to a good start. Week 2 was delays, catchup, and seemed overall to show a lack of progress. I was eager for things to get moving this week if we are to have any hope of meeting our project deadline. But these things don’t always go how you want, so Monday was not very active — just some preparation for the spray-in insulation on Tuesday, including laying the bathroom subfloor. When I first contacted the contractor, Shelter Alternatives, they also suggested I get an energy audit with their partner business, Energy Check. One of the upshots was that the basement was leaking heat, as was the pantry/half-bath. Spray-in foam insulation was recommended for the bathroom all around.

Continue reading

Week 2 Renovation

The story of Week 2 was…not much happened. The discoveries of the end of week 1 (asbestos-y tile and an old plumbing/carpentry cockup) put the brakes on much of the work from this week and led to a series of rolling delays.

Monday was carpentry. The solution to the cut joist and overly aggressively notched joists in the bathroom was cross bracing, rather than sistering.

Continue reading

Week 1, Reno/Rehab

The work: there are three things I’m having done on my new/old house. The first is re-converting the “pantry” off the kitchen back into a half bathroom. This is a little room, about 5′ x 7′, taking up part of the back porch space, that became a bathroom to serve the first owner, Henry Whitlock. Once he grew advanced in years he wanted a bathroom on the main floor so he didn’t have to use the stairs so much. The plumbing is “still there” but the codes have changed and the work may not have been the best quality in the first place, so it’s not an easy change. In addition, there was very little insulation to this room, so the energy audit showed it was really leaking heat.


The second thing is related to the first; since I’m moving the fridge out of the pantry, I’ve got to have a place for it. Thus, I’m moving a doorway a bit and putting the fridge in a new corner, along with some cabinets and shelving. Then I’m putting in new butcher block countertops to replace the older tile countertops that are there.

The third thing is updating the upstairs bathroom. This is mostly resurfacing (paint and flooring), shifting a bit of plumbing, and putting in a new tub/shower. This is the only photo I have of the bathroom pre-reno because no one ever wants to record its image for posterity.
Continue reading

The Whitlocks

Henry Whitlock was a painter.

He had once been a farmer, but moved to Blacksburg and built the house at 201 Giles Rd. in 1927. At that point Blacksburg was so small it did not have street addresses. Whitlock’s father and uncle had been building contractors and he had some experience with the trade, so he took a position at VPI and eventually moved up to a crew foreman position.

In the 1940 census, the Whitlocks indicated a home value of $5500, which inflates to $91,880 in 2013 dollars. The house has become MUCH more valuable than it was, in part due to improved features (e.g. radiators rather than coal stoves), a bit due to further development of the property (the finished 3rd floor) but largely due to the overall development of Virginia Tech and Blacksburg.

Henry Whitlock and Rosa Whitlock had a sizable brood. As of the 1940 census, 6 children lived in the house: Hortense (25), Ralph (19), Sydney (17), Josephine and Jewell (14), and Henry Jr. (7). There were actually 10 children (4 boys 6 girls), all of whom survived to adulthood as far as I can tell, meaning that for several years TWELVE PEOPLE lived in the house. This was not a Catholic family but Episcopalian.

Whitlock lived to the age of 102 and lived in the house until he was about 100 years old, according to the previous owner. In his later years he made the dining room his bedroom and made the pantry off the kitchen into a half-bathroom. This was a good idea that was subsequently changed back to a pantry for some reason — I’m going to change it back to a half-bath again. You can still see the location of the hinges on the dining room door frame to the kitchen where they put in a closing door. Whitlock eventually sold the house to a former VT football player and now real estate developer, Bill Ellenbogen, and moved into a nursing home in Virginia Beach. Here is the text of the only online obituary I can find on the web:


BLACKSBURG – Henry Byrd Whitlock, 102, father of Mrs. James P. Scott of Newport News, died Sunday, Oct. 29, in Heritage Hall Nursing Home.

He was born in Montgomery County.

Other survivors include five other daughters, four sons, 27 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.

Arrangements are incomplete.

Hoy-McCoy Funeral Home is in charge.

His wife, the prodigious Rosa Whitlock, seems to have passed away in 1977 and there is, lamentably, no online obituary for her.

I tracked down one of Whitlock’s few surviving children, Harry, now 96, and had a halting conversation with him over the phone the other day.

Blogging SACRPH (and the Academic Life)

This past Saturday I participated in a panel at SACRPH on blogging for academics. It was unfortunately fairly lightly attended, but there was a good discussion especially prompted by the commenter, Anabel Quan-Haase, who studies digital humanities centers and practitioners.

One of the things this panel illustrated for me is that academic (certainly historians’) concerns about blogging have not changed much since 2004 when I started blogging.* The main one is about taking time away from writing for publication. The second one is about putting ideas out that will be swiped by someone else. Both of these have to do with the publish or perish standard we have adopted for tenure and tenure-track positions, as well as tenure-track hopefuls. If there was a third, I would say it was about the issue of feedback and community.

This was very frustrating for me for a number of reasons. It may be that I have a dramatically different experience than many others, but my experience with blogging is that it invigorates my writing. If you want to write, you’ve got to write — in any number of venues. The times that I am too busy to blog are the times that I am too busy to write. And related to this, for historians at least, is the notion that the writing for publication you are doing is so important. It’s not. Work on your book. Your articles are nice, but they don’t make a career or an intellectual legacy. You’ve probably got to get one out to be taken seriously on the job market, and a couple related to each book project would be nice in order to do promote the book and do something with all of the material you get, but really anything beyond that (maybe 3) will probably see diminishing returns. This is of course different for social scientists.

Maybe even more frustrating for me was the idea of the scarcity of time and the implications about the academic lifestyle. I estimated, even in my most intensive publication-writing periods, about an hour a day of ACTUAL WRITING — fingers on the keys and words on the page. Over the course of a seven-day week, I’d say that’s about right. I MIGHT put that up to two hours if I were only looking at weekdays. During the week I am putting in 7-8 hour days,** but there is a lot of reading, searching for articles and books, working with data, scrutinizing maps, photos and other visual material. All of this might be seen as taking away from WRITING, as well, but you of course see that it is what makes the writing possible and high-quality. And I’m on leave. During a teaching semester I also have to make power points, grade papers, read and write about topics for classes, etc., and then there is committee/service work. There is a ton of stuff to do.

But the point is, you CANNOT let that lower priority stuff overtake your top priority. In an academic-publication sense, the top priority should be your book. But that’s not the real top priority. The real top priority is your overall well-being, a happy family/personal life, and enjoyment of your position in an affluent society with a time-flexible profession. I hope anyone who reads this and is considering an academic career holds this top priority. If you don’t, you are going to be miserable and you should not get into the profession. Work will take everything you give it and want more. And then more. And then more. And people will see how much you get done and want you to do MORE! And you cannot let this happen. If you are not taking time for your family and consuming healthy food and getting exercise and enjoying the daylight hours, you would probably be better off in an 8 to 5 job where at least you would be able to leave work at the office.

In an affluent society, people with our skills should use their work to find the highest level of personal fulfillment and well-being possible. Your scholarly productivity should be part of that! I get a lot of fulfillment and enjoyment from my research and I also believe it is and will be beneficial for society. But I’m not going to make myself miserable doing it and neither should you (accepting there will be some hard days). If you’ve got something to say that isn’t right for a journal, blog it! And then go take a walk. And get an ice cream cone. And then come back to the office and work on your new article idea. But God, I would hate to think all of these people with great jobs were making themselves miserable rather than enjoying it and were only thinking about what they HAD to do rather than what they WANTED to do.

As usual, SACRPH (and a conference trip) was invigorating. Quan-Haase’ comments were well structured, in contrast to the fairly loose presentations I and others made, which was a nice counterweight to tie certain threads together. Perhaps more soon.

*As a side note, I remember doing introductions in a grad class with Matt Lassiter where there were a couple Masters of Urban Planning students in addition to the usual PhD students (I was doing both a PhD and MUP and so straddled these worlds). The MUP students all had blogs and talked them up, but I was really ashamed when Brandon Zwagerman mentioned my blog because I was so oriented to the traditional standards and values of PhD programs. Fortunately, Lassiter was quite tolerant, even enthusiastic about the work and potential of bloggers, which is just one of the reasons he was such a great influence.

**The time I can spend on work is limited/enabled by being a single parent. There were periods, especially as a candidate and before my son was born, when I didn’t go outside (or hardly even move) during a 16-hour day and those were effing MISERABLE. So being a single parent is hard and can seem limiting, but it is so much better than being an isolated hermit who dedicates every waking hour to work.