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Under the Radar But Not Off the Map, The Eastern Shore of Virginia: A Place Lost in Time, But Not For Long
October 6, 2015
Miraculously, the hustle and bustle of the 21st century has not completely infiltrated the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a narrow stretch of land at the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. (Photo above of Oyster, Virginia by Jaqueline Lyoussi)
Cruising south from NYC in our C-MAX Energi Plug-In Hybrid, Jacqueline, my travel mate, and I immediately felt the mellow vibe of the landscape upon crossing into the peninsula. The laid back, calming ambiance was visceral. It felt good. I hardly missed, much less noticed, cell phones the entire time we were there. Once again, I am acutely aware how much our often fast paced surroundings adversely affect us, no matter how sensitive we try to be.
Heading down Route 13, the major north-south highway in these parts which bisects the peninsula with the Atlantic Ocean to the East and the Chesapeake Bay to the West, there was mostly open fields and farm lands. How refreshing to not see so much pavement, so many parking lots, the big name box stores and fast food chain restaurants that dominate the landscape in so many places, places once unique, now all blending together, creating a place of "could be anywhere."
This was definitely a place that felt like somewhere and we were there to find out exactly what that somewhere was and what it had to offer.
Pictured above is the Eastern Shore of Virginia, the 70-80 mile southern tip of the Delmarva peninsula, located between the Chesapeake Bay to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. (The Delmarva Peninsula is named for Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.) Image via NASA
Our first stop was Onancock, a tranquil town of about 1500 people dating back to 1680. The village felt nostalgic as if we were in an old home movie, wistfully reminiscent of the past.
Despite being evocative of simpler times, we were fortunate for the opportunity to plan to have our car charged at the Onancock Inn. The stunning 5 room inn was renovated by Lisa and Kris LaMontagne who relocated to the area from Washington, D.C. They were the only folks for hundreds of travel miles that offered EV chargers, both a universal EV charger and a Tesla charger. One would not easily notice this indication of modern times as it was cleverly installed on the well- landscaped rear side of the house, not detracting from the vintage dwelling in a quaint neighborhood of similar homes.
Kris LaMontagne, co-owner, the Inn at Onancock, ready to charge our Ford C-MAX Energi Plug-In Hybrid. Photo by Jacqueline Lyoussi
While the car charged, we enjoyed wine and cheese with some local folks invited by Innkeepers Kris and Lisa to meet us. One of the guests was a local naturalist and schooner captain. He told us there were almost 100 factory farm chicken house operations being proposed in the area and much accompanying local concern about potential pollution run off from such large scale poultry operations.
(Yes, I eat chicken and I recognize that most people can not afford to eat more expensive organic, free range chicken which usually comes from smaller scale producers with less environmental impact.)
Pumpkins Grown on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Photo by Jacqueline Lyoussi
It is hard to imagine how so many huge poultry farms could integrate into this narrow spit of land, literally surrounded by water, and not cause problems for other farms, the aquifer and drinking water. Not to mention, there is concern as well for the marshes and waterways full of migrating birds and sea life including the oysters, clams, crabs and fish that many in the region harvest to earn a living.
The house depicted above was built in 1906-07 in Norfolk, Virginia to be used in the 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition, probably as worker housing. Shortly thereafter, it was moved by barge to Onancock near the wharf. In 1933 it was sawed in half and moved to its present location. Photo by Jacqueline Lysoussi
Before leaving Onancock, we toured a turn of the century house in the process of receiving a passive house inspired green renovation by Haydon Rochester. The objective is to create a zero net energy structure. (pictured above) The project looks like it could be just another renovation of one of many local homes needing repair. Instead, it is a clear sign that the Eastern Shore is with the changing times and aiming to meld old ways with the new, albeit without a lot of fan fare and exclamation points.
Later that evening, at long last, we arrived at the elegant and stately Cape Charles House in Cape Charles, a sleepy town right at the far reaches of the eastern shore. The next morning we learned from our gracious and lively hosts, Bruce and Carol Evans, that, until recently, the Eastern Shore of Virginia was not even included in the maps used by the Virginia Tourism Authority. The Eastern Shore was literally off the map and completely ignored by the "main land."
Our Ford C-MAX Enegi Plug-In Hybrid parked in front of the Cape Charles House. Photo by Jacqueline Lyoussi
Carol and Bruce were a wealth of information about the history of the region. Staying with them was not only like visiting family, but also a crash course in understanding where the Eastern Shore has been and where it was going. They told us how Cape Charles once had a population of about five thousand that has declined to about one thousand since the 1950s. This depopulation, they explained, was due in large part to the demise of Cape Charles as a train transport hub for the shipment of agricultural and aquaculture goods, and people. With the rise of automobile culture and increased construction of bridges and tunnels connecting the area with the mainland via cars and trucks, this former "one industry town" has still not completely recovered from its downturn.
Fortunately, the town is growing in popularity as a retirement destination or vacation choice for the large populations living and working just across the Chesapeake Bay in major cities and suburbs.
Living Room, Cape Charles House. Photo by Jacqueline Lyoussi
In Cape Charles, over conversations "at home" with our hosts, we were enthused to discover that Bruce, Carol and many in the region were against the proposed drilling for oil and gas off the coast of their state. They were very receptive to speaking with us further to arrange screenings of the film, “After the Spill”, a documentary about the Louisiana coast four years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. There is a definite eagerness to spur discussion about the affects of off shore drilling and why it should not happen off the pristine coast of Virginia.
Herbs and tomatoes harvested from the garden at Cape Charles House. Photo by Jacqueline Lyoussi.
After a good night's sleep in the spacious and comfortable rooms at Cape Charles House, Jacqueline Lyoussi and I had an amazing breakfast which included freshly picked ingredients from their garden. Like many places around the country, including the Hudson Valley of New York where I live, the Eastern Shore of Virginia's small scale local food production and cultivation is blossoming.
Our first appointment this day was with David Phillips and Leon Parham who just moved into their retirement home, named Dragonfly Glade, a passive solar structure steps from the Atlantic shore. David, a theatre designer, and Leon, an architect, planned carefully to create a house that looks likely to generate almost as much energy as it will consume. The almost finished house will include solar panels for electricity and rainwater harvesting. Look for an upcoming post on this house. For now, please catch a peek on their Pinterest board.
A Passive Solar House built in Cape Charles, Virginia. Photo by Jacqueline Lyoussi
After enjoying a delicious lunch graciously prepared by David and Leon, we made our way to the small coastal community of Oyster, Va. We met with Margaret Van Clief, Outreach and Education Coordinator for The Nature Conservancy, Virginia Coast Reserve. Joining us was Bo Lusk, their Coastal Scientist. Margaret & Bo and their work with the Nature Conservacy, Virginia Coast Reserve, will be the subject of a future story, but for now we will tease you with a picture of them working out in the field. They are engaged in restoring eel grass on the local shores along with restoration projects for oysters.
Bo Lusk and Margaret Van Clief stand in front of tanks growing eel grass so the seeds can be harvested and planted along the shore. Photo by Jacqueline Lyoussi
Our last appointment of the day, back at Cape Charles House, was with Jay Ford, Executive Director and Shorekeeper for Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper. They are part of one of my all time favorite environmental groups, the Waterkeeper Alliance. Jay safeguards over 1300 miles of coastline along the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.
The Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper recently hosted a town-hall-style meeting about poultry houses aptly entitled a "Community Conversation on Chicken Houses." At the meeting Jay was quoted: “I think it’s a really important part of our economy, but if you look at the map, we’re a really odd place to put something that has a water quality impact like poultry. The Delmarva Peninsula is probably not the best location to authorize these kinds of things but it’s here, so we have to do it responsibly — and the first step to that is making sure we ask the right questions.”
We were pretty much blown away by Jay, as we were with everyone we met on the Eastern Shore. Jay, though, inspired us when he told us he and his family live on "Shine and Rise Farm", a farm dedicated to clean food and energy production and bringing social and environmental justice to the forefront of community.
Jay Ford at his family home and farm which serves as an educational and community outreach center. Photo via Shine and Rise Farm.
The counties that make up the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Accomack County and Northampton County, are two of the the poorest in all of Virginia. Perhaps the weak economy has been a silver lining in helping keep the country and natural habitat intact and protected from over development. But, the future is knocking at the door and how the counties handle this critical transition period will determine the whole fabric and future of this precious area.
Underneath the quiet and laid back nature of the peninsula, the winds of change are brewing. Hopefully, this special place full of special people will progress into the future while developing a sustainable economy without ruining what is so good about it.
Birds circling above a factory-sized chicken house on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Photo by Jacqueline Lyoussi
Back home in Ulster County, New York, while working on this post, I took a break to drive to Woodstock to see a screening at the Woodstock Film Festival. On the way, the radio played Joni Mitchell singing "Big Yellow Taxi" and I couldn't help but think of Cape Charles and the wonderful places we saw and the people we met there.
The lyrics to this 1970 song are as timely now as they ever were, if not more so:
"Hey farmer, farmer Put away that D.D.T. now Give me spots on my apples But LEAVE me the birds and the bees Please! Don't it always seem to go That you don't know what you've got 'Til it's gone They paved paradise And put up a parking lot"
We have a boat load of work to do so that we can preserve and protect our natural resources and create a sustainable economy. It isn't going to be easy. But, you can't run a marathon without hard training and practicing every day. Bit by bit we'll get fit. Together!
Here's to Lisa and Kris, Bruce and Carol, Leon and David, Bo and Margaret. Jay and his family. They are the fabric of the Eastern Shore of Virginia and part of the the cloth that is America. Together we can do anything, if we continue to dream and open up our hearts and minds to the infinite possibilities that are our future.
A sculpture at the entrance to the public beach in Cape Charles made out of recycled and reclaimed materials. In the distance, almost invisible, inside the "O", is an oil tanker heading into the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Jacqueline Lyoussi.
NOTE: This post was written as part of the series about our Eco Road trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina from New York City. Thanks to Ford Motor Company for lending us the C-MAX Energi Plug-In Hybrid for the journey. Many thanks as well to our hosts along the way: The Cape Charles House, the Cape Hatteras Motel and the Anchorage Inn. And, thanks to Kerry Allison, Executive Director, Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission and Sundae Horn, Director of Travel and Tourism, Ocracoke Civic and Business Association. And, many thanks to my travel companion, Jacqueline Lyoussi, who took so many great pictures and my partners Joe and Chris who help edit the text and images for New York Green Advocate.
Lyrics to "Big Yellow Taxi" courtesy Writer(s): Marc Williams, Joni Mitchell, Timothy Mckenzie Copyright: Emi Music Publishing Ltd., Crazy Crow Music, Stellar Songs Ltd.
Text Copyright 2015 Paul E McGinniss. All photos copyright the photographers.