Virginia Mountain Reverie

Story by Liz Jansen// Photos by Liz Jansen
August 16 2016

There’s something in those hills that just keeps motorcyclists coming back for more

It’s an odd feeling parting from an event you’ve looked forward to for months. A gathering of motorcycle travellers, some of whom have ridden all over the world, is an exciting kickoff to the season. Three days of cloud and intermittent rain had done nothing to dampen the spirits of intrepid adventurers at the Horizons Unlimited (HU) Travellers Meeting at Holiday Lake 4-H Camp in the middle of Virginia’s Appomattox-Buckingham State Forest. I thoroughly enjoy these events and leave energized and inspired. There’s also an empty feeling as I pack up and head out. But this time, an antidote was right in front of me.

An Open Day

Virginia travelIt was springtime and I was in central Virginia. Mountain roads were calling, and taking a transition day to get home was not going to hurt my schedule. Isn’t this what riding and life is about?

April is a great month to travel in Virginia – moderate temperatures, scant traffic and no bugs. On average, only 10 days of the month have precipitation. Because the leaves are just budding, the trees aren’t in full foliage, so you can see landscapes and vistas otherwise hidden from sight.
I asked local riders for their recommendations to formulate a tentative plan. “Natural Bridge is awesome,” said Steve Anderson, HU event coordinator. “There’s a renowned pie shop on Elon Road in Monroe where riders gather,” piped up Beth Ann, who rides these hills often. She also recommended Shenandoah Valley, cradled between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny ranges. The valley is beautiful and the stuff of legends, and the roads emanating from it are a rider’s delight.
That was enough to point me in a general direction to get started; then I’d see where the road and Trudy (my motorcycle) would take me. After waiting out a Sunday morning downpour, the forecast was for sunshine and blue skies. I was longing for the backcountry and the solitude of nature.

Empty Calories

Virginia travelFirst up was Woodruff’s Store Café and Pie Shop in Monroe, which looked like a neat hangout but is closed on Sundays. That saved me a few calories right there.
Like ripples in the sand – except on a grand scale – the Blue Ridge, Allegheny and Smoky Mountains undulate westward in a generally northeast to southwest line. The well-known Blue Ridge Parkway sits atop the first ridge, but I was looking for roads less travelled. Thus, as I headed west, I continued past the sign for a Parkway entrance.

Natural Bridge in the Shenandoah Valley, a national monument with historical and spiritual significance, sounded intriguing. Formed when a cavern collapsed, the remaining arch is 65 metres high with a span of 27 metres. The Monacan Indians revere it as the Bridge from God, saying it appeared just as they needed a route to escape approaching enemies. It’s said that Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Stonewall Jackson all carved their initials in it.
Pulling into the parking lot, however, my enthusiasm waned, almost enough to make me turn back to the road, but I reluctantly parked and entered the complex. Admission was US$20 and it was a 500-metre walk to the arch, but mostly it was the commercialism that sent me back to my helmet and Trudy. There were roads to ride!

Rising Above

I hopped on I-81 to quickly cover the 18.5 km south where I could access a Scenic Byway via Highway 43 and begin my loop. Virginia travelThe road lifts you up out of the Shenandoah Valley, into coal mining country. Once the backbone industry in these parts, the disfavour of coal over other forms of energy turned thriving small towns into a collection of dilapidated structures with a rich history. The culture lives on in stories and legends. One thing that hasn’t changed is the dynamic scenery and roads that beckon you, ever higher and deeper into the hills.

Smooth-surfaced roads twist and gyrate as they wind upward through the trees, taking direction from the rushing mountain streams tumbling into the valleys, their path carved eons ago. Rock formations push through the soil, a testament to the violent upheaval that thrust them up to create these mountains – the process that produced the coal. Spring energy was palpable. I could almost observe the leaves bursting free of their buds, and the raucous birdsong was audible even through my helmet and earplugs. Yet the heart of any place resides in its people.

By the time I reached Clifton Forge, it was time for a break. Surrounded by mountain ridges, the view is scenic in all directions. Built on the railway industry at the turn of the century, major lines like the Chesapeake and Ohio traversed the town, connecting it with large cities. Passengers seeking their dreams through education or employment, or fighting wars, once filled rail cars to capacity. Now a gleaming locomotive sits idle, restored to preserve its heritage. The abundance of churches and flags speaks to the townspeople’s strong allegiance to God and country.

The Good Times

I was no sooner off my motorcycle than I noted a brilliant fuchsia T-shirt with a silkscreened Betty Boop lounging across the front, making a beeline toward me. Assuming I, too, was a railway buff, the middle-aged man wearing it fondly recounted his time as a railway engineer, hauling coal. “Those were great times! That locomotive was beautiful, but it was very unreliable,” he recalled. Glancing at the modern train passing behind the locomotive, he continued. “Now two engines can pull a train that’s two miles long, and the first five cars pay for the trip.” His nostalgia wasn’t reserved for trains – he also races old motorcycles. As I walked away, he was clamouring up onto the locomotive platform, caressing its skin like a lover.

Times were good and the town and its people prospered until the decline of the railway in the early ’60s. But it’s that history that is fuelling the rebirth, and the three-block downtown has undergone a dramatic restoration. Leaving Clifton Forge, the road got really snaky. I was headed in the general direction of Goshen Pass, but Trudy had her own idea of how she wanted to get there. Especially when she saw the sign saying “NOT PASSABLE BY VEHICLES OVER 25 FEET.” We were off, heading up Route 606. As the pavement narrows, it also gets a bit rougher, but still very enjoyable. Forget about painted lines or guardrails, and do keep your wits about you. There was very little traffic; none behind me. I did meet two pairs of roadsters descending and taking the corner wide. Fortunately, there was enough of a buffer to navigate safely around them. It’s hard to stop and take pictures, but with leaves barely there and no traffic, the visibility was good and I took advantage of a straightaway to snap a few quick shots. When the leaves are in full foliage, you’re riding under a canopy; now you’re able to catch mountain vistas.

On Top

All too soon I was at the T-intersection called Valley View atop the Appalachian range and forced to follow Route 220 north. Hamlet names like Healing Springs and Hot Springs speak to the area’s geology. Farther along, Warm Springs is a historic and charming four-season destination in a rustic setting. It wasn’t hard to imagine trading my heated gear for a hot spring soak, but I’d had a late start because of a different spring soak, and was more anxious to get out of the hills before dark. Just past Warm Springs, I picked up Route 39, also known as Appalachian Waters Scenic Byway, following it east. I’d been here before after riding through West Virginia and knew the scenic pullout at Goshen Pass where I’d stop, high above the Maury River. Even on this late Sunday afternoon, I was not alone. A young couple strolled along the rock retaining wall toward me, greeting me amicably.

At the far end, I noted a young man with a big pickup truck tending a winch and two cables over the side of the abutment. After watching for a few minutes, curiosity got the best of me and I ambled over to see what was going on. It’s easy to start a conversation and he quickly divulged he and his friend were practising rappelling. I peered over the edge at his companion picking his way through the rocks on the way back up and watched as he clambered over the stone fence. Interesting fellas, they were eager to talk about this area they call home. “This is the most beautiful place on the earth,” the one opened.

They explained how the Maury River behind me begins and ends in Rockbridge County, and when the water is high enough, it becomes a whitewater rafting destination. The Maury starts just a few kilometres up the road where the Calf Pasture and Little Calf Pasture Rivers converge, flowing approximately 20 km to the Town of Glasgow, where it dumps into the James River.

Mistaken Identity

Both were eager to talk about Civil War history and specifically (Confederate) General Stonewall Jackson. In an odd coincidence, it was 153 years less a day since Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men, who mistook him for a Union soldier. His left arm was amputated and buried in Chancellorsville, but when he died 10 days later, his body was brought 65 km to Lexington for burial. According to these locals, “When Stonewall Jackson died, one of his requests was to come up through here because he said this was the most beautiful place on earth. So they actually brought him through here when the mountain laurel was in bloom, another of his requests.” “We’ve been a lot of places, a lot of places that are nice,” they said, nodding in agreement. “But this is the most beautiful.

About 16 km away, there’s a cave that Thomas Jefferson wrote about during the early days of going west. In fact, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington surveyed much of this area. There’s a lot of history here.” They could have talked for hours, and I could have listened, but I was burning daylight and had another 50 km to ride. Cooling Off From Goshen Pass, the road descends back into the Shenandoah Valley and relaxes from its mountain serpentines. Route 252 took me north through a tranquil and bucolic countryside, like a cool-down period after a cardio workout. Even here, swooping birds were my constant companions, busily preparing for and tending to their young. Stopping later than I’d planned, I was tired yet recharged. My day’s diversion had been the perfect antidote. I could return contented.


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