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The long, long RV trip, Week 13: Virginia camping on a Civil War battleground, Montpelier, Monticello, fried chicken, and more!

For those who have been following along on my Long Long RV trip, getting OUT of West Virginia’s Battle Run campground was thankfully a lot easier than getting in and I had smooth sailing to Virginia camping.

For the next week or so I would be moochdocking at my friend John’s estate. John had told me about his unique property, but nothing prepared me for the lush green beauty and expanse of it.

On the road in, I traveled winding roads through Virginia’s prime horse country. John’s estate rivaled the beauty, minus the horses.

I had met my friend about a decade-and-a-half earlier when I was on my first career go-round as a travel writer and he was the communications director for the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area, a 180-mile long, 75-mile wide swath of land stretching from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Likewise, John was extremely knowledgeable about the history of the area in general and of the small town of Gordonsville, where he has lived for much of his life. One of the town’s buildings served as a Civil War hospital, and it later became a hospital for newly freed slaves during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. The railroad was also integral to Gordonsville’s story (more below).

John helped me get settled in on the ridge part of “Gingko Ridge.” He named his property for the impressive trees, not native to the land, but much prized in the time of Jefferson and also grown on his Monticello estate

He explained that in Civil War times troops from either side were camped out on either side of the ridge. Some minor skirmishes took place there on the land that once belonged to a tobacco baron.

While the property’s main house is gone, several other homes, barns, and buildings still exist.

John lives in a renovated house that was once a slave cabin.

While I was there he was finishing up remodeling the property’s original stone-walled greenhouse into a charming guest house that he will rent via Airbnb and Hipcamp.

Virginia camping can’t get much more authentic than parking your RV on a Civil War battleground. And even though I was moochdocking with a friend, you too can enjoy Gingko Ridge!

John currently offers two off-the-grid cabins overlooking spectacular views of the ocean of trees below and the tiny town of Gordonsville in the distance.

He has plans to put in RV hookups, but for now, he will consider hookup-free self-contained RVers (like I was). You can contact him via his Hipcamp listing.  I imagine that Gingko Ridge in the autumn is even more spectacular.

Virginia camping on Gingko Ridge

Virignia camping at Gingko Ridge goats

Each evening storm clouds gathered and short showers cooled down the hot August nights.

After sunset, I enjoyed moon and star watching and the quiet of my remote country campsite. Save the noises of the cicadas and owls, and other forest-dwelling creatures emanating from the woods behind my RV.

After a while in the middle of the night, it almost sounded like the cicadas were collectively breathing, rapid in and out breaths all in rhythm. It was kind of eerie but also wonderful.

The only time my battlefield campground got truly spooky was when they would suddenly and collectively go silent. But they always resumed their singing a few seconds later.

Once in a while, if you listened very carefully, you could hear the sounds of trains in the distance from Gordonsville. Those same sounds fooled union troops into believing the Confederate army was being delivered supplies and backup troops during the Civil War.

During the bright sunshine of the day, Gingko Ridge provided wooded walks, lush grassy hillsides, and even a small herd of friendly goats to optionally interact with. Pepper, who loved to get his head scratched, and Charles were my favorites. Both are pictured above.

Gordonsville and fried chicken

The train was integral to Gordonsville’s history. It turns out that fried chicken is too.

The history of fried chicken and Gordonsville goes back to the 1840s when the town became a stop on the railroad line.

Soon after the small town became known as the “Fried Chicken Capital of the World.” It still celebrates this claim to fame by hosting an annual Fried Chicken Festival. This year it will be held on Saturday, October 1.

The Virginia Central Railroad and the Alexandria Railroad brought business into town. To make money, the women from Gordonsville’s African American community became “chicken vendors.”

Trays of fried chicken balanced atop their heads, they would pass beneath the train windows selling their wares to passengers. The practice continued until around 1914.

Gordonsville fried chicken even survived passenger train dining cars as the women would have fried chicken ready for pickup when the train pulled into the station.

The quest for the best Southern fried chicken

What better Virginia camping meal could there be than authentic Southern fried chicken? All this talk of history made me go into Gordonsville to the one and only restaurant in town touting fried chicken, the Champion Icehouse.

Sadly, the chicken was underwhelming.

Yes, it is fried in lard, as is traditional, but it just was not the best crust or flavor. It was also WAY on the dry side. And the fried fish we tried was, well, fishy tasting.

The Champion Icehouse has a nice selection of beers, but plan to eat elsewhere.

Well Hung Vineyards

tasting flight at Well Hung Vineyards, Gordonsville, VA

A short walk down the street, the inspired menu at the Well Hung Vineyard offers superior choices and better quality when it comes to dining in Gordonsville.  And they have some delicious wines as well.

But traditional Southern-style fried chicken itself was not on the menu.

I opted instead for shrimp and grits, one of my all-time favorite Southern dishes, and theirs was top-notch! I accompanied it with a tasting flight that let me sample a variety of amazing Virginia wines.

Gas station fried chicken. Yes, really!

gas staion fried chicken dinner

If you still have your heart set on excellent fried chicken, as I did, John let me in on a little regional secret out-of-town foodies would never guess.

John said that some of the best fried chicken in the area comes from local concessions inside gas stations, or from small nondescript Mom-and-Pop takeout shops.

He recommended one of the latter, Wayside Takeout & Catering in nearby Charlottesville.

Unfortunately, the tiny take-out shop was closed on the day I was in town and had promised to bring home dinner for us.

Instead, Yelp reviews lead me to Brown’s, which is indeed housed inside a gas station. That was kind of handy, as I was also low on fuel and wanted to leave Virginia on a full tank the next day.

I was skeptical, despite the reviews. Turns out there was no reason to be.

The chicken was just what I was looking for. Crispy and juicy with a flavorful crunchy coating. In other words, perfect Southern fried chicken. The mac and cheese was also terrific.

My local friend said he had also heard good things about and had been wanting to try Brown’s fried chicken. When he did, he proclaimed it even better than Wayside.

Excellent fried chicken from a gas station takeout. Who knew?

Visiting presidential homes while Virginia camping

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Nine Presidential homes can be found on the Journey Through Sacred Ground itineraries. I opted for arguably the top two, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and James Madison’s Montpelier plantations.

Touring the homes and grounds of two of America’s most important founding fathers brought a lot of history to life, much of it inspiring, but a lot of it unsettling.

Jefferson’s home, Monticello, is the only private residence declared a World Heritage Site, and is so important to U.S. history it is depicted on the back of the U.S 5-cent coin.

Both sites commemorate the foundations these men, our third and fourth presidents, laid for our democracy. But neither shies away from their conflicts and controversies either. And I appreciated that honesty.

Be prepared to confront some hard truths about these great but flawed men when visiting.

James Madison's Montpelier
James Madison’s Montpelier

Their histories made me realize the extent to which hypocrisy in politics is nothing new, and made me confront the gaping chasm between their words and deeds.

I try not to judge historical figures by today’s standards. But it is hard to overlook some of the more glaring examples. Such as the fact that despite all their words of freedom and all men being created equal, it did not extend to the human property they owned.

So much of their livelihoods depended on the enslaved people who worked their plantations.

Slave cabin at Monticello
Slave cabin at Monticello

In his lifetime, Madison never freed a single one of his slaves. Jefferson freed only seven of the hundreds of enslaved people he owned. Four of those seven were his own biological children. And then only after they had reached adulthood.

These children’s mother, Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings, made that arrangement with him.  Sally was but 14 years old when she became Jefferson’s concubine. He was in his mid-40s at the time. Another difficult fact to reconcile about our third President.

I found both estates eliciting conflicting emotions. Both admiration for the bravery of these early presidents in forging a new nation, and sadness that they stopped short of true freedom for all. At that time those rights were guaranteed only to white male property owners.

To be sure, slavery was a complicated economical issue of the time. But even then, it seemed like the founding fathers were well aware of just how wrong it was. If they weren’t they were sternly reminded by people like the Marquis de Lafayette who expressed grave disappointment in both Jefferson’s and Madison’s continuing to own slaves and not banning the practice in the infant United States of America.

Instead, the controversial issue was kicked down the road until its inevitable conclusion, the Civil War.

Among the celebrations of the new nation, there is a lot of uncomfortable but important history to come to terms with at both Montpelier and Monticello.

Next Week: Urban RVing in Baltimore and Atlantic City

Previously in Cheri’s long, long RV trip:

##RVT1068

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Diane Mc
25 days ago

Always look forward to latest on your travels. This one is definitely my favorite. Your writing is so descriptive, I can imagine myself being there. I could never travel by myself, so living vicariously through you. We did go to Gettysburg and this reminded me of what might be our top experience in 26 yrs & 250K miles of travel. It was haunting. Thank you for taking us on your journey.

Cheri Sicard
25 days ago
Reply to  Diane Mc

Aww, thank you Diane, I appreciate that so much. This entire area, again encompassing the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, is definitely haunting. I don’t care who you are.

SLR
26 days ago

For others thinking of visiting Monticello, I highly recommend also visiting Michie Tavern, including eating period food there and taking the tour.

Cheri Sicard
25 days ago
Reply to  SLR

I tried to bring chicken from Miche Tavern, although John says it is hit or miss. Sometimes it’s great, other times meh. However, I went in before visiting Monticello to place a to go order. They said it would take a 3 hour advance window. I said “no problem.” They REFUSED to take the order (the woman at the counter was not busy) and insisted I go online to order because they were “short staffed and that was the only way to get the kitchen to do it. I said “let me get this straight, if I go online you have enough staff to it, but NOT if I order from you?” She said yes and that was the rule.

I am sorry I REFUSE to give money to businesses who do not respect their customers. That is ridiculous. I went to Browns and got EXCELLENT fried chicken at a fraction of the price. Without having to go online (when I was already actually AT the establishment).

For sure Michie Tavern is historic and merits a visit. I recommend eating elsewhere.

Last edited 25 days ago by Cheri Sicard
Megan Edwards
26 days ago

I visited Gordonsville many years ago at a civil war Day event. Had fried chicken at a small restaurant that was good. The whole family was working there, very friendly people.

John
26 days ago

Wow, Cheri, this is top-notch writing. You really bring the reader into the story and the experience, too. Candid with keen insight is just what this reader and traveler wants.
And thank you for sharing with your readers some insight into my place. The history, the unique location, the extraordinary natural beauty, the ability to unplug in comfort, and the fact that I only allow a handful of people stay here at a time make it truly special. I welcome all RVTravel.com readers with a 10% discount on any 2-night Cabin stay that isn’t already discounted. While my RV spot, which can comfortably handle 2 RVs, is not hooked up yet, it offers the best views on the property. And it’s flat/level and easy access.

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