A love song to the Rappahannock: 8 reasons to get out of town

It's a well-established fact that I think Virginia is the finest piece of ground in the South, and by extension, the world. In no particular order, we can boast Thomas Jefferson, Sandra Bullock and a vaguely sexual state marketing slogan ("Virginia is for Lovers"). 

We also have the Rappahannock River, a 195-mile waterway that runs from the Blue Ridge through Fredericksburg and into the Chesapeake Bay about 20 miles south of the Potomac. It's over a mile wide in some sections (acting as a significant obstacle during the Civil War) and now is blessedly still rural. Home to hamlets of summer boaters, fishermen and farmerstowns like Port Royal, Urbanna and the enormous-by-Rapp-standards Tappahannockthe Rapp is also home to a 1848 plantation called Wheatland, which boasts the only steam boat wharf still visible on the rivah. The old Saunders Wharf No. 27 was where I stayed up until the early hours of the morning drinking bootlegged beers with my childhood friends, split open my chin on the hard tarpaulin of the Rappahannock (flung off the tube behind a boat driven by a deranged/beloved teenager determined to kill me) and sprawled in the ponderous humidity of Virginia in the dog days of summer.

Every summer I come back to this place and I think: How wonderful it is to get out of the city and put my feet in the muddy bottom of this river, which by sheer virtue of its permanence will always pull me stronger than concrete alleyways and overpriced cocktails (here we drink Bud Lites and Natty and I am not ashamed). 

If you should feel so inclined, here are a few reasons to take 301 to Route 17 and visit this wonderful river yourself. Get out of the city, guys. 

Spoiler alert: Most of these things involve eating and/or drinking. 

1. Bald Eagles are erry'where.

The Bald Eagle has made a huge comeback on the Rappahannock in particular. In 1975, two years after the ban on DDT, there were only 10 breeding pairs along the shoreline. In 2015, there were 219 breeding pairs nested along the river. Keep your eyes peeled, and you'll see them pretty regularly. I spotted two this weekend. 

2. Eat oysters at Merroir.

Rappahannock Oyster Company's flagship "tasting room" is in Topping, overlooking where the company grows its locally-famous oysters. I recommend arriving by boat to check out their small plates and craft beer menu. If you like what you eat here in D.C., you'll love what they pulled out of the water that morning. 

3. Eat more oysters at the Urbanna Oyster Festival.

If you're looking to nom on some oysters in November, the Urbanna Oyster Festival is a street fair celebrating this nugget of ocean excellence. Key to the whole experience is the oyster shucking contest, which determines the Virginia state champion shucker. Nationals are held in Maryland and from there, the winner advances to the world championships in Galway, Ireland. 

Urbanna is usually dominated by local legend Deborah Pratt, who has kicked the pants off the competition in Galway more than once. Love that gorgeous Tidewater way of saying "oyster."

4. Enjoy killer roadside veggie stands and fresh crabs.

When it comes to seafood, I'm a goddamn tyrannical purist. If it didn't come out of the river that morning, I don't want it. Fortunately, most any place up and down the shoreline can scratch that itch. I recommend J&W Seafood in Deltavillethey'll have good soft-shell in the season and you can nearly always get backfin here. Pick some up to fix up for supper. 

For veggie stands, look for painted signs along the road. There's a couple big ones, but I've never found a bad one, so shop with impunity. Corn in particular is sweet along the Rapp, and good tomatoes and butterbeans can also be found in season. 

5. Opportunities to both sail and murder fish with impunity.

Seriously, there are so many catfish in this river that you could practically throw a rock and kill one. We hooked three in about eight minutes this weekend, redneck rivera-style (torn-off piece of fried chicken as bait). Recommended. 

Carter Creek's Rappahannock River Yacht Club welcomes visitors and offers club reciprocity through Yacht Clubs of America if you're a sailor. Fishing Bay Yacht Club offers learn-to-sail courses if you're not a sailor, and if you're like me and you prefer to watch from the stern of a cruiser with a mimosa in hand, the Stingray Point Regatta (August 29-31 this year) is a fantastic opportunity to come watch good-looking people in boat shoes and dad-hats do complicated things that involve a vocabulary I mainly associate with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. 

6. Pitstop at Horne's.

In its heyday in the sixties, Horne's restaurants dotted the major highways in the Southeast, offering diner service, travelodge accommodations and Texaco stations. Bob Horne was a millionaire by the time he was 30, all from selling ice cream to hungry travelers.

Horne's peaked at 60 locations shortly after Horne sold the company to Greyhound, but declines in the popularity of highway travel in the seventies took its toll on the chain. The last company-owned restaurant closed in 1982.

One original restaurant remains open today under independent ownership, at the juncture of Route 17 and 301. The Port Royal destination bears almost all of the original design elements of the chain and still features the original milkshake-making equipment. If you're looking for a greasy spoon breakfast, a Cheerwine or some dank gas-station sunglasses, this is your spot. 

7. Drive Route 17.

I count 17 south of Fredericksburg as one of the greatest treasures in Virginia highway travel. It's up there with the Blue Ridge Parkway for me. Even if you set aside the roadside fruit stands and handpainted signs selling hardshell jimmies, this last bastion of rural roadway is a treasure. Fields of soybeans and corn rise and fall on either side, punctuated by swaths of pine trees that whisperingly threaten to take over again. Sandy soil and baptist churches and tin-roofed houses and steadily-churning combines, turned-over john boats and loons and herons and ospreys, the hum of cicadas and the mournful, homesick query of the bob whiteif not for these, why do you leave the city? 

8. Guineamen and other local lore.

This is a long one to explain, but worth it, I promise. 

Last summer, my Uncle Bo came over for a visit and a series of my father’s generously-bartended libations. They were talking about something called the Guinea Marshes, in Gloucester County, Virginia, on the north side of the mouth of the York River. They’re fisherman there —"Guineamen"and I guess rough as guts. My Uncle Bo is a tugboat captain, and he said he’s had to throw more than one Guineaman off his boat for fighting. He told a story about two brothers who set up competing pharmacies across the street from one another. One brother was outcompeting the other, and the less fortunate brother strode across the street and shot him point-blank. Dad countered with a story about a Guineaman seated in a pew in church, leaning forward and slitting the throat of the man in front of him.

Predictably, both of them told these stories with the utmost respect in their voices. I don’t know what it is about Southerners, but we seem to place our allegiances in the damnedest places. The more aggressively non-conformist you are, the more likely we are to bestow our approval upon you. I guess it’s that 150 years ago, we (controversially) placed our allegiance in a state’s right to self-govern, and have been drawn to that kind of independent attitude ever since.

A perfect example of that attitude: Guineamen, apparently, have a unique accent, not replicable by a non-native. Something about non-rhotic English. Neither of them would imitate it for meI suppose they thought a bastardization of the dialect would be disrespectful.

"Michener tried to capture that accent," Dad said, "but he couldn’t even touch it."

Bo told a story about being on a tug with a Guineaman name Bub once (I gather this is a common moniker). They took the tug under a raised bridge and the hydraulic on one half of the bridge went out. It was too late at that time, and the boat kept coming through, shearing off the antenna and most of the bridge and sounding "like all the world was ending." Bub, who had been below at the time it become obvious the bridge was coming down instead of up, came racing aft to sound the alert. The first person he bumped into was the cook, who later told "Captain Bo,"

"I can hardly understand Bub on a sunny day, and so I couldn’t understand a word he was saying coming up the ladder in a crisis!"

It’s a fishing community, they tong oysters and crab, and make a waterman's living.

"I think the last midwife in Virginia was in Guinea," Bo said. "She may still be there."

I expressed some interest in seeing this last bastion of the Wild East, to which my father frowned and said, "You don’t want to go there. They're just hard people."

"They’re just like old hard crabs," Bo said. And they would say no more about it. Watermen, man. They're damn loquacious until you commit the unpardonable sin of being too curious. Lesson learned, I suppose.