Archive for the ‘Virginia trips’ Category

This two or three hour bike ride started in Bracey VA, a little more than an hour by car north of Durham and Chapel Hill NC. I-85 runs the hundred fifty miles from Durham NC to Richmond VA. North of the Virginia line the region feels like a step in the past. The area’s only economic engine currently appears to be real estate and tourism, centered on Lake Gaston, created in 1963 when the power company dammed the Roanoke River, flooding the land along the North Carolina/Virginia line. The blue line below shows where I cycled.

Four miles into Virginia with my bicycle in the back of our Ford Escape Hybrid, at Exit 4, I steered off I-85 and parked within sight of the Interstate, in front of a Huddle House Restaurant. I had not seen a Huddle House in a while but their website says there are 339 of them. Who knew? There was lots of parking so I assumed no one would care if I left our car here for a few hours. Bracey VA does not appear to be much of a town, it is mostly the several gas stations and restaurants surrounding the I-85 crossover.

I cycled east from I-85 on the Bike Friday on a two lane road.

There are apparently lots of second homes facing the lake. I bicycled down one side road until its dead end. There was an attempt at exclusivity, a gate of a gated community. I did not go around the gate; why stir trouble?

I soon cycled into Brunswick County, Virginia, current population 16,000; about the same as the population of Brunswick County, Virginia in the year 1800; 16,000. Its big claim to fame is that everyone (except those in Brunswick, Georgia) considers it the birthplace of Brunswick stew. There were vacant and semi-vacant old buildings strew across the landscape.

Many of these semi-abandoned looking houses have mowed lawns around them, and I must assume that the owners live in single wide or double wide manufactured housing on adjacent property.

sometimes a house gets so old it just falls down

I had brought lunch but could not find a picnic table. Ebony VA is marked on the map as a town, but it seems mostly to be one gas station and store at a crossroads . They had a picnic table in their side yard! I went in and bought a Starbucks iced milk coffee, and ate my peanut butter sandwich in the sun, reading The New Yorker on my Kindle.

The ride back to my car followed even smaller back roads. It was quite delightful. When you stopped the bicycle you could not hear a sound.

When I got back to Bracey VA the car was still there. I got in it and drove home.

Many of you know that my son Sam Marshall died on April 24, 2021. He had been living in Vietnam, teaching English. It has been a difficult time for me, my wife Tootie and our son Jack.

Sam and I did not take many bike trips together but we had done other stuff instead. I did take a bicycle trip with him in South Florida in 2013, riding from Fort Lauderdale to Key West.

I do not think that I grieve in a way that one walks around being sad or overwhelmed. I really need to keep my mind moving. Bicycling is the best way I know to do the exercise that absolves my soul. Yes, I am seeing a grief therapist, but the bicycling is fundamental to my sanity.

I have been cycling around pretty much every day the two months since April, Most days I take one of the loops around my town. Except for very short rides around the Carrboro/Chapel Hill downtown, Chapel Hill is not a very good urban bicycling destination. There are steep hills. Except for a few streets, most paved roads are either huge arterial highways or dead end residential areas. One has to look to find local rides. I have constructed a few loops around town that are both safe and interesting, connecting residential streets. My biggest complaint is that I get bored with taking the same rides over and over. The shorter loop of about an hour and a half I have dubbed The Meadowmont Loop, named after the faux-ville (New Urbanist development) that that the ride intersects. My most common longer ride of 3 – 4 hours I have dubbed The Paco Loop, from Chapel Hill to Durham and back, in one direction first to Southpoint Mall, then to Durham on American Tobacco Trail. I like coffee houses away from home, I can get a coffee in Durham, read a little, then bicycle home, mostly on Old Chapel Hill Road.

Immediately west of Chapel Hill and Carrboro there is world class cycling on lovely rural smoothly paved country roads, usually with sparse traffic. I have cycled out there many times in the past two months including a route that for years has been dubbed The Tootie Loop. Cyclists often refer to the area as “Dairyland”, named after Dairyland Road. I enjoy cycling out there but I admit that I have a preference for cycling through more interesting urban feeling neighborhoods.

At least once during this time I rode to Mebane, which is essentially a ride west to Dairyland, but ones keeps going, a little over twenty miles each way. There is a nice coffee place in downtown Mebane. Side story: A friend of a friend has lived his whole life in California. Retiring, he and his wife looked and studied all over the USA where to buy a second home, somewhere on the East Coast. Before even visiting there they had determined that Mebane NC was the place, somewhere most people in North Carolina have hardly noticed.

Sometimes I put the bicycle in the car and drive somewhere, to mix things up. One day recently I parked our car half an hour’s car drive from home, near the Whole Foods off Wade Avenue in Raleigh, then bicycled the twenty miles each way to Clayton and back.

Garner Road, also called Old U.S. Highway 70 is a pleasant cycle as it meanders the sixteen miles from downtown Raleigh to Clayton. Perhaps because it passes through the least trendy side of Raleigh it remains a road stuck in the past, a rarity in the fast growing Raleigh diaspora. One can see several historic gas stations.

Mid century modern!
This is the only likely pre-WWII gas station I have seen that still sells gas.
VFW hall
used appliances

In its small downtown Clayton NC has a great local coffee house, the Boulevard West. I drank an almond milk latte, two sugars, then headed back to Raleigh.

The southeast side of Raleigh is traditionally the African American side of town. Gentrifiers, presumably young and white, are moving into these neighborhoods, building boxy contemporary houses.

Almost within walking distance of downtown Raleigh

On May 20-21 our friends Lyman and Gillian were in town from Texas to close on the house they have bought in Durham. Lyman and I stole away for twenty-eight hours to take an overnight tour. We drove the now-fixed Prius an hour and a half north to the obscure Virginia hamlet of Sussex Courthouse. We would cycle from there the thirty miles to Petersburg VA then cycle back the next day. We parked in the municipal lot and pulled our two Bike Fridays out.

Lyman loves historic courthouses; he checked this one out. It was built about 1830.

Sussex Courthouse VA

The land in the entire sixty or seventy miles from the North Carolina state line along I-85 north to Petersburg VA is very sparsely populated. Nothing seems to have changed out here for generations. It is lovely cycling as we passed through miles of timber, hardly any car traffic.

Petersburg VA is an underappreciated small city 25 miles south of Richmond VA. There are historic neighborhoods full of eighteenth and nineteenth century houses.

Petersburg VA
1830’s row houses, Petersburg VA

We arrived in Petersburg and found a bar and got beers at an outdoor space. We had both been vaccinated but still felt more comfortable in the open air. We sat near two women from the U.K.; one of them protesting loudly when she heard me talking about some now-forgotten subject, interrupting when she heard me describe the Scottish as “gentle and forgiving.”

That night we stayed in an Airbnb, Lyman sleeping on the bed and I racking out on the sofa in the front room. For only about a hundred dollars total I would recommend this Airbnb to anyone, it has all the details right. It is described on Airbnb as “Historic Home C.1869 English Basement Apt.” Its owner living above is a Dutch guy who says he had been living in nearby Richmond for thirty years before moving recently to Petersburg. There are Dutch language books on the shelves.

Halfway back cycling the next day I felt an urgent need to play music. It was the middle of nowhere. I have a cheap ukulele that I sometimes bring on these trips. I had been singing this song in my head all morning, from an obscure 1973 album by the band Wilderness Road. I had not played the song ever, or at least in the past forty years. I was a little off key and I could not remember all the words. Video by Lyman.

Lyman and got back to the car with no problem and we drove home to Durham and Chapel Hill. The next day I was up early again, cycling around Chapel Hill, trying to keep my sanity.

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!