A Rainy Excursion To Virginia


After the inaugural outing in my 2006 Z4 3.0i two weeks ago, I couldn’t wait for another opportunity to get back out in the wilderness for more touring. This past Sunday, despite an iffy weather outlook, I headed for Virginia and another of Dale Coyner’s Motorcycle Journeys Through the Appalachians recommendations. As a result of some 4th of July partying the day (and night) before, I didn’t get as early a start as I normally shoot for, but soon enough I was heading for Route 211 to Sperryville, where my excursion would begin.

Approaching the town, I was delighted by the sights despite the heavy overcast and steady light rain. Everywhere I looked, there were scenes like this one, with the mountains only just visible in the clouds.

Perhaps because of the overcast skies, my Zumo GPS was once again misbehaving and generally refusing to acquire any satellites. Boy, the old-fashioned way of navigating (by written instructions) is quite a nuisance! Nonetheless, I arrived at Sperryville without difficulty and found it to be a beautiful little town:

Nearby, I spotted this rustic footbridge over a decidedly shallow stream.

As I moved on toward Barboursville, I made a slight side trip to find the Graves’ Mountain Lodge–and, with Herr Zumo still napping, I promptly got lost. With the voices of my motorcycling buddies all sounding in my head, saying “Getting lost is a good thing,” I happily turned onto Mountain Breeze Lane and found it to be a gravelly, two-track path to Largely Nowhere. It brought back fond memories of my BMW R1200GS adventures, however, and the Z4 did a credible job negotiating the bumpy terrain. There were a few cabins in evidence, but my favorite spot was this plank bridge:

Eventually, with a helping of dumb luck, I saw a Graves’ Mountain Lodge van drive by, so I turned and followed it. Before long the Lodge itself appeared, looking friendly and welcoming (if a little long in the tooth).

The front porch offered a tempting row of rocking chairs and a pleasant, mist-enshrouded view…

…and inside there were nice dining rooms, game rooms, etc., as well as…

…evidence that the Lodge is probably not on PETA’s list of preferred vacation spots!

Out back were various cabins, farm houses, swimming pools, etc., plus the Mother of All Foundering Barns, complete with years worth of cast-off fixtures, furniture, unidentifiable mechanical bits, and so on that had been, uh, carefully stored within.

You know, even with the top up, a Z4 roadster is a handsome machine.

With minor difficulty, I found my way back to 231, a.k.a. the Blue Ridge Turnpike, and soon arrived in Madison. Downtown Madison featured a majestic courthouse (built in 1829 but currently under wraps for renovation), the stately Linn Banks Masonic Lodge (dating back to 1855), and a number of nice-looking historic dwellings.

Just outside of town, not all the houses were quite as stately. This one was actively lived in, and Fido promptly came outside to investigate the impertinent fellow driving a motorcycle with training wheels. (He proved to be quite friendly and seemed anxious to go for a ride in a convertible.)

Now, some of you may know why Barboursville, VA, is important. No, not the Barboursville Winery! The ruins of former Governor Barbour’s mansion is the right answer! Okay, I’ll admit that YMMV, and in fairness there were easily 50 cars parked outside the winery versus my sole vehicle at the mansion ruins. Regardless of one’s preferences in this choice, the mansion had clearly been an incredible place. It was built in 1814, from Thomas Jefferson’s design, and sadly burned on Christmas Day in 1884. While all of the wood was gone, the brick walls remained. Note the columns at the back of the house (matched by identical columns at the front), the four tall chimneys, and (if you look carefully) the octagonal room immediately behind the back columns.

Here’s a closer view of the octagonal room, which extended through all three stories (counting the basement):

While visitors are not allowed inside the ruins, it was possible to look through the windows to the interior. The place was striking and wonderful and far more interesting than modern wines (but my prejudice is showing again…)

The mansion also featured 3 fireplaces per chimney–one on each floor–for a total of at least 12 fireplaces altogether. Could it be that the numerous fireplaces contributed to the disastrous 1884 fire?

Here’s the official front of the mansion. Notice the earthen mound leading up to the front entranceway, rather than the more usual steps. This was apparently a common feature of Jefferson designs.

The view from the mansion ruins to the winery was also quite nice. Given the crowd in the winery parking lot, I didn’t stop in. But it was clearly a very popular place.

I reluctantly continued on from Barboursville, in view of the lateness of the day, my lack of any lunch, and the numerous additional miles to be traveled. Soon I arrived at Montpelier, the home of the country’s 4th President, James Madison, and his irrepressible wife Dolly. Although I wanted to tour the gardens, I decided to postpone doing so since it was raining quite steadily at this point. (In my smugness at having a warm, dry convertible to tour in, I completely neglected to bring a coat, umbrella, or any other sort of rain gear. Nuts–I’ve become spoiled by creature comforts already!) I settled for a picture of the Montpelier train station:

About 10 years ago, some Montpelier researchers and renovators found a small cabin in the woods nearby, completely overgrown with bushes and vines. They learned that it had been the home of George Gilmore, who was born a slave at Montpelier in about 1810, was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, and built the cabin in 1872. It has since been restored and is now open to the public.

A little further up the road was the town of Orange, complete with scenic railroad station…

…and nifty old-fashioned Coca Cola advertisement, among other features.

Outside of Orange, I discovered my most favorite part of the trip: the tiny town of Rapidan, VA. Somewhat surprisingly, Rapidan wasn’t mentioned in Dale Coyner’s description of the route–I guess he wanted us to find it on our own and to be pleased with ourselves for having done so. Regardless, it was a real treat. The town dates back to the 1700s and was originally called Waugh’s Ford, and later “Rapid Ann Station.” The imposing Waddell Memorial Presbyterian church on the outskirts of town was my first clue that something special was going on. It was built in 1874 and is considered the finest example of “carpenter’s gothic” architecture in Virginia.

Nearby was this massive mill, which sat vacant for about 40 years before recently being converted to generate electricity. The mill sits on the Rapidan River (naturally), which runs smack through the middle of the historic district.

This gateway was at the far right of the dam, and it looked to be in serious need of several little Dutch boys to plug the various leaks…

Across the street were the mill master’s house, from 1774, and this elegant one-room schoolhouse, from 1887.

I met a couple out for a stroll around their neighborhood, and they helpfully mentioned that the schoolhouse was probably unlocked and that I was welcome to go inside and look around. It was, and I did, finding original desks, books, lamps, writing slates, and even a schoolbell.

Looking down the Rapidan River presented yet another nice view, including a tall church tower in the distance.

Motoring on, I completed all of another 0.3 mile before I stopped again to tour the other half of Rapidan, including the aforementioned church, which proved to be the Emmanuel Episcopal Church (also built in 1874–apparently much of Rapidan was destroyed during the Civil War, requiring a lot of rebuilding thereafter).

Also on display was the train station…

…and the world’s most dilapidated caboose! I have no idea what’s keeping this poor caboose from collapsing into a pile of boards and rust. Long may it stand!

Although I’ve not explored Virginia to the same extent as Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, it’s quite clear that the state offers every bit as much history as I’ve run into elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic area. A good example on this trip was Cedar Mountain, quietly standing in the distance and minding its own business–and the scene of dramatic fighting early in the Civil War, when two of Robert E. Lee’s top commanders–Stonewall Jackson and A.P. Hill–repulsed an invasion from the Union troops led by John Pope. To rally his retreating men and prevent a rout by the Union forces, Jackson himself charged directly at Pope’s forces, sword held high–complete with its scabbard, since the two were rusted together! Jackson later cited this battle as his proudest moment in the Civil War. There’s relatively little evidence of the battlefield these days, but it was an important milestone at the time and helped turn the early tide of the war in the Confederates’ favor. More information is available at Battle of Cedar Mountain.

On my way back toward civilization, I encountered the quaint little Divine Life Full Baptist Church. It’s not every day that you see a mustard-colored church, but it was attractive nonetheless.

For that matter, abandoned churches are not all that common, either–but this one appeared to have suffered such a fate. A shame, too, as it’s a handsome stone church in an attractive setting just south of Culpeper on route 522. It was sad to see the deteriorating shutters and vines withering on the outside with forgotten flowers withering inside as well.

I put the top down on the Z4 and drove on into Culpeper, which looked to be well worth a visit; by now, however, I was running seriously late. I motored on, passing the tiny towns of Griffinsburg, Boston, Scrabble, and Fletcher’s Mill. Converging back to Sperryville, I somehow ended up on an unintended back road–and encountered the ruins of a tannery in the process.   Or, at least, that’s what a local resident thought it used to be, dating back to the 1930s.

With rain starting to fall again, I reluctantly stopped to put the top back up. Man, it was impossible to stop anywhere in this part of Virginia without finding more things to take pictures of!

Eventually I reached Front Royal and set off to find the Front Royal Junction–thinking that there might be another scenic railroad station there. If there ever was one, there’s nothing left of it now, but I had fun bouncing over the various train tracks that form the junction. With one more planned destination left before heading for home, I drove in the direction of my old friend, the Shenandoah River. The river, in contrast to some of my other goals, was pretty hard to miss.

I had heard rumors of a low-water bridge over the Shenandoah near Front Royal, and by golly there is one. Morgan’s Ford Road / Route 641 happily goes right across the river via a low, narrow, and quite weathered little bridge. It looked as though it had been underwater on more than one occasion, but it still supported the weight of the Z4 just fine.

After crossing over, I continued a short distance, turned around, and recrossed the bridge. During one of its rare moments of lucidity, the Zumo managed to record the event–although, in this picture, I’m approaching the bridge from the north but the Zumo shows me having already crossed it! It somehow reminds me of the British couple who were relying on their GPS and drove right into a river, where a bridge used to be…

After Morgan’s Ford, I returned to Catonsville via I-66, the Washington Beltway, and I-95. The total distance for the trip was 355 miles (the Z4 odometer) or 257 miles (the intermittently drowsy and distracted Zumo), and the elapsed time was about 11 hours. The Z4 managed 31 mpg overall, which isn’t bad for a vehicle that weights six times as much as my R1200GS, which got 46 mpg. I thoroughly enjoyed the tour, despite the fairly steady rain during most of it, and I’m looking forward to returning to see Montpelier and Culpeper properly. And for all of you champions of Virginia, I have to agree–it’s a beautiful and interesting state.

Rick F.


Written by Rick

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