Updated: Jul 17
October 3, 2020
Dawn in Charlottesville, Virginia marked the end of Week 1 of my autumn road trip through the Carolinas, and beyond. My goal that day was to do a regional sweep of heretofore unvisited counties in southern Virginia and northwestern North Carolina. By day's end, I had planned to overnight in Roanoke which, interestingly, was only 120 miles from my starting point that morning. Clearly, I would not be making a beeline to Roanoke, but instead, would take the rental car out for a circuitous yet methodical route that was calculated to pass through as many leftover Virginia counties as possible.
Virginia's Unique Spin on the County -- Independent Cities
While most states are made up of collections of counties (or parishes, or boroughs), Virginia has one interesting additional category to count among its own collection of counties -- independent cities. While there are a handful of these in other states, Virginia has, by far, the largest concentration of them -- 38 of them in fact! An independent city can be defined as a city that is not in the territory of any county (or counties) and is considered a primary administrative division of the state. In other words, the independent city is both a city and a county. (Click here to see a list and map of all of Virginia's independent cities.) This geopolitical arrangement creates a more challenging proposition for those of us attempting to visit all counties in Virginia -- a bit more care and a few extra miles must be allocated for. There are 98 counties in Virginia. Add to that the 38 independent cities and you have 136 separate geopolitical enclaves to get through. The independent cities are, after all, considered counties in their own right, and therefore, must be visited, but it's not as easy as you may think. For example, if you're traveling along I-81 and passing through Roanoke, you will have passed through Roanoke County, but you will have missed visiting the independent city of Roanoke. Its boundaries do not extend to the freeway. You would have to exit the freeway and make a point of driving into the heart of the city in order to count it as a bona fide visit.
My first order of business that morning was to drive to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. where there are lots of independent cities, and mark them off my list. The drive to the D.C. area was quite beautiful in those early morning hours. I passed through lovely farmlands of rolling hills and bucolic grandeur.
The D.C. suburbs were an entirely different experience.
Picking my way through the maze of interstates and secondary roads through heavily congested cities and towns was not the most pleasant part of my day. The entire operation took far longer to complete than I had anticipated. Though satisfying insofar as I was able to knock a few more counties off my to-do list, it was a bit like work itself -- a necessary but not intrinsically pleasant undertaking. Bouncing through the suburbs, I picked up the independent cities of Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park. The others I had visited on previous trips to the D.C. area.
Soon, I was leaving the D.C. suburbs and heading south on I-95 toward Richmond and the Hampton Roads area. Again, this was a route calculated to pick up more of those elusive independent cities that are sprinkled haphazardly across the entire state. Passing through Hopewell, Colonial Heights and Petersburg, I turned west and made my way overland to Roanoke where I checked into the Fairfield Inn & Suites Roanoke Hollins/I-81. Another great property to stay at if you're in the area.
October 4, 2020
For the next day of driving, my goal was to clean up counties in the northwestern corner of North Carolina bordering both Virginia and Tennessee, along with a few additional counties in the interior of the state. I set my sights an on overnight stay in Greensboro, North Carolina. Before leaving Virginia, I still had two more independent cities in my crosshairs: Martinsville and Galax. US 220 took me directly to Martinsville on a due south trajectory from Roanoke. At Martinsville, I headed west along US 58, steadily climbing once again into the foothills of Appalachia. There was some spectacular scenery along the way, including vistas from Lovers Leap.
Before long, I was rolling into Galax (pron. GAY lax).
Boone, North Carolina
From Galax, I dropped down into North Carolina and made my way to the tourist town of Boone. This was my first visit to this North Carolina resort town in the mountains so I had no idea what to expect. The town center was teeming with folks strolling up and down the main street, dining, shopping and crossing in droves at lighted intersections; traffic was backed up trying to get through. I was one of those who got caught in the back-up.
Boone draws in people from all over the South and mid-Atlantic region. It is the regional hub for a local network of nearby ski resorts, cozy mountain cabins, ziplining and hiking trails. The village itself offers plenty of festivals and art galleries, and just a few miles away, the Tweetsie Railroad Theme Park offers a day of fun and entertainment for the kids, as well as the adults. My marathon county collection adventure that day didn't spare me much time to get out of the car and tour the town. It's a place I would love to return to on a more relaxed schedule, and perhaps, rent one of those cozy mountain cabins.
Blowing Rock, North Carolina
My next stop would be The Blowing Rock, billed as North Carolina's oldest travel attraction. Admission is $9 for adults with discounts for seniors, students and kids over the age of 5 (children under 5 get in for free!). You'll find it just off US 321, on the south side of the highway. The park is perched high atop a gneiss (no pun intended) outcropping with dramatic and sweeping views of the wrinkled landscape of blue-green mountains stretching out to the horizon and the breathtaking Johns River Gorge below. The park got its name from the phenomenon observed when the northwest wind sweeps the cliffside with such force that rain and snow are actually pushed upward over the rim of the escarpment. The day I showed up, there were a lot of visitors, but plenty of parking and no lines at the entrance. The park itself is quite beautiful with lots of cool, shaded, pedestrian pathways leading out to promontories and to the "blowing" rocks themselves, a unique and photogenic set of angled outcroppings that appear to point heavenward at a 45-degree angle.
The park has a nice gift shop, as well as a restaurant, a gazebo for shade, plenty of public restrooms, and binoculars for viewing the distant, receding ribbons of tree-covered ridges as well as the spectacular gorge below.
Somewhat later that afternoon, I left Blowing Rock and began my descent into the piedmont area of North Carolina. I soon learned, in a crash course listening to local radio, that there are certain terms North Carolinians use to refer to various geographic and urban regions in the state. In no particular order, they are: (1) The Coastal Plain which includes both the Outer Banks and the Inner Banks (used to describe the inland coastal region of eastern North Carolina); (2) The Piedmont which comprises the middle third of the state running north and south; and (3) The Mountains which is everything west of the piedmont region. In addition to these geographic regions, there are two city-cluster designations I heard referred to often on the radio: The Triangle (also called The Research Triangle) which refers to the cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill; and The Triad, which is further inland within the piedmont region, and consists of the cities of Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point.
I was heading for my hotel in Greensboro that late afternoon -- and directly toward The Triad -- when on my way I passed an interesting geologic formation known as Pilot Mountain. Rising above the otherwise relatively flat landscape surrounding it, Pilot Mountain stands out and refuses to be ignored. I only wish I could have spent more time visiting the park.
If you're looking for a good hotel recommendation for Greensboro, stay at TownePlace Suites Greensboro Coliseum Area. My stay there was very comfortable and provided all the amenities I needed.
October 5, 2020
There's almost no point in relating the events of October 5th, at least, for the purpose of this blog. The entire day was dedicated to "cleaning up" North Carolina, i.e., driving hundreds of miles over backroads in a crooked path that somehow cut into the corners of each of the remaining unvisited counties of the state. I started my day in Greensboro and ended it in Greenville -- North Carolina. Yes, there are two Greenvilles - one in SC and the other in NC. And since I didn't encounter any interesting or noteworthy monuments or parks or scenic drives the entire day, I can safely put this small chapter to rest knowing I have not missed an opportunity to share a "must see" or "must do" with my readers. I will say that the Residence Inn in Greenville was more than comfortable. My room was spacious and even had an upgraded kitchenette.
October 6, 2020
After having pushed myself to the limit over the past week, driving from dawn to dusk, or even later in some cases, I decided to plan a more leisurely drive that day up to Colonial Virginia. My goal was to spend the night in Williamsburg, which was, from my starting point, a very reasonable and achievable plan. The early morning drive through lush farmland and gently rolling hills was relaxing and set the proper mood for the day ahead.
On the way north, I slipped through some additional unvisited counties, mostly along the southern tier of Virginia where the counties border North Carolina. It honestly didn't take long for me to reach Williamsburg. My primary interest was in visiting the historic 17th century settlement of Jamestown, or more accurately, the excavated remains of the 400-year old village.
My first magical encounter soon after exiting the freeway was the aesthetically pleasing, exquisitely landscaped and meticulously manicured Colonial Parkway. It is a twenty-three mile scenic roadway stretching from the York River at Yorktown to the James River at Jamestown. It links all three of the historic jewels that are part of the Colonial triangle: Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. The drive to Jamestown along the parkway presented a picturesque pastiche of stone bridges and tunnels, burgundy barns and matte-gray silos, dense forests, and coastal inlets and waterways.
In just a few short miles, I had arrived at Jamestown (sometimes written as "Jamestowne"), which is part of the Colonial National Historic Park. There was plenty of parking to be found. Because of COVID, certain parts of the visitors center were closed off and foot traffic through the building was tightly controlled. Arrows on the ground and on posted signage led the way through, and on our return trip, around the building. Admission for adults was $18, $9 for kids 6 to 12, and children under 5 got in for free.
The first major feature was the towering and grand obelisk, otherwise known as the Tercentenary Monument.
Beyond the monument, and to the right, are the excavated ruins of the original 1607 settlement. Jamestown is considered to be the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Led by Captain John Smith, 104 settlers landed along the shore of Jamestown Island and set up a fortified encampment. Soon, more and more settlers would arrive. Jamestown has a dark stain on its history, though. In 1619, the arrival of Africans marked the origin of slavery in English North America. In 1634, the County of James City (or simply James City County, Virginia) became the first county of the United States. Jamestown served as Virginia's capital city briefly in the 17th century, but was eclipsed by nearby Williamsburg in 1699.
Here are a few photos from the grounds at the historic site:
Memorial Church was constructed on the original 1639 foundations of Jamestown Church.
A statue of young Pocahontas guards the entrance to the central pavilion of the settlement. I was astonished to read on the plaque nearby that, though she had such an influential role in establishing a détente among white settlers and local tribes, she died at the tender age of twenty-two, thousands of miles from her home, buried in a church at Gravesend, England.
There is an amazing interpretive center in the Voorhees Archaearium just a few hundred feet from the main settlement site. Don't leave the park without visiting the exhibits; they provide detailed information about what the lives of those settlers were like and include many of the original tools and artifacts recovered from earlier excavations.
Just before dusk, I checked into my hotel in Williamsburg, the SpringHill Suites -- a building whose exterior conveys that classic, Colonial architectural style, matching the dominant theme of the city.
My stay there was sufficiently pleasant and comfortable. Another hotel recommendation for you if you are in the area.
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Next time, in the final installment of my two-week tour of the East Coast, I'll share stories from Chesapeake Bay and the Delmarva Peninsula, Western Maryland's kaleidoscopic symphony of brilliant fall foliage, a final pass through West Virginia to claim it as a "completed" state, and an account of travel along the astonishingly picturesque Blue Ridge Parkway.
. . . Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!