Archive for the ‘Virginia trips’ Category

Sussex County Virginia has not grown much over the years. Its population in the year 1790 was 11,000; population 2021: 11,000. It is near enough to my home in Chapel Hill NC for a day trip.

I drove up two and a half hours and 145 miles up I-85. The Sussex courthouse and other municipal buildings sit out by themselves in the countryside. I parked our Prius near the courthouse.

Cycling in the winter is challenging. It had been twenty three degrees when I left home. By the time I arrived here the sun had warmed the temperature up to the mid-forties. Here is the ride I took this Thursday.

The original courthouse was completed in 1828.

Sussex County courthouse, circa 1828
Across the street from the courthouse, the building looks really old

I started cycling down State Route 40 to my first intermediate destination; fifteen miles to Waverly VA, a smooth road with hardly any traffic. Timber and peanuts are the big businesses her. There are miles of pine forests.

I passed through wetlands as well

Waverly VA, population 2,100, is the largest town in Sussex County.

outskirts of Waverly VA

Waverly’s two block Main Street has several actually functioning businesses, as well as the usual empty storefronts.

Just a few hundred yards further are the actual main drags of Waverly VA, the parallel four-lane-with-no-center-divider highway US-460 and the railroad: a double track main line of the Norfolk Southern (formerly Norfolk & Western), both stretching the about sixty mile straight shot between Portsmouth and Suffolk VA (near Norfolk) and Petersburg VA (just south of Richmond). Waverly is about halfway. When I was a child my father used to claim that this stretch of rail track was one of the longest straight stretches in the world.

On the Big Highway US-460 is the apparently now closed but unaltered looking mid-century modernist Melody Inn Motel.

One of my rules of thumb on both bicycle and car trips is that when one stumbles upon a privately owned museum in some obscure area, one should always go to that museum, even if one thinks you are not interested in its subject. A couple of hundred yards down the big highway US-460 was a museum I had not heard of.

The grounds themselves looked like folk art.

Children’s Garden?

The museum is really just a house and I did go on the porch and ring the bell. No one answered. Leaving to cycle onward, across the street this sign explained the situation more fully.

Example of Carpenter’s art, taken from Google Images

The other side of US-460 and the railroad tracks from downtown is the clearly wealthier side of Waverly.

Pre-WWII gas station

My next intermediate destination would be the town of Wakefield VA, nine miles down US-460 from Waverly. Instead of the big highway I could bicycle to Wakefield on lovely parallel back roads. I do not think I was passed by a car even once. I had brought a peanut butter sandwich that I ate it while cycling; it was too cold to stop.

I am sixty-five years old and grew up in Virginia Beach. I have known about Wakefield’s Virginia Diner my entire life. I still have never eaten here. There is a pandemic. I did briefly go inside to the gift shop and buy Tootie a can of peanuts as a souvenir.

The peanuts, after I arrived back home in Chapel Hill

It is twenty-one miles on back roads from Wakefield back to Sussex courthouse where I had parked my car. I first cycled through Wakefield (population 975) and then through miles and miles of pine forests, farms, and the occasional wetland, with hardly a car in sight.

Wakefield VA

My car was still there in the Sussex courthouse grass parking lot. I was home in Chapel Hill NC in time for dinner.

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.


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!

I drove a little over two hours north from my home in Chapel Hill NC. Car driving on I-85 through Virginia can look very different from North Carolina. In North Carolina from the freeway one usually sees constant development and billboards. Across the state line going north on I-85 for the sixty miles south of Petersburg I-85 transitions to miles and miles of just woods. Much credit goes to Virginia. North Carolina for decades through both Democratic and Republican administrations has been financially beholden to the billboard industry. This photo was taken from the driver’s seat of my Prius on I-85.

Fifteen miles south of Petersburg near the town of Dinwiddie VA I drove off I-85 and found a parking spot at a Moose Lodge that sat along US-1, which parallels I-85. Would anyone care if I parked here for several hours? I hoped not. I pulled the Bike Friday out of the Prius.

There is surprisingly little suburban sprawl south of Petersburg, It made for a pleasant bicycle ride, a fifteen or twenty mile loop through the countryside until I reached Petersburg. The bike ride started with a couple miles down three lane US-1. Almost immediately were the first of dozens of the state erected Civil War history signs.

On US-1 was the remnants of a roadside highway business. What had this been, some kind of drive-in restaurant?

I turned off US-1 to smaller roads.

In this rural area a country store is apparently being preserved as a community project.

I continued to bicycle along the south shore of the Appomattox River. At one point I bicycled down a dead end road to a boat launch. There is not much out here.

Several miles later I bicycled into Petersburg. Petersburg used to be an important place. According to Wikipedia, Petersburg (population 31,000) has about the same population now as it did in the year 1920. In 1840 with over 11,000 people Petersburg was ranked the thirty-fourth largest city in America, more populous than not just Norfolk VA but also Savannah GA and Hartford CT. Petersburg had a large community of free blacks even before the Civil War. For various reasons development in Petersburg since about 1950 has stopped cold.

Petersburg is a lovely city of largely undiscovered pre-Civil War and other nineteenth century architecture. I have been bicycling through Petersburg for almost thirty years. Petersburg never seems to change, it still seems only vaguely prosperous. It is stuck in time, somewhere between poor and just getting by. I bicycled by interesting buildings even before before I arrived into the core historic area.

The core historic area Petersburg has hundreds of historic houses, many pre-Civil War, some nicely fixed up, some semi-abandoned.

These row houses are all from the 1830’s.

During this pandemic Petersburg has done what I have seen several other small cities do; it has closed a main street and put picnic tables outside for all restaurant patrons to use commonly. At noon on a Tuesday there was hardly anyone around but me. There was a small group of non-social distancing women drinking wine.

I sat down all by myself to eat the peanut butter sandwich I had brought from home.

Catty-corned from where the women were sitting was this guy singing to no one in particular through a karaoke machine. In the forty-five minutes I was there he covered a whole slew of pop-jazz Standards. I gave him a ten-spot.

Cycling when temperatures are in the 40’s and 50’s is problematic for me; I warm up exercising but get chilled if I stop. During a pandemic there is nowhere to go inside and warm up. I started bicycling again so I could stop shivering. I started by cycling through the southern part of Petersburg.

My car was parked twelve miles south of town. I cycled back by a different, shorter route.

My car was still there at the Dinwiddie Moose Lodge. I was home back in Chapel Hill NC by dinnertime.

Here is the bicycle ride Tootie and I took late one afternoon in September 2020.

From the southern tip of the Sandbridge Beach neighborhood of Virginia Beach there is no public road for cars on the barrier island all the way to the North Carolina state line and then a few miles beyond that. When I was in high school in Norfolk/Virginia Beach in the early 1970’s my friend Steve Johnson and I used to bicycle to various political meetings, especially city council sessions. We all thought it very interesting. One of the most impressionable of these early 1970’s events was a public hearing held at the Virginia Beach Dome where adults got really, really upset. The hearing covered a proposal to prohibit most cars on the beach south of Sandbridge, that area of the newly established False Cape State Park. At that time there was a large car-centered culture of driving four-wheel drive and similar vehicles on this remote beach, twelve miles south to the North Carolina line and fifty or sixty miles south to Nags Head NC. It was the Wild West down there. I had gone on such Jeep trips once or twice. That remote beach was like a freeway with thousands of vehicles a day. The beach buggy thing came crashing down with laws in about 1972 prohibiting most vehicles on the beach at the new False Cape State Park. The Trumpian grievance and anger I saw that early 1970’s public hearing is still palpable. Speaker after speaker berated the do-gooders taking away all the fun. No one appeared to care about sea turtles. An elderly woman from a bird watching group was shouted down.

I have lived elsewhere the past forty-something years but I had heard from various sources (especially my friend Patrick Masterson) that False Cape is a great bike ride. I have learned that False Cape State Park is the only state park in Virginia that is essentially non-accessible by private automobile.

It was mine and Tootie’s thirty-seventh anniversary. We got delayed and we did not start riding until after five in the afternoon. It would get dark soon. We parked at the lot of the Back Bay Wildlife Refuge, took our two bicycles from out of the Prius and started riding south, first through part of the wildlife refuge, then into the state park.

We hung at a boat dock overlooking Back Bay.

It was beautiful and silent. Most of the trail is a gravel path a few hundred yards inland from the beach, on a barrier island about a quarter of a mile wide. We saw only two or three other people the whole time we were in the state park. We were just single digits in miles from the North Carolina line but darkness was approaching. We turned around and bicycled back to our car. In the car it was a forty minute drive to my late mother’s house in Virginia Beach where we had a delicious dinner.