Published: November 8th 2006November 7th 2006
Motorhome News from North America 27 26th October - 7th November 2006
From The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia all the way to North Carolina
The Blue Ridge Mountains - The Skyline Trail - Shenandoah River - Alegheny Mountains - West Virginia - Lexington - Suffolk - Jamestown - North Carolina - Cape Hatteras - Pamlico Sound - Kitty Hawk - Roanoke Island - The Outer Banks - Lake Mattamuskeet - New Bern
How y’all doin’ today?
Many States across North America have ‘Visitor Welcome Centres’ along the highway as you enter. We find them an essential source of information. The Virginia centre out of Washington DC provided all we needed to get us inland through the Blue Ridge Mountains and back out to the coast over the next week or so, with copious details of hiking trails and birding. The hiking trails looked great, but the ‘Hunting and Trapping’ and ‘Migratory Waterfowl Shooting’ information we were given was not exactly what we were looking for when it comes to birds!
As it happened we were about to kill two birds with one brick, so to speak. When I was but a lad I joined the Sea Cadets
- I’m not sure why; perhaps I dreamed of the sea and pirates as boys are supposed to. We would tie knots - and sit on the floor in our shorts, blue jumpers and sailor’s hats singing shanties, one of which was ‘Shenandoah.’ I have looked forward to seeing the Shenandoah (pronounced Shenandower here) ever since. Not too many years later I became a fan of Laurel and Hardy, and they sang too; of ‘The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia’. I think we’ll take a look at both over the next few days.
The Blue Ridge Mountains start at Front Royal in the north of Virginia, about sixty miles west of Washington DC, rising in an almost unbroken line to the southwest for 470 miles. F D Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps built a road along the high northern ridge providing much needed employment during the depression years, a long winding surfaced road, ‘The Skyline Trail’, overlooking the North and South forks of the Shenandoah River to the west and the rich lands of Virginia to the east. This road presents a rare opportunity to ride high along the mountain tops through cloud-swept hills wreathed in spectacular trees, looking down
from the Skyline Drive
on to the valley floor, bathed in golden sunlight 3 - 4,000 ft below. We hiked the hills on carpets of bronze and copper leaves, venturing onto the Appalachian Trail for a while, through tall red oaks their trunks green with moss, and lichen encrusted rocks.
Rain came on our third day on the Blue Ridge, shrouding the mountains with swirling cloud, leaving driving visibility down to 30ft at times with strong winds sweeping the leaves from the surrounding trees in great flurries of golden snow. It was cold in the mountains at over 3,000ft; around us waterfalls turned to ice overnight and our magnificent heating system was brought into service for the first time in many months. That said, there were still several people about in tee shirts and shorts, steadfastly refusing to accept that winter is around the corner. It is six weeks since the first real signs of autumn in Maine and it is hard to believe we can still be overwhelmed by the beauty of the colours, though there are signs now of bare branches on some distant hillsides. The highway led us through great arches of bronze and copper leaves shimmering in the sunlight,
beside neat low-stone walls and parking lots set at regular viewpoints. Looking out over distant peaks it was possible to see the outline of every tree, each a different shade of red, brown or yellow, each with a different texture - and beyond each ridge another, fading through a curtain of light from bronze, to grey, to blue, on the horizon.
As ever, we were tempted to stray off our plan, to take a sneak at something else - 'we might regret not going there when it’s too late’. This time it was a daring raid on West Virginia, ‘The Mountain State’, down through the deep verdant valley and beyond, round to the distant Allegheny Mountains - just to have a look at what’s on the other side. We went into farming country along the Shenandoah Valley, black Aberdeen Angus, white Charolais, occasional sheep, goats and spotted pigs in post and rail fenced meadows - farmsteads nestled in little hollows and canvas corn on the gentle rise and fall of shallow hills. It was a damp autumn day, misty grey along narrow winding roads beside meandering streams and rambling rivers snaking between tall trees, but this failed to detract
from the exquisite beauty of the area, the faded colours and bucolic serenity of this secret hideaway. Stars on much cared-for barns told us the Amish found it, their big barns and neat fields a mark of respect for their good fortune.
Suffice to say, the road through the Shenandoah Valley west of Goshen was gorgeous beyond words, taking us out into the hills of West Virginia where white water rafting and skiing attract the most hardy of adventurers. This might be the country where hillbillies began - and they are indeed still here, their discarded appliances stacked and rusting on the porch, but you would need to be here to understand why they came and why they stayed. The romance of autumn colours on rolling hills of Brecon Beacons proportions plays host to settlements with romantic names like Minnehaha Springs and Pocahontas. There are still a few signs of coal mining here but in some areas there is evidence of social hardship, small towns now with no evident means of employment except lumber - abandoned houses and businesses, poorly maintained homes. A sense of an industry come and long gone.
Our all too brief one-day excursion into West
Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks
Three storeys overlooking the sea
Virginia was rewarding indeed, though extreme cold and poor visibility plus our long-term goal of Florida by December forced our about-turn, out through pretty Lexington, Virginia, and towards the milder coast at Suffolk, two hundred miles to the southeast - resisting the magnetic temptation to complete the Blue Ridge Trail and on into the Smokey Mountains. There comes a time when we have to say we can’t see it all, and settle for our best options. Those times seem to keep coming!
Virginia is littered with memories of Olde England and the people who struggled to make it home. Jamestown was home to the first permanent English settlement in 1607, their adventure sponsored by James I and paid for by the Virginia Company of England. Of the seven thousand settlers who came in the first decade, only one thousand survived more than one year. Virginia is littered with names from home: Portsmouth, Sussex, Suffolk, Norfolk - and Surry, it lost an 'e' somewhere in translation.
Mature woodland followed us across much of the way across Virginia, thinning gradually to pasture and farmland, past fields of cotton awaiting harvest, silky white like a Halloween ghost, soybean - and peanuts. Ahead,
always a vulture or two, weaving their way across the open blue sky on outstretched wings - and a fistful of noisy crows going nowhere in particular.
At Suffolk (with fond memories of home), we turned to the south, down along the coast into North Carolina and Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a long string of unspoiled sandbanks stretching seventy miles and more in a wide arc, twenty-five miles off the mainland, out into the Atlantic. The trees near the coast were still in their summer green and the sight of barn swallows sweeping the skies reminded us why we were there. Yes, you will have guessed that this might be prime birding territory; a stopping off point for migratory waterfowl at this time of year: tundra swans, huge rafts of coot and pintail duck, snow geese and Canada geese. Most of the warblers had already passed through in recent weeks, leaving behind just a few to keep us alert, eastern bluebirds and the ubiquitous yellow-rumped warblers in large numbers, last to cross the migratory line. There were lots of new birds to get us excited, birds not present on the west coast and some of those that skipped the
Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks
The start of the competitive fishing season
net as we’ve headed south from Newfoundland.
Our ‘adequate’ campground provided a spectacular view across the passive Pamlico Sound, facing westwards on this easterly shore, and stunning sunsets to make our hearts beat louder. Mornings brought blue cloudless skies, melting unseen into the horizon on the water, passing terns and gulls calling, welcoming another day. Grey-haired hippies abound here, many in their rather old campers, waiting with bare feet and cotton bandoliers around their heads for that one big dreamed-of wave to carry them and their surfboards into the record books.
If you’re anything of a sea fisherman you would want to be here this week. The new season is underway and they’re all here in their big pick-ups, fenders lined with rows of rods, all geared up and ready to go. We sat on the long golden beach, soaking up the summer-like sunshine in a small gap left by the hundreds of surf-fishermen let loose by their wives for the weekend, listening to the rhythmic wash of the waves, watching brown pelicans and royal terns diving for their supper and shoals of porpoises thrashing the waters in frenzied feasting before sundown.
Orville and Wilbur Wright came here
Sunset over the water
1903 to find North America's most favourable winds to test their wood and fabric aircraft. Their ‘first successful powered flight’, rose from the sands near Kitty Hawk and remained aloft for 12 seconds, covering a distance of 120 ft. We’ve come a long way in 103 years, haven’t we? Long before that, in 1587 to be precise, the first English settlement in ‘The New World’ was also established along the shore, but three years later when ships returned with fresh supplies, the colony, on Roanoke Island, had vanished without trace. We're led to believe that Blackbeard, the pirate, also lived - and died along this coast. Where settlements are established, ocean-side communities continue to grow, as three storey wooden houses for the multi-rich with a million or two to spare, rise to peer over the dunes. At the northern end of the Outer Banks, a long stretch of road gathers malls, restaurants, gas stations, fun parks and motels, but despite all that, large tracts of dunes, marsh and beach remain protected in perpetuity, preserved as National Seashore by the hand of President F D Roosevelt. Those winds near Kitty Hawk also tempted Janice to buy me a kite. She’s right,
you know; kite flying is likely to be less frustrating than fishing!
The road from Roanoke led us inland across the Alligator River, a reminder that we were entering the Deep South, the land of cotton, tobacco and soy beans, Ku Klux Klan and the racial tension of the 1960’s; flat land awash with shallow water, fenland ditches beside long straight roads, acres of yellowing trees, small agricultural settlements of white single-storey houses - and hurricanes.
Now and again we strike particularly lucky with our selection of campsites. Our hosts on the shores of Lake Mattamuskeet suffered severe damage from hurricane ‘Hugo’ a few years back, when two feet of mud swept from the shallow lake at the front of their home, covering their land. The grass was green when we arrived and the lake, some twenty miles long and averaging just 18 inches deep, was placid in the last moments of the day, a red sunset silhouetting rows of waterlogged cypress trees near the shore. Our neighbours joined us for dinner at the local bar. They're professional landscape photographers and travel with their boat in tow behind their pick-up. They sleep in the boat (which they take
One of the many lovely period houses in New Bern
on the water each day), using it as a caravan at night. Makes sense.
Eating out is very affordable in the USA. Two of us can tuck into a good meal at lunchtime for around $20. (£11) Sunday lunch at the enigmatic seafarers resort of Beaufort, a three-egg omelette stacked with seafood and strange accompaniments of grits, biscuit [cheese scone], butter, jam, and mixed fruit - cost $9.95! The 1950’s stainless steel diners are our favourite spots for morning coffee when we can find them - great value and fascinating people-watching, just another of the many things we’re getting better at with practice. Most fast food outlets are far too complicated for the likes of us. A ‘sub’ can come on three different types of bread, in two sizes, with a combination of twenty- five fillings. Our first encounter with the complexities of coffee came early in our travels. “Two coffees, please,” I asked.
“What size?” the waitress replied.
“What would you like in it?”
"Coffee?" I answered, somewhat confused.
“Cup or mug?”
“To go, or in?”
“Anything else with that?”
We’re getting the idea now, but we can’t get the hang of eating with just a fork
- held like a shovel in the right hand. What were knives invented for - and how do you eat a whoopie pie, smoothies, floats, grits, hush puppies, a loaded hoagie or succotash?
For the moment, we’re stuck in New Bern, (the birthplace of Pepsi Cola) North Carolina, awaiting the arrival of more new cables for our swish ‘two pedal flushing toilet’. Yes, it’s packed up yet again. This time we have ordered two sets of cables as insurance. It’s obviously a design fault. Though not quite life threatening, it is a bit inconvenient without it, particularly in the middle of the night when temperatures drop below freezing and the loo is a hundred yards away! The word ‘toilet’ doesn’t feature in Webster’s Dictionary for some strange reason. Toilets here are referred to as ‘Rest Rooms’ (to visit when you’re tired?), ‘Comfort Stations’ (when you need comforting?), or ‘The Bathroom’ (should you need a bath).
Halloween passed without incident on our peaceful campsite. It seems parents often accompany their kids on their ‘trick or treat’ outings, dressed up appropriately, joining in the fun and targeting the estates with the most houses! I guess it gives them all something
to look forward to and to tide them over till Thanksgiving; the third Thursday in November. The country goes to the polls tonight, in the fight - amongst other things, for control of Congress. The signs have been out in the streets for weeks as millions of dollars are thrown at electors on TV, on radio, hoardings, posters, placards and roadside signs. They’ll be voting for Sheriff, Judge, Congress, Senate, Commissioner, Clerk of Court and anything else that might spring to mind. The money machine that drives American politics is in top gear, employing surely half the nation in printing, advertising, door drops, marketing, broadcasting and statistics! That’s without the ridiculous sums thrown at lobbying. God help us if we should ever fall into line with politics on this scale. You will know the political damage before you get our next blog, but an upset is anticipated. They sure pulled a good one when they sentenced Sadam to death just two days before polling.
Y’all have a good day, now.
David and Janice. The grey-haired-nomads
There are more photos below