According to the road signs, we're closing in on Natural Bridge, Virginia. Normally, it's a good thing to be nearing the night's comfort zone, especially after nine hours of riding on a hot summer day. But this evening is different. Kathy and I are at one with the nimble Honda 599 howling away beneath us, traffic on Route 130 is light, the James River is shimmering through the trees, and the road is unrolling in a buffet of smooth, sinuous curves that simply insist that we stay on the gas and keep eating.
A little car that we zipped around a while back wears a bumper sticker proclaiming that "Virginia is for Lovers." A fine sentiment indeed, but the problem is someone left off the ..."of Great Roads" part. We haven't even officially started our Shamrock Tour, originating from the Natural Bridge Hotel, and the back-roads ridden to get here from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, have alreday demonstrated some serious RoadRUNNER story potential. (Sorry folks, I'll have to keep that set of squiggly lines undisclosed and under my hat for now.)
While I'd surely like to keep riding, Kathy is more than happy to see the welcoming, white-columned porch of the brick, colonial inn that will be our home away from home for the next five nights. As we're pulling up, she taps my shoulder and points excitedly to the groups of oak rocking chairs lining the long patio. Being ever so fond of lolling away the sultry, Southern evenings in a slow, back and forth manner, I know where we'll be parking our weary rears tonight.
Day One: What 'n the Hell is a Dubyanell?
Although we've chosen the hottest week of the year to take a little motorcycle ride in Dixie, we're not terribly worried about it today. Since we're getting an early start, bringing along our Silver Eagle Classic Cooling Vests, and the lines on the map wander to higher elevations, we should be good to go. Route 11 proves to be a great way to start the day. This mostly forgotten four-lane runs parallel to I-81 and has pretty much been reduced to locals-only status. If you look closely, you can still see some of the fading art deco facades and roadside architecture that once appealed to travelers seeing the USA in their Chevrolets. Today, most of these relics are in various states of weed-choked collapse, having slowly bowed to the slab of concrete progress that has cars and trucks whizzing by just east of the tree line.
Large, antebellum homes with sprawling porches appear as we roll into Lexington proper. These shady, pillared sanctuaries seem near perfect for wiling away the day's opening hours, sipping coffee and reading the paper. And in keeping with this formal aesthetic, the old educational mainstays of Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute still anchor much of Lexington's fortunes. George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson are but a few of the vaunted figures associated with these institutes. As we're searching for the local bean steamer, I'm puzzling over "Dubyanell," a word that seems to be popping up everywhere. President Bush... and Little Nell? And just when I'm about to give up, show my tourist ignorance, and ask what it means, it hits me, Washington and Lee - W and L - Dubyanell. It's a Southern thing.
Following our "rider's breakfast" of cappuccino and blueberry muffins at the Daily Grind, we head north on Route 11. Outside of town, we swing left on Route 39. Almost immediately we leave the bustling I-81 corridor in the dust and settle into a winsome rhythm of sweeping pavement that has us swooshing over the rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley. As the low, morning fog slowly burns off, it leaves behind a fleeting, sparkling haze of diamondiferous dew on the cornstalks and pastures as we motor by. The feeling of being on two wheels and awakening with the land is wonderful.
As we continue westward into the mountains, the once placid waters of the Maury River begin tumbling, the rocks and increasing grade adding surges of frothy white in between deep, crystalline pools. The sweeps and twists of Route 39 take us through Bath County and past several gentleman-farmer spreads. One even has its own small airstrip. A beautiful estate that's probably some D.C. millionaire's weekend retreat.
In Warm Springs, the road takes on a new personality, its path narrowing more as it begins a menacing, asp-like course through deep green tunnels of hardwoods. The 599 feels like it's begging to be pushed harder through the curves; and since I'm not one who can bear to see a grown bike cry, I happily oblige. The elderly couple stuttering along in the white Accord with Ohio tags never saw us coming, and they visibly flinched as we ripped by, giving them a friendly wave, in a short passing zone.
The ride becomes a little lazier as we turn south on Route 92, just over the West Virginia line. The open farmland and wide sweeps dominating the valley give us time to think about lunch. In White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, we ride into town and park it in front of the Route 60 Café. Inside, an eclectic mix of local folks and a group of "hippie" bicyclists in the midst of celebrating one of their compatriot's birthdays somehow creates the perfectly odd but appropriate ambiance one expects to find in a small West Virginia eatery. For us, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, with a side of fried pickles, do the job nicely.
We spend the rest of the afternoon enjoying a nice, brisk pace across almost empty roads while taking in an abundance of western Virginia's sublime mountain scenery. Small farms and mountain hamlets, deep forests and meandering streams - this part of the country has it all. The ride over Pott's Mountain on Route 311 is an especially good blend of high vistas and challenging curves. By the time we get back to Natural Bridge, we're noticeably drooping and ready for little more than a quick dinner at the hotel's Red Fox Tavern and an early bedtime.