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On the 29th of August of this year, I embarked on another long bicycle trip. My intended itinery called for a southbound transit of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the crossing of Tennessee from the Smokies to Nashville, and then the Natchez Trace Parkway south to Natchez and thence New Orleans. However, it didn't happen that way.
My first clue that this jaunt would not unfold according to plan (like life itself) came before I even left the Bay Area, when I reached San Francisco Airport only to learn that my flight to Washington, D.C. would depart four and a half hours late. Since I was flying on a free bonus ticket, I did not have the flexibility to change, so I sat in the airport fidgeting and munching until departure. I called home and learned that the airline had called me to notify about the delay; but since I live 100 miles from SFO, I had already left before they called.
I'm not good at sleeping on planes, even though this one was empty enough for me to claim a bank of seats and stretch out; so I arrived in a stupor at 2:00AM to find most facilities at Dulles shut down. The transit buses for the rental car agencies were running at long intervals, so it was 2:30 before I reached the Avis counter, and later than that when the gate-check man informed me that I was trying to drive out in the wrong car and would have to go back and start over because they'd changed all the numbering on their parking slots and I couldn't have the car I was in. My head hit the pillow at 3:40AM, in a room that was paid for a whole night, even though I had to arise at 6:30 to keep a breakfast date with a cousin before setting out on the "Grand Adventure."
Breakfast was a kick (I'd not seen her in years), and the drive south to Waynesboro, Virginia -- where my bike awaited me -- was lovely. The day was fine. I got a room, turned in the car, picked up the bike, and went shopping for last minute stuff and foods for the next few days. I spent the evening loading the bike and mentally preparing for departure in the morning. I was aware that I had not ridden in almost two weeks -- the UPS strike had required more creative and time-consuming means of getting the bike to the East Coast -- and that even before that, my training miles for this jaunt had been far less than for the previous one due to other pressing situations. What would be would be.
Early in the morning of the 31st., I set out from Waynesboro for a four mile climb up to the beginning of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and took my ceremonial photographs at the first signage I found. I knew many things about the BRP (though, as it turned out, not quite enough). I knew that food and water stops were few and far between, as were the campgrounds. I knew that it was a continual series of up, down, up, down. I deluded myself that knowledge, in itself, would provide ability. I'm human. I screw up.
Turnouts with information signage and/or exhibit materials are frequent along the BRP, as are fat red millipedes and poison ivy. The Appalachian Trail (hiking) crossed and recrossed the road, presenting a nice number of local day-use hikers. In the West, trails and mountains are off in the middle of nowhere as a rule. The Blue Ridge, I discovered, is rather heavily urbanized on both sides, so the feeling is almost of a large city park. I may have travelled 3000 miles to get there, but local folk with day-packs were everywhere. Yet on the parkway itself, one might still be in the middle of nowhere, since there were so few services provided and to go anywhere else off the road meant a steep drop and the then-necessary climb back up. Even from the ridgetop roadway, all the roads and bustle down below were clearly visible, thus adding to the dichotomy. I was on/in the mountains and isolated there; yet all of civilization was within view. The feeling was unsettling; but more than that, it was artificial, contrived, and unrealistic.
The BRP was begun in the 1930's as a CCC Project, to link the Great Smokies National Park to Shenandoah National Park. But for the war years of the early 1940's, it remained under some manner of construction into the 1980's. The road surface is fine but narrow, with no shoulder at all. Yet even though I was riding on Labor Day weekend, there was no traffic to speak of. It progressed from nil in the morning to minimal at mid-day, with only one RV.
The morning ride was challenging but do-able, even though it took an hour longer than projected to reach the lunch stop, one of the few amenities on the parkway, and sanctioned by the Park Service. The menu was locally evocative, but contained nothing of the items that I've found to be sustaining for distance cycling. I made do, and left knowing that it hadn't been sufficient. I must have been right about that, because I had less energy after eating than before, and ended up walking a couple of short climbs towards the end of the day. Finally the road dropped and leveled out for the first time, just a bit before my chosen campground. But first there was a tunnel.
I'm not crazy about cycling in tunnels, and I knew there were many on the BRP, most much further down. I stopped and turned on my lights fore and aft, but a bizarre thing occurred. This was not a long tunnel -- probably less than a quarter mile. But it had a bend in it, so that the end was not visible at the beginning, and I rode into a pitch black pit. The instant I could no longer see the pavement I felt like E.T.: I could not perceive anything under me. The sense of spatial loss which came with the lack of visual input was immediate and astounding. I was sitting on the bike and cranking the pedals, but nothing else existed. I was riding in a vacuum, and could well have been many feet off the ground. It required an act of faith to believe I was still connected to earth, until finally the light at the other end appeared. This episode lasted only a minute or two, but it was amazing.
After 65 hard miles I reached the campground, which cost $10 for a space and had no hot water or showers. It did have a cafe, which turned out to have the same menu as my lunch stop; it was no more palatable or sustaining at dinner than it had been earlier. The closest thing to carbos was french fries; everything was fried. Nothing appealed to me, not even the fish which I ordered and tried to eat. I cleaned up in the sink, and collapsed into my tent. As people noises diminished, the insect racket in the trees seemed to get louder and louder. Katydids, junebugs, I don't know what all else, were carrying at an incredible volume which did not lessen as darkness fell, but eventually it became soothing and I fell asleep (which I do with great difficulty in a tent). Just before midnight a terrific thunderstorm broke, with tremendous noise and flash but little rain. By morning I'd gotten about five hours' sleep, which for me in a tent is a lot.
There was no point even trying the cafe again, so I just munched on what I was carrying: breakfast bars and bananas. I then rode a couple of flat miles to the James River Visitors Center, and sat down on the parking lot curb. I was looking at a 13-mile, 3300 foot climb immediately ahead, and had decided in the dark of night that there would be no point even trying it. I had pared and pared my load, down to about 33 pounds (ten less than last year's cross-country load), and had put a 32-tooth chainring on the rear cluster; but it was quite clear to me that I would not make it up that grade. So I waited in the parking lot until I spotted a pick-up occupied by a pleasant-looking couple heading south, and asked if they could take me to the top of the grade whenever they were ready to leave. This they did, and I was most grateful. After the descent, I had a good lunch at the lodge at Peaks of Otter; and then began more climbing, climbing, climbing.
As happened yesterday, lunch seemed to be a detriment rather than a help. The day turned hot, the tree cover disappeared, and by about two o'clock even the slightest incline was too much. The map profiles I was carrying were not accurate, and were therefore misleading. North of Roanoke I stopped to chat with a northbound rider who commented that I was the first southbound rider he'd passed since leaving from Cherokee at the southern terminus eight days prior. I told him I'd seen five other northbound riders, three just after I'd begun, and two that morning. In response to my complaints about the profiles (which he also had and agreed were not correct), he gave me a copy of an incline chart which listed the footage gains milepost by milepost. In all the materials I'd collected, that piece of paper had never reached me. As I scanned the numbers my heart sank, and I realized that there was no way I could do the BRP. Had I received that chart beforehand, I believe I never would even have attempted the ride in the first place. I was defeated.
The parkway skirts the eastern edge of Roanoke, and there was a motel about half a mile off the road. I decided to head there and regroup: plot a new course, make a new plan. A mile and a half before the turnoff I began to feel seriously rotten and totally non-functional. It was difficult even to walk, and I felt ready to puke. I had water. I had eaten. My system was rebelling. I didn't know why, but I knew it was happening. I wasn't certain I could even get to the motel; this was not the trip I'd anticipated. I did get there, and collapsed. Just as I sank onto the mattress, the sky opened up and it began to pour. So much for dinner. When I felt better I got a soda from the machine, and ordered in a pizza. Then I did a bunch of laundry, and settled down with the maps. When the pizza arrived, it was the wrong order, very costly, and barely edible. Then I got on the phone.
I was supposed to hook up with a gal named Catherine two days further down the parkway. She had friends she wanted to see in Blacksburg, and had tried beforehand to convince me that I should meet her there. Each time I'd said no, I would stay on the parkway. But we would use her friends as a phone contact. I now called them, asked if I could come there to wait for C., and they said sure. They plotted me a scenic route from where I was to their home for the next day, and when C. called them later that evening she was informed of my plans.
I slept like a rock, waited til after rush hour, and then headed out to Blacksburg, refreshed, renewed, and looking forward. I was content with my choice to abandon the parkway, and had no real problem with admitting that I wasn't equal to it. At age 56, I no longer carry around much false pride; I couldn't do it, whatever the reason. Despite traffic and dirty shoulders, I was thrilled to be back on surface roads where one had a choice and life was real. I stopped for munchies. I stopped at a bank. I felt human. I saw the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile. And then I began to climb again. Hot, exposed, steep. And amazingly, again my body failed me. When I couldn't crank anymore I walked, and after two miles of that (pushing a 60-plus-pound load), I couldn't walk anymore. I didn't understand. Like yesterday, I'd eaten, and I was drinking. But nothing worked.
I found a wide shoulder area, propped the bike, and sat down on the guardrail. Then I sat down on the pavement and put my head between my knees. And sat there. I couldn't see the summit, but I knew I couldn't get there anyway. I was dead in the water, so to speak, and finally I did something I'd never done before in my life -- I stuck my thumb out. I couldn't even get up to do it ... just sat in a heap on the pavement with my thumb out. I was in a spot where I could see upward traffic, and there was clearance for someone to pull over safely; so each time I saw a pick-up truck coming up the mountain, out went my hand. After perhaps a dozen tries, a big old Ford truck came to a full stop in the traffic lane on the curve, and out lumbered what I can only call a mountain man (this was the edge of the Appalachians, after all): big, hulking, hairy, willing. He picked up my loaded bike with one hand, and with one hand raised it over the tailgate and into a junk-filled truckbed, taking care not to smash his just-purchased groceries. Then he commented that it was heavy. He chattered away about the mountain for the few minutes it took us to get over the top to my next junction, and with one hand he removed the bike for me. I thanked him profusely. I now had green paint on one pannier and the front tire, and my taillight was smashed, but I gratefully proceeded.
The next stretch of road was perhaps the loveliest that I would encounter on the entire journey, and I reveled in it until a downpour began without any prelude, and I found shelter under a barn overhang until it stopped. Then another long steep climb which I didn't even try. Halfway up I had to knock on a door for more water; but finally I arrived at my destination, settled in, had a loong drink, and relaxed away the rest of the day. At last I began to have an inkling of what was going on; it wasn't bonk -- that's a symptom I know. The word is dehydration. I didn't believe that could be the issue, because I was never out of water. But that day my body went nine and a half hours without urinating. I have a normally hyperactive bladder; two hours is a long time for me; one hour or less is pretty normal. Nine and a half is unheard of and scary. I'd never stopped drinking, but clearly my system had simply shut down, intake or no. I spent the evening sipping, so as not to bloat, and finally just before bed everything normalized.
I spoke to C. that evening, and it became clear that she would not reach Blacksburg until Thursday or Friday -- well behind schedule. So I had a choice. I could wait for her and we would proceed together as planned, even though I was fairly certain that if I did so I would be late for my next rendezvous in Nashville, which was not a flexible date and would probably entail having to rent a car to get there on time; or I could go on alone the next morning, which would give me enough time; she was far enough back that if I left she would not catch me. By this time -- after dying on the mountain -- I was dealing with a serious confidence crisis, and going on alone did not appeal to me. I was nursing a two-time total misjudgment of self and abilities, and was not in a frame of mind to tackle Appalachia solo. So I chose to wait. I had a feeling it was the wrong choice, but it was the only choice I could make at the time. I finally realized that, as a result of the euphoria of last year's Trans-Con ride, I had been operating under the delusion that I could do anything. I now knew that for the lie it is. C's friends were warm and supportive and had no problem with my hanging out there, and that was what I did. One day I went on a club ride with J., and one day I rode into town to snoop about. Otherwise I just puttered around at home. To compound all the other boondoggles, my new camera -- which I'd purchased just for this journey -- began making death-noises, and it, too, became non-functional.
Thursday evening I took my hosts' car and drove back to Roanoke to pick up C., who was still a day's ride away, and bring her to Blacksburg. She wanted a day with her friends before leaving, so it was Saturday morning before we loaded up and rode out, heading south-west to Tennessee with the intent of skirting around the north-west of Knoxville and heading to Nashville. We had a week to get there. It was tight, but hopefully do-able.
© 1997 BFZ
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