Urban Hiking Through History

IMG_4990Richmond is one of those cities where you trip over history.  So much has happened here throughout the history of this country.  As an example; six blocks from our house is a city park called Chimborazo.  The park is on the site of the largest hospital for injured soldiers run by the Confederacy during the Civil War.  On the north-west corner of the park is a historical marker which states that an important battle of the French and Indian war occurred less than a quarter-mile away.  Eight blocks to the west is St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry gave his famous “Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!” speech.  And directly across the street from the church is another historical marker, which explains that the entire city of Richmond was burned during the War of 1812 by the British.  It’s dizzying.

I have the day off today, and because we’re currently pretty close to broke (it’s the week between paydays, and we’ve just paid all our bills) we decided to find a low-cost (read: free) option for family recreation.  We decided to walk part of the Richmond Slave Trail.

Since I began this post by talking about history, I should probably give some more background.  Richmond was a major slave market during the days of slavery.  Slaves were brought from Africa in ships, and (until 1778, when Virginia banned importation of Africans) were unloaded just down the river from Richmond at Ancarrows Landing.  Even after Virginia no longer allowed importation of slaves, Richmond remained a major center for the exportation of slaves to other points around the US.  Slaves which arrived at Ancarrows Landing were then marched up the river to Richmond, where they were sold at auction.

The Richmond Slave Trail retraces the trail traveled by slaves, and through interpretive markers, educates hikers about the history and horrors of the slave trade.  It’s part memorial, part history education.  I wasn’t able to find an official trail website, but the Richmond regional tourism website has a lot of great information about it here.

Eli is a great hiker, but tends to get tired after a fairly short distance.  Ezra would be riding in a stroller.  We decided that doing the entire trail was probably not a good option, so we opted to do the section of the trail on the south bank of the river.  We parked at a parking lot next to Diversity Park (Hull St. and South 3rd St., if you’re interested), loaded Ezra, a diaper bag, and several Nalgene’s of water into the stroller, and began walking.  The view from the observation platform at Diversity Park is incredible.

It's hard to do the view justice...
It’s hard to do the view justice…
Two of my favorite hiking buddies!
Two of my favorite hiking buddies!

Overlooking Mayo’s Bridge, all of the James and the business district of Richmond is in front of you.  Mayo’s Bridge is another one of those hidden historical gems; its one of the oldest bridges in Richmond.  As Union forces closed in, the Confederate Army torched the city, then retreated to Appomattox (and surrender) across the bridge.  The trail then circles underneath the bridge, and sets off east down the river bank, hugging the floodwall.

Mayo's Bridge...probably not how it looked during the Civil War.
Mayo’s Bridge…probably not how it looked during the Civil War.
He's a big helper, and loves his little brother.
He’s a big helper, and loves his little brother.

After a casual stroll along the floodwall, we walked under the I-95 bridge.  This is Eli’s favorite bridge; he calls it the “AHHHH Bridge,” because he likes the high-pitched whining sound the car’s tires make as they roll over the corrugated cement.  We transitioned from a paved/gravelled side-walk like path to a mulched trail which wound through the trees beside the river.  The trail was ideal for trail running, strolling, or mountain biking.  Pushing a stroller?  Not quite so easy.  Very doable, but not ideal.  The stroller was just a bit wide, so we ended rolling half in the undergrowth on either side of the trail.  Still, we enjoyed the fantastic views of the Tobacco Row area, Church Hill, Chimborazo, and Great Shiplock Park across the river.

Slave Docks trailhead, directly under the I-95 bridge.
Slave Docks trailhead, directly under the I-95 bridge.
Eli the Explorer leads the way!
Eli the Explorer leads the way!
Tobacco Row, the Lucky Strike Building, Church Hill, and the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument.
Tobacco Row, the Lucky Strike Building, Church Hill, and the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument.

After about 30 minutes of walking, we arrived at Ancarrows Landing.  It’s now a Richmond city park, with benches, fishing tables, and trash cans lining the riverbank.  Someone had also attached a rope swing to a large tree which overhangs the river.  There is a large parking area there, so it appears possible to drive your car in for the day.  The biggest thing that struck me about the park was how badly cared for it was.  There was trash everywhere.  Many of the trash cans were overflowing, and spilling out onto the ground.  Its pretty clear that not much thought is given to maintaining the park, which is unfortunate.  After a few minutes of poking around and exploring while Mel fed Ezra, we began the walk back to the car.

We had a great time, and if you enjoy being outside while learning some history I’d highly recommend you take a day (or a half-day) and do all or part of this trail.  The grade is easy and mostly flat.  It’s about 1.3 miles from the parking lot on Hull St. to Ancarrows, and the trail is well-maintained and good for those who are not hardcore hikers.  A word of advice; if you do this trail, there is a huge amount of poison ivy.  Either learn how to identify it (here’s a resource for you), or commit to not touching anything leafy and green.  Either way, go home and take a cool shower immediately.



As it turns out, Eli is a tiny explorer.

Exploring Chimborazo Park.  Hardly wilderness, but we take what we can get.
Exploring Chimborazo Park. Hardly wilderness, but we take what we can get.

This should not suprise anyone.  After all, Mel and I are both super ADD, and we’ve spent a lot of time (both before and after we got married and had a kid) exploring the great outdoors.  I guess you could say he got the outdoors bug honestly.

It is refreshing to see him discover it all for the first time.  On a recent hike, we found a beetle the other day, trucking along through the undergrowth.  Eli hunkered right down, and followed it through the leaves.

Eli:  “Spider?”

Daddy:  “No, beetle.”

Eli:  “Beeeettle?”

Daddy:  “Yes, beetle.”

Eli:  “Beetle.”

And just like that, we now know what beetles are, and what to call them, and that they are different from spiders.  Schemata in construction before my eyes.

And we have discovered puddles.  Puddles which jump and splash everywhere when you charge into them at a run, and then spread in concentric ever-expanding circles when you stop suddenly in the middle.  Puddles which leave your shoes sodden and muddy, but leave you feeling happy just from the sheer messiness of it all.  He takes such intense joy from running back and forth through a puddle; I remember I could do it for hours once too.

On a recent hike, I saw the beginnings of a life-long love for green spaces; it made me happy.  We took a family inner-city hike on the Buttermilk Trail, a multi-use trail which runs along the south bank of the James River.  Eli insisted on leading us, and set a rapid pace.  I had to almost jog to keep up as he trotted up the trail, his gleeful squeals of “A hike!  A hike!” floating behind him.  We had fun; we got sweaty, learned about moving off the trail for the mountain bikers, and brushed up against so much poison ivy that we made a special trip to the edge of the river to wash off (I’m happy to report that nobody got poison ivy).

He insisted on leading us on this Buttermilk Trail hike.
He insisted on leading us on this Buttermilk Trail hike.

He may not every know what its like to be rich; in fact, I’d say his chances of that are about nil considering the callings that Mel and I have accepted (both in the bottom 4 on the list of lowest paid adult careers, if recent information is to be believed).  He probably won’t have his own car when he’s 16, and I’m not even sure he can count on ever seeing Disney Land (heck, I never have).  But at least he can be assured of lots of adventure outdoors.  And really, in my book, I think that’s better than all that other crap anyway.