Archive for September, 2019

I had always wanted to bicycle to Martinsville VA, just to see what was there.   I do know that it is a fading textile and furniture manufacturing town.   Greensboro as a starting point put me sixty miles closer to my destination.    With the Bike Friday in the back I drove a little over an hour west from Chapel Hill to Greensboro.   I did not know where to safely park for three days, so I just chose a residential neighborhood where people were already parking on the street; a neighborhood slightly northwest of downtown.   I pulled the bicycle out the back.   Martinsville was fifty-five to sixty miles away, almost straight north.

This was the bike ride over three days.

The first part of the ride was through Irving Park, which surrounds the Greensboro Country Club.   Some people still like having a huge house opening onto a golf course.

 

 

Courtesy of work by the NCDOT in the 1950’s and 60’s, Greensboro may be the worst bicycling city in America.   One can bicycle through individual neighborhoods, but these neighborhoods are isolated by huge freeway-like arterial roads with fast moving traffic.  Think Wendover Avenue, Battleground Avenue, Friendly Avenue.   They go on and on.

Greensboro has recently tried to make amends to bicyclists.   There are now a decent number of greenways including the Atlantic & Yadkin rail trail, which extends for about ten miles straight north from north central Greensboro.

 

 

North Carolina calls itself “the good roads state.”   I bicycled over this freeway under construction across north Greensboro.   I think I have my facts straight on the outer loop issue.   The NCDOT probably intentionally makes their actions obtuse.  Back in the late 1980’s the NC General Assembly,  pushed by Charlotte real estate interests, passed a gas tax increase where the proceeds were specifically limited to funding only a list of outer loops around the largest North Carolina cities.   This tax continues and the building goes on.    Insanity.

After the A&Y trail ended I could continue on country roads.   Even though this was a weekday the traffic was light and the cycling pleasant.

 

North Carolina wrote the book on suburban sprawl.    Housing subdivisions continue for miles and miles north of Greensboro.   Eventually the housing petered out and I was bicycling through former tobacco fields and abandoned tobacco barns, and the occasional tobacco crop.

Thirty miles north of Greensboro is Madison NC.   I was impressed Madison has its own locally owned coffee house, but I was not in the mood for coffee.  I wanted lunch.

 

Lunch would be barbecue at Fuzzy’s.

I always get the same thing at these kind of places, barbecue sandwich with slaw on top and a small Brunswick stew.   The whole meal was less than five dollars.

 

Martinsville was still almost thirty miles further.   Leaving Madison the terrain got progressively hillier as I rode north.    The final push was all uphill, as Martinsville sits on a bluff above the Smith River.  Little of downtown Martinsville warranted photographs; it was something of a letdown.

I was really tired.  This had been a long ride and the last part had been uphill.   There was at least was one place open downtown, the Daily Grind.   I collapsed into a chair to drink an almond milk latte.

 

There was no place to stay overnight downtown.   I would have to go back down the hill to the motels along the older highway.    Yes, there were a couple restaurants downtown for dinner this night, but rain was predicted and there was no way I was bicycling back up that hill.   I coasted downhill.

If one reads Trip Advisor and Hotels.Com reviews carefully one can sometimes find a cheap old motel that is NOT dirty and depressing.   Just like the reviews said, the Scottish Inn is owned by a South Asian family who seems to care about details.   The bed and other furniture were new, as were many of the bathroom fixtures. $46.00 including tax is a good deal.

 

Also a good deal was Los Norteños Mexican restaurant across the street.   This area is not pedestrian friendly; I had to run quickly across this highway.

 

I ate at the bar.

I had just been in New York City a week earlier and was shocked that even “affordable” restaurants were charging $ 14.00 or more for a glass of wine.    This is only a theory but I’ll bet the two restaurants in downtown Martinsville charge $ 8.00-10.00 for a glass of wine.     Three miles away on the highway at Los Norteños an imported beer costs $ 2.75.     In Greensboro sixty miles away or in Chapel Hill it is easy to spend, with drinks, way more than $60.00 per person for dinner.   Here I ordered exactly what I wanted and WITH two drinks the total bill, before tip, was $ 15.66.   I also ate a ton of chips and salsa for which there was, of course, no charge.

 

I walked and ran back across the highway to my motel room.

 

The next morning I started early, to beat the heat.   This guy was having a smoke.

At 7:30 AM I passed this nice piece of commercial modernism.   These Martinizing buildings used to be all over Virginia.

 

My bicycle ride today would be thirty something miles over very hilly terrain to Stuart VA.   This area is all not technically part of the Appalachians, it is the Foothills.   The crest of the Appalachians is only a few miles to the west as my ride paralleled the ridge.  Martinsville and nearby Bassett are very industrial with textile and furniture factories, many or most permanently shuttered.

 

1962 Falcon

 

 

 

 

 

I entered Stuart on a back road where this completely abandoned lumber factory sits next to downtown.

 

Stuart VA (population 1,400) was renamed in 1884 after the Civil War general, who was born nearby.

At the Stuart Family Restaurant, on the site of what looks like a former Wendy’s my breakfast-as-lunch (two eggs over easy, bacon, grits, whole wheat toast, coffee) was delicious and included as many cups of coffee as I wanted.  There was no rush.  It cost $ 4.67.

Stuart at population 1400 has two downtowns, Uptown and Downtown.   It is quite a hike uphill between the two.   Uptown has the courthouse, two hotels, and a locally owned coffee house.

 

Just a block uphill from the coffee house was the Uptown Suites of Stuart, unusual in that someone is actually using the second story of an old downtown building in its initial use as a hotel.  My room inside seemed all new.  I believe the owner has other interests in town and there is not a full-time desk clerk.  There was great TV.

 

 

 

For dinner that night I walked down the steep hill from Uptown even though it seemed as if very few locals ever walk this route.  I ate at Tony’s which on a Saturday night had only one other patron.    Eggplant parmesan was delicious, and with a first course salad and one beer cost $ 10.83 total.

 

 

The next morning I got up and bicycled sixty miles back to my car in Greensboro.    The early morning light made the countryside look vivid.

 

 

Fifteen miles south of Stuart VA I had breakfast at Pinto’s Cafe which sits by itself on a two lane state highway in northern Stokes County NC.    It felt very “out there.”   Total bill was $3.80 for eggs, bacon, grits, toast, and coffee.

 

Back in Greensboro, my car was still there, although the guy whose house I parked in front of came out and talked to me.   He was really nice, he just wanted to know whose car that was!   He congratulated me on my bike ride.

 

This is a fascinating forty-nine mile loop.   Bike one direction from central Raleigh to Clayton along the Walnut Creek / Neuse River bicycle path.  Drink a coffee in downtown Clayton then bicycle back to Raleigh along Old US 70.   There is a lot of new and old North Carolina spread along this route.

I drove our car with my bicycle in the back the half an hour from our home in Chapel Hill to the near side of Raleigh.  Exiting I-40 onto Wade Avenue,  just after passing Whole Foods on the left I took a right on Dogwood Lane and parked the car on that street in a wooded neighborhood.    I pulled the bicycle out of the back.   This was my bike ride.

 

Raleigh’s real estate market is booming and has been so for thirty years.   A lot has been written about gentrification where young white people are moving into African-American neighborhoods.    The New York Times recently had an article that used Raleigh as an example of this trend.   What was not discussed is a parallel teardowner trend, previously “affordable” 1960’s white neighborhoods of inside-the-beltline Raleigh where “normal” houses are being replaced by much larger mini-mansions.

Homeowners and developers are tearing down houses that look like this:

 

and this:

The torn down house is replaced by houses that look like this:

and this:

The above photos were all taken near where my bicycle ride started, in the Dixie Forest and Forest Hills subdivisions.    The parallel trend on the other sided of town is the one The  New York Times was covering.   I biked east along Hillsborough Road, then through downtown and then through mostly African-American neighborhoods south and east of downtown.   Houses that look like this:

and this:

are being replaced by usually wealthier young white people  moving into newly built houses like this:

and this:

and even very attractive but expensive modernist row houses like this:

I biked past these neighborhoods into the greenway system.   In these same past thirty years Raleigh has developed what has to be one of the best systems of greenways in the America.   Most follow stream beds and sewer lines.  Only one of many greenways in Raleigh starts in the mostly African-American southeast side.   One can bike on greenways first along Walnut Creek, then along the Neuse River for almost twenty miles on perfectly paved and manicured greenways, ending in the town of Clayton in Johnston County.

 

When biking on public thoroughfares one has to learn when to ignore signs.   The first part of the Walnut Creek trail was “closed.”   What could I do?  I had nowhere else to go.  I did not want to bicycle on busy roads during a weekday.   I just ignored the signs, the trail was fine.

 

The Neuse River Trail ends about a mile from downtown Clayton.   From the trail parking lot  take a left on O’Neil Street, bicycle up the hill.

I have bicycled over many parts of America.  In past five – ten years I have noticed that locally owned coffee houses are opening up in previously vacant downtowns, functioning as a “third space” for all sorts of people.  They are opening in towns that one would not think would have a coffee house.  Maybe Starbucks has awakened a market.  On my previous trip to Boulevard in Clayton the barista was wearing something you would not see in Chapel Hill or Durham; a hat and shirt professing his Christian faith.  On the other hand here in Clayton at 10:30 AM on a Monday another barista was pouring a round of mimosas into champagne glasses for a group of middle aged women who were clearly celebrating something!  I got a soy milk latte and read The New Yorker on my kindle.

 

If you include I-40 there are about four parallel highways covering the seventeen miles from Clayton to Raleigh.   Main Street in Clayton is part of the oldest, the original US70.   On the newer routes these seventeen miles into Raleigh are mostly a continuous line of Walmarts and strip malls.   Nevertheless Old US70 from Clayton to downtown Raleigh is a trip back in time and a very nice bike ride.   It has very little traffic, even on a weekday.

 

 

For those interested in historic gas stations, (what you are not?) Old US70 has several.   The first is right here is Clayton.

 

Notice the prerequisite old men sitting on the bench out front.

I told these guys that this was the oldest looking gas station I had ever seen that still sold gas.   The guy on right seemed to know a lot about it; he knew the names of the current and past owners.   He claimed the building is from the 1920’s.   If so, that is a very old gas station.

Here are three other gas stations I noticed on Old US70.

 

 

There is also this modernist car wash.

About halfway to Raleigh I was confronted again by a closed road.    There is construction where Old US70 crosses I-40.    I ignored the signs and soldiered on.  It certainly reduces the car traffic!   Crossing the overpass through the blocked road on a bicycle was not a problem.

I passed these interesting buildings.

 

 

 

Old US70 approaches downtown Raleigh from the African-American side of town.   Likely because of the intrinsic racism of the commercial real estate market there are very few stores close to downtown when coming from the southeast.  Near downtown the road passes by metal recyclers and other waste industries.   One can bicycle right into downtown with hardly any traffic.   Downtown Raleigh and its adjacent warehouse district are booming.

Even with all this new development it is striking how much of America’s downtowns was built in the 1920’s when money was flowing freely.  The Sir Walter Raleigh, currently being redone.

 

It was just a couple miles further past downtown to my car parked on a residential street.   I passed by the NC State Campus fronting Hillsborough Street.   It has a long recognized architecture school.   A lot of 1950’s-60’s modernist public buildings survive around here.   I got back to my car and was home in Chapel Hill in time for a late lunch.

 

 

This is the second time Tootie and I have toured Holland together by bicycle.   The first time in 2014, if you remember, we made a big deal out of being able to ride our bicycles away from the airport, never taking any kind of taxi or public transportation.   This trip we wanted to see other parts of the country which necessitated getting a jumpstart by train.    There is only one major airport in Holland, Schiphol, which is fifteen miles south of Amsterdam.   The airport has its own train station, so one can take trains directly from the airport to destinations all over the country and beyond.

We flew into Schiphol on a Wednesday.   American Airlines did not charge any extra fee for Tootie’s oversized bicycle in a box, although both coming and going the airline attendant seemed unsure of the airlines own regulations about charging $ 150.00 each way for a bicycle.   (“They keep changing these rules!” they would say.).  Our other bicycle was my Bike Friday that fits into a suitcase.    We put the bicycles together after arrival to Schiphol airport and checked the empty box and suitcase at the Sheraton Amsterdam Airport, where we would be staying the final night in the country, seven nights hence.

We were able to wheel the bicycles onto the train.   We had chosen the medium sized city of Zwolle as a starting point on our bike ride, but less than an hour into the train ride the otherwise perfect Dutch rail system had some kind of problem.    We were stopped at the train station of the also medium sized city of Amersfoort, forty miles southeast of Amsterdam.  Why Zwolle anyway, we thought?   Let’s just start our trip in Amersfoort, a place neither of us previously knew anything about.  Rather than sit on a stopped train waiting for something to happen, we just got off the train and started bicycling through the city.  We bicycled up to a central square where people were sitting around enjoying the late afternoon.   I imagine the long dreary winters here encourage people to sit in the sun while it is available.   We got beers.

 

We found a nice hotel room with a very friendly proprietor right here on this square.      We had some dinner later on in the same area, then took a walk around.

Our general plan, if you call it that, was to bicycle over five or six days  to the northern city of Groningen, maybe a little beyond.   This is how our trip turned out.

The first day out we wanted to go all the way to the supposedly scenic city of Kampen, almost sixty miles north.    This was to be our longest cycling day.   Leaving central Amersfoort we passed through a city gate.   Tootie uses yellow and black Ortlieb panniers on the back of her bike.

 

The cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands is so vast and comprehensive that it is hard to accurately describe.   Any street busier than a minor residential street is equipped with a bicycle path.   In America, as well as the Netherlands, we of course expect every street and highway to have signs and signals to direct where a car or truck is supposed to go.    In the Netherlands there is a parallel and separate system for every road directing where bicycles and small motorcycles are supposed to go, including essentially every intersection in the country.   It is all designed to make a bicyclist feel safe.   We saw this as we cycled north from Amersfoort.

 

And people bicycle everywhere, with no helmets!   Families!   The cycling family in front of us was not at all unique, we saw this kind of thing many times.  The woman had one child in a hooded Spiderman outfit on the back of the bike (you can see the back of his little red head in the picture.)  She had another smaller child in her front carrier, which you cannot see in the picture.   She has a folded blue stroller sticking out of her back pannier.   And she has a third child riding his own bicycle, in a hooded alligator costume!

In the town of Harderwijk, where we stopped for lunch, this father was carrying all sorts of stuff on the bicycle.

 

They were having some sort of street market.

Much of the final portion of the ride into Kampen was on a dike that paralleled a canal.

 

Kampen, population 44,000, like many Dutch cities looks like what we think of as Amsterdam, narrow tall townhouses lining canals.


There were no conventional hotels available, we booked an Airbnb in one of these old houses lining the canals.   We got drinks at a table on the street overlooking the canal.   We walked around.

 

The next morning we biked north out of town.  Bicycle traffic was stopped at the red light crossing the bridge.    The other side, we looked back at Kampen from across the river.

 

 

We cycled north towards the city of Meppen.    This woman had one child on the back of her bicycle plus two following on their own.

It was a Saturday night and hotel rooms were scarce.    Northwest of Meppel in an area called Blauwe Hand there are a series of campgrounds on inland waterways.   European campgrounds are just different than American, the campground experience here is much more communal.

 

 

This trailer was for rent for US$ 88.00 a night including fees on Airbnb.    It was hot outside, the windows of the trailer had been completely shut, there was no air conditioning, and we had arrived in the heat of the day.   Initially at least, Tootie was not pleased!

 

She felt a little better later on when we bicycled a quarter mile down the road for early evening drinks at Elly’s Beach en Bistro, with its Caribbean / Hawaiian themes.    Little kids were playing in the sand but we had been bicycling outside all day in the sun.  We sat inside at the bar.

 

Refreshed, we went back to our trailer and chilled before walking to a restaurant at another campground across the road.    What American campground would boast of the quality of its semi-fancy restaurant?   This was likely the best meal we had in the Netherlands.    We ate outside to watch the sun go down over the water.    I got steamed mussels as an entree.

The next morning we cycled north a few kilometers to the town of Giethoorn.    There was a bike path along a canal.

Giethoorn is indeed a lovely town.  It describes itself as Little Venice.    When they were built these houses were only accessible by boat.

 

I now realized that for the two and a half days since we had left Amersfoort we had not seen anyone who physically looked African or Asian or Middle Eastern nor had we seen more than two vehicles with something other than “NL” Netherlands license plates.    (At the campground I saw two SUVs with German plates.   Germany is less than fifty miles away!)

We had no inkling that Giethoorn is a genuine tourist attraction.    As we bicycled into the area on a Sunday morning there were large groups of Asian and Middle Easterners renting boats.

 

We found a place to get our morning coffee and a croissant.    We propped up our bicycles against a fence.

 

Some of our cycling later that day was through forests.    It was nice to get out of the sun.   Of course there were bicycle trails on all the roads.

 

We had chosen our day’s destination to be the smaller town of Dwingeloo, from a recommendation from a guidebook.    We were determined to have a picnic lunch and stopped at an Aldi supermarket to stock up.    Just like in the USA the Aldi prices were super low and selection was limited.   Their fresh bread was actually quite good.   Totally unlike the USA, in this small town where there looked to be plenty of parking spaces, the Aldi supermarket had many more bicycles than cars parked out front.

Dwingeloo was actually a lovely town.  Instead of a town square it had an uncharacteristic town common, a green space at the center.

We found a nice hotel in the even smaller town of Lhee, just a mile from the center of Dwingeloo.    The next morning we decided to make one long push all the way to our destination Groningen, a distance of forty-something miles.    We passed through the mid-sized city of Assen, whose main claim to fame is being home of a huge pro motorcycle race once a year.    The center of the city was fetching.

Later on and out of town we stopped along the canal for a picnic lunch.

 

Groningen is population 260,000 including about sixty thousand students at two major universities.   Bicycling through the suburbs on the south side on a hot day, this family was headed towards the water.

There were other families cycling as well.

We ended up staying two nights at the Martini Hotel shown above.   Later that night we walked around.   There was a carnival going downtown.

 

It was really striking that after five days in rural Netherlands we had really not seen more than one or two African / Asian / Middle Eastern faces.   Rural Netherlands is like rural areas in many countries, not very diverse.   Once we came into the college city of Groningen, the ethnicity of faces changed dramatically.

Some have written that Groningen is the most bicycle friendly city in the world.  There are very very few cars in central Groningen, but I did not see a light rail system either. There are indeed buses, but almost all of the traffic is bicycles.   I surmise that the government has made the rules for driving a car on the streets in central Groningen  so onerous that people just give up and travel by bicycle.  What if there was a user-friendly bicycle path between Durham and Chapel Hill NC?  What if it allowed motorized bicycles as well?  This would cost much less than the proposed four billion dollar light rail.   Meanwhile, it was fun to just watch people on bicycles in Groningen.

 

 

We were leaving Groningen in mid-afternoon for the train back to Schiphol airport near Amsterdam.    That final morning we bicycled a twenty mile loop in the countryside northeast of town.    Bicycle paths are cut across the flat countryside.

Back in Groningen we had time for a nice lunch at a sidewalk cafe before boarding the train for the two hour ride back to the airport.    It was easy to store the bicycles on the train.