Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Wonderful Ways of Appalachia


     I left Boone this morning after yet another wonderful couchsurfing experience. My hosts, Elissa and Jenny, live right next to a creek in a house with interesting, open architecture and mellow vibes. Jenny left early on the second day of my stay, heading out into the wilderness for a week at her new wilderness therapy job, and Elissa finished the last day of her first year as a middle school science and Spanish teacher while I was there. Elissa has done some long-distance biking, and happened to be hosting another cyclist while I was there, who was heading in the opposite direction on a short trip from West Virginia to Atlanta. I could easily have spent several more days in their company at their cool house.
     Today was perhaps the most physically challenging day of the trip so far. Not the longest mileage, nor the longest time pedaling, but the most vertical climbing I've done all trip. With my legs still fresh from 4 months of weightless riding, a bit of running and a few short hikes, I almost wondered if I would make it to my destination here in Galax, Virginia. The themes of the day, other than hills, hills and more hills, were ride-on lawn mowers ( I must have seen a dozen in operation, and another dozen sitting ready to go), ground hogs (which ran into the bushes upon my approach so often that I stopped looking), and Christmas trees. I must have passed a hundred Christmas tree farms, growing multiple varieties of beautiful conifers, covering the hillsides in neatly trimmed rows. Because of the hills, the vistas were beautiful, and big, puffy white clouds filled the sky, making for some incredibly picturesque scenes of farms and pastures. Happy cows dotted the gloriously green hillsides, and old homes sat proudly against a backdrop of thick, dark forest. My body is tired, and so are my eyes from looking so hard at all the beauty all day long.
     To finish the day, I began the New River Trail, a bike path running 57 miles from Galax to Pulaski, VA. It is flat, well-maintained crushed stone, following a river which gives life to all of the big, leafy trees along its banks and makes for a shady, green and easy ride. I look forward to finishing the rest of it tomorrow, knowing that there are no hills for another 50 miles!


     The days are flying by! After nearly a full day on the New River Trail, I was ready for some hills once again. The trail was definitely flat, and also very beautiful. For most of the trip, a crumbling rock cliff covered in mosses and lichens of a dozen varieties stood on one side of me, while the New River, brown and slow with a small rifle here and there, lay on the other. I passed dozens of other folks on bikes, all out for day trips from the nearest parking area. Near the end, the surface of the trail became softer with gravel, and I was happy to be back on asphalt again once the trail ended.

     Over the next couple of days, I paralleled Interstate 81 as it heads northeast through the valleys of Virginia. I stayed on minor highways and back-roads, and ran into the first other cycle-tourists I have seen on this leg of the journey. First I met Tom, who left from central Pennsylvania a few weeks ago and is traveling the ACA (American Cycling Association) Trans-America route, which roughly traces the path of the settlers who followed the “Oregon Trail” when our country was first being settled by Europeans. Part of this route overlaps with the bicentennial bicycle route, which has large signs all over around here with a “76” on them and a bicycle underneath. I need to read more about what this route means.
I then met a Dutch couple who have been cycle-touring for 15 years, and were also on the same route at Tom. I get the feeling that if I stuck more closely to ACA routes, I would be running into touring cyclists several times a day, now that it is summer.
     I also ran across a couple of middle-aged guys holding a large sign outside of a planned parenthood which read “180.” I stopped and talked to them for a while about the film they are promoting, which compares abortion in America to the regime of Nazi Germany during WWII. The one of the pair who did all of the talking then asked me several specific yes/no questions about my beliefs, and genuinely tried to convince me that I would go to hell if I didn't come to God. I kindly let him know that I didn't believe in hell, and that I didn't believe that a loving God would send people to such a place even if it did exist, especially for the types of “sins” he was condemning mankind for (lying, stealing, lust). It was not a very productive conversation, as I don't think either of us was going to convince the other of anything, but we were both amiable throughout our interaction. I admired his passion, and I let the guys know that I approved of their first amendment rights to freedom of speech, and I moved on.

     Yesterday, I happened upon perhaps the most beautiful random lunch spot I ever could have hoped for. On the edge of Jefferson National Forest, between Vesuvius and Buena Vista, VA runs South River Road, with a small river right next to it for most of the way. I didn't catch the name of the river, but at one point, I saw a white patch through the trees at a turnout, and upon closer inspection, a magnificent waterfall appeared. Pulling my bike off the road onto a small path, I changed into my swim shorts in the bushes, and had a glorious swim in the cool, clear water right below the falls, where a hole of at least 5 feet deep made for excellent swimming. I climbed and swam closer to the falls to inspect, and realized that it was carrying and depositing minerals on the mosses that grew all around it, making for some very interesting, growing, changing formations in and around the falls. After climbing over the 3 ft high falls that fell directly into river, the next falls up were 20 ft high, followed by another 2 falls at 10 ft each, making for a total drop of over 40 feet. I was able to climb up everything that I could see from the river, and when I got to the top, more falls awaited. I felt as though I had found a hidden treasure, and no one else was around to see it. It was a marvelous way to cool down and reinvigorate myself for the rest of the ride.

     Today, I am couchsurfing at Shannon Farms Association, an intentional community south of Afton, VA. The ride here made me somewhat anxious because, after climbing to 1850 ft Rockfish Gap, I then descended 1200 feet in 8 miles to arrive here, and I know that I will be biking back to Rockfish Gap before continuing on into Shenandoah National Park. Some of the hills I descended were very steep, and I am not looking forward to the ride back in the opposite direction.
     Upon my arrival here, I met Rollie, my host, who put me in a very nice, spacious guest room with wonderful natural lighting due to windows on 3 sides. He had alerted some others in the community of my arrival, and while I was in the shower, several folks arrived and we all chatted about my trip and others like it that had been attempted by some of them. We then packed up some food and headed to a small potluck an a piece of their property (520 acres in total, with about 100 residents) on a ridge where an old building had once stood, and had recently been demolished. A large bonfire had been made from the pieces of the building that were deemed not to be reusable, and a half-dozen folks were sitting around on upturned 5-gallon buckets eating the delicious offerings that had been brought by several folks. I filled my plate twice with more greens and beans and tastiness than I had seen in several days, and finished it off with some delicious watermelon.

Every so often while I'm riding, I will pass some kids doing a car-wash fundraiser. Without exception, they always think it is the funniest thing to wave their signs at me, then laugh and give each other high-fives.

The wildflowers are going off everywhere! Day lilies grow here like poppies in California, dotting hillsides and the edges of forests and roadside ditches with bright orange, deep and intricate coloring, mildly sweet scented flowers. Yesterday I passed an area where a variety of yucca, with its creamy white torch of flowers, grew mixed with day lilies and something purple in the pea family, spanning the color spectrum in the bright sun. I stood in the road on a blind curve to get a few shots, but no photograph could do that hillside justice. The countryside continues to be gloriously pleasant to look at.

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