Archive for June, 2020

I really like Richmond, which is a two and a half hour / 166 mile drive from my home in Chapel Hill.  I can drive up there for the day.   On this trip I wanted to see the condition of the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue.   I drove off the freeway and looked for a place to park on the south side of town, across the James River from the main part of the city.    It was a neighborhood of trucking terminals and empty industrial spaces looking like a good place to dispose of a body.   On this Sunday morning no one was around so I figured my car would be OK for a few hours.  (Our 2005 Prius is full of dents and not really worth all that much!)  I pulled out my bicycle.  I had brought the Surley because fatter tires would be more comfortable on bumpy streets.


I bicycled towards the James River and the rest of Richmond.   This sketchy industrial wasteland only lasted about three blocks before I saw the first sign of gentrification, a former industrial space that has been converted to upscale housing.


On this trip I discovered thriving and growing urban neighborhoods south of the Fan that I had not biked through before.  Many of the late nineteenth century houses are smaller and some made of wood.   The Southside of the James River neighborhood of Manchester was typical.


In between older areas that had been torn down there was new construction going up all over the place.

Three of my four great-grandfathers fought for the Confederacy but I realized many years ago that their cause was wrong.   My first introduction in Richmond to Confederate “heroes” was passing over the James.


Earlier I had seen this while driving.


Most of Richmond is on the north side of the river.   I again passed through neighborhoods I had not seen before and I was impressed, thriving urban spaces south of I-195.


North of Cary Street I entered the large neighborhood called The Fan.  Houses were built bigger and fancier.

Monument Avenue runs along the north side of The Fan.   As a street and a piece of urban planning it is lovely.   Richmond has become a happening cosmopolitan city and to advance further as a city it might not be able to accept what these Confederate statues represent.   Bob Lee is the oldest and largest, erected in 1890 as part of the real estate development that was Monument Avenue.   It looked peaceful when I took this photo of the statue in October 2019.


This is what it was like on Sunday June 14,  2020.  It felt like the Berlin Wall is coming down.




The atmosphere was festive and friendly at 11:00 AM on a Sunday morning.  A group was performing some kind of dance routine.  This video is only twenty three seconds long.


African Americans were taking pictures of each other standing at the base of the graffiti covered statue.  They appeared to be proud to be there with their children to record this event.



“Give me liberty or give me death” was quoted by Patrick Henry in 1775 only about a mile away from here.



I bicycled up and down Monument Avenue on a delightfully unseaonably cool sunny day.   People. that I assume include residents of this upper class neighborhood were out in force, including picnickers.








The Jefferson Davis memorial is Monument Avenue’s most egregious; it honors less the man (who was not a Virginian) than the cause and the ideology.  This is what it looked like when I photographed it in October 2019.  The relatively small statue of Davis stands at the center.


The statue of Davis is gone now.  It was torn off by a crowd about a week ago.





The other three Civil War era statues were all covered in graffiti but not otherwise damaged.

Stonewall Jackson


Matthew Fontaine Maury


J.E.B. Stuart




The Arthur Ashe statue stands further west and was untouched on this Sunday morning, although I have since heard that a contrary group has defaced it slightly.



I stopped and took a break for my lunch (vegan chicken salad from Weaver Street Market in Carrboro NC on seven grain bread, carried with a gel pack to keep it cool) at the tiny but peaceful Scuffletown Park.


I turned to bicycle back to my car.   I passed through the Byrd Park neighborhood, another area that I had not previously bicycled through.

I crossed the James River on the Boulevard toll bridge.  The James River provides white water action right here in the city.


Back in the Manchester neighborhood near my car I got an almond milk latte to drink during the drive home.   Brewer’s Cafe is a locally and African-American owned coffee shop.

I was back in Chapel Hill NC about 4:30 PM.

About two weeks ago a friend emailed and asked if I could do my next bike ride to Chase City VA and document it.   This was a first.  How could I refuse?  He is an old friend and has been an enthusiastic reader of my blog.  He really wanted to read about Chase City.  It helped that Chase City is not too far from my home in Chapel Hill NC.

I have known Tom since we were five years old.   As teenagers we did all sorts of stuff including extensive bike rides.  Later, Tom was a high school teacher on an American military base in Germany for thirty years until his retirement last year.   He continues to live in Europe in a rural area where he and his wife can keep their own horses.

Tom and I grew up about a mile apart in Virginia Beach; his father was a dentist; his mother a housewife.  Both Tom’s parents were originally from Chase City VA and both his parent’s families went back many generations in Chase City.  When I visited Tom’s house in Virginia Beach as a child his parent’s talk frequently was about Chase City.  Other than Tom I do not know anyone who knows anything about Chase City VA; I had otherwise never heard of the place.

Chase City is in the heart of a region of Virginia called Southside.   With the exception of a few areas in the mountains Southside is the poorest and most remote part of Virginia.  After college in the late 1970’s both Tom and his older sister separately moved to Chase City and its environs.  Tom lasted five years teaching at minimal pay in a middle school before he quit to take the Germany job.   He described life for a single guy in Clarksville VA as bleak and hopeless.   His sister lasted much longer living in Chase City but moved to Charlottesville when she and her husband’s daughters were entering high school.   The consensus was that Chase City was just too remote.

Chase City (population 2,500)  is indeed remote.   The closest major cities are Richmond VA one hundred miles to the north and Durham NC seventy miles to the south.   Chase City is not on any major highway.   I started my bike ride in Clarksville VA (population 1,100) is seventeen miles south of Chase City.

During this coronavirus pandemic I do my bicycle rides so I do not have to physically get near anyone.   I bring my own food and water.  The summer had arrived; it was going up to ninety degrees this day.  My ride would have to start early to beat the heat.   I left our Chapel Hill apartment at 5:45 AM on a Sunday morning for the 75 minute drive to Clarksville VA.    At 7:00 AM I parked our car at a Hardee’s on the northern fringe of Clarksville, just three miles north of the North Carolina line.





Here is the bicycle ride I took.


I first biked through central Clarksville.


Virginia used to have matching state liquor stores all over the state.   They had glass bricks and double doors.  As a small child in the early 1960’s I used to ride with my father to the liquor store on Pacific Avenue in Virginia Beach.  In his Madmenesque persona he went to buy supplies for his nightly scotch and soda.  The store in Virginia Beach is long gone but here in Clarksville this must be one of the few of its type left.



The one attraction that seems to bring people and money to otherwise remote Clarksville is Kerr Lake.   Constructed 1947-52 by damming the Roanoke River, the lake straddles the North Carolina / Virginia Line and comes right up to downtown Clarksville.


I biked on US-15 as it crosses the lake.

I bicycled toward Chase City, first on US-15 then on state route 49.

I did not see any tobacco growing but there are a lot of old tobacco barns out here.




State route 49 had almost no traffic.





I had arrived at Chase City!



I noodled around by bicycle through the downtown.







Compared to other places I have visited Chase City is keeping up appearances.   Yes, most storefronts were empty but there was a real CVS downtown and the “city”  did not look completely dead.     Some civic organization had set up picnic tables right downtown.  It was still only 9:00 AM, time for breakfast!   I stopped and took out my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and read the Sunday NYT on my cell phone.



I am sure my friend Tom knows of houses of (mostly dead) relatives all over town.   I do not know which houses they would be so I took pictures at random.





It seems very Virginia to put all this detail into a historic preservation sign.

It was getting hot and I still had to bicycle all the way back to Clarksville.   Heading out of Chase City I passed THREE pre-WWII gas stations within a block or two of each other   The one with the fake Gulf sign has a plaque saying it was built in 1920.



On the way back I took a different route on smaller roads with even more pleasant bike riding.

I passed through the “town” of Skipwith VA.

I passed the county high school Bluestone High School (mid-century modernism!).  It sits by itself confidently in the countryside despite being in what seems to be the middle of nowhere.

As I passed back through downtown Clarksville on the way back to my car I saw this junk lying between two buildings.

I made it back to my car by 11:30 AM.   I was able to drive home in time to make a delicious lunch for myself at the apartment back in Chapel Hill.

I parked at a gas station/mini-mart just to the north of town.   There seemed to be plenty of spaces so maybe no one would care if I left our car there for 3 – 4 hours.


I was about a mile north of downtown Laurinburg.   Laurinburg (population 16,000) is ninety miles south of Chapel Hill near the South Carolina line.   This is the farthest I have driven for one of these same day trips, where I take a bike ride and stay socially distant.  I came down here mostly to see the unique airport that is south of Laurinburg.

I biked into town through what must be the poorer side.    Wikipedia says Laurinburg Institute is a historically black boarding school.   Because of COVID I could not tell if it was open or closed.  There was grass growing around the parking lot.


I biked onward toward downtown Laurinburg.





I bicycled out of town towards the airport.  A lot of people just looked poor.

Smithfield, now owned by a Chinese company, is the largest pork producer in the world.  Just forty-five miles away in the tiny town of Tar Heel NC (population 117) is the world’s largest pork processing plant, where the they kill over 30,000 pigs per day.    I saw Smithfield signs all over the Laurinburg area.   This particular facility was on the east side of downtown Laurinburg.

I biked out of town onto the flat landscape and saw other signs indicating Smithfield.



The flat swampy landscape extended as far as the eye could see.

The Laurinburg-Maxton airport was built as an Army training base during World War II with a 6500′ runway.   There are today two or three companies in the California and Arizona desert where hundreds of older passenger jets are lined up to be scrapped.   For some reason a minor player in the jet junkyard business is here in humid Laurinburg.   I have been coming out here for several years and most of the same jets have been here the whole time.  This is a Northwest Airlines DC-10.


The airport is only lightly fenced.  About ten years ago I was here on bicycles with my late friend Dave Latowsky.   He was always much more brazen than me, he encouraged me and we rode our bicycles through an open gate and out underneath these jets.   But that was then, on a Sunday.   Here today on a weekday I just had to look at these giant 747’s from the road.


This former Southwest Airlines 737 is a relatively new arrival.

I bicycled completely around the airport on flat smooth roads with so little traffic that it felt uncomfortable.   There is other weird shit out here.   This airport is not a military base but it sometimes seems that way.   I learn from the web that the Gryphon Group is a private company that does combat training for the military.   Warriors apparently only drive pickup trucks.


From the road you could see several of its combat training grounds including a fake bombed out Middle Eastern looking town.


I biked back to Laurinburg on Business US-74.   Truckers for Trump.


The opioid epidemic is underreported.  I saw a lot of signs about pharmacies and drugs.

There were several cool looking commercial Mid-Century Modern structures that I saw in the Laurinburg area.

The south side of Laurinburg can be quite nice.   I did not go as far south as the six hundred student St. Andrews University.    Searching for a place for my picnic lunch I found Hammond Park.  It was surrounded on all sides by a residential neighborhood and had a picnic shelter.  Peanut butter and jelly.    I tried not to touch anything as I read The New Yorker on my kindle.

I saw almost no efforts of people attempting to social distance or wear masks in Laurinburg.   These kids were playing on the playground.

I biked the half hour back to the car north of town and drove home.   I got there in time to cook dinner for Tootie and me.   I had tried to stop at the drive-in Starbucks in Aberdeen on the way but the line was too long.