Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Off 13: Cycling the Country Roads of Virginia’s Eastern Shore

Photos by Joseph Insalaco
(Published in SPOKES, Fall 2014)

Several years ago I had a great cycling trip in Virginia’s northern neck region (east of Fredericksburg, Virginia) and longed to again enjoy its charms.  A friend suggested that I consider going even further east and cycle the Virginia’s Eastern Shore region. He even offered a regional guide by Kirk Mariner entitled Off 13: The Eastern Shore of Virginia Guidebook.  U.S. Route 13 is a four lane highway that runs down the center of the Eastern Shore.  Mariner’s book focuses on the historical homes, churches, buildings, and scenic waterways that can be viewed from country roads found on the bayside and seaside of Route 13.  Once the idea took hold, I contacted my long time cycling friend Joe, and we soon found ourselves heading southeast on our bicycles from my Northern Virginia home.  Our route took us along the Potomac River into Virginia's Northern Neck.  From there we crossed the Chesapeake Bay and spent a week touring Virginia's Eastern Shore.  Finally, we crossed the bay to the Maryland side of the Potomac River for our trip back to Northern Virginia.
Leaving Northern Virginia on a mix of roads and trails, we cycled first to historic Occoquan, Virginia.  From there we followed Adventure Cycling’s East Coast route to Fredericksburg, Virginia.  While it was a long day of 83 miles, we had great weather.   Along the way we met 3 cyclists from Kansas also heading into the Northern Neck and a couple from San Francisco who were cycling to New York City.  

Fredericksburg dates back to the early 1700 and offered many tourist options. Within 3 miles of our downtown hotel we saw Kenmore Hall (home of George Washington’s sister), Mary Washington College, a large farmers market and art festival in a city park, an antique car show in the historic district, and George Washington’s childhood home called Ferry Farms.  While the Ferry Farm’s “home” is not much more than a foundation and an archaeological digging site, the farm has been recreated.  Our tour of the farm was self-guided using an IPad that provided detailed information on each point of interest.

Leaving Fredericksburg, we followed Adventure Cycling’s Potomac Heritage Route that took us east.  Our next stop was at George Washington’s birthplace.  Unfortunately, none of the original structures remain on this property, but the foundation of the original home had been unearthed.  According to our docent, the house on the property is relatively new and is only a replica of a grandiose colonial home.  From the foundation’s footprint, George’s birth home was much smaller and simpler.  However, the nearby Stratford Hall, Robert E. Lee’s birthplace, was built in the 1730s and is quite grand.

Cycling on country roads often lets an ill prepared cyclist go hungry.  That was us about 1:30 in the afternoon.  We were famished and quickly approaching Route 301, the major north-south highway through the Northern Neck region.  We hoped we would find at least a fast food restaurant near the intersection.  When we got to Route 301, however, we did not see any place to eat, just two new car dealerships.  Since we needed water, we went into the Dodge dealership.  We were directed to a water fountain where we also found some vending machines, which supplied our lunch.  We felt like poor relatives as we ate crackers while looking at a $150,000 Dodge Viper sitting on the showroom floor.  The day’s weather was a little warm, but the ride was still good.  We cycled 54 miles, about half of the time on the highways and the other on country roads, as we continued east to Montrose, Virginia.

On our cycling trips, we are often blessed with small gems that just make a day wonderful.  Last night, when checking into our motel, the clerk told us that the only two options for breakfast were either going back 2 miles into downtown Montrose, or 13 miles east.  The western option was for a local coffee shop that did not open until 8 a.m. The eastern option would take us off our planned country road route and to a fast-food restaurant.  Neither option was appealing because we like early starts and country roads.  The next morning, looking out of our motel room, we noticed that the gas station/Subway restaurant across the highway was open.  Unfortunately, the Subway part of the business did not open until 9 a.m.  However, a nice woman told us to “walk 1 block west and go to Johnny Wilkinson’s store, because he makes breakfast sandwiches.”  Johnny not only made us a great breakfast, but also sandwiches to go.  Never did a processed ham and cheese sandwich ever taste so good when we stopped for lunch.  It surely beat yesterday’s lunch out of a vending machine. We had no idea why the motel clerk did not offer this option to us.

Since our planned ride to Reedville, Virginia, was relatively short, we decided to go 5 miles off route and visit the Athena Winery.  There Ruth, one of the owners, told us that they have been growing grapes for 13 years. She admitted that it took a while for them to produce good wine. We sampled each of their wines and purchased a bottle for later.   While at the winery we found 2 entertaining Killdeer birds.  They built their nest in the gravel right next to the parking lot. When we got close, the bird on the nest would spread her trail feathers and the other would hop away and lie on its back and flap its wings as if it were injured.  Ruth told us that these birds have been building their nest in the same spot for years and entertaining her guests.  You would think that they would move away from all the commotion of the parking lot, but I guess they just like to people watch.

In Reedville, we stayed at the Grandview B&B that was just a few miles from where we would meet our boat the next morning.  The B&B’s name is well deserved with its view of the bay.  In the “it’s a small world,” our hostess grew up in Falls Church several houses away from the home where I live.  The Grandview’s hospitality was wonderful and worthy of another visit.

We had a short bike ride from our B&B to where our chartered boat picked us up for the ride to the Eastern Shore.  The boat, Joyce Marie II, is a 36 feet long fiberglass boat with a 4 foot draft. According to our characterized by a sharp bow that quickly becomes a flat V shape moving aft along the bottom of the hull.  It has a small cabin structure and a large open work area aft.  It is the traditional boat used by watermen for everything from crabbing and oystering, to catching fish.   
captain, Mark Crockett, the boat was built in the traditional Chesapeake Bay deadrise style.  A deadrise style boat is

The Bay was very choppy and our ride was rough so we appreciated a several hour layover on Tangier Island.  Not only did it give us a chance to regain our land legs, it also allowed us to tour the island.  The English settlement dates back to the 1600s, but Native Americans occupied the island long before.  The island currently supports about 450 people and its economy is based on tourism, crabs, and oysters.  Mark lives on the island and operates a passenger ferry service between the island and town of Onancock, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.   He was born on the island and has lived there all his 55 years.  He told us that he is a fifth generation Crockett on the island.  Looking at how low the land was in relation to the water level, I wonder just how long the island will survive. 

We arrived on the Eastern Shore in the early afternoon and cycled to our motel in nearby Onley, Virginia.  After dropping off our panniers, we toured Onancock and some of the surrounding country side.  With views of the old homes and waterways, our short ride was a precursor of what was to come.

Virginia’s Eastern Shore is about 70 miles long and 10 miles wide.  Cycling it is flat and easy, with the high point being about 60 feet above sea level.  We started our tour by heading south on the bayside of the Eastern Shore.  Much of Virginia’s Eastern Shore is very rural with farms, plant nurseries, fishing villages, and small towns. We varied our route to include trips to the water’s edge and through the small
communities.  While many of the old houses and churches we saw were interesting, we were not sure why some were included and others excluded from our guidebook.  Somewhat disappointing were the houses and churches that were covered in aluminum siding.  I understand the necessity for preservation and reduced maintenance, but the structures lost much of their appeal with the addition of modern siding.

Our end point for the first day was the Holiday Inn Express, in Exmore, Virginia.  Following Route 13, Exmore is only 13 miles away.  However, our trip on the bayside roads was 52 miles long.  This was typical of our “off 13” mileage.  If we wanted to get somewhere fast, Route 13 would have been the way.  However, fast was not our goal.

The next day we continued south down the bayside to Machipongo, Virginia where the bayside route ended.  From there we looped south on the seaside to Oyster, Virginia.  Oyster is a fishing village on seaside, but it is not on the ocean.  With the barrier islands, the ocean is not easily accessible on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.  After spending some time watching the fishermen we headed back to Exmore.  We cycled 60 miles and ended up back at the same Exmore motel. 

The following morning started with “pea soup thick” fog that definitely impacted the quantity and quality of our photographs.   However, we found a few interesting things.  The first was supposed to have been miles away on yesterday’s route. However, we found the Cobb Railway Station in downtown Exmore.  The station had been recently moved and was undergoing renovations.  Nearby, we also saw an Eastern Shore Railroad caboose, the only remains of that railroad we found.

As the fog lifted we entered the town of Accomac, Virginia There we saw hundreds of old homes, some of which dated back to the early 1700s.  According to our guidebook, Accomac is so historic that almost the whole town is included as a historic district. The town dates back to the 1600’s when it was chosen for the county seat.  Near noon we arrived in the town of Atlantic, Virginia, one of the few “off 13” towns that had a restaurant.  The town was also home to Marshall Manufacturing Company, one of the few places on the Chesapeake Bay that makes wire-mesh crab pots.

Later in the day we stopped at NASA’s Wallops Island. Wallops Flight Facility was established in 1945 as a center for aeronautic research.  We had timed our Eastern Shore visit to witness a rocket launch, but it was delayed beyond our stay.  We spent an hour touring its visitor’s center but were not sure if we stayed so long because the exhibits were that interesting, or if the air conditioning was just so nice. 

We reached Chincoteague in the afternoon and dropped our gear at our motel before cycling out to Assateague Island and visiting the National Seashore National Park and the island’s 1833 lighthouse.  From there we continued east to the Atlantic Ocean.  Assateague is one of the few places where the ocean is accessible on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.  I waded into the ocean to satisfy some symbolic notion of dipping my toes into the water at our most eastern spot. 

The next day, we cycled a 50 mile loop from Chincoteague that took us north to Maryland, then west to the bayside, before heading back east.  Our first stop into history was Horntown.  According to our guide book, Horntown “is not only faded, it is actually disappearing…Once one of the largest communities on the Shore...”  It was interesting to imagine the town as a large vibrant community.   We next headed to the “marrying tree” where Virginia couples “stepped over the line” to take advantage of Maryland’s younger marrying age.   While the tree was not that interesting, we got there on a serpentine road that took us back and forth between the two states several times in a few hundred yards.  Mostly we cycled through farm lands and forests where we made several additional stops at historic homes and peaceful waterways. 

Our time on the Eastern Shore was quickly drawing to a close.  We had to get back to Onancock, Virginia early the next morning, to catch our boat.  We wanted to leave our Chincoteague motel at 6 a.m. to beat the day’s forecasted 95 degree temperature.  However, the motel desk clerk said that breakfast would not be set out until 7 a.m.  As we were leaving, she decided to break the rules and give us some food. We were initially flattered that she would do this for 2 old (but good looking) guys, until we realized that she just wanted someone to talk to.  Among many other things, we heard about her first and only bike ride that was 7 miles and her first and only camping trip where everyone got sick.  Despite all the talk, she was a real sweetie and provided a good breakfast.

From our motel we headed west to get on the bayside roads that would take us south.  Mostly, we cycled through rural farm lands, wet lands, and swampy forests.  The only town on our nearly 60 mile journey was Parksley, VA, where we had lunch and visited the Eastern Shore Railroad Museum. The museum offered several examples of rail cars that traveled the Eastern Shore, but did not have any of the Eastern Shore Railroad.  Our destination was back to the motel in Onley, Virginia. Onley was one of several Eastern Shore towns that sprang up along the railroad in the mid-1880. Because of its location, the village was originally known as Crossroads.  We were told that Onley is currently Virginia’s largest commercial area on the Eastern Shore and recently welcomed the only Walmart. 

As we waited for our boat to depart from Onancock, Virginia for Point Lookout, Maryland, we got another glimpse of “island life”.  Mark, our captain, had brought his dog with him from Tangier.  The dog was injured and needed to have veterinarian care.  While we waited for Mark’s return, Norwood, one of his buddies showed up.  Norwood was born on Smith Island but now lives on Tangier Island.  He is responsible for maintaining the underwater electric cable that powers Tangier.  He said that both he and Mark have cars in Chrisfield, Maryland, so they can get around when on the mainland.  However, neither had a car in Onancock and Mark had to have someone pick him up and take him and his dog to the vet.  Norwood likened living on an island to living on a farm.  He said that, instead of driving to town, islanders take a boat.  I understand the analogy but think it a little weak when you try comparing walking from a farm to swimming from an island.  We also met Bonnie who shops for island residents, and brings the items to Mark’s boat when he is in Onancock. 

We arrived in Point Lookout at noon and started cycling in the heat of the day.  We made several stops for drinks and to take a few pictures in St. Mary’s, MD.  St. Mary’s was Maryland’s first capital and is home to St. Mary’s college.  After that we pushed for a total of 62 miles in temperatures that hit the high 90s.  The last 9 miles into LaPlata, Maryland were on Route 301. We caught a tail wind that allowed us to fly.  Even with a 5 mile stretch that was milled into a bumpy mess, we traveled at 18 to 20 mph. 

We left LaPlata, MD at 6 in morning to try to beat the heat, which was again predicted to be in the high 90s. Our route took us over country roads, which unfortunately, were filled with early morning commuter traffic. However, once we reached National Harbor, Maryland, we were on bike trails that offered a very relaxed ride.  We crossed the Potomac River on the Wilson Bridge bike trail.  In Virginia, we took the George Washington Trail to National Airport, the Four Mile Run Trail to Sherlington, and finally the Washington and Old Dominion Trail to Falls Church.  Our trip covered 650 miles by bike and 70 miles by boat over 12 days.  Our daily blog, photos, and routes can be seen at http://chesapeakebaybybike.blogspot.com/.

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