Three days cycling southern Virginia, April 11- 14, 2022

My plan, thought up a couple days before departure, was to bicycle from my house in Chapel Hill NC to Lynchburg VA. Why not? It has never been done, at least by me.

Chapel Hill is part of the booming Raleigh/Durham area. People are constantly moving here, new businesses are starting up, construction and growth, both good and bad, are constant. I knew that heading straight north from Chapel Hill I would be leaving this boomtown behind, heading into an area where life moves slower. This was the bike ride I eventually took.

The ride started in my kitchen on the seventh floor of the Greenbridge building in Chapel Hill. It has been only about a month since I received my Bike Friday back from a complete overhaul by the factory in Oregon, including a new blue paint job. I made two sandwiches for lunch (one tuna salad, one almond butter and strawberry jam) and strapped them on the back in a “reusable” HEB bag.

Down the elevator and onto the street! The heaviest car traffic of the entire day was a two or three mile stretch of new NC-86 just north of Chapel Hill, and even this was not much of a problem.

I turned right on New Hope Church Road.

Soon it was a left on NC-10, then a right on Lawrence Road. Weaving through back roads like this I headed further north, bypassing the trendy Hillsborough NC. A huge amount of tech-related wealth has been created in the RDU area in the past thirty years, and that money has to go somewhere. The countryside north of Hillsborough has become ground zero for monster “farms.”

As if tripping a switch, eight or ten miles north of Hillsborough the wealthy looking countryside suddenly ended, and “real America” begins. Houses still lined the country roads, but they were no longer for rich people. The countryside was lovely, car traffic almost nonexistent.

I stopped and ate lunch sitting on a guardrail

The factory town of Roxboro was my next intermediate destination.

Roxboro NC
Roxboro NC
downtown Roxboro NC

Roxboro NC does not have a Starbucks but it does have the locally owned Tricia’s Expresso, downtown facing the courthouse. I got an oat milk latte (one pack sugar!), and sat outside on the sidewalk.

Rested, I headed north towards the Virginia line. It was quiet and peaceful as I cycled on a state highway that parallels the US15-501.

I crossed the state line into Virginia and the landscape changed into just woods.

South Boston VA (population 8,000) as a town is not particularly old by Virginia standards but somewhere that grew rapidly in the late 1800’s around the tobacco industry. Population growth has leveled off or even declined in recent decades. Even though South Boston culturally is much more Southern than the Raleigh/Durham area to the south, South Boston to me looks physically more northern, in that houses in the older part of town are closer together than those in North Carolina towns.

There are several motels around South Boston but they are all out on the highway. A cyclist without a car does better staying in town. I found a room as the only guest of the Charles Bass House B&B.

The accommodations were delightful; great TV (where I watched the PBS Newshour), great bathroom, even white Terry robes I didn’t even put on.

Where to eat dinner after cycling over seventy miles? The Four Oaks Restaurant & Lounge seemed the only decent place open in-town. It was less than a mile away, up a down a few hills by bicycle. I would have to cycle back in the dark.

The Four Oaks is very old school. Restaurants in Chapel Hill no longer have salad bars. Because of COVID I still am not truly relaxed in an indoor setting but here I had no choice, so I sat by myself a couple of tables away from a woman sitting next to a man in cammo.

There was salad, then potato soup from the salad bar, then the $21.95 eight ounce ribeye including one side and salad bar. I chose garlic mashed potatoes. I have high cholesterol and usually do not get large pieces of red meat but I was really hungry today.

Everything was delicious, especially when accompanied by two or three glasses of wine. The restaurant staff were very nice. I skipped dessert and climbed onto the bicycle to get back to my room for some sleep.

The proprietor of my B&B is named John and is about my age. He is divorced and his kids have moved away. He is retired from his engineering job . The next morning he made me a lovely breakfast which included real maple syrup. He says he does everything in his B&B, not only the room cleaning and cooking the breakfast, but ironing the breakfast placemats and napkins!

After breakfast I cycled away, heading north. I passed some larger old homes north of downtown.

Not keeping up appearances: note the missing window on the third floor

Crossing the big highway I realized where most of the commercial activity of South Boston VA really happens. There is a Walmart, of course; and a McDonalds.

The development stops quickly on leaving South Boston and for most of the day I hardly saw car traffic as I meandered through Virginia country roads. The region is sparsely populated. My destination this day would be Altavista VA; forty something miles to the northwest.

Growing tobacco clearly used to be a major deal here, both north and south of the Virginia/North Carolina line. What I assume are tobacco barns were ubiquitous. Frequently I cycled by them every quarter mile or so, sometimes in clusters. There seems to be very little agriculture going on now, tobacco or otherwise.

abandoned farmhouse

Both this day and the day before I saw several pre-WWII gas stations.

Altavista VA (population 3,500) seems a working class town with several prominent factories.

factory and a Dollar General

There are a couple of motels on the fringes of Altavista but also an Airbnb that looked promising, at least online. The guy messaged me a code to get in the basement door. Staying there was a mistake. I had to share a bathroom with some guy and I could hear people walking around on the floor above from my low-ceilinged basement room.

The Airbnb building
My entrance was through the lower left basement door

Altavista is not an upscale town. I was very lucky that there was an engaging local place to eat dinner; the Two Sisters Tap Room & Deli. It still also functions as a gas station and convenience store. I could choose from a big selection of local beers and my turkey sandwich on homemade bread was quite good. I got a hot dog for dessert. The restaurant is popular. Indoors was crowded, with a bar and lots of indoor seating but In these COVID times I could sit outside, although no one else seemed too concerned about the disease.

A political note: We are always looking for cultural and political cues. To my Chapel Hill eyes the Two Sisters looked hippy-dippy, with the stickers and slogans “BUY LOCAL.” “Never sit at a table when you can stand at the bar – Ernest Hemingway”. As a deliberately messy gas station/restaurant/bar with an attitude the Two Sisters looks exactly like the Saxapahaw General Store back home near Chapel Hill NC, which I have always considered hippy-dippy and left wing. But the Two Sisters also proclaimed “Don’t Tread on Me” above the entrance and even more egregious, instead of sports, Newsmax TV News was playing at the bar, Fox News apparently not radical enough.

checkout counter; bar to the right
above the entrance of the Two Sisters

The next morning I wanted to get out of that nasty Airbnb as soon as possible. I cycled down the hill to downtown Altavista for the Main Street Cafe & Coffee (isn’t that repetitive?). There were bible verses on the wall.

A friendly attitude served up an oat milk latte with one pack sugar, plus a ham and cheese croissant, flattened and warmed on the grill. I could sit safely outside and watch the world go by, while also reading The New Yorker on my Kindle.

As the crow flies downtown Lynchburg is only twenty-something miles from Altavista but bicycling from there I faced numerous obstacles including huge hills and traffic laden major highways. I had plenty of time so I wanted to make the bike ride safe and pleasant by taking a longer route if necessary.

For the first fifteen to twenty miles from Altavista the country roads were delightful cycling.

uphill through Altavista VA
Proud To Be American, Altavista VA
north of Altavista VA

The final miles into Lynchburg were terrible cycling. You really do not want more detail. The city and its immediate suburbs funnel all traffic into major four or six lane highways. Minor residential streets that would be good cycling are almost all dead-ends, usually including steep hills.

That aside, I love Lynchburg, at least the physical appearance of its older city. Lynchburg (population 79,000) is part of my designated Three Historic and Crumbling Southern Virginia Urban Spaces That Need To Be More Loved. (The other two are Danville VA and Petersburg VA.)

Approaching Lynchburg from the northwest I could see Lynchburg’s current big growth industry Liberty University. Leaving aside any socio-political discussion, my hunch was confirmed by talking to a couple of locals, that Liberty’s explosive growth is confined mostly to its suburban location and it has not done much to help revitalize Lynchburg’s historic core city. These social conservatives apparently are not urbanists.

LU on the hill above Liberty University

In that difficult to cycle area between Liberty University and the downtown I stumbled onto a fetching outdoor taco stand. Time for lunch!

I finally cycled into downtown. One of Lynchburg’s nicknames is Hill City. Both the commercial downtown and historic nineteenth century neighborhoods seem ready to slide down a precipice.

After my sleazy and low cost Airbnb the night before I threw caution to the wind and booked the nicest and most expensive hotel in downtown Lynchburg, the recently renovated Virginian.

Late in the afternoon I walked around downtown. Like most American cities now there are several locally owned breweries. One of them was open to the street. I stopped in for a dark porter.

I ate that night at the Skyline, on the roof of the Virginian hotel. Sure, it’s just Lynchburg but it felt very cosmopolitan. Everything was open to the springtime evening.

I think this guy was a waiter.
poke appetizer with a side of fries

The next morning I was to cycle about eight miles to a Hertz office to pick up a rental car to drive back to Raleigh/Durham. Cycling in the city of Lynchburg is terrible except where it is great. Some of that bicycle ride to Hertz was on a converted rail line called the James River Heritage Trail. It is one of the most scenic of such paths that I have seen.

start of the trail, bottom of the hill along the James River, downtown Lynchburg

The trail ended and the final couple of miles cycling on busy roads was scary but I got my rental car. I drove it and the bicycle home to Chapel Hill, arriving by mid afternoon.

5 responses to “Three days cycling southern Virginia, April 11- 14, 2022”

  1. Harvey Botzman Avatar
    Harvey Botzman

    We were but 45 miles apart when you were bicycling in southwestern Virginia. I had my fingernails covered in potting soil transplanting 100+ different varieties of tomatoes; 60+ varieties of peppers; 5-10 different varieties of every other type of vegetable & flower your mind could conger.

    I rode Amtrak from Rochester NY to Roanoke VA. Yes, the trip took ~18 hours on three different train routes. The Acela train between New York City & Washington DC allowed me to “catch” the Roanoke bound Northeast Regional (NER) train in the nation’s capital. The early morning Rochester train arrived in NYC just a bit too late to board the NER Roanoke bound train. Good thing I didn’t have to go through a customs check. I didn’t even have to show my passport or ID!

    I was visiting my cousin Bruce & his family in Roanoke from April 4-14. He owns & operates Riverside (plant) Nursery in Salem VA. It is along the Roanoke River between Salem & Roanoke. After 35 years he wants to retire, do you know anyone who would like to own a plant nursery? In reality it is a 6 month profitable business.

    His son and daughter in-law own “Edibles: Blue Ridge.” You might have read it when you tired of reading the New Yorker on the Kindle. I think a few of your travels, include this one would make a good story for the publication.

    I enjoyed your New Orleans walk too.

  2. It’s too bad that Lynchburg muddied its name by being linked to Liberty University, which has made a name for itself with questionable financial arrangements and by its misogynist policy of disciplining women when they are rape victims.

  3. No guardrail ukulele playing this trip? Kudos to South Boston for apparently enforcing a signage ordinance and rendering the McDonald’s sign to dwarf status. Every little bit helps. Love all those old tobacco sheds. Sad to see local agricultural history crumbing. Maybe a local bicycle trail connecting a few restored tobacco sheds with a brewery housed in one is in order? I’m dreaming.

  4. So sad to see their agricultural and architectural heritage as represented by the tobacco sheds is crumbling. Maybe a local initiative to restore a few with interpretive signage? I’m dreaming. Sigh.

  5. Another wonderful non-mass or mass media observation America. Many years ago when I was an apprentice optician, a trainer came to the new store I were I was working. Among other things he made a point of differentiating “cheap” from “inexpensive.” “Cheap” implying poor quality. “Inexpensive” implying good value/quality for the price. The motels you stayed at this trip were inexpensive. Your travel tip about how to judge an inexpensive from a cheap model is very important for low cost travelers such as myself and you.

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