Now in the final few days of my 15-day East Coast road trip, the bitter reality that it would soon come to end -- that the unchecked freedom I have enjoyed on the highway, behind the wheel, charting new destinations as each day breaks -- starts to creep in like a dull pain behind the eyes that you know will soon become a full-blown migraine. And like all pleasant and treasured experiences, it passed far too quickly. Eventually, I would have to close the circle of my travels and return to Raleigh -- the place where I started this adventure.
October 7, 2020
Studying the map the night before, I knew I would have to cover a lot of mileage if I wanted to put the state of Maryland in the "completed" column -- the as-yet unvisited counties were scattered all over the state, ranging from the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay all the way to the Mason-Dixon Line. I also wanted to pick up those smaller Virginia counties bordering Chesapeake Bay, but just north of the Hampton Roads area. In order to do all that, I would need to get a very early start.
Before the sun was up, I was on the road, leaving Colonial Virginia behind me. I spent the morning threading my way up north through the smaller counties bordering the York, Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers. I crossed the Potomac on US 301 into Maryland, picking up a few remote counties on my way to Annapolis, the state capital. I crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge at Annapolis at around noon. It is a toll bridge, but tolls were not being collected that day, for some reason.
Once on the other side, I followed US 50 to Salisbury -- I needed to pick up Somerset County way at the bottom of the state. It was Somerset County that added the extra mileage and hours to my drive that day. The scenery along the way, however, made it completely worth my while.
Having secured Somerset County as completed, I then turned north on US 13 and headed into Delaware at the bi-state city of Delmar. I took this photo from a Wawa store right on the state line.
I had been to Delaware a few other times before. With only three counties within its borders, I had long ago completed the state. There was one remaining Maryland county nearby that was easier to access by passing through the southwest corner of Delaware -- Caroline County. Once collected, my journey took me further north through eastern Maryland to Elkton where, after getting lost on country roads for about a half hour due to construction detours, I found my way to I-95 and headed south. I had a reserved room waiting for me in Frederick, Maryland (Frederick is just an hour northwest of D.C.). Two hours later, I had arrived, just as the sun was setting, having passed through the last county in Maryland on the way. I had officially visited all 23 counties in the state.
October 8, 2020
A few nights earlier, when I was reviewing my personal county map -- the one I mark up as I visit new counties -- I realized I had miscalculated my route when I was passing through the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. I missed a county entirely -- Mineral County. I was determined to finish West Virginia on this trip, and on that morning in Frederick, Maryland, I was perfectly poised to snag that overlooked county. My travel goal that day was far less ambitious than that of the day before. I would be, for the second time on this road trip, overnighting in Charleston, West Virginia. Most of the travel would be via interstates, with the occasional quick exit to pick up a few new counties, including the elusive Mineral County.
My first stop westward was the charming Appalachian city of Cumberland, Maryland. From the interstate, the city's skyline looks something like a birthday cake with many spires poking up through the dense aggregation of brick buildings flowing over a gently undulating landscape. Nestled snugly in the mountains of western Maryland, it has a vibrant arts scene and a very walkable town center that caters well to pedestrian traffic. I made a point of spending some time here to explore and capture a flavor of the city on foot.
Up on the hill just west of downtown is Washington Street, famed for its long procession of stunning Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, and Romanesque mansions.
Cumberland is also where I was able to conveniently pick up the marooned county of Mineral, West Virginia. From Washington Street, you could literally walk to the bridge that crosses the Potomac into Mineral County in just a few minutes. I drove, naturally.
Back on Interstate 68, I continued west, higher into the Appalachians. As I moved further west, the fall colors began to slowly dominate the landscape. This was perhaps the most colorful section of roadway I had driven on during the past two weeks.
I periodically broke away from the interstate to capture the Pennsylvania counties bordering Maryland. They were easy to get to with the interstate running so closely along the state line. Here are a few photos I captured just inside Pennsylvania along US 219, also known as the Flight 93 Memorial Highway.
Back on the interstate, and just moments later, I passed through the western extreme of Maryland into West Virginia. A few miles into the state, I was beckoned by roadside signage to check out Coopers Rock State Forest. It was a good decision to make the time to get off the freeway and see what it had to offer. It is one of the loveliest and most picturesque state parks I have ever visited, made even more dazzling with the ever-present fall foliage. Here are a few photos I took during my tour:
Next stop was Charleston, West Virginia, by way of a few detours through the northern half of the state to pick up the final unvisited counties. By the time I arrived in Charleston, I had successfully completed West Virginia, having visited all 55 of its counties, and could finally place it in the completed column. To celebrate, I treated myself to a sumptuous dinner at The Chop House -- just a few blocks away from the Courtyard Charleston Downtown/Civic Center. If you find yourself in Charleston, this hotel is super comfortable and conveniently located to all points downtown.
Charleston from the Kanawha River:
October 9, 2020
This was my last full day on the road on this two-week exploratory excursion through the Carolinas, Appalachia and assorted mid-Atlantic states. By day's end, I would land in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a Triad city within a few hours drive of my original starting point of Raleigh. I had one major goal for the day -- to drive as much of the Blue Ridge Parkway as possible on my return to North Carolina.
The weather seemed to agree with my plans. The combination of blue skies and fall foliage along the route made for an extraordinarily pleasant driving experience. I departed Charleston along I-64 eastbound, soon crossing into Virginia where I picked up the Blue Ridge Parkway just east of Buena Vista along US 60.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
Don't pass up an opportunity to make this drive! If you are looking for a slower-paced, meandering tour of the southern and central Appalachian Highlands that is loaded with roadside parks, attractions and breathtaking vistas of rugged mountains and pastoral landscapes, this road will deliver. A few facts about the parkway: (a) it runs a total length of 469 miles from Afton, Virginia to Cherokee, North Carolina, mostly along the spine of the Blue Ridge; (b) it is part of the National Park Service; (c) travel along the entire route is free; (d) construction began in the 1930s and continued for 52 years until its completion; (e) access points to the parkway are limited which helps keep traffic to a minimum; and (f) it connects Shenandoah National Park with Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
I gleefully took my time driving south along the parkway, stopping here and there to check out the historic sites and vehicular pullouts. There was so much to see along the way, it would take more than a single day to absorb all of the magic available to curious motorists. Here are a few photos I gathered along the way:
Several hours later, having traveled about 150 miles of the parkway, I exited at US 21 on the North Carolina side and soon crossed, for perhaps the tenth time on my road trip, the Eastern Continental Divide.
An hour or so later, I was checking into the Marriott's Courtyard Winston-Salem Downtown hotel -- another great recommendation. It is located within walking distance of many restaurants, bars, theaters and great shopping.
October 10, 2020
That final morning, I decided to grab some coffee from one of the cafés along W. Fourth Street. A heavy fog had settled over Winston-Salem's downtown area, making it a little trickier for me to get shots of the business district's tall buildings.
I rather liked Winston-Salem, or at least, what I was able to see of it. Like all the other major cities I had visited over the past two weeks, many of the businesses were shuttered due to the COVID pandemic. I wasn't able to fully appreciate its vitality in such muted and muffled circumstances. One day, I would love to return for a more protracted stay.
On my way back to Raleigh, I made a circuitous route that picked up the remaining five or six counties in the state that I had not yet visited, having thus buttoned up the state's 100 counties, and placing North Carolina in the completed column. When I arrived at the airport in Raleigh, I had come full circle from my starting point two weeks prior. That afternoon, I caught my return flight to Seattle.
In all, I managed to visit a total of 231 new counties and independent cities in eleven states over a twisting 6,800-mile route, in just 14 days. I put four more states in the completed column, bringing my total up to 17 -- 18 if you include the District of Columbia. At the end of this trip, I had crossed the 60% threshold of total U.S. counties visited. Just 1,200 remain now. Aside from the raw numbers and statistics, the road trip had been a welcome escape from the months of self-quarantining and associated stresses of the pandemic. It provided me with a chance to see a corner of the United States I had not before explored and left me with a thousand imprints of stunning scenery and happy experiences. It is a beautiful and unique corner of the country and I highly recommend it as a road trip destination.
. . . Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!