I’ve lived in the DC area for more than half my life. I’ve been to most of the touristy spots multiple times. Like many people, when our kids were little we took them to the Williamsburg area where there is much to see and do. On the historical side, we visited Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown, but, for some reason we never got around to Yorktown, where the British army surrendered to end the Revolutionary War on October 19, 1781.
On Tuesday, I remedied that omission on two wheels. Starting at the Williamsburg visitor center I rode the Colonial Parkway 13 miles to Yorktown. The roadway surface, composed of aggregate (small stones in concrete), is a bit rough. It is oddly three lanes wide with no lane markings. Distance is measured not with mileposts but with kilometer posts. I can’t recall seeing this anywhere else in the U. S. It was hot and humid but the ample shade kept me comfortable until the parkway reached the banks of the York River.
The river is wide, perhaps a half-mile or more. The parkway, now unshaded, turns to the southeast following the river and passing through marshy areas and by narrow beaches. After a gentle upslope, the parkway ends at the entrance to the Yorktown Battlefield. The visitors’ center was closed, of course. A few people wandered around zombie-like listening to a virtual tour on their phones. To tour the battlefield takes three hours by car. Unless you’re a serious war wonk, you can cut to the chase and head to the Victory Monument.
The 98-foot tall monument was erected in the 1880s. It has a massive base which supports a column topped by a figure of Liberty. (Liberty has twice been damaged by lightning, Make of that what you will.)
There are extensive inscriptions on each side of the base. These writings make clear that the Yorktown battle and siege, to a very great extent, was a French operation. It was the French navy that fought of British ships off the Virginia coast, thereby preventing an evacuation of the British army by river and sea. Of the 17,000 land forces on the American side, 5,000 were French soldiers. Without the French we Americans would spending pounds, drinking warm beer, and singing “God Save the Queen”.
And so the war ended and the new country, no longer under mortal threat from Britain, could begin in earnest.
In 1976, the year of the U. S. bicentennial, the monument became the start and finish of a new tradition of sorts. Bikecentennial was an event that sent small groups of bike tourists across small town America between the Oregon coast and the Yorktown Monument. The route they followed was named the TransAmerica Trail. It traverses over 4,000 miles through Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and Oregon.
Fittingly, for some TransAm riders, Yorktown is the beginning. For others, it is the end. For all it is a profound experience. In 1981 I met someone who was in one of the 1976 Bikecentennial groups. Equipped with a ten-speed bike and a whole lot of heart, Anne Meng rode with six other scruffy riders from west to east. I found pictures of her group on Flickr. (Search under TAWK518, the code for their group.) They show snow, fatigue, endless roads, and joy. Oddly, she never mentioned that she crashed and spent a night in hospital in Montana.
Today, the Bikecentennial organization is called Adventure Cycling. They have mapped over 50,000 miles of bike routes in the United States. My 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 bike tours were nearly all on Adventure Cycling Routes including parts of the New York to Chicago, Great Lakes, Lewis and Clark, TransAm, Northern Tier, Pacific Coast, Western Express, and Atlantic Coast routes. By my count, I’ve done about 9,800 miles of their network.
After returning to Williamsburg, I headed to Jamestown Island, adjacent to the Jamestown settlement, where the ships landed. A tunnel near Jamestown village was closed to bikes, necessitating a detour into the village. It was quaint and uncrowded but for re-enactors of early colonial life and a few tourists. Back on route I rode past the Jamestown Settlement site (which I visited with my family years ago) and onto Jamestown Island. The one-lane, level road through the woods was closed to cars. Yay, pandemic.
The rest of my ride took me in a twelve-mile arc around the western side of the Williamsburg area. This was unremarkable exurban and suburban riding in blistering heat. I stopped at a gas station convenience store for drinks and snacks. Half the people in the store were not wearing masks which made me very uncomfortable and angry. I suppose causing someone to suffocate in their own blood is worth the inconvenience of wear a piece of cloth over your face.
In 30 minutes I had reached the end of my 60-mile adventure.