The Man in the Gift Shop


Aug. 9, 2013: One of the many people Linda and I encountered on the Blue Ridge Parkway was the clerk at the gift shop at the Peaks of Otter Lodge .

We were northbound homeward and Linda wanted to stop in and look around so we did. It was empty of customers, except for one or two others who’d drifted in. The guy behind the shop counter broke the ice by saying to me, “I can’t keep my eyes off your jacket. What are all those patches?”

I gave him a brief explanation and told him where we were from and what we were doing. His name, according to his shirt tag, was Walter. He was from the Peaks of Otter region originally, but had moved away years before. He said he’d moved back from Princeton, New Jersey, where he’d been a technical writer.

I told him about our motorcycle rides in Europe, and he said he’d spent some time in Scotland in the 1980s, staying with friends who’d found lodging at a castle some miles from Edinburgh. The owners were able to get some sort of government subsidy by taking in boarders. Walter’s friends, a married couple, were lodgers; the husband was an oil rig worker on the North Sea and the wife, whose name was Sophia, was a teacher. She was always worried that her husband would get hurt in an oil rig accident. (He never did, fortunately.)

“I had tea with the owners, a duke and his wife,” Walter said. “They were always interested in who their boarders were.”

I asked how long he’d been living here and he said, “I moved back here 12 years ago from Princeton when my partner died.”

“Oh, my God,” I said, stunned. “I’m so sorry. What happened?”

“My partner and I discussed it before he died,” Walter said. “We agreed that the best thing for me afterwards would be to go home to be near family. And that’s what I did.”

He said the area was very beautiful and he was able to walk to work but said he was living alone and didn’t go out much. “I’m a hermit these days,” he said.

Other people were starting to come in, but I asked what plans he had, if he’d thought about going back to technical writing, and he said no. He said he was taking his time deciding what to do next.

We ended up buying some apple-strawberry wine, a product of the local winery. It was a small bottle, about the only thing I could fit in Terra Nova’s sidecase. Walter rolled it carefully in bubble wrap, tightened a plastic bag around it and wished us luck. We shook hands.

“Thank you,” I said, and gave him one of my cards. “Send me an e-mail and I’ll let you know if we get it home without breaking it.”

He took the card, but I haven’t yet received an e-mail. I probably won’t. It’s silly, of course, but I’d like to tell him the wine bottle got home safely. I hope he does, too.

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