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
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
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!
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
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.
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.
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:
- Week 12: Summersville Lake Camping – Almost Heaven in West Virginia
- Week 11: Ohio Turnpike Camping, Airstreams, Caverns, and Beer
- Week 10: Circus World, Wisconsin Dells, Gearing up to Go Again
- Week 9: Circus Graveyard; Taste of Chicago Festival
- Week 8: Iconic Chicago foods (get ready to drool); RV electrical issues
- Week 7: Moochdocking in the Chicago burbs; Re-evaluating this trip
- Week 6: An EXPLOSIVE tire blowout and an emotional goodbye
- Week 5: RVing in Kansas, and an amazing campground
- Week 4: Having fun on more Colorado explorations
- Week 3: RVing during Colorado’s surprise snow, and a castle!
- Week 2: Friday the 13th, road trip woes set in
- Week 1: RVing sites and attractions in Las Vegas and beyond