It was going to be a beautiful day for December, sunny and highs in the low sixties, both at home in Chapel Hill NC and 130 miles northwest in Roanoke VA. The weather would not be this pleasant again for months. Where to go? Why not Roanoke VA? At a little over two and a half hours each way driving Roanoke is about my limit for a one day up and back car ride. I had visited the downtown area of Roanoke before but had never explored its neighborhoods.
I drove our 2005 Prius from Chapel Hill NC to Roanoke VA on the back roads and arrived late morning into the fringes of Roanoke looking for somewhere to park the car for the day. This lower-class looking neighborhood fronted a greenway that I had not been familiar with. Why not just park here and start bicycling?
Roanoke is at a low spot in the Blue Ridge Mountains, making it a natural east/west transit point. Unusual among the larger cities of Virginia, Roanoke (current population 99,000) was not a major city in Colonial times. Before 1880 there had been a settlement here called Big Lick that had only a few hundred people. Big Lick was renamed Roanoke and became a railroad boomtown starting in about 1884. By 1900 there were 21,000 people living here, by 1950 91,000. Before it merged with other railroads in 1982 to become the now Atlanta based Norfolk Southern, for about a hundred years Roanoke was the corporate and operational headquarters of the Norfolk & Western Railway. Until 1953 all of N&W’s steam locomotives were built here, the last ones of which, the streamlined “J” class, were the about most advanced coal-powered steam locomotives ever built.
Roanoke continues to be a hub for Norfolk Southern, although I am sure there are dramatically fewer employees now.
Cycling on the greenway until it ended, I turned onto the streets of this hilly city. Because of its rapid growth early in the 20th century, I discovered that Roanoke has miles of neighborhoods built in that era, often several miles from downtown. I cannot think of any North Carolina city that has as many intact neighborhoods of early 20th century housing as Roanoke VA.
I bicycled back towards downtown, noodling around the streets, just taking in the urbanity of it all.
I cycled through Downtown on this Sunday early afternoon.
It was past lunchtime. From home in Chapel Hill I had brought a peanut butter sandwich (on whole grain bread from Weaver Street Market!) Downtown right next to the railroad tracks is the Taubman Art Museum which sits behind Morning Brew Coffee Co. I got an almond milk latte and sat outside socially distant, eating my sandwich and peacefully watching the world go by, especially the trains on the adjacent tracks.
I then bicycled underneath the highway overpass next to the art museum and Downtown so that I could see the huge railroad maintenance facility Roanoke Shops. In the 1930’s it employed six thousand. This is where all the N&W steam locomotives were built. Roanoke Shops has been gradually shuttered over fifty years. The last major operations were terminated in June 2020 although even on this Sunday afternoon it appeared to me that work here was still going on.
I cycled around to the other side of the Shops complex, looking for better views, but I ended up just noodling through other Roanoke neighborhoods.
I had telephoned my best Roanoke connection and he immediately invited me over for socially distant hanging out at his house, which was back in the southwestern part of town that I had visited earlier. I had met Chuck Reedy in graduate school in Arizona in about 1979 and we have stayed in touch. He has lived in Roanoke about all his life and he and his wife Carol have a lovely circa 1923 house. We sat on opposite sides of his front porch.
My car was parked several miles away. I bid goodbye to Chuck and Carol and bicycled back through to the other side of Downtown, then across the Roanoke River.
I put the bicycle in the car and drove home to Chapel Hill in time for dinner.
Postscript: Those who are not interested in bathroom TMI can stop reading now.
Especially during a pandemic it is difficult to find a bathroom when cycling in cities. Much earlier in the day I needed to go. As I cycled on a residential street through one of those older Roanoke neighborhoods, the houses and street pushed up against a cliff, below which appeared to be a public park. The house at the end of the block had a lot of stuff in the yard. Just beyond what appeared to be the property line between their lot and the park and next to the street stood this port-a-john. Why was this here? Who does this belong to? Was this part of the park or these people’s yard?
No one seemed to be around or looking so I took my chances. In my life I have never entered a port-a-potty that was anything other than disgusting. This one smelled, seriously, like lilacs. It was quite nice, like visiting someone’s guest bathroom.