Archive for June, 2011

Street in York

General Lee and I have something in common; we both crossed the Mason-Dixon line in search of conquering the closest Yankee turf.   Gettysburg and Antietam are actually both not very far from here.   For here is the closest place to Virginia and North Carolina where you really feel you have left home, that the surroundings feel vaguely foreign, that you are not in Kansas(or North Carolina) any more.  It is only a little over six hours from Carrboro,  about fifty miles north of Baltimore.

While this area has its drawbacks, the scale of it makes it ideal for biking.   Compared to North Carolina, the scale is vaguely European.  Towns are close together, with street grids that do not push you onto the major highways.  Except for Hershey, these are depressed factory towns.  York has a Harley-Davidson factory, so the locals ride those vehicles a lot, helmetless.


A lot of this looks to me like the set of some working class movie.


In between these towns much of the countryside, some of it Amish country, seems to define picturesque.    Pennsylvania roads, unlike N0rth Carolina, tend to be wider, with lots of room for a bicycle.

welcome to Hershey

Unlike most other towns of the region, Hershey looks like it has had poverty, decay, and homelessness excised.     It looks like the other towns, but everything was clean and a little too perfect.   On a street very much like Poplar Avenue in Carrboro, there was a Rodeway Inn, which I was lucky to snag, as it seems to have been the last hotel room in town on that Saturday night.

Rodeway Inn in Hershey

Harrisburg had its share of decay but also nice neighborhoods.   The state capitol building was fine, but I was not a big fan of the neo-fascist architecture of the surrounding buildings.

Harrisburg. Do you find these buildings creepy?

urban decay Harrisburg

This whole six hour each way car trip was a long way to go for one night, but I really felt like I had been to a foreign country of sorts.

I was all prepared to say that Newport News had the ugliest most abandoned looking downtown area that I have ever seen.  However, upon further study, I now know that it never was a true downtown.  The downtown was and is a company town.   Newport News was just a small fishing village when entrepeneurs in the late nineteenth century started the shipyard, which has since been for over a hundred years pretty much the largest shipyard in America.   So downtown Newport News really is just the service entrance of a huge shipyard.   The acres of downtown parking for shipyard workers are really part of the plan.   The fact that there are a few decaying nineteenth century buildings mixed with vacant lots and mixed with bland seventies modernist municipal buildings now all seems to fit.  Still, the whole feel of downtown Newport News on a Sunday morning is something that belongs in an apocalyptic Mel Gibson movie.

Newport News (population 180,000) and Hampton (population 130,000) pretty much function as one place, and I spent a Sunday driving four hours there so I could spend six or seven hours riding my bicycle around and between the two, and then drive four hours home.


The older parts of the combined area stretch on for miles.  And much of it is picturesque, early twentieth century neighborhoods strung along the bayfront.    There is, however, a grittiness to the place,  a vestige of its shipyard and military base heritage.    There were repeated Dollar General and Family Dollar stores but no Starbucks.    All along I ran into names of places I had heard of on the radio, growing up thirty miles away in Virginia Beach.  Many of these places names must be of Native American origin: Kecoughtan, Poquoson, Phoebus.

Downtown Hampton was quite lively.   However, for a city that claims to have been founded in 1610, downtown Hampton has suprisingly few remaining old buildings.   Most things look built in the past twenty years.   On the other side of downtown Hampton is Hampton University and Fort Monroe.    Fort Monroe being a military base is quite well preserved, nineteenth century buildings inside a moated wall, like something midieval.


Phoebus was formerly a separate town just north of Hampton, and its commercial strip is fetching.

Buckroe Beach

Buckroe Beach was no where near as creepy as I thought it would be, just a stretch of sand on the bay; beach with no waves.   Pretty much  all vestiges of the former early twentieth century amusement park have been torn down.  One aspect I noted is a really positive outgrowth of the military; for a very working class place, this crowd was completely integrated; whites, blacks, hispanics, and asians all playing together.   You do not see this type of mixing in Chapel Hill, as diverse as we liberals think we are, or wish we could be.


When arriving Jacksonville by overnight train from Raleigh, one intensely experiences the physical differences between Piedmont North Carolina and North Florida.    I woke up at 6:00 AM gliding through a dreamy foggy world of Spanish moss and swamps.   Passing through Jessup, Georgia in the early morning fog,  wooden houses with tropical architecture were scattered around the town center.   By the time the train pulled into Jacksonville at 6:45 AM (ten minutes early!), I was ready to ride.

My initial ride was to be the twelve or so miles to Tom’s house in Ortega Forest, on the southwest part of town.  I had been coached that the northern part of Jacksonville was somehow sketchy, dangerous.   Stepping into the early morning steam heat, I rode off down a mostly vacant four lane highway.    I guess to save time and money, Amtrak put the train station far from downtown, far from really anything, next to a large rail switchyard in northern Jacksonville.   This Saturday morning there were few cars on the road.,  If there had been anything to be afraid of, I did not slow down long enough to know.   I got to downtown in about forty minutes.

Tom in his backyard

Downtown Jacksonville is like many in America, it remains a promise not yet fulfilled.  Many lovely old skyscrapers  remain unused or underused.    The JTA Skway, a people mover monorail built about twenty years ago, runs down some streets like the el in Chicago.   One whole side behind the Convention Center remains vacant, clearly where “slums” existed thirty or forty years ago.  Back in the center, there are lots of homeless people in its main square.   Down by the riverfront, things are lively with new development.  Old buildings with character, and a tropical vibe, make downtown Jacksonville a place with potential.

The ride through older neighborhoods south of downtown is more upbeat.     There are miles of wooden early twentieth century houses, most surrounded by live oaks with Spanish moss and palms.  Because of  its grid street system, the older parts of  Jacksonville make for safe and relaxing bicycling.   In its physical layout, Jacksonville spreads over inland estuaries, much like Norfolk or Portsmouth.  There are lots of bridges.   Jacksonville has a fine collection of live oak trees, maybe even nicer trees than New Orleans.

older house Jacksonville

I met Tom for coffee in the Avondale neighborhood.  We ran into some acquaintances of his.  They professed difficulty believing that I had just ridden in from the Amtrak station.   The acquaintances I guess never visited Jacksonville north of downtown, except to go to the airport.

We passed Robert E. Lee High School.   It was probably built in the 1920’s.   There is no historical marker, even though this is the school where there was a gym teacher in the late 1960’s named Leonard Skinner.   The band members went to the school.  In 2011  Alabama state license plates say Sweet Home Alabama.   There needs to be a state historic marker in front of this school.   Surely this is as important as some minor Civil War skirmish.

I pulled into Tom’s house to wake up Slice.    He was also visiting that same weekend, driving in his Porche 911 Carrera.   Tom’s son Miguel was also there.


We went on to have a fun weekend and with fine  hospitality.  It included visits to the Timuquana Country Club, grilling in the backyard, and more  bike riding on Sunday.    That day the three of us took another big ride north of downtown.     It is always more efficient to have a guide to show you how to navigate a city one does not know well.    We were able to see spooky parts of town that I would not have seen otherwise.

Miguel cooking our dinner

Juke Joint Jacksonville

The train left for Raleigh at 10:50 PM Sunday.    I contemplated riding back to the train station night in the dark, but even I realized that would have been really dumb.