At Mount Vernon with Deb, our host and guide for the afternoon
The first 4o miles of our ride today were kind of bland. We rode in morning fog that turned to mist that turned to drizzle. We climbed plenty of hills and spent more time beside the rushing traffic on Route 1. Then we pulled into the little village of Occoquan to meet our new friend, Deb. She had read about our trip weeks ago and wrote to offer us her place to stay in Alexandria. She was able take the afternoon off, meet us for lunch, and ride the last 25 miles in to Alexandria with us so we didn’t have to navigate.
Everything changed when we met Deb. The sun even broke through; we haven’t seen the sun for almost a week! We had greenways and bike lanes for the rest of the ride. Soon after leaving Occoquan we rode on a greenway through a former prison in Lorton that is being converted to condos, artists’ workshop, and more — with a greenway running right through it. Very cool.
We had a long stretch up Route 1 again but we rode on a greenway beside it, imagine! Finally we hit the Mount Vernon Trail and rode it 10 miles into Alexandria’s Old Town. I was the 58-year-old lady grinning from ear to ear on that trail, feeling like a kid again. I’d heard of it through my work and seen photos. It was just as fun as I’d imagined. We rolled down the hill from the parking lots at Mount Vernon then along the Potomac and through picnic areas and woods, ups and downs and twists and turns.
Riding through the prison grounds turned residential community in Lorton
Deb and Dee on the Mount Vernon Trail
We are camped out at Deb’s place for two nights, taking a rest day tomorrow to visit Washington DC and such. We’ve known Deb for 9 hours now and she feels like an old friend. The kind of friend who takes good care of you — she gave us cold drinks and snacks when we got to her place, invited us to do laundry, and took us to dinner at Lost Dog Cafe (recommended, and with a good mission!).
We happened on the halfway sign for the Greenway at the end of our ride. Perfectly timed; tomorrow starts the second month of our ride.
Ellen watering her front garden. She is our Airbnb host in Fredericksburg along with her husband, Jerry
Today was not my favorite day of riding. The sky was heavy and grey and threatened rain most of the day (but we only got sprinkles in the evening, after dinner; our amazing weather luck continues). Most of our 58 miles included rushing traffic, but I should be well used to that by now. My head was preoccupied with some family issues, so sometimes the hard work of climbing big hills was a relief — you can’t think of much else but breathing and pedaling when the hills are big. Also, I didn’t have a great night’s sleep in my top bunk at the Richmond hostel. The woman below me snored and I needed to climb down and cross the hall three times to use the bathroom — of course.
All of this whining is to tell you how much I have been appreciating our Airbnb hosts this trip. Today we pulled up, clammy and tired in the mid-afternoon, to Ellen and Jerry’s beautiful historic home in Fredericksburg. They greeted us with great welcomes, as if it truly is a treat to have us stay with them. Ellen, an artist, helped us wheel our bikes into her studio, the front room of their home. She had left water bottles, Virginia peanuts, and luscious dark chocolate in our room — the perfect end-of-ride snack that I promptly helped myself to while Dee showered.
Airbnb can get a bad rap, some of it deserved — it has disrupted the hotel and residential markets in cities like San Francisco and New York. Stories abound about bad guests destroying homes and such. I’ve used the service for work travel and personal travel and always have had a good experience. This bike trip takes the experience to a whole new level. Thanks to our bookings, we have seen charming neighborhoods in St. Augustine, FL; Beaufort and Georgetown, SC; Savannah, GA— and now Fredericksburg (which is a very charming town, one of my favorites). We have been welcomed by kind hosts who feel like friends by the time we leave. Almost to a person they have been retired or close to retired, empty nesters ready to share their spare bedrooms and a few stories of their lives. It’s a whole other niche of the Airbnb market, it seems, and it’s been a delightful way to get to see more of our destination cities and stay comfortably overnight for reasonable prices.
Early morning coffee at the Richmond hostel. It’s a beautiful place, but climbing down from the top bunk a few times in the middle of the night tells me my hostel days may be over.
Caroline read about our trip through the East Coast Greenway newsletter, or Facebook, and wrote to us about meeting in Richmond. She’s a former racing cyclist and distance swimmer and a writer by profession. We enjoyed breakfast with her at the bike-themed Lamplighters Coffee Roasters near Virginia Commonwealth’s campus. Dee asked one of the baristas where the bike theme came from. “We all used to ride bikes,” the fellow told her. “Now we all drive vans.”
Here’s to a good night’s sleep and a better day tomorrow. And thanks to Dee for her continuing fine work with photo documentation.
Our bikes are enjoying Ellen’s studio, an upgrade from their usual garage or back hallway accommodations
One of many stenciled planks on the Tyler Potterfield pedestrian bridge in Richmond over the raging James River
Today’s ride was largely straight north up Route 1. Not too scenic, especially in drizzle and light rain. We started out trying to take quieter side roads, but the actual streets didn’t sync up with our navigation directions. So in the face of rain we opted for a more direct route.
At 32 miles we hit Petersburg. We passed a fire station and asked a couple firemen if they could point us to a coffee shop. They sent us to Demolition Coffee, where the lattes were perfect for warming up from the rain.
Another 22 miles up Route 1 and we hit Richmond. We played around the riverfront and canal walk, enjoying the wall murals. It’s a far bigger city than I had imagined, worth a trip back to see more.
The raging James River, as seen from the Potterfield bridge
Dee reminds me to tell you about the dogs. Early in today’s ride we got chased by a dog, a big, black shepherdy looking mutt. He may have been just enjoying a morning run alongside us, for a mile or so, but we know that you never know—Dee has scars on her ankle and lower calf to remind her of what a dog can do to a cyclist. So I yelled him away, only for him to come bounding back two more times. We’ve had a few of these chases the last few days, raising our adrenaline and our average pace for the day.
I love dogs, I miss my two pups desperately. But I’m not like my friends Robin and Brigitte, who love all dogs, all animals really. I only love the cute ones, I’m afraid. And I don’t like the bike chasers.
And then last night at our truck stop hangout, in the rain, a stray dog looking much like my Amos was wandering between the fuel pumps and parked cars, no collar, no aggression. He broke my heart but I didn’t do anything, I just hoped some other good-hearted traveler rescued him or called a shelter.
We ended the day with a great treat. Kayla, who I worked with years ago in Martinsville, VA, lives in Richmond now. She picked us up from the hostel downtown where we’re staying and brought us to her house for dinner. The meal was delicious, the conversation wide-ranging, from the state of Richmond’s economy and politics to Kayla’s upcoming trip to Vietnam, her third visit to give kids in an orphanage a beach vacation. I loved it all — loved being in someone’s home after so many motels and eating food we didn’t have to order. Kayla was a bright spark in a not-so-bright job all those years ago (four? five?); I loved catching up with her and knowing she is flourishing in her new city.
And now to bed in the hostel. Dee and I both landed top bunks in a room of four women. We are nervous about how that works, as women of a certain age who have to get up a few times each night for the bathroom. Won’t our bunk mates enjoy us! Otherwise it’s a beautiful building with nice, spacious common rooms downstairs and helpful staff who want to encourage bicycle tourists. Next time we’ll know to reserve the bottom bunks!
Making ourselves at home at Dunkin Donuts
We are sitting in the Dunkin Donuts at a travel stop in rural Virginia just off I-85. I am dressed smartly in my pajama pants, sneakers, and three shirts, two long-sleeved. Dee is in leggings, sneakers (not her trademark sandals!), a shirt, scarf, and jacket. It’s perfectly fine outside, though raining, but here in our little office/camp, the air conditioning is freezing cold.
So I’ll make this quick. We had a beautiful ride today, 64 miles, all rural. Niles, my East Coast Greenway colleague, told me that today’s ride would be nice. He went on to name some of the reasons why but I can never retain those things, when I can’t see them myself. It’s better that way anyway; we discovered the route’s joys as fun surprises.
Dee at the La Crosse trailhead of the Tobacco Heritage Trail
Our early morning ride was sweet: quiet rolling roads, even quieter early on Memorial Day. We had views from ridge tops and fun, long downhills past tobacco fields and wildflowers and through woods.
At about 30 miles we came to the Tobacco Heritage Trail. It was paved for the first half, maybe eight miles or so, and delightful. Then the surface became stone dust, then dirt and grass, which was fine, just more work to pedal through. We felt a little urgency because storm clouds were growing, and any time we stopped to take a photo or adjust gear, the horseflies found us. They are mean!
At 46 miles we returned to civilization, the town of Lawrenceville, but the holiday meant the few places to eat were closed. The rain started, so we camped out under the roof of a closed bakery (so sad!) and dined on apple slices, peanut butter, and some leftover breakfast soufflé from our night’s host.
Our last 18 miles were again delightfully rural, with little company on the roads. I shouldn’t say this, because the forecast looks pretty wet for the rest of the week, but we have had remarkable luck staying just ahead or behind rainstorms. Today was classic: parts of the sky looked dark all afternoon, and you could smell just-fallen rain on the roads, but we stayed dry.
We rolled up to the somewhat sad but serviceable Nottoway Inn, showered, and headed to the travel center next door. Imagine Dee’s delight: Subway and Dunkin Donuts, two of her favorites, here side by side! We’ve dined, now we are watching the rain fall and the nonstop flow of holiday motorists stopping in. They may think these two strangely dressed women are homeless; that’s sometimes how it feels on a bike trip. Instead, we are just two very lucky tourists — tired from a good day’s ride, fed well, and happy to discover what’s next on the road ahead.
Green all day: a stretch of the Tobacco Heritage Trail Greenway.
We crossed into our fifth state today. Dee got a little excited that Rhode Island is so close to Virginia!
We had a wonderful rest day in Durham yesterday. Dee had breakfast with her friend Linda from Semester at Sea while I breakfasted with Bob, then went to meet our daughter, Kate, who is next in the lineup for dog sitting at the river, and give her my car. In the afternoon Dee and I did yoga, laying out mats in my living room and playing a tape of one of her favorite teachers. It was much needed; I dripped sweat like never before while my quads cried out about how much they’ve had to work these last few weeks.
Then a great treat, one of my favorite things about where we live in Durham: A movie date. We walked to the beautiful Carolina Theater, got popcorn and Diet Coke, and watched RBG, the documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Go see it, it’s well done. It’s a sobering reminder, though, of how much work had to be done in the last 50 years to ensure that women are treated as equal citizens under the law—and how much ground we stand to lose if political winds don’t shift. Please, Justice Ginsburg, stay healthy and strong for three more years at least. It’s been a relief to be unplugged from much political news these last few weeks, but it doesn’t take much to remind us. Meanwhile, meeting so many kind people on this trip from all walks of life has been heartening, a little balm for all the angst.
My time with this guy, Bob, was too short and I’m tired of saying goodbye to him, but he seems to understand how much this trip means to me. And he’s had so much less laundry to do!
More sobering reflection: Visiting restored slave quarters at Stagville Plantation just a few miles north of Durham.
Our ride today was very rural, quiet roads without much traffic (except the closer we got to Kerr Lake, the more trucks passed us towing pontoon boats and dirt bikes). We climbed up and down, lots of rolling hills of green fields. It reminded me of rides in my 20s, when I lived in Boston and rode my bike in Vermont and New Hampshire. Life was pretty carefree then, and it made me smile to realize I feel nearly the same way now, 30 years later, on the other side of raising kids and building a career.
At around 30 miles we enjoyed a breakfast stop at Sunrise Biscuit in Oxford, NC. At 60-some miles we had frozen yogurt just on the edge of Clarksville, VA, a handsome little town sitting on Kerr Lake. Looking at the map last night, I was nervous about the enormous bridge at Clarksville, stretching across the lake — but that was the other bridge, just to the east of us. Our route had a nice, flat, shorter bridge; piece of cake.
At 69 miles we rolled up to our accommodations for the night, an older Cape Cod in Boydton offered by a woman who runs a B&B behind us. We toured the little downtown, very quiet on this Sunday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend, and found the one restaurant open to grab dinner. It feels like everyone has gone off to play at the lake or hold a family cookout somewhere. So here we are, far from our own families but excited that the miles are passing so easily. Soon enough, there will be time for family and cookouts and celebrations!
Downtown Boydton, VA. Happy Memorial Day weekend!
Riding through Umstead State Park with Kinga this morning
Have you ever waited, full of anticipation, for a special day to come along, and then it turns out better than you even imagined? That was today's ride. In the last few days I kept telling Dee that she was going to enjoy the amazing network of greenways that would take us through the Triangle. But then I'd stop, worried I'd oversell the route. I shouldn't have worried. Plus my friend Kinga, who has biked with me since we were coworkers five years ago, was joining us. Plus we were stopping at my office, right on the route, to see my Greenway coworkers. Plus I was going home! To see my husband, sleep in my bed, wash my clothes!
We started early on a beautiful summery day. Right away, as soon as we got on the Neuse River Trail headed for Raleigh, the riding was delightful. Iron bridges, white horse fences, boardwalks over wetlands for miles and miles. What a cool way to come into Raleigh: after about 18 miles of pretty Greenway, there we were, and with a few turns we were downtown at Morning Times coffee shop on Hargett Street, where Kinga met us.
Checking out Raleigh's Pullen Park, with a renovated carousel and other cool stuff, with Kinga
We rode through NC State University, past Meredith College, and on to the NC Art Museum, all on easy greenway paths. The Reedy Creek Trail, winding and rolling, took us to Umstead State Park, with miles of gravel carriage roads. I've run in Umstead but never ridden my bike there; I loved it. Dave Connelly, a friend and East Coast Greenway ambassador extraordinaire, met us just past Umstead and led us for the rest of the route, meaning Dee and I could enjoy the scenery without having to navigate. We flew along through Cary on an impressive series of greenways, stopping for a picnic by the little beach at Bond Park.
Outstanding in their field: Dee and Kinga on the grounds of NC Art Museum
The last leg was the American Tobacco Trail, taking us to Durham with a stop at my office, the East Coast Greenway Alliance, before heading home. It was a bit surreal, after three weeks of riding, to be back on my home turf, riding my commuting route, my friends in tow.
Dennis Markatos-Soriano, our executive director, and Niles Barnes, deputy director, greeted their wayward colleague and her friend.
We rode 67 miles today and maybe 8 of them were on roads. Which means we enjoyed more than 50 miles of beautiful greenways under tree canopies, along rivers, and through parks, connecting the thriving communities of Raleigh, Cary, and Durham. I've known that the Triangle area is the most complete of any metro area on the East Coast Greenway, but this was the first time I'd ridden the various bike paths as one connected route. In a word, amazing.
You don't have to take my word for it; you can watch this Relive video of our ride.
Crossing a ditch first thing in the morning
My left foot was sliding into the orange mud, which was trying to suck my sneaker off my foot. I was lifting our bikes up to Dee, who had scrambled to the other side of the 15-foot ditch that we had to cross. Our bikes are heavy touring bikes, not like road bikes that you can heft up on a shoulder and then climb a flight of stairs. I had two options —lift the bike up a few more inches to Dee while getting my feet to more solid ground, or slide further into the muddy trench, bike and all, and lose at least one shoe.
It was one of a few moments so far, in these first three weeks of the trip, when I’ve had to suck it up and draw on whatever strength I could summon. (That damn Seven Mile Bridge in Florida on the first day also comes to mind.) I told myself I was strong, capable of lifting the bike a bit higher while finding better footing. And I am, and I did. Dee snapped the photo above as I crossed the ditch a third time, this time with my panniers.
Another reason why I’m taking this trip has something to do with tapping into strengths. Self-affirming reminders that I am strong and capable are not my usual self-talk. I can believe those things after a marathon, sure, or a century ride on a hot muggy day. But learning to trust and believe in my strength feels good. And for that, Dee is a role model beyond comparison.
And why, you may be wondering, were we crossing a muddy ditch anyway? Did our East Coast Greenway Bike ride turn into some kind of Spartan/mud run/obstacle race? We have been navigating mostly by using the East Coast Greenway online map (map.greenway.org) via a phone app, map.me. But we’ve supplemented our wayfinding with Google maps for bikes, especially to find our way to motels and coffee shops. It’s interesting how the two routes are closely aligned sometimes and other times vastly different. Dee was looking at the two maps last night and saw that we could cut off 20 miles or so today by taking the Google route. We’d only have a few miles of greenway either way, the rest would be on roads, so we opted for the shorter route. (We wanted to make sure we could get to a bike shop in Clayton with enough time for someone to take a look at Dee’s rear derailleur.)
About five miles into our ride we encountered ”road closed ahead” signs. We ignored them, because bikes can usually make their way around road construction projects, on the shoulder if nothing else. Welp, not this one!
It’s not the first time we’ve bushwhacked. There was this bit of greenway in Volusia County, Florida, that was actually fine for riding, they just had a few more details to finish up, maybe?
The rest of our day passed without much incident. It was a beautiful early summer day, the sun burning off the morning clouds, a fresh breeze keeping us cool. We passed more farms and fields and horses. Yesterday’s baby hills on the Cape Fear River Trail grew into full-blown hills, our first of the trip, engaging a few new leg muscles.
Clayton seems to be a sweet little community, 20 miles to the east of Raleigh. But I am excited for tomorrow, which offers 70 miles of mostly beautiful greenways taking me home to Durham, where I get to see Bob and spend two nights in my own bed. I may not be able to sleep well tonight, I’m so excited.
Plus I’m jazzed on sugar. We happened on a Dairy Queen this afternoon and I had my first ice cream of the trip, a soft serve hot fudge sundae. Right before dinner, as befits a rule breaker with mud on her shoes. Dee, by the way, peeled and ate an orange while I downed the sundae. Sometimes you have to ignore your role models.
Dee on a covered bridge on the Cape Fear River Trail
Some of you kind readers have told us you are enjoying this journey because you can travel along without even getting sweaty! I wish we could have put you on a bike today to join us for the last 5 or so of our 51 miles. They were on a beautiful greenway, the Cape Fear River Trail, which follows its namesake river north out of town. We cruised along on nice asphalt and over wooden bridges, enjoying our first truly rolling hills of the ride. Yes, we had to climb a few steep, stubby hills. But we also got to coast down the other sides, free rides that you never get when your whole route is flat. We had been talking at lunch about some aspects of aging, like grandparenting, and other serious adult things. Out there on the greenway, with lush trees shading us on a warm afternoon, we could have been 10 years old again, carefree and flying.
Much of our day was carefree, actually. We were fed a delicious breakfast, served elegantly by our innkeeper, Christine. She and her husband, Nico, joined us at the dining table to swap stories with Dee of living in Africa and France. The couple feel like new friends and we highly recommend the Elizabethtown Inn, gorgeous and gracious.
We rode pretty, quiet back roads dotted with yellow buttercups. We saw horses, one donkey, a tobacco field, and corn fields At 25 miles, just when we ready for a rest stop and cold drinks, there was a Short Stop gas station and store — amenities are pretty sparse on back roads in this part of the state. At 45 miles or so, we arrived in downtown Fayetteville. It’s an appealing small city with plenty of our favorite things: coffee shops, restaurants, a bookstore, and more. Nice place to end a ride — but then we still had the stretch of Greenway to get to our motel.
This distinctive historic building, once the site of a slave market, marks the heart of downtown Fayetteville
Feeling a little stressed, burnt out, burdened? My Rx: get outside, jump on a bike and ride on your nearest bike path or greenway. I think it will do the trick.