When I posted the first “Pandemic Pedalling” article on Halloween, I promised to interrupt the River Ride whenever I had an update. Last week, I not only tested my winter camping kit, I crossed a state line for the first time in exactly one year.
With the last outing, I learned not to try to camp on weekends, but the last month has sped by. I knew that the Virginia State Parks would close for camping in the first week of December. That would be between the 4th and the 11th of December, depending on what you call the first (full?) week. On Tuesday, the 1st, I decided to get in my last chance by riding to Chippokes Plantation State Park in Surry on the south bank of the James River. To my surprise, it had closed a week early. The cities of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake had parks with camping, but they had closed in October.
Private campgrounds around here are almost all RV parks: wide open, clear-cut, and paved for the rolling bordellos people call “campers” in North America. Few allow tent camping. There were none on either side of the James River, so the idea of riding to the Jamestown ferry in a loop from Norfolk would have to wait until March if I want to camp.
Someday, I plan to return to the Outer Banks, perhaps to return to Miami. I looked at riding out by the Great Dismal Swamp, or cross the Currituck Sound, or go to Sandbridge and the Back Bay Wildlife Area.
On Wednesday, I located three campgrounds south of Virginia Beach, and decided to go to Currituck, North Carolina. I had everything I needed in the house, so I could leave the next day.
Not being sure how long it would take me to ride there, I called the campground and found out that the owner was very flexible. I decided to book a site late on Thursday when I saw how far I still had to ride. One does NOT want to be trying to pitch a camp and prepare supper after sundown on a freezing night.
On Thursday the 3rd, the sun was bright, but the air was cold. The forecast was a gentle wind from the west, a high of 13°C (55°F), but a low of 2°C. Ideal cycling weather with a long-sleeved jersey, fingered gloves, and my Novara wind pants. I had the fluffy jacket and the Arc’teryx rain jacket strapped above the panniers, but I never needed them for the ride.
I loaded the two stuff sacks with my gear into the panniers, rolled to the Berkeley Bridge and crossed the Elizabeth River. Liberty Street took me straight to Battlefield Boulevard (Virginia Highway 168), the main road between Hampton Roads and the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
The northern part of Chesapeake, from Norfolk to Great Bridge, is suburban, with strip malls, car dealers, convenience stores, and offices on either side. Where Battlefield Boulevard goes over the Elizabeth River at Great Bridge, an limited access expressway carried most of the motor traffic away. From there to the North Carolina border, pine forests lined the right of way, interrupted by occasional farms. Highway 168 in Chesapeake was straight and wide with two lanes in each direction. On those few sections where the shoulder narrowed out of existence, there was still plenty of room to pass me in the other lane.
VA168 became NC168 at Moyock. My friend Cheryl taught me always to check in at the welcome centers, because they have information about lodging and camping that is not on the internet. Not an option during the pandemic. I bought a pair of refrigerator magnets at the Border Station and returned to the highway.
All along, I was delighted with the smooth pavement and the room to ride. Winding past the farms, marshes and wetlands, Highway 168 took me to Bells Island Road, the first turn in more than 50 km. Bells Island Campground sat at the end of the road. I was surprised to see it full of recreational vehicles and a few mobile homes. This may be another effect of the pandemic: many who have second homes, RVs, and other living places away from the cities are wintering over in them, or spending as much time as they can there.
The owner was loading aluminum barrels from a storage shed when I rode up. He was not bothered that I had not booked a site. He took my twenty-dollar bill and pointed to the wide-open, close-cut lawn by the boat ramp.
“Pick anywhere,” he said, “you can tell the spots that are high enough, because the rest of the lawn still has water on it.”
For about a half-hour I pushed my bicycles around the yard testing for places where the tyres did not sink into the ground. Drinking water was available behind the office/utility building/bathhouse. I had everything I needed. The temperature began falling rapidly, so I donned my fluffy jacket.
By 16:00, the tent was up, the kettle had boiled for decaf Italian Roast coffee, and I was stirring the teriyaki rice-and-tuna dish in my skillet. The cloudless sky highlighted the glassy surface of the Currituck Sound as I ate at the picnic table.
Before the sun set, I had time to wipe down the dishes, enjoy another cup of coffee, brush and floss, and lock what I would not need in the tent in the panniers of the bicycle. Meanwhile, the solar battery pack charged my phone to 100% without dropping any of its own charge. It kept charging until last light.
When it was as dark as it would get, I crawled into the tent and changed into the Icebreaker merino wool 200 base layer that I use as pajamas in the winter. A full moon rose early, which the thin nylon of the tent caught like a false dawn. After the moon set, the lights on the pier of the property next door forced me to wear my eyeshades all night.
On the other hand, it was quiet, though not at first. Highway 168 was more than three kilometres to the west, but the noise of truck and car tyres at high speed was amplified across the water. The airport at Elizabeth City (26 km to the southwest) launched its jets right over the campground. As I read Philip Pullman’s latest Book of Dust volume (The Secret Commonwealth) in my tent, I wondered if the traffic (air and ground) would let up. The airport seemed to send off its last jet about 19:00, but it was midnight before the roar of Highway 168 calmed down. Still, that was quieter than the exhaust machinery on the roofs of the apartment buildings outside my window at home.
Sometimes, I would pause to revel in the clean freshness of the air. Having clean cold air to breathe, while zipped up in a toasty sleeping bag is a special pleasure of camping.
After reading for a couple of hours, I dozed until midnight. At that point, I realized why I was not falling asleep, even though I was tired and comfortable. I put my socks on, and woke up at 07:30. Lesson learned: keep a light pair of socks in the sleeping bag sack.
Dawn had been at 07:04, but the tent looked like it did under the full moon. I did my exercises, dressed, and crawled out. Heavy overcast and clouds were blocking the low sun to the east. The forecast now was for a high of 20° (68°F), so no need for wind pants or jacket. While the kettle heated up for coffee, I broke down the tent. Only the footprint had any moisture, and that dried off while I made coffee and ate my muesli and skyr.
Over breakfast I admired the colours of the rising sun behind that clouds. Ducks practiced swimming in V-formation, squawking to one another, while gulls, herons and other waterfowl skimmed the water or practiced touch-and-go landings on the pilings of the pier.
My neighbours were walking their dogs, every one of them a small breed; nothing bigger than a scotty. One gentleman, a trucker who ran regularly to Canada, told me that the campground was officially closed. The people there had long-term wintering-over contracts. That explained the owner’s flexibility: I had seen the thirty-dollar price on the door of the office, so a quick twenty with no paperwork for an unused area was a win-win for us both.
At 08:25, I rolled out of the campground to catch the ferry at Currituck. It had been discontinued during the pandemic; finding out Wednesday that it was running again was the deciding factor for the route I chose.
When I arrived, I had a 90-minute wait. No problem: I rode around the whole town (two kilometres; fifteen minutes), photographed the historic jail and the one (Confederate) monument, and had a breakfast sandwich at McDonald’s. Occupying half of the Shell station, it was the only open eatery or stopping place in town. The cashier told me that the dining room was closed, but the manager caught me at the door and said I could sit there. I was the only person, so all COVID protocols were followed.
Waiting for the ferry, I met an interesting couple from New York, who were in the process of moving to their second home permanently. Although they had owned the place in North Carolina for 14 years, they had settled on the Hudson River for 31 years. The same amount of time that I had lived in Charlottesville. I could relate. While we chatted, the day began to warm up, so that the air was comfortable by the time the ferry docked.
On Knotts Island, NC Route 615 (Princess Anne Road) took me almost straight north with a pleasant tailwind to Virginia, where it kept its name and route number. I did not need a sign to tell me that I had returned to Virginia. The large farms and sparse settling of Knotts Island gave way to the suburbs that are Virginia Beach. When I lived there almost forty years ago, the big political argument was preserving the farmland south of the “Green Line” from development. At that time, the Green Line had only recently been drawn east-west through the village of Pungo. As far as I can see, it now runs along the North Carolina border. True, there are some farms in what used to be Princess Anne County, but even the actively farmed plots have new mansions or solitary houses occupying small plats in them or next door.
With the growth comes public development. I ate my lunch in Creeds Municipal Park, which has a small parking apron, a pair of shelters and a bike rack. Not much, but new, clean, and a pleasant stop along the way.
Not everyone buying farms for development is putting in subdivisions. An old-fashioned Royal Mail post box made me turn around at a place billed as the Virginia Beach Airport. Inside I found a dinosaur park and a private military aviation museum. There are two fields big enough for light aircraft to take off and land, but none of the usual facilities: no runway, tower, fuel trucks or fire trucks. A windsock confirmed the tailwind I was enjoying. The grounds also host a “Fighter Factory”, which restores and maintains vintage aircraft from the two world wars. None are too big for the open fields that constitute the airfield.
Pungo, 41 km from the ferry, had the first stop light on Princess Anne Road. I turned left to Indian River Road. After a few kilometres, Salem Road led me through some wetlands among the suburban developments before ending back at Princess Anne Road, after it turned at Princess Anne Courthouse, the official downtown of Virginia Beach (no one lives there) and headed northwest to Norfolk. I had ridden most of the major roads between Norfolk and Princess Anne Courthouse, running errands or just getting exercise. We lived in Kempsville 1981-1985, so I knew the area.
There being nothing new to see or learn, I jumped on the Tide light rail for the last ten kilometres home. An easy and pleasant 140-km overnight ride through two states, and a harbinger of things to come.
Next week, come to my author’s blog for another short story from the world before Lockhart. Like Bullies last week, next week’s short story, Artists, features Sandra.
If I don’t go Pandemic Pedalling again, we will continue the tour from Franciacorta to Verona, the city of romance. Check it out on the day after Christmas.
Meanwhile, all y’all enjoy the coming holidays.
Smooth roads and tailwinds,