August 25

Ellen and I spent the first part of this morning outside looking in. Unbeknownst to us, someone had locked the church doors during the night. Another call to a church member got us back in, along with an invitation to a community lunch. We had to pass on the kindness–attending would leave us with less than an afternoon’s worth of time to wade into the increasingly rich history of the Tidewater region.

Checking out of "The Hut" at Willis United Methodist Church

All across the country I had come across bridge building projects, one tangible outcome of last summer’s federal stimulus legislation. But those dollars did not get sprinkled over Glendale. The bridge was out on the road south of the church. “Been out for a year,” said the church member who checked us in this morning. We had to use our Richmond Battlefield map to negotiate a detour through the local roads.

This circumvention led us to Malvern Hill, where the Seven Days’ Battles essentially ended. The Union Army had acquired, according to the interpretive information at the site, “the best defensible position either army had during the entire war.” As the battle raged around Glendale, the bulk of the Union forces retreated to anchor themselves on this high ground. They strung a gauntlet of cannons across a wide field, forcing the Confederates to mount an uphill attack in the open. No Southern soldiers reached the Union artillery line. Later in assessing the battle, the Confederate commander confessed, “This was not war, but murder.” I somberly wondered if sending men to slaughter was “good war strategy.” In total, there had been more than 35,000 soldiers killed or wounded during the Seven Days’ Battles.

It was from this position that the Union Army commanded the Battle of Malvern Hill

We left Malvern Hill to enter the broad James River plain. Much like how the river carried water back to the sea, the river plain carried us deeper into our country’s history. The James River was one of the avenues along which the earliest colonists spread westward, in search of new lands to grow the increasingly important tobacco crop. Beginning in the 1600s, settlers were given land grants to establish new settlements in what was still predominantly Native American territory. Ellen and I turned off of Route 5 toward Berkeley Plantation, which started off as one of these grant settlements—the Berkeley Hundred.

On the map the plantation looked to be a short jaunt away. In reality, that may have been the case as the crow flies, but we found it to be a slow, hand-numbing journey over a rough gravel road. I had hoped to find a photo-dramatic juxtaposition of the plantation house against the river, but the house was built far back from the river amidst a cluster of pine trees. Discouraged by the finding, I was uninterested in paying the admission fee to tour the house.

Berkeley Plantation, birthplace of Thanksgiving and a President

The Berkeley architecture did not feature the stereotypic Gone-with-the-Wind style of a colonnaded portico, but that of colonial architecture—a flat, red brick facade with lattice-like windows. It had been in notable hands—Benjamin Harrison, a Declaration of Independence signer, lived here along with his son, William Henry Harrison, our 9th President. These lands were also the site of America’s first Thanksgiving in 1619, nearly a year before the Pilgrim dinner in Plymouth. The Virginia event took place by decree of the absentee “landowners” back in England, who commanded the pioneers to commemorate their arrival as a day of Thanksgiving.

As we returned to the main road, we discovered a bike path parallel to the narrow, twisting Route 5. It was a new section of the now-sporadic Virginia Capital Trail, which will ultimately connect Richmond, the present capital, with the two historic capitals of Jamestown and Williamsburg. The path ran for about 10 miles, next to large fields of corn and soybeans, and provided us with a respite from traffic we hadn’t enjoyed since our first approach to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

We lunched at the only eating place we found, an upscale home-turned-restaurant that was doing a surprinsingly robust business for being in the middle of an agricultural region. The bike path ended soon after we continued on, but traffic was relatively light, making the travel unconcerning. There was a second plantation I wanted to visit, Sherwood Forest, whimsically named by President John Tyler, who purchased the property after he left office in 1845.

Sherwood Forest was right off Route 5, saving us from another jackhammer ride to the grounds. The property is still in the Tyler family, now occupied by his grandson. A parking lot kiosk instructed us to conduct our own tour of the grounds (with fee), so with guide brochure in hand, Ellen and I ventured in.

John Tyler's "Big House," the longest frame house in America

As with the Berkeley Plantation, Sherwood Forest had a 17th century beginning. Started as a modest two-room dwelling, the main residence, now known as the Big House, was expanded by multiple owners until it became a 300-foot long structure. It is claimed to be the longest frame house in America. While impressive in its length, I did not find it particularly memorable in appearance.

History is most interesting in its details, and the details of John Tyler’s occupancy that Ellen and I read and mused about made this a lively tour. A ghost in the nursery. A bullet hole in the outhouse. One of the first ginkgo trees in the United States (making me think whether the stately ginkgo in our backyard was a direct descendant). And a traitor ex-President. We learned about this now-obscure fact when we came to Tyler’s “chosen gravesite” near woods at the front of his property. Tyler had sided with the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War, and was in Richmond as a member of the Confederate Congress when he died. Because the Union army was occupying this James River area at that time, his family was compelled to bury him within the political security of Richmond, denying him his final resting place at home, and making him the only President not to be officially mourned.

Treading upon the second oldest colonial road in America

I cycled back onto Route 5 absorbing a footnote-like proclamation from our paper guide: Route 5 was the second oldest colonial road in America, preceded only by the road to the Jamestown settlement. As one who grew up in the expansionist Midwest, I was more used to encountering soulless roads exhibiting perfect geometry than those like Route 5 that oozed with our country’s history. My mind began transposing those who were currently using the road with some that likely had: Powhatan, chief of the like-named tribe, who greeted, then sparred with the Jamestown settlers. Pocahontas. Presidents Harrison, Tyler and Lincoln. Who else could I imagine seeing around the next bend in the road?

At that time of day where the quality of light signals the transition from daytime to evening, we experienced another, more substantial crossing. A long, arching bridge carried us over the Chickahominy River, a waterway poised to deposit its now-expansive quantity of tributarial water into the James. In bridging the Chickahominy, Ellen and I had entered the final tract of land that made up the TransAmerica Trail. Now only 28 miles and hours of time lay between us and the coastline of Yorktown. What had constituted the relevance of my days, riding into the known unknown, would become irrelevant after this now short amount of distance and time.

We camped alongside the Chickahominy on a near-perfect evening, bathing in both the sunset’s sunlight and the near-full moon glow. It was good to spend the night outside one last time, to exist as a part of the land, and not apart from it, for that had been what this trip was all about.