Leading us back to the trail, she explains how the path links key moments in U.S. history, starting with the nation’s first legislative assembly in Jamestown, crossing through lands ruled by the great Native American chief Powhatan, and passing through Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields, where earthworks built by soldiers are still visible in the woods
“This is really the road of democracy in our country,” Poarch says. It’s also the place where America celebrated its first Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation in 1619, she tells us, and the homeland of Pocahontas, the famous Powhatan who married an Englishman and traveled to Britain to meet Queen Anne.
Other historical highway markers tell sadder stories. One outlines the 1892 killing of Isaac Brandon, the state’s first victim of a lynching, near Charles City County Courthouse. Another, a few miles later, describes a gruesome American Indian massacre.
Poarch also describes the biodiversity of the James River, which parallels the trail. The waterway once flourished with Atlantic sturgeon, a mammoth fish weighing more than 800 pounds that traces its lineage to the dinosaur age. Native American legends say that Powhatan boys would ride on its back. Although severely threatened by fishing activity and pollution, the fish population is slowly rebounding.
Poarch takes us as far as mile marker 25, where we visit the Westover Episcopal Church, which traces its roots to 1613. She has a door key and shows us the simple yet elegant interior, where five presidents have worshipped, along with farmers, gentry, and enslaved people. Outside, a parish cemetery overlooks a wide tidal creek leading to the James. As the afternoon sun sinks, the gravestones send long shadows toward the water.
It’s just a few miles farther to Charles City County Courthouse near mile marker 20, where we had left a car the previous night to shuttle us back to our Richmond hotel. By this time, whether it’s from stopping to read markers or from my slower pace, Sara is well ahead of me. Coasting into the settlement, I find her waiting at a sculpture spelling out the letters L-O-V-E.
After 30 miles of cycling, it’s a sweet way to end the day.