Adventures with Albert in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia

So, I set out after dropping Deb off for the flight to Vancouver. It was about 1:00 PM and my destination was Smith Mountain Lake State Park Virginia. We had a great taste of US mountain biking in Richmond at Fairfax Lake Park and Round Top NY and I was keen to indulge in a few rides in the area of Roanoke. Deb and I had fine-tuned navigating the US highway system with the help of Google Maps on her iPhone. My destination would certainly be as easy to find, right?! Afterall I had more than enough time (4 hours) to check in, settle into the new campsite and plan the following day of biking. About halfway along I made a stop for gas that started a series of turns that kept getting just a bit more like narrow winding country roads instead of major highways. Hmmm? The terrain is hilly as you travel west through Virginia. The Appalachian Mountain include the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah. The topography that makes cell phone signals a little less than reliable. This is frustrating when, alone, after the 5th “rerouting” message you begin to ponder the off-grid option from what might be the completely wrong end of a state you know nothing about!! In retrospect, part of the confusion was probably that this was the first time I had applied my phone to the task of direction finding. In any event, after cautiously steering our pride and joy home-on-wheels through more tight turns, in fading light and dwindling gas than I care to remember, I pulled into a roadside stop where kind locals assured me – I was close. Now punching the clock at 8:30 PM as I wheeled through the park gates, I prayed I hadn’t missed some deadline to check in. A note with my name on it was on the park headquarters door. I breathed a sigh seeing my site vacant and welcoming me through my headlights. Sometime after 9:00 I called Deb to see that her travels had been less arduous. After some grub and a good sleep, I woke to a new adventure, exploring this great looking park.

I had reserved for two nights. The trails around the park were quite bike friendly and very scenic. My first day was a big ride on mostly cross-country style trails in and around the lake. Fall colours and mild temperatures encouraged me to explore it all and at about 4 PM I could hear a cold, local craft beer calling me from our fridge (weird, I know, but these things happen to me). Day two was about checking out Roanoke for a mountain bike park that I reckoned would provide ample new mountain bike trail fun. Carvins Cove is a multi use municipal recreation park encompassing a large reservoir, smooth rising hills and mostly frequented by area residents. I searched and searched for the mountain biking side of it but that was easier said than done. My phone-map took me to an out of the way zone for boaters. After a few hours of lost, I resigned to do better research and headed back to camp. Next day I pulled up stakes and headed for a campsite that was a bit closer to town, Middle Creek Campground (MCC).

MCC was a smallish private campground nestled on the border of the Jefferson National Forest in a holler of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There is an access point for the Appalachian Trail on the road that leads to the campground and a picturesque little creek with numerous fly-fishing enthusiasts along the way. The busy season was over, and it seemed that the pace was settling into a much welcomed off season mindset. The people that remained were mostly full timers that had found an accepting locale for their ATV/ dirt bike hobby and they were relishing the lack of competition for trail space. I rolled my eyes at the emphasis on off road mayhem and noise, but they were very respectful of morning and dinner hour curfews. Good thing because I had signed on for 4 nights. Eager to find Carvins Cove Mountain Bike Park I got on the road with a solid, direct route to follow to my destination.

Arriving without a glitch, I assembled the bike and disappeared into the beautiful autumn colours. My enthusiasm was hard to moderate, and I could feel the fine line between careless abandon and levelheaded self-preservation beginning to blur. A trail called “Four Gorges” provoked the less cautious characteristics in me. After about Gorge #2 I was “Carve’n” up Carvins Cove with great abandon.

All good things do come to an end and this one really came crashing down on me. An innocent looking too-close-for-comfort tree clipped my handlebar and sent me into a 30 kph reality check with the uphill trail edge. Humbled and feeling chastised for the lapse in judgment, I attempted to evaluate my ability to proceed in light of the increasing pain from the impact. My hand and wrist seemed to be the area most unwilling to comply with my adrenaline-fueled brain. Compartmentalizing this inconvenient truth, I continued on my way but with a renewed respect for the forces of excessive velocity and gravity (not to mention the limiting factors surrounding the diminished usefulness of my left hand). Unable to ignore the fact that I was now riding alone, onehanded on unfamiliar intermediate ability trails. I decided to avail myself to the wisdom of discretion being the better part of valour. The torqueing that my hand sustained in the fall would handicap me for a month and preclude my ability to enjoy a painless bike ride. The combined swelling with black, blue and greenish brown bruising lasted several weeks and is still a top of mind reminder to err on the side of caution when my inner seventeen year old begins to indulge its careless whims (I do realize that many others have learned to intervene sooner. I, admittedly, am a slow learner of this).

The city of Roanoke VA has a colorful history that intertwines railroads, mining and textile industries. Originally known as Big Lick (so named for the salt marshes where various animals congregated to indulge in these “salt licks”). This title is now remembered in the name of a trendy micro-brewery that I searched out called Big Lick Brewing Co. My first visit to downtown Roanoke left me feeling that I had somehow missed the vitality of a city that should have had more to offer the inquisitive visitor. My impressions of downtown were of a void in the atmosphere in the place, revealing a more desperate social disintegration. I arrived at the City Market area due to a boastful brochure I had read claimed “the oldest continuously operated Farmers Market in VA – open 7 days a week”. There was no visible activity of kiosks selling homemade wares just some homeless people gathered around the available tables in the square. After being accosted by an overly persistent inebriated guy photo bombing my picture at the Deschutes Brewery claiming he would take my picture – “give me your camera” etc. I fled to a nearby hotel before making a getaway back to my car. A quick search on my phone said that Big Lick Brewing was only a short drive away so I made tracks for the familiar sanctuary of a microbrewery.

I wrote that experience off to it being bad timing on my part – a late Sunday afternoon gap. But the next day, after walking a number of square blocks of downtown, it only reinforced my first impressions. There was one exception. The Taubman Museum of Art was excellent and I spent a couple hours enjoying the exhibits there. I resolved to explore the area surrounding Roanoke. After a harrowing Halloween-eve storm (that, incidentally, temporarily impeded my return to the trailer and campsite and cancelled the trick or treat festivities of resident kids) I drove to Mill Mountain and took my obligatory selfie at the Roanoke Star, surveyed the panoramic view from the observation area and took a short hike around the top on the easy trails offered there. My search for redeeming sites of interest led me to the historic Grandin Theatre. Opened in 1932, the Grandin Movie Palace provided locals with a luxury venue for movie escapism. The Joker (from the Batman comics genre) was playing so I decided to take that in. It was a great choice and the old theatre setting provided added nuance to the movie of choice.

It was time to get back to Richmond VA to meet Deb after her trip to the Skills meeting so I set out for a “Harvest Hosts”(HH) site that  would be an easy few hours drive and get me within easy access to a park with close proximity to the Richmond Airport for my next camp site. The host was a small family vineyard off US 460 offering farmgate style local wines. As I mentioned above, the storm on Halloween caused some havoc with windfall in various parts of the state and when I arrived the owner of the property was hard at work with a chainsaw bucking up the debris of fallen tree limbs in his paddocks. From the minimal road signage I wasn’t certain that I had found my destination but when I rolled in, he approached the truck in his straw Stetson, sleeveless white undershirt, and hollered “You must be my Harvest Hostee?” to which I replied “You must be the Harvest Hoster?” As he got closer, I took notice of his Yosemite Sam moustache and a prominent shoulder tattoo of two crossed six shooters with smoking barrels, and what might have either been a confederate flag or a contemporary American flag. Clearly a man of convictions. With a neighborly smile he motioned for me to follow him up the long driveway to a spot where RV’s usually camped. I felt a bit awkward following while he quietly sauntered in front of my truck, walking in silence until we reached the barn shaped winery and tasting room with the adjacent campsite. He casually mentioned that the gravel road led into his vineyards and that I was welcome to proceed further if I wanted but that most people chose the current spot. It was level and that was all I needed to set up. Before he left I asked if the tasting room was open and he said that it being Saturday there would probably be visitors at which point his daughter would be providing tours and tastings. Great – I was curious as to the offerings of this off the beaten track fermenteria. I read and cracked a beer in the remaining sun. Eventually a fellow identifying himself as the son in law said he would show me around and provide the tasting. The wines were rustic and had some unusual characteristics that I found edgy but maybe quite common for the local crowd. I bought 2 bottles out of a feeling of obligation to patronize my “Hoster”. There were posters and t-shirts available as well but not with whimsical pictures of grapes and winery slogans, but these were Rock and Roll themed and more specifically in a Heavy Metal themed. Turns out the proprietor hosts a Rock festival that attracts tens of thousands and ultimately involves most of the town to assist in hosting. The plot thickened. At the till I noticed a stack of calendars and thought to pick one up for the trailer. I flipped through it and, not being too thick headed, quickly picked up on the theme in the images of guns and gun toting enthusiasts. The sponsor was clearly represented on the back in the “Support your local Virginia NRA Club” pitch. For whatever reason I put the copy of the calendar that I was thumbing through down without comment but the wheels were turning in my mind on a scheme to surprise Deb with a brand new 2020 NRA calendar for our trailer. Well the plan gelled after I departed the tasting and fortunately the son in-law returned to the barn/ winery around 8:00 PM to get his ATV so he could retrieve the 8 point buck he had shot in the not so distant pastures. I managed to squeeze in an inquiry regarding the calendars through his animated and detailed descriptions of the kill. “Hey, you know those calendars at the till inside, could I have one?” went my quick change of topic. I didn’t even think to ask if they were free or not. “ I’ll let my father in law know he is the one that takes care of that.” “Oh, okay, great.” Was my response, feeling like this was a bit more than just grabbing a free calendar from a local outlet. The next morning, I finished up with breakfast and with a short drive ahead I took my time planning my day. There was some rustling of activity around the front of the main building and I walked over and caught up with the son inlaw. Inquiring one more time about the “free” calendar he said “oh yeah I’ll get (whatever the proprietors name was) we are just getting ready to go to church.” It didn’t escape my notice that he was quite comfortable with the “Open Carry” status he presented. From my vantage point the firearm looked to be a 9mm Glock or like. I was invited into the tasting room again and “Yosemite Sam” appeared from a side door packing a similar weapon of self-defense. “Yes, you can have a calendar, but they are not free.” “Oh, ok how much?” “$50 bucks” was the reply. Closing my jaw with my hand I quickly backtracked on my intention to acquire the calendar and the surprise for Deb (wouldn’t that have been a surprise!). “But it’s a great deal! It’s a draw a month for some really nice guns. On the first Wednesday of each month there is a draw for collectors’ guns, look…” He proceeded to show me the prizes. He was right they were some of the “nicest” looking guns (rifles and hand guns) that I have seen. I made a feeble excuse as to my nomad existence and “How would they get the prize to me if I won?…” I pleaded lamely. My Harvest Hoster and his family were very courteous and friendly, I felt very safe and at ease the whole time. After-all this is their home and their community and I was a guest that they opened their life to and hosted in a friendly, welcoming manner. I proceeded to get packed up, they headed off to church and all I have is 2 bottles of marginal wine (not yet consumed) and this story but the memory is at least as good as hanging that trophy calendar in our trailer.

Everything progressed as planned. Checking into the new campsite at Pocahontas State Park, picking Deb up at the airport and continuing down the adventure filled roads we have chosen.

The rest of the Eastern seaboard…

Our plan was to go to Washington DC to see the town but more importantly visit my friend Rajeev who I worked with at the Queen Elizabeth hotel in Montreal over 35 years ago. We kept in touch for many years then lost each other… then Facebook. He left Canada with his family about 30 years ago to take on the role of Hilton Executive Chef outside Washington in the Pentagon area. Once we were set up in our RV site, we set the GPS to Rajeev’s address and had a fantastic evening with him and Sarita, his wife.  We laughed and chatted like no time had passed. Alas, that was the only time we could get together as his hotel had some big VIP events which required him to work a lot and we only had a few days. Sadly, we took no pictures.

Our campground was called Fairfax Lake Park and we were there for 4 nights.

It is just 2 miles from the metro that goes into Washington DC so we bought a 3 day metro pass and hopped on and off for three days.

The subway stations were impressive and many had funny names.

Albert and I walked all over that city. We walked the Mall. This is not a shopping mall. It is a massive greenspace with the Lincoln Memorial at one end and Generals Lee and Grant at the Capitol buildings at the other. There are lake sized reflecting pools along the way. Flanking the Mall are the White House, the Smithsonian Museums and the memorials of the wars including Korea, Vietnam, World Wars and Civil Wars.

We saw the Lincoln Memorial with the two famous speeches on the walls that he gave while President.

Hard to believe he was a Republican but that was then… It seems times have certainly deteriorated in that respect. In fact, we had a look in the Trump Hotel, and left some gold deposits in the gold accented restrooms. We didn’t bother using the entrance for the Presidential suite off to the side. The hotel is quite spectacular as it was an old post office that was remodeled. 

The Martin Luther King Jr memorial was very modern and refreshing in comparison with the European style statues and fountains that line the parks. He emerges from a giant rock or mountain of granite surrounded by 14 of his quotes in the square. Very inspiring. He was a mountain of a man.

To the side of the mall are many of the Smithsonian museums. All are free. We visited the American Museum of History and saw Edith and Archie Bunkers’s chairs, Julia Child’s kitchen, Dorothee’s ruby slippers, the Batmobile, Mohammed Ali’s red boxing gloves, and the muppet chef!! Ork de Bork Bork!!

Washington has many beautiful buildings and of course lots of history that we learn in our text books. Most of it forgotten.  Impressive buildings were the train station, the irish pub with all the police logos from all over the world, the FBI headquarters that became iconic with Ephrem Zimbalist Jr as the head of the TV show “The FBI”. My career has usually considered the FBI the Food and Beverage Institute just like the CIA is the Culinary Institute of America. These spy vs spy things are for the birds.

The day we went to the Pentagon, we just hopped on the metro and got off at Pentagon stop. We knew there would be security, but really you couldn’t even go anywhere outside of the parking lot unless you had an official tour or some other sort of clearance. We stopped to look at a bird house along the sidewalk. It was from Canada to help the population of Purple Martins, so we acted like this was the reason we were there, and feeling that this was some weird sort of Canadian joke. We thought it was funny anyway.

Speaking of Canada, we went to see the embassy and sat in the iconic Red Adirondack chairs that grace all our national parks and gave a shout out to west coast aboriginal artist Bill Reid,  and our friend Doug Zilkie who assisted Bill when his Parkinson’s was so severe he could not do the finishing work on the Spirit of the Haida Gwaii. There are just two of these bronzes, one at Vancouver Airport in the International wing and one at the Canadian Embassy. We have seen both. The Vancouver one looks green like jade (the Jade Canoe) and the Washington one is outside and is black (the Black Canoe). One more that I have seen is the original plaster casting in the Canadian Museum of History, in Ottawa. We went inside the building and were allowed only to use the WIFI and see the art gallery which was completely underwhelming with a few cartoons by Lynn Johnston, of “For Better Or Worse” fame.

We considered going into the Smithsonian space museum, natural history, American Indian, Holocaust, and so many others but we also wanted to see the outside stuff and get some biking in at the park where we were camped. The Fairfax Lake park and surrounding areas around DC are very hilly and there are no straight roads. There is a fantastic transit system plus a long bikeway that joins the many surrounding communities together. This park is filled with mountain biking trails, walking and hiking trails. With spectacular fall colours and dry conditions, we poked through the well-maintained trails. With the cover of leaves over some of the rocky bits, I just relaxed and let my bike do all its own navigating. Good thing, because if I had seen some of the chunky rocks on the trail, I may have had more reservations with the speed we were traveling through them. Only fell once!! On a narrow trail that dropped off to the right. So, I tipped over to the right and watched my big heavy bike sail over me. Sigh. 

We packed up and headed for Richmond, Virginia where I was catching a flight home and Albert was continuing on to the Blue Ridge Mountains near Roanoke in the western side of Virginia near the Shenandoah mountains. Albert dropped me off at a hotel near the airport so I could get my early flights home. Even though I am newly “retired”, I am still involved with Skills Canada and BC will host the national competition in June 2020. Since that is my province, I am tasked with chairing the organization of our cooking competition and the planning meeting was at the end of October. It was good to see my folks, Alberts family, our son, a few friends, get the car insurance organized, and have a bit of time on Vancouver Island. The meeting went smoothly, and I came back to Virginia ten days later with a terrible cold and itching to get on the road again. While I was away Albert found his own adventures throughout the mountains in Virginia….(Albert’s tale to be in the next post. Guns, lost, heavy metal, bike crashes and injuries… it’s all there…)

Albert picked me up at the Richmond Airport at midnight. I left my voice in Vancouver so telling him everything at a time of day that is not my best conversationally was difficult then add the voice thing. We drove back to Pocahontas State park where he had set up our campsite earlier in the day.

He told me some of his adventures (related above) and I slept like a log for 10 hours. (add story of grocery store that has a bar in the center of it – men drink while women shop).

We stayed 2 more nights at Pocahontas as there were some good trail systems near and in the park. All the parks that we stayed at had the evidence of great family camping. They had pools with great slides and water features, tennis courts and wonderful trails for hiking and biking. Pools were emptied and deserted but the campers were still in the parks. When Albert was biking without me while I was at the coast, he had a big fall that hurt his hand and busted his dropper post on his bike seat. So while we were riding we found a bike store for some repairs. Great opportunity to catch up on blog writing. We found a library and completed another entry. The next day after picking up the bike we hit the open road. I was hoping to be healthy soon.

We were off towards Savannah. Usually we drive 3-5 hours a day and Savannah, Georgia was over 6 hours from Southern Virginia where we were camped so we found a Harvest Host winery to stop for the night. We stayed at Cartersville Winery in a small place called Timmonsville, South Carolina. We tasted his wine made with muscatel grape. Can’t say it was a favourite but we bought a bottle of white. Wine in the south is sweet with high acid, and while interesting, it is not a wine that we find easy to swallow. When he asked what kind of wine we like, and we said “dry”, he said “good luck”, and we proceeded to taste his driest offering and continued on to the sweeter ones after that. A tasting was $5 and it came with a small plastic stemless wine glass. We each tasted the wine, so he charged us twice. I couldn’t finish the small sweet pours he gave us. He was super nice, had a big BBQ camping area beside the winery and we parked there. Nice and level, and two other campers beside us. These people had booked their stays through a website membership called “BoondockersWelcome” where people can list their property and service available (electric, water, nothing) and campers can stay for free for up to a few days or a week. It is a nice way to meet travelers or to meet locals if you are traveling. We met a retired couple from Ontario that was staying a few days and another young couple from Florida who were considering becoming full timers (people like us who live in their RV’s full time) so they were trying out the lifestyle for a few months first. Turns out the young couple had a few things in common with us. He said he was a chef who grew up in Montreal apprenticing at the Queen Elizabeth hotel at least 10 years after I left there. He worked with the tyrant French chef who took over with the brigade change that followed the management change. The QE was a Hilton hotel for 25 years, the contract ended, and CN hotels took it over. They owned it. Years later all the CN and CP hotels amalgamated to become the Fairmont chain that circles the globe.  I never asked this fellows name. Why? Because he was one of those opinionated, apparently well trained, prima donna chefs. I am sure he was probably a good cook but there was no way he was going to let a “nobody chef” like me get close.  He boasted about $500 bottles of wine, working with Alain Ducasse, Paul Bocuse and being involved with the Bocuse D’Or. He had never heard of Robert Sulatyky, Canada’s highest scoring Bocuse competitor, and Bocuse Team USA mentor alongside chef Thomas Keller. He did acknowledge that Thomas Keller is famous for running a respectful calm kitchen and that being a tyrant is not necessarily helping the industry. He said he had his CMC, was teaching Certified Master Chef classes with the Miami University or College or perhaps it was the Culinary Institute. Apparently, the largest university/college in Florida. He said he set it up. Ugh. His wife/girlfriend hailed from Holland originally, and was level 4 WSET and had great knowledge of the Wine Spirits side of the equation. She was super friendly, and like many front of house people, was able to skillfully keep a gentle tone to all of the conversations we were having. He did share a nice bottle of Bordeaux with the 6 of us that he claimed to have some involvement in as an importer. The Ontario couple barely got a word in. You meet all kinds of people on the road. Maybe his story was legit but he wasn’t giving us all the facts. Perhaps he will read this blog and let us know how important he is… really…

The next morning, we headed for Savanna Oaks RV park just outside of Savannah. This little RV park was shaded by all those sleepy Live Oak trees dripping with moss that you read about in Harlequin romances. Well that’s how I remember hearing of them as a teenager. We had heard about it as a great southern city to see the old South lifestyle and the downtown with its stately manors and paddle-wheelers that still ply the waters of the Savannah River for enthusiastic tourists.

Savannah is now a sleepy historic city with a wealth of cotton history in strategically located old buildings along the river, a fantastic candy store and the Live Oak and moss that define the flora of the south. This is not a town for people in a wheelchair. There are stairs, cobblestones, uneven sidewalks and roots of the big Live Oak trees pushing up what was a level walkway 50 years before. But it is beautiful, friendly, sleepy and calm. There are quirky shops and award-winning southern BBQ. We had to do some tasting. We tried out Wiley’s Championship BBQ. Pretty good and our first indulgence of that local food genre.

While we were in Savannah the town was setting up for the Savannah Food and Wine Festival, which by all rights you would think we would want to go to, but we didn’t. What??!! It was expensive plus 30% US/CAD exchange. We had just gone out for BBQ and we were happy shopping in the local grocery store for typical stuff that the locals cook and enjoying it at our trailer. We spent one day at the beach on Tybee Island as it was recommended for biking. But when we got there it was more of a cute little seaside tourist town with big beaches, empty streets, happy hours and wetlands. The lighthouse was interesting. We rode around and made our way back to camp and the laundry room at the RV park. Exciting!!

After Savannah we headed towards Louisiana turning right at Jacksonville, Florida and starting on our way west. This was the first time we were headed towards home. The transformation from the Washington unionist history to The South and its history of economics built on the Slave populations that grew the cotton, rice, sugar and everything else that sustained a plantation system was remarkable. On the way towards Jacksonville we stopped at the Hofwyl-Broadfield rice plantation that is a state historic site in Georgia. But it no longer has rice growing for many reasons including proximity to the ocean and hurricane storm surges that ruin the rice and the wetlands for growing rice.  The descriptions of the horrible tolls it took on its slaves is incomprehensible. We took the tour of the old house, cattle shed and slave quarters.  The tour guide was very adamant that we understand the horrible conditions the slaves endured. This plantation was also not an easy place for the owners either which spoke largely to the immensely horrible conditions of its unpaid workers. It was a very modest plantation and the last of the line of five generations of owners passed it to the State when she died in 1973. 

That night we opted to say at another Harvest Host in a community called Live Oak, Florida. It was a few miles off the I-10 highway that traverses the Southern USA. It travels from Jacksonville, Florida to Santa Monica, California and was to become our friend for the next couple of months. The Gan-Eden farm raises goats, turkeys, ducks, sheep, geese and farm dogs who would guard the animals. We had a tour of the farm, bought some goat meat, chicken, jellies, vinegars and pesto.

We bade farewell the next day and headed for Big Lagoon State Park just outside of Pensacola, Florida. We were heading into bayou gator territory…