Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Palmetto Phoenix--Old Sheldon Church

November 27, 2010

Sheldon, South Carolina

We skipped the service at our own church this morning, and visited the Old Sheldon Church near Beaufort, South Carolina instead. Built in the mid-1700s, it was burned by British troops during the Revolutionary War. It was rebuilt in 1826, only to be destroyed again during the Civil War. Depending on who is telling the story, either General Sherman burned it during his March to the Sea, or locals looted it in a desperate effort to get the materials they needed to rebuild their homes after Sherman's army destroyed them.

Either way, only the skeleton of what was once Prince William Parish Church remains, and from its bones we can imagine its past grandeur. It is still hauntingly beautiful—an open cathedral with soaring arches framing views of ancient live oaks and a row of stately brick pillars no longer supporting anything but the sky.

Many photographers find inspiration here. Other visitors find deep spiritual messages--endurance beyond hardship, inner beauty that man cannot destroy, a phoenix rising from the ashes, or god's eternal presence despite man's efforts to deny it a place.

Dick says a good picture tells a story. This church has so many stories to tell that a few hours there hardly turns a page. We will be back.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Biltmore to Bridgeport

October 21, 2010
All guests at the Biltmore Inn get a dashboard pass that lets them freely roam the grounds of the Estate all hours of the day or night. We are pretty sure that no one in our group took as full advantage of this benefit as we did. We were up at 6 a.m. this morning to get pictures of the Biltmore at sunrise, and to set up a souvenir shot of ourselves in front of the mansion before it was overrun with tourists and staff members enforcing no parking rules in the plaza. We hadn’t realized that the grounds would be swarming with workers at that hour—busily blowing leaves, fertilizing the lawn, trimming branches, and making sure that all was in immaculate condition for their off-estate guests’ arrival when the gates opened at 9 a.m.

Following are a few of our favorite early morning photos. Dick took the foggy mountain shot from the rear terrace of the Biltmore.

We returned to the Inn for breakfast with friends, then headed north, while our friends headed south to Savannah. The mountainsides were awash in the brilliant colors of changing leaves brightly illuminated by an unclouded sun. We were intent on getting in some serious mileage, so we stuck to the highway, and didn’t lollygag taking pictures on the backroads, as is our usual habit. We did make a quick stop at the New River Gorge to stretch our legs—that’s where we took this picture.

We made it to Bridgeport, West Virginia, where our Super 8 accommodations were a precipitous come-down from the Biltmore (albeit at a decimal difference price point). After our early rising and a long day of driving, we were almost too tired to care.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beautiful Biltmore and Beyond

October 20, 2010
We are living in the lap of luxury in the Biltmore Inn. No Vanderbilt guest felt more pampered than we (okay, maybe the ones who brought their personal maids and valets to pack and unpack for them and press their clothes, which, come to think of it, was just about everybody in their social network). Still, after our absolutely perfect breakfast, when Dick had the best bacon of his life, and I had the best over easy eggs I can remember (sprinkled with capers), we dropped by the garden to take a couple pictures, and three hours later found ourselves still inside the Biltmore Estate Gates, held hostage by its beauty. The pictures tell the tale.

Then we headed to Ashville, and by the time we got there it was about time for lunch. The lady at the visitor center mentioned that our hero, President Barack Obama, ate at 12 Bones Smokehouse when he was here, and we actually recalled passing it on our circuitous (translation “lost”) way into town—the aroma was absolutely heavenly—so that was our first stop. Once again, our President led us well—to an awesome lunch eaten on a picnic table under a big metal awning in the parking lot. And, although we didn’t photograph them, after lunch we enjoyed the full length mirrors in our respective rest rooms that were artfully contrived to provide a very complimentary reflection, backing up the claim on the sign next to the mirror—“See, eating good barbecue makes you skinny.”

The 12 Bones Smokehouse is in the River Arts District, a run-down area of abandoned warehouses and manufacturing plants where starving artists are struggling to establish successful businesses from their low rent studios. This is Dick’s favorite artwork in the District.
We walked the Urban Trail through town, following a map that led us to bronze plaques and artful sculptures and memorials marking important people (such as Elizabeth Blackwell, first woman doctor in the United States, who started her medical training here), places (the childhood home of Thomas Wolfe, the city’s first skyscraper, and the site of its first public market), and events in the history of Ashville. Along the way we stopped in a few shops, including an antique store that had a covered dish that matched the Austrian china I have from my father’s parents. I have never seen it in another antique store and snatched it up as a wonderful find, as soon as Dick assured me he could find a spot for it in our tightly packed little Jaguar.

Beyond the many artisans, great shopping and beautiful architecture (including a Kresge’s five and dime that was adorned with a stunning hand-painted tile exterior befitting an institution of far higher price points, and an art deco city hall that knocked our socks off), we were flat out impressed with the number of restaurants in Ashville. Does anyone here cook? You cannot walk more than a block in any direction anywhere in this town without running into a restaurant or two or three.

But, we were back to the Biltmore for dinner, and a grand dinner it was. In the interest of getting to bed at a decent hour and not boring you with too much food talk, I will almost omit the commentary, other than telling you that our exteremely tender and tasty Angus Beef Filets were from the cattle we have watched grazing contentedly on the Estate fields near our Inn, and this sampler included a Triple Chocolate Torte, Grand Marnier Bavarian Lace Tuile Cup, and Goat Cheese & Berry Cheesecake.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

BMW to Biltmore

October 19, 2010
Here are some amazing statistics: BMW has invested $4.5 billion dollars into making cars in South Carolina. They just finished a $750 million dollar expansion to their assembly plant here this year, bringing their roofed plant area to 2.8 million square feet. All the cars they make here are pre-ordered, and 75% of them are shipped overseas.

I listened well to the BMW Factory Tour, as you can tell. Too bad they wouldn’t let us take photographs on the factory floor, because the process is fascinating. There are lots of robots twirling huge chunks of the cars around in the air to be spot welded (shooting streams of sparks that sometimes shower down breath-takingly close to us). They apply adhesive to parts, and hold their work up for cameras to check before they continue assembly. They transfix us.

There are also lots and lots of uniformed associates (as BMW employees are called) performing assembly tasks as the car bodies slowly progress by them on a moving line. There are 7,000 employees at this plant, working four ten-hour days each week. They change assembly stations every two hours, to avoid repetitive motion injuries and boredom, and to cross-train for flexible scheduling of the workforce. Each day, each of the two shifts has a goal of completing 310 cars, and the workers can see how they are progressing against that objective by looking at tickertape signs lit up throughout the plant. When we toured, the shift was running two cars behind objective.

We enjoyed a small museum featuring historic BMW cars and motor cycles in the Visitor Center. This is a photo of some one cylinder cars produced following World War II. They could get up to 63 miles per gallon (less when towing the claustrophobic travel trailer featured behind the first car).

After our tour, we headed to the Biltmore along a route featuring beautiful scenery and twisty mountain roads. We ate lunch on the patio of Larkin’s on the Lake, overlooking beautiful Lure Lake, created in 1926, and made famous when the movie Dirty Dancing was filmed there. We enjoyed the fall colors and the rural scenery, occasionally stopping to try to capture a moment with a photograph. One of our favorites was Bear Wallow Baptist Church.

We settled into our luxurious room at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, and joined our Automobile Society friends for cocktail hour and dinner in the loft of the Stable next to the Biltmore Estate. We should get to bed at a reasonable hour tonight—we have a very full day planned for tomorrow, exploring the many highlights of the Estate and Ashville. (You will probably note from the posting time that I failed to meet my "early to bed" objective, once again.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

We pay $5 for a $1,000 Experience

Union, South Carolina
October 18, 2010
We are off on another adventure, this time on a Landings Automobile Society trip to the Biltmore, with a stop along the way in Spartanburg, South Carolina, near a BMW Factory which we will tour tomorrow morning.

Spartanburg is about four hours from Savannah, so of course we found a little detour on our way here. We got off the highway just past Newberry, South Carolina and headed for miles and miles through Sumter National Forest (which we later learned was a man-made forest planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps), finally ending up at our destination—Rose Hill Plantation.

The plantation’s claim to fame is that it was the home of secessionist governor William Henry Gist, the last South Carolina governor to govern from his home. The home was built by William’s father in 1812, and was modified by William in the 1850s. The plantation property covered 8,896 acres, much of it now part of the National Forest. We enjoyed a picnic lunch on the lawn, then took a private tour of the home with a park ranger.

Other than a crew of South Carolina Correctional Center inmates and their corrections officers who piled out of their prison transport van to stretch their legs and use the facilities, we were the only visitors that day.

Dick pointed out that we owe the South Carolina tax payers a huge debt of gratitude for subsidizing our visit. Based on all the staff people we saw and the state of the house and grounds, which include formal gardens and quite a few out buildings, Dick estimated that the Plantation must have an annual budget of at least half a million dollars. Our ranger told us that they get about a thousand visitors per year. That works out to a cost of $500 per visitor. We paid five dollars total for our tour, leaving the generous tax payers of South Carolina paying $995 to subsidize our visit—thanks y’all.

Monday, September 27, 2010

We Ride the Countryside

September 23-26
George L. Smith II State Park
We have just returned from our annual Coastal Bicycle Touring Club outing at George L. Smith State Park in the rural farming country of Georgia, just 85 miles northwest of Savannah. The centerpiece of the park is a 400 acre mill pond filled with stately Spanish moss-draped cypress trees. The pond was formed when Parrish Mill was built in 1880. The mill complex included a dam, grist mill, saw mill and covered bridge, and a refurbished version of it remains in the park, although the only traffic allowed over the bridge now is foot traffic.
When we weren’t riding, Dick spent a lot of time around the pond, where he took some beautiful pictures of the cypress trees, and of the harvest moon that shone bright enough to cast shadows at night.

Friday we rode rolling roads lined with boll-busting bright white cotton fields on our way to Metter, a town of 4,400 which has the slogan, “Everything’s better in Metter,” although the statistics might argue otherwise—nearly half the adults living there have not graduated from high school, and the median household income is $25,360. No matter to us--we lunched in luxury at the trendiest place in town--a pharmacy/café/boutique, already being decorated for Christmas and full of lots of tempting gifts (including several displays of suggested gifts for named locals soon to be married and one who just had a baby girl). The temperature rose above 90 on our way back to the park, reminding us that Christmas is still three months away.

The massive spread at our Friday night potluck dinner replaced all the calories we burned riding 33 miles that day, and stoked us up for Saturday’s 40 mile ride to Swainsboro.
On Saturday we discovered it was peanut harvesting time when a truck passed us towing two hoppers overflowing with peanuts, and the aroma seemed to pull us along the road—too bad we couldn’t keep up. One of our favorite spots on the Swainsboro ride is a large pond that sits beside a big dip in the road. The pond is full of cypress trees and lily pads with hundreds of pure white flowers in bloom, and we actually stopped to admire and enjoy them this year, even though it meant we lost our downhill momentum to help us on the climb out of the valley. Cotton fields, in pink bloom and in white harvest-ready splendor; grazing steers and contented cattle; shady pine farms fresh scenting the air as they bake in the 90 degree heat; butterflies fluttering around the roadside blooming weeds—we love this ride.

Yet another highlight of the weekend is our stop at the Swainsboro Dairy Queen, where Dick and I shun the main course and treat ourselves to Blizzards for lunch just this one time every year.

May we have many more years riding these roads through the land of cotton, may our good times here be not forgotten, and may we never look away, Dixieland.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Eatin' at the Museum of Finger Lickin' Chicken

August 22, 2010
Cincinnati to Savannah
690 miles
We have been so busy since we arrived back home last weekend, we almost forgot to mention our brush with greatness on the way home from Cincinnati.

At about the time our stomachs started to remind us it was time for lunch, we saw a billboard on I-75 pointing the way to the Birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken—Sanders Café and Museum in Corbin, Kentucky.

We were off on a lunchtime adventure.

Harland Sanders had a lot of jobs before he settled down in Corbin in the 1920s to run a gas station along the Dixie Highway, which ran from the Midwest to Florida. An entrepreneur, he soon was selling sandwiches at the service station, then expanding his food service to include a café across the street, and later a motor court next to the café. A historical marker out front proclaims the café the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and displays interspersed throughout the restaurant fill in the details of its illustrious history.

Sanders was awarded the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel shortly after he opened Sanders Café in 1935, in recognition of his gastronomic contributions to the state.

I was most impressed with his promotional genius—he recognized that women were the final arbiters in decisions about where to spend the night when families were traveling, so he created an exact replica of an immaculate room from his motor court right inside the restaurant. Women had to walk through the motel room to get to the Ladies Room. The pay phone was also on the other side of the hotel room. Brilliant!
Unfortunately, when I75 was built it bypassed Corbin in 1955, and traffic going by the café and motor court slowed to a trickle. The Colonel almost went broke before he began the next chapter in his entrepreneurial story--going on the road to sell Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant franchises. By 1960 he had sold 400 franchise units, and his days of worrying about money were far behind him.

Of course we had to dine on some of that finger lickin’ good original recipe fried chicken, since we were eating at its birthplace. Just when we thought lunch couldn’t get any better, in walked the Colonel himself, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Turned out it was Colonel Bob Thompson, whose business card proclaims him Spokesperson for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Ambassador for the World Chicken Festival.

Tally it up: an offbeat museum, a finger lickin’ good lunch, and an opportunity to shake the hand of a real live celebrity, all in less than an hour. This was road tripping at its finest.

Who knows what further adventures we might have had if we had stayed on Dixie Highway, instead of making our way back to I75 and rushing home without further detours or dalliance.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Family Fun

August 20-21
New Castle, Indiana and Cincinnati, Ohio
We had a two day whirlwind tour of Glover family kids and grandkids before everyone went back to school and work after summer vacation.

Here are some pictures of the grandkids in their many activities.

Grandson Andrew demonstrates his skill at ambidextrous tennis ball juggling with two racquets.

Grandson Collin demonstrates his bicycling tricks.

Baby Annie captivates us with her happy disposition (and her very strong almost walking legs).

We also enjoyed games of Star Wars Monopoly and multi-player solitaire (up to six of us at once!) and a wonderful home cooked meal with the New Castle Glovers.

Granddaughter Meredith (in red) playing the first of three games in a soccer tournament against very tough competition. She is a strong player with awesome endurance, and had very little time to sit out during this game. It was already hot before 8 a.m. when we were watching this game.

Twins Natalie and Mollie demonstrate their diving board tricks at the pool. They also showed us their excellent swimming skills and flips in the air when thrown by their father. (I remember doing that fifty years ago or so.)

Grandson Harrison plays goalie in the Wyoming High School Varsity vs. Alumni soccer game. Although he is goalie for the Varsity team during the school year, he tended the Alumni goal, due to a shortage of Alumni players. Talk about a conflict of interest . . .

We also enjoyed catching up with the Apfelbecks (grandkids Kate and Patrick and their parents) and Dick's daughter Megan over dinner between swimming and the Varsity vs. Alumni game. How did we fail to get a shot of the dinner table at the bustling Gabby's restaurant? We were just too busy talking.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Literary Detour

August 19, 2010
We are on our way to New Castle, Indiana and Cincinnati to visit nine grandchildren before all but baby Annie head back to school within the next few days.

We no longer seem to be able to get from home to our destination without a stop at an unexpected point of interest along the way, and this trip is no exception.

As I was checking our progress in the road atlas, I noticed the words “Carl Sandberg Home” written in red near the tiny town of Flat Rock, North Carolina. We were ready for a break, so we detoured off the highway to check out what ended up to be a very interesting National Historic Site.

Although Carl Sandberg moved to his Flat Rock home when he was 67 years old, he still had a lot of writing left in him—over a third of his works were published during the 22 years he lived here. His wife Lilian actually found the property—a 240 acre farm called Connemara. It provided Lilian with the acreage she needed to expand her champion dairy goat breeding operation, and it provided Carl with the solitude he needed to write.

We were just in time for the last house tour of the day, at 4:30 pm. Lilian donated the house and all its contents to the National Park Service shortly after Carl died in 1967, and the Park Service kept everything intact. Carl’s 13,000 books remain in the bookshelves that line the walls of just about every room in the house, except the kitchen. Up in his garret office, Carl’s typewriter sits atop a milk crate he used as a portable desk, and a clutter of notes and books surrounds his work space. The reading light is still clipped on the headboard of Lilian’s bed, and a yellowing box of Kleenex is on her nightstand. The furniture and décor throughout the house are very simple—the Sandbergs were Socialists from way back, and they lived out their values.

We learned a lot of interesting facts about Carl Sandberg’s life, but found his spotty scholastic history the most intriguing. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade, spent some time as a hobo hopping freight trains and working fields in the Midwest, joined the army, was recommended to attend West Point, but flunked the grammar section of the entrance exam, and attended Lombard College instead, but never graduated. Nonetheless, he went on to become the “poet of the people,” to write a four volume treatise on Abraham Lincoln that earned the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for History, and later to earn a Pulitzer Prize for Literature, as well.

We visited the resident goats--descendents of Lilian’s prize winning herd, strolled the grounds, and were on our way north once again.

We had to drive until 10:30 to get to Kentucky, which is where we figured we had to be in order to get up tomorrow and drive to New Castle by 1:30 p.m. Although we really don’t like to still be on the road so late at night, it was worth our little detour back in literary history.

This is probably Carl Sandberg’s most well-know poem. Do you remember when you learned it?

The fog comes
on little cat feet

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Mermaid Makes Herself at Home

A most unlikely souvenir of our recent bicycle adventures in Virginia, this little mermaid seems to like it here.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Riding Virginia Rail Trails--Day 3

August 13, 2010
New River Trail and Galax

Our plan today was to return to the same trailhead where we began the New River Trail yesterday, but this time to head north--downstream for this most unusual river.

On the road into the park we saw an amazing sight—the sun was illuminating what looked to be thousands of spider webs covering an unmown field. We had to stop for a closer look. While we were snapping a picture, an unsuspecting grasshopper got caught in a web, a spider jumped out of hiding and hit the grasshopper with a wad of silk, then spun the grasshopper on a rotisserie of doom at dizzying speed, wrapping a skein of silk round and round him, until he was tightly enveloped in a death shroud. Over and over again the same drama unfolded all across the field of beautiful webs with a dark purpose.

Out on the trail, our ride was very similar to yesterday’s ride—comfortably shaded by the canopy of trees, we enjoyed bucolic views of the river, although most of the time today a flood plain lay between us and the river, and there were more signs of civilization along that flat land. There were fewer trestles, but more dramatically high sheer rock bluffs beside us—often over 150 feet high, by our estimate.

While we were stopped to take a picture of a once-elegant house now falling to ruin, a local came riding up on his red cruiser bike, and said, “I knew the lady who lived there.” Our simple response—“Really—when was that?”—set him to telling stories:

“That was, oh, twenty, twenty-five years ago. I’d come drink coffee with her, and we’d sit around smokin’ those Pall Mall Longs. Don’t do that no more, thank the Lord (splat).” (That was him spitting tobacco juice.) He went on to show us a line carved on the corner of the house with the year 1873 carved next to it. That was how high the flood waters came that year—30 feet or more above where the water is today, and less than a foot below the level of the rail bed. He also told us a short story of his life (“I been workin’ since I’s nine years old, with no schoolin’ or nothin’.” He’s on disability now, but “doin’ okay, thank the Lord.”)

He was a pretty chatty guy, but eventually we were on our way again (shortly after he got into a monologue on politics—let’s just say his political views are quite different than ours).

When we crossed the broad river on this grand beautifully rusty railroad bridge, we were nearly fifteen miles into the ride. Thirty miles is a plenty long ride for us on a day with temperatures in the 90s, so we decided it was time to turn around. We had a picnic lunch on the bank of the river with a view of the bridge, then were on our way back to Foster’s Falls, where we began.

After we got back to our hotel, cleaned up, and rested up a bit, we decided to head over to Galax, “World Capital of Old-Time Mountain Music.” Every year during the second week in August they hold the world’s oldest and largest Fiddler’s Convention. Tonight was the first part of the Old Time Band competition. There were well over 100 competitors, and each had just two or three minutes to play a really fast tune that would show off their talents. The bands all had at least one fiddler, and usually a guitar and a standing bass fiddle, often a banjo or a dobro. Some threw in spoons or a washtub. Most didn’t sing. It was toe-tapping good, but a bit monotonous after a while. We really yearned for the kind of performances where the musicians have time to tell you a little story about themselves or their tunes.
Although the stage was the focal point of the event, there was a lot more going on offstage. Rows of venders sold carnival food (we passed up the fried Oreos, but were intrigued by the concept), and another section of venders were selling musical instruments (lots of test-playing going on there). There was a covered area right next to the porta-potties where musicians were getting together to jam and share musical techniques with each other. It made for the most enjoyable porta-potty experience we can remember.

Hundreds of RVs were tightly packed together in the parking lot, turning it into a convivial musical campground. This hand-made wooden camper and trailer duplex was for sale for $1,500.

The Convention was a feast for the senses—tasty country carnival food, mountain music everywhere we wandered, and plenty of unusual characters making for great people-watching. No doubt about it--Galax has earned the right to claim the title of World Capital of Old-Time Mountain Music on the basis of this event alone.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Riding Virginia Rail Trails--Day 2

August 12, 2010
New River Trail and Wytheville
The New River Trail runs for 57 miles along a rail bed abandoned by the Norfolk Southern Railroad after the local lead and iron ore mines closed down. Most of the trail parallels the poorly named New River, which is in reality one of the oldest rivers on our planet. Some believe that the only river older than the New is the Nile.

Our cycling group from Coastal Georgia/Carolina swelled to twenty today, and we all caravanned from our hotel to a trailhead at about the mid-point of the New River Trail. From there, although we all traveled south, the group quickly dispersed as subgroups enjoyed the trail with widely varying riding styles. Our style was slow and easy, with plenty of stops to enjoy the scenery, take photographs, and read informational signs.

Although we didn’t have the advantage of altitude or of not having to pedal today, as we did on yesterday’s downhill coast, we still had a far more pleasant ride than we expected for a day with temperatures hitting the 90s. Most of the trail was through dense woods, and the pedaling was pretty easy, because the path was well-graded hard packed fine gravel and the slope was so gradual we could hardly discern anything other than flat most of the time.

We marveled at the work it took to build this railway on such rugged terrain—varying from hillside to cliff face. It made for a fun ride—peppered with plenty of trestles and even a tunnel blasted through a rock promontory.

We rode to a spot where the river, which is wide and shallow, seemed to disappear a quarter mile from the base of a small hydro dam, behind which the rest of the river lay. Then we turned around and rode back to our car.

After cleaning up, we drove to Wytheville, where the group had dinner reservations at an historic log house. Dick and I headed to town early, to get in a little sight-seeing before dinner. Our first stop was a fabric store having a sale they called “Fabric Frenzy,” and it had the desired effect on me. I left with fifty pieces of batik fabric. Then we headed just a little further down Main Street to see our kind of road side attraction--a thirty foot long pencil that has hung in front of a local office supply store for over fifty years. Could this be the world’s biggest pencil?

Not far away, in the heart of downtown, is the birthplace of Edith Bolling, who grew up to become Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. Part of her home is now a museum which “shows how her childhood in Wytheville helped shape her future” as First Lady. Unfortunately, the museum was closed for the day by the time we got there.

This is the Log House Restaurant, which seems to have gotten addition after addition over the years, resulting in a maze of intimate dining rooms with rough log walls, wide plank floors and lots of charming atmosphere. A funky garden out back is full of vegetables, herbs, flowers, and lots of tasteful and delightful garden statuary that is for sale. Several apple trees are dropping green apples (watch your head!) near the little pen you can go in to pet the rabbits, and there is a bigger racket than you would expect from the little quails in the cage by the gazebo. The restaurant’s highly eclectic gift and antique shop offers a little diversion while waiting for a table. I couldn’t resist a four foot tall hand-carved very weathered wooden mermaid. She just fits in the back of the car.

When we all finally got together over dinner, it didn’t matter that the service was exceptionally slow—we enjoyed having plenty of time together sharing our day’s adventures and planning for our ride tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Riding Virginia Rail Trails--Day 1

August 11, 2010
Damascus--Virginia Creeper Trail
Virginia Creeper was a nickname for the early steam locomotives that huffed and puffed their way slowly up the mountains in what is now the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, hauling loads of logs along the Virginia-Carolina Railroad. Between 1914 and 1930, they hauled about 15 million board feet of lumber out of this area every year. Then, when the forest was all clear cut, there was little to attract anyone to come here, and hence little need for a railroad. The last train straggled through in 1977. By that time, the second-growth forest was maturing nicely, and it wasn’t long before locals and politicians got the idea to turn the abandoned rail bed into a rail trail.

And, what a rail trail it is. The Virginia Creeper trail runs for 34 miles from near the top of Virginia’s second highest mountain (3,576 feet) to Abingdon, Virginia. Our group of ten reserved spaces on a shuttle van that took us and our bikes from Damascus almost to the top of the mountain (road work closed the very top of the trail), and dropped us off trailside, leaving us to wend our leisurely way sixteen miles back down the mountain to Damascus.

Just as we arrived, a group of thirty or so Old Order Amish or Mennonite people were organizing to begin their bicycle ride down the mountain. We remembered the Amish we saw in Lancaster County earlier this summer—they all rode scooters with bicycle tire wheels, and were not allowed to ride bicycles. I was glad not to be trying to ride my bicycle down a mountain wearing a long dress; given the attire, a scooter might be an easier way to go.
The trail passes through dense woodlands, crosses over deep ravines on trestles, and descends the rugged rocky terrain to follow the winding path of Whitetop Laurel Creek. Wildflowers are blooming abundantly along the sunny margins of the creek, and butterflies are fluttering about nectaring. There are many spots along the way that lure you to stop and dip your feet in the rushing water, enjoy a creekside picnic, or just take pictures. The creek’s cool waters are not only refreshing to people—they also are attractive to trout, which in turn attract anglers fly fishing along the creek banks.

There are over a dozen geocaches hidden along the trail, and we found seven of them, including one hidden on the Appalachian Trail, which crosses the Virginia Creeper trail in several spots.

We lunched a little over halfway down at the Virginia Creeper Café, a bustling little trailside restaurant that boasts “World Famous Chocolate Cake.” Our shuttle driver told us the cake was a must-have experience of the ride, and we are glad he did. After sharing a slice, we concur that the cake deserves to be called world famous, and we are only sorry that we cannot justify eating it by having burned off any calories on the ride. The most exercise we got was in our hand muscles, which we clenched frequently on the brakes as we cruised down the mountain.

Both the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Creeper Trail pass through the center of downtown Damascus, which clearly has built its economy on the two trails–there are bike rental/shuttle businesses, outdoor outfitters, and bed and breakfasts aplenty in this little town of 1,070. As a sign along the Virginia Creeper trails says, “The rail bed which was the means of removing huge amounts of wealth from the forest is now returning ecotourism dollars to the region.” It worked for us.