It was just yesterday that I first ever heard of the tiny town of Raphine. I happened to drive through it on a rural road that winds through the hills of western Virginia. I don't even know how it is pronounced -- "Raa-feen"? "Ray-feen"? "Ray-fine"? And it went by so fast that I didn't get a chance to stop and ask someone how to pronounce the name.
It was a lovely drive, though. On this trip I'm realizing something I always suspected: while the US has a truly superb highway system that gets you everywhere you want to go, the roads with beauty and character remain the smaller ones, through the towns and villages that sometimes don't even make it onto maps. (Raphine barely does). These are the roads where you don't zoom along at 65mph on a surface generally sanitized of bumps and serious curves, because you can't and they aren't.
Case in point: Virginia Route 252, takes me off the smooth ennui of Interstate 81, through Raphine to points west.
At this point, I need to tell you one more reason for the beauty of 252 on the morning I drive it. A massive snowstorm struck much of the northeast on Valentine's Day and after. As I write this, it has swept out to sea, but has left in its wake piles of snow, ice on the roads, frigid temperatures, massive transport headaches -- and heartbreaking beauty in and around Raphine.
Most trees in these parts are bare, as they tend to be at this time of year. When snow and sleet fell from the skies, it coated the naked branches and twigs of these trees in films of water that immediately turned to ice. So the branches and twigs are completely encased in ice.
It's a post-storm sunny late afternoon, if still very cold, when I drive through. The sun shines through the branches, off the branches on so many other trees all around me. It's like I'm surrounded by a forest of delicately carved glass, or silver filigree. In fact, I'm inexplicably reminded of the Hyderabadi craft of bidri. Not that bidri gleams like this, but it can be just as delicate and intricate as these trees are today.
Mile after mile of this. And on the hills in the distance, the trees on the heights must all be similar filigree too, because the impression is of some silver clouds settled on the hilltops.
So yes, Raphine is gorgeous. Two thousand people, and gorgeous after a storm. I drive through the beauty well beyond the town, west then south to the larger town of Covington. Signs everywhere in Covington, saying "The City of Covington welcomes home our valiant troops. Thanks for protecting our freedom!"
Didn't think about that much, or at least not until ... the second time I heard of Raphine was this morning, reading the Roanoke Times over breakfast at one of those vanishing American icons, a diner.
The paper has a story about Daniel Todd Morris, son of Raphine resident Carol Morris Wendel. It tells me that he was a 2005 graduate of a nearby high school, "where he was a member of the marching band." In September of that year, Daniel enlisted in the US Marines and did his basic training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the state immediately south of Virginia. When he finished his training, Daniel joined a Marine battalion based in Hawaii. And by now you probably can guess why he featured on the front page of the Roanoke Times: on Wednesday, 19 year old Lance Corporal Daniel Morris died in fighting in Iraq.
I was unaccountably saddened by this death of someone I never knew. One day I drive through a small town I've never heard of; the next day I read in the news that a son of that town was killed in combat.
And it reminded me of something that's often said about wars: that the soldiers who fight and die are disproportionately from small towns and rural areas. It's said, but there's now some hard evidence for this too. The Carsey Institute, a think tank at the University of New Hampshire, has recently analyzed US deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. They found that the death rate for soldiers from cities and suburbs (urban areas) was 15 per million adults (i.e. for every million urban residents, 15 soldiers died in the war).
The rate for rural soldiers? 24 per million. Sixty per cent higher than the urban rate.
Nor should this be surprising. Rural areas are suffering from a drying up of jobs. So a greater proportion of rural youth join the military too, because there are few alternatives available to them. The higher death rate for rural soldiers just reflects this. You could say that it is the price their families are paying for that lack of opportunity.
Can we say the same about India?
Thought I'd try to see Carol Wendel; it would be easy to return to Raphine if she was willing to meet. I would have liked to find out what kind of young man her son was. But someone who answered the phone at her home said she was at a friend's place and probably would not do any more interviews. Which is perfectly understandable.
So I'm left mulling over the two truths about rural America that were reinforced for me today. One, if you get off the major roads, there's quiet beauty to be found. Two, in wartime, you're that much more likely to run across the tragedy of death in battle here.
The road through Raphine is spectacular, exquisite. But after reading the Roanoke Times, in my mind that beauty is tinged with the grief Carol Wendel must feel.
Rest well, Daniel Morris. I never knew you, but out of the clear blue sky here in Virginia, you reached out to touch me.