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Rain, Fire and Bears: On the Road through Virginia to Washington, D.C.

by Peter Thody

[Map of Route]

A drive through Virginia - with an unscheduled side trip to Washington, D.C. - provides our British road tripper with a taste of everything America does best: living history, public monuments and glorious natural scenery. Peter Thody takes the wheel on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, the National Mall and Shenandoah National Park.

Oak Lake

Service with a smile. One of the nicest things about Colonial Williamsburg is how those who work there (actors? re-enactors?) seem so happy to throw themselves into character.

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Photo by Peter Thody


There's a road tripper's mantra that states, "It's all about the journey, not the destination," and normally it's one with which I'd brook no argument. But when the traffic's as tight as a NASCAR warm-up lap and the spray from the truck in front is depositing a wiper-resistant film of dirt, oil and tire rubber onto the windshield, the only thing that matters is getting there. Fortunately, our destination today is only about 50 miles north on Interstate 64, so in less than an hour we leave behind the white-knuckle ride that is southeast Virginia's rush hour and enter the infinitely more civilised world of Colonial Williamsburg.

Williamsburg was the political centre of 18th-century Virginia and a focus for many of the key events leading up to the Revolutionary War. It was here that Patrick Henry delivered his Stamp Act speech in 1765; it was in the Raleigh Tavern, seven years later, that George Washington signed a resolve proposing a Continental Congress; and it was also in Williamsburg that Thomas Jefferson's "Summary View of the Rights of British America" was published.

By the end of the 18th century, however, after Jefferson's government had moved the state capital 60 miles north to Richmond, Williamsburg was in decline, a process that would not be reversed until the early 1920s when, with the vision and financial support of the Rockefeller family, there began a programme of restoration and reconstruction to recreate what is now known as Colonial Williamsburg.

It would be easy to see Williamsburg as a kind of middle-class Disney World, with drilling Redcoats replacing Bashful, Doc, Dopey et al., but it actually works extremely well. Most of the buildings are authentically old; the trades people really do hammer out tools, bind books and weave cloth, and they immerse themselves in 18th century life completely. At one point I ask one guy whether things changed much after independence and he looks back quizzically. "Independence? From who? We're loyal to the Crown and will remain so. Why would we do otherwise?"

Today's frequent showers do mean that dry attractions like the Governor's Palace and Capitol building are busier than usual, and that the colonial ambience is spoilt slightly by an abundance of vividly coloured waterproof gear but, overall, it's probably as close to going back in time as you can get.

From Williamsburg we continue north on I-64 - the weather makes following a route any more scenic completely pointless - toward Charlottesville, pinpointed for a stopover primarily for its proximity to Shenandoah National Park but also for its frequent mentions in episodes of the TV series "The Waltons." (Carole, my wife, refuses to accept that the Waltons are a fictional family and that the series was filmed entirely in California; to her, overnighting in Charlottesville is just a step away from choosing fabric for a summer frock at Ike Godsey's store.)

Checking into our hotel, we wade through the fast-flowing stream that's now running across the car park and make our way through a lobby chock full of similarly wet and bedraggled guests. Two hours later we're all sent back outside again as the full force of the East Rivanna Volunteer Fire Company arrives to investigate a suspected electrical fire in the ceiling above the restaurant. Fortunately, the rain has stopped, albeit temporarily.

Taking the Skyline Drive down through Shenandoah National Park has been one of the central goals of our trip, and driving through low-hanging clouds is not how we'd planned it at all. So the next day, as we head north through a very damp Virginia on U.S. Route 29, we make the snap decision to delay the mountain drive by 24 hours in the hope that the rain will clear, and instead head east into Washington, D.C.

Having made no prior plans to visit the federal capital, and lacking a road map any more detailed than a USA/Canada/Mexico atlas with a 1:100,000 scale, we have to play it all a bit by ear, but everything works out extraordinarily well. Interstate 66 somehow deposits us at a car park opposite the Jefferson Memorial, and this turns out to be no more than a couple of hundred yards from the Mall around which most of Washington's monuments and museums are located. And as we quickly discover, Washington is a city that can easily be explored on foot.


View Norfolk to Front Royal, Virginia in a larger map


In just a few hours - with frequent stops under trees to escape the worst of the weather - we visit the marble-and-granite Washington Monument with its circle of 50 flagpoles; the Lincoln Memorial, as familiar and symbolically American as Liberty herself; the simple but moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a black wall inscribed with the names of the American dead; and finally the White House which (and I'm told I'm not alone in thinking this) is smaller than you might imagine.

It's only scratching the surface, of course. We don't enter a single museum and we view the Capitol (a building designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, an architect from my home city of Leeds) only from a distance, but an afternoon squelching around Washington certainly beats jigsaws as a way of spending an afternoon waiting for the rain to stop.

Best of all, it proves to be the right decision as far as the weather's concerned. After spending the night in Warrenton, Va., (I can heartily recommend McMahon's, a pub run by Irishmen rather than an Irish theme pub), we make the short drive through rolling green countryside to Front Royal, the northern entrance to Shenandoah National Park. And by 10 o'clock, the sun has burnt off all but a few wisps of cloud.

The Skyline Drive follows the Blue Ridge Mountains south for 105 miles, until it joins the Blue Ridge Parkway at Rockfish Gap. Aside from the northern and southern entrances, there are just two points - Thornton Gap and Swift Run Gap - at which you can enter or exit the park by car. The maximum speed limit is 35 mph, all the way. There are more than 75 scenic overlooks and, as Ranger Laura delights in telling us as part of her introductory talk at the Dickey Ridge visitor center, there are bears, hundreds of them.

"We have around 600 black bears living within the park. That's just under one per square mile, the densest population anywhere in the country. Keep your eyes open and you've got every chance of seeing one. Beware, though, the females are aggressive at this time of year. And the males are dangerous too."

Right. So that's the females and the males we have to watch out for.

Sure enough, no more than 10 miles on, we spot a small bear meandering through the woods. Sadly, as Ranger Laura had gone on to tell us, its prospects are less rosy than those of its parents. So successfully are the bears breeding round here, and therefore so dense is the population, that virtually all the young bears are having to establish territories outside the safety of the park, where there's every chance they'll become one of the thousand or so bears shot in Virginia every year as trophies.

It's the only bear we see all day - so we don't get to put into practice Ranger Laura's vaguely unhelpful advice not to run, or play dead or climb a tree - but there are other sites to see. There are rattlesnakes on the road every few miles (including one or two live ones); huge populations of butterflies sucking the nectar from summer flowers; and the scenery is simply beautiful. To the north are clear, long-distance views way out over Shenandoah Valley. As we travel south, the scenery gradually develops into the classic Blue Ridge vista of tree-covered mountains layered one behind another in gradually fading shades of bluey-green.

Our one mistake is to heed the advice of the old guy we met earlier to "get down into the valley and see a little of the rural farming area." Well, pretty though it undoubtedly is, it is just farmland, and even the promise of seeing the Shenandoah River itself fails to materialise; I don't think we get more than a couple of fleeting glimpses of the river over our entire 30-mile diversion down from the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

No, you can see fields and farms anytime. The Skyline Drive was built not to get you from A to B as efficiently as possible but to enable you to dawdle through these beautiful hills at your own pace. And it's an experience that should be enjoyed to the full.

Peter Thody

Next> Beauty Born of Depression - the Blue Ridge Parkway


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