Archive for the ‘Coronavirus Diaries 2020’ Category

It’s not as outrageous sounding as the actual town of Intercourse PA but who knew there was a Climax NC? Fifteen miles south of Greensboro? I needed a starting point for an afternoon’s bike ride. Climax NC is only ten or twelve miles from Liberty NC, so this made for a nice rural thirty mile bicycle loop on a Friday afternoon with temperatures in the forties and fifties. I drove west about an hour from my home in Chapel Hill NC and parked right at the center of Climax. Climax is hardly a town, really just a crossroads, a couple of gas stations and a Dollar General.

I pulled the bicycle out of the car and started cycling from this parking lot.,
Dead strip mall, Climax NC

I set out in the direction of Liberty NC through the rural Piedmont of central North Carolina. If a bicyclist takes the most remote roads, one can usually find lovely smooth rural roads with almost no traffic.

There were lots of animals!

These are buildings I thought looked interesting.

Liberty NC (population 2,600) felt like a real city compared to Climax NC.

Kettle Corn downtown, about the only business open
At least pre-COVID the theater looks very much in use
No bicycles?

I bicycled back to the car in Climax, taking a longer circular route, enjoying the rural character.

My car was still there at the Dollar General in Climax. I stopped at the Starbucks in south Greensboro on the way home, a latte to drink while driving.

The one stoplight in Climax NC

I drove the half hour over to Raleigh from my home in Chapel Hill. I like looking at buildings. I street parked on the near side in the neighborhood off Wade Avenue, just behind Whole Foods. It was cold outside, I had gloves and a hood.

I started biking around, taking pictures of modern buildings in the brilliant light.

Apartment complex in west Raleigh

NC State has had an esteemed architecture school for many decades and the modernist spirit seems to effect many or most of NC State’s buildings. Classes were on winter break so I biked through campus with almost no one around. Even parking garages can be fetching.

The campus was quite open for bicycling.

I was hardly aware that the NC State Centennial Campus existed until quite recently. It is physically separate from the older main campus, built just recently southwest of the existing campus, the other side of railroad tracks and the big highway Western Boulevard.

Another relatively new building in this same area is the Catholic cathedral for Raleigh: the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral, opened in 2017. Clearly conservatives were in charge of picking an architect. The cathedral seats two thousand and sits in the middle of a giant parking lot. Couldn’t they have been more original than this?

I enjoyed cycling around the new NC State Centennial Campus, looking at the pretty buildings.

For the rest of the bike ride I did a big loop east towards downtown Raleigh. Off Dorothea Drive just southwest of downtown a developer has built a brand new neighborhood that recalls, I dunno, Charleston SC? Raleigh never had old neighborhoods that looked like this but I like it just the same.

I biked all along Fayetteville Street through downtown, then turned back cycling west and back to my car for the thirty minute drive home.

Sometimes I am so A.D.D. that I really cannot seem to plan anything. I could not seem to decide where to go next. I decided just to ride towards South Carolina and Florida and see how it goes. During this pandemic I want to guard my own health but more importantly I do not want to contribute to the disease spread either.

The weather is a problem. It is cold outside. During warmer weather during a six hour bike ride one can stop repeatedly to rest, drink water, relax. During very cold weather bicycle rides are pleasant only if you ride with all the necessary clothing and do all biking in one session, then going indoors to warm up. During a pandemic there are almost no places to go indoors.

This is the bike ride I ended up doing. I made up the route as I went along.

Food and lodging while bicycle touring in cold weather in a pandemic changes things as well. Bicycling across the USA in 1974 my friends and I slept in parks and woods and ate from supermarkets out of tin cans. As an older man I now I can afford to be pickier; I like staying in Airbnb’s and hotels and eating at good restaurants. During a pandemic why not cook in a hotel room? It is winter outside; the only near-safe place to eat in a restaurant is outdoors. How much fun would it be to eat outdoors in the cold? Clearly, not much. I also am not a huge fan of restaurant take-out. The food never seems as good. Cooking one’s own food is healthier.

I thought about examples of cooking while traveling. BACKpacking is hiking and then camping and cooking each night; that has a long tradition. BIKEpacking is bicycling and then camping and cooking outdoors each night; that also has a big following. One can find almost anything on Google, and I found a website about cooking in a hotel room, but where you have driven to the hotel by car. That website passionately advocates the advantages of an electric rice cooker. What about bicycle touring where I would have to carry everything but then sleep in a hotel room but also COOK and EAT there as well!

I already own a rice cooker at home and use it 3 – 4 times per week, but it clearly is too big to lug on the back of a bicycle. On Amazon dot com for $19.95 I bought a MINI electric rice cooker. It came to my apartment (of course) in only two days. At just over two pounds it is still a little heavy.

coffee cup is to give you an idea of the size of the mini rice cooker

My list was already too long and when I do this trip again I will make the list shorter. I (crazily) thought I might need another source of cooking heat. Propane backpacking stoves are lovely pieces of machinery and weigh almost nothing; I brought one of those, along with a tiny nonstick frying pan Tootie had got at Target. I went to the supermarket Harris-Teeter near my house and bought a variety of easy to carry food; surprisingly light packets of tuna and olives and chocolate and coffee and almonds; a small plastic bottle of olive oil and a loaf of whole wheat bread. At home I packed salt, sugar, peanut butter, strawberry jam, and brown rice into small plastic containers. I put oatmeal, grits/polenta, and spices into plastic bags. I would bring a couple of frozen Italian sausages, a potato, a lemon, an onion, a tube of pesto, and a can of tuna in olive oil.

food I brought, just before I packed it the morning of my departure

I decided to head south on Sunday morning January 3. My plan was to cycle as far as I felt comfortable, then come back in a rental car some days later. At home in Chapel Hill NC the temperature was about 40F with a slight drizzle. The weather was supposed to clear up after 10:00 AM. I packed up the bicycle and got ready to go. On my bicycle tours over the past ten years I have always been proud of the tiny amount of stuff I usually carry. This was different, I packed not only my usual black trunk bag but also filled both of my wife Tootie’s Ortlieb yellow waterproof panniers with food, stoves, and warm clothing. I could not believe how heavy the bicycle felt; about twenty-two pounds of stuff on the back.

Just before leaving I looked online at Airbnb and booked for about a hundred dollars total an entire apartment that evening in the golf resort Pinehurst, almost seventy miles to the south. It sounded like a great deal. I would not have to have contact with anyone as the owner gave me a code for the door.

I kissed Tootie goodbye and headed out. I mistakenly thought the rain had stopped. I wanted to cover some territory, get away from home before dawdling on circuitous smaller roads. I broke my own precedent and bicycled the seventeen miles from Chapel Hill to Pittsboro on the big highway US15-501. There is a shoulder and it felt less dangerous than expected, especially with the light Sunday morning traffic.

in the drizzle, 15-501 just south of Chapel Hill

The highway crossed the Haw River by the town of Bynum NC. It had been raining for days and days. Here and subsequent rivers and creeks were overrunning their banks.

Haw River
Haw River

South of Pittsboro I was able to find much calmer roads, for the rest of the day, and the next, and the next, I was able to cycle on almost empty paved roads.

south of Pittsboro NC on Pittsboro Goldston Road

I cycled through the small southern Chatham County of Goldston NC, population 268.

Goldston NC

The drizzly rain had stopped and the sun was starting to come out.

Goldston NC

It was still over thirty miles from Goldston to Pinehurst, as the North Carolina Piedmont mixed hardwood forests transitioned to the pine forests of the North Carolina Sandhills.

I had made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before leaving home back in Chapel Hill. It was too cold to sit around so I established a precedent for this trip by eating lunch while gently cycling down the almost empty highway.

Pinehurst! A world famous golf resort. Why such a low price on the condo? I guess business is slow because of the pandemic. People can still play golf but do not feel safe going to bars and restaurants. The skies had cleared and the sun was out as I cycled through town to the quite nice Airbnb condo that fronted course Pinehurst No. 5. I was tired. It had been a long day.

View of the Airbnb condo from the golf course
View from inside the condo

I had stopped in the Lowe’s supermarket in Pinehurst and had bought only two items; a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc and some mustard greens, my favorite winter greens.

This condo had a full kitchen so I did not have to use any my own cooking equipment. Using food I had brought I made polenta with a squirt of tubed pesto on top plus cooked mustard greens and one of those Italian sausages, which I had roasted in the oven. I cooked the other sausage as well and refroze it cooked, to carry the next day.

The next morning outside my window golfers were already at it in the thirty something cold.

After oatmeal and walnuts for breakfast in the condo I put on my gear and headed out. I had booked a motel that night in Bennettsville, South Carolina; at least sixty miles to the south. The land flattened out and I bicycled across pine forests scattered with mobile homes.

I have bicycled by the Laurinburg-Maxton Airport before. A former air base, among many users is a company that junks large jets.

ex Northwest Airlines Boeing 727
ex Northwest Airlines wide body DC10

I then bicycled through the town of Laurinburg, then across the South Carolina state line.

Growing up in Virginia Beach my mother used to cook us spots, a small salt water fish, one whole fried fish per family member.
A dog behind the fence was barking the whole time during this photo

It was still about fifteen miles to Bennettsville SC where I had planned to stay the night. I cycled on a flat smooth back road, really delightful cycling. Once again I saw water that was really high.

The water was so high that it had washed the road out. Luckily on a bicycle I could go around the barricades. It certainly helped keep car traffic off the road.

Bennettsville SC (population 9,000) has picturesque older houses, some in need of a little TLC.

Judging by the online reviews the Quality Inn seemed to be the best place in Bennettsville.

I checked in. In many of these rural motels one sees as fellow guests contractors. They must travel doing utility maintenance. They were standing around their specialized trucks in the parking lot, chatting.

It was about five in the afternoon and it was getting dark. There was a Food Lion across the big highway and for about two dollars total I bought a nicely ripe avocado and some kale.

I could start my “cooking in a hotel room” project! I began by wiping down all the surfaces with sanitizing wipes. I washed the kale in the hotel room sink.

Luckily the room had a refrigerator and microwave. The week before I had bought from REI a backpacking “spork”, a lightweight plastic plate, and a plastic cooking pot. I de-stemmed the kale and used the plastic pot to microwave the kale with a little water and salt. Cooked kale, the avocado, one packet of olives, olive oil, salt and lemon it made for a nice first course.

Sorry food snobs but as uncooked ground corn: yellow grits and polenta are pretty much the same thing. Both come in varying grinds. The Italians like to cook their grits/polenta longer. With half an hour or more of stirring polenta is creamier and it soaks up olive oil deliciously. My new rice cooker with its nonstick cooking surface made polenta even easier than the stove at home.

I microwaved my cooked sausage for a few seconds. The main course was about the same as the previous night, polenta garnished with pesto from a tube. It was all quite satisfying. I watched TV.

After dinner I washed dishes. Hotels rooms conveniently have lots of towels.

The next morning breakfast was not an automatic thing. Most hotels (including this one) during the pandemic have eliminated their free breakfast. Cooking oatmeal in my rice cooker turned out to be a snap. With a few crumbled walnuts and some sugar it was comforting.

Before packing up and leaving I made my lunch: peanut butter and jelly wrapped in aluminum foil. I would eat that later in the day while cycling. I had been raining that night. The skies were clearing and the temperature was in the low forties when I pushed out. At least the landscape was flat. The wind was slightly at my back as I set out for the day’s destination: the larger city of Florence SC, about sixty miles to the south.

All day I would be cycling on two lane roads with almost no traffic. My biggest fear in the rural South is dogs! Why should I fear them? I had two types of dog defense that I never needed to use; a loud dog horn and a can of pepper spray. A few dogs did half-heartedly chase me. I have learned that most dogs like to be talked to; greet them with kind gentle words. “Hello” Never show them you are afraid.

No dogs in this photo

Do these pictures of two abandoned homes tell a story or am I reading too much into this? Am I safe in saying that these folks got tired of the old house, so they moved into the double wide; then they got sick of the double wide and moved somewhere else?

For much of the day I was in pine forest and swamp wilderness, much of it in the Great Pee Dee River basin. Water was high. I went for miles sometimes without seeing a car.

It was a long day cycling in the cold weather. I got chills if I stopped cycling so I just had to keep pedaling. This bicycle trip caused me to reconsider my attitude about bicycling distance. At home with no luggage I take a thirty mile bike ride and I feel really tired. Here I was cycling over sixty miles a day for five days in a row hauling heavy luggage and I really did not feel as tired. I realized that by hauling a heavy load, especially on flat land, the heavy load encouraged me to cycle SLOWLY, to never attack the pedals. Cycling slowly rarely got my heart rate up. You can cover more ground that way. I found myself less competitive with myself.

Sometime in the middle of the day I ate my sandwich while pedaling. Eventually I arrived Florence SC (population 38,000) which on a bicycle really feels like a big city. It had been a relaxing day until I had to cycle on the wide open highways of Florence suburbia. The traffic was intense. My brother and sister in law John and Gay live in Florence. My apologies to them for not calling you up while in town. I worried about covid.

crossing over I-95 as I arrived into Florence SC
Walmart building now repurposed as a church

Inner city and downtown Florence was only just O.K. There were a few interesting looking buildings.

1920’s Spanish revival? The second-floor windows are open on this winter day so the building is either abandoned or being renovated.

On the other hand downtown Florence has a nice new Hyatt Place hotel.

I booked a room. All the public areas of the hotel looked closed off but my room was bright and cheery. I had stopped at a grocery store a few minutes earlier; I bought more mustard greens, an avocado, a carrot and six eggs. Does anyone know that you can buy six eggs at Food Lion for fifty-nine cents? (Yes, yes, I believe that we should all buy the more expensive free range eggs. Torturing chickens is not a good thing. I make an exception while taking bicycle tours.).

Cooking in a room again! I really enjoy this. The room was nice but did not have a microwave. I washed the mustard greens in the sink. Mustard greens need to be washed at least two times because they hold a lot of sand.

I cooked half the mustard greens in the rice cooker, packing the other half away for the next night. I made a first course salad with avocado and olives, garnished with salt, lemon juice, and olive oil.

I chopped half an onion and most of the carrot and cooked them with olive oil for ten minutes in the rice cooker. I then added brown rice, salt, and water and cooked about forty minutes. I broke an egg on the top during the last few minutes.

I was so hungry that when I plated the rice and egg I added the can of tuna in olive oil.

I woke up the next morning, drank in-room coffee, and watched the news on TV. I made oatmeal; sugar and walnuts on top. I packed my sandwich for lunch. Cycling out of town in the cold I saw downtown Florence in the bright morning light, including its fancy new arts center.

I had decided to end this trip when I got to the Charleston SC suburbs, about 125 miles further. There I could get a rental car to drive home to Chapel Hill. I decided to try cycle there in two more days. The midway point is the small town of Andrews SC. The one motel there had good Google reviews but was not even listed on the Hotels dot com app. I called the motel on the phone and they agreed to hold me a room; sixty-two dollars. The friendly woman said that their guests regularly include bicycle tourists! The sixty miles of land between Florence SC and Andrews SC is completely flat and lightly populated.

A huge defect in Google Maps is that it does not differentiate between paved roads and gravel roads. I like high pressure skinny tires on my bicycle but they work terribly on gravel roads. The pavement ended without warning and I was stuck for several miles, rumbling along.

Rusting away, a 1970’s GM car plus a 1956 Ford Country Squire
Collard greens!

Eventually paved roads continued. Sometimes it felt almost dangerous to be so alone cycling through swamps and woods, no people, hardly any cars. It was quiet.

The cell phone coverage had been spotty here in the “middle of nowhere” when I got a phone call from Tootie. It was the afternoon of January 6. She was telling me that our U.S. Capitol building was being overrun by thugs. Wow. I kept pedaling.

Andrews SC (population 2,800) sits on the edge of vast pine forests. I checked on Wikipedia; Chubby Checker moved from here to Philadelphia at age five, never to come back. I pulled into town as the sun was going down. Some parts of the town looked properous, some parts not. I stopped at its one supermarket to stock up.

supermarket
Post office modernism
same building different angle

downtown Andrews SC

I cycled up to my motel on the far side of town.

In this time of Covid, motel check-in was done through a hole in an outdoor glass panel

Older motels can be sketchy or not. This one was quite nice. I made a delicious dinner in the motel room. It started by chopping the remaining half of onion.

Like the previous night, I had rice with onion and carrot; this time two eggs on top, garnished with cayenne pepper, with sides of mustard greens and sliced avocado.

While cooking I nervously watched the TV news with scenes of chaos at the U.S. Capitol building.

The next morning I once more ate oatmeal and walnuts in the motel room. I had made a reservation to pick up a Hertz rental car in North Charleston SC, about sixty miles away.

The first half of the day’s bike ride was thirty something miles to Moncks Corner SC. Despite being so close to Charleston the landscape was quiet and solitary, miles and miles of pine forest monoculture, much of it the Francis Marion National Forest. Especially when I was able to get off the main road, there were very few cars.

All this peace and tranquility ended abruptly when I quite dangerously bicycled on four lane US 52 to get across the Cooper River and was immediately greeted by a Walmart and nearly every chain restaurant on the planet as I pulled into Moncks Corner SC. Most coastal cities in the USA present a bicyclist with a conundrum. Inner city Charleston SC is a delight to bicycle around on city streets. The outer twenty or thirty miles surrounding Charleston (and almost every other East Coast port city) are terrible to bicycle, as rivers and estuaries and freeways squeeze all the traffic onto heavily car travelled choke points.

I bicycled for several miles on the sidewalk on US52, then found Old US 52, also called Old Fort Road, which parallels the big highway and goes from Moncks Corner ALMOST all the way to North Charleston. For about twelve miles it was actually O.K.; it had a shoulder and there was not too much traffic.

ghost bike from an accident on this road in 2004

The bicycling got much messier when Old Fort Road ended and merged into US-52. I had only about five miles left to the Hertz car rental office but for at least two miles there was no road across these swamps other than US52. I would ride when there was a break in the cars and then pull off the road. Several times I found myself pushing the bicycle on the grass along the highway.

Starting in the suburb of Goose Creek I could relax again, there was a bike trail along the highway.

It continued to be a little messy. Cycling through most suburban areas is just not good. I did eventually make it to this Hertz location. They gave me a Hyundai in less than ten minutes. By 4:00 PM I had already started driving back to Chapel Hill NC with the bicycle in the back. I ate dinner at home a little over four hours later.

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?

I pulled the Bike Friday out of the car.
The Roanoke River Greenway was just a block away. I started bicycling.
On this sunny day in a park someone has these cars out; MGB and Austin-Healy 3000

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.

Recent Wikipedia photo of N&W no. 611, designed and built in Roanoke in 1950 and now restored and part of Roanoke’s Virginia Museum of Transportation

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.

1920’s multifamily
Apartment building maybe 1940?

I bicycled back towards downtown, noodling around the streets, just taking in the urbanity of it all.

Older, turn of the Twentieth Century houses near Downtown

I cycled through Downtown on this Sunday early afternoon.

Art Deco

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.

Terrace of the Morning Brew, including the only other patrons, two old guys I did not know

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.

Roundhouse!

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.

car repair on the other side of the tracks

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.

Chuck and Carol

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.

Cycling back to my car on the Greenway

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.

furry red seat cover! toiletries! Merry Christmas!