I grew up working my family's beef cattle farm on Sinking Creek in Newport, Va., some 20 miles west of the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg. As young kids, my sister and I hated "real work," stuff like picking up rocks from the hayfield so the bailer didn't get bound up, or carrying salt licks to the cart or dragging 60-pound hay bales into piles so the high school boys working for six bucks an hour would have a slightly easier time stacking them on the trailer to the barn.
Naturally, this disgusted my grandmother, who had slaved and saved arm-in-arm with my granddaddy to purchase the place in the 1940s and worked it herself every single day until past her 90th birthday.
It is a gorgeous piece of land. It is a badge of family pride.
The workload increased a bit with age, as I matured from the hay stacker into the hay thrower, as I grew from the little guy who stood between daddy's legs and slopped gobs of paint on the lowest rungs of the gate while he painted the top side, to the teen atop the barn roof in the scorching summer heat, sanding away the rusty spots, pale redheaded skin frying like an egg as "That Summer" and "The Thunder Rolls" blasted from my Chevy Blazer's factory speakers, SPF-nothing, singing off-key into the sander like Tom Cruise into the "Risky Business" candleholder.
I can't stress how much complaining we did. Silently. We didn't dare bitch where Daddy or my Gran could hear. They'd have our hide. It wasn't fun, but the work carried life lessons on which I lean every single day, to this day.
Oddly enough the complaining and hard work are not the memories that rush to mind when I'm back there at my farm, whether physically or simply in my mind. Those memories are so sweet and so simple.
I think about sitting on a tailgate with a Dr Pepper and a pack of Nabs, neither knowing nor caring that my hands were grimy. We didn't get Dr Pepper or packs of Nabs often. I think about jumping in the Blue Hole in frayed cutoff jeans scared a rogue crawdad would pinch me.
I think about Daddy and his buddies, Gordon and Dale and Pat, dusty jeans and soiled boots offset by pearly white smiles and belly laughter that echoed down the valley, and sun-drenched sweaty cans of Old Milwaukee and half-chewed bags of Levi Garrett and blaze orange hats hanging from 12-gauge barrels in the back glass of a hunter green Ford F-150.
Sitting on that tailgate I felt like one of the guys. It was the most awesome feeling.
My sweetest memories of those times were riding down 460 West in Daddy's blue Ford Ranger from Newport to Pearisburg, where our home was located. He called that truck Lil' Blue. Sitting on that bench seat -- sometimes so close to him the gearshift was between my legs -- it was time with Daddy where there were no distractions. Him and me: a hardworking man and his adoring little buddy.
He'd have one Ol' Mil' between his legs and another on the floorboard between my feet. The windows were always down, and on those summer nights at dusk the sweet scent of fresh-cut hay danced with the intoxicating whiff of the moment when a Marlboro Light meets the hot-coals glow of the car lighter.
Instantly, that's where I go every time I smell a fresh-lit Marlboro Light.
I miss that. The innocence. It was never the same being there after my parents died. But I love being back there now, because I feel close to them down by that creek and up on that mountain. That land defined them to a degree.
It may seem weird, but those are the thoughts that sped through my mind leaving Victory Lane at Daytona last Sunday night. I'd just interviewed a jubilant Dale Earnhardt Jr., and in my mind I was back in Lil' Blue riding down 460 with Daddy.
I don't know why, especially, because those thoughts probably don't even apply contextually.
I've always marveled at how Dale Earnhardt Jr. manages to retain a magical appreciation -- even adoration -- for Daytona Beach, Fla., at how he can so deeply appreciate all it gives him even after all it has taken away.
Daytona was always so very special to him as a boy, even above the racing side of it, and getting to see his father triumph and fail, win and lose. He loved the restaurants and the magic that a beach provides a country boy.
I asked him why -- how -- he was able to carry on the love affair with Daytona. He agreed it is interesting that he can, and has, and believes his father's death did impact his feelings about the place for a time.
But he knew to have peace within himself he would have to make some kind of peace with Daytona.
Because he would see her again. And again. And again.
And on nights like Sunday night, it's mighty good to see her again.