Archive for December, 2015

Almost as soon as I got here, I started to ask myself “Why I am doing this?”    I guess I have not gotten over that overwhelming compulsion to tour an area that I have never been to, and then write about it.   It is getting harder and harder to find new areas to visit.    And I have bicycled this general area of Virginia several times over the past forty years.  It has a reputation as a lovely rural area inundated with history and views of the water.  It is sometimes that way.  The name refers to one of the several “necks” of land that stick out into the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, east of Richmond.

It does start being picturesque once one gets beyond the Walmart strip outside Tappahannock.  I had driven three and a half hours from Chapel Hill.   I looked for a safe place to park a car for 28 hours, and put our Honda in the lot of a giant Lowe’s store.  I pulled the folding bike from the trunk and pedaled into the colonial town of Tappahannock, before crossing the Rappahannock river to the Northern Neck.




I expected the bike ride to be dicey across this narrow two lane bridge, built in 1925.   What I did not expect was that for about three miles after the bridge, there was not an alternate route to the four lane highway, which had no shoulder.  As urban and suburban areas add bike lanes and other accommodations to cyclists, rural areas like this have gone the other way.   Car traffic over the years has increased, but no one thinks to make a road any wider than necessary, much less add a bike lane.

Out here I could sense the polarization of America; you could feel the redness in the air.   (While driving I had had my lunch at a Chick-Fil-A in suburban Richmond.)  Coming from Chapel Hill, one rarely sees this stuff, and not just the Donald Trump signs I saw around here.   You have to admire the passion of these folks.   I do not know any liberal who would have the gumption to spend all the time necessary to make these signs (there were several of them).  They were holding their already conservative U.S. Representative to task for not being conservative enough.   It is especially sad since intercity rail is severely underfunded, and we need MORE money for it.    Our country has to find a way to achieve common ground.



There is so much history here that it could get on one’s nerves.  State history signs were everywhere, Pocahontas era,  Revolutionary War, Civil War, even War of 1812.   It all happened here.   The main road is called History Highway.  If you lived here, you would eventually just think “so what?”   Private industry also advertised its attractions.



This church built in 1737 sat more or less by itself in the countryside.





After just a few tense miles of traffic, the road widened and traffic lessened.   The situation got even better when I got onto small rural byways.   Now my biggest fear was dogs, although that turned out to be strictly in my head.  I have a pepper spray that I have carried for years, but have never used.    The roads were indeed mellow, the cycling relaxing.




I did see someone walking the highway, although this woman looked impoverished, as if walking this road was her only means of transport.


I had not left Tappahannock until after 12:00 noon, and it was almost fifty miles to my intended overnight in Kilmarnock.   I would have to keep a good pace to arrive before dark.    In the final two or three miles before Kilmarnock, I got back on the main road, which was narrow and two lane, busy with traffic.

I passed a Walmart strip before entering its somewhat cutesy downtown.   There are certainly rich people around here.   I think many have second homes here, or come in their yachts, since this area is prime for boating.    The only place to stay downtown was a small inn, which had its own restaurant.   I walked in and negotiated a deal for the night.  I was at first repelled by the gaudy decor.  If one can get past the tackyness, the Kilmarnock Inn is a nice place.   Americans rarely see a small hotel or motel that has its own restaurant. In the European fashion, they had about ten rooms and a somewhat expensive restaurant.





Dinner that night was their clam chowder, followed by beef short ribs, filling and delicious.  The wait staff was friendly and accommodating.   This woman had a vaguely Eastern European accent.


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Breakfast was included was included with the the room rate,  and I ate as much as possible, to power me back to the car near Tappahanock.   I chose a different route, in a similar area to the previous day.   The Southern landscape reminded me again of that VS Naipaul quote;  It was a landscape of small ruins. Houses and farmhouses and tobacco barns had simply been abandoned.   The decay of each was individual, and they were all beautiful in the afternoon light.













I was also reminded; don’t 1970’s cars look ridiculous now?




After posts of 95 bicycle rides, I am breaking The Rules (just once)  by writing about a walk.   If I do more walks, I guess I will have to start a different blog.

It is sixteen miles from my apartment on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill to Jackie & John Ripley’s apartment on the third floor of the former textile mill in Saxapahaw.   I wanted to know what it is like to walk in America, if walking was your only means of transport.  What would an intercity walk be like?   Maybe I could feel like Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, walking down a highway, putting a crease in my hat as I walked.   Unfortunately, my hypothesis was confirmed.  Intercity walking on country roads in America is likely both unpleasant and unsafe.  Hiking down Highway 54 can indeed be a drag.  I will never do this again.

Not yet having confirmed this, I set out from my home on a Monday morning without even arranging for my return; my only hope was that John would take pity on me and drive me home.  Tootie had agreed to come get me if all else failed.   I walked from my apartment in Chapel Hill and down Poplar Avenue in Carrboro where I had lived for twenty five years.


I stopped off at my office in Carrboro for about an hour , then continued out of town.   With the miracles of smartphones, I could continue my Day Job even while dodging cars on Highway 54.

West Main Street in Carrboro is a street I have driven on many times. but had not examined quite so closely.  We always think now of Carrboro as this liberal place, but there is a diversity of opinion here.  “Where the Bible Stands”



At least West Main Street had a sidewalk.



After less than a mile, the sidewalk ends at the Carrboro Plaza Shopping Center.


It is about ten miles down Highway 54 from here to the turnoff to Saxapahaw.   Highway 54 quickly settles in as a two lane road.   I had thought the wide shoulder would make walking against traffic somehow tolerable.   It was just not wide enough.  I normally only felt comfortable stepping into the grass each time a car went by.


When walking and you get to something as innocuous as a gas station, it takes on a different meaning entirely, it becomes something to break up the journey.P1030314

There is street art out here in the country.


There is livestock


The is more religious diversity.



About six miles out, this small bar sits by itself on the highway.  It has been there as long as I can remember, with several different names.  I have never been in there.    I do not know what it is like now, but John Soehner told me several years ago that he saw a guy in there get beaten with a pool cue.



Walking along a highway, one sees all sorts of weird stuff that has been tossed out of car windows.


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Further out 54, I walked by this building.   Back in the day, when such things were Shocking, this building held the largest mail-order condom company in America.




A little over ten miles out, I finally made the turn onto Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Road.  I still had something like four miles left to walk.  I had thought that this road would be more peaceful, and it is indeed picturesque.  However, it was so narrow that I had to jump into the weeds every time a car went by.


The mill apartments in Saxapahaw are indeed populated by many artists and free thinking people but there is diversity of thought on the highway outside of town.


Saxapahaw was a textile mill started in the nineteenth century alongside some rapids of the Haw River.   I had been closed for a long time when it was rehabbed about ten years ago as apartments.    I thought that it had no chance of succeeding, since it is really not close to any major city.   However, it has become a really cool place.    It has a general store, a performance space, a bar / restaurant, and a coffee house.  It also has a charcuterie,  where they make their own local ham, pate, and other pork products.


John’s apartment is in the upper right, overlooking the river.



He snapped my picture using my phone.








Growing up in Virginia Beach, less than sixty miles north of Elizabeth City, I saw it as something exotic, our closest foreign place, somewhere I often thought about but never visited.    My friend Bill rode his bicycle down from Virginia Beach to Elizabeth City in about 1975, slept by himself in an abandoned house, and then rode back the next day.   Living in Chapel Hill, we met our great friend Martha who hails from Elizabeth City. I wanted to see her roots.

I parked the car on a street in the north part of town and put the bicycle together.


The style and architecture of the older neighborhoods here look different than anywhere else in North Carolina; more urban, with older wooden houses close together.  It looks a lot like the older parts of  nearby Portsmouth, Virginia.











I really like this house, steep roof all the way to the third floor.


Their only skyscraper is the former Virginia Dare Hotel, built in 1927.   It is amazing how much of even current America was built between 1925 and 1929.  It is currently used as section 8 housing.


I ate lunch at the counter in Sidney’s downtown on Main Street.


After lunch I pointed the bicycle south to see how far I could go.

It first passed through the southern part of Elizabeth City, which clearly is the wealthiest part of town, houses opening onto the waters of the Pasquotank River, which leads into Currituck Sound.



I rode up to Martha’s family’s house, which faced the water.


I kept going south into the countryside, passing at a distance the huge Elizabeth City Coast Guard base.   It includes the huge WWII era blimp hangar, with the fin of a current airship visible nearby.


The road led south for about sixteen miles before ending in the water.   It felt like the end of the earth.  I turned around and road back to town, so I could drive home that same afternoon.