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What Happens at the Star . . .

John Robinson
John Robinson

I don’t know about you, but I am amazed that the city leaders could agree on it. But there it is, standing atop Roanoke’s Mill Mountain: the largest man-made star in the world. Built of steel and draped with neon, the 100-foot-tall star is anchored in 250 tons of concrete. Erected in 1949, the star celebrated the ascent of the “Magic City” as the region’s leader in business and culture, and in general epitomized the optimism of post-World-War II America.

Today, sixty years later, the star is something of an oddity, that’s for sure, but we Roanokers love it and the park in which it resides. Mill Mountain Park, at over 600 acres, is one of the largest city parks in the country and arguably one of the most unique as well. Besides the zoo, Discovery Center, and picnic and play areas, the park contains over 20 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and running.

Living and working in the shadow of the mountain, I am a frequent visitor of the park. I find myself at the overlook beneath the star several times a week. And if you stand there long enough, you’ll see just about anything and everything.

Often there are young lovers there, draped around each other like the Zit’s comic characters, the view from the star briefly distracting them from love. Formerly, such starry-eyed couples were some of the main culprits in producing the graffiti found scrawled at the overlook. One might see something like, “Mike loves Jane Forever Plus More,” sentiments certainly valid for at least the afternoon. I say formerly, because you just don’t see as much graffiti at the star as you did a few years ago. I guess, for one thing, the city does such an excellent job at cleaning it up. The addition of the webcam at the star overlook has no doubt had somewhat of a mischief-prevention effect and has also created another dimension of interest. Visitors are entertained by the thought of their friends and relatives looking at them on their computer screens. The uninitiated, arriving at the star, may wonder what in the world that family of five is doing waving madly at the steel structure above.

“Stru-ange place dis Rewnoke . . .”

On warm weather weekend nights the place comes alive, with all kinds of people of all ages and from all walks of life. It’s festive – a real party atmosphere at times. High School Prom season brings a parade of somewhat awkward, flower-bedecked dates to the star. One night I saw a long white limo drive up. Doors flung open and a bevy of middle-aged women emerged from it and stormed the overlook. One laughed and said, “look out, here come the menopause mamas.” One in their midst was turning fifty, and the star was a key point on the birthday tour.

I enjoy talking to the folks from out-of-town visiting the star. They may have strayed from the Blue Ridge Parkway, or might be in Roanoke on business. They are always charmed by both the star and the view. Recently, I met a nice couple decked out in cowboy hats and boots, from Texas, I had assumed. But no, they were from South Carolina, but they did recently visit Texas and were still “in theme.” The star garners people from further afield, of course. Not long ago I overheard two foreign languages being spoken at the star, and that doesn’t include the odd variations of our mother tongue which are ever present at such a place.

Some early mornings I ride my bike or walk or jog up to the star. Sunday mornings I often encounter, not only signs of reverie from the night before, but a group of older gentlemen who meet at the overlook for prayer. I quietly move amidst them and lean on the railing, gazing over the new day in the valley. The men’s voices rise and fall as they take turns leading the others in thoughtful prayer. They voice concerns, pray for strength and forgiveness, and give thanks.

And as I turn my back on the men and the star and begin my descent of the mountain, I add my prayers of thanks for this beautiful mountain and others like it, and this colorful valley under the watchful gaze of the big man-made star.

By John Robinson
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