Archive for March, 2016

Lynchburg VA, March 23, 2016

Posted: March 25, 2016 in Virginia trips

Driving in from the south, you enter Lynchburg in a flurry of strip malls filled with all the major stores.   Target.  Walmart.  Sam’s Club. Border’s Books.  Dick’s Sporting Goods.  Old Navy, and many many more.  Just as I was turning the car left, I saw this guy.   Welcome to America.


I have been here several times now, and Lynchburg is a fascinating place.   It is closer to Chapel Hill than most people realize; 125 miles or just over two hours away, slightly closer to Chapel Hill than Charlotte.   The older part of Lynchburg is a rare gem of historic neighborhoods.  The southern fringe is new suburban sprawl growing around Lynchburg’s one apparent growth industry: Liberty University.   I feared Liberty’s success might not rub off enough on the older parts of town.   Do fundamentalist Christians appreciate urbanism?

Lynchburg is so close to home that it makes an easy one day trip.   I could leave home about eight in the morning, drive to Lynchburg, ride my bicycle around Lynchburg for five hours, and still be back in Chapel Hill to have a drink at Crunkleton’s with Tootie and Maxine at 6:15 PM the same day.

The area around Liberty is about six miles from downtown and a very different world from that place.   I parked our Honda in the huge parking lot in front of a Kohl’s store, put the bicycle together, and rode off to first see what Liberty has to offer a visiting bicyclist.   First, I rode through almost a mile of parking lots.




There is actually a nice pedestrian path that leads from the Liberty campus, under the railroad tracks and across US29, so that students can walk to the Walmart.


Once up the hill onto the Liberty campus, construction was everywhere.  Obviously everything is relatively new, although most buildings are in a traditional style.  There is a football stadium.








Particularly interesting, or creepy, was that there were speakers hidden somewhere, probably in the trees, gently playing patriotic rap music.


I saw lots of students walking around.





After riding through the hilly campus for some time, I turned the bicycle through older neighborhoods, heading towards downtown.


Lynchburg likes to call itself Hill City and it really is as hilly as any city I can remember.    Some neighborhoods remind me of Pittsburgh.






I saw this in a mostly African American section of town.


This house has a plaque saying it was built in 1813.



I have written on previous posts about residential neighborhoods near both ends of downtown that have streets filled with dozens of lovely nineteenth century houses like this.


If you want to see more pictures of these houses,  look at my 2012 blog

For this trip, I thought I would photograph more of the commercial area of downtown.   Downtown is built aside a steep hill that runs down to the James River.   I bicycled down the hill to the riverfront.   Things are definitely picking up.   This very cool old building was abandoned the last time I was in Lynchburg, now it is clearly being rehabbed.


There is a nice bike path that runs along the river, some of it passing still abandoned warehouses.


Back up the hill, Lynchburg is clearly not undergoing a hipster transformation like Durham.   Still, things are happening.  This building is in the process of being rehabbed into an upscale hotel.


This block reminded me of San Francisco



Here is another view of downtown.


L. Oppleman claims to be the oldest pawnshop in the nation.



This 1972 twenty story building does not do much for me.


However, I really fell in love with the Allied Arts Building, seventeen stories, built in 1929.


This is the view from higher up the hill.  Like Pittsburgh would have, there are steps down the hill, instead of a sidewalk.



The art deco lobby is enticing.



I did my first Tour of Myrtle Beach a little over two years ago.  In the spirit of investigation, I decided to revisit the place.

Let me clear two misconceptions about Myrtle Beach.

  1.  The main attraction, whatever that attraction is, is probably not the beach.
  2. Not everybody who visits here is from The South.

So I drove down here on a Tuesday morning to check it out again.  I looked for a place to park our Honda for 28 hours.   I discovered free parking at a public boat launch near the northernmost spot of the Myrtle Beach “Grand Strand.”   My mission was to bicycle the forty or so miles south to the end of the Strand, spend the night there, then bicycle back the next day.   For almost all the way a bicyclist can weave through residential streets.  Only on a couple short sections did I have to get out on the main highway US17.


For a guy from Chapel Hill it is very easy to generalize about the people here.  I am sure those generalizations are mostly mistaken.  Next to my car I talked to two guys that were discussing fishing tackle.  The shorter white guy was from Vermont, maybe about sixty years old.   He said he spent three to four months a year in Myrtle Beach.  He loved it in the winter, but could not stand the summer heat.  The taller guy, an African American, had a large white Ford pickup with Maryland plates.  He said he and his wife had been visiting Myrtle for twenty years.  Their children had now gone off to college, and they recently moved here full-time.  He said he was sick of cold weather and loved the summer heat.

A quick look at airline schedules into Myrtle Beach Airport is telling.   People from Up North come here a lot.  There are daily non-stops with relatively large airplanes from Niagara Falls (Buffalo), Latrobe Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh), Atlantic City NJ,  Boston, and New York La Guardia.     There are TWO airlines offering non-stops from the Toronto area.

But most people probably drive here, usually in large vehicles, frequently towing something.  I saw Ohio, Ontario, New York, and Pennsylvania license plates constantly.    Instead of towing something, people often drive their motor homes.  This area seems the world’s capital for motor homes and other giant travel vehicles.

For three years in about 1966-69 my parents owned an eighteen foot travel trailer called a Zipper.  When I was twelve or thirteen years old my parents drove down to Myrtle Beach from Virginia Beach, taking me, my three siblings, and our dog Inkie in our Rambler Ambassador station wagon towing the Zipper.   I do not remember why we came here, but they were always driving us to some historic attraction someplace.   The trailer must have looked something like this.


I remember vividly staying in Myrtle Beach at an enormous oceanfront private campground.   And they still exist.    They still take up huge amounts of expensive oceanfront land.   On this trip I saw at least five or six of these places.   This first one has a Christian theme.




Myrtle Beach is not a place for pedestrians.  While the oldest part of Myrtle Beach does have a small boardwalk area filled with kitsch, the real action is out on US17.   Instead of the typical beach town street or boardwalk filled with touristy stuff, here there is an eight lane highway filled with touristy stuff, while the traffic whizzes by at high speeds.







The term “local” and “visitor” might be difficult here, as a lot of people live here part time.  Many people seem to share a cultural and maybe political affinity.   I did not see a single presidential yard sign, except for the dozens of Donald Trump signs.  Make America Great Again, he says.


Inland from Myrtle Beach there are still huge amounts of barely used vacant land.   This is perfect for building golf courses.    People come here from all over just for the golf.  I did not bicycle through many of the golf course communities since they are mostly accessible only from the main highways.   I did go by at least one golf course.


I had a nice ride through the streets of beach towns.    In much of the area, leafy neighborhoods with small houses come within a few blocks of the oceanfront, where the high rises begin.






In the middle of North Myrtle Beach, where high rises along the ocean go on for miles, all of a sudden the development just stops.  There is about a quarter mile section completely cut off from the rest of town, and it looks mostly empty.   On the north side, a high fence extends out as far as the beach, clearly trying to keep people in or out.  After I pushed my bicycle around the fence, this is the view from the inside.


Atlantic Beach, South Carolina was chartered by a group of African Americans in the 1930’s and is still a separate town.  Prior to desegregation, there were many beach areas up and down the East Coast set aside for African Americans.   This is one of the few such towns left.   On this Tuesday in March,  Atlantic Beach stood mostly vacant and quiet.





I got back on the street grid, bicycling down the coast.   In these neighborhoods bicycles with fat tires would be a great transportation tool.   And I did see a few.   Much more common, however, were gasoline powered golf carts.   They were everywhere.



I wanted to bicycle down as far south as the beach road would go.  The motels furthest south on the Grand Strand strip are in Garden City Beach.    I found a room at this place for a reasonable price.


The view from the ground floor room was great.


I ate that night at the Conch Cafe.   Blackened rib eye and shrimp is not something that I normally order, but it was much better than expected;  the best fried shrimp I have had in a while.

When I first rode by this place at 5:45 PM it had been packed.  At 8:10 PM the crowd was thinning out.  The woman at the bar next to me was telling her companion about her pastor, and how much she likes Barefoot white wine.     Peaceful Easy Feeling was playing on the sound system.



I bicycled back on the sidewalk in the dark the half mile to the motel.


The next morning at 6:55 AM I could hear loud women’s voices outside.  I had left my sliding door cracked open to listen to the ocean at night.  The voices sounded like they were about fifteen feet away.  I got up and shut the door.  About an hour later I walked outside to look at the beach.  They were still there talking.  You can see my room to the right with the bicycle inside.



I bicycled back north.   I had tried this trip to photograph people as I whizzed by.




















Those of you who read my Myrtle Beach blog from two years ago probably remember all the pictures of modernist motels.   I have tried not to do this all over again, but I cannot help myself.    It the one really cool part of Myrtle Beach, and of course, those in Myrtle Beach do not seem to appreciate it.  Most motels look about the same as they did two years ago, including this first one that is in the same abandoned condition.


This one seems being prepared for the end game.


And there are lots of others, some still quite nicely kept up; others tatty and renting rooms by the week or month.   I could have taken many more pictures; this is just a sampling.
















Another version.   (Can you imagine keeping everyone waiting while on national television?)



Jacksonville, North Carolina, population 70,000 is the largest city in North Carolina that I had never visited.   Its location is remote, Down East near the coast, but still not at an actual beach.  It is a military town dominated by the Camp Lejeune U.S. Marine base.   I was intrigued by the Whiskeytown song  Jacksonville Skyline, written and sung by Jacksonville NC native Ryan Adams, with his haunting description of “neon signs, car dealerships, and diners”  and “soldiers filled the hotels on the weekends.”   I had learned of the song from a mix CD made for me in about 2002 by my late great friend Don Hankins.   Whiskeytown was based in the Raleigh/Durham area and had played near my house in Carrboro many times, although I never went to a show.   They broke up about 2003 and Ryan Adams moved to New York City, where he made successful solo recordings.   I do know that people from Jacksonville, FLORIDA have adopted this song as their own, thinking these descriptions applied to their town.

Jacksonville, North Carolina was not likely to have much of a skyline. Before Camp Lejeune opened in 1940 Jacksonville had only 750 residents.   Jacksonville does not resemble what most people think of as a town; it is just a bunch of sprawl around the entrance to the large Marine base.   To check it out, I put the my bicycle in the trunk of our Honda and drove the 147 miles over for a daylong bicycle tour on a Saturday.

Any bicycle tour of a town like this should start in the Walmart parking lot, where I parked my car and pulled the bicycle out of the trunk.  They had a small section on the northwest corner roped off, to sell recreational vehicles.



As predicted,  Jacksonville was not much to look at, at least in a conventional sense.  Near the Walmart, there was this Volkswagen repair place with an impressive collection of vehicles.


This other guy has an obsession with circa 1964 Mercury Comets.


Crossing the bridge into town, there was a nice view.





There were lots of weapons for sale





And other stuff





I saw several mid century modernist buildings, including one that is now a tattoo parlor.



Like in most of America, not only is sprawl a problem, but the older sprawl is being abandoned for the newer sprawl.





I biked through nice looking conventional neighborhoods in Jacksonville; neighborhoods that went on for miles.   I stumbled onto this nice bike path, a converted rail line that goes about seven miles from downtown Jacksonville to the main gate of Camp Lejeune.



I got off the bike trail to look for something to eat.  The highest rated restaurant on Yelp was in a strip mall along a highway, a Middle Eastern place called Marrakesh.  After a delicious lunch, I got back on the bike and pedaled onward.

In some places the bike path paralleled the Camp Lejeune fence, and I could peer into facility.  There was a long stretch of contemporary suburban neighborhoods and elementary schools, all within the confines of the base.  Through my travels I have been reminded that so much of America looks torn up and down on its luck.  However, based on strictly appearance, there are five parts of America that tend to look beyond fully funded, maybe gilded.   These are rich neighborhoods, anything to do with the criminal justice system, college campuses, hospitals (or anything to do with health care), and military bases (or anything to do with the military.)

The bike trail ended at the main gate to Camp Lejeune.


I wanted to keep bicycling into the military base, but not passionately so.  I have bicycled through Fort Story in Virginia Beach many times and it can be quite pleasant.   I went up to the guard, a young woman.

“Is it OK that I keep going here?  I do not have a military I.D.”

(smiling) “Sorry, sir, you have to have a military I.D.”

Just then, a woman about my age appeared on a bicycle.   She must have been traveling behind me on the trail, but I had not seen her.    She spoke with the poise,  self confidence, and disdain for authority that made me later imagine her as the wife of some high ranking officer.   She pressed her I.D. into the face of the guard.

“It’s OK, he’s with me.”

“Ma’am do you understand that you are responsible for this person while he is on base?  How long have you known this person?”

She paused for a second.

“Oh, he’s my doctor, over at the hospital”

A second guard, a young guy walked up to join the conversation.  He looked at me.

“Sir, what happened, did you just forget your I.D.?”

I really appreciate what this woman was doing.  She knew that bicyclists had to stick together.   Still, I was not going to lie to some military guy, for a bike ride that could have gone in either direction.

I mumbled something about not having my I.D., then turned around and biked off in the direction that I had come.   I looked back.  She had already ridden into the base, but was looking back.  I waved.

I got on the bike trail and rode back into town.




I was almost done with my month-long sobriety; no alcohol during February.   I had done this as a self-imposed act of denial, sort of Lent for a non-believer, suggested by a friend in Chapel Hill who was doing the same.  Still on the wagon, I took off to bicycle 163 miles in three days from Charlotte, through Salisbury and Greensboro, back home to Chapel Hill.  My regular readers know that I frequently partake in the bar life on these bicycle escapades, so it was going to be interesting to see what a difference sobriety would make.   The short answer is; not much difference at all.   I learned some things about myself.  The warm genial feeling of a drink in a bar after a long day of cycling is very closely approximated by a hot sweet decaf cafe au lait, especially when the weather is cold, and when the sweet hot drink is taken at a friendly local coffee house, like the Koko Java in Salisbury, or the Green Bean in Greensboro.   Later on in the evening, where the only drink was tap water, no ice; one could still achieve that sense of calm satisfaction at the end of a nice meal, especially if it was dinner of veal piccata at La Cava in Salisbury, or braised short ribs at LaRue in Greensboro.

Tootie dropped me and the folding bicycle off at the Durham Amtrak station at seven on a Thursday morning.    While one buys the tickets from the Amtrak website,  the rail cars for just the the Raleigh/Durham/Greensboro/Charlotte service are owned and operated by NCDOT.  These refurbished 1960’s coaches are nicer and cleaner than the regular Amtrak coaches I have taken up and down the East Coast.


About ten in the morning, I got off into the frigid wind at the Charlotte Amtrak station.   Thankfully, the wind was blowing in the direction I was headed.


As most visitors to Charlotte know, the wealthier people live south and east of downtown.   The Amtrak station is about a mile north of where Tryon Street passes under I-277, and the trendiness of Charlotte’s downtown stops.  The station is very much on The Poor Side of Town.   I was to be riding north, so I started this bike ride already on The Wrong Side of The Tracks.

The bike ride was O.K., and I was able to stay mostly on roads that had wide enough shoulders to keep me somewhat safe.  But for the entire forty-three miles to Salisbury it was just ugly.   I have seen this pattern on other trips.  I can faithfully say now that maybe two-thirds of the built up area of America looks like shit.    Most of America has an effective policy of slash and burn urbanism, where we abandon the old and open the new, further “out”.  On this trip, there are miles and miles of semi-abandoned factories, mixed with semi-abandoned strip malls and housing for poor people; things like trailers strewn across the landscape, mixed in with the occasional new housing subdivision.   Most people like me organize our lives around driving our cars between the “good” areas of town to other good areas of our town, or good areas of other towns.   We learn to focus out the ugliness we are driving through, if we notice it at all.   As a bicyclist I am constantly looking to find the smallest and least traveled road and I this may cause me to see America in a different light.  I am struck at how unattractive a large percentage of America really is.  If a foreigner came here and just started wandering around, his or her primary impression of America would be abandoned strip malls.    There is also a racist face to suburban sprawl; nobody wants to put stuff on the black side of town.  On the north side of Charlotte, the few commercial buildings are old; frequently empty.

Among the few busy commercial establishments was The Sunflower, a meat and three place where I got lunch while many were still eating breakfast.   It had a multicultural menu that included items for the mostly African American clientele including breakfast of fried fish and eggs.    I got meat loaf with green beans and collards, cornbread on the side.


One passes through miles of decaying neighborhoods until the usual suburban sprawl starts way north around Huntersville.   After Huntersville, there were some new developments, then miles and miles of working class housing.   This is also near Kannapolis, a town whose name I had not realized came from the name of its factory Cannon, as in Fieldcrest Cannon towels.     Kannapolis has a particuarly hard story;  it once had one of the largest towel factories in the world.  In July 2003 Pillotex, the successor to Fieldcrest Cannon, went bankrupt, and four thousand three hundred workers lost their jobs in one afternoon.  From Charlotte north the hundred plus miles to Greensboro, then east fifty something miles to Chapel Hill one passes mostly closed textile mills and furniture factories, one after the other.  This is Norma Rae country, most people do not seem to live in actual towns.   They lived, and continue to live, in semi rural areas.   It is a mix of small houses and trailers, mostly spread out across the land.    One sees very little open countryside.




One sees varying displays of patriotism.   This house included both the rebel flag. the American flag,  and a sign about Jesus on their porch.





I did pass two nice bits of mid-century modernism, a church and a graveyard.



Late in the afternoon I pulled into Salisbury and had my delicious coffee at the Koko Java.  Sitting there, I scrolled through my phone, looking for somewhere to spend the night.   I do not always like bed and breakfasts, but none of the motels were within walking distance to the restaurants downtown, and if you factored in the price of breakfast, it was a reasonably good deal.  I was their only guest, in a two year old renovation of a 4800 square foot near mansion, run by two English people.  They had moved to Salisbury because such large homes are unaffordable in places like Asheville.   They did say that when one moves to Salisbury one has to bring one’s own money or job; the local economy does not provide much support.  I walked downtown that night for an Italian dinner at a former church called La Cava.


On the way back after dinner, the older part of Salisbury looked pleasant at night.


The next day I cycled through towns and countryside filled with dead factories; Salisbury to Spencer to Lexington to Thomasville to High Point to Greensboro.





On the south side of Greensboro, the NCDOT is pushing its suburban sprawl agenda.    Do you think the new road is wide enough?


Downtown Greensboro is doing a pretty good job making itself useful.    A lot of people are actually now living there, creating loft apartments.


I want to put in a plug for the Biltmore Hotel in Greensboro.   America does not have many hotels like this; a small reasonably priced older hotel downtown in a small to medium size city.   It is neither a flophouse nor frou-frou.    The free breakfast the next morning was enlivened in a small room downstairs by several skinny fifty or sixty somethings;  arguing about the merits of Bernie Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton.



That last day was another fifty something miles from downtown Greensboro to my home in downtown Chapel Hill.   The east side of Greensboro is not what one would call quaint.


I passed where the work is being done on the massive and unnecessary I-840 bypass on the northeast side of Greensboro.


I then spent the rest of the day going through these towns one by one along what I now know is a fall line, where because of water power it was a good location for factories.  The ride was more pleasant than the day before, the towns seemed livelier and in better shape even though there were lots of dead and dying factories.







Burlington.  I have seen this house before; the owner must have a huge need for privacy.



Also Burlington




Haw River


Mebane; only twenty miles from Chapel Hill!


Lunch the last day had been at a Mexican restaurant in Graham.   I was struggling to get through Robert Caro’s 1100+ page biography of Robert Moses (The Power Broker), which is not available on Kindle.   I bought the paperback, and then I tear out 200 page sections so it would not be too heavy for lugging around on a bicycle.


The final portion of the ride was across rural Orange County,  which includes Chapel Hill.   You can really tell the difference, it was the only area of the three day ride that looked truly rural and peaceful.   Much of this can be attributed to Orange County’s unique Rural Buffer.   Of course it is elitist, in that the area is slowly becoming a series of small estates rather than farms.   Still it is undeniably unique and lovely.