“Beautiful.” “Spectacular.” “Gorgeous.” They’re all words I could use again and again to describe my recent nine-day bicycle journey along the Blue Ridge Parkway from Waynesboro, Va., to Cherokee, N.C.
Indeed, if the sole focus of these articles were the views of mountains and valleys from my bike, you’d get tired of so much repetition. So, instead, I will focus on the people and the experiences during my 469-mile trip.
I began by taking the obligatory picture of the sign identifying the beginning of the Parkway for southbound travelers. Round about then, a retired couple pulled alongside me in their Cadillac. The man and I exchanged pleasantries and swapped stories about our plans for the next few days.
Mine was to reach Otter Creek Campground at milepost 61 by early afternoon. Unfortunately, a lesson I would learn and re-learn throughout the trip was how much 40 pounds of gear slows one down. While friends had assured me that a pace of 80 miles per day was achievable, I have to think they were talking about someone carrying 20 ounces of water and a small tire-repair kit. As it happened, I spent much of my trip (especially the early portion) in “granny gear,” pedaling up—and coasting down—the hills.
Ah, the hills. Rugged terrain is one of the Parkway’s trademarks, and I quickly realized I would mostly be going either up or down. Indeed, my first 10 miles from Rockfish Gap to Raven’s Roost involved a net climb of nearly 1,300 feet.
Unfortunately, photographs don’t do justice to the beauty that’s unique to this portion of the route. To truly appreciate the Parkway’s beauty, one must either pedal or walk it. So many times, an automobile or motorcycle would pass me, and I’d want to yell out: “Hey! You don’t know what you’re missing!”
Day Two began at 7:30 a.m. with me facing the longest continuous climb along the scenic roadway. It would take me from the lowest elevation on the Parkway (649 feet) to the highest in the Virginia portion—Apple Orchard Mountain (3,950 feet), so named because the trees on top are so beat up by the wind that they look like crooked apple trees. It took about four hours finish the 14-mile climb. Still sore from the previous day’s ride, I found myself confirming many times that I was, in fact—unfortunately—already in the lowest possible gear. At this point in the trip, my primary motivation was the lunch I would enjoy at the Peaks of Otter restaurant.
I learned to appreciate the cool mountain streams that flowed down the mountainsides. Thanks to recent rainfall, they were especially plentiful and full. I carried a 20-ounce water bottle with me, but I soon realized that I would consume 70 to 90 ounces of water each day and thus would need to monitor both my intake and supply closely. Fortunately, I’d brought a water filter, which I used many times to filter water from the streams (those that didn’t seem to cut through a cow or horse pasture). You haven’t lived till you’ve enjoyed freshly filtered, ice-cold mountain water after a long haul on a bike!
Day Three was a 45-mile ride to Rocky Knob Campground at milepost 167. Not too long into the leg, a young man from Roanoke caught up with me, out for a day trip on his road bike. We exchanged pleasantries, and he answered my many questions about his bike and biking in general, but it soon became clear that he was struggling to slow down to my pace. After about 10 minutes, he said goodbye and pulled away almost effortlessly. Meanwhile, I continued to grind up the hill in granny gear.
Sometime later, as I was toughing out a 10-mile climb, the young man came back—and, in the middle of a relaxing downhill run, he stopped, turned around and “escorted” me almost to the top of the climb. I think he felt a little concerned (read: sorry) for this 50-plus-year-old lawyer packing 40 pounds of gear on his mountain bike. I appreciated his kindness.
I pulled into the Rocky Knob Campground at about 7 p.m., knowing that the next day would be a 72-mile monster leg.
At the start of Day Four, I was feeling almost cocky about my progress. I had pedaled about 170 miles, and while I was quite sore—my thigh muscles were so tight that I couldn’t even draw my feet under my legs without a lot of massaging and coaxing—I felt confident that I could push through to the end. Then I encountered my first “packer” who happened to be headed north.
He smiled as we approached each other. As if on cue, we both dismounted, each admiring the other guy’s bike and packing. Puffed by my progress, I asked him where he’d begun. “Meahme,” he said in a thick accent. Probably some Cherokee Indian town in southwest North Carolina, I figured.
“Where is that?” I inquired, eager to learn the name of a town I might pass through.
“Florida,” he replied, as if I must be from another planet. He had started in Miami, Fla.
“And where are you headed?” I asked, fearing that his answer would only deflate what was left of my ego.
“Quebec, Canada,” he replied.
I was happy for him. He asked me whether there were any motels off the Parkway in Roanoke, as he’d been camping for three weeks. I assured him that there were, and we soon parted company.
Milepost 216 marked the Virginia/North Carolina border.
[Steve Talevi, a local-government attorney who lives in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, insists he’s not a cyclist but “a guy who likes to ride his bike every now and then.”]