Traveling is in my blood. I love a good road trip to anywhere and everywhere. And back in 2011, I discovered an amazing B&B in Roanoke, Virginia called The Black Lantern Inn. I found it quite by chance, really, as I scoured the internet for a good get-away-place where I could just be alone. Much was happening in my world at that time, so peace and quiet was exactly what I needed. Luckily, the Inn was barely two years old and hadn’t really caught on yet, so I was able to make a reservation and arrive there on the same day (that became unheard of rather quickly too, as the Inn became more and more popular).
The Inn had three beautifully decorated guest rooms. When I called to make the reservation, I was told that the Skyline room was the best seat in the house, so to speak, so I reserved that one. It became the only room I would ever stay in each time I visited, and saying it was the best one was an understatement because it encompassed the entire third floor of the house and at that time, had its own private dining area. The furniture was from Ikea and the bed was super comfortable. The Black Lantern truly became my home away from home on that first of many visits.
The house was built in the 1920s as a private residence, but years later, fell into disrepair. It was owned by the family of my now-friend Claire; and her longtime friend, Ron Chuman, bought the house in May 2005. Ron was a contractor and he knew he could make the place livable again…and boy oh boy, did he! He moved into the house on one of the lower floors and started rebuilding the roof and attic floor by himself. Mind you, the floor he lived on was covered in plastic and every time it rained, water poured into the house and his little area was the only place that didn’t get wet. He worked furiously to get the roof built, and once it was completed, in his own words, he “was able to take up residence along with two generations of squirrels, a possum, and a few families of birds and mice. The mice weren’t a problem until someone left open a box of sweet rolls. All the foodstuffs had to be contained for that reason for a very long time”. Plumbing and electric were non-existent for quite some time during the renovation process, so he made do with three outlets and a garden hose. He had a compact refrigerator, a microwave, a few lights, and the hose was used for taking outdoor showers when it was warm (no bathtubs here!) as well as for washing dishes. He was one tough guy, Ron Chuman…no doubt about it.
He and Claire, and a friend named David, completely gutted the house. Renovations included moving the main stairwell, taking down ceilings and walls, and removing any trim that could be re-used. HVAC was the only job that was subcontracted out. Sometime in 2008, Claire came up with the idea of turning the house into a bed and breakfast and it officially opened on January 1, 2009. After opening, even more improvements were made by Ron & Claire, from furnishings, to parking lots, to landscaping.
I met Ron on my first visit to the Inn. He came outside to greet me and helped lug all my luggage up to the third floor, and as my friends will tell you, I don’t have any idea what it means to ‘pack light’. Ron, huffing and puffing, carried two large suitcases up several flights of stairs and they were heavy. Yes, I was only staying for the weekend, I told him, but I didn’t know what in the world I might need, ya know?! He laughed at that…robustly! It was in that moment that I knew Ron and I would become friends, and we did. Claire and I met later that evening and she was absolutely precious. I liked her immediately and even today, we still keep in touch. We often spent most of the morning hours chatting over the amazing breakfast she made me. I can still taste those gourmet scrambled eggs (here’s the recipe)if I close my eyes and think about it, because like Ron, she’s an amazing cook.
It wasn’t my first, nor my last visit, to the Black Lantern. In fact, each time I had a big shift in my life, I sought out the Inn as my refuge for what Claire eventually referred to as my sabbatical. Most often, the changes involved a broken heart, and I found sanctuary in that big, beautiful house that Ron and Claire had resurrected from mere bones. I came to refer to the Skyline room as “my room”, which always made Ron laugh; and if it wasn’t available when I wanted to visit, I didn’t go because I couldn’t imagine licking my wounds anywhere else, even though the other two guest rooms were quite nice.
As time went on, Claire’s father became ill, so she wasn’t able to be there as much but she was always close by to help Ron whenever he needed her, and she would come by to visit with me when I was in town. Ron took over the cooking duties. By that time, the private dining area for the Skyline room was used for something else and I started having breakfast in the lounge: a cozy room, with a table for 2, a big screen TV, fireplace, ornate draperies, and antique furniture galore. Ron and I would chat in the main kitchen while he made my breakfast (which was actually brunch because I never woke up before 10 am nor was I ever downstairs before 11!) and sometimes, he let me ‘help’ in the kitchen. I loved how he made the birds a plain pancake (I used to giggle about that) while he cooked gluten-free blueberry pancakes for me. Ron really loved the wildlife that lived at the Inn and took lots of pictures of them. Once breakfast was finished cooking, we would make our way into the lounge, where he introduced me to the show Fawlty Towers. Each morning, we would watch an episode (or three!) while I ate and we laughed like nobody’s business. I came to love that show, and I also came to adore Ron.
Ron touted himself as a curmudgeon. He was from Chicago and had a very dry sense of humor. During one visit, we sat on the second-floor covered porch (he called it the Crow’s Nest), and spent several hours just visiting and catching up on life. He missed Claire, and it showed. He told me funny stories about previous guests and looked incredulous when he told me about a couple who had stayed there the year before and had come back the weekend I was there for a second stay: “We love the Inn”, they told him, “but truthfully, we just came back to see you, Ron”—to which he replied “Really? You’re kidding!” his eyes big with disbelief and then “Kristi! Can you believe that? They came to see ME!”—his witty sense of humor always made me laugh out loud. He had no idea how loved he was, nor do I think he had any clue how touched people were by the hard work he put into that inn which he resurrected from the ground up.
Ron finally decided to get a personal Facebook page after many irritating proddings from myself and countless others. It was an awesome way to keep in touch with him and he often commented on things in his very Ron-fashion-way when I teased him about something. It was also an easy way to wish him a happy birthday, which I did every year, and he was always appreciative. But this year, when I wrote on his wall wishing him a beautiful day, he not only didn’t ‘like’ the post, he didn’t comment on it either, which I found odd, but I assumed he was just super busy with the Inn. I didn’t think too much about it until I received a Facebook message from his daughter telling me that he had passed away suddenly from an apparent heart attack and that she wanted me to know because she could tell by my posts that I considered him a friend. Shock and awe doesn’t even describe how I felt, and still feel now. Honestly, I couldn’t believe it, because he was so young and still had so many years of life left to live. Even two months later, I can’t quite shake the sadness of knowing that I won’t ever see Ron, or the Inn, again. It’s now for sale, and while I hope that someone who can appreciate it will buy it, it won’t ever be the same without him.
It’s so ironic how we meet certain people and how easily they become such an intricate part of our lives even when we don’t see them, or talk to them, on a daily basis. It’s rare, really, that kind of connection—the people who touch our hearts without even knowing it—and in the blink of an eye, that connection is broken. I had been thinking about Ron for about a month when I got the message from his daughter and I was already trying to figure out when I could go visit because the last time I was supposed to go in 2014 to celebrate my birthday, I had to cancel. One of my biggest flaws is that I always think I have ‘time’ –time to visit friends, time go on that much-needed vacation, time to walk the dog—the list is endless; however, the reality is that time is promised to no one. It’s a good lesson for me to have an awareness that time isn’t always there to do the things I want to do and it painfully reminds me to do them while I still can (hey, we’re all guilty of this, I’m sure).
Ron Chuman was one of those people for me and he touched my heart in ways he didn’t even know about. I’m remembering the second time I visited, and how he led me upstairs to the guest kitchen and proudly showed me the “love note” I had sent he and Claire after I stayed there back in 2011. He had pinned it to a corkboard along with the countless others he had received. He loved getting those notes and was proud to show them off. In fact, he ended up putting every last one of them into beautiful frames and hung them in the stairwell so everyone could enjoy them. Ron didn’t know it, but he touched a lot of people’s lives, including mine. He was a delightful man with a wicked sense of humor, and although he would likely deny it, he really did have a heart for the people he came in contact with. He loved the style of Frank Lloyd Wright and long drives on the Blue Ridge Parkway. He played a mean game of golf and loved the Chicago Bears like no other, often wearing his Bears jersey on game day, his eyes dancing with excitement. In fact, he was watching his favorite football team when Claire found him unresponsive in December 2016 and while I know he never intended to leave the earthly realm this soon, I have no doubt that going out that way, while watching the Bears play, would have certainly been on his top ten list of ways to go.
Godspeed, Ron. You will be missed by me. Thank you for always sharing your lovely home with me, for leaving gluten-free chocolates by my bed, for making me blueberry pancakes whenever I asked for them (even when you had been up since 5:30 am making breakfast for everyone else). But most of all, thank you for being my friend during the short time that we knew one another…I will never, ever forget you. Toodles.