Me and Beau are marooned in the middle of the highway, standing smack dab on the faded yellow dividing lines as rush-hour traffic roars by. We’re trying to get to the other side. Both of us are drunk as skunks and probably just as likely to get run down. Come to think of it, we don’t smell so good, either. We just crawled out of a cinder-block cave called Jim’s Country Club in southern Fairfax County, stumbling distance from the gravel shoulder of the four-lane blacktop. We’ve been holed up in the dank, dark garage-turned-beer-joint since noon, but it feels more like years.
Now we’re trapped, stunned by the afternoon sun and the sheer vastness of the outside world. We teeter in a danger zone amid the unthrottled fury of Washington commuters hitting the home stretch on their daily grind. Jaywalking on U.S. 1 is a great way to get mixed in with the suburban splatter, especially when you’ve had your blood transfused with Milwaukee’s Best Ice. Our bold crossing may be idiotic, but it’s also strangely exhilarating: The hot tar road and the August sky’s white glare lend a miragelike, spaghetti-western tint to the blighted landscape, transforming Jim’s Country Club into a roadside Alamo, and me and Beau into a couple of outlaw pedestrians taking a last stand against unfeeling vigilante motorists. Or something like that. I’m pretty tanked, remember.
We don’t have a chance, of course, so we remain scarecrow-still, waiting for the deluge to stop, but there’s no end to it. In his gray three-piece suit and dusty cowboy boots, Beau is a hell of a lane divider. He’s already got four ex-wives, and he’s all dressed up for a nightclub tryst with a “female ladyfriend.” So he’s got no time to diddle, and he impatiently surveys the stampede for the slightest break.
“Aw, shit!” he finally shouts. “Now, go for it!”
Without further ado, Beau challenges an oncoming pickup truck and then makes like a matador on the run. It’s not a pretty sight—Beau on the fly and the driver gunning his engine. Spindly limbs flapping, Beau bolts across three lanes and beats the accelerating Ford by a butt-hair. Not bad for a soused fiftysomething with a spotty medical history. Inspired by his gusto and pickled fearlessness, I join him on the other side, cursing the leadfoots who tried to run us down.
“Shit,” scowls Beau, smoothing out his suit and stamping his boots on the ground. “I’ve had more trucks like to throw you quick. Try to, anyway. You got to be careful out here on the highway.”
Beau knows U.S. 1. He’s been out here for decades—nearly all his life. He’s worked here (cabdriver, wristwatch peddler, iron worker, professional clown, among many jobs), played here (nice place to bring a girlfriend), and now he’s living and sleeping here in a condemned house right behind Jim’s. He’s been camped there ever since his most recent ex-wife took over his creekside mobile home in the Harmony Place Trailer Park a few miles down U.S. 1.
Like Beau, the highway has seen better days—much, much better. In the Eisenhower era, it was one of the more picturesque parts of the federal highway that stretched from Maine to Florida. Back then, Richmond Highway, as it’s known locally, was the midpoint of the East Coast’s busiest north-south roadway, cutting through rolling farmland peppered with quaint motels and motor courts. Tourists streamed down the gateway to Dixie, flocking to nearby historic attractions like Mount Vernon and Gunston Hall, the colonial mansions of the Founding Fathers. For locals, the highway’s beer joints and dance halls made it a workingman’s playground.
After Interstate 95 opened in the ’60s, though, U.S. 1 became the tail fins of a bygone era. While the rest of Fairfax County blossomed into the nation’s wealthiest locality, the Route 1 corridor decayed and became Northern Virginia’s poor country cousin. Today, it’s a rundown gantlet of dying strip malls, thrift stores, pawn shops, trailer parks, boarded-up businesses, and fast-food restaurants; it’s a crazy-quilt of splintered parcels, none of them prospering, the sort of zoning chaos that planners and developers weep over like Gibbon in the ruins of Rome. The retail is gone, as are most of the roadhouses, and though many of the old motels survive, they are seedy ghosts of a picture-postcard past. Their only regular customers are prostitutes, drug dealers, and crackheads who don’t want phones or visitors disturbing their marathon highs.
It’s the kind of place that looks like nobody lives there, but of course they do. The locals huddle at the bus stops and crowd into sprawling apartment complexes tucked along the highway. Everyone here seems to be broke and barely hanging on. Meanwhile, the rich hide behind fences built of money, bunkered in Potomac River estates that ape the grandeur of George Washington’s manor. The old-time, old-money residents shun U.S. 1 like a dirty panhandler, opting for the bucolic George Washington Memorial Parkway, their escape route to and from Alexandria’s Old Town and Washington. The more stubborn become house-bound and sit on their verandas and pine for the long-ago days of river travel enjoyed by their aristocratic ancestors.
I have been a silent witness to the sad fall of Richmond Highway. As a boy I took the usual school trips to Gunston Hall and Mount Vernon, where guides explained how well the master treated his slaves; I recall little from those distant drive-bys except the glimmering swimming pools outside the motels. Almost a decade ago, I came back, but the highway was already on life support. For five years, I traveled it on a daily basis, commuting from Washington to a job in Woodbridge, which hugs U.S. 1 in Prince William County. There, as in the rest of Virginia, it is known as Jefferson Davis Highway, after the president of the Confederacy. Though I mostly raced down I-95 in the morning, I rarely failed to make the return trip home along the Highway. Those slow, brooding drives during the twilight and midnight hours soon converted me into a die-hard fan of Richmond Highway, a champion of her resilience and a secret admirer of her ugly beauty. We sort of went together for a few years.
Sick of the megamalls and high-rise condos invading Northern Virginia, I took comfort in knowing that the bulldozers hadn’t gobbled up every damn thing. Stuck between Washington’s monuments and the shiny new glass-and-concrete suburbs, U.S. 1 was a contemporary ruin. I never tired of watching the place slowly crumble through my windshield. Even though it’s been a few years, I can still recall the sagging, stained planks of the Hillbilly Heaven, a country-music tavern run by Earl Dixon, one of the area’s legendary hucksters and later Dan Aykroyd’s father-in-law; the building’s hand-painted plywood signs still beckoned customers inside, even as the jagged, broken windowpanes howled that old tune of abandonment. The decrepit motels were steeped in mystery, gothic relics: Mt. Vee, set back in the woods and always half-lit, like some spectral plantation house, along with the Virginia Lodge, the Keystone, the Traveler, the Statesman, Harry Smith’s, the Southern, the Wagon Wheel, and all the rest. I never gave a serious thought to staying in one; I just liked knowing they were there.
It was nice to know there was always a vacancy out on Highway 1.
As I drove, the people on the side of the road would fly by, but their visages would remain with me: the bag lady with the straw hat and her inexplicable pickax, the cowboy on the kid’s bicycle, the stranded sea captain navigating his rusty shopping cart. I made up stories about them all, even as I glossed over the human pain and suffering that deposited them along U.S. 1.
Every road, every trip, has its essential icon, a totem that let’s you know that You Are Here. On Richmond Highway, that definitive moment came every time I roared up to the dancing pig, the neon sign that graced the Dixie Pig barbecue restaurant, a landmark for more than 50 years. For both travelers and locals, it was a landlocked lighthouse on Beacon Hill, the highest peak on the coastal plain. The food hadn’t been worth a damn for years, but that didn’t matter. No matter how dark the mood or the night, the sight of the upright dancing pig (hind legs in a soulful strut, forelegs joyously aloft, and mischievous grin—the porker was clearly grooving to James Brown) provided solace to a troubled mind. For longtime residents, the Dixie Pig was more than a hangout, it was a final refuge that would always be, forever and ever.
Until it closed, that is.
And I didn’t find out until it was way too late. Craving a minced-pork sandwich and a glimpse of the pig, I recently headed down Richmond Highway only to find nothing where something used to be. Reaching the top of the hill, I realized that only the twilight blinked back, with no sign of the sign. Instead of the Dixie Pig, the lot at U.S. 1 and Beacon Hill Road was nothing but a pile of debris—chunks of concrete and dust—surrounded by a chain-link fence. It looked like somebody had bombed the joint and not even bothered to clean up.
I pulled over to the nearby 7-Eleven and approached some skateboard punks in the parking lot, demanding to know what had happened. While his buddies snickered, one punk politely told me that they’d torn the thing down to make way for a Rite-Aid; besides, he added, only old people ate there. I asked about the dancing pig sign. He said he’d heard the owners sold it for $4,000. Inside the 7-Eleven, I heard other stories: One man said the sign had been stolen; another claimed it’d been hauled down to North Carolina to be used at a barbecue joint there.
Like a lot of folks, I took the bad news personally. It wasn’t just that I’d no longer get to sit in the parking lot, munching on minced pork and staring at the dancing pig. It was wrong in a more fundamental way. If Richmond Highway is one of the oldest asphalt scars in the New World, then the demolition of the Dixie Pig is akin to ripping off the most stubborn scab on that ancient wound. The highway may have been dying for years, but the Pig was still dancing; for locals, it was the last public sanctuary, the center of a moral compass of a world gone mad. Not anymore.
I’m not leaving until I find out what happened to the dancing pig.
U.S. 1 between Fredericksburg and Washington more or less follows an Indian trail established long before the Europeans penetrated the country. Because it provided the shortest route along the Virginia bank of the Potomac River colonists persisted in using it despite the mire, difficult fords, and other obstacles that drew their curses….Almost every diary and travel book written by people who used the trail when it was known as Potomac Path, and later as the King’s Highway, recorded some near-disastrous adventure on it.—U.S. One: Maine to Florida, the Federal Writers’ Project
When I check into the Southern Motel as “Jeff Davis,” the clerk doesn’t even bat an eye. She’s just interested in the $35 cash that I shove through the slot in the bulletproof glass window. At no-tell motels like the Southern, you can be anybody you want to be. I’ve decided to be Jefferson Davis in honor of the Rebel president’s flight south after Union troops burned down Richmond (Davis was finally apprehended—some claim while cowardly disguised as a woman—in a remote pine grove in southern Georgia).
Richmond Highway doesn’t properly begin until the Fairfax County line, south of the Beltway. I set as my southern limit the deserted Hillbilly Heaven, still boarded-up just north of the Occoquan River. So my adopted turf embraces a 12-mile stretch, bounded by the intoxicating aroma of the Krispy Kreme doughnut factory and the foul stench of the Fairfax County sewage-treatment plant in Lorton.
Back in the ’40s, when the Southern Motel was built, Richmond Highway already boasted dozens of motels. One of the world’s first, the Penn-Daw Motor Court and Tea Room (“A Fine Place to Sleep and Dine”), had been operating a few miles to the north since the ’20s. In those days, travelers would stop at these quaint roadside cottages after a long, languid day motoring in the countryside. These were the original automobile gypsies, out for an adventure on the road. A poem in a magazine of the day, Touring Topics, sums up the wheelborne wanderlust of the era:
Breezes tugging at the top bows
Motor singing glad refrain,
Far from the clamor of the city
In the open—born again!
I have spent the afternoon snarled in the highway’s tangle of traffic lights, musing on the many motels that have survived from that golden age, outlasting a tangle of business failures along U.S. 1. It was as if someone had rewired a neutron bomb—the old buildings were mostly gone, but the people remained.
The clerk’s voice startles me. I’ve been studying the Elvis paraphernalia crammed into the motel office—posters, clocks, lamps. Every single object is somehow related to the King. Noticing my interest, she invites me into the side room, an efficiency where she lives. Above the door is a wedding photo of a young couple from the ’50s: “Me and my husband at Parris Island, S.C.,” she says with faint pride. With her tangled hair, gap-toothed, sullen expression, and haggard demeanor, she bears little resemblance to the smiling belle of the photo. Inside, Elvis rules: An Elvis blanket covers the bed; an Elvis comforter is draped on the couch. Stacked on the TV are videos of Elvis movies. Elvis ashtrays—the works. I’m thinking to myself about how Elvis would have enjoyed a pork sandwich under the sign at the Dixie Pig, but I don’t say anything about that.
I pull the car up to my room, the bumper just a few feet from the door. It’s one of a dozen attached brick cottages—painted cream-white with burgundy shutters and trim—encircling a Korean restaurant and a gas station. There are only three other cars parked here; they’re junkers with Virginia tags and look as if they haven’t moved for a while. Like most of the highway’s motels, the Southern obviously isn’t for tourists anymore. A geezer pokes his bald head out of an open doorway to observe my arrival. He’s not impressed, though: He sneers, takes a gulp from some deadly cocktail, and eases his way back inside.
It’s a nice enough room: pseudo–Art Deco furniture, cigarette burns on the stained swirl-pattern carpet, a groaning AC unit with the control knobs missing. On TV, Clinton is giving a speech. I’m struck by the uncanny resemblance of the president’s bristled, off-gray hair to the frayed, windblown fur of the dead possum I saw on the side of U.S. 1 earlier in the day. Once again, Ol’ Possum Head is getting all teary-eyed about the triumph of democracy and the indomitable spirit of the American people. I wonder if he’s ever taken a drive down Richmond Highway.
Over at the Han Yang restaurant a few lounge lizards hang at the bar, watching a Chuck Norris kung-fu movie on cable. They’re speaking in Korean, apparently commenting on the flick with the utmost interest. A sign above the rows of liquor bottles behind the bar reads: “Ron Byrne, your bartender, is Irish. So he understands.” I order a plate of grilled beef and cabbage to go and take it back to the room. It sure isn’t minced pork, but I’m pretty damn hungry. I’m full barely halfway through the heaping portion, at which point I realize I’ve got visitors outside the open door. They’re at the pay phone outside, squabbling about something.
This is a real Mutt and Jeff pair—a slender, suave black man sporting an earring, and a stubby, scruffy white troll with a soiled Miami Dolphins cap pulled down over his head. The first guy asks how much I paid for the room and the meal. When I tell them, they look at me pitifully, as if I’ve been swindled on both counts.
“I could have got you this room for $20,” says the man, introducing himself as Andrew. “You see how much that food costs you? Do you know why? Because you’re in the Commonwealth Country, where things are very high.” He pauses dramatically. “And where money is very popular.”
Apparently, he’s making a reference to the Commonwealth of Virginia. He talks like he owns the place but goes on to say he’s really only been around a few months. “Wes, though, he’s been here a long, long time—he’s lived his whole life on this highway.”
Wes tugs at his cap nervously, like a child put on the spot, and stammers in a hoarse whisper, “I’m 41….I’ve been on the highway since I was 8 years old. I was fucking when I was 9 years old, shit….I was living here at the Southern Motel for seven months with my girlfriend, but they threw us out—gave us 30 minutes to get our damn clothes out.” The couple lived in the woods behind the motel all summer, until she recently ran out on him when he cheated on her. Now he’s got a place nearby, and a maintenance job at a swank swinging-singles condo in Old Town Alexandria. “It’s like in that movie Melrose Place,” he says admiringly.
“Yep, ol’ Wes got him a great job,” coos Andrew with a slight hint of condescension, as if work was for fools.
So what exactly are they doing hanging around my door, anyway? Andrew explains it all smoothly: They stopped by the Southern tonight to pick up the rest of Wes’ clothes from the woods. They visit here frequently
to hang out, drink beer, and spar with their nemesis, the manager who evicted Wes and
“She’s a goddamn Elvis freak,” gripes Wes. “She’s always trying to get rid of us.”
We decide to have a little party in my room—what the hell else is there to do?—so we head to the 7-Eleven across the highway for refreshments. Up and down U.S. 1, cops are pulling over cars, blue lights blazing like fireflies. On the way over, it becomes obvious that Andrew is the boss, as his drunk buddy keeps wandering off from our group. “Damn it, Wes, I told you not to cross any poles. I’m superstitious about that shit. Now stick with us.”
After we return to the room with a six-pack of malt liquor, Andrew keeps eyeing the Korean food on the table. I tell him to go ahead and finish it, and he digs in with a pair of chopsticks. “This motel is polluted,” he says in between chews and gulps of Schlitz Bull. “This whole highway is polluted, and it’s dangerous. Route 1 is the most dangerous highway coming this way. This is a robbing place. They’re stealing from welfare people living in these motels. They’re paying $750 a month to stay here, and they don’t even clean the sheets. They’re punishing these people.”
Andrew finishes the plate with a satisfied burp. “That’s solid good. I love good things, and I know how to do good things.” Then he gets an idea. “My girlfriend was raised around here, she knows everything. I want you to meet her, she’s a decent woman—she’s a white woman.” He goes to call her on the pay phone.
Wes is so blitzed he can barely hold up his bobbing head. His eyes are slits in his wrinkled face; his back is hunched over. He looks 41 going on 60. To make conversation, I ask about his tattoos, homemade jobs featuring the usual assortment: 13 (years of bad luck), roses and snakes, “l-o-v-e” and “h-a-t-e” on the knuckles of his hands. “I want to show you another thing—look what I got on my damn head,” he brags, pulling off his cap and holding back his scraggly hair. In the center of his filthy, sunburned, forehead is a scrawled cross: “You know why I got that?” he rasps, then pauses to answer his own question, racking his brain for his ready-made mantra. “I’m…I-I’m the Good Lord’s son,” he says. “I’ve been hit by three motherfuckin’ cars and I ain’t dead yet.”
Andrew comes back into the room: “She wants me home right now,” he announces glumly. “She don’t believe what I’m doing—she thinks I’m with a woman.” Then he brightens up—he’s thought of a way out of his curfew. “Take me home, man, and we can drink some beer and show her I’m not lying. Let me carry my butt home, pleeease.”
He says he lives nearby, so the car ride is no big deal, but I’m anxious about the cops that have been patroling the parking lot all night long. “You ain’t gotta worry about that—I know all the police in this area—they won’t bother you.”
We pile into the car and turn out onto the highway; a cop cruiser slowly follows our every move. I remember a burned-out headlight I haven’t gotten around to replacing. “Keep on driving—ain’t nothing wrong,” says Andrew. “Don’t you worry about that.” By the time we’ve gone the three miles to his apartment complex, three different cruisers have kept tabs on our journey, but none has put on the flashers. They’ve apparently got other fish to fry back on U.S. 1.
Inside the apartment, it seems like nobody’s home. The place is cozily furnished, almost oppressively so—like an arts and crafts booth in a flea market, with stuffed animals and dolls smiling every which way from bookshelves. Letterman sneers from the TV set. I spot smoke wafting from somewhere near the couch, and realize there’s a woman swaddled in blankets, camouflaging a bloated body stuffed into a wheelchair that’s way too small. Now that I see her massive form, it’s hard to believe I missed her at first: She’s glaring right at us, like some monstrous, swollen bedbug, a leg and arm in casts, bruises and sores on her exposed, sickly-pale flesh.
My mouth is really dry, but I don’t imagine I will be offered a beer anytime soon.
The woman jabs a pudgy finger at the clock on the wall, then at a docile Andrew, whose head is bowed in shame. “It’s past midnight,” she barks. “I told you to be home early.” Her voice is chilling. Cowed and momentarily speechless, Andrew springs across the shag carpet and kisses her on the check. “Oh, come on, doll baby.” She’ll have none of his sweet talk. “If we’re going to live together, then you’re going to be here with me, and that’s the way it’s going to be. Understand?” She stubs out her cigarette in a tiny ashtray in her palm. Andrew’s night out is officially over, but he gives it one last shot. “I just brought home some friends for you to meet.” She nods coldly in our direction, and turns to the TV as we take our leave.
Driving Wes home, I ask about the bruises and casts on the woman’s body. “Somebody beat her up,” he says matter-of-factly. Before I can ask who, Wes goes into a rant: “That motherfucking bastard wanted to rob you back there at the motel, but I talked him out of it. I saved your ass.”
We pull into a driveway of a small house. Wes explains that he rents the trailer in the back yard. Inside the house, there’s shouting and banging and the sound of breaking glass: “Goddamn it, they’re out at it again—I wanted to get me a bath tonight. I’ve got to be at work at 5 a.m.”
Back at the motel, it proves a night of fitful sleep; every hour or so, somebody bangs on all the doors. The screeching cicadas sound like they’ve had enough of the woods and are trying to get inside. But it’s not the motel room that’s really bothering me: I keep thinking about the woman in the wheelchair. I’m haunted by the image of her finger rising from the mass of bruised flesh and bandages and pointing toward the clock.
The best symbolic approach to Virginia is a southward journey from the bridge that joins the Lincoln Memorial with Arlington. When the traveler turns his back on Washington and sees before him the portico of General Lee’s mansion, the wheels of the motorcar may turn as rapidly as before, but life itself has a different tempo. It is neither the nervous accelerando of the East nor the common time of the Deep South. Life is more leisured without being essentially indolent. Human relations are somewhat more intimate. Tempered by the reserve of a certain personal dignity, friendliness prevails.
—Douglas Southall Freeman, The Spirit of Virginia, 1940
Cruising down the highway, I spot a small cinder-block building about midway between the Krispy Kreme and the Hillbilly Heaven. At least half of the crumbling edifice appears to be an old auto-repair shop, long shut down. But one end has been spruced up with an aqua-green paint job, marked by a wooden sign: “Jim’s Country Club: Good Beer Good Friends” and a pair of hand-drawn horseshoes. Though it too seems closed, there are a couple of cars in the sliver of a gravel parking lot next to U.S. 1. I pull off the highway and head inside.
It’s barely noon, so there are only a few customers. Some old guys in jeans and suspenders nurse mugs of beer that have long since lost their heads of foam. In front of them are some appetizers: microwaved popcorn served in coffee filters. They’re discussing in great detail recent memorable meals they’ve had at the all-you-can-eat-buffet places that line the highway. I take a seat at the bar and get a bottle. The man to my right sips his beer in ceremonial silence, as if he’s taking Holy Communion.
I look around the low-lit place. Above the bar is a poster with the American flag and the motto, “These colors never run.” Over in the garage area, through a door, are some pool tables, and in the corner sits a low stage with a gargantuan pair of black underwear pinned to the wall above, emblazoned with the motto, “The Fun Starts Here,” an arrow pointing at the crotch. As if in counterpoint, an underinflated Bud Light balloon guitar hangs from the ceiling, its neck distressingly limp.
At a long table near the dartboard, a man sits alone. He’s laid-back to the point where he seems he might slide off his chair. He’s got graying, unruly hair combed back and a bushy mustache over a leathery face. His rumpled three-piece suit fits so snug on his lanky frame that it looks like he must have slept in the damn thing, as if he got dressed up for a recent funeral and never bothered to change. His worn cowboy boots add an odd punctuation mark to the formal suit. Though there’s barely enough light to see in here, he’s wearing a pair of reflector sunglasses. Occasionally he takes a swig from a can of Milwaukee’s Best Ice, followed by a deep drag from an unfiltered cigarette. Once in a while, he chuckles to himself.
Instantly I’m impressed, especially by his interior deployment of the shades. He reminds me of the Warren Oates character in Sam Peckinpah’s film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the doomed gringo lounge singer hiding out in the seedy cabanas of Mexico. I walk over, sit down at his table, and ask him about the Dixie Pig. He shakes his head sadly and sighs. “It really hurt my feelings when they tore down the Pig. I mean, that really hurt. Now there’s no congenial, decent place where you can go and shoot the shit without having to change out of your work clothes. Now there’s nothing left on the highway, ’cept Jim’s. It’s all gone; it’s all history.”
He says his name is William Josefbeau Jones, but everybody calls him Beau (“B.O. stands for body odor,” he explains. “My name is ‘Beau’”). He grew up in the Del Ray section of Alexandria in the ’40s and says he’s a full-blooded Iroquois Indian. To prove it, he pulls out a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket: It’s a hand-written list of reservations in Virginia and New York where he could go live—if he wanted to. He doesn’t, though—he says they’re nothing but old folks’ homes, and what would he do there? No, he’d rather live out on the highway, free.
A few years ago, he had a home, a family, a couple of cars. He had worked as an iron worker, a cabdriver, an accordionist in a local polka band called Duke and his Gut-Bucket, a museum exhibit designer (“We hung the ‘Spirit of St. Louis’ display at the Air and Space Museum,” he says proudly), and a clown, among countless occupations. He’s been married four times, and now he’s in some squabble with his most recent ex-wife. A judge has ordered him away from his trailer until October. Until then, his ex will be staying right there and Beau…well, Beau will be staying in a perfectly lovely boarded-up, deserted house behind Jim’s, a stucco shack choked with honeysuckle and weeds that he cheerfully dubs his “abandominium.” The squalid situation suits him fine, he asserts, even if there’s no electricity or running water—he washes up in the bathroom at Jim’s. As for money, he works odd jobs—bricklaying and light construction work along with custodial chores at the local Lion’s Club. The whole sad story is delivered with such a good-natured, fuck-it shrug that it’s almost easy to forget that Beau’s seriously down and out—and steadily drinking himself to death.
In fact, he’s not supposed to be drinking beer at all, or so he says; he suffers from epilepsy and an oxygen-thin-blood disorder; some quack told him that too much carbonation could kill him, which makes it just fine to drink straight scotch or bourbon. Nevertheless, we order a couple more beers and settle in for a long afternoon.
A burly man strides in from the kitchen and sits down at a nearby table. He begins wolfing down a burger as big as a hubcap, listening to our conversation about the highway and the death of the Dixie Pig.
“This is the last redneck bar on the highway,” announces the man through a mouthful of meat. Beau mumbles to me that this is Jim, the owner of the joint.
“A few years ago, there was nothing but redneck bars up and down the highway, from here to Alexandria,” adds Jim, polishing off an entire iced tea in one swig. Suddenly the place is buzzing, as everyone begins calling out the long-gone but never-to-be-forgotten watering holes of the old Richmond Highway:
“Remember Victor’s Tavern?”
“How ’bout the Nightingale?”
“Don’t forget the White Owl.”
“The Old Diplomat.”
“The Rebel Inn.”
“The Honey Bee.”
“The Log Cabin.”
“The Round House.”
The strip clubs get their due as well:
“The 1320 Club.”
All gone. Every last one.
Except Jim’s. Way back when, it was a beauty parlor and auto-repair garage called Little Detroit. Then a bar called R&R replaced the beauty parlor. Then it became Plaza, then Plaza II. Then Little Detroit closed down, and a couple of years ago, Jim—a former bouncer—bought the place and christened it Jim’s Country Club. His bar may well outlast all its predecessors; the property is developer-proof because the ground is contaminated by oil and the carcasses of rotting cars.
“All these tables and chairs and tablecloths in here came from the Dixie Pig,” adds Jim. “I bought ’em before they tore the place down.”
“That pissed me off when they tore down the Pig,” grouses a customer.
“Who cares?” says the barmaid, tired of hearing all these trips down Memory Lane. “Why do you worry about things like that? It’s called progress.”
“It’s called bullshit,” says the man. “My daddy used to take me there, and they used to have real good food.”
“The food sucked,” snaps the barmaid.
The bar begins to fill up now, as happy hour beckons. Jim greets the incoming customers. Construction workers, biker chicks, more old men—it’s a motley crew of regulars. Most of them take their drinks standing.
A woman in a Brooks & Dunn jacket and a Dale Earnhart T-shirt strolls past Beau, blowing him a mock kiss.
“Hello, demon,” drawls Beau. “How are you today?”
“I’m gonna wiggle my nose and turn you into a pile of shit,” she says, smiling.
“Damn, you don’t look a thing like ’Lizabeth Montgomery,” he observes.
“No, I’m a bad witch.”
“I thought they burned all you demon witches up in Salem.”
She drifts on into the bar, but then a whole other story comes through the door. This one struts in like some miniature Mae West: a tight tank top, even tighter spandex shorts, a piss stain spread on the crotch. A short, stocky creature—sort of a redneck Joan Jett on steroids—she’s by no means pretty. More sheer muscle than soft curves, she’s a grown-up tomboy in heat—it’s clear that she can whip anybody’s ass here, and has before. In seconds, she’s taken over the place. She heads to the jukebox, applying lipstick from her pocketbook (using the juke’s window for a mirror) while selecting songs, and then demands a beer.
“That’s Thea,” says Beau. “A crazier female there never was. Now she’s been up and down the highway.”
After grabbing the beer and draining half the bottle in one long swallow, she heads straight for Beau and dry humps him while he sits there. George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” blares from the jukebox. Beau simply surrenders to the show, pretending nothing’s going on; he tells Thea I’m trying to do a newspaper write up about the history of U.S. 1. She wheels around bansheelike, her blood-red lips inches from my face.
“Kiss my goddamn motherfucking ass!” she shouts. Her foghorn-deep, cigs-and-storms-ravaged voice is unlike any human sound I’ve ever heard. It makes Courtney Love’s howl seems as demure as a Jackie O’s purr.
“This is the highway to hell. If you want to know about the highway, you gotta get out there and learn it—sleep in the street, sleep in the ditch, sleep in the woods when it’s cold—and you’re gonna need one of these fuckers.” She reaches in her purse and throws a condom at me. It’s a ribbed gold Trojan.
She rails on. “I want to say one goddamn thing—you know what the whole problem is with Route 1 highway? The cops are dirtier than the crooks….I got hit by a car. You think I got paid? Fuck no.”
Thea finishes her beer and rushes to confront a bystander who’s been laughing at her outburst. He’s a construction worker, and she’s half his size, but she starts in on him anyway, shoving against his barrel chest. He doesn’t do a thing, which just stokes her anger. “Take it like a man,” she taunts repeatedly. Finally she gives up and returns to give me some more grief. “You can’t figure out Richmond Highway. I don’t give a fuck. If you ain’t born and raised here, ain’t no goddamn way you can figure it out.”
She looks like she’s getting ready to tear my face off, but her head pivots when a jewelry vendor comes in off the highway. Thea’s face brightens like a little girl’s at Christmas: “What are you selling—can I see?”
“I got silver and fake gold,” the salesman says.
“That don’t matter. Is it gonna turn green?” asks Thea, trying on a ring. Then she sees a prettier one and grabs it.
“No, no, one at a time,” barks the vendor. “Let me have the rings back.”
“I’m not gonna rip you off,” shrieks Thea. “There are a lot of rip-offs on Route 1, but not me.”
Exasperated, the salesman retrieves his merchandise, shuts his case, and hustles out the door.
“Heaven don’t want you,” sighs Thea. “Hell is afraid they’ll take me.”
Calm now, as if her earlier outbursts were nothing more than a lark, a mellowed Thea joins us at our table. We share some fries, but Beau’s not eating right now; sometimes food just doesn’t agree with him. Thea says she’s really just a country girl, originally from down in Lynchburg, Va., a feminist Jezebel who fled Jerry Falwell Country. After a good hour or so, with little action (except for a brief—and victorious—scuffle with a woman who looked to be invading her turf) and no prospective customers, Thea declares Jim’s a dump and calls a cab; she’s headed down to Paradise Cafe near Fort Belvoir, a few miles down U.S. 1.
After Thea leaves, Beau rates her quite highly; he says underneath the harsh façade is a peach of a girl. “She’s crazy as hell, but she’s tough, ain’t she?” He admires her for being what he’s not. He knows he’s a pushover, a softie who lets life stomp all over him. “I’m skinny, ugly, and old,” he says without self-pity. Then he blows it. “I’m just a dumb-ass Indian. My life is not significant.”
I tell Beau he’s full of shit. We head out to a wrestling match across the highway at a basement bar called the Secret Cove. Along with the occasional boxing bout, wrestling is the last form of live entertainment left on the highway. Beau’s back on track by the time we’re on U.S. 1 again: “You got more cars out here than Carter’s got little liver pills,” he says, surveying the traffic.
From his Kingsport nonfiltered cigarettes to his archaic sayings (“Dag blast it,” remains his favorite cuss word), Beau is a guide not only to the highway but to some long-lost America that never made the mainstream. As we drive, he ruminates on everything from food (“The only things I won’t eat are peanut soup and deviled ham”) to music (“Milton Berle was the original King of Rap back in ’39, I don’t care what anybody says”). He can talk for an hour about the importance of finding the right pair of boots: “My boots are older than homemade sin….I like a western boot—I like a pointed toe. Very few people really know how a good boot feels; very few people know how a good boot fits.”
For Beau, U.S. 1 has been the road from the beginning to the end of the world. He used to roll up and down these lanes in a nice car with a woman by his side. Now he’s one of those people you see walking along the highway at 5 a.m. going who knows where, and damn if it isn’t fine with him. If he gets tired, he can always use his Metrobus card and take the bus. It isn’t a bad life, he insists. The highway’s been a good mistress. She’s always been there, and she’ll never leave him. Besides, he figures, what else would he be doing—rotting on some Indian reservation?
We grab some more drinks at Andreas’, a Greek joint that’s been on the highway for three decades. Then we take a ride through Harmony Place Trailer Park, where Beau points out his occupied mobile home. “I’ll be back in October,” he vows, looking at the light on inside the creekside trailer. “I still love her.” We hit some of the wrestling match (Jimmy “The Wise Guy” Cicero and Sheik Ali Amin in a vicious tag-team grudge match) and I drop Beau off at Jim’s.
I decide to lay over at the Mt. Vee Motel, about four miles up the highway. Cops are swarming again, nabbing DWIs, but I make it to the entrance (“Come In And Compare” beckons the glowing sign) and head up the gravel driveway to the eerie relic. Of all the survivors, Mt. Vee is the most vivid echo of the past. Built in the ’40s, it’s set back a half-mile from the road, looming like some antebellum mansion across a grassy field framed with old cedars. It is surrounded by detached Greek Revival cottages with columned porches. The two-story main house, a knockoff of Mount Vernon, was once a meeting place for the KKK; a local radio station once broadcast from there.
I pull up to the house where the main office is. On the walls hang framed photos of the motel’s glory days, when visitors took horse-drawn-carriage rides from here to George Washington’s estate a mile through the woods. The night clerk, a bear of a man named Francis (that’s what it says on the sweat-stained work shirt from his day job with Arlington County Parks) doesn’t buy my “Jeff Davis” alias; he’s been here all his life and knows the highway. He asks for an ID card and Social Security number, he explains, because the place has been robbed before.
Like the Southern Motel, Mt. Vee is strictly a halfway house for locals now. Francis says the few outsiders who stay here—besides the occasional German and British tourists—are pro wrestlers after bouts at the Secret Cove, which sports the Dixie Pig’s old bar in its ring room. “We had Bam Bam Bigelow in here the other night,” says Francis. “But usually it’s just couples from around here who want a little privacy.” When I comment that the $45-a-night rate seems a little steep, Francis says the price merely reflects the high quality of the rooms. “We keep ’em nicer than anyone on the highway.”
On the sprawling lawn outside, where the pool used to be, sits a giant satellite dish, the only evidence that computer-age technology has come to Mt. Vee. My green-roofed white cottage is dwarfed by two tall cedars, the sort of trees you see in old rural cemeteries. In the darkness, with only the damnable cicadas droning, the stark building reminds me of the tiny farmhouse where Stonewall Jackson died below Fredericksburg. Shot mistakenly by his own men, the Confederate general’s last words were, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” Nowadays, the main thing that locals worry about is crossing U.S. 1 without getting killed.
As I step up onto the portico, a daddy longlegs scurries up the column. Who knows when the last person stayed here? The paint is cracking on the outside; white chips litter the ground like flower petals. Inside, the room’s not bad at all—cozy as can be, except that the patterns of the drapes, rug, and bedspreads merge in a riot of vomit-mauve. I flick on the light and open the drawer of the night table to see if there’s a Gideon’s Bible. Instead, a lone cockroach scuttles across a pair of teardrop-shaped fake-glass earrings.
Lying on the bed with my clothes on and my head buzzing, sleep seems farfetched, so I decide to head out and help close down Jim’s for the night.
Beau’s in the same chair where I left him a few hours ago—same exact posture, in fact—but the bar is packed now, and a tired country band’s cranking out Randy Travis songs beneath the underwear banner. I take a seat and watch old men pound on Ms. Pac-Man video games while the youngsters play pool and dance.
At one point a woman bursts in the door—right past the bouncer, a grizzled former boxing champ. She hurries over to Beau, whispers something, and then leaves abruptly. Beau cautiously approaches the woman’s obviously tanked husband, and after first pleading with him, grabs him around the neck and escorts him outside. Beau returns several minutes later, looking devastated. “I hate to have to do that, but he wouldn’t go with her,” Beau says, genuinely sorry. “I had to shove him in the car, and I didn’t like to do that, but I had to.”
I’m getting drunk on an empty stomach trying to keep up with Beau, and soon I’m smashed. A trio of Wynonna look-alikes get up to line dance to some boogie number, but by now all I can see is a blurred vision of dancing pigs.
A half-hour later, Beau is falling asleep in his chair, cigarette butt burning down to his fingers. He wakes up long enough to offer to let me crash at the abandominium; I nap in my car. Sometime around 2 a.m. I hear him stumble by, unlock the latch on his fence, and disappear into the darkness of his deserted cottage.
Went up to Alexandria to a barbicue. Back in three nights—entry in the diary of George Washington, 1769
I love barbecue, especially North Carolina barbecue. All good Virginia barbecue is really just North Carolina–style barbecue smuggled across the state line, which means slow-cooked pork and vinegar. But you can get in a thousand arguments about what is authentic Carolina barbecue. The barbecue that made the Dixie Pig famous came from a recipe belonging to Emma Griffin Robinson, who migrated to Alexandria from North Carolina in the 1920s.
By the mid-’80s, the Griffins had sold the place, and the food at the Dixie Pig was never the same, particularly the once-hallowed pork barbecue. “Indeed, it is a sad thing: crumbly, dry, and tasteless,” wrote Robert Hull in a 1989 essay on the restaurant, “White Light/Dark Meat.” “Not even the dark brown sauce in the plastic containers can give life to the dead meat.” What most interested Hull about the place—besides its intensely Southern-fried ambience and the gluttonous appetites of its customers—wasn’t the disgraced menu but the infamous sign: “Trapped in white light, a brown pig dances above the neon, his face fixed in a look of astonishment, as if he cannot believe he has been deposited here amidst the entanglement of traffic patterns.”
A Memphis native transplant to Virginia, Hull was hinting at the same half-crazed aesthetic that had hooked me for years—that the dancing pig sign is nothing less than an icon of the Lost South in Northern Virginia. Maybe I’m not nuts.
I have long been a connoisseur of barbecue signs, not merely as an advertising medium but as an art form. I have seen hundreds of different barbecue signs from Virginia to Georgia, and chronicled many of them with amateurish photos. I’ve seen pigs doing all sorts of things on barbecue signs: standing, hunching on all fours, kissing, leaping, cavorting, laughing, running, lounging, even playing musical instruments. At Sike’s in South Carolina, the pig strolls in a top hat, tuxedo, and cane; at Bill’s Barbecue in Richmond, a pair of pigs in suits and bow ties gleefully cook one of their own, holding forks and waving ecstatically.
But no pig struck me as profoundly as the one that graced the neon sign on Beacon Hill. What impressed me most was that this pig wasn’t garbed in some gimmicky costume, but was completely au naturel in its Feifferesque dance of life.
I’m telling all this to Beau as we barrel down Richmond Highway the next day. He listens patiently, then mentions off-handedly that the sign I’m obsessed with wasn’t even the original. “Now that was a beauty,” he says. “What you had was actually three pigs up there to make the dance.” He described a sort of continuous electric-slide routine: As the neon light flickered through the tubes, the succession of images looked like one pig dancing across the sign—and across the horizon itself. In other words, a sort of cinematic ballet version of my dull, stationary pig, frozen in a mere pose.
“That sign got destroyed in a hurricane back in the early ’70s, I believe,” says Beau. “The one you’re talking about is only the most recent.” (He adds that what he misses most about the Pig isn’t the sign but the friendly atmosphere—that and playing the Virginia Lottery, getting a scotch on the rocks for $1.25, generously poured, of course, not to mention the $4.95 turkey dinner.)
Damn. So I’ve been worshiping a secondhand castoff, a pale pink-and-blue imitation of the real thing. It’s clear that Beau has forgotten more about Richmond Highway than I will ever learn.
We’re off to the Elks Club, where Beau knows a man who used to tend bar at the Dixie Pig. I’m off the whole sign deal now, but Beau is on a mission. The Alexandria Elks Club is hidden in a former Steak and Ale building next to the abandoned Wagon Wheel Motel on U.S. 1. We ring the bell, wait for a while, and finally someone comes to the bolted door, demanding to know who we are and what our business is. At the Elks, you have to get a member to let you in. Finally, after relaying cryptic messages, the powers that be give us the OK.
Around an oval bar, the Elks imbibe from personal stashes, hooch bottles that have members’ names marked on masking tape. It’s the closest you can get to drinking in your own house away from home. Still, it’s morose as hell—mostly well-to-do retired men here to get away from their wives and pretend that being an Elk means something besides a cheap cocktail. Beau’s buddy, a friendly white-haired man (coiffure-echoes of the dead possum again) tells me that he worked at the Pig—until some fancy cook ruined the food—but he doesn’t know where the sign is and doesn’t much care. Other Elks grumble that the barbecue was never the same after the Griffin family sold the place.
Beau tries to make conversation, talking about this and that as if he were an equal in this crowd. He’s already toasted, having spent the morning at Jim’s. The Elks barely pay attention to him, and when they do, it’s only to humor him. They force pained smiles at his bad jokes, and mostly just talk around him. They see Beau only as the local drunk, swaying in the rank suit he slept in.
Their condescending behavior infuriates me. What the hell is the difference between them and Beau, except maybe they’ve paid off their mortgages? They’re all spending their days getting drunk. Only these righteous bastards are doing it behind the bolted door of the lodge instead of at a dive called Jim’s.
And then things get worse. As we leave, Beau—ever the naive one—asks how he can become an Elk. Well, hell, all you need to have is a sponsor, they explain good-naturedly. And then, silence. Nobody—not even his ‘friend’ from the Dixie Pig—raises a peep to say they’ll sponsor him. Beau cheerfully takes an application anyway and says thanks.
Outside the door of the lodge, Beau is as mad as I’ve ever seen him. “They don’t want me in the Elks ’cause I’m a stupid Indian,” he seethes.
That may be part of it, I think, but they mostly shun Beau because he’s a homeless drunk, plain and simple. Being an Elk has to mean something, and in this case it means you are not an alcoholic with nowhere to go.
Disgusted with everything, I drive back down the highway and drop Beau off at Jim’s. Then I head north, and U.S. 1 has never looked as truly ugly as it does now—a hideous, Godforsaken sprawl of broken businesses, broken people, and broken dreams.
No wonder everybody takes the interstate.
Everybody eats at the Dixie Pig in Alexandria—motto on the place mats, napkins, and carryout bags of the now-defunct Dixie Pig barbecue restaurant
A week later, I’m back on Richmond Highway. At the bombed-out site of the Pig, I visit a decrepit brick building—spitting distance from the chain-link fence—that houses a cleaners, a Salvadoran travel agency, and a realty company. I’ve heard that the realtors were longtime Pig patrons, and have even installed a booth salvaged from the restaurant in their office.
From their ugly but beloved faded yellow booth, Jim Coffey and Brother Trice look through their office window at the desolation. Both men ate—or at least, drank coffee—at the restaurant almost daily for a half-century. Trice worked there as a boy, scrubbing floors. “Many a business deal was cut over there,” says Coffey. “They could have saved the Pig,” says Trice, “but they didn’t want to.”
Both men blame the last owner’s greed for the restaurant’s demise. They say he let the business go under so he could sell the high-priced property for a profit. As for the sign, they casually mention that the man’s son is holding it hostage right here off the highway. They give me his phone number, just like that.
Later that afternoon, I meet Ron Elliott Jr. in the parking lot across from the former site of the Dixie Pig. He’s a polite man with a trim beard and a beeper on his belt. I follow him in his purple Ford pickup to his modest house less than a mile from the highway. He casually mentions that I’m hardly the first seeker of the pig. Last year, a British reggae band filmed a video featuring the pig, and a stream of tourists used it as a backdrop for their snapshots. We head around the house, and there, in the back yard under a blue tarp, rests the dancing pig.
“People just didn’t support the restaurant,” explains Elliott, who worked round-the-clock as manager during the last, dismal years. “It’s as simple as that. They’d come in and drink a whole pot of coffee and wouldn’t buy any food. You can’t survive with regulars like that,” he says, grimacing at the pig as if it too might be to blame. (Locals still castigate Elliott; one recently accosted him with, “So, what have you been doing since you killed the pig?”)
Elliott says he’s asking a mere $2,000 for the sign, claiming it’s a bargain for a one-of-a-kind collectible. So far, every time he’s quoted someone that price, they’ve laughed in his face. I like the sign, but it’s not $2,000 worth of like. Looking down at the once-glorious sign, I get an uneasy sensation. Not only is the pig no longer dancing, its up-raised foreleg seems to be waving goodbye.
On a slow ride home down the highway, I throw a dirty look over at the Elks Lodge’s packed parking lot and then suddenly notice some movement in the gully next to the supposedly abandoned Wagon Wheel Motel—people crawling into a side window.
I pull into the lodge to investigate and follow a footpath down to the gutted ruins, a U-shape of one-story rooms. Outside the window, a man sits on a bucket, gulping a quart of malt liquor. He’s prematurely bald, with a grizzled, sunburned face. I ask him if he lives here. For about a year, he answers. Then he gestures back into the gaping window: “A bunch of us.” A rustling inside reveals about a half-dozen refugees in the room, arguing among themselves and tumbling around on the trash-strewn floor.
An iron worker in the late-’80s construction boom, the man had stayed here at the Wagon Wheel as a paying customer. Then he had an on-the-job accident, and finally he was hit by a car on U.S. 1, and that ended his working days. Now he begs for money at intersections, sometimes as far north as the Wilson Bridge. He’s worried because he’s heard about plans to demolish the Wagon Wheel in the next month or so. He and his cohorts have got to look for a new place.
Then a pretty but worn-out face pops up in the empty window frame. “What do you want?” asks the woman—maybe 30—in a tired, languid manner. I tell her I’ve been down on the highway doing a story about the end of the Dixie Pig.
“I waitressed there for years,” she says. “It was a dollar house—you know, it’s all regulars and you get a dollar tip at every table—and I couldn’t live on that.” She finally quit one Sunday, after an eight-hour shift yielded just three dollars. How’d she end up out here? “I was living with my mother in Nightingale Trailer park, and our trailer burned down.”
Her face strikes me as familiar; maybe one day like this one a few years ago I ordered a minced-pork sandwich and fries at the Dixie Pig and left this woman a dollar tip.
Interrupting my little reverie, a female voice from behind her in the darkness sneers, “I fucked the goddamn Dixie Pig and made her squeal!”
The former waitress giggles at her friend’s joke, a hearty laugh that descends into a nasty coughing fit. Then she gets serious again. “Sometimes I miss it,” she says. “It was a real landmark—it’d been there forever. It really hurt my feelings when they tore it down.” Then, without a trace of remorse, she adds that she and her companions had been preparing to raid the building for copper, but the demolition crews beat them to it.
She disappears back into the room, pitch black even in the afternoon. Raucous howls of laughter erupt from inside. “The Dixie Pig! I made that pig squeal!” Then come the sounds of heavy petting, or groping.
Then another woman—the one who fucked the Dixie Pig—springs up at the window, to let me know the fun’s over. “Now get the fuck out of here,” she hisses, gripping a chain.
I’ve got one more place to visit before I leave Richmond Highway for good. When I step inside Jim’s Country Club, I look around, but Beau’s not there. I hang around awhile, down a few depressing beers, and get ready to leave. Just then, Beau saunters in—he looks like hell. He’s wearing the same suit he was in last week, but he seems even more rail-thin than ever. His hair is matted and his face sweaty; he plops down in a chair and says he just returned from the hospital. The other evening he had a seizure. Then they had to do blood tests, but he’s OK for now.
Trying to take his mind off his health problems, I tell him I found the sign.
“Hell, I knew it was over there—I just couldn’t remember the guy’s name,” he laughs. “You know, that old C.R.S. again—Can’t Remember Shit.”
“Let’s go for a ride,” I say.
Now we’re driving along the lost highway once again, looking for another happy hour, and Beau starts telling me about the time he nearly got into a fistfight with Earl Dixon down at Hillbilly Heaven. U.S. 1 stretches out before us in the dying daylight.
I listen to Beau and keep driving.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.