Days 18-19/ Mar 16th-17th – Bedford, VA to Salem, VA: The Great Wagon Road

Winding road near Troutville

The winding road near Troutville

We spent the last two days skirting around the city of Roanoke, where we turn south-west to follow the route of the Great Wagon Road, which ran from Philadelphia through Virginia to what is now North Carolina and Georgia, taking intrepid settlers and tobacco farmers to the back country in the 18th century.  It’s better known today as Interstate 81, and we’ll be following it, at a safe distance, out of Virginia during the next fortnight.  We felt strongly a sense of walking in the footsteps of those hopeful 18th-century pioneers as we trudged south-west, albeit with more bottles of Vitamin Water than they probably had room for and more frequent stops at McDonald’s to steal their wi-fi.

On the way out of Bedford we passed under the pointy hill-tops of the Peaks of Otter, three mountains of which Jefferson once wrote that they “are thought to be of a greater height, measured from their base, than any others in our country, and perhaps in North America.”  Never having seen the Rockies, he can be forgiven for the error, but it’s an interesting reminder of how much of America remained completely unexplored even 200 years after its settlement by Europeans.

We had lunch in a village called Montvale, at a little hilltop diner called Nana’s; it was no less than four miles further away than the occasionally mendacious Google Maps had indicated, and so by the time we trudged in we were ready to eat Nana herself if necessary.  Fortunately, it offered about fifty variations on a theme of ham, eggs and hash browns, so the need didn’t arise.  Nana’s was, fittingly, full of elderly diners, several of whom walked over to our table to tell us that they had driven past us walking out on the highway, and weren’t we cold?  We explained to them about our walk, whereupon one twinkly-eyed, white-haired man announced loudly across the diner:

“They’re walking across the United States, everyone!  How ‘bout that?”

We were mortified, but there was no need to be – half of the clientele were stone deaf, and the other half were glued to The View on a large TV in the corner, and not a soul so much as looked in our direction.

We spent most of the rest of the day off the highway, in the rural calm of Mountain Pass Road, walking along the edge of the George Washington National Forest.  The road passed under the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic road that runs for 500 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains and which is, by virtue of the number of people who drive down it, the most visited national park in America.  I scrambled up onto it for a look and saw plenty of rustling pine trees but not a single car.  I seized the opportunity to micturate into a nearby bush, noticing as I did that the grass verges were strewn with beer cans, mostly of a brand called ‘Natural’.

The Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway

We spent the night in a small town with the unimprovable name of Troutville, lying between Interstate 81 and Route 11.  Route 11 is very important in our future; it runs south-west through the foothills of the Blue Ridge, all the way to the border with Tennessee.  For its entire length it shadows Interstate 81, which effectively replaced it and, mercifully for us, siphons off the vast majority of traffic from it.  It means that we’re able to walk on a road with the direct straightness (and, just as importantly for us, the motels and restaurants) of a major highway, but with the quietness and safety of a quiet rural road.  It’s the transcontinental walkers’ equivalent of stumbling upon a short-cut that shaves ten minutes off your morning commute.

Downtown Salem

Downtown Salem

The next day was Saint Patrick’s Day and so, just for the craic, we walked fourteen more miles to Salem – not the famous witch-burning one, sadly (though who knows what these Baptists get up to?) but a sleepy, charming little college town on the outskirts of Roanoke.  There was a proper little downtown district, rather than the slightly denser-than-usual cluster of strip malls that marks the centre of many American small towns, and, almost unprecedentedly, people were walking along the pavement from shop to bank to restaurant rather than driving as we’ve seen everywhere else.  Who says the spirit of the frontier is dead?

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