Virginia and The “Accidental Tourists”

A confession. To me, the “countryside” of North America is frankly intimidating in comparison to quaint English woodlands and footpaths.

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…how do you get out and enjoy these places without a machete, a compass, a bear gun, a tent and a wilderness guide?

Our first proper RV campsite, after setting off from our friends driveway in Georgia, was a little one with just 20 spots! Owned by the whiskery Patrick – who would wander each evening in his Frank Lloyd Wright T-shirt, glass of whisky in hand – the campsite followed a river bank in the small and homely Virginia town of Damascus.

The Blue Ridge Mountains are a wonderful and very popular part of the Appalachian Mountain chain, which runs along the eastern USA from as far south as Alabama and even pokes up into Newfoundland, Canada. It has been one of L’s ambitions to see these rolling blue-green ridges and ranges up close for many years, so now that we are no longer “at sea” it’s the perfect time to do that!

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On the Blue Ridge Parkway

But how do you get out and enjoy these places without a machete, a compass, a bear gun, a tent and a wilderness guide? Trails!! Think of them as footpaths on a massive scale, carved through forests and other wild places, some stretching for 1000’s of miles.

When I was 6 years old someone re-released the comedy version of “In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia” by Laurel and Hardy (insert rude comments about my age here..) and it was the first record I ever bought.

A recent innovation is the “rail to trail” versions, whereby historic and unused rail tracks serving farmers, lumber jacks, miners etc up the mountains are converted into accessible trails and happily our campsite was smack in the middle of the 34 mile long Virginia Creeper Trail.

We loaded our Walmart $99 bike specials (yep, the beautiful bikes from the small, local bike shop went down with the boat… so Walmart it is!) onto the van trailer alongside some serious machines.

Fifteen minutes later we were dropped off near the peak at White Top to freewheel 17 miles downhill over river gorges and wooden trestle bridges, past canyons, Christmas tree farms and pastoral valleys as well as the old wooden railway stations which are converted into museums, cafes and loo stops. 1,000’s of people are deposited up the trail every week and a few hardy souls cycle uphill as well.

When I was 6 years old someone re-released the comedy version of “In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia” by Laurel and Hardy (insert rude comments about my age here..) and it was the first record I ever bought. I sang this ditty to myself, braking all the way down while L enjoyed his own joyful and much faster trip to the bottom.

…I am pretty sure I saw a beaver munching flowers in the stream and flocks of small, swooping birds catching evening bugs which turned out to be nighthawks…

Bouyed up by this experience and several good lunches in the Damascus Diner we decided to explore the other half of the trail too and in a classic “McMahon overstretch” got carried away. We cycled 17 miles to the end of the trail at Abingdon, bought some overpriced gel saddle covers (!) and cycled the 17 miles back.

On other more restful days I am pretty sure I saw a beaver munching flowers in the stream and flocks of small, swooping birds catching evening bugs which turned out to be nighthawks, an amazing little bird which I have never seen before.

After arranging with Patrick to stay an extra 3 relaxing days it was time to get going, reminding ourselves we were supposed to be heading to Canada to exit the USA for “tourist visa refresh” purposes!

Stopping on the way for fuel takes some working out in a 36 foot long and 12 feet tall coach…turning circles, canopy heights, diesel pumps…aagh!

TruckBubba is my fave app these days and mingling with the truckers is the way to go. As we got closer to the Petro truck stop in Raphine, Virginia there was something of concern though. I was pretty sure that dawdling at 35 mph up moderate Appalachian hills was not supposed to be the performance ability of our bus. Nor that red light blinking on the dashboard whenever the gears changed.

And so it proved when we attempted to leave Petro pump 12 and the engine would not restart.

So familiar are we with disaster by this point we follow in the Jeep and stop for an ice cream sundae on the way – what the hell!

You may recall that insurance has saved our backsides once already on this blog and fortunately I had joined a roadside assistance thingy called Good Sams. Towing these great big vehicles is ridiculously expensive!

While we waited at pump 12 I explored inside where they have everything for the long haul truck driver – a shuttle bus to and fro’ from the 400 truck overnight parking lot, a medical centre, a cinema, showers, laundry, pizza place, hot lunch counter, walking sticks, enema kits, extra wide driving slippers, a pharmacy and assorted truck parts/accessories including chrome air-horns and my favourite which was a natty beige fake leather and velcro padded cover for a giant truck gear stick! Fascinating!

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The end of a sad day on the bus.

Our first tow truck took us just 500 yards round the back of Petro to the closest repair place – great we thought! Except they couldn’t fix it. We stayed the night hemmed in by huge vehicles, the hum of their generators and aircon units lulling us to sleep.

Tow truck 2 – fortunately covered by our regular RV insurance – was a 50 mile trip back in the direction we had come to a Cummins diesel engine specialist near Roanoke, Virginia.

So familiar are we with disaster by this point we follow in the Jeep and stop for an ice cream sundae on the way – what the hell!

The next week was a roller-coaster of bad news/good news from the engine people, decent cheap hotels, bad cheap hotels (picture a family with 3 Great Danes evicted into the car park. Plus Sunny Delight fake orange juice for breakfast…) and some wonderful drives along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Left to itself it can hang down from the top of the tank like green Pacific kelp minus the tuna shoals and the surfers.

We also discovered Cracker Barrel – a southern style country restaurant, decorated with all manner of antique advertisements, photos and farm implements which they must hoover up wholesale across the country. Popular with all races and classes, we too discovered that their biscuits (warm salty scones), fried fish and pancakes are delicious. Pretty much everything else has ham in it!

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Retro fizzy pop at Cracker Barrel

So…we paid the massive bill (nearly the cost of our Jeep! *@?!) for our new fuel pump system and learned that modern low-sulphur diesel allows algae to grow INSIDE your fuel tank like some indestructible post-apocalypse creeping thing. Left to itself it can hang down from the top of the tank like green Pacific kelp minus the tuna shoals and the surfers.

Anyway…we bought an old bus, things are gonna happen.

We waved goodbye, started to move and then braked, alerted by the shouts and arm waving of the mechanics. A massive stream of oil poured out of the front now, from a cracked steering gear casing. Probably from the 1st tow truck.

We didn’t have any insurance left for a 3rd tow truck. However, the mechanics were confident that if they topped up the oil and L just kept on going the steering would “probably” make it to our 3rd garage a mile away who could fix it. I follow at a safe distance in the Jeep..

Back to cheap hotels for another week. I can say that after putting on 2 lbs in the previous week (thanks Cracker Barrel) I mastered the art of “hotel camping” with our own coffee maker, kettle, fridge full of salad and milk, snacks, a fruit bowl, books, wine and yoga mat to keep me sane.

After another large bill – hopefully we are not rebuilding this old bus one expensive component at a time –  we finally break free!

We swoop effortlessly up the Appalachian hills at a zippy 55 mph, past the spot where we broke down two weeks/$9,500 ago, heading to our next campsite in the Thousand Islands area of Ontario, Canada.

*Spoiler alert: we make it!

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