About two years ago I read the 2007 book Deer Hunting with Jesus by columnist Joe Bageant. Joe grew up poor white working class in Winchester, Virginia. His book is about rediscovering Winchester after living elsewhere. While Joe’s politics, at least on the economic front, are quite leftist, ten years ago he described how cultural cluelessness by liberal Democrats left his friends and family in Winchester nowhere to turn but to Republicans. The book talked a lot about the pugilistic worldview of the Scots-Irish who have been in Winchester for over two hundred years. Joe essentially predicted the arrival of Donald Trump.
Winchester (population 27,000) is the northernmost city in Virginia, about eighty miles northwest of Washington DC. Winchester is at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, which today might also be called the I-81 Corridor. I had been intrigued because north from Winchester I-81 passes through four states (Virginia / West Virginia / Maryland / Pennsylvania) in less than sixty miles. Because of its Mason-Dixon Line location, significant Civil War battles, including Antietam and Gettysburg, happened in this area. I decided to drive up there, park the car, and bicycle around the area for three days.
Donald Trump is connected to this area in other ways. During the recent campaign the national media was always looking to explain the attraction of this seemingly buffoonish candidate. During last year’s presidential campaign, when the media wanted to interview Trump voters, they drove to the easiest part of Red America to get to from Washington DC; the northern I-81 Corridor. I heard all sorts of interviews of folks in this area during the recent campaign. And even though the election is over, Trump still campaigns here. Last Sunday, the same day I crossed over by bicycle into Pennsylvania, President Trump was speaking to a rally of his “base” just seventy miles further up I-81, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
I was further influenced by books I have read about Virginia politics. Winchester was the hometown of Harry Byrd Sr., a virulent racist who was obsessed with balance budgets. He led the Byrd Organization, a political machine that ruled Virginia for forty years. He had national influence as well. From Wikipedia: Byrd served as Virginia’s governor from 1925 until 1929, then represented the Commonwealth as a United States Senator from 1933 until 1965. He came to lead the “conservative coalition” in the United States Senate, and opposed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, largely blocking most liberal legislation after 1937.
To check it out I drove four and a half hours north from Chapel Hill and parked our Honda in the lot of a Walmart on the south side of Winchester. I pulled the Surley bicycle out and pedaled off, heading north. It was already two in the afternoon. My destination for the evening was Hagerstown, Maryland, about forty-eight miles north. I would have to cross the Panhandle of West Virginia to get there.
Winchester (founded around 1759) seems Southern in attitude but looks somewhat Northern architecturally. Houses are close together in the older part of town. There is nothing very hip about this place.
Oh yeah, the other famous person from Winchester is country singer Patsy Cline. I go to pieces. Crazy.
I would have a chance to see more of Winchester two days later on my return. Going north on the “old road” US-11 that parallels I-81, the three lane road was a reasonably safe cycle and had lots of fun things to look at. The West Virginia state line is just ten miles north.
There are lot of public displays of patriotism around here.
Twenty-five miles north of Winchester is Martinsburg, WV, population 18,000. It used to be a big B&O railroad town. The population in 1930 was almost the same as it is now.
While the older parts of Martinsburg look gritty, it is “only” seventy-eight miles from Washington DC. The DC sprawl seems to be creeping up here. Martinsburg is the end of the line for MARC commuter trains that go all the way to Washington DC. All along this bike ride I saw new housing going up, especially near Interstate Highway interchanges.
From Martinsburg it is was another twenty something miles up US-11 to Hagerstown, crossing the state line into Maryland about halfway there.
I am currently watching my son and a some of my friend’s offspring move to Durham NC; they all want the urban experience; live in a city where they can walk places. But Durham does not really have many older dense residential areas like row houses. If only it could all be transported to Hagerstown MD (population 40,000), where there are miles of older homes, probably available for a pittance.
I found a room for only sixty-eight dollars plus tax in a fairly nice 1980’s looking hotel, not actually downtown but within a short bike ride. There are really only three decent looking restaurants downtown, all on the same block. One is a German place that has been there for years, with waitresses in fraulein outfits. I ate instead two doors down at a place called 28 South where the food just OK, but the bartenders were friendly.
Next to my hotel in Hagerstown this piece of commercial modernism is essentially unused. I am probably the only person who worries that this may be torn down soon.
The next day, for the first half of the day, I biked a big loop up into Pennsylvania. The state line was about ten miles north. Most people forget that the Mason-Dixon Line is mostly the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. This auto auction was in Pennsylvania.
I did see a few Trump signs still around. This guy built his own private monument; Trump must have answered his prayers. Around the other side of his house, there was a No Trespassing sign saying: Intruders Would Be Shot.
I bicycled through two pretty Pennsylvania towns, Greencastle and Waynesboro. Compared to small North Carolina towns of similar size, these two towns seem so much more sturdily built, probably because 100 years ago they were relatively more prosperous.
The countryside was beautiful.
I looped back to Hagerstown for a late brunch at a place next door to the restaurant I had eaten in the previous night. Their version of eggs sardou.
Believe it or not, there really are liberals around here, because outside the restaurant an anti-global warming demonstration came marching down the principal street of Hagerstown
In walked outside to take pictures.
The other two guys at the bar were perfectly nice about it, but one shook his head and said that with all the problems so apparent in a town like this, global warming seemed a problem far away.
The majority of people I had seen in the past two days were white, overweight, and unhealthy looking. Maybe it was a coincidence but the demonstrators looked healthier than the general public.
On that same vein, at that same restaurant was this special on the bar menu:
The rest of the afternoon was weaving through pleasant country roads towards my night’s destination of Shepherdstown, on the Potomac River that divides West Virginia and Maryland. I passed by Antietam National Battlefield. I had toured that battlefield by bicycle several years ago so this time I stopped only briefly. 22,000 Americans were slaughtered at Antietam on one day in 1862. Unlike today, the military then was organized by groups that started in geographical locations, so one served with men from one’s home town. Several hundred men from one particular Philadelphia neighborhood died together in about ten minutes. The terrain here was steep small hills.
I spent this night in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, home of Shepherdstown University, a West Virginia state university. All over America college towns just look more prosperous. At this point on the trip I had bicycled through about fifteen small towns. The downtowns of almost every one of those towns had looked commercially vacant, with poor looking people standing around. Shepherdstown looked very different. It had an elitist Main Street with gift shops and expensive restaurants.
Continuing to notice the red/blue divide, while the expensive restaurants looked a little stuffy, Blue Moon Cafe reminded me of Durham or Chapel Hill. It was the first place I had visited in two days that had an obviously counterculture staff. You could really feel the difference. One review on Yelp viciously criticized Blue Moon for being full of “hippies.” But it was relaxed and comfortable, at least for me. I got their version of eggplant parmesan.
The next day I left early with about forty miles to get back to my car at the Walmart in Winchester. For the first fourteen miles I cycled on the C&O Canal towpath, a beautiful trail that parallels the Potomac River.
I had been hoping to find somewhere to eat breakfast. Even after I left the trail and climbed a big hill there was nowhere. Finally about 10:00 AM I stumbled on this place like the Holy Grail.
Since I am now over sixty, when I am on the road I start to feel camaraderie with other men of a similar or older age, regardless of their backgrounds or political beliefs. Three old guys were sitting at a booth in the Mountain View Diner, loudly praising Trump but I could not get close enough to hear all the details of what they were saying.
After breakfast the scenery was again beautiful.
Back in Winchester I was able to see their downtown. They have done an unusually good job of closing it off to traffic and making it a pedestrian mall. At lunchtime on a Monday it had lots of people eating outside.
Back in the Walmart parking lot our car was still there. I was home in Chapel Hill in time for dinner.
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