Archive for the ‘Virginia trips’ Category

I drove up to Danville VA on a recent Thursday, just to get out of town and to see somewhere that feels different from North Carolina.    Danville is only fifty-five miles north of Chapel Hill and I can drive there on two lane roads in about an hour.     The city limits of Danville abut the North Carolina / Virginia line.

About a hundred yards into Virginia I parked the Prius and took the Surly out of the trunk.


I have bicycled around Danville several times before, including about a year ago when Tootie and I drove up to Danville on a Sunday morning and then bicycled around, a trip that was not previously mentioned on this blog.  On that other trip over a year ago, Tootie and I both were temporarily insane (judgmentally challenged!) for about two hours.

We were so taken by the lovely large old houses in Danville, and their low prices, that we decided we needed to buy one.    We live in a condo in Chapel Hill on the seventh floor.   Like many people our age, we fantasize about moving somewhere or buying a second home somewhere.   Why not, instead of a beach house or a mountain house, why not buy a Danville Virginia house?   We could invite all our Chapel Hill friends and family up for long weekends!   We could host dinner parties in Danville!

OK,  we were temporarily insane.   We got over the idea.   On this current trip I did not really dream of buying Danville real estate, but I did enjoy biking around Danville and its several distinct historic neighborhoods.

While Danville is north of Greensboro and Durham, North Carolina, it is much more Southern than either of those places.   Danville had enormous textile mills that have pretty much all closed.  Danville has a significant wholesale raw tobacco business;  this too has declined.  Danville has not boomed like the nearby Triangle cities in North Carolina.   In 1920 Durham, Raleigh, and Danville were about the same population at about 21,000 each.    Now Durham is 260,000, Raleigh 465,000, but Danville is now just 43,000.

I biked from the Food Lion down a steep hill.  Danville is full of steep hills.   To get off the main road, I bicycled first through a poor neighborhood.




Coming up from the south, I then biked into a previously wealthy neighborhood that is  remarkably intact.   I would call this the southeast side of town.








This red brick house is for sale, $ 154,900 for 4376 square feet, seven bedrooms, five baths,  and it looks to be in pretty nice shape.

check out the real estate listing.,-79.396794,36.578165,-79.405355_rect/16_zm/

Just north of this neighborhood is the downtown, then a warehouse district.   Five or ten years ago most of these brick warehouses were empty, now they are slowly coming to life.   It is certainly not hipsterville but it is making progress.





Five years ago I would not have believed that Danville would have a coffee house.   They do not have Starbucks yet, but they do have the Crema and Vine.  I stopped for my afternoon latte.


I bicycled across the Dan River and through hilly middle and lower income neighborhoods on the other side.

I like mini-golf, which is easier to play than the real thing.  This place looks really old school.  I wish I had had someone to play with.



Back on the south side, I bicycled across a steep ravine to the relatively prosperous west side of Danville, the area near Averitt University.   This is another historic neighborhood.


Further west is what remains of the huge Schoolfield textile mill of Dan River Inc.    This is what it looked like back in the day.Image result for schoolfield mill


It closed in 2006 and was sold off brick by brick; the used bricks being one of the few things of value.    They left one concrete building and the smokestacks.

When my son Henry was about five years old we drove through the North Carolina/Virginia town of Virgilina.   He could not stop saying that word, “Virgilina.”

Forty miles north of our hometown of Chapel Hill, Virgilina is not really much of a town.   Until recently there was only about one small store there.   The town has rebounded a little in the ten or so years since I last went here, now there is a pizza place and a Family Dollar store.

I parked our white Honda in Virgilina, in front of a store turned distillery which I think is now out of business.


For the fifteen miles to South Boston I passed through tobacco fields.

These were lovely country roads.

And fields with abandoned junk and tobacco barns.


South Boston, Virginia, population 8,000, is a small town in a remote location, a town founded on tobacco.   While not trendy it does not feel particularly downtrodden.    It has some nice older neighborhoods.


The downtown is mostly empty but it does have two or three restaurants.     Southern Plenty is open just for lunch but it was quite busy, with chicken salad sandwiches and various knick-knacks as well.   I sat there and read my kindle.

There are so many country roads around here that I was able to make it a loop, another lovely ride back to the car in Virgilina.

About two years ago I read the 2007 book Deer Hunting with Jesus by columnist Joe Bageant.   Joe grew up poor white working class in Winchester, Virginia.   His book is about rediscovering Winchester after living elsewhere.   While Joe’s politics, at least on the economic front, are quite leftist, ten years ago he described how cultural cluelessness by liberal Democrats left his friends and family in Winchester nowhere to turn but to Republicans.   The book talked a lot about the pugilistic worldview of the Scots-Irish who have been in Winchester for over two hundred years.  Joe essentially predicted the arrival of Donald Trump.

Winchester (population 27,000) is the northernmost city in Virginia, about eighty miles northwest of Washington DC.   Winchester is at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, which today might also be called the I-81 Corridor.   I had been intrigued because north from Winchester I-81 passes through four states (Virginia / West Virginia / Maryland / Pennsylvania) in less than sixty miles.   Because of its Mason-Dixon Line location, significant Civil War battles, including Antietam and Gettysburg, happened in this area.    I decided to drive up there, park the car, and bicycle around the area for three days.

Donald Trump is connected to this area in other ways.   During the recent campaign the national media was always looking to explain the attraction of this seemingly buffoonish candidate.  During last year’s presidential campaign, when the media wanted to interview Trump voters, they drove to the easiest part of Red America to get to from Washington DC; the northern I-81 Corridor.   I heard all sorts of interviews of folks in this area during the recent campaign.  And even though the election is over, Trump still campaigns here.  Last Sunday, the same day I crossed over by bicycle into Pennsylvania, President Trump was speaking to a rally of his “base” just seventy miles further up I-81, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

I was further influenced by books I have read about Virginia politics.   Winchester was the hometown of Harry Byrd Sr., a virulent racist who was obsessed with balance budgets.  He led the Byrd Organization, a political machine that ruled Virginia for forty years.  He had national influence as well.  From Wikipedia: Byrd served as Virginia’s governor from 1925 until 1929, then represented the Commonwealth as a United States Senator from 1933 until 1965. He came to lead the “conservative coalition” in the United States Senate, and opposed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, largely blocking most liberal legislation after 1937.   

To check it out I drove four and a half hours north from Chapel Hill and parked our Honda in the lot of a Walmart on the south side of Winchester.   I pulled the Surley bicycle out and pedaled off, heading north.   It was already two in the afternoon.   My destination for the evening was Hagerstown, Maryland, about forty-eight miles north.   I would have to cross the Panhandle of West Virginia to get there.

Winchester (founded around 1759) seems Southern in attitude but looks somewhat Northern architecturally.   Houses are close together in the older part of town.   There is nothing very hip about this place.






Oh yeah, the other famous person from Winchester is country singer Patsy Cline.   I go to pieces. Crazy.


I would have a chance to see more of Winchester two days later on my return.   Going north on the “old road” US-11 that parallels I-81, the three lane road was a reasonably safe cycle and had lots of fun things to look at.  The West Virginia state line is just ten miles north.


There are lot of public displays of patriotism around here.



Twenty-five miles north of Winchester is Martinsburg, WV, population 18,000.   It used to be a big B&O railroad town.   The population in 1930 was almost the same as it is now.






While the older parts of Martinsburg look gritty, it is “only” seventy-eight miles from Washington DC.   The DC sprawl seems to be creeping up here.  Martinsburg is the end of the line for MARC commuter trains that go all the way to Washington DC.  All along this bike ride I saw new housing going up, especially near Interstate Highway interchanges.


From Martinsburg it is was another twenty something miles up US-11 to Hagerstown, crossing the state line into Maryland about halfway there.

I am currently watching my son and a some of my friend’s offspring move to Durham NC; they all want the urban experience; live in a city where they can walk places.   But Durham does not really have many older dense residential areas like row houses.    If only it could all be transported to Hagerstown MD (population 40,000), where there are miles of older homes, probably available for a pittance.





I found a room for only sixty-eight dollars plus tax in a fairly nice 1980’s looking hotel, not actually downtown but within a short bike ride.   There are really only three decent looking restaurants downtown,  all on the same block.   One is a German place that has been there for years, with waitresses in fraulein outfits.   I ate instead two doors down at a place called 28 South where the food just OK, but the bartenders were friendly.

Next to my hotel in Hagerstown this piece of commercial modernism is essentially unused.  I am probably the only person who worries that this may be torn down soon.


The next day, for the first half of the day, I biked a big loop up into Pennsylvania.  The state line was about ten miles north.    Most people forget that the Mason-Dixon Line is mostly the Maryland-Pennsylvania border.   This auto auction was in Pennsylvania.

I did see a few Trump signs still around.  This guy built his own private monument; Trump must have answered his prayers.   Around the other side of his house, there was a No Trespassing sign saying:  Intruders Would Be Shot.


I bicycled through two pretty Pennsylvania towns, Greencastle and Waynesboro.    Compared to small North Carolina towns of similar size, these two towns seem so much more sturdily built,  probably because 100 years ago they were relatively more prosperous.



The countryside was beautiful.



I looped back to Hagerstown for a late brunch at a place next door to the restaurant I had eaten in the previous night.    Their version of eggs sardou.


Believe it or not, there really are liberals around here, because outside the restaurant an anti-global warming demonstration came marching down the principal street of Hagerstown

In walked outside to take pictures.


The other two guys at the bar were perfectly nice about it, but one shook his head and said that with all the problems so apparent in a town like this, global warming seemed a problem far away.

The majority of people I had seen in the past two days were white, overweight, and unhealthy looking.   Maybe it was a coincidence but the demonstrators looked healthier than the general public.

On that same vein, at that same restaurant was this special on the bar menu:


The rest of the afternoon was weaving through pleasant country roads towards my night’s destination of Shepherdstown, on the Potomac River that divides West Virginia and Maryland.  I passed by Antietam National Battlefield.   I had toured that battlefield by bicycle several years ago so this time I stopped only briefly.  22,000 Americans were slaughtered at Antietam on one day in 1862.  Unlike today, the military then was organized by groups that started in geographical locations, so one served with men from one’s home town.   Several hundred men from one particular Philadelphia neighborhood died together in about ten minutes.   The terrain here was steep small hills.


I spent this night in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, home of Shepherdstown University, a West Virginia state university.   All over America college towns just look more prosperous.  At this point on the trip I had bicycled through about fifteen small towns.   The downtowns of almost every one of those towns had looked commercially vacant, with poor looking people standing around.   Shepherdstown looked very different.   It had an elitist Main Street with gift shops and expensive restaurants.


Continuing to notice the red/blue divide, while the expensive restaurants looked a little stuffy, Blue Moon Cafe reminded me of Durham or Chapel Hill.   It was the first place I had visited in two days that had an obviously counterculture staff.   You could really feel the difference.   One review on Yelp viciously criticized Blue Moon for being full of “hippies.”    But it was relaxed and comfortable, at least for me.  I got their version of eggplant parmesan.



The next day I left early with about forty miles to get back to my car at the Walmart in Winchester.  For the first fourteen miles I cycled on the C&O Canal towpath, a beautiful trail that parallels the Potomac River.


I had been hoping to find somewhere to eat breakfast.   Even after I left the trail and climbed a big hill there was nowhere.  Finally about 10:00 AM  I stumbled on this place like the Holy Grail.

Since I am now over sixty, when I am on the road I start to feel camaraderie with other men of a similar or older age, regardless of their backgrounds or political beliefs.   Three old guys were sitting at a booth in the Mountain View Diner, loudly praising Trump but I could not get close enough to hear all the details of what they were saying.

After breakfast the scenery was again beautiful.



Back in Winchester I was able to see their downtown.   They have done an unusually good job of closing it off to traffic and making it a pedestrian mall.    At lunchtime on a Monday it had lots of people eating outside.

Back in the Walmart parking lot our car was still there.   I was home in Chapel Hill in time for dinner.

Although she now lives in the Westminster Canterbury retirement complex on Shore Drive,  my Mom Eleanor Marshall still owns the small oceanfront house at 83rd street in Virginia Beach.   My sister Jane and her daughter Annie are currently living there.  Despite the fact that I have not really lived in Virginia Beach for over forty years, I have on and off bicycled around Virginia Beach and Norfolk since about 1966.  I realized that I had never bicycled round trip from the oceanfront to downtown Norfolk.  I was in town for two nights so I took the opportunity for this one day trip on a Friday.  The cities of Virginia Beach and Norfolk have a sibling’s long and sometimes bitter relationship.   Maybe I could discover some insight.

Because of the suburban sprawl I knew it was not to be a particularly pleasant bike ride.   I did expect the first quarter of the ride through the state park to be nice.  It was a sunny but cold day with temperatures starting in the low thirties, getting up to the fifties by the afternoon.   I put on gloves and balaclava at 7:30 AM at 83rd Street and biked south to 64th street, to connect with the dirt trail through First Landing State Park.  In the 1970’s this trail was called The Old Country Lane.    It is five miles of continuous woods, coming out near the bike path along Shore Drive.  The subsequent paved bike path along Shore Drive leads right to Westminster Canterbury.

Once you get over the fact that everybody living there is old,  WC has a friendly liberal vibe.  The residents make a visitor feel welcome.   The food is good.   I had a delightful breakfast with Mom even though she had to send back the pancakes, because they forgot the blueberries.

An hour or two later I left Mom and the bike riding got more contentious.   The Lesner Bridge over Lynnhaven Inlet is being rebuilt but there is a new pedestrian path that lets a bicyclist feel reasonably safe.

Virginia Beach, like most of America, does not make bike riding easy.  Once over the bridge I was able to weave through the streets of Chick’s Beach before crossing Shore Drive and heading west on First Court Road .  From there it was Shell Road to its termination on Northampton Boulevard.  (David Consolvo, does your family still own those apartments there?).    I had to daringly bike along Northampton for about a quarter mile before taking a hard right on the much calmer Baker Road.  Believe it or not, this led to the long but gentle Miller Store Road that loops around the runways of Norfolk Airport.   From that to Robin Hood Road.   And hell yes; before I realized it I was in the Norview area of Norfolk.

A little further is a part of town my Dad used to talk about;   he said that the streets were named after World War One battles.  In an African-American neighborhood a diverse crowd stood around Manny’s Burger.  I would have stopped for lunch but there was no place to sit down.

Weaving through the city streets I eventually ended up on the thriving commercial strip of Twenty-First Street.    I had just finished eating at a chain sandwich restaurant before I remembered I was just a couple of blocks from Doumar’s, over a hundred years old and claiming to have invented the ice cream cone.

From there it was an easy slog to downtown.    At this point I realized it was a long way back to the oceanfront, so I cheated a little and rode a small portion of my return on the light rail line, The Tide.

Sometimes nothing is more politically charged than mass transit because what it represents.   To those who support light rail, even if they never ride the thing, it represents Virginia Beach and Norfolk becoming one urban city; somewhere where sometime maybe a car would even be optional.  To the detractors the opposite is their selling point.  They live in their suburban island; this transit system, this THING, would bring Norfolk’s diversity into Virginia Beach by the trainload.   Even though Virginia Beach is now about as diverse as Norfolk.   And the train requires government subsidies, taxes!

An abandoned rail right-of-way has sat empty through the center of Virginia Beach for seventy years, and the question of whether to build light rail on that line has gone back and forth for seemingly forever.   Norfolk had the funding in place and finally went ahead and built their portion, opening in 2011.   It extends all of seven miles and stops at the Virginia Beach border.    Virginia Beach in the 2016 election had ANOTHER referendum on the issue, and it looks like the rail line may never extend any further.

But the train was quiet and pleasant and I could wheel my bicycle onto it with ease as I left Granby Street downtown Norfolk.


I got off the train at the end, at Newtown Road.   From there a bicyclist has to dodge cars and look for secondary roads.   Three or four miles further I ran into Virginia Beach Town Center, built mostly in the past fifteen years.

I truly believe that the rivalry between Virginia Beach and Norfolk has poisoned the well for this metro region of 1.7 million.    Many of the leaders of Virginia Beach, now the most populous city in all of Virginia, actually grew up in Norfolk.   But there seems to be a lot of resentment.    Virginia Beach, other than the small strip along the beach, had never been anything other than a collection of housing developments.   The leaders of Virginia Beach have built what I call a fake downtown, replacing the semi-dead Pembroke Mall.    It is ten miles east of Norfolk’s real downtown.

I biked up to the Virginia Beach Town Center, which is designed to look impressive from a distance.

Other than to stop and use the bathroom at a chain restaurant, I just slogged on, about ten miles further.    Much of the way it was along Virginia Beach Boulevard, either on the sidewalk or the feeder road.    It was OK, and I biked this route many times in the 1970’s, but I am sure this is the last time I will ever do this.   I did not stop until I got to the Starbucks at Pacific Avenue and 31st Street,  one block from the ocean and the boardwalk.    I was almost back, so I could relax with a latte.


I drove from Chapel Hill to see Mom and my sisters and nieces in Virginia Beach, and found time to park the car in downtown Norfolk, take out the bicycle and bike around Norfolk on a cold afternoon in late December.

Biking around downtown, I could see that Norfolk is still recovering from being essentially torn down by the government in “redevelopment” during the 1950’s and 1960’s.   The modernist skyscrapers of the 1960’s are now looking for their next life; the former Virginia National Bank building (later bought out by Bank of America) was the tallest building in Virginia when it was built in 1967.    They were taking the letters off the building;  the signs say they are converting the building to apartments.



My Dad was from Norfolk, born in 1911.  Until he was thirty years old he mostly lived at his parent’s house at 608 Redgate Avenue, Ghent, Norfolk.    He told told me that once, on a dare, he had driven his sister’s Model A Ford through Selden Arcade, all the way through to the street on the other side.


But Dad said he always felt he was somehow different.   He told me that sometime in the late 1930’s, after he had spent six months traveling around Spain,  he was pretty much the only person in all of Norfolk who spoke Spanish.   In the early 1950’s he and my Mom moved around the United States trying to get a graduate degree, but just after I was born in 1955 he moved from Colorado with his new family back to the Norfolk area, in Virginia Beach.

If Norfolk would just try a little harder, bicycle commuting would be a complete natural.   It is relatively dense and as the land is as flat as Amsterdam.  I doubt it is much more than a mile by bicycle from the center of downtown to 608 Redgate Avenue, the house my grandparents bought in about 1908 and lived in until they moved to Virginia Beach in 1946.   It looks completely unchanged.




Here is my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather sitting on that porch, about 1916.



If you ever come here be sure to pronounce the place correctly. This license plate tells it all.



I biked around for another hour of so, going as far as the waterfront in Larchmont, near the Hampton Boulevard bridge.

The New York Times keeps running articles describing Norfolk as ground zero of the effects of rising sea levels caused by global warming.    The most expensive residential real estate is waterfront; streets that dead end on a beautiful view.    These lots were usually built by filling in former swamps.   Contrary to the situation in New Orleans, in Norfolk it is the rich people that frequently face the worst flooding.     Still, it was all nice this December afternoon.










High Bridge Trail State Park is a thirty-one mile long east-west rail trail in rural Virginia.   The trail crosses through the town of Farmville around its midpoint.

I sold this as being “an hour had a half” straight north of Chapel Hill, but it is 120 miles and at least two and a half hours drive to Farmville, Virginia.    This area of the state is distant from any major city.  We drove our Honda with two bicycles in the trunk but did not get to downtown Farmville until about one o’clock.  And we had to have lunch.  We compromised by putting the bikes together and riding west down the trail for fifteen minutes, then turning around and riding back into town.   We would then do the other direction after lunch.  We split a sandwich at Charley’s Waterfront Cafe in Farmville’s surprisingly vibrant downtown.   The downtowns of the majority of small towns in rural America look depressing and vacant.   There is a consistent thread that makes such a downtown look healthy: the presence of a college or university; here is Farmville it is the public Longwood University.

After lunch we biked east down the rail trail.

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About five miles east of Farmville the rail trail crosses the high bridge.  Built in 1852 the former rail bridge is 160 feet off the ground at it highest point above the Appomattox River on the former rail line between Petersburg and Lynchburg.  Wikipedia has a nice picture drawn in the 1850’s.



Riding across the bridge we hung out on a beautiful day and admired the view.


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We biked a little further and then turned around and rode back to our car in Farmville.   On the car ride home we saw this interesting drive-in just outside of South Boston VA.


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I had read about the recently completed Virginia Capital Trail,  a delightful paved bike path that runs over fifty miles from Williamsburg to Richmond, along Virginia state route 10 on the north shore of the James River.   Historic plantations, many from the 1600’s, line the route.    The original Virginia colonial settlement of 1607,  the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and most of all the Civil War; it all happened here.       There is a creepy old schooledness about the area.    The level of history seems oppressive; it makes it hard to concentrate on the present.  It felt very Southern.    Tootie commented that she could sense in the air some of the pain from all the slaves that used to work this land.

In the middle of Labor Day Weekend, we drove up from Chapel Hill and parked the car at Charles City Courthouse, just over thirty miles from downtown Richmond.   We pulled two bicycles out of the trunk of the Honda and set off.    The plan was to ride to Richmond, spend the night, then ride back.



Along the way you cannot see the river unless you turn off the path and bike several miles down dirt roads that dead end at some plantation house sitting on a bluff overlooking the river.   About eight miles into the ride we turned down a side road to go see Shirley Plantation.   I had remembered my parents taking me to visit it when I was a child.   As a farm it claims to be the oldest family business in America, founded in 1614 and with the same family running it since 1638.   The same family has lived in this house since it was completed in 1738.


The bike path runs along farm fields growing both corn and what I guess is soybeans.



There are almost no restaurants along this trail and hardly even a mini-mart.   We had brought our own picnic lunch, and stopped to eat, sitting on a fence.


There is so much history, and there are so many historical markers, that sometimes they bunch together.





We did find a mini-mart when we were almost at the Richmond city limits.


On the other side of Richmond, the west side, Richmond sprawls out for many miles.  On this side, the southeastern side, there are still woods and fields within a few miles of downtown.


We were both sufficiently tired when we rode through downtown and Shockoe Bottom, then uphill from the river to Richmond’s uptown neighborhood of The Fan.


There are plenty of hotels in Richmond, but almost none in The Fan, so we had booked an Airbnb.   This one was run by Catherine, about our age, who says she is a dancer.   She inherited the row house from her parents.  She rents out part of the house as apartments, and lives in a two bedroom portion, one bedroom of which she rents out on Airbnb.     Compared to some other Airbnb situations, this one felt more like we really staying at her home, with all the good and bad that entails.  She was super nice and interesting, but we did not have a private bathroom, and we knew she could hear us through the wall.  It was the first cool day of the end of summer, and the windows were open, and our room had a screen door to the outside.   The breeze was calming and therapeutic as we chilled out and read our Kindles.     We had a fetching view of the wall of the house next door.  It all felt pleasantly urban.


At about sixty thirty we took a long walk in the refreshing cool air through The Fan and into downtown.    Broad Street is the traditional wide shopping street of Richmond, but has had mostly empty storefronts for the past forty years.   As the Richmond downtown revitalizes, these spaces are gradually filling up.    After checking out several options, we sat at the bar and ate Italian at a place on Broad Street called Graffiato, in a space with high ceilings.

Across Broad Street was an interesting piece of milk bottle architecture.


The next morning we biked about ten blocks across town to a Starbucks on Broad Street.   On the way, we passed through parts of the VCU campus, which is pleasantly integrated into the urban fabric.   This brutalist building from 1971 is singularly unattractive, but you have to admire their chutzpah in getting the thing built.



The bike ride back to the car in Charles City was a pleasant on this sunny day, at least before it got hot.    The bike path was sometimes so busy that you had to take care not to run into people.    On the southeast side of Richmond, former industrial areas are being rehabbed into apartments overlooking the James River.



The wind was now at our back.  Life was good, but we were both tired as the day progressed.  When we got back near the car  Tootie reacted after telling me to stop taking her picture so much!