I returned recently from another one of my hurried trips, this one to the New England states. All of them. Plus New York for good measure. Those of you who followed Twelve Mile Circle’s Twitter account knew that already. The rest of the 12MC audience may not have noticed anything at all. I wrote a bunch of articles in advance and they posted automatically, quite happily, as I cruised backcountry roads for a week.
Once again, I chauffeured my favorite runner through small town America as part of a Mainly Marathons event, this time to the New England Series. This group catered specifically to people hoping to run marathons or half-marathons in all 50 U.S. States (my favorite runner focused on half-marathons), stringing together back-to-back races. The 2016 New England series stopped at Sanford, Maine; Greenfield, New Hampshire; Springfield, Vermont; Northfield, Massachusetts; Coventry, Rhode Island; Simsbury, Connecticut; and New Paltz, New York, on succeeding days, May 15-21. A race happened at dawn, then the circus packed up and moved on to the next state, and the cycle repeated itself. Seven races, seven states, seven days.
This was the fourth time I’ve attended a Mainly Marathons series, with my runner completing the Dust Bowl, Riverboat and Center of the Nation series previously. That was a lot of states. With New England now done, I’ve attended their races in obscure corners of 23 different states. Recently the Mainly Marathons group added a five kilometre option mostly for those of us who attended along with the longer-distance runners. I actually ran the 5K each day mostly so I wouldn’t stand next to the snack table for a couple of hours and stuff myself silly. I don’t have any intention of moving up to the half-marathon or marathon distances though. 5K each day was plenty enough for me.
We made time, as usual, for touring during the afternoon as we traveled between races. I’ll get into all of the details in the next batch of articles. I thought I’d start things off more scattershot with a few signs I noticed along the way. I’ve had a thing for unusual signs and this trip was no different. Ordinarily I’d present these at the end of a series although I thought I’d use them to whet the 12MC appetite. Think of today as an appetizer.
Welcome to Vermont
Surprisingly, I stopped at only one state border to record my crossing. This one occurred on U.S. Route 5 / Vermont Route 11 just after we passed the Connecticut River, as we left New Hampshire (map). This photo was particularly notable for my lack of skills as I managed to capture the top of the side-view mirror at the bottom of the image. That happened because I was too lazy to get out of the car when we stopped, and too incompetent to hold a camera high enough to get a decent picture. That was also the only photo I took of the car, now as I considered it, although I probably should have taken more. We rented a compact car because it was just the two of us. We figured it would be fine and we’d save some gas money. The rental agency must have given away all of the compacts on the lot though, because we ended up with a black, two-door Ford Mustang with only 500 miles on the odometer. We cruised around New England for a week in a sweet ride.
Think of the Children
I still wasn’t sure why the Toonerville Trail in Springfield, Vermont (map) felt it was necessary to ask us politely with a please and a thank you to think about our children in ALL CAPS. So I thought of the children. Unfortunately my only thought was a sign invoking the overworn and pandering expression "Think of the Children."
While fixated on thinking of the children, or so I thought, I began to notice strange minivan school buses in multiple New England states. I’d never seen anything like them before. Were they used by private schools with far-flung pupils? Or for select children in special programs? I could definitely consider a role for these non-bus buses, and wondered if this was a common solution in New England (or elsewhere) or if I’d focused on them simply because they were unusual. I spotted this example on Interstate 91 near Deerfield, Massachusetts (map).
Also, before anyone becomes too concerned with my driving skills and posts a disapproving comment, let it be known that my passenger took this photograph. I kept both hands on the wheel and maintained a safe distance.
I’ve often featured street names on 12MC, the more unusual the better. Generally I’ve only observed them on a map. That’s why I was so pleased to find Marginal Way in Sanford, Maine in the wild (map). It was right on the race course! Runners actually plodded directly down Marginal Way. I wondered about the name. How should a homeowner feel about property considered marginal? Would it affect its resale value? It ran along the edge — maybe the margin? — of a nearby pond. Was that how it earned its weird designation?
This was an instance where I thought a sign might be overkill. Certainly people have jumped from bridges, although generally very high ones and often quite tragically. That wouldn’t be the case here at the Henniker Bridge in Henniker, New Hampshire (map), only a few feet above the water. This was a covered bridge of recent vintage constructed as a pedestrian pathway over the Contoocook River. It served as a footpath between the main campus of New England College and various athletic fields.
College students do seem to get into all kinds of antics. Maybe the sign was necessary after all.
The driving force, the entire premise of this series, were races held in different states. Travel distances ranked higher in important than sightseeing for most participants. As a result, races generally fell within rural, out-of-the-way places near state borders. Sometimes this took us onto America’s Byways, for example the beautiful Connecticut River Byway extending through several states including this spot in Northfield, Massachusetts (map). We ended up putting a little over 2,000 miles (3,200 km) on that Mustang, many of them on winding country roads through quiet scenery.
What were the odds of seeing Twelve Mile Circle visitors from George, South Africa and George, Washington, USA on the same day? I found the coincidence fascinating. The city of George in Washington was, of course, named for George Washington. That other George in South Africa’s Western Cape Province, I suspected, must have been named for one of the several King Georges who ruled Great Britain. Which one though? There were six such kings over a span of more than two centuries. That led me to wonder if I could find a geographic place named for each one of them. I uncovered more than I expected so I had to split the topic into two articles. This post will cover George I, II and III. The next one will discuss George IV, V and VI.
George didn’t become King until he was well into his 50’s upon the death of Queen Anne. He’d been born in Hanover and spent his time as Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg growing up. There were numerous members of the extended royal family more closely related to Anne that George, however they were all Catholic so they didn’t qualify to succeed her. Being of Protestant faith, the throne came to George, the first king of the House of Hanover. His age pretty much guaranteed that he wouldn’t reign long and it limited the opportunity for places to be named in his honor.
A section of Richmond County in Virginia (referenced in Not the City) became King George County (map) in 1720. The county website confirmed that it was named for George I. That would make sense because its founding happened right in the middle of his reign.
Not much happened in King George County although a future President of the United States, James Madison was born there in 1751. That was impressive although I discovered another person born in the county that interested me even more, a man with the unusual nickname William "Extra Billy" Smith. He had quite a distinguished career, serving in the United States Congress, the Confederate State Congress, the Governor of Virginia both for the United States and for the Confederacy, and as a Major General in the Confederate Army. He tried his luck in California during the Gold Rush and he operated a postal service that ran from Virginia to Georgia. The postal operation earned him his unusual nickname. It seemed that he created a bunch of unnecessary side routes to collect additional fees. Friends and foes alike began to call him "Extra Billy" after authorities discovered his scheme, a name that followed him for life.
Next came George II, son of George I, who ruled for a much longer period. A longer reign equaled more opportunities for places named for him, and that’s exactly what I found. The state of Georgia (map) in the United States may have been the most significant. James Oglethorpe founded the Georgia colony in 1733 under a royal charter issued by George II, and it was always a good idea to flatter one’s patron. A beautiful lake in the Adirondacks of New York, sometimes called the Queen of American Lakes, also took his name: Lake George (map). The lake got its name during the era of the French and Indian War when Sir William Johnson occupied the territory and won the Battle of Lake George. The Georgetown neighborhood (map) of Washington, DC, however, may or may may not have been named for George II. It’s founding certainly dated to his reign. Nonetheless the founders and primary land owners were George Beall and George Gordon so those could have inspired the named too.
George II also had a war named for him: King George’s War, (1744–48), the North American campaign of the War of the Austrian Succession.
George II’s son Frederick died before him so the succession went to his grandson, George III who was only 22 years old. George III also lived a very long time. He reigned for nearly sixty years so his name got affixed to lots of places although few of them existed in the United States. He was viewed as an oppressor when the nation fought for its independence so his name may have been expunged. I couldn’t find a single instance although I’m sure some must have survived somewhere.
Elsewhere, however, his named flourished in places across the British Empire. George, the South African city referenced previously was a shining example. George became quite a lovely tourist destination in the Garden Route, wedged between the Outeniqua Mountains and the Indian Ocean. More unlikely was George Town (map), the capital city of the state of Penang in Malaysia. The naming traced to Captain Francis Light who founded a settlement there in 1786 on behalf of the British East India Company.
Other places named for George III included: George Town, Tasmania, Australia; South Georgia Island; Prince George, British Columbia, Canada; Georgetown, Guyana, and undoubtedly many other places too numerous to mention.
Appalachia described more than a physical geography, it described a proudly self-reliant people who’d lived within these hills and hollows on their own wits for more than two centuries. I mentioned some of my perceptions after I visited Kentucky in 2013. It would be all to easy to reduce Appalachia to unfair hillbilly stereotypes, however the reality was considerably more complex as I searched for dominant themes. Multiple books have been written on each of these subjects. I wished I’d had time or space for something more than a few short paragraphs.
Coal was everywhere. We passed uncountable collections of rusting mining equipment, faded United Mine Workers of America union halls and mountains completely shorn of their tops. Coal underpinned much of the regional economy. The fortunes of Appalachia bobbed with the price of coal and it was down a deep hole as we drove through. Blame the Chinese economy. China’s slowdown dampened an insatiable hunger for coal. Think of places left behind, robbed of their middle class prosperity, and we witnessing them as we followed our twisted track. Many settlements nestled along the valleys felt downtrodden, and poverty never seemed distant even in the nicer parts of town. A slight drizzle and overcast clouds followed us for much of our drive, only heightening the effect.
We passed a building made of coal in the heart of Williamson, West Virginia (map). It housed the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce. It was closed.
Coal had to find a way out of Kentucky or Virginia or West Virginia, and that happened over rails. Every river gorge had a companion railroad line, pulling parts of Appalachia away a rail car at a time. Train whistles carried a wistful tune, a constant companion especially at night when sounds echoed down valleys on the wind. I finally made it to the Princeton Railroad Museum outside of Bluefield, West Virginia (map). I had better luck this time than my last visit about a year and a half ago when it was closed. The museum filled two floors a former depot of the Virginia Railway, a line that stretched four hundred miles during its heyday, from the Appalachian coalfields to the port of Hampton Roads near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.
Bluegrass music got its start in the heart of Appalachia, rooted in Scottish, English and Irish folk traditions carried by immigrants who arrived in the 18th Century. The region only recently began to capitalize on this storied heritage. Virginia established The Crooked Road, as an example, a trail through the rural southwestern corner marked with waysides and venues important to this indigenous musical tradition. I’d hoped to stop at some of those places. Unfortunately we drove through on a Sunday in mid-March and they were universally unavailable either because it was too early in the season or because it was a day of rest.
We did stumble upon a political rally on the West Virginia side of the border with Kentucky completely by chance when I veered away from the highway to capture a new county. It was a pity the band played mainstream Country rather than Bluegrass. I might have stayed a little longer than a few minutes if it were Bluegrass and if we didn’t already have a long list of places we needed to see that day.
The Appalachian states roiled in conflict during the American Civil War, 1861-1865. Virginia clearly sided with the Confederacy. Part of Virginia split to form a new state, West Virginia, aligned with the Union. Kentucky became a border state and fell within Union control early in the war. Nothing was ever that simple in Appalachia, however. People picked sides regardless of residence, sometimes splitting loyalties even within families. We passed a marker in Kentucky near the Virginia border that mourned an unknown Confederate soldier (map). He passed through as the war concluded, probably on his way home, only to be ambushed on the side of the road by anonymous assassins. Local townsmen buried him at the spot and later planted a rosebush to mark his grave, although he could not be identified and his family never learned his fate.
Violence returned in the early 20th Century as exploited coal miners began to unionize, a movement called the Coal Wars or the Mine Wars. One of the more significant clashes took place in a town we visited, Matewan, West Virginia. It was best known as the site of the Matewan Massacre. Earlier it also stood at ground zero for the Hatfield and McCoy feud. An undercurrent of violence ran deep.
I considered that moonshine verged on stereotype, however the area seemed to embrace its rebellious image at nearly every museum or exhibit we encountered. Appalachia had a long history of illegal alcohol hidden in remote backwoods, of corn liquor distilled one step ahead of law enforcement, of fast cars flying down country lanes, of secret stashes and tax evasion. Often this served as a romantic metaphor for the independent nature of people who lived in isolated communities beyond the normal reach of authorities. Moonshine probably continued to trickle from the mountaintop stills for all I knew, although a bigger drug problem seemed to have pushed it aside recently.
Breaks Interstate Park had a particularly nice example of a moonshine still on exhibit. (map)
Breaks Interstate Park also featured another historical artifact of more recent vintage although it wasn’t marked and few people knew about it, probably because it didn’t really have that much significance outside of Virginia’s local politics. I remembered the details. It happened in 2006 as Senator George Allen ran for reelection. His campaign stopped at Breaks where he delivered a speech to loyal supporters. A tracker for his opponent had followed the campaign for several days, recording every move. Allen must have finally reached a breaking point because he referred to the tracker, a man of South Asian ancestry as "macaca," a derogatory slur based on a Portuguese word for monkey. The tracker captured Allen’s quote on video, and from there it hit the mainstream press, going viral. Allen lost the election to his opponent, Jim Webb, and with it his presidential ambitions. In Virginia politics this came to be known as the "Macaca Moment."
I knew the incident took place at one of the picnic pavilions at Breaks Interstate Park, although I didn’t know which one. I took a photograph of the most accessible pavilion as a proxy to memorialize this event (map).
The true salvation of modern Appalachia may be tourism. Its rich heritage and natural beauty would seem to be considerably more stable than the price of coal. It also seemed so completely untapped in many places we saw while we wandered. People would flock to these spots if they were more well known and more accessible. Efforts have been made, of course, and sometimes they showed up in unexpected places. We stopped for lunch at a scenic covered bridge in Virginia (map) and I looked up to see the letters L-O-V-E formed strategically in front of the bridge, only visible from a certain angle. It was part of a the Virginia Tourism Corporation’s highly successful Virginia is for Lovers campaign. I thought it was rather clever how a tree represented the letter V.