Tag Archives: roadtrip

Asheville: driving home via Charlottesville

Sunday came too soon. I gave my conference paper, changed into more comfortable clothes, and we were on our way.

Even though we were taking a quicker route of main roads, the first hour or so out of Asheville was still beautiful, as we drove through some of the eastern ridge of the Blue Mountains, into Tennessee briefly, and down again to Johnson City. We took the I-81 back to Fort Chiswell and from there we were retracing our steps. But we weren’t done with sightseeing yet.

On the way down we had been intent on getting to the Blue Mountains, but now we had a bit of time to stop for a much-needed break at an attraction near Roanoke called the Natural Bridge. The weather wasn’t great, but we still enjoyed our little walk down a gorge to see the ‘bridge’. It’s even possible to walk underneath it, or sit and take in a lecture about the natural wonder – or a sermon…


Past the bridge there are various nature walks and things to see, including a recreation of a native American village. We figured that this was probably one of those places that Virginian school children get taken to on geography and history school trips.


Jefferson once owned the land that included the natural bridge, and he began the custom of a guest book that the Virginia State Park authorities keep up to this day. As we learnt about the bridge we became aware that we had maybe seen paintings of it before – maybe at Monticello? I’m not sure.

Talking of Monticello, we had decided that we might as well drive home via Charlottesville and have dinner there. This probably wasn’t the most time-efficient idea, but we hadn’t felt that we had enough time at Charlottesville the last time we were there (I’ll write about this trip another time), and we had been thinking about it ever since. It has a really nice downtown mall (which we would call a pedestrianized high-street in the UK), with lots of really nice places to eat.

So we went for dinner at Bizou in Charlottesville, and it was lovely. After a few days of brew pubs, it was a nice contrast, and we loved the decor. Some of the tables were old-style diner booths with the old juke-box selectors at the table, and the walls were covered in framed old movie posters – I especially liked the one for The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. It was the kind of place that, if you lived in the town, you’d take people there all the time.

But, sadly, we didn’t live in Charlottesville, so we had a 2.5 hour drive home! It was a busy long weekend, but we were happy we’d managed to cram in as much as we had.

(And just in case you thought you’d escaped the country music this time – here are two of our favourite tracks from this trip!)

(Do read the comments on You Tube – predictably, she comes in for some criticism from Christians!)

I think the basic inspiration for this is One Man went to Mow…

Read other posts in this series:

Asheville road trip: the Blue Ridge Mountains

You can drive to Asheville, NC, from DC in roughly 7 and a half hours. That decided the matter – rather than flying, I would enlist R as a co-driver and we would take the Thursday to drive down to my conference, via the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Departing from the interstate and winding our way along the Blue Ridge Parkway obviously added a few hours to the journey time, so we started early and left DC before the morning rush. In about four hours we were having an early lunch (at a Chik fil A just outside of Roanoke, VA), and then it was on to the Blue Mountain Parkway. We came off I-81 at Fort Chiswell and found the Parkway from there, after driving through some tiny Appalachian towns with great names like Independence and Sparta.


Very soon we realised that the Blue Ridge Mountains are far wilder, bigger, and higher than those that make up the range around Shenandoah. The parkland was also more varied, with more dwellings and communities visible in the form of rather ramshackle houses and farms. The valley the interstate runs through had already shown itself to be pretty poor, full of trailer homes and scantily clothed children – a rural poverty that made me think of that drawn by Barbara Kingsolver, of families struggling to pay the bills. It was also full of evangelical churches – some in the valley had been huge modern buildings like airplane hangers, but the ones in the mountains were smaller, some quite ramshackle, and with traditional white spires.

As we wound along the parkway we gained ground steadily and were soon higher up than we had ever been on the East Coast. The mountains were truly blue and smoky looking, but once we were in them there was no sign of smoke or vapour. Apparently the blue haze is caused by isoprene, released into the atmosphere by the trees.



We were lucky that as much of the parkway was open as it was – a few weeks before many stretches had been closed because of snow, and we kept seeing the remnants of snow piles on the side of the road and on the tops of mountains. Unfortunately though, the road around Mount Mitchell, the highest peak on the East Coast (at 6,684 feet) was still closed and we had to drop down and rejoin main roads to finish our trip to Asheville.

Read the next posts in this series:



Conference in Asheville? Roadtrip!

My travel blog and my academic blog are colliding!

This weekend I’m engaging in what I have heard derided as ‘academic tourism’. While I am committed to the conference’s mission of bringing together people from different, though related, disciplines to talk about the nineteenth century, the fact that it’s being held in Asheville, NC, might have been the decisive factor that made me apply.

Asheville is one of those places that everyone has told us to visit. It’s apparently an interesting, hipster town, full of art and craft breweries. Sadly I don’t think New Belgium has fully opened their new Asheville plant yet, but it doesn’t look like we will be short of alternatives.

I looked into a few travel options, but the cheapest by far was to hire a car and drive. It’s only about 7 hours from DC(!) Luckily it didn’t take much to convince R to join me, so we can share the driving. We’re also taking a slightly longer, scenic route so we can check out some of the Blue Ridge Parkway on the way. There might also be a stop at Chik fil A…

I’m looking forward to this conference, and we’re both looking forward to being back on the road again!

Read the next instalment of this road trip blog: Asheville road trip: the Blue Ridge Mountains



Arriving in Chicago was exhilarating. We’d spent two weeks on the road, in mostly small towns, and before that 18 months in the low-rise, chilled, southern-style city of DC. It had been a while since we’d been in a proper city, walking at that proper city pace, dodging other pedestrians in the deep corridors between glass skyscrapers. As soon as we arrived we realized we liked it better than New York – just as much excitement, but less attitude.

We arrived with a list of places to see and pizza to try – this was tourism Chicago style. Many of our recommendations came from the new friends we’d met at the New Belgium and Great Divide Breweries, who turned out to live in Chicago. Others were from a friend who had done a pizza tour when she had visited – I guess the same one Brown Bear Travels wrote about last week: http://brownbeartravels.com/2016/01/24/a-long-weekend-in-chicago-part-2/

However, we only had one night and a day before our flight home, so this was to be a bit of a flying visit.

As time was at a premium we stayed in Chicago downtown district known as the Loop, in the ultra-modern, very urban Central Loop Hotel. I imagine that, to some, the convenient and compact rooms could seem a bit small, but we’re Londoners at heart, and we were only using the room for sleeping. We could walk everywhere we wanted to go, just using the metro to get to the airport.

By the time we arrived we were pretty exhausted, but we decided on a quick walk around, followed by cocktails at Palmer house and pizza at Giordanos. I was very excited to see the Chicago ‘L’, especially its actual ‘El’evated parts (for info on the correct terminology see the Chicago Tribune)

The ‘L’ – I kept thinking of scenes from The French Connection

The Palmer House is one of Chicago’s oldest hotels (its first incarnation was built in 1871, but the current building dates from the 1920s, and its been a Hilton since the forties). Its main claim to fame is a beautiful lobby ceiling, which you can see while enjoying a cocktail at their extensive bar.


The cocktails were less impressive, but they certainly helped with the exhaustion. There was definitely something nice about spending too much money at a cocktail bar at the end of our long roadtrip through western wildernesses and small-town America. It was a far cry from the local bars of Greybull…

Giordano’s in the Loop did not immediately fill us with joy. It was a bit of a tourist trap, and we were discouraged from buying wine due to the extortionate prices being charged for bottles. However, the deep-dish pizza exceeded my expectations. I think I only tried deep dish in the UK once – one of those frozen ones, probably ‘Chicago Town’. I remember we accidentally burnt it, so the overly sweet tomato sauce had a bitter edge to it, and the dough was hard and tasteless. This was completely different, with delicious sauce and plenty of cheese at the base.


Our second day in Chicago dawned grey, chilly and threatening rain. Still we didn’t let that stop us exploring the lake front and Millennium park; in fact we quite enjoyed the edge on Chicago’s famous breeze. The city looked really great from the lakeside, and we imagined how much fun it might be to live in this city, especially during the summer months. By the time we got to the children’s park we’d almost decided to move to the city and start a family!

Sadly we didn’t have time for the gallery, which looked amazing (and was free for children). But we wandered the gardens nearby and enjoyed the sculptures. I loved Cloud Gate especially.


Our one bad experience in Chicago was the Willis tower. For a start, we couldn’t get over how arrogant you have to be to rename the Sears Tower… That aside, we had been advised that if you wanted a good view without paying for the ‘SkyDeck experience’, you could go to the floor below, which housed the bar; as long as you bought a drink you could enjoy the view for free.

I don’t know whether too many people had given out this advice, or if the staff in charge this day were just incompetent, but the bar was overcrowded to dangerous levels. When we walked in we were greeted by two lines – one, about two rooms’ lengths long, for the bar, the other, snaking around the entire floor, for the elevator to get down again. At this point I started to get panicky. We didn’t have long to spend here, as we had to go get our luggage, catch the metro and go and catch our flights. We decided it wasn’t worth queuing for drinks – by the time we’d waited in the line for the elevator we would have had our fill of the view which, though impressive, wasn’t the best on this very grey day. So we waited, and waited, and were finally released from the tower.

Happily, my main memory from that day though is the pizza we found at Pizzano’s. We went to the one north of the river, just off the Magnificent Mile, which was far less touristy than the Giordano’s we’d been at the night before. We got there pretty early for lunch so didn’t have to wait too long, and fell in love with the classic old Italian restaurant interior. Again, bottles of wine seemed ridiculously over-priced (is it something to do with local tax?), so we got glasses – it was lunch time after all… But it was the pizza that wowed us the most. The base was more like pastry than dough, and utterly delicious. It also had far more rich, Italian tomato sauce on top than Giordano’s.

We were able to fly back from Chicago, happy in the knowledge that we had managed to cram in two pizza experiences, despite our short stay. Overall, the city gave us a great ending to an amazing trip.

Western road trip: Devil’s Tower and the way to Yellowstone


There was one more thing we wanted to see before Yellowstone, and that was Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. Annoyingly, it was rather closer to Deadwood than we would have liked – meaning we would have to do our sightseeing before our long drive of the day, rather than after (our perfect rhythm for driving days was 2 hours driving, breakfast, @4 hours driving, sightseeing, then a final 1-2 hours driving to our destination).

Happily we were able to make a bit of progress before breakfast, turning up in Sundance WY to a really nice and friendly cafe (Bigby’s on the square – if you get the chance to go, do try their sausage biscuits and gravy!) in time for a good breakfast.

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We could see Devil’s Tower way before we got there – soaring straight up into the blue sky. We were under the impression that it was a giant volcanic plug, but we discovered when we got there that it could also be some other volcanic feature but, because of its age and possible erosion, we might never know for sure. What was clear though was that this area has always been a sacred site for native Americans – personal testimonies of going to the Devil’s Tower for hunting parties were published on plaques around the tower, and prayers and offerings fluttered from trees.

For most of our walk around the base of the ‘tower’ though, we were mainly freaked out by the knowledge that rattle snakes frequented the area. We already knew about this, and had seen the signs warning people not to approach snakes, but we still had the fright of our lives when we actually came face to face with one.

At the time we had no idea whether the snake was venomous or not. All I knew was that as I followed R, I looked to the side of the path and saw, behind a tree trunk, not a foot from R’s feet, the loose coil of a huge, camouflaged snake. Its head rose and it looked quizzically at me. I didn’t quite scream, but R certainly knew I’d seen something. I told him to go ahead – quickly – before telling him (as I backed away) what I could see. I’ve never been that close to a snake without a strong pane of zoo glass between us, and it was almost shocking to realize that they’re just out here, slithering around. Luckily, the snake seemed to just want to cross the path, so we waited for it to do this at its own pace and, as it slid quietly into the grass on the other side, I rushed to rejoin R.

Turns out, it was a bull snake – so not venomous at all. At the time we were too scared to take photos or videos, however, luckily we’re not the only ones to encounter this snake. These Youtube videos from two years ago seem to be of exactly the same snake!

Anyway, we made it around the tower unscathed – with just one more sight of what I think was definitely a rattle snake, curled up on top of a rock a little way away from the path. The views were spectacularly beautiful: a green valley swept down from the trees surrounding the hill, and everything seemed golden in the autumn sunshine. But then it was back to the car and on to our next destination.


We had changed plans the night before and instead of planning a route to Cody, on the edge of Yellowstone, we’d been attracted by the small town of Greybull and an independent motel there. It was slightly further from the park than Cody, but that would give us more flexibility in terms of breaking for lunch etc. So R drove us back onto I-90 and we drove for about four hours.

Selections from our driving music – nods to what I think of as more trad. country today:

Buffalo WY was a nice little town to break our journey – we stocked up on water and gas (and some much needed fruit), and grabbed sandwiches in a cafe/gift shop.

But the real surprise of the day for me was Bighorn National Forest. It was just so beautiful. I don’t know if it was just that we were driving through it at the ‘golden hour’ – we’ve arrived at so many beautiful places just as evening was coming on, but everything seemed defined: the colours of the hills and trees warm against the sharp shadows of cliffs. Again I felt it had that wild and sacred atmosphere I’d felt at Devil’s Tower. I almost expected to see Native Americans hunting in these hills, and felt again how wrong it had been to take this land away from them. Now, as the owner of our motel informed us, these hills provide recreation and hunting for the people of Greybull and other nearby towns.

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After the bright lights of Deadwood, Greybull seemed very quiet, and small. Our motel backed onto the railroad tracks, across which was very little indeed. And when we walked to find a restaurant, we found that the town petered out pretty quickly. But we found somewhere to eat, then headed to bed early, excited to be heading into Yellowstone the next day.