Saturday, May 20th, 2006 – Distance Travelled 431 miles

I had set my alarm for quite early as I had a lot I wanted to do but, as usual, I woke up before it went off. It looked as if a nice day was in prospect and, advised by the helpful lady on the front desk, I walked across the road to Mrs Rowe’s Family Restaurant (74 Rowe Rd, Staunton, VA 24401). As I was in Rowe Road, I wondered if there was some old connection, but nobody seemed to know. They did know how to do a good breakfast, though and my bacon (reportedly cured in apple cider) and egg sandwich in homemade bread was a great and tasty way to start the day. More coffee though, I was at the stage where I would have cut off my hand for a decent cup of tea.

My final destination for the day was the tiny settlement of Mollusk, near Lively on the Virginia’s Northern Neck. That was almost directly east. So, I do not suppose it will surprise many people to know that, after checking out, I pointed the Harley due west. Vaughan was about seventy miles from an, as yet, unvisited State, this time West Virginia. Well, you should know me by now.

So, I set off west along Route 250 and soon entered some green and lonely country that was the floor of the Shenandoah Valley and that was slowly rising the farther west I travelled. There was the occasional little town, but the scenery was unremittingly rural and the road, even on a Saturday morning, was totally deserted. As I had started to climb out of the valley, the odometer clicked over 110 miles, so I had mentally resolved to fill up at the next opportunity. I assumed I would soon come to a petrol station. I really should have learned by then that assumption will quickly come back to bite you, but, of course, I had not. Since returning to the more populated east, petrol had never been a problem to find, even in the mountainous regions of Arkansas, so my guard had dropped a bit. Of course in the first town, there was a petrol station, but it was closed. In the next three towns, which were not exactly close together, I did not pass by, or even see, a petrol station, although I was on the principal thoroughfare. Still, I reasoned, this was America, there would be others. When I came to the State Line, I stopped for my souvenir photograph and noted that I was in Pocahontas County, I also noticed the odometer now showed over 150 miles. Classic dilemma. I had not seen a petrol station in the last 25 miles and I had no guarantee that the closed one, now over 35 miles away behind me, would, by then, be open.

I looked west, but I could see no trace of civilisation of any kind. The road wound into the dense greenery and dwindled out of sight. I went forward. I have covered the feelings you have in this kind of scenario before, so I will not repeat myself. It was a little different because, in comparison with the Mojave Desert, West Virginia is quite spectacularly lush and green. But that, if anything only added to the uncertainty because, in the Mojave, I could see there was nothing, here salvation might be around the next bend. Of course, none of the bends did have anything around them and there were no signs indicating the approach of towns. I came to a point where a road joined from the right. Towns were signed there, in both directions, but, somewhat unhelpfully, without any indication of the distance to them. For some strange reason, in that scenario, when I do not know which way is correct, I usually go right. I looked both ways and, far away to my left was a vehicle, going away from me. That swung it. Against my better judgement, I continued left on the Route 250 and, about five miles later, with the odometer thinking hard about 170, I came to the town of Bartow. Joy ! Oh joy ! it had an open petrol station.

Now, I realise we have to be a little cautious about what we say, but with all due deference to the inhabitants of Bartow, the only adjective that fairly described the town would be “Hick”. It was a bit like a film set for a small, American town in the 1950s. From the vehicles (almost exclusively ancient pickups) to the dress code (“bib and brace” overalls, check shirts and beards for the men and drab, long skirts for the few visible women) to the store fronts, it was like being in the past. As I dismounted at the pump, l noticed a bearded guy stop walking and start watching me. He was soon joined in his observation by another and, by the time I had put in my four gallons and went to pay, there were several. They were not standing together, but they were all versions of the same person. I paid, the female cashier, also in the shirt/overall combo had big plaits like Pollyanna and then walked outside to find a least a dozen observers. Maybe, in what might be described as a “hard-scrabble” environment, a $20,000 plaything like the Harley might have been an object of mild curiosity, but this was more than a bit unnerving. I left town, back the way I had come, trying hard to resist the temptation to hurry. If I had heard one single note of banjo music, the throttle would have been hard against the stop. I have seen “Deliverance” !

The ride east was uneventful, but the latent curiosity remained and the few pickups that I met coming towards me invariably slowed so that their bearded occupants could get a long, hard look at me. Oddly, nobody at all seemed to be leaving West Virginia ….

I arrived back on the floor of the valley and felt almost affectionate towards Staunton as I drove back through it and, because time was running, took the I-64 east towards Charlottesville and Richmond. I circumnavigated the former capital of the Confederacy to its north on the I-295 but resisted, principally for reasons of time, to follow that all the way to the battlefield of Mechanicsville. I chose instead to branch east onto Route 627 and then to join Route 360 which took me northeast to Tappahannock. At Tappahannock, I crossed the Rappahannock River with considerably more despatch than poor Union General McClellan in 1862, but in fairness, he did not have the same elegant bridge that I did. This put me onto the Northern Neck and in the town of Warsaw (which, naturally made me smile as it was like being at home) I forsook the Route 360 for Route 3 which took me al the way to Lively where I was to meet my friend. As I approached Lively, a bright red Toyota sports car came up behind me, tooting furiously. I slowed to let it pass, but instead it sat right on my tail, flashing its lights and tooting loudly. I pulled over, thinking something must be amiss, only to discover, when I did, that the driver was my friend who had decided, in true U,S. Navy tradition, to “ambush” me !

I followed him through Lively, down Routes 201 and then 354 to the little town of Mollusk, before we branched into tiny roads to the private estate where his father’s waterside home was situated. Which, when I say home, was in fact a small mansion. The house was, as many American homes tend to be, disconcertingly large. There were, for instance, three staircases to the upper floor, a “normal” one at each end and a much wider central one. It had so many bedrooms that I felt compelled to put a rubber band around my door handle so as not to go into the wrong one. My friend’s father had also been a naval officer and had risen to very senior rank. Navy pay must have been good.

My friend’s parents were really quite elderly, but as his father had served in the Pacific in World War Two I suppose that was not really surprising. They came out to meet and greet me in that typically effusive American way and we did a collective photo session on the drive. Despite her frailty, his mother insisted upon sitting on the saddle for a photo and I know it was later widely distributed around their family with the epithet “Motorcycle Mama” !

Of course, my friend was super organised and had a “program” arranged for my entertainment. Scarcely had I got my breath back before we were back on the Harley and heading back out. We rode about 45 miles back up the Route 3 along the Northern Neck before he directed me into the grounds of a large mansion. Knowing my love of all things related to the American Civil War, he had brought me to Stratford Hall. This imposing building was the ancestral home of the Lee family and the birthplace of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It certainly was an impressive place, beautifully kept and with sweeping, immaculate grounds. As is ever the case with American landmarks, there was a wealth of information to be gleaned as well.

We spent quite a long time there before riding home with the hot sun sinking slowly behind our backs. When we came to Lively, which appeared to be a bit of a misnomer as it was as quiet as the grave, even on a Saturday night, I was directed to a restaurant called The Oaks (5434 Mary Ball Rd, Lancaster, VA 22503). This looked to be a bit “upmarket” for a pair of guys on a Harley-Davidson, but my friend was obviously well known there and we each enjoyed a delicious steak and a couple of beers while we chatted about the proverbial “old times” (he once lived in Prague). As a reward for checking on his tree removal in San Diego, an event which already seemed to have taken place a lifetime before, not a mere twelve days, my friend picked up the bill and we wound our way back to his home. On the way, I could not resist stopping to photograph the local drugstore, the prosaically titled “Lively Drugs”. In such a quiet backwater, it seemed totally out of place.

Of course, there were more beers in the fridge and we chatted until the early hours before going to bed. Thanks to my strategically placed rubber band, I found my room and was asleep in seconds.