Archive for the ‘Virginia trips’ Category

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

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

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

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

I turned right on New Hope Church Road.

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

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

I stopped and ate lunch sitting on a guardrail

The factory town of Roxboro was my next intermediate destination.

Roxboro NC
Roxboro NC
downtown Roxboro NC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

abandoned farmhouse

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

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

factory and a Dollar General

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LU on the hill above Liberty University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.