On a whim, I find myself staring out the window of a midnight train headed for Charlottesville. Blue cloth curtains hang open beside me to reveal a moonlit railyard and, for a moment, my reflection.
The faint smell of perfume lifts my head up and over. A young woman sets her bag overhead then sits beside me. She has big curly hair and a long slender frame accentuated by a black catsuit. We share a polite glance, then we both look forward.
It’s late now, maybe 2 am. The anticipation of the train whistle every few moments has made it hard to fall asleep. Besides, I wouldn’t want to snore in my neighbor’s ear and embarrass myself. I grab my laptop from my backpack, set down my tray table, and begin to write:
From what, or towards where am I running? Who am I evading or expecting to meet? The dark railcar bumps along. It’s just me. So, I keep going.
Too emo, I think to myself. I make the slightest disapproving shake of the head just in case the woman in black caught a glimpse of my writing and agreed with me. I slap my laptop closed, then head down the aisle toward the food cart for a drink.
The seats are large and gray and run along either side of the railcar in sets of two with generous space between rows. To my left, a man and woman share a blanket with their heads up against each other. To my right, a body slumped over, rising and falling gently.
I open the cart door, and the thrumming sounds of the track become crisp. I stumble through to the opposing door and find a dark cafeteria. It’s closed.
🚆 Ride The Rails for $300 on Amtrak (note: this ends today, June 22nd)
After eleven hours and thirty minutes, I step off the railcar and onto solid ground. I’m tired and a bit cranky. I could use a coffee. I walk past the bright red train station, through the parking lot, and onto West Main Street. Storefronts line the road. There’s a cafe, barbershop, and provisions store in my direct line of sight. A jogger zips by me. The song We’re Good by Dua Lipa blares from the portable speaker in his hand.
I approach a brick building with three elongated windows and a large white steeple. I stop in front of the iron plaque to the left. It reads:
First Baptist Church West Main Street
The Charlottesville African Church congregation was organized in 1864...it became part of the Charlottesville General Hospital and sheltered wounded soldiers during the Civil War.
I continue down West Main and pull out my phone to check on my coffee options. To my delight, I find Rocket Coffee just a few hundred feet ahead of me. In fact, there are multiple coffee shops within walking distance. This pleases me.
I walk less than a half-mile to my hotel. Through the front doors is a large atrium with one of those glass elevators. I love those things. Riding it up to my room always feels majestic, like I’m a corporate god here to rule over the laminated name tags below. I’m not, of course. My corporate days are behind me, and I hope to look back at days like today as my transition from a business person to...not a business person.
I take a moment to settle into my room. I wash my face. Something about travel leaves a thick film of oil on my t-zone. I consider taking a quick nap, but the prospect of food motivates me up and into my sneakers again.
I ask Concierge Marie what people eat around here. “What is Charlottesville known for?” I ask. She tells me we’re not exactly in the north or the south. “Well, it’s a bit of both, so we have it all,” she says. I learn that the hotel is located at the tail end of a big commerce area, and I have about thirty restaurants to choose from. This also pleases me.
I begin my stroll down the brick laid walkway. Awnings drape the storefronts lined on either side of me. In the center is a wrought-iron seating area where families are eating their lunch. Ahead of me, a mother and her college-bound daughter take inventory of the restaurants around them. A father and his two boys exit an ice cream store holding giant scoops of chocolate chip and what looks to be cherry vanilla. My stomach gives me a gentle reminding nudge.
I enter a rare-print bookstore named Blue Whale Books. I don’t often seek out bookstores at home, but when I travel, it’s magnetic. I walk through the walls of embossed spines and past the curious observers skimming through pages. I scan for anything that may pop out at me, but my hunger once again makes its presence known. Before I exit, I spot the word ‘Travel’ on a book cover, and I pick it up — The Travel Writer’s Way: Turn Your Travel into Stories
I don’t know why we need external permission to become something new. And honestly, it hadn’t occurred to me that someone could be a “travel writer” outside of influencer-style bloggers. But finding this book felt kismet, so I bought it. It turns out you can find good stories in your travel and amass a collection of stories for a whole travel book, even.
I finally meet my hunger’s demand and walk into a small Cafe. I’m a sucker for a sandwich in a window. I order the Porky with a glass of house red and have a pleasant lunch on the patio while skimming through my new book.
After some more window shopping and a quick nap back in my hotel room, I do some dinner research.
I sit at the bar and take a glance at the drink menu. The couple to my left is giving their effusive compliments to the chef for the pork shoulder. That’s a good sign, I say to myself. The boyfriend asks me where I’m from and what it is I do. I give the standard ‘I’m from Atlanta and own a small marketing firm’ answer. The conversation finds its way back to food, and the girlfriend suggests I order the carrots.
” The carrots?”
The carrots!” the couple says emphatically.
I order a house cocktail called Forty Thieves. It comes in a small glass goblet and has a dark yellow color due to the fresh pineapple juice. Before my meal arrives, I order another.
A pile of carrots covered in a white sauce with candied pecans is placed in front of me. “You see?” the boyfriend says with a smirk. I see indeed. I enjoy a carrot as much as the next person but, these were tastier than anything plucked from the dirt has the right to be.
The main course is crispy trout with pickled mushrooms. While the safer bet would’ve been the fried chicken I saw in passing, I go for something different, and I am not disappointed.
I don’t always find a go-to spot the first time in a new city, but Oakhurst Social is on a shortlist for when I return to Charlottesville. It was one of those restaurants where you can feel the excitement around the food being served, both from the wait staff and patrons.
Hop-On CVille Wine Tasting Tour
The following day, I wake up early and read a bit of my new book before heading to the wine tasting tour. There’s a quote at the bottom of page seventeen:
” I could spend my life arriving each evening in a new city.”
-- Bill Bryson
A new city can feel like a baptism. A fresh start. A place where we can grow into something different, perhaps, something better. Order a fancy pineapple cocktail. There’s no one to tell you that you can’t; no one to point out your usual drink is a gin and tonic. Proclaim you are, in fact, that thing you want to become— a painter, an actor, a writer— with no asterisk or apology.
I walk towards the pick-up location just down the road. A small bus in promotional shrink-wrap awaits the tour members— a bachelorette party, three married women from a suburb of Richmond, and me.
I sit next to Mary, one of the three women. We share a polite nod, and she eventually asks me what it is I do. “I’m a writer,” I respond. “I write for my travel blog and the occasional short story.” The words fell out of my mouth, and for a moment, I felt the slightest bit of shame. As if I were lying. But, Mary’s face lit up and told me how cool she thought it was which, made my face light up. And just like that, I felt a bit more like a writer. Nobody around to tell me different, except myself. I was happy to decline the opportunity.
I enjoyed the wine tasting tour though I was expecting more traditional types of wine. Our first stop was a cider brewery named Blue Toad. We ordered the tasting menu. My favorite was the blueberry cider. Our second stop was Hilltop Berry Farm , where I got to try cranberry wine. The last two stops—Veritas Vineyards and Flying Fox Vinyard —were closer to what I was expecting, but overall it was a good tour and I made some new friends.