August Trip Final (Belated)

I never quite finished the series about our August trip back from by business engagement in Carmel, IN. When I left off, we were ready to move from Breaks Interstate Park to Grindstone, a federal camping ground near Damascus, Virginia. So I’ll do a quick catch-up here (on September 23) before I begin to relate our freshest upcoming adventure, Cooperstown v. 2, starting September 25, 2016.

So, we began our drive from Breaks Interstate with Kerry & Gloria in their Class C; and Jim in his car, trundling our way across the mountains toward Damascus, on August 11 via Route 80. If anyone reading this and dragging a trailer or driving an RV considers using Rt. 80, all I have to say is that the road is fine until right after it diverges from Rt. 19, headed toward Clinch Mountain. My advice is to use Rt. 19 NOT to stay on Rt. 80, but find any other way you can manage OTHER than Rt. 80 to continue heading southeast.

We stayed on Rt. 80 and it was the most harrowing experience I’ve had to date dragging a trailer, and I wasn’t even driving. Crossing Clinch and Poor Mountains, the road narrowed to a 6 or 7-hundred road size, and switchbacked high and long, without the merest ghost of a guardrail on the steep slope. If we had met anyone headed the opposite direction, our lead vehicle would have acted as the “airbag” for the rest of the group following behind. There would have been no where to pull over to allow another vehicle to pass; and lord help us if we’d met a logging truck or larger equipment vehicle.

So NEVER follow Rt. 80 southward all the way to Meadowview or Interstate 81.

Once we survived Rt. 80, we headed to Saltville and then south toward Chilhowie, then wound our way into the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, and then along Rt. 603 to Grindstone.

We had a lovely site there, and zero insect disturbance, excellent weather, and a really fun time with Gary, Lorrie, Kerry, and Gloria (Jim decided to head back home instead of camping with us). Damascus was our shopping center and the beginning of the Virginia Creeper Trail, a Rails-to-Trails conversion that includes a steep ride down WhiteTop Mountain and many shuttle-your-bike-to-the-top options that make the Creeper famous among cyclists. Damascus is also famous as the entry to Virginia for the Appalachian Trail. If timed right, through-hikers can make it to Damascus by May and be feted and spoiled by the community’s Trail Days Festival, where everyone in the small city puts on the dog to celebrate the through-hikers and their journeys.

There is quite a lot more to the Creeper Trail than the thrill-ride down White Top. Lorrie, Gloria, and Kerry decided to walk the dogs around Damascus while Gary, Jack and I rode the 16 miles to Abingdon and back (total 32 miles). It was a lovely ride, although quite a hot day. We got some refreshment in Abingdon before reversing course, and then stopped at the Alvarado Station for a super delicious sandwich and homemade potato chips for lunch at the Happy Trails Cafe.


But before we leave the Creeper, here’s some history about it from the Abingdon side:

The Abingdon Branch
“The Virginia Creeper”
Norfolk & Western Railway’s Abingdon Branch began in 1887 as the Abingdon Coal & Iron Railroad (AC&IRR). The Virginia-Carolina Railroad (VCRR) bought the AC&IRR in 1900, and extended rail service to Damascus. By 1915, VCRR trains ran over the 76.5 miles of track between Abingdon and Elkland, NC. The parking lot (adjacent to the sign) was the VCRR’s Abingdon yard, where equipment was kept, and the VCRR joined the N&W main line. In 1916, the N&W bought the VCRR, and the route became The Abingdon Branch. The track from Elkland to West Jefferson was abandoned in 1933.

The popular nickname, “Virginia Creeper” fittingly describes both the steep twisting mountain route and the speed of the trains. In some places, the posted speed limit was only 5 MPH.

The Abingdon Branch crossed some of the highest and most scenic terrain of any standard gauge railroad in the US. In the 55.5 miles from Abingdon to West Jefferson, there were 108 bridges, most made with timber, and no tunnels. In a classic series of photographs entitled A Day on the Abingdon Branch, O. Winston Link captured memorable scenes along this historic route during the last days of steam operations. Some photos from this series are on display at the Historical Society of Washington County Library in the former N&W passenger station in Abingdon.

The last train between Abingdon and West Jefferson ran on March 31, 1977. The Abingdon Branch rail bed was converted to the Virginia Creeper Trail through a cooperative effort of the Town of Abingdon, Town of Damascus, and the US forest Service.

Norfolk & Western Railway
Class M Locomotive #433
American Locomotive Co., Richmond Works

The N&W owned over 100 Class M locomotives from 1906 to 1961. Today, two survive: 433 in Abingdon, and 475 operated by the Strasburg Railroad, Strasburg, PA. By the early 1920s, heavier and more powerful locomotives had replaced the Class M on mainline service. Because of their light weight and small size, the Class M had a useful life until the very end of the steam era, working in rail yards and on local freight and passenger trains where roadbed conditions prohibited using heavier locomotives.

In 1952, 433 came from Roanoke to Bristol as a backup engine on the Abingdon Branch. While in Bristol, 433 was a common sight in the railroad yard and on the many industrial tracks lacing the Bristol area. Although 433 was then equipped with a spark arrestor smoke stack, it rarely ran on The Abingdon Branch.

Steam operations ceased on The Abingdon Branch in 1957, marking the end of an era and a way of life. Except for 433, all Class M locomotives based in Bristol were immediately scrapped. Number 433 avoided the torch and moved to Radford where it worked until retired in July 1958. In October 1958, the N&W donated the engine to the Town of Abingdon, and on November 24, 1958 it was moved to its current location at the junction of the N&W main line and The Abingdon Branch. Today, 433 sits at the junction of The Abingdon Branch and the main line as a tangible reminder of the era when these small hand-fired steam engines struggled up the steep, twisting grades through remote mountain communities along the 55.5 miles between Abingdon and West Jefferson, NC.

The next day, I took the Mount Rogers Trail hike about halfway up the 7+ miles of the hike to the top of Mount Rogers, the tallest mountain in Virginia. We’d had some rain the night before, but the temperatures and humidity were just fine and I had a wonderful walk, enjoying many newly-sprung mushrooms.

On our last night together, we gathered at our Blue Roomba to share a meal, but the rain returned for some of the early evening. Thankfully, it quit by the time we were set to eat, and we didn’t have to get wet for our celebratory supper before we all headed home the next morning.


We will definitely be returning to Grindstone and are thankful that Lorrie and Gary introduced us to this beautiful campground.

Pine Grove Furnace State Park, PA (Pt. 2)

Monday, May 11

Again, the forecast was for lousy weather developing in the afternoon, so we wanted to see what that Cumberland Valley Rail Trail was like, which we had heard of for the first time when we were at the Visitors Center, before the rain came.

So on Monday, May 11, we loaded the bikes on the car and headed to Newville, PA, along Rt. 233 from the park. Navigated moderately easily to the Trail Head, and were mightily impressed with the quality of the facilities and the surface of the trail. We read on a map that the trail is planned to head north from Newville toward Carlisle, but that is a future plan and it’s not open to the public yet.

The section we rode, however, was a 9+ mile stretch south from Newville to Shippensburg. We discovered in short order that the pavement part of the Newville trail head ended, but after that it was packed cinders, much like the New River Trail and we were having a blast. There were some informational markers along the way — some were about geology and culture of the Cumberland Valley, and some were Civil War markers about the build-up to the Battle of Gettysburg. 

This was an up-and-back, so Jack figured he could see the Civil War markers on the way back. 
Once in Shippensburg, we asked a lady with a youngster and a stroller where we might eat, and she directed us to a pizza place in town, near the college.

After a few false starts, we found Polly & Stone’s, a great place serving both pizza and burritos, and ate healthily of meat burritos and some replenishing bottled juice. AND they offered free wi-fi. Nice to discover that Pat had not, in fact, had to put the rooster in the stewpot (yet).

When it was all said and done, we covered another 22 miles, with nearly 2 hours of riding time and about 1.5 hours of stopped time. It was a totally glorious ride altogether. While Jack reported to dally on our way back to Newville, reading the markers, I wanted to head straight back and get some real training in, so I told him I’d see him at the end. It’s nice to have a traffic-less, flat, good footing training ground for sprints.

Both of our competitive spirits took ahold of the handlebars, however, and even though I was trying to speed right along, he managed to catch me from behind twice. Had to take a bit of a cool-down pedal at the end of the final sprint to the Newville Trail Head. Good fun.

Tuesday, May 12

Our last full day at PG Furnace SP, and we first stopped at the Appalachian Trail Museum, a cornerstone of the area. Since I mentioned the Museum earlier, I won’t dwell. Other than to again highly recommend a visit.

Then we rode around some of the park, not really expecting too much, but stumbling into the Cumberland Co. Hiker-Biker trail, a 2-mile run that takes in some of the AT, two fishing/swimming/boating lakes, and a lovely stream. The lakes are Laurel Lake and Fuller Lake and one (probably the second, larger, Fuller Lake) has a great dam where fisher-people were hard at work plying the waters. Both lakes have sandy swim-beaches, and there were many day-users out and about, including a few school-bus-fulls of kiddos doing nature things.
(photo of swim beach)

The part of the Hiker-Biker Trail that follows the AT is closed to vehicle traffic.   

 But keeping on we hit a paved road, with signage indicating that all should share the road as it’s used by vehicles, hikers, and bikers alike. It was a very nice ramble down to a highway, and we turned around and rode back, headed to the historic furnace itself. But before the creek narrowed to near-nothing, back at the park entrance, we saw this scene of mid-water rock-balancing. It was a pretty cool “sculpture” find serendipitously. 

Then we hit the historic furnace and the info there.

This is what it looked like when in operation:  
This is what it looks like now:   

    So it was a much more involved and complicated structure, once upon a time.  

When railroad-building (I think this is what it said) was happening, it made most sense to have the iron furnace local, rather than shipping in the iron — plus they wanted to have the smelting of the iron done close to the deposits of iron ore.

Anyway, what they’d do is follow the design of furnaces used 400 years earlier than the 19th century: A thick stone furnace shaped like a flat-topped pyramid was constructed, to convert minerals to metal.

At the top of the “pyramid” workers dumped alternating layers of charcoal fuel, iron ore, and limestone flux into the heart of the furnace. As the charcoal burned, air was forced into the furnace from the outside (a water wheel pumped bellows that blew air through a pipe and into the bottom of the fire), and this was able to raise the temperatures to 2,600 – 3.000 F.

This burning created several byproducts: carbon gasses escaped from the chimney; molten iron sank to the bottom; and impurities (slag) floated atop the liquified metal.

Workers would draw off the useless slag and isolate it away from the iron; meanwhile guttermen channelled the iron into castings in the floor, connected to one another so the iron would flow into all channels — these were called “pigs.” (Thus pig-iron?)

Typically, wooden buildings and machinery surrounded the furnace made of rock, firebrick, and sand and clay for insulation along the chimney. Funny, how wooden buildings were built next to high burn temperature activities — the parts that survive, of course, are the stone furnaces themselves.

Here’s a cutaway photo of the furnace — hope you can read the parts at the right.

Found the whole thing fascinating. This we wound up our adventures in PG Furnace SP. Definitely more to see and do here — many “bike friendly” road tours outlined on the maps here, and there’s lots of beautiful countryside to see. Hope we can come back some time.

Used the afternoon to do some pre-packing for the re-hitch and depart tomorrow. Destination: Bear Creek State Park in Virginia. 

And I hope there’s at least cell service if not wi-fi . . . 

Pine Grove Furnace State Park, PA (Pt. 1)

May 10

This park was named thusly due to the presence of a historic charcoal iron furnace on the property, PG Furnace SP is one of three state parks in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. The furnace was built in 1764 and operated for 131 years. During the 1930s, a camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps used a site right outside this park, which cabin area was later used during WWII as a German POW camp.

The Appalachian Trail courses through the Park, and many through-hikers are proud to make it to Cumberland County, PA as it is the middle of the 2000+ mile hike from Springer Mountain in GA to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Right at the mouth of the State Park is the Appalachian Trail Museum, which I highly recommend as an informative, not-at-all-stuffy, friendly-staffed stop. It’s a small museum packed with books, t-shirts, memorabilia, information, history, hiker’s stories, photos, and more.

Downside to the PG Furnace SP is that there’s not much else close by. 

We arrived early (around 2:30 on Saturday, May 9) and realized along the way that there was exactly zero cell service around the park, so missed the entryway to the campground itself (thinking we could rely on an online map to find our site). Trailered the Roomba up a narrow, climbing road for quite a while before finally finding someplace that might allow a turn-around. Did our first “back the trailer to turn around” three-point reverse and it went pretty well. Glad there was no traffic on that skinny road.

Back down that road, and we hit the correct entrance and saw the “campground full” sign but soldiered ahead, finding our reserved spot in short order. Another backing the trailer campaign and we were set up and un-hitched in a snap.

 Ventured out straight away to find some info and spoke to a couple of nice folks in the Visitors Center and got a map of the area, as well as a map of Gettysburg, and chatted about where we might find some groceries. We asked about any nearby Rail Trails, and they told us of one not too far away — a new discovery for us, which we got excited about.

Totally by chance, on one of the maps we saw a “Country Butcher” shop and just had to find it (and maybe a farmer’s market?). We did, and got a couple of very nice steaks that would do for two of our dinners (roquefort butter steaks, anyone?), but the true excitement abounded when we found real Lebanon Bologna. Took home a healthy stack of that PA treasure! 

Unfortunately, it’s still a bit early in the season for the farmer’s markets to be selling anything but plants and starts, so we did not get lucky on that front.

They suggested we head toward Carlisle for groceries and on the outskirts, found a grocery called Nell’s. It was similar to our Food Lion in Floyd, and we got a bunch of stuff to carry us over for meals in PG Furnace SP. Jack also found a package store and we felt it was warm enough to initiate G&T season, so we did.

High on the agenda was Gettysburg Battlefield, so despite predictions of rain and thunderstorms, we loaded the bikes onto the car rack and headed to the town and the battlefield visitor center/museum/etc. Saw the movie and watched the “Cyclorama,” which is a light and sound show built around an enormous oil painting by Paul Philippoteaux, which had been painted close to the time of the battle itself, around 1864-5 (?). It was restored within the last decade, and has found its home in this circular display area where they do a light show to help visitors experience the battle. It’s pretty amazing, and with the movie and the museum, well worth the $11.50 senior citizen discount ticket prices.  

Of course, we were there on Mother’s Day, as were thousands of other folks. So we headed out on our bicycles, parking at the Pennsylvania Monument (all of the states who had soldiers participating at the battle have erected monuments to their fallen and wounded). A body could climb up to a top tier of the monument, which I did, and took some photos of the view.   

   Following the “Auto Tour” signs our day was a 22-mile round of the battlefield, and of course, we took our time (but did not stop at every signpost or historic marker, else we’d be there to this day). In the end, with stops and a picnic lunch we packed along, we were riding about 2 hours, and our Cyclometers registered about equal time stopped along the way, so it was a four-hour bicycling adventure (not including the visitor center sights).   


The rain held off and along the way we saw some totally ridiculous-looking folks on Seg-Way thingies, taking a tour. It was too funny not to take a photo or two.   
I liked seeing the tall monuments with horses against the blue sky, and I took several pix like that, but here are the best.


And of course, we stopped at Virginia’s memorial to its fallen, having (who else?) Robert E. Lee on Traveler as the focal point.    

It was VERY hot and we were getting a bit weary, but after eating our picnic lunch at the Peace Memorial, we climbed up to Little Round Top. One cannot get to Gettysburg Battlefield and not go up to Little Round Top. It would be sacrilege. So glad we did — it was a great spot, even though mobbed with peeps, and hotter than a fry pan up there. But Jack especially wanted to see if he could find the place where a photo of his great grandfather Peter Isenberg was taken a century ago on Little Round Top.    

We might have found it, and Jack wanted to stand about where Mr. Peter I. had stood, and we took a photo. He’s going to do something with his heritage website with them. An incidental find as I scrabbled below the boulders was a lovely patch of columbine clinging to the rocky hillside.

We were very hot and about to run out of water, so when we spied a Weiss Grocery store, we wanted to stop for some Gatorade or juice, and while there, we checked email and called Pat McNamara back home, because he’d reported some problems with our rooster attacking him. He said it really wasn’t a problem, but I told him that roosters were replaceable, and if he felt he needed to take drastic action to keep rooster spurs from imbedding into his calves, it was fine by me. Good old rooster came to me because he was rather aggressive with his prior caretakers, and even though I’ve not had any problems with him, he does, indeed have a history. It was good to speak with Pat and hear that (other than rooster attacks) all is well.

Back at the car, we loaded up and went to find a “restorative” as Jack calls it. In a little while, we sat down in some shade in the town of Gettysburg for an ice cream. Yum.

More on our stay at PG Furnace SP next post –