Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Virginia Capital Trail: Day One


Virginia Capital Trail – 41.7 Miles – 5/5/17

Christmas gifts between Jim and me oftentimes involve brief but elaborate travel schemes which we promise to bring to reality during the year.  Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we just shrug it off as good intentions.  For 2017, I suggested biking the Virginia Capital Trail.  Since Jim is a strong cyclist and I am not, the perfect solution:  going tandem. 

The Virginia Capital Trail is a 52-mile paved recreational path between Richmond and Jamestown near Williamsburg.  Fully completed in 2015 and constructed specifically as a multi-use, non-motorized trail (for pedestrians, pets, cyclists, skateboarders, e-bikes, wheelchair accessible), the trail is separated from motorized vehicles. For much of the distance it parallels Route 5, which parallels the James River – combining history with recreation with springtime.  What could be better?

The Virginia Capital Trail Foundation’s website offers an excellent FAQ section, links to shuttles, list of attractions, rules of the trail, interactive and downloadable maps, everything you need to know for planning your fun.

Our good friends Dave and Cheri, from back in our Virginia Tech college days, and Dave’s brother, Andy, helped plan this two-day trip.  Jim arranged for a shuttle service to transport us and our bikes to our start in Richmond.  Dave arranged for an overnight stay at a B&B in Charles City, Virginia – which turned out to be THE highlight of this epic adventure.

I own one hybrid bike and Jim owns four road bikes (no judgment) but no tandems.  However, his contacts in the Charlotte cycling community include the Tailwind Tandem Club, which offers group rides, information, and trial rides.  We met up with Jim’s friends for a test run and did well enough to drive away with their loaner bike and small panniers for our stuff.

Here is an informative article about tandem cycling, what’s better about it, what’s not.  The basics:  the front rider (Jim) is the captain and he is responsible for steering, braking, power, etc.  The rear rider (me) is the stoker and I must pedal with enthusiasm, look good, wave, take photos, etc.  The key is starting:  the captain straddles the bike, feet on the ground, and stabilizes the bike. Next the stoker sits on her seat, puts her feet on the pedals, positions them horizontal to the ground. Then the captain pushes off.  Both riders pedal as hard as possible to keep it all balanced as speed increases.  Yeah, YOU try it!

On a stellar Saturday morning, Jim and I took a couple of turns around the Jamestown Settlement (living history museum) parking lot on the tandem, getting our strategy and signals in sync as we had been taught. Cap Trail Bike Shuttle picked up our party of five and we were committed.  My stomach butterflies settled down a bit as we drove along Route 5, getting a good look at the trail, its gentle grade and attractions along the way.  Gonna be some fun!

Unloaded at Great Shiplock Park and ready for takeoff

Dave and Cheri

Andy

Captain Jim

4 legs + 2 wheels = lots of power!

Maybe not my best side…

My view all day – over Jim’s shoulder

Only eight miles in but we’re not in a hurry, right?  It’s the journey, not the destination!  Lunch at Ronnie’s:  barbecue, collards, deviled eggs mac and cheese, sweet tea. 

 
Back on the trail, Jim and I were having fun testing our speed, relatively effortless on flat, straight pavement.  The euphoria screeched to an abrupt halt, though, when Jim hit the brakes and started patting his bike jersey pockets.  “I don’t think I have my credit card.”  Well, there aren’t many places to put a credit card on a bike jersey or spandex shorts, so it had to be back at Ronnie’s. 

Cheri: what do you mean, go back???

Our friends went on to Dorey Park while Jim and I retraced to Ronnie’s, no longer effortlessly having fun, now working way too hard for my fitness level. Jim’s card had been found and was waiting for him at the cash register.  I don’t suppose we could Uber back to where we left off?  Add six hard extra roundtrip miles to our day and you’ll see that I wasn’t so cheery by late afternoon. 

Catching up at Dorey Park

Two-lane Route 5 through Charles City County traces alongside the James River and passes by centuries-old James River Plantations, the homeplaces of several famous families of Virginia. Berkeley Plantation was home to Presidents William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison.  Shirley Plantation was the birthplace of Robert E. Lee’s mother.  Sherwood Forest was the home of President John Tyler. Each site offers walking tours of its antebellum homes and extensive grounds.  Each also played a part in the Civil War, occupied by Union troops as headquarters or as hospitals. [Do your history homework before you go, it will add much to the experience.]

We took the side road to visit Shirley Plantation, but were immediately distracted by Upper Shirley Vineyards (not a part of the plantation).  Really, just a bathroom stop and a drink of water…okay, maybe a little wine…or a bottle or three…do they have cheese and crackers...oh, we can just sit heah by the rivah...


We did not make it to Shirley Plantation.  Moral:  visit the plantation first, then the vineyard.

Back in the saddle, the last few miles were harder for me. Jim spends hours each week on a bike and he was feeling great, but my back was aching and my thighs were cramping. I had to stop several times to sit on the ground – yuck.  (I blame it all on those extra six miles.) Fortunately, there are no photos of this phase of the trip.

We passed through the teeny town of Charles City Courthouse, making a quick ID of the restaurant where we planned to have dinner.  We have no car – are we biking back here from our B&B?  No way am I doing that!  (Arrangements had been made for transportation.)

Courthouse Grille – deelish! 

We found the turnoff to our home for the night and there it was – with a three-quarter-mile gravel driveway to slow us down, and worth every inch. North Bend Plantation exceeded all expectations.


The briefest history: North Bend Plantation was built in 1801 by John Minge for his wife Sarah Harrison, the sister of William Henry Harrison (POTUS #9). The plantation was supported by slave labor and was occupied by Union soldiers during the civil war.  The property passed out of family hands for a time but was re-acquired by descendants in 1916. The current owner is Mrs. Ridgely Copland, widow of George F. Copland, a who was a great-nephew of Sarah and William Henry Harrison.  Ridgely and George opened their home as a bed and breakfast in 1984, and Ridgely, at age 80, continues to graciously host guests.

Currently North Bend Plantation’s acreage is greater than when first established and still actively farmed. The main house is 6,000 square feet with many original furnishings.  Its back entrance was once the front entrance. Just about every table, photograph, book and china teacup has a story.

We were met at the front door by Ridgely, an endearing woman exuding a combination of charm, hospitality, wit and humor.  Although she has welcomed thousands of visitors to her home, she was genuinely glad to meet us and we were captivated by her gracious manner.  [Her regional accent was very familiar to me, as I grew up in a rural county just 75 miles away.] Ridgely took us on a tour of the house, sharing stories at every turn, showed us to our rooms on the second floor, and settled us on one of the back porches for lemonade ("Store-bought - who's got time to make lemonade?")

 
We were torn between staying to hang on Ridgely’s every word and going to the restaurant, but she promised to chat later.  We quickly cleaned up, went to dinner, and returned.  Our host encouraged us to open a bottle of wine and meet her by the fire in the living room. 

 
Ridgely told us about her husband’s aunt who had written about growing up at North Bend.  Her writings were transcribed into manuscripts and given to family members.  Sitting by the fire, Ridgely read stories to us from this book and we were transported to a different time.  We were there for hours, listening and learning about family and local history. Mindful that our host sees her husband’s ancestral home through the rose-colored nostalgia of ownership, she willingly answered questions about the ownership of slaves and work on the plantation. [As a native Virginian myself, I struggle with the history I was taught as a child and the brutal truths I learned later.]


Dave asked if the writings were published, and Ridgely replied, oh, no, of course not, they were just intended for family.  However…They were written so long ago, who could possibly mind if they were shared?  Dave encouraged her to think about publishing.

Ridgely had extensive knowledge of family trees going back over 200 years and could find a connection between just about any two people with a Virginia background. She was able to link her family with my mother’s family in Brunswick County.

Oh, if only we had arrived at North Bend earlier in the day!  Walking around the grounds as night fell, we decided on a late departure in the morning.

  
[Postscript: A few months later Dave helped Ridgely with copying and publishing her husband’s aunt’s memoirs into an e-book.]

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Elk Knob State Park: Hike For MENTAL HEALTH


Hike For MENTAL HEALTH @ Elk Knob State Park – 3.8 Miles – 4/29/17
 

The definition of luck:  when preparation meets opportunity.  If you cultivate a wide range of interests, you can encounter an incredible amount of “luck.”  Sometimes it’s subtle; sometimes it announces itself with bagpipes and fireworks.

Fragile mental health is a part of nearly everyone’s extended family, including mine.  Daily struggles with depression and anxiety cloud one’s thoughts and shroud one’s gifts and talents, send the sufferer (and those who love them) searching for relief in many forms, some helpful and some destructive.  Research indicates some hope:  time spent outside in nature helps. 

Time spent outside helps all of us, doesn’t it?

I found the organization called Hike For MENTAL HEALTH a couple of years ago and was impressed by their goals of supporting brain research and maintaining wilderness trails across the U.S.  Their hikes are volunteer led but none were located in my “neck of the woods,” so I bookmarked their website and went on about my life.  Then one day, lo and behold, I saw a hike planned in the North Carolina mountains.  Now I could see for myself how the organization works and if I wanted to support it. 

I emailed my friend Megan, a former intern at my workplace that serves the homeless population in Charlotte, NC.  She was now attending graduate school near the hike venue.  Wonder if she’s interested in doing the hike with me?  Well… a fellow student in her graduate program was the person leading the hike!  [This was a fundraising effort for Hike For MENTAL HEALTH.]

Preparation (hiking experience and research) + opportunity (an event in my home state) = luck (a great day with my friend and others interested in helping mental health)!

Elk Knob State Park in Watauga County opened in 2003.  It’s small but mighty with its commanding view of numerous peaks and county high points.  (Some say you can see the Charlotte skyline 89 miles away, but my eyes couldn’t verify that.) The park features four hiking trails, backcountry camping, a picnic area and a visitor center. [The summit trail we hiked today was completed in 2011.] Check it out.

The park entrance is reached driving through the rural community of Meat Camp, NC.  Like most back roads, names mean something. Meat Camp was part of a pre-Revolutionary War trail used by lowland folks to access good hunting.  Those hunters stored their dressed animal carcasses in a cabin there until they were ready to return home.  The focus of the modern-day community is Christmas tree farms.

 
I met Megan and the other hikers in the trailhead parking lot. There were about 20 total, some grad students from the local college and others interested in the mental health initiative. The organizers reviewed basic group hiking rules and handed out bright orange bandanas and tee shirts (the former fit fine but the latter was a bit snug…) and we started up the trail.  Ruling the day were diminutive trout lilies, which bloom in profusion only for a brief time each spring, the most I’ve ever seen in one location.  A little later in the spring, Gray’s lily and purple fringed orchid bloom in the park.

Spring beauties

Wood anemone

Wakerobin (a trillium)

Star chickweed

The flowers distracted from the 1,000-foot elevation gain in about two miles to the summit.  Elk Knob is the second highest point in Watauga County (5,520 feet).  The true summit is at the overlook but there are two brief side trails to viewpoints south and north. Today was slightly hazy but on clear cold days the peaks of Grandfather Mountain in NC, Roan Mountain in TN, and Mount Rogers in VA are visible.


At the summit, the group took a break as the hike organizers shared information about mental health research, stigma, myths and challenges.  Every participant had a personal connection story.  It was a powerful moment, sitting on top of a mountain on a beautiful spring day, sharing the heartbreaks and hope of loved ones struggling with fragile mental health. 

The return hike was a delight as well (more trout lilies had emerged!). Elk Knob is a gem and I’m glad that North Carolina has protected it for us to enjoy.  I wonder what it looks like in the fall?  Or in snow?

“I go to Nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put together.” ~John Burroughs