CECILLE: Mmm. That feels so good. [PAUSE.] Can you do right here?
BECCA: Mmhmm, yeah. [PAUSE.] My fourteen-year-old son, one day asked me, he said, “Why do you just want to rub on people all day?” LAUGHTER.] And I said, “Ah, son, you have a lot to learn.” My name is Rebecca McKinney, and I am a licensed massage therapist.
Jay takes us underground as he explores the historic Blue Ridge Tunnel and stories blasted from rock.
MUSIC “Call Me” begins…
JAY: I am standing inside a tunnel that’s 700 feet below Interstate 64, a major thoroughfare tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. Because I’m a half-mile from daylight in either direction, I rely upon a headlamp and a 180-degree, 600 lumens flashlight to better irradiate the exposed rock before me as I look for traces of the past.
When the Blue Ridge Ridge tunnel first opened to locomotives in April of 1858, the 4,237-foot distance made it the longest tunnel in America and one of the longest tunnels in the entire world. It served freight and passenger trains until World War II, when a newer and larger tunnel was constructed adjacent to the original.
For many decades, the original Blue Ridge Tunnel sat abandoned and mostly forgotten under Afton Mountain. The western entrance was flooded in knee-high water and the entire tunnel was sectioned by two massive, twelve-foot thick reinforced concrete bulkheads, the remnants of a Dixie Bottled Gas Corporation plan to store propane inside the sealed chamber. That project never fully developed, yet the concrete bulkheads remained, blotting out daylight and preventing anyone from passing through.
But a $5.4 million, 19-year-long restoration of the tunnel opened as a linear rail trail at the end of 2020 and has drawn tens of thousands of people excited to see a dark, damp wonder of history.
Today, I walk this tunnel yet again, though with each trip, I learn how to better read the rock walls and brickwork. If I do this, maybe I can hear and see the stories that this tunnel has to tell.
Jay looks back on another summer in his home garden and wonders if it’s actually possible to actually hear corn grow.
“Hear the Corn Grow” (S1, E2)
Released September 15, 2021
JAY:When he was a boy, my Uncle Dave spent a lot of time on his grandfather’s farm. One still and warm July evening, Uncle Dave and great-grandfather—both exhausted and sore from a hot day’s work baling hay—sat on the front porch of the old farmhouse in Central Pennsylvania.
The thick summer air delivered far-off sounds: the machine-gunning jakebrake slowing a semitruck descending into the nearby town, the low of cattle in some distant pasture, a lonesome locomotive engine crossing the Juniata River.
His grandfather leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and cocked his head.
GRANDFATHER:“Do you hear that?”
JAY:My Uncle Dave narrowed his eyes and listened. He heard birds, of course—the swallows and their watery chirps diving and gliding as they gobbled up bugs. But they did that every evening at that time, hardly remarkable. Crickets? No, too early in the evening. Maybe that frog near the springhouse? No, not out either. He looked back to his grandfather and shook his head.
The old man juked his chin toward the cornfield across the gravel drive.
GRANDFATHER:“The corn. Go on out there and listen. Tell me what you hear.”
JAY: Uncle Dave walked down the porch steps, crossed the gravel, and crouched next to the young corn. The weather had worked in their favor throughout the spring and early summer. By Independence Day, the stalks had already grown well beyond the old country adage of “knee-high by the Fourth of July.” Uncle Dave leaned in closer to the corn and listened.
His grandfather, still watching, rose from the chair.
GRANDFATHER: “Do you hear it?”
JAY:When Uncle Dave now tells this part of the story, he acknowledges that what’s coming will be hard to believe. But he promises that it’s true, that when he knelt next to that corn and listened—when he really listened—he heard… something.
MUSIC ends, we hear a faint SQUEAK, followed by another, then another…
JAY: Every ten or so seconds, seemingly throughout the rows of corn, he listened squeak by squeak.
Uncle Dave rose and walked up the porch steps.
UNCLE DAVE:“I heard something, like little squeaks.”
JAY:His grandfather smiled.
GRANDFATHER: “That’s right, that’s right. What you heard was the corn grow. You can sit right here and listen to the corn grow, you just have to teach yourself how to hear it.”
SCOTT: Two buskers are sitting on benches, facing each other, on either side of the mosaic circle that reads IMAGINE. They’re in Strawberry Fields, the Central Park memorial to John Lennon, and there are usually any number of visitors gathering. While there, tourists wait their turn to sit inside the black and white mosaic, taking pictures, singing along to the buskers playing songs by John or the Beatles or other songs of the time.
SCOTT: But right now, there aren’t many people at all. One of the buskers turns to the other and says, “Where is everybody? People must be downtown. It’s 9/11, right?”
It is. It’s September 11, 2011, the day that the 9/11 Memorial opens at the footprints of the World Trade Center, now filled with two reflecting pools and embraced by the names of those who died on that day in 2001: those who died at the site of the Pentagon; and at Shanksville, Pennsylvania; and at the towers themselves, from both the bombing in 1993 and the attack in 2001.
But today in 2011, today is reserved for those families of the fallen, for the children who are mourning the loss of parents they had never met. And over the years, I’ve watched the televised reading of names, of those children reading the names of parents they never really knew — but they do now know in some way, in some way of memorializing them by speaking their names, giving them some presence right now, once more. Today honors them.