Outdoors: Home stretch

Day Seven began at 7 a.m. to ensure that I didn’t miss my ride. The sunrise was beautiful, and the closer to Mount Mitchell’s summit I climbed, the more beautiful it became. The wind was blowing a near-constant 30 mph, resulting in a wind chill of 19 degrees. I was cold, but when I reached the peak I discovered that the workers building a new observation tower had left the heated bathrooms unlocked.

Rock on: Looking Glass’ naked flanks are just one remarkable sight along the Parkway. Photo by Steve Talevi

At about 1:15 p.m., I loaded my bike into the back of my friend David’s Explorer, and we headed for the detour. My trip was saved.

David dropped me off at milepost 385, where Interstate 40 accesses the Parkway. By day’s end, I needed to reach milepost 408—a mere 23 miles away. Unfortunately, the route climbs from 2,000 feet to 4,850 feet. If I made it, I would have the choice of staying either at the Pisgah Inn or in the Mount Pisgah campground. But if I opted for the campground, it would be my fourth straight night of camping.

During the course of my ride, I learned to dislike the word “gap.” Whenever I saw signs that read something like “Buck Creek Gap,” “Wagon Road Gap” or “Beach Gap,” I knew that my downhill run was soon to be followed by another uphill climb. “Enjoy it while you can,” I told myself time and again as I sped down a hill. Indeed, at the end of many such runs, I found myself throwing the bike into 21st gear in a vain attempt to pedal and coast to the top of the next hill. I finally realized what any true cyclist or physicist already knows: What takes two hours to ascend takes only 15 minutes to descend.

By the end of the day, I was famished. Pulling into a parking area, I spent about a half-hour cooking lunch on my single-burner stove. While I was at it, a middle-aged man and woman pulled up in their camper. The woman asked whether the Mount Pisgah campground was open. I told her I didn’t know for sure. “Oh dear,” she exclaimed. “We don’t know where we’re staying tonight!” (My hunch is that they figured it out; they looked like survivors.)

I arrived at the Pisgah Inn at 8 p.m., only to learn that it was full. There was plenty of room at the campground, though. So I decided to console myself with a spaghetti-and-sirloin dinner before settling down for the night. Over dinner, I tried everything I knew to procure a small space at the inn, to no avail. Eventually, I pedaled across the road and, flashlight in hand, found a reasonably comfortable place to camp.

Day Eight’s goal, the Balsam Mountain Inn at milepost 443, was just 35 miles away—the last 12 of which would be downhill. I rose early so I could enjoy breakfast at the inn, planning to eat quickly and get on the road. But a chance encounter with Barry—a free-spirited Harley rider who apparently made enough money investing in Florida real estate to be able to take time out to tour the country by motorcycle—slowed me down. I didn’t get on the road until about 8 a.m.

The morning was overcast, and visibility was limited. As I was about to round a bend and leave the area behind, however, Looking Glass Rock emerged from the mist. The imposing granite formation rises from the ground as if to set itself apart—both in composition and majesty—from the surrounding mountains. Some time later, I reached Richland Balsam overlook—the highest elevation on the Parkway (6,053 feet). The view along this portion of the ride was beautiful, and it got even better when, at milepost 431, I began the 11-mile descent to the Balsam Mountain Inn.

It proved to be a welcome, and welcoming, sight. A front porch with a dozen or so rocking chairs extends the full width of the inn, beckoning to all who make the effort to get there. The hallways are decorated with the handiwork of local artists and crafters. The dual faucets, lukewarm shower and oddly cut curtains only add to the rustic flavor.

One thing my journey taught me is that the Parkway is a showcase for spring flowers. The dogwoods were in full bloom, as were trillium and pink lady’s slippers. Often I found myself pedaling through a road cut enlivened with wildflowers, which clung to crevices in the rock, reaching toward the afternoon sun. Only by walking or biking can one fully appreciate this aspect of the Parkway’s spectacular beauty.

Day Nine started late due not only to the previous night’s thunderstorms but to the fact that I had only 26 miles to go to the finish: milepost 469. The inn lent me some oil for my bike (something was squeaking every time I pedaled, and I’m fairly certain it wasn’t my knees), and I was off by about 10:30 a.m. The two-mile ride back to the Parkway was short and easy, and I felt like a horse returning to the barn at the end of the day: My goal was in sight.

By this point in my journey, I was measuring my progress not in miles or hours but in the number of climbs and descents: Two ups and two downs to go.

Chills went down my spine as I began my final descent. The grin on my face was wide and constant. Motorcyclists going the other way applauded as they passed me; some gave me the “thumbs-up” sign. They seemed to know that I was about to realize a longtime goal and wanted to share in my joy. A couple of photos showing me planting a kiss on milepost 469 brought my ride to an official close.

My motor support was scheduled to meet me at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center after 4 p.m. As I waited, several people inquired about my bike and gear. One was a German gal who said she spends about six months each year in Guatemala, educating residents about the consequences of dumping garbage near a drinking-water supply. The remainder of the year she spends traveling and working, usually in France.

Although she doesn’t have a college degree, the knowledge she’s gained through dealing with corrupt customs officials, profit-driven industrialists and approval-seeking politicians has enabled her to pursue her dreams successfully. She was one of the first to learn that I’d completed a bicycle trip the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway. And yet again, just as I was awash in pride over my accomplishment, she told me that she spends her summers cycling a zillion miles all over Europe—on a three-speed bike cobbled together out of used parts. “If a lawyer can take the bike,” she told me, “there is hope for the world.”

I hope she’s right.

[Steve Talevi, a local-government attorney who lives in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, insists he’s not a bicyclist but “a guy who likes to take the bike every now and then.”]


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