2004 Bike Trip: Crossing the Appalachians

Leif Johnson — 28 May 2004, 20:05

here i sit in the middlesborough / bell county public library, smelling a wee bit bikeish, resting my weary legs, and dodging yet another warm summer downpour. i've holed up for the night in a motel in town, content to devote today to catching up on eating, bike repairs, email, and drying out.

this update might be of the better-sent-post-trip genre, but i just have to tell the story before it fades out. the riding since leaving blowing rock has been challenging : narrow, steep roads ; rain and storms ; dogs and blustery afternoons have all sapped the calories from me like my pack towl absorbs water. but i'm finally here in this booming metropolis of just over 12000, just on the kentucky side of cumberland gap, refueling and writing.

the ride from north carolina

after a short ride from blowing rock, i encountered my first river crossing of the trip : a new bridge is being built on winkler's creek road just outside boone, so the road was closed. not wanting to go on the detour, i just unloaded my bags, carried my bike across the river, and set up the bike again, all while the construction guys sat around and ate lunch. it's kind of fun fording rivers with a bike, and not at all possible with a car. probably saved 10 miles of really hilly detour, too. take that, suv drivers.

i set up camp at carden's bluff campground, a beautiful place on the south side of watauga lake near hampton, tennessee. i'm starting to get the hang of sleeping in a hammock (especially after trying out jon's suggestion of throwing my thermarest in there for more insulation) ... but around 5am the wind picked up, threatening an oncoming thundershower, what with the heat lightning and distant thunder.

nothing came of the wind, however, so after an hour i dragged myself out of bed, made breakfast (3 packs of instant oatmeal, peanut butter, a nouriche thing, bagel with peanut butter and a banana), and set out for the day. some nice riding brought me to johnson city, then up to kingsport on a really busy road (TN 36), where i had lunch at pal's (pronounced, to my ear, “powells” ... but not a book store). after paying $ 3 for my cheeseburger and gigantor iced tea, a nice fellow in the assembly line asked where i'd been riding and said he'd managed the bike shop in hampton for 30 years. unfortunately i didn't have time to get the rest of the story on that.

small roads and storms

the sky had been cloudy all afternoon, so i wasn't really surprised to see it getting darker as i headed into gate city, va, asked directions, and headed out on some really country roads to avoid the 4-lane to natural tunnel state park. this would be a memorable decision.


dogs are a natural hazard of such roads, but the only ones that really frighten me now are the ones big enough to physically knock me off my bike. thankfully, such dogs are thus far always tied up or fenced in. (and i still haven't found a dog that can run faster than 20mph.) one house i passed on this tiny road had a “warning: security dog” sign, and sure enough a silent german shepherd was on guard out back ... it's kind of scary when they're smart enough not to bark, but this one was trained well enough to know what constitutes a real threat.

folks, if you get a dog (especially a big dog), please pen/tie it up, or get it trained really well. these “well, i don't understand ... he never hurt anyone before” stories just don't cut it. i mean really.

rain and fords

from seeing the map at gate city town hall, i knew there'd be a fork in the road after the pavement stopped : the left fork followed the river, while the right clambered up among some hills, then descended back to the river. since i was tired and clearly running out of time until the thunderstorm hit (thunder was rolling about in the valley) i opted for the low road, even though a sign at the fork declared, “warning: open ford .68 miles". i'd already crossed one river, so i wasn't worried.

after passing a few small farms, the road—now a single-lane gravel trail—sure enough passed under the river, but luckily a foot bridge passed over it. handily crossed, i rode on, but then the rain started. it was real mountain storm rain, coming down so hard you could hardly see more than 10 meters. i hid out under a tree next to the river, and when it started raining even harder, i whipped out my tent rain cover and hid under it.

the rain abated a little and i hopped back on my bike, but after another ten minutes of riding came to another river crossing ... this time without a bridge. so, with no other options, i pushed my bike through the shallow river and continued on, sheltered by the trees along the road. finally i reached a pair of old railroad trestles and rounded the corner ... only to see a fallen tree blocking the road, and a swelling river just beside it. i was about to lift my bike over the tree, but the wind and rain picked up again and i had to hide under my tarp for another ten minutes, thinking all the time of into the wild and wondering how far it was to the 4-lane road.

thankfully, it was only about 500 meters, so after a few minutes when the rain abated i headed out once more, heard another falling tree, and passed under a tree that had fallen on some power lines. (maybe i should add here that as exciting as this all was, i'm being safe ... and i got photos of all this stuff !) the 4-lane road was fairly empty, but it took nearly all my remaining energy to ride up to the park, a steep climb up from the valley floor. on the final haul a concerned pickup driver motioned me over at an intersection and said, “yew awt to fahnd some shelter, they's tornayduhs in th’ area.” thanks buddy, i'm headed that direction.

well, the park rangers were really nice and let me stay in a picnic shelter for the night—i even got most of my stuff dried out ! and in the morning i headed out once more ...

cumberland gap

i guess i ought to wrap this up soon, so i'll skip most of the grueling, painful ride from natural tunnel to cumberland gap (via sneedville, tn). i stopped at a gas station along VA 600 with a sign outside that said, “thanks for shopping here” and got a gatorade and snickers ($ 1.72). a fellow outside said to me with a laugh, “awl tha way from tha oshean ? wehl, you's een scawtt counteh, vuhgeenya nayow !”

the ride—especially as TN 63 turned straight uphill after sneedville—was steep and challenging, mentally, physically, spiritually. i stopped once and got directions from a nice couple guys out fishing. stopped again at an intersection and entertained three kittens there for a bit. i finally arrived in cumberland gap, crashing at a ramada for the night after riding 120km and climbing and descending probably 1000 meters for the day ... completely, utterly exhausted.

so today i woke up late and headed out on dubiously weak knees, only to find out that i can't ride my bike through the cumberland gap tunnel. at a gas station a fellow working on a car told me about a path up over cumberland gap into middlesborough. the path was a muddy, steep, rocky swath cut into the hillside, but after pushing and grunting my muddy, rainy way up to the gap, i finally coasted downhill to the visitor center and then to a hotel in town.

thank goodness for hotels and restaurants ! i'll write again in a few days to give you all time to digest this update ; hopefully the ride to mammoth cave will be nice.