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VA State Route 20

I just completed a whirlwind trip of Virginia that took me from Norfolk to Roanoke to Richmond to Alexandria to Charlottesville – in that order. It was a zigzaggy route that encompassed more than 1,000 miles of roadway and overnight stops in five cities, all in less than a week. At each stop, I covered a Virginia is for Tar Heels event sponsored by UNC’s General Alumni Association.

It was exhausting, but it was also a fantastic trip. I’m a UNC graduate who grew up in Richmond and spent much of my youth in the back of a station wagon going with my family to different parts of Virginia, typically to the coast or to my mother’s childhood home in the southwestern part of the state. I’ve also lived in Washington, DC, and became very familiar with Northern Virginia while I was there. In short, I thought I knew the Old Dominion quite well, so it was a pleasant surprise last week to learn about a few places I’d overlooked.

One of those is Northampton County on the Eastern Shore. It’s the poorest county in Virginia, but UNC history professor Bernard Herman now has me convinced that it may be one of the richest in terms of culture and cuisine, including local delicacies such as clam fritters and fried spot, which can be a touchstone for controversy depending on how it’s fried – soft, hard, hard-head-on, or hard-head-off.

“People,” Herman says, “are passionate about this.”

Bernard Herman

Bernard Herman/Photo by Ray Black III

Asked where one should go on the Eastern Shore, Herman recommended the Bayford Oyster House, especially when owner H.M. Arnold is there and has time to talk; the Glorious Church in Onancock, which has Friday takeaway lunches (cash only); the Exmore Diner; the Barrier Islands Center; and the hiking trails of Wise Point.

I cannot wait to go. My hunch is that H.M. Arnold alone would make the trip worthwhile.

Other must-see destinations are Meadows of Dan and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Meadows of Dan is a town of roughly 2,000 people located on the Dan River. It’s also home to several UNC graduates who jokingly refer to their current hometown as the University of Northern North Carolina at Meadows of Dan.

While I’m in southwestern Virginia learning more about this Tar Heel outpost, I also plan to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway, soak up the scenery, and marvel at what I learned from UNC history professor Anne Mitchell Whisnant’s presentation about the hard-won victories that are part of the Parkway’s past.

The planning, building, and maintenance of the Parkway have been filled with turf battles both large and small, including North Carolina’s successful effort to elbow Tennessee out of the running and become, along with Virginia, home to 469 miles of scenic roadway that are among the most popular tourist attractions in the U.S. National Park System.

There’s a tendency, Whisnant says, to think of the Parkway as “this magical thing that just happened.”

Her book, Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History, dispels that myth with accounts of disputes that have taken place over the years between landowners, developers, conservationists, and anyone else who stood to gain or lose — either a little or a lot — from the Parkway’s existence.

Anne Whisnant

Anne Mitchell Whisnant/Photo by Ray Black III

With a newly acquired appreciation for these struggles, I am sure that my drive along the Parkway will, in fact, seem quite magical after all.

My articles about the Parkway, the Eastern Shore, and the other Virginia is for Tar Heels events can be found here. The other topics include: football and racism in the South; disruptive demographic trends, such as the browning and greying of America; and the ties that bind UNC and the University of Virginia.