Back Roads Across America

Backroads Across America: Scenic Drive Yields Surprises

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After an hour or so of monotonous interstate driving from southwestern Virginia, we veered northeast toward Highway 60, which follows the Kanawha River in West Virginia. It climbed and twisted along the narrow, rocky river gorge. We had to wait for a wide spot (yep, next to a Family Dollar Store) at a reservoir to take a photo.

Our destination was Charleston, where we are visiting our son Chris and his girlfriend Gail.

It was a beautiful drive, a challenge with the trailer, but as backroads often do, it revealed a surprise: Coal. Our scenic drive book didn’t mention it, but the last section leading to Charleston featured several large coal and chemical plants. It was busy and the surrounding communities looked like thriving company towns.

The valley has been an industrial region since the mid-1800s and the Kanawha River feeds the Ohio River. Daniel Boone and Booker T. Washington spent time in the area.

We paused for a bit of southern culture at a cafe next to a coal plant, where the luncheon buffet featured mashed potatoes that may have had more butter than potato. Delicious! The servers must have liked us, because they called us “Darlin’.”

The state capitol dome dominated the Charleston skyline, but we had to keep going about 30 miles westward to our KOA campground in Milton, where we are staying for five nights. There are other RVs here, although they did not show in Sue’s photos.

 

 

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Backroads Across America: Asheville Leaves Us With Questions

 

Eclectic, mild climate, college town, surrounded by the spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains.

City traffic hassles, parking challenges, a place rough around the edges.

Both descriptions fit Asheville, North Carolina. A city of 87,000, there are 425,000 in the metropolitan area.

It was raining when we set out this morning, so we jumped on the Hop-on, Hop-off trolley, thinking we could see the city without getting soaked (I mean that literally.). The weather improved, so we hopped on and off several times and explored.

Do you like college towns? This may be the place for you. UNC Asheville has nearly 4,000 students and is known as a liberal arts school. A community college technical school here has 7,000 students.

Are you a shopper? There are outlets, a mall, lots of shops downtown and in the funkier West Ashevillle neighborhood.

If you like art, this may be your paradise. The River Arts District, which is polishing the rust off the old industrial area, brags more than 220 working artists in a one-mile zone along the French Broad River.  Or, you could explore the former Woolworth’s building downtown, converted into a two-story gallery of local art. In a nice touch, you can lunch or snack at the original soda fountain.

If you enjoy touring old neighborhoods with beautiful homes, you will find them here. Of course, the granddaddy is the Biltmore Estate (see our earlier post).

Music lover? You can listen to live music nightly at various venues. Local performers, but also some big names, especially on weekends. Probably more in tune with 20-somethings. (I promised our sons not to use the “M” word.)

Food connoisseur? Lots of choices downtown. Some pretty funky, some more refined. We had lunch today at a taqueria that doubled as a night club in the River Arts District. Grungy, but the food was alright. There were better choices downtown, but we were hungry and it was there.

Beer lover? Sierra Nevada (yep, the one based in Chico, California) is the big, new brewery in the area, joining a community famous around the country for its choices in local beers.

This city has been put on the map by a host of famous authors, artists, actors, and millionnaires who have called it home. It has a vibe. After three days here, we will move on to Virginia tomorrow morning, not sure what to think of Asheville, North Carolina. Lots of positives. When you visit, let us know what you think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Backroads Across America: USA’s Biggest Home

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It is the Gilded Age and you have become one of the world’s richest people by means of the shipping and railroad industries. What do you do with your riches? If you are George Vanderbilt, you spend 1889-1895 building America’s biggest house near Asheville, North Carolina.

The Biltmore Estate, by the numbers: 255 rooms, 2.4 million cubic feet of interior space, 135,280 square feet, nearly 8,000 acres. A brick kiln on the construction site produced 32,000 bricks a day.

It is a house beyond imagination, even for HGTV addicts accustomed to the expensive whims of home buyers.

We were among throngs who visited today (yearly visits total 1.2 million). The gardens, especially the azaleas, were spectacular. We enjoyed about two hours walking many of the informal trails. The self-guided house tour was fascinating, but we missed getting a feel for how the family lived. It was dark and felt stiff. Exceptions were the 22,000-volume library and the billiard room. The enormous indoor swimming pool was impressive.

They put us in the old horse barn for lunch. We ate in a stall next to the trough. I should point out that it had been tastefully cleaned up and decorated. It is one of 15 restaurants on the property.

Is the tour worth the $60 admission? If you cannot secure a private invitation from George Vanderbilt’s great-grandson, who owns the property and lives in the area, then we think it is a place for the ages, not to be missed when you come to Asheville.

 

 

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Backroads Across America: These Stores Fit the Bill

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe wish we had 99 cents for every one of these stores we have seen since Texas. Virtually every town has had at least one, usually both. In some places, they are two of very few businesses still open. In larger places, retail activity has moved from downtown to places like…(drumroll?) Walmart.

 

 

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Backroads Across America: A Day at the Beach

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The Isle of Palms near Charleston, SC,  hosts miles of huge beachfront homes fronting small dunes and miles of beautiful beaches. Today, the water was warm, almost matching the near 80-degree air temperature.

We toured Fort Moultrie, which, along with Fort Sumter, was built to protect Charleston Harbor. Some of the cannons could fire balls weighing several hundred pounds up to four miles.

A bridge away on Sullivan Island, we found the buzzing Poe’s Tavern for lunch. Lots of Edgar Allen Poe illustrations hung on the walls. Why was it called Poe’s? Well, he served at Fort Moultrie for 13 months. I had no idea, did you?

We have decided we could be comfortable in one of the homes here, at least for part of the year. That dream settles as I write this in our tiny home just a few miles away, but in a slightly less glamorous setting.

Dreams aside, it sure felt great to splash in the warm Atlantic water!

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Backroads Across America: Crossover Hookups!?

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Notes from the road

Cowboy bar: Get on your motorcycle, drive to Bandera, Texas, in the Hill Country just north of San Antonio. The 11th Street Cowboy Bar is not to be missed.

Backroads? Have we been true to our blog title? Mostly. We found it tough in Arizona and New Mexico. There aren’t as many roads and some go nowhere, which might be interesting, but the rest of our title is “across America,” after all. From Texas on, we have mostly stuck to our non-plan. Texas calls backroads “farm roads” or “ranch roads.” In the Hill Country, there are many deep dips, with markers showing how deep the water running across is…the marks go up to five feet!

Lonely path: We have usually tried to avoid cities, leading us through the middle of the southern states with some long, lonely stretches. We found ourselves hoping for a small town to break up the monotony. The ones we found were often Twilight Zone-like deserted. An RV from Oregon was not a common sight, let me tell you.

State parks: They are great, of course, and we have lucked out by getting some amazing sites. In RV parks, you see license plates from all over North America. In state parks, you rarely see a vehicle from out of state. But, like I mentioned a while back, RV parks are often more convenient. Plus, the swimming pools don’t have alligators.

 Language, accent. Well, this is a sensitive matter. How do I phrase this? Since Texas, when I ask where something is in a store, I usually hear enthusiastic, friendly replies. Couldn’t be nicer. I think. You see, sometimes I am not sure, if you know what I mean. I smile, say thanks, and continue my search.

Crossover hookups?! OK, RVers, what are they? The guy at our RV park in the Texas Hill Country explained that our sewer line was on the usual side, but the water and electric hookups were in the other side of the site. Are you kidding? Nope. He said our lines would reach. He was right, of course, but it was a challenge stringing them under the trailer. Our next door neighbor called it “backwards plumbing.”

 

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Backroads Across America: It’s the East Coast!

Cross country, coast to coast, backroads across America — whatever you call it, we have alas made it to the East Coast!

The Mt. Pleasant KOA (photos above), just east of Charleston, SC, is our home for the next three nights. We will have to cope with 80 degrees and low humidity. This is yet another lakeside campground where you put your toes in the water at risk, although we have looked carefully at all the logs on our walks around the swamps, and none moved.

We spent the last three nights in Georgia state parks and were most impressed. They rival the facilities in our home state of Oregon, except they have even more space per campsite.

Driving on backroads across the middle of Georgia? It was gorgeous: Lush green landscape, thick forests, rolling hills and some beautiful ranches, farms and homes.

We have logged about 4,500  miles in the Tacoma and Rockwood. Coming up on four weeks. So, how is the RV life? Sue says it is “the best way to experience the country.”

 

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Backroads Across America: The Place Where FDR died

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We came to Warm Springs, Georgia for its amazing scenery and to stay at Franklin Delano Roosevelt State Park, the state’s largest, seen at top on our drive today. History was another attraction. FDR came here for more than 20 years to bathe in the warm waters that helped him cope with the paralysis caused by polio.

He would drive his convertible, using hand controls he helped develop, from his rustic cabin into the town of Warm Springs and swim with locals. He especially enjoyed sharing the pool with children, even playing water volleyball. These photos show his wheelchair, the desk at which he was sitting when he fell mortally ill, and the bed in which he died on April 12, 1945.

We drove from the Little White House into Warm Springs and enjoyed an authentic southern luncheon buffet at the charming Bulloch House Restaurant in the tiny town. We were too stuffed to sample the boiled peanuts and deep-fried gator offered at the outdoor market, where we strolled after lunch.

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Backroads Across America: Alabama Paradise for $11

 

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Perfect spring conditions framed our drive today, which began with the first 100 miles of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a beautiful 444-mile two-lane path from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. We left the National Park Service-maintained trail at Jackson and caught Highway 80 east across Mississippi.

A fellow camper (traveling from Santa Barbara, California) in Louisiana had advised us to watch for the Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds. So, here we are at one, Prairie Creek, just past Selma, Alabama. What’s not to like! Quiet, lush, spacious sites. Lakeside vistas. Electricity and water hookups. Just $11 with a National Parks senior pass. If we were cats, it would be time to curl up and purr.

 

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Backroads Across America: Drive-Thru Cocktails

IMG_0393A two-day search for wine in markets and convenience stores in Louisiana and Mississippi had proven fruitless, other than Boone’s Farm and some with mold on the bottle. Then we found this store today. Not only did it offer a good selection of our favorite Chardonnay, it sold drive-thru drinks to go. We couldn’t believe our eyes, but it is true. As long as the lid is not punctured by an open straw, you can buy a variety of cocktails from your car in Louisiana. Just no “bottom’s up” until you get home!

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