The Virginias

Saturday, 30 November 2013 15:30
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Just like the back of the nickelA little time in both of the Virginias, West and regular. 


I started getting into bad weather just after leaving the Air & Space museum. My destination for the evening was Thomas, WV, a little town near Blackwater Falls and north of the Allegheny Mountains. I had actually spent some time in the area many, many years ago—first doing the rigging for a production of Peter Pan in Clarksburg, then later taking my first real vacation on the Cheat River (and with a great companion, believe it or not—these aren’t all solo trips.)

It was all night driving, all in some pretty serious rain and fog, and all on twisty back country roads. The car is good at one of those three items, but generally not great at that combination, so I was mostly just looking forward to getting there. I did had one fun fuel stop where a young girl (maybe five?) with one of those Barbie “my first camera” point-‘n-shoots decided that the car was worthy of a full fashion shoot, so she spent the next ten minutes or so taking pictures of it from every imaginable angle while her father looked on. I let her have at it, since she seemed to be having such a good time. One the shoot was done, I got back on the road to Thomas with a full tank and probably another 75 miles to go.

Arriving in Thomas, it was a bit spooky. It’s a very small town, formerly a coal mining center, but now it’s pretty much just the remnants of a main street and an old rail bed. They still do a fair amount of outdoors tourism with really great hiking, mountain biking, rafting, and rock climbing in the area, but tonight it just looked like a ghost town—dark, cold, windy, and wet. This was an Airbnb stay for me, but one of those where you’re just renting a whole apartment and there’s no actual host, so I didn’t have the benefit of talking to another human being after I arrived. I found the door to the apartment, got the key out of the lock box, got the heat on (because it was down in the low 20s by now), and got settled in.

Spooky Thomas, WV arrival

The next morning, things looked a lot more friendly. It was still pretty cold, but the rain had stopped and it was a clear day, and main street was considerably more perky. Fall was definitely over—the hillsides had plenty of trees, but zero leaves, colored or otherwise—but it was feeling a lot more like the West Virginia I remembered. I grabbed a coffee and scone at the only place that was open on the street, then headed over to Davis, the neighboring town to rent a mountain bike and do a little exploring. I ended up at exactly the same bike shop as we’d visited 20 years earlier when I was here, and took off down a lot of the same trails. The town was in roughly the same shape as its neighbor, Thomas—pretty run down, and clinging on to outdoors tourism as its mainstay.

Bike rental spot Inside the Purple Fiddle, a re-purposed old grocery store A bit of the Blackwater, with a distinct lack of fall foliage

Due to staying off the highways and on the back roads, I’ve been in probably hundreds of small towns so far on the trip. The formula for all of them seems pretty much the same: They had their heyday sometime between the late 1800s and the early 1960s, and they were each centered around some specific industry. In West Virginia, it was timber and coal mining, but in other areas it’s been fishing and shellfish, iron mining or steelmaking, railroads and industrial machinery, or some similar bit of industrial era endeavor. They weren’t all company towns per se, but there was a very strong sense of “we used to do this, and that was our identity” in each of them. Almost invariably, that’s gone now. The regional industries that supported the existence of the small towns have either been globalized, or whatever resource was at the heart of those industries has been depleted. This is not necessarily a bad thing in all cases—for example, the area in West Virginia that I was pedaling through had been almost completely clear cut of all forest in the early 1900s to feed the construction needs of the westward expansion. While this commercial prosperity built towns and homes and fortunes in the area, it also almost completely destroyed the environment in the area, with fires of the remaining brush and stumps blazing for months, and massive amounts of erosion and mud wiping out topsoil where those trees used to be due to the lack of vegetation that used to hold it together. So while it’s easy to look around at all the great little towns and cool architecture and romanticize the era of small town America, it pays to remember that those turn-of-the-century Americans weren’t great stewards of the future and were largely trying to make a buck (or preferably many bucks) as quickly as possible.

Still, I’m somewhat fascinated by the architecture and the infrastructure that comes from that kind of wild growth and prosperity. The speed at which industries were developed and towns were built and fortunes were made at that time and the results of pretty much unregulated growth and utilization of the resources made for some really unusual sights. There are dozens of once-beautiful mansions sitting and rotting out in the middle of fields and woods. There’s an opera house in downtown Thomas that’s gorgeous, but not a whole lot of opera fans in the area. There’s huge factories made of giant timbers and brick that are being slowly reclaimed by the countryside. In the big picture, it’s a really short time period that all this happened within—from nothing to massive industrial boom and back to nothing inside of a single lifetime, 75 years or so in general. It did make for some interesting photographic opportunities, and I suspect that that’s going to continue throughout the south, so apologies in advance for all the pictures of run-down buildings and details and whatnot. From an aesthetic standpoint, I love all the textures and features that aging opulence and prosperity bring about, so naturally I ended up taking a bunch of pictures of all of that (plus I got to play with some black and white, too.)

VA decay_1 VA decay_2 VA decay_3
VA decay_4 VA decay_5 VA decay_6
VA decay_7 VA decay_8 VA decay_9
VA decay_10 VA decay_11 VA decay_12
VA decay_13 VA decay_14 VA decay_15

Back to the trip itself: I pedaled over to Blackwater Falls, which was very pretty (and apparently situated within ‘salt sands’, a type of sandstone I’d never heard of) and wandered around there for a bit. Mostly, I just rode around in the woods, scaring deer and squirrels, and eventually made my way back to Davis and returned the bike. After another night in Thomas (and a nice breakfast at the Purple Fiddle), I embarked on my journey out of West Virginia and back into regular old Virginia. 

Blackwater Falls A little on the local geology Another angle on the falls

It was another back road adventure, this time with miles and miles of twisty mountain roads that crossed the ranges and valleys on the border between the states—some of the most fun I’ve had driving on the trip so far. The place must be mind boggling in the fall, as the views and the trees were still spectacular, even without foliage. I took a quick side trip to Seneca Rocks, where WWII mountain troops used to train, then through Harrisonburg and finally over to Stanardsville where I had one of the more interesting Airbnb stays so far.

A panorama of the German Valley

An old railway bridge, somewhere in WV Harrisonburg City Hall (from a moving car) A little on the valley in the panorama
Seneca Rocks More Seneca Rocks From here to the Apennines in Italy

At the end of a pretty long and mountainous dirt road (“Turkey Ridge Road”, which just sounds like it’d be a dirt road) was a small farm, and up on a hill behind that farm was a yurt, and that was my spot for the night. A yurt is basically a big, round tent, and from the outside this one was looking pretty yurty. However, once I got in, it was pretty plush—kitchen, living room, full bath, super-cozy bed, hot tub out back, the works. My hosts had left me a cheese plate that evening, and also delivered breakfast from the farm in the morning, both of which were excellent. I had a great rest there, and got to see some stars at night from the hot tub, which was a nice change of pace from the clouds and rain from the preceding days. Granted, it was pretty cold (down to 18 degrees that night), but the yurt stayed cozy and warm. Other than the car not being particularly happy with the dirt road getting up there (you’d think it’d be over it by now; it’s been on probably hundreds of miles of dirt on the trip so far), it was a really nice stay…probably three nights worth of rest in a single evening with the quiet and the coziness.

Arriving at the yurt Looking pretty yurty

Things looked way better on the inside

After breakfast, I headed back down Turkey Ridge to the entrance of Skyline Drive. It was still pretty cold, but I didn’t drive all the way across the country to do Skyline Drive with the top up, so I layered up, put the top down, and headed south toward Waynesboro on the lovely Skyline Drive. The park ranger at the entrance was pretty amused, but he liked the car and wished me well. Again, this place has got to be spectacular in the fall, but by the time I got there the trees were naked. Still, it was a great drive, and I’ll have to return for the leaves another year. I also did some time on the Blue Ridge Parkway after Waynesboro, which was equally fun and pretty.

Embarking on Skyline Drive, top down A little barren, but still pretty
Leaving Skyline Drive... ...and entering the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Fine, I got cold)

Since I was roughly in the neighborhood, I stopped in at Monticello to check out Thomas Jefferson’s old house. While I’m not a huge fan of guided tours, this was pretty interesting, as the place is famously full of gadgets and other neat architectural features designed and implemented by Jefferson over the years that he owned it. The library was pretty amazing, and the overall layout and design of the place was inspiring. It’s also surrounded by big gardens and orchards that formerly provided food to the residents. I was kind of surprised that it’s actually a privately run attraction and not a part of the National Park system, but they seemed to do a pretty good job in general, albeit a little heavy on the souvenir and shopping side. They also didn't allow photos inside, in case you're wondering why there aren't any.

Monticello, from the famous viewpoint The corridor below the house Some of the vegetable gardens next to the house
Part of the vineyard and orchards   A reproduction of one of the garden markers

After getting my history fix and wandering around the countryside on scenic roads for most of the day, I got to my home for the evening in Roanoke, VA just after nightfall. This was another Airbnb stay, this time a full studio apartment on the bottom floor of a house in one of the Roanoke neighborhoods. Staying with my tendency to hang out in small towns of formal industrial greatness, Roanoke is a place that was famous for railroads back when railroads were big. From the end of the Civil War up until about the 1960s, Roanoke was home to the Norfolk & Western railroad, which got big moving all that local coal north to the steel plants of Pennsylvania and east to the Virginia ports to sell overseas. They also built some of the best steam engines in the world right there in the Roanoke Shops. Today, Roanoke is struggling a bit to re-invent its economy after the gradual evaporation of the railroads there, and it’s become home to a large health care and hospital system, among other employers.

My hosts Corbin and Will were great, and after getting settled, I went to a local music event with Corbin, where Will met up with us. Afterward, we went to a really cool little restaurant that’s built into a former ice house. Big ice houses were common around old railway hubs, as that’s how you kept perishables cool in the age before refrigeration, and this was a great old brick and timber building. The overall building had several loft apartments, a rock climbing gym, and this restaurant, all of which were focused on the young professionals working in the health care industry there. We had a great meal and some good beer (including a chocolate and peanut butter porter, which smelled exactly like a Reese’s Cup), chatted about Roanoke (Corbin is developing several properties around the area and had some insights into growth and the local market), and Will had several suggestions for things to see while I was in Virginia and my upcoming visit to North Carolina. All in all, it was a great stay, and a good example of the fun that can be had in staying with locals through Airbnb and similar methods.

After a good night’s sleep, I got back on the road and headed southward again, into North Carolina.

Next stop: Lexington, NC and pretty much all over North Carolina in general.


#1 laceytrynn 2013-12-01 20:20
Sad, those old broken-down mansions… each one has a story that we can only imagine.
#2 FairladySPL 2013-12-05 12:03
You might have felt some Datsun ghosts when you were on Skyline Drive, Scott. About 30 years ago we used to get a dozen roadsters together for a drive and a picnic along there. Took up the whole scenic overlook with a bunch of 1600 & 2000 in every color. Somewhere near Big Meadow or Skyland, near 2800 ft level in Virginia.
#3 Mom 2013-12-09 14:15
great pictures..what a surprise at the inside of the yurt..really nice !!

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