Some roads discovered far from home reward us with a once in a lifetime driving experience. Others are old friends revisited to elevate our spirits and celebrate the joy of life behind the wheel.
With interstates fading in the rear view mirror and blue highways taking their place, complex pinks and oranges paint the sky as the sinking sun of the fading afternoon ushers my driving day to a close. As I descend from Virginia’s Skyline Drive, my journey comes to rest in the bucolic embrace of Nelson County, Virginia. Tomorrow promises to be sunny and unseasonably warm as I seek a taste of the car culture of the Shenandoah Valley.
Taking the Skyline Drive to explore the dusty attic of Virginia car culture
Exiting at the southern end of Virginia’s Skyline Drive and proceeding down the east face of the Blue Ridge Mountains introduces a beautiful tangle of serpentine two-lanes, some paved, some gravel. Welcome to Nelson County.
Delivering a delightful shock to a bored suburban driver’s system, Nelson County possesses a wealth of wonderful roads and a dearth of stop lights. The whole of Nelson County contains exactly one (yes, 1) traffic light.
For those of us whose daily driving environment consists of thoroughfares that, for the most part, resemble a transposed graph paper grid, which is what they basically are, the whole of this region of Virginia pretty much presents itself as a Disney World for people who fantasize about driving on one grand “Tail of the dragon.” Great roads with character and curves, old barns, abandoned buildings, and, it is said, lots of nice stuff tucked away and cared for.
Recreation and agriculture in the form of logging and vineyards dominate the area. No belching factories here. Rich in history as well, historically significant Civil War sites populate the area as does the shadow of Thomas Jefferson with Monticello and the University of Virginia in close proximity.
For enjoying Skyline Drive, summer with its lush foliage and autumn with its spectacular colors seems the no-brainer choice for a visit. That said, should one chose to tour in winter, the roads unless closed because of snow, offer a sparse beauty unavailable in other seasons. With trees free of leaves and roads free of tourists, stunning vistas otherwise hidden in high season exist aplenty. Gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains Virginia’s Skyline Drive offers a very tasty driving appetizer to enjoy prior to the Blue Ridge Parkway entre.
Wherever you drive on these narrow mostly shoulderless country roads, folks outside their homes that dot a terrain defined by fields and forest wave and, unlike my home state, New Jersey, they wave with all the fingers on one hand. Indeed, the locals exhibit a down-home country openness that causes one to pause and wish it caught on elsewhere.
If one chooses to start the day with no itinerary, an eager curiosity and a full tank of gas or electrons, discoveries await for those in no rush to find them. On this day the blue highways did not disappoint.
While enjoying an easy cruise through a forested stretch, an opening within the trees revealed an abandoned service station. Exploring behind the “high security” torn and flapping tarp where a bay door once existed revealed a passage way to two more bays. Despite the stacked mounds of tires it did not take long to identify a heavily dust covered 60s Camaro. Old plates showed it to have been in residence for quite a while.
At a quiet intersection a rusted and dilapidated 1957 Chevy Bel Air sat askew and forlorn. Not a part remained that could be used. But there it rested, too worthless to save to precious to junk. Dust to dust.
To the side of a dirt farm road, a long forgotten early 1950s Plymouth Savoy clearly fared the worst in a face off with a falling tree. A sunny field on Rt. 151 appeared to be where, years back, 1952 two-door Fords went to die.
Earlier in the morning a glance to the right revealed an expansive meadow where an agrarian windmill towered over the rusted remains of a trio of hulks from the 1930’s and 40s. For the uninitiated, one or two of the carcasses could spark the tinder of restoration dreams. For those possessing restoration history and the skinned knuckles to prove it, wisdom would counsel to keep on driving.
However, simply looking would not satisfy the hunger for a backstory. Further investigation demanded turning onto the gravel driveway that lead to a sturdy fieldstone structure surrounded by an eclectic array of once useful items sadly past their “use by” date.
Gravel crackling beneath the tires drew into view from behind the open back hatch of a 2002 Ford Explorer the man who called this home. Sporting a badly weathered narrow brim cowboy hat, with a lined face worthy of a Dorothea Lange portrait and the animated presence of comedian Professor Irwin Corey, 62-year old David Matheny could not have been more welcoming. Approaching, he offered an easy grin accompanied by a firm and honest handshake.
Resident of this verdant valley his whole life, David spoke with an energetic ease about himself, friends, family and cars. When asked if those rusted hulks belonged to him he responded, “They are for sale.”
Learning that the interested expressed focused on their value as for a story, he asked, “If you are interested in cars want to see some more?” Absolutely shot back the reply.
Directing me inside the stone structure, he opened a door to a garage containing a very clean burgundy 1940 Ford coupe and a 1939 International panel truck in primer that had been a hearse for a local church years back. Having found common ground and
a ready listener, David held forth on stories including a family classic involving a 1931 model roadster that his father had raced over sixty years ago. It remained in the family and presently resided at his nephew’s speed shop undergoing a restoration. Time sped on and David had people to meet. The sound of gravel crunching under departing tires marked the end of a wonderful history lesson.
For some it can be disquieting to have the rapid passage of time abruptly brought to one’s attention e.g. discovering that a car you personally drove when new now merits being judged at Hershey by the AACA. Much the same can be said for forty and fifty-year old future collectibles spotted in fields and under canopies. They too can be found moldering in the verdant hills of Virginia. Interestingly, they now include a distinctively foreign flavor.
While making a steep climb in Nelson County a causal glance down to the valley below revealed a field with a decidedly European flair. Exposed to the elements, a Type 1 VW pick-up and two faux Porsche 914s slowly oxidized. Apparently left for dead, the VW pickup generated an especially strong lingering desire to find some way down that steeped ravine.
Meandering vigilantly, can enrich a blue highway experience that others, not predisposed to savor, might blow by like a subway between stops. That said, all worthy discoveries are not the exclusive province of interesting vehicles alone. People and places greatly enrich the blue highway experience.
Cruising along through the town of Schuyler brought a Model T pickup into view and with it the home of author Earl Hamner. Strike a bell? He wrote Spencer’s Mountain which television turned into “The Waltons.” Next door to Hamner’s home and across the street from the Walton’s museum could be found a handsome Bed & Breakfast displaying a period correct 1931 Model.
Conversations with local folks always explores the names of knowledgeable car enthusiasts with whom to speak. One name, Dick Carroll, came up with regularity. Reaching out resulted in a meeting with Dick and his friend Don Vey, both retired. Dick and Don possess a real fascination for special interest automobiles. A number of years back Don pursued his passion by diving head first into full restorations.
He first focused on a 1938 Buick and subsequently moved on to 1949 Baby Lincolns which came in three models, 2 Door Coupe, 4-Door Sedan and Convertible. He has one of each. He intends to recreate each as a pristine restomod. The Coupe has been completed. Built from 1949 to 1951, Baby Lincolns shared their basic body style with the Mercury of that period. What made it a Lincoln came from the firewall forward. Dick’s plan for putting his stamp on the baby Lincolns calls for a high performance power train. All three will have Corvette LS motors.
Beyond his own cars Dick has a grander vision. He appreciates not only his vehicles but those of a wealth of classic car enthusiasts in the surrounding area. To celebrate those like-minded individuals he hosts a car show on his property that looks like a mini-Amelia Island. This will be his seventh show. Covid cancelled last year.
Don Vey enjoys a vintage car history starting in the early fifties. Over the years he has owned and restore a wide array of classic cars starting with a 1957 Corvette he bought in 1959. While his years of restoring and collecting have been a source of joy, they have taken a toll as well. Working with toxic paints has left him at the age of 82 dependent on a portable oxygen supply. While this may have diminished his ability to work on cars he loves, it has had no effect on the joy he derives from driving them. He came to the meeting driving a Zeus Bronze Metallic C8 Corvette. Pushing 495 horsepower with the Z51 performance package it does 0 – 60 mph in under 3.0 seconds. “God I love great cars,” Don says.
After the last day of exploration, I looked for a local watering hole to toast the good fortune of my experiences. Passing through Lovingston, Virginia, I found a pub called the Side Bar that on this evening invited local musicians for an Open Mic Night. Another great surprise. The musicianship on display excelled. These guys could play, mostly country. Then they moved on to the blues. I always bring my harps to relax on blue highway adventures. No harp players had come to back these guys up. The energy felt so right, I asked to sit in. They welcomed me.
Apparently, at least at the Side Bar, there are no strangers in Lovingston, only friends you had not yet met.