Day 1: Dude — Where’s my campground?

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Sunday, May 13, 1984

Yorktown to Charles City, Va.
40 miles

Note: I’m republishing my journal from a transcontinental bicycle tour my friend Bruce and I took back in 1984. This tells what bike travel was like 36 years ago. No smart phones, no Garmins, no kevlar tires, no wifi. It took 10 weeks, roughly the length of time many of us have been sequestered at home for the coronavirus pandemic. You’ll see that in many ways, bike travel was similar to today; in other ways it was hugely different. 

Gene’s journal

Our first day on the TransAmerica bicycle route started with butterflies in our stomachs, a flurry of goodbyes, and a frantic search for a campground that no longer existed.

My bicycling buddy Bruce and I unpacked the car at the Yorktown Victory Monument, a park that commemorated the surrender of Gen. Cornwallis at the end of the Revolutionary War. You could say it marked the end of the road for the British, and the beginning for us.

We kissed our significant others — Marie and Becky — goodbye and, having checked the Bikecenntial map one last time, headed out.

It was an inauspicious start. Two minutes later I had us lost at the first turn onto the Colonial Parkway. The route map that I carried on my handlebar pack had written directions for “eastbound” and “westbound.” I, of course, couldn’t make sense of the directional arrows on the map and got us turned around. I decided to sort out the whole map thing later, and simply followed the road signs to Colonial Williamsburg, the next town.

The Colonial Parkway runs between the historic York and James rivers. No trucks. No billboards. Essentially flat. I spent the next few miles trying to get comfortable on my bicycle.

Hard to believe, but I’d only made one training ride with all the gear. Loaded, it handled sluggishly. With front panniers — low-riders — the steering was heavy and the bike wanted to lean. With full rear panniers and a pup tent on the rack, it wanted to sway. I had converted my circa 1977 Fuji “Dynamic 10” into a 15-speed touring bicycle by adding a triple crankset, which gave me problems down the road. (See The Rig I rode in 1984)

We stopped in Williamsburg and consulted the camping guide that accompanied the Bikecentennial maps. Campsites in Charles City. Let’s make the first day an easy 35 miles or so.

Later we stopped in a little wood-frame country store. It was getting late. We asked the cashier, “How far to Charles City?”

“This is Charles City. Charles City County,” she said, displaying a gap-toothed grin.

“But where’s Charles City?”

“The whole place is Charles City,” she offered.

We never did find Charles City City. We pedaled until 6 and still couldn’t find the campground where we had expected to tent that first night. Finally, we stopped at another grocery store and asked about the campground. The cashier said it was right behind the store, but it had been closed for three years. The store owner lived next door, though. He was preparing to take his wife out for Mother’s Day dinner and told us through a crack in the door that we could sleep down the hill from the store for free. He left the men’s room in back of the store open for us all night.

We took everything — everything — out of our panniers. Anything we needed was packed below what we didn’t need. At this point, we felt like very inexperienced, yet very lucky, bike campers.

Bruce and I were in good spirits that night. If the way we overcame our problems today was any indication of how we’d survive the rest of the trip, we had an interesting road ahead of us.

Click for interactive map

Headline: May 13, 1984
Soviet officials in Moscow tell Olympic officials that they’re adamant
about not sending athletes to the Summer Games
in Los Angeles (our eventual destination).

Bruce’s Journal

A tremendous day to leave. By the time we climbed on our bikes at Yorktown, the sun had broken through and the clouds had scattered. Our shakedown course through colonial Williamsburg and along the James and other rivers went off without a hitch. Although I knew it would be difficult saying goodbye to Marie, both she and I, surprisingly, handled it well.

Our first difficulty came at the end of the day. It was getting late and we were riding past the courthouse at Charles City. A woman clerk at a country store six miles before had warned us, “If you blink you’ll miss it.”

We took note, however, because if we were at the courthouse, then we had passed our campsite, supposedly a mile back. Backtracking on a bike is bad enough, but when we got to where we were supposed to be, there was no campground. We tried to call the number from a pay phone at a country store and Bis lost his quarter. Finally, we asked the fellow whose house was behind the country store about the campground, and he informed us that it hadn’t been open for three years.

We explained our situation and he let us stay in his back yard, which, we learned later, was where the old campground had been. His father had started it with 50 sites, and according to his son, “It was a pretty good rig.” But the old man had died and it would have cost too much to maintain it and to “put in recreations and a swimming pool.” So the son closed it up. He couldn’t run a campground and the store, too, he said.

The next morning, he explained that in eight more years his family would have run that store for 100 years. I mentioned that his young son, who gave us the key to the bathroom the night before, could easily make it 150. The man said, “Nah, he’ll never stay around here.”

I bought a package of blueberry Pop Tarts, thanked him again, and we got on the road.

Day 2: Cross-country bike tour’s first roadside attraction — Shirley Plantation

About the picture: Bruce, right, and me at the Yorktown Memorial

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1 comment

1 ping

    • Bruce on July 24, 2020 at 7:52 pm
    • Reply

    Hello, this is Bruce, but a different Bruce. I found this site via a search on the Charles City campground around the time of the Bikecentennial. I look forward to reading more.

    I wanted to mention that in 1979 my riding partner (Mike) and I stayed at the Charles City campground. We were on the back end of a trip that started in Bar Harbor Maine. On that morning, we had started near Kings Dominion in Doswell VA. We rolled up to the general store, paid a small amount, went through a gate if memory serves and … the entire campground was empty. We set up our tent between a couple of wash houses. Later at night we were awakened by the sound of (what turned out to be) a pickup truck coming into the campground. It entered the campground and sat idling for a little while. Then it moved by our campsite (from our right to our left) and continued on and then sat idling for a little while. It then came back by our camp site and exited. I had all kinds of terrible thoughts running through my head, concerned for our safety. But my buddy Mike was unfazed. We finally decided to go out and explore with our Berec headlights. We determined that the truck must have been stopping at the wash houses and replacing the trash can liners. It was a bit of a relief but I’m here to tell you that I was happy to get back on the road for Williamsburg the next morning. We stayed at Anvil Campgrounds at Williamsburg and were surprised by the train coming by in the early a.m. But that’s another story.

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