July 01, 2014 News & Features » Cover Story


Getting Lost 

Four writers take day trips off the beaten path in Virginia. Here's what they discovered.

click to enlarge A roadside stop in Vesuvius: John Henry Campbell, 77, spends and afternoon drinking Budweiser in his front yard.

Ned Oliver

A roadside stop in Vesuvius: John Henry Campbell, 77, spends and afternoon drinking Budweiser in his front yard.


The Water's Edge at Colonial Beach

by Jason Roop

Sooner or later the road ends at the Potomac River. The spur of Route 205 stops where the sand begins, and you'll have to find a place to park.

But not to your left — that's reserved for the American Legion. And to the right, in the lot of the River Edge Inn, you'll be towed if you aren't a paying guest.

That's not to say transportation is an issue. Harley Davidsons are parked next to electric golf carts next to SUVs. And once you're here, you don't need to go far.

"One red lights works," Kathy Arllen says. "Works for me."

She laughs, a trail of smoke drifting up from the cigarette she's holding on the deck of the Riverboat on the Potomac. But it isn't a riverboat. It's a restaurant, bar and dock with keno and off-track betting.

Over the railing, sweaty children are bobbing in the water below. A dog on a leash wades in. Boaters pull up, tying off at the pier and heading in for a beer. A guy with a motor strapped to his back flies across the river, zipping by on a powered paraglider. Everyone stops to watch.

Arllen and Gary Penn, who've been together for five years, have wandered down from their place on Second Street. They see people come and go. And stay.

Penn's grandparents bought a place down on Lawrence Lane in the early 1940s for $750. When they died, he and his brother put heat in, fixed it up and sold it. He and Arllen live about five minutes away from Riverboat. Fredericksburg's a 40-minute drive wast.

"This was a poor man's Atlantic City and Ocean City," Penn says, drink in hand. "Used to be a gambling town a long, long time ago."

The Riverboat's been rebuilt since Hurricane Isabel, whose damage is documented in snapshots on the walls. You're in Westmoreland County, Virginia, a few steps into the place. Once you're standing over water, it's Maryland.

Bets are being laid on the Triple Crown.

"Sherri I love, you! Woo-wooh!" a regular shouts at Sherri Miller, a Goochland County native who's tending the bar, where guests are seated shoulder-to-shoulder, watching the races on the screens behind her.

"It's actually really vibrant in the summertime," says Miller, who's lived here for five years. "You get people from Richmond, you get people from Waldorf, you get people from Woodbridge, Baltimore."

Mike Spruill, a Chesterfield insurance agent, has brought a singles group on an outing. They're waiting on a boat from Potomac River Charters to take them across the water for dinner. Jazmyn Mylez, a 22-year-old who's covered in tattoos, is letting her new pit bull puppy meet strangers on the boardwalk. There are wheelchairs and strollers, families tucked in under the shade of trees. Young couples lying on the sand in the sun.

A parade went through town earlier in the day. Carnival rides are set up. A river festival is underway.

"Your doggie is so cute," says a woman walking by Leslie Ravenell, who's waiting on a pet parade to start. Her dog, Samantha Marie, a bichon frizé who turned 12 yesterday, is wearing a pink dress with pink bows on her ears.

Ravenell and her husband, Richard, are retired federal workers who've lived here for 10 years. They can drive everywhere in their golf cart, there's always something going on and you can't get a bad meal, she says: "We just love living here."

Around the Way

The Bell House Bed and Breakfast: Where you can stay in the former summer home of Alexander Graham Bell. 821 Irving Ave., Colonial Beach. 804-224-7000, thebellhouse.com.

Riverboat on the Potomac: Dining and gambling on the water, straddling Virginia and Maryland. 301 Beach Terrace, Colonial Beach. 804-224-7055, riverboatonthepotomac.com.

James Monroe Birthplace Park and Museum: Take a picnic basket to the park and see the visitors' center about the fifth U.S. president. 4460 James Monroe Highway, Colonial Beach. 804-214-9145, monroefoundation.org.

Ingleside Vineyards: Tastings, tours and award-winning wines. 5872 Leedstown Road, Oak Grove. 804-224-8687, inglesidevineyards.com.

Horne's Restaurant & Gift Shop: A 24-hour diner with classic milkshakes at routes 301 and 17. A gift shop with cheese puffs, sun-catchers and toe rings. "They have a little of everything," a dad in line remarks to his son. Port Royal. 804-742-5743, hornes.com.


The Pamunkey of King William

by Tina Griego

Joyce Krigsvold is working the Sunday shift at the Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center. As far as visitors go, it's quiet, but that's not unusual. The Pamunkey reservation isn't a place situated for passing through. It sits at the end of the road, sprawled on a peninsula that's shaped like the bottom of genie's bottle in a fold of the Pamunkey River.

Richmond lies about 45 minutes west of here, and when people come in off the roads they've taken through the corn fields and forests and marshland, past tiny churches and deer that turn, ears like satellite dishes, toward their cars, they tell Krigsvold: "We thought we must have missed it. We almost turned around."

"A lot of people don't have any idea there is an Indian reservation here," she says. "And that's people from Richmond."

So, it's quiet. Fields, a few houses and trailers, the burial mound of Chief Powhatan — better known to the history-minded or Disney buffs as the father of Pocahontas. "We say we're not really related to her," Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown says. "She's related to us." She was part-Pamunkey, he says. Don't bother trying to enroll as a tribal member based on descent, real or imagined, from her.

On what's left of the once-vast Pamunkey tribal lands sits a Baptist church, the old schoolhouse where Joyce and her older brother studied, the fish hatchery from which the tribe released 2.1 million shad into the river this season.

The schoolhouse is next door to the tourist center, which holds an abundance of artifacts, including a traditional dugout canoe and a former chief's eagle claw necklace. There's a gift shop with pottery and beadwork, and a photo collage of past and present tribal members.

"This is my mother," Krigsvold says, pointing to woman who looks American Indian in the way people might expect only in that she has dark hair and dark eyes. The Pamunkey ancestors spoke an Algonquian dialect. Their descendants may greet visitors with a twinkle of blue eyes and a Virginia accent so melodic and languorous you might be seized by the immediate desire to nap.

Isn't it too quiet, a visitor asks Evangeline Imler, one of the tribal elders. "Too quiet?" she asks, as if the question puzzles her. Then she gives a half-shrug and a half-smile and says she spends a lot of time in her garden.

"Sometimes you wake up and say, 'Man, I want a good pizza,' and then you remember that's 30 miles away," tribal member George Langston says.

It's Langston's mother, Lucille's, 83rd birthday and both Langston and his cousin's 60th — though by Langston's reckoning, 60 in non-Indian years is 29 in Pamunkey years. The birthday party is in full swing in the community room adjoining the tourist center. Langston's nephew's wife tied balloons to driver's side mirror of George's truck, which he drives occasionally into Richmond, where he works as a service tech on industrial equipment.

There's no work here outside the museum, the hatchery and the making of jewelry and pottery. Of the 203 enrolled tribal members, about 75 live on the reservation, many of them elderly. The work force heads out to jobs in construction and business.

"We have a doctor, a member getting a Ph.D. in anthropology, nurses, teachers," says the chief, Brown, who is an artist and part-time construction worker.

When he was a child, the chief spent 10 seasons fishing with his grandfather. Brown returned to the King William County reservation in 1972. A bad back limits his fishing, and he spends most of his time taking care of tribal business, which these days has to do with gaining federal tribal recognition.

People think casino when they hear federal recognition, but the tribe looked into that, Brown says, and the roads couldn't handle the traffic.

No, the way he sees it, federal recognition means health care for tribal members through the Indian Health Service. It means being able to get a mortgage on a house. And it means the reassertion of a people's right to self-governance and the long-overdue acknowledgement of a tiny, semi-sovereign nation rooted in quiet heart of its ancestral land.

Around the Way

Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center: Handcrafted items for sale, artifacts and memories. Call ahead for hours. 175 Lay Landing Road, King William, 804-843-4792.


Speed and Silence in South Boston

by Tom Nash

Over the droning roar of 15 late-model stock cars, concession stand owner Max Hoffman attempts to explain what makes South Boston Speedway special, besides the world famous bologna burgers.

"It's short," he shouts — "and it's cheap."

Nearly 60 years ago, Saturday nights here saw future NASCAR legends such as Richard Petty help birth the Platonic ideal of stock car racing. While the modern, multimillion-dollar sport on television is as interesting as highway traffic to some, South Boston's 0.357-mile oval remains a hotbed of dramatic battles and photo finishes. The amenities and prices are from a simpler time. Ten bucks before race day will get you a seat, $9 more will get you three Bud heavies. Some of its main grandstands are still wooden and badly in need of paint.

The show at the June 7 race night ranges from mild to mesmerizing. The Budweiser Pure Stock class features weekend warriors who put roll cages in whatever beater they have lying around — which means seeing '90s vintage Nissans pushed to their limits. While the stock classes increase in technology, the show becomes more about young talent duking it out for a shot at the big time. The Pro All Stars Series saw Cole Timm, 15, wrestle away the lead on the last of 150 laps, beating out Harrison Burton, a 13-year-old who led for nearly half of his first appearance at the Halifax County track.

As an heir in South Boston's royal family, Burton has great expectations lofted onto his young shoulders. His father, Jeff, went from South Boston Speedway to racing in NASCAR's premier cup series. Harrison's uncle, Ward, won the 2002 Daytona 500, the sport's holy grail. A key to the city soon followed.

While South Boston made its name on the world's loudest sport, its downtown heart is dead quiet on a Sunday afternoon. About two miles from the track, blocks of idyllic brick storefronts on Main Street resemble an abandoned movie set. The only person around is folk artist Stephen Crowder, who sells toothpick and string art from a table on the sidewalk. The pieces depict such scenes as a New York skyline and an extraterrestrial dropping in on his home.

Crowder offers a long explanation about the alien visit, but has little to say about the ghost-town atmosphere. Big tobacco left town in the early '80s, he says, and strip malls diverted business away from Main Street.

But revitalization is underway here, a two-hour drive southwest of Richmond following Route 360 West. Retail is starting to return, and Bistro 1888 has won wide acclaim for its new American dining. South Boston Speedway General Manager Cathy Rice says it's one of the spots she encourages race fans to go visit, as a mix of South Boston's old and new.

"We've got a lot of history here," Rice says. "I think that's what puts us on top of the map."

Around the Way

South Boston Speedway: A racing tradition. Hours and ticket information online at southbostonspeedway.com. 1188 James D. Hagood Highway, 434-572-4947.

Bistro 1888: New American fine dining, open Tuesday-Saturday, 4:30-9:30 p.m. 221 Main St., 434-572-1888.

Smokey River Tavern: No frills barbecue. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. 1076 Huell Matthews Highway, 434-575-8510.

3 Women No Truck: Home decor, local art and candles. Open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. 217-B Main St., 434-575-7000.


The Peaks of Vesuvius

by Ned Oliver

There's some news at Gertie's Country Store, and owner Tammy Collins is thrilled. Last year, she finally got a permit to install a bathroom. Before that, staff and patrons at the remote deli relied on a Port-a-John behind the store.

"That's a big deal here," Collins says.

But aside from the new indoor plumbing, new babies and a few new neighbors, Collins says, not a lot's changed in Vesuvius. The hamlet of about 500, about a two-hour drive west of Richmond, sits just west of a stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains that's marked by frequent, sharp peaks.

Gertie's is famous for its barbecue, and is the center of life in the Rockbridge County town, which otherwise consists of a cluster of houses, an auto parts store and a post office. Somewhat improbably, Route 56, which slowly winds its way up into the ridge, brings in visitors from near and far.

Collins' son, Chris Carpenter, is behind the counter with his mom making hamburgers. He points to the walls, which are covered with signatures and notes from visitors. "Look," he says. "It's pretty incredible."

In a part of the state where roadsides are pocked with abandoned service stations and country stores, the success of Gertie's surprised even Collins, who bought what was then a Gulf Station in 1998.

She started the business with her mom, the store's namesake, Gertie McPherson. "She wasn't too excited about it when we put her name up there," Collins says. "She got used to it. Now I think she likes it OK."

McPherson had just retired from her job at a nearby medical supply factory. Business was good enough that Collins soon had to quit her job at a vinyl siding plant to help tend the store.

Most locals still work in the factories, Collins says. And some used to, like John Henry Campbell, a 77-year-old who spends the day sitting with a friend in his front yard drinking Budweiser. He bought the beverage during a walk to Gertie's, naturally.

"I went to work at the mine when I was 17," he says. "Dad said, 'Now you go to work every morning — you're going to help with groceries.' I liked it, after I got used to driving the dump truck. I never did have a permit.

"The town ain't changed much — same old floozies."

The lack of change has left plenty for visitors to do. Campbell still fishes the South River, where he meets people coming through town. In nearby Raphine, there's a working grist mill, Wade's, which still produces mighty fine grits, he says. And there's a campground that caters to hikers.

Raphine is about a 10-minute drive away and sits just off Interstate 81 — a position that's left it less sheltered than its neighbor.

A national chain gobbled up the once legendary White's Truck Stop, and the local diner inside was transformed into an Iron Skillet. The owner's legendary collection of firearms, once displayed prominently, are gone.

Betty Jarvis, 85, started waitressing there when she was 18. She says the new owners laid her off.

"The White's were awful nice people that owned it," she says. "The new people, they got rid of all us older people."

She still keeps busy, though, running around with her boyfriend, who's 63.

She goes up to Clark's Dance Hall every Friday night for the bluegrass dance. "It's country music and it's not too far," she says.

Collins, back at Gertie's, also is a regular at the dance.

"It's only a $5 donation to get in and you bring a little dish or soda or chips so people can have a snack or something to eat. And then, around 10:30 or 11 it's over with.

"We live in a nice area." S

Around the Way

Gertie's Country Store: Famous for barbecue and the only source of beer and cigarettes in Vesuvius. 563 Tye River Turnpike.

Wade's Mill: A working grist mill, producing grits, corn meal and flour. 55 Kennedy Wades Mill Loop.

Crabtree Falls: Well-known, scenic hike about 5 miles out of town. 11581 Crabtree Falls Highway, Route 56.

Clark's Ole Time Music Center: A lumber company by day, on Friday nights the place is transformed into a music haven. Dancing starts at 7:30. 1288 Ridge Road.



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