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Weekend adventure in the Northern Neck

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“Going for a ride will usually provide clarity for any problem that’s nagging me. I don’t know if it’s the endorphins, or just having time where I can be inside by head, taking the time to think through different ways to solve an issue. I embrace challenge and cycling is a way for me to compete against myself every time I ride.”

Forward by Audrey Thomasson

There is a new breed of weekend vacationer emerging on the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck.

They dress in unforgiving lycra and travel solo or in packs. Many tend to obsess about power-to-weight ratios, speed and owning anything carbon in a desperate effort to shave a few milligrams of weight. They rejoice when the weather is mild, covet the latest high-tech road bikes, and dream of winning the Tour de France. 

Yet, there is nothing more invigorating than setting out on a rural county road. This area’s scenic countryside is a draw to cyclists who like to challenge themselves, decompress from the stress of the workweek and keep in shape for wearing those lycra shorts.

Three years ago, Dawn Opland of Stillwater Minnesota was in Virginia for training at Fort Lee, south of Richmond. For a weekend adventure, she decided to solo-cycle the Northern Neck’s Potomac Heritage Trail. Below, Dawn shares the highs and lows of her two-day adventure in photographs and journal entries.

Her journey starts out with a leisurely crossing of the Little Wicomico River on the Sunnybank Ferry before peddling to the village of Reedville where some of the wealthiest people in America lived in great Victorian houses during the steamboat era.

Cycling allows one to experience the sights, sounds and smells of history in the landscape. Riding in sunshine and rain, Dawn found beauty in a rusty old gas pump of a long-abandoned station, and in the simplicity of rolling hills that were once the hunting grounds for Morraughtacund Indians. She peddled past the plantations of some of our nation’s first leaders and greatest warriors and encountered a few of the friendly locals whose ancestors date back to this nation’s earliest settlers.

“I loved every second!” Dawn said. “I would do it all over again and look forward to my next trip.”

From the journal of Dawn Opland

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“I began my Northern Neck ride from the northern end of the Sunnybank Ferry route. I parked in a small pullout for vehicles at the ferry dock and took the ferry South, then riding to Reedville.”

Day 1: Sunnybank to Westmoreland State Park and back to Montross. Saturday—64 miles (103 km) 

My plans for an early start were derailed by a lovely evening out with good friends the night before. The hours I spent route planning and organizing my gear paid off though; I felt comfortable enough to make the trip even though I was rushing out the door. Any food or items I may have forgotten would be trivial to the overall plan. 

Last time I wrote a note to bring hard candies to prevent my mouth and throat from getting dry. I heeded my own advice and took a small box of Lemonhead candies on this trip and was glad to have them. 

My drive to the start took a couple of hours and I was pushing pedals by noon, glad for the chance to be out on my bike for the weekend.

Route 600 cuts through farm fields and the occasional forested section. If you see thick woods on both sides of the road it almost always indicates you’re about to descend into a river valley. The farms, forests, and coastal vibe reminded me of cycling through Denmark. Excellent memories.

The weather was hot but without the unbearable humidity. Every once in awhile the scattered clouds provided a nice break from the sun’s direct radiation.

I stopped in Heathsville and rested in the shade at a church before getting to Montross. There was a cool-looking rusted windmill on the same road as that church.

I went into a mom-and-pop convenience store in Montross for cold water and a Gatorade. They were very friendly and had a tall table where customers could sit and enjoy some A/C and catch up with anyone passing through. 

Most of the bigger climbs were in Westmoreland County and I think the road surface was generally rougher here, too.

The only mistake I made today was not making a reservation at Westmoreland State Park. I did not account for school being out and that Virginians use their State Park system. These are both good things, just not for me when it’s 8:00 p.m. and I’ve cycled 60-miles. All I want to do is rest my legs for the night.  The park was booked and they were unwilling to collaborate on a workable solution. My gut says that the personnel at the desk that night were a bit stressed and not sure how to handle someone like me.  The updated policy (to accommodate cyclists) should have been in place by the time I was on my trip, so I was quite surprised they turned me away knowing that my mode of transport was a bicycle.  However, it was definitely my fault for not making a reservation in the first place.The best they could do was propose I bike an additional 20 miles to Colonial Beach, or back to Montross where the motel might have vacancy.

There wasn’t enough daylight left for a 20-mile ride, so I headed back to Montross. I was tempted to free camp since there were lots of decent options, but thunderstorms were in the forecast and the last thing I needed was a random act of God to finish me off in some random spot in the woods where nobody would know to look for me. I stayed at the Washington and Lee Motel.

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“One of my favorite encounters was coming across an old gas pump outside a tiny station that was boarded up.”

Day 2: Montross to Sunnybank Ferry Dock. Sunday—42 miles (68 km) - Total so far: 106 miles (171 km)

Cycling back to Montross for the night gave me a head start on my return trip to Reedville and I used that advantage to sleep in. When I sleep outside, my body adjusts and adheres to the circadian rhythm like it is supposed to, but I slept indoors so I not only slept in, but also had no idea what the weather was doing. I opened the door to my room and was greeted by a heavy mist and overcast skies. A nice contrast to yesterday and quite enjoyable since the temperature remained “hot”.

I encountered a number of unleashed dogs today and they were going crazy, I was chased on three separate occasions. One particularly exciting moment was being pursued by two 80-pound huskies who had spotted me first and had the lead advantage. They closed the gap quickly and the only thing that saved me was the road itself as it plunged swiftly downhill and delivered me from certain peril. Adrenaline is an amazing drug. (I am seriously considering a small canister of deterrent spray that can be mounted on a handlebar. I like dogs, but do not enjoy being aggressively pursued by them.)

Abandoned buildings are a common sight and I ran across a cool 1950s Bennett gas pump near Callao.

I always enjoy experiencing the little things I overlook when driving. When I’m on my bike the pace is slower, I am more relaxed and I start to realize how much less I notice from inside my vehicle. We’re extremely isolated from each other, and from our environment when we’re driving. On my bike I hear the rustle of corn leaves, whispers of the breeze through grain seed heads, and birds singing to each other. These things are happening all the time, I just rarely take the time to slow down and listen.

The Northern Neck is a great area to explore since there are so many different activities to choose from: wine tours, historic sites and other outdoor pursuits. Using a bike for transport is an awesome way to link these activities while experiencing the vibe that makes the Northern Neck special.

posted 09.02.2016

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