Vintage Riding in Virginia's Hunt Country

Text: James T. Parks • Photography: James T. Parks

It's the dog days of summer in Washington, DC, with humidity literally hanging in the hazy, stagnant air. And as usual, the airwaves are filled with their own brand of warm, moist air this election year. But now, loping over the rolling pastureland of Virginia's horse country with a cool wind in my face and listening to the staccato beat of my Honda GB 500, all of that seems a distant memory.

Arriving in Middleburg, about an hour west of Washington, DC, on US 50, I'm at the epicenter of Virginia's famous "hunt country." Years ago, the rich and famous equestrian set began settling in the stunningly beautiful rolling hills just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Northern Virginia. In our time, the actor Robert Duvall and the late Jack Kent Cooke, former owner of the Washington Redskins football team, are just two of the well-known personalities to have called this area home.

Although generally familiar with the roads in Northern Virginia, I have pieced together a tailor-made combination of back roads from the recommendations of friends and from various Virginia maps for my two-day getaway in hunt country. The first day's ride follows a northern loop in Loudon County, while the second day dips south into Fauquier and Rappahannock Counties.

To enhance the nostalgic flavor of the experience, I'm riding my 1989 Honda GB (as in Great Britain) 500 "thumper." Although not old enough to be a true vintage motorcycle, the GB 500 clearly has the classic look and feel of a British café racer.

Day 1 - Northern Loop: 100 miles
Unlike the British "Big Lungers" of decades past, the GB 500 has an electric starter, making the kick-lever on its right side mostly an affectation rather than a necessity. Pressing the starter button, the single 500cc cylinder rotates and the engine immediately explodes to life. The transmission easily snicks into first gear and, releasing the clutch, I'm traveling west on US 50.

I loop south on SR 709 to sample vistas of the equestrian estates. Rolling grasslands are neatly framed with stone fences, intersected by stately driveways disappearing over hills to homes that I can only imagine as very large, where riding boots on marble and whispers in the wings are prone to echo.

The GB, with its light weight and short wheelbase, requires no discernable physical movement to lean it over and the engine's torque requires few gear changes to pull me through the sweeping curves. My mount seems ideally suited for this terrain.

Rejoining US 50 at Upperville, I'm heading for a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains looming ahead. Bearing right on SR 601, I follow a serpentine road north along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This deeply forested area is teaming with wildlife and before long I have a close encounter with one of them. In the shadows to my right front, a large black shape lifts off the ground. A hawk, with a wingspan greater than the GB's wheelbase, is flapping to gain altitude, but it's also veering directly into my path. Just before my helmet crashes into its body and extended talons, I urgently apply both front and rear brakes. Keeping the bike perfectly straight, we barely miss. A collision averted, the raptor rising to soar, I watch with thanks for the GB's modern front disc brake.

Happily, I leave the Blue Ridge at Snickers Gap and SR 7, picking up the historic Snickersville Turnpike at Bluemont. Turnpike notations (www.snickersvilleturnpike.org) state, "When the Iroquois hunted in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, they followed a trail that eventually became the roadbed for Route 734, the Snickersville Turnpike." This road took on strategic importance to both the North and South during the Civil War, and as late as 1915, a tollbooth collected fares. Today, the road is a meandering country byway with a charming rural flavor accentuated by a scattering of houses and other buildings dating back to the nineteenth century.

Since it's past lunchtime, I leave the old Turnpike at SR 690 and head north to Purcellville for refreshment. People seeking relief from Washington's summer heat were the first to build homes here along old Route 7. Later, the railroad brought additional prosperity to the community. Although there are several eating establishments to choose from, I select The White Palace Restaurant, primarily for its unusual white castle architecture. A rather large and delicious cheeseburger puts me back into top riding form.

The afternoon route takes me past country stores and antique shops in Round Hill, Virginia, east on Route 9 through Hillsboro, Virginia, with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stone houses lining both sides of the road, and north along the base of Short Hill Mountain to Lovettsville, which was known in the 1700s as the "German settlement." Diving back south on SR 673, my GB 500 continues its rhythmic thumping past expansive farmlands on this winding, tree-lined byway. Despite the rear set foot pegs and low handlebars, my riding position feels comfortable and intimately in touch with the road.

Passing an old mill, I downshift and roll into Waterford, Virginia. I immediately feel transported in time in this wonderfully preserved hamlet originally founded by Quakers. Because Waterford was not on any main transportation route, fast food restaurants, gas stations or strip malls in the so-called "modern age" did not replace its many fine architectural treasures. In 1970, Waterford was designated a national historic landmark, and on the first weekend in October many of the historic houses are open to the public during the Waterford Homes Tour and Crafts Exhibit.

Another historic and picturesque community on my return trip is Leesburg, Virginia. Previously known as "George Town," after Britain's reigning monarch at the time, the name was changed to Leesburg in 1758 to honor a prominent Virginia clan, the Lee family. General Robert E. Lee launched a massive assault on the North from here in 1862, which culminated on the Antietam Battlefield near Sharpsburg, Maryland, known in military annals as the single bloodiest day of the Civil War.

On the final leg of the first day of my tour, I stop on US 50 at Aldie Mill. This large brick gristmill is powered by two "overshot" waterwheels, propelled by water from nearby Little River. After undergoing extensive restoration, the mill is now operational and open to the public for demonstrations.

Day 2 - Southern Loop:110 miles
While the roads on the first day of the tour encouraged a casual pace, the route south into Fauquier Country on the second day promises to be more challenging for rider and machine. I depart Middleburg on SR 626, which has to be one of the most scenic motorcycle roads anywhere. Leaning into one curve after another, I snake up and over rolling pastureland, past large, gated equestrian estates, and savor the vivid scene of green fields, red barns, white houses and the auburn beauty of grazing thoroughbreds.

In addition to enjoying the horse country landscape, I'm also reflecting on my neo-classic mount and what has made it so satisfying to ride. Visually, the GB 500 replicates an era, rather than a particular make and model. Its 500cc motor comes from Honda's dual sport engine family, but clearly, in stock form, it doesn't produce the horsepower or sound of the Norton Manx or some of the other famous singles of the '60s. To partially compensate, I've installed a Supertrapp exhaust system and re-jetted the carburetor to match its free-flowing aspiration. I may have gained only a little horsepower, but the thumping sound is much improved and the GB also shed a few pounds in the process. To upgrade handling, I replaced the squishy stock front fork springs with a stiffer aftermarket set from Progressive. The rear shocks are stock, but set to their maximum preload in recognition of the rider's 190-pound frame. My other modifications, consisting of bar end rearview mirrors and a tiny fly screen windshield, are mostly cosmetic. It still may not be a Norton Manx, but the little GB is docile in town, looks terrific and is great fun to ride on curvy country roads.

Heading south on SR 691, I'm impressed by scenery even more beautiful than yesterday's. Tall trees overarch this small country road, but then give way to dramatic vistas with the Blue Ridge Mountains as tall, rumpled shadows in the distant background. SR 688 is mostly straight, but turning west onto SR 647 produces a rapid succession of curves to test the GB's agility - it passes with flying colors.

Although I have owned the GB 500 for several years, this is the first time I've dedicated so much continuous seat time on it. Now, for the first time, I'm starting to feel "one" with this bike. However, it's well past lunchtime, so I stop in Flint Hill, Virginia, at the Griffin Tavern & Restaurant for an uncommon back road dining experience. Undoubtedly, the restaurant's refined menu and its tasteful country squire ambiance were designed to cater to its landed gentry clientele, who seem most inclined to linger here. But after a most enjoyable and satisfying lunch, I'm anxious to regain that special feeling I was just starting to experience with the GB.

Heading north on US 522, or the Zachary Taylor Highway, as it is known in Virginia, I recall that all of the major roads in this state seem to be named after a former president, a chief justice or a Confederate Army general. At almost 400 years old, Virginia clearly has an overabundance of famous historical figures to select from in naming its roads.

A right on SR 635 brings me into a triangle of roads formed by this one heading west, SR 647 heading southwest and finally onto SR 688 going north. I'm riding over gently rolling topography and surrounded by mountains on all sides. Leaning effortlessly into the sweeping curves at speed, I feel my consciousness, my physical body and the thumping machine beneath me have merged into a single entity. When this "oneness" happens on a motorcycle, it is truly magical and unforgettable.

Continuing north on SR 688, I follow a streambed that produces an increasing frequency and intensity of curves. Right now, there is no future and no past, only now. And, the now is fantastic!
Motoring back to Middleburg on US 50, I regret that my solitary, two-day getaway tour through Virginia's hunt country is almost over. But, I also feel fulfilled by all of the exhilarating sights and sounds experienced on my Honda GB 500. I will have to return.