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8 May 2024updated 13 May 2024 11:21am

Our US road trip seemed cursed. Then we met the flatfoot dancers

With fog and rain ruining the mountain scenery, we desperately needed something to look forward to.

By Pippa Bailey

Of all the things I imagined might go wrong during our US road trip – tussles with the car-hire company over scratches, overbooked hotels, major arguments – it never occurred to me that the weather might fail us. The day we picked up the car in Nashville to begin our drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, there was a total solar eclipse. The previous night we had met a young law student from New York who was driving the three hours to Kentucky to watch it. I hope his view was better than ours. At the time of the eclipse’s peak, as we made our way on to the interstate, it was so cloudy that all was obscured.

We awoke the next day in our motel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee – a lot of pine, a lot of black bear-based decor – to feast on fried cinnamon rolls bigger than our heads, and then we started our drive through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We soon learned where it gets its name. Tendrils of cloud encroached on the pine-covered mountains as we zig-zagged through its peaks and passes. To our great disappointment, we didn’t see any black bears – though the Smoky Mountains are home to at least 1,500 of them – but we did see elk, and wild turkeys, and a lot of logs we optimistically imagined were bears.

By day two, after a few miserable hours of being unable to see two metres in front of the car, let alone the astonishing views we knew surrounded us, we left the Parkway for a lower – still scenic and, crucially, visible – mountain road. By day three, we were helping the driver of a four-by-four in front clear a tree that had fallen across the Parkway, and having a cry in a layby. When we reached our next motel, I sat with my head in my hands in the car while M— braved the rain to check in, and thought: we can’t go on if it’s like this tomorrow.

After an unexpectedly wonderful dinner of grits and hickory-smoked trout (it turns out the town of Blowing Rock’s most notable restaurant, the Speckled Trout, only serves trout), we drew up a plan for the next day. If the fog and rain were to continue, we needed something to look forward to. I spotted in our guidebook an entry for the Floyd Country Store’s Friday Night Jamboree. Wasn’t tomorrow Friday? Within an hour we had cancelled our planned budget Best Western and booked an Airbnb in Floyd, Virginia, a town of around 400 inhabitants and with just the one set of traffic lights.

Fittingly, that night it blew a gale in Blowing Rock. The next morning the skies were clear and blue. We skipped for joy and relief around the rock formation for which the town was named, and then began our drive to Floyd. I am profoundly grateful, now, for the fog, because it was to be our favourite stop on the entire trip. We have since (only half) joked about moving there, or else naming our first child after it – first name, Floyd; middle name, Virginia.

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The Floyd Country Store, with its quaint, white awning-covered frontage, hosts a shop, café, live music nights, a bluegrass school for the town’s youth, and a lot of people wearing dungarees without irony. During the first hour of the Jamboree, which was set aside for gospel, the local pastor sang about living for Jesus, and I found myself moved. Then a fiddle player took centre stage, struck up a rhythm, and the dance floor filled with locals (estimated age range: five to 85) doing their singular Appalachian flatfoot dancing. As I snuck from my seat to capture it on film, an onlooker said to me: “You’re not allowed to leave without having a go!”

“I can’t do that,” I replied, “I’m English!”

We did, in the end; how could we not? While the pros make flatfooting look quite difficult, the good news for us is that it’s possible to do a passable imitation: keeping our arms close to our sides, we shuffle and jig about, striking our feet percussively against the floorboards. As we collapsed into our seats afterwards, sweating and laughing, a voice called: “Hey English! I got a video!”

I haven’t yet brought myself to watch that footage back. Our night in Floyd will live forever, wonderfully, in my mind, where the infelicities that led to it can fade with the years. As, perhaps, they should.

[See also: I have a gift for hangovers and doing an impression of a helicopter]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll