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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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)
90 hours in the saddle