Country Roads and Rail Trails

We hold this truth to be self-evident. When cycling the country roads of Virginia it’s essential for the pursuit of happiness to find some authentic country music.

And we found ours right in the heart of the Shenandoah valley … at the Grottoes Bluegrass Festival in the midst of the Blue Ridge mountains.

Headlined by ‘Seth Mulder & Midnight Run’ and by ‘The Bluegrass Brothers’ (check them both out on Spotify, they’re very good), it’s a small local festival … perfect for a sunny Saturday afternoon in October.

The crystal clear water of the Shenandoah River

Clare’s personal pursuit of happiness was going very well as her knee injury had now recovered. A few days of extra rest in Alexandria, sheltering from the after effects of Hurricane Ian, had worked its magic and she felt strong and fit again.

Both of us had really enjoyed the three and a half days it took us to climb up through the hills to this little music spot in Grottoes.

We settled down to watch the support bands, happily drinking coffee, eating muffins and jigging along to the music.

After a while, Clare wandered off to take some photos. Smiling, she stepped aside to let some people past … and suddenly, surprisingly … found herself flying backwards through the air.

She had back-flipped over a guy rope that was holding up a large gazebo and landed heavily on her coccyx, the whiplash then banging her head on the ground.

It hurt! A lot!

And the pain was not in a good place for sitting on a bike … with half a day of hilly riding still ahead of us.

Taken just before the fall

It turns out that an injured lady at a bluegrass festival is something of a man-magnet. By the time Andy arrived at the scene he had to join the queue. Ice-packs were applied, painkillers offered, a rug to lie down on.

She was in good hands … one of her rescuers was a retired cowboy from Montana, still very lean and strong!

We stayed on to see the headline acts from the back, no longer jigging. Then Clare bravely declined the multiple offers of pickup truck lifts and got back on her horse to painfully pedal the 30km to our hotel in Staunton, arriving well after dark.

Seth Mulder & Midnight Run

The next morning her bum was very, very sore.

Amazingly, in this hour of need we were rescued by the kindness of strangers, now firm friends.

Way back in Rehoboth Beach in Delaware we had chatted to two lovely people, Maura & Jerry, for about fifteen minutes and made vague arrangements to maybe meet up in Maryland where they live. In the end we didn’t cycle close enough … but we had stayed in touch.

As Clare was listening to more steer wrestling stories from the cowboy (the steers getting bigger and bigger), her phone rang. It was Jerry … they had some good friends, Marian & Paul, in Staunton … would we like to meet them?

So on Sunday morning we found ourselves heading to an art festival in nearby Waynesboro, then onto a country craft brewery, then back to their beautiful home for dinner.

Waynesboro Art Festival

They introduced us to their neighbours, Tammie & Howard, who invited us back for more delicious food the following evening.

We enjoyed two warm and fun evenings. It was a real privilege to share stories with people who live in this beautiful part of the world and know it so well.

New friends

But we still had to find a way back over the Blue Ridge, as there was no way Clare could cycle over the mountains. We tried the local train (no daily service), bus (no space for bikes) and car rental (no cars available).

Once again we were rescued by our new friends. Marian & Paul stuck our bikes onto the back of their car and drove us over to Charlottesville.

Charlottesville is mainly known as the location of Monticello, the home and plantation of Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United Stares and the main author of the Declaration of Independence that, of course, includes these famous lines …

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”


A week or so earlier we’d also visited Mount Vernon, the home and plantation of George Washington the 1st President.

Dining room at Mt Vernon (this shade of green was very fashionable in the 18th century)

Both men come with some baggage and contradictions that America is still wrestling with today:

  • As well as being revered founding fathers, both of them were large slave holders.
  • It’s now generally acknowledged that Jefferson fathered six children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved women living on his plantation who was 30 years his junior.
  • And many people think the Declaration of Independence only really refers to the equality, liberty and happiness of land-owning white men.

But Monticello and Mount Vernon are very interesting places to visit, not least because the organisations that run them are refreshingly open and honest about both the good and the bad sides of these famous men and of the challenges that were faced by the enslaved people who worked for them.

This openness and criticism is true of many of the museums and historic sites we’ve visited in America, a trend we’re told that has developed mainly in the last decade or so.

Living space for enslaved men at Mt Vernon (two to a bed)

From Charlottesville we took a train 100km (62 miles) southwest to Lynchburg, partly to find out how well Amtrak manages bicycles as we’re planning a longer train journey to the south next week.

Bikes on Amtrak is fairly easy. Take off the front wheel and hang her up.

But mainly it was because we knew we could pedal from Lynchburg to Petersburg in four relatively short days, without too many ups and downs and too much strain on Clare’s sore posterior.

For the most part, these four days were a series of lovely bike rides … on smooth, quiet back country roads … beneath dappled sunshine … in ‘just right’ Goldilocks temperatures … past endless oak, hickory and maple trees that were transforming before our eyes into their fall colours.

We were accompanied by the continuous pop-pop noise of acorns hitting the ground, like the sound of toy guns … an echo perhaps of the soldiers who marched and fought here in the last days of the civil war.

By chance, we had chosen to follow (in reverse) the route of ‘Robert E. Lee’s Retreat’ in April 1845, the final march of a starving Confederate Army as they tried to escape back to the south.

Relentlessly and ruthlessly pursued by the Union Army of Ulysses S. Grant, they eventually surrendered in the tiny village of Appomattox, marking the beginning of the end of the conflict. Today it’s a humbling place to visit, quite different to other civil war sites, full of pathos and quiet dignity.

The room at Appomattox where the surrender was signed

From Appomattox we rode for 35km (22 miles) along the High Bridge Rail Trail, one of many such ‘rail-to-trails’ that now criss-cross America.

The High Bridge Trail

In the industrial ‘Gilded Age’ of the late 19th century thousands and thousands of miles of rail track were built across America, often by competing companies. Many quickly fell out of use and are now being gradually turned into biking and walking trails.

According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy over 40,000km (25,000 miles) of track has already been converted nationwide, with another 14,500km (9,000 miles) in the pipeline.

We also enjoyed leaving Washington on this rail trail

Most American touring cyclists we’ve met have told us that they try to stick to these trails as much as possible. Having now experienced some of the busier country roads of Virginia, we can see why that is.

The country roads can become very scary!

The problem is that these busy roads are narrow and the cars are big and wide, especially the ever popular pickup trucks.

Most drivers are very courteous but there is a sizeable minority (usually in pickups) that are pretty aggressive … overtaking us on a blind bend or before the crest of a hill. We’ve seen many a near miss on this trip … but fortunately we’ve only had to jump off the road ourselves once.

No pictures from busy roads … but we’ve seen a few ‘interesting’ signs

Thinking back, we haven’t seen any other cyclists braving the country roads of Virginia over the last couple of weeks.

Not a single one!

No other touring cyclists, not even someone out for a pleasant weekend ride.

A park ranger on the High Bridge Rail Trail was so surprised to see us that he flagged us down. He told us that he used to see lots of people touring Virginia by bicycle, but that we were the first he’d spotted for many years.


“Because it’s become too dangerous!”


“Y’all stay safe now.”

OK (gulp).

Taking refuge for a picnic in a church BBQ area

Well … if you can’t beat them, join them!

As soon as we got to Petersburg, we rented a car and drove back into the mountains to see the fall colour in all its glory. As the leaves were at their finest at slightly higher altitudes, we chose to drive further south into the Highlands of North Carolina.

It didn’t look that far on the map but it turned out to be a 1000km (640 miles) round trip. To see a few leaves? We’d never do that at home!

But it was definitely worth it!

Blowing Rock, North Carolina

As we drove along the famous Blue Ridge Parkway a tapestry of colour spread out before us … vibrant yellows, burnt orange, dark red and the blue green for which the mountains are named. The sea of trees rippled down towards the coast like waves on a shallow beach.

It was awe inspiring!

Best of all though … there wasn’t a single cyclist to slow us down!

Clare & Andy

1,692km pedalled so far (1,051 miles)

12,100m climbed

90 hours in the saddle

10 thoughts on “Country Roads and Rail Trails”

  1. Great episode, I hope Clare’s rear is rapidly improving after a few days off the bike. I have ridden a bit in N Carolina and Tennessee, not many other cyclists and not many cars either; but the Appalachian scenery is beautiful and must be awesome in the fall.

    Keep up the good work.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t suppose Clare was wearing her helmet when she banged her head. Great time of year to be in that area. You probably didn’t consider that you were being brave when you cycled on the roads, similarly when I travelled on a bus in California. It’s a strange anomaly that Jefferson and Washington were both slave holders.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The colours look amazing! Hope Clare’s rear is feeling better….Andy can tell us no doubt. !!Be careful out in the sticks, have fun in The Carolinas. Cheers Phil

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What an amazing journey for two amazing bikers it has turned out to be. So enjoy reading your blog and the pictures are just stunning. Clare, hope you are better now 💕 I could almost hear “country roads” by John Denver while looking at the pictures.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Love reading your blogs. What a fabulous trip and so beautiful. The perfect time to go. Hope your bottom is better now Clare. Sounds really sore.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great to hear the variety you have enjoyed on this trip. Your photos are making me nostalgic for beautiful fall in Canada. I hear it has been a great year for colour there. Good to hear Clare is recovering. We’re looking forward to seeing you back soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I just cycled my 2022’nd mile this morning (all off roads) and saw your update!
    Hope you’re feeling much better Clare!
    Stay safe, we don’t see many tour cyclists at all either, I think we are in the minority.

    Liked by 1 person

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