School begins- sort of

Veeka’s new school began the third week of August, although one might not have known it as she missed two days of school the first week due to our earthquake and one day the following week because of Hurricane Irene. Not that her school sustained damage either day; the problems were all in the eastern part of the county but the school system automatically shuts down all the schools, making the problem-free ones pay dearly. And thus we’ve run through 3 of our snow days – in August! Not only that, but Veeka’s school has 91 kids squeezed into three kindergarten classes but, due to a technicality, the school system is refusing to free up a fourth teacher. The photo is of Veeka at her desk the first day of school.

Thus it was with little reluctance that I took Veeka out of school yesterday and today (Sept. 2) for a lengthy assignment I have in far, faraway West Virginia covering …. snake handlers! Yes, it’s an annual homecoming gathering of Pentecostals who practice not only snake handling but they also have a Mason jar up front of strychnine for people – who have enough faith – to drink. All this is based on a passage in Mark 16 about snakes nor poison hurting believers. Now how did I get this assignment?

Well….two months ago, I was with Lauren Pond, the young photographer who shot the PAPA festival for my story which, by the way, is out here this weekend. (This is my fifth story for WaPo’s Sunday magazine and I have three more on deck). Lauren had been traveling to Jolo, W.V., which is the southernmost tip of the most out-of-the-way county in West Virginia; you can’t get any further south than there. To get there, I had to drive 400 miles way into western Virginia to Grundy (near the Tennessee state line) and then drive north 22 miles up Rt. 83. Which was OK except for the 5-mile backup we got stuck on near Roanoke on I-81.

We stayed in Bluefield, then spent part of the day (on the way to Grundy) at an old volcanic caldera-turned-pretty/scenic valley called Burke’s Garden. One has to charge up a steep slope to get there but we had fun wandering about. It was named after one James Burke discovered it in 1748. Not wishing for the local Indians to know his whereabouts, he buried some potatoes he’d been eating. Apparently they sprouted the following year, hence Burke’s “garden.” The Appalachian Trail goes right by there and we had fun looking at the alpacas (the other photo) and driving past all the farms.

Then it was onto Grundy, where we met Lauren at the Comfort Inn, then drove 22 miles to to Jolo, where we met up with some pastors at the Church of the Lord Jesus which is on a tiny country road. And yes, in the middle of the service, out came the rattle snake, which was apparently in a good mood, as it didn’t bite anyone and instead curled itself about peoples’ arms as various pastors gingerly passed it around. One of the pastors told me that his dad died of a snake bite -took him 10 hours to die. Photos on the left wall of the church show various homecomings and people handling – you guessed it – serpents.

Stay tuned for more.