2004 Bike Trip: Crossing the Piedmont

Leif Johnson — 25 May 2004, 14:05

yow ! so after 9 days of pedaling, i've finally powered myself and my bicycle across 830 km (520 miles) of north carolina, starting from elevation 0 (cape hatteras) and finally reaching 1168 meters (3834 feet, at raven rocks overlook on the amazingly beautiful blue ridge parkway). the trip so far has been challenging beyond my wildest dreams, but also strangely rewarding.

i've been resting up here in blowing rock for the past couple of days, thanks to the marvelous hospitality of martha and mike, neighbors-cum-family here in this previous residence. (for those who don't know, i lived in blowing rock from 1990 til 1995, when i hauled off down the mountain to go to ncssm in durham.)

i suppose this udpate will be a bit long, because i've got a lot of thoughts to get out there. please bear with me.

developing the piedmont

the challenges outnumbered the rewards, certainly, as i finally pedaled out of raleigh on tuesday. the ride up to that point had been easy enough to pedal in my largest chainring (front gear on a bike), since the terrain was flat and fairly windless. but after leaving raleigh and cary, i crossed jordan lake and finally met my match : a hill that forced me to use that left shift lever. the traffic around chapel hill and carrboro was horrendous, and the road's complete lack of shoulder contributed nothing to the stability of my nerves.

but i made it, and after staying in carrboro for the night (thanks j !) i stocked up on camp fuel and got a new rear reflector light. (my other light had fallen off while riding the previous day, which in hindsight is probably why that guy honked at me while i was pedaling through cary. why can't people just pull up alongside a biker and say something ? the car horn and american flag sticker as voice and expression of america.)

outside carrboro i met up with my first real headwinds, a painful knee, and increasing hills ... not to mention missing bike route signs, narrow roads, and lots of suv drivers. the land between raleigh and winston-salem, once devoted to hay, tobacco, cattle, and horse farms, is now dominated by large colorful signs proclaiming new developments :

| Rocky Springs Crossing | Luxury 4/5 Bedroom Estates | Custom Built on 5+ Acre Lots | From the $400s

of course, these places are all unfailingly 20 or 30 miles from the nearest metropolitan area, which in the next 5 years will increase traffic, drive road-widening projects, and ruin existing ecologies. i'd be surprised if one bike lane or bus line got built among all the hubbub, since there's just no money in bikes and buses.

the mental challenge

around high point the bike route turns abruptly north for a few miles to snake between greensboro, high point, and winston-salem. when i arrived at this point a huge thunderstorm dominated the northern horizon, so i took shelter from the rain, cars, and trucks for an hour or so on a crazy lady's porch. when she told me to get lost, the sun was already falling, and i had, yes, miles to go before i slept. nerves and muscles shot, almost ready to freak out, i scoped out a city park but finally stopped at a quaker church (on wendover just outside high point) and met a really nice young couple who lived behind the church. grant and tracy let me stay in their backyard for the night, my personal saviors for the day.

because the block with the church and their house was one of the only wooded areas left in the visible area (the surrounding trees had recently been removed to build a strip mall and several of the aforementioned gated communities), grant warned me of raccoons and other small mammals that might get into my food during the night. i had no problems, but it sure must be hard for a small mammal in that area now. i'm just struggling with the idea that people go for car-dependant, suburban, clone-housing developments over high-density urban apartments and mixed-use zoning.

music in the foothills

so, after one of the worst days so far—when i seriously asked myself several times why i'm doing this trip at all—i hopped on my bike again, this time fueled with three yoplait nouriche drinks (lots of vitamins and protein, and 300 calories each, for only $ 1.50) and headed out towards the mountains. during the day i saw exactly two other cyclists—both road riders, which was infinitely many times more cyclists than i had seen the previous day—and ate at subway to dodge another afternoon thundershower. but the country west of winston-salem calms down a bit, and i passed an afternoon softball practice at a school, stopped and chatted at a really old gas station, and finally pulled into fiddler's grove campground (union grove, nc), where i slept in my hammock next to a pond with the bullfrogs and crickets singing.

the next morning i had breakfast (bbq sandwiches with coleslaw !) at the cook shack, a fantastic half-house, half-concert-hall where the likes of the krueger brothers and other local bluegrass artists come play from time to time. the refrigerator there is plastered with photos of people playing banjos, guitars, fiddles. the folks running the place were some of the nicest people i've met, and after a little while the pe teachers from the elementary school out back came in for some cheeseburgers.

that day i crossed brushy mountain, my first significant hill, and ate a really long lunch at moravian falls, nc. as the sun started sinking toward the western horizon—now higher up thanks to the appalachians—i realized that i wasn't going to make it to blowing rock that day, so i stopped, exhausted, for a while in ferguson, nc, and chatted on the porch of a run-down gas station with vicky, paul, and dennis. that night i camped at a horse resort in the elk river valley near darby, nc, where james, ashley, james, and julie kindly invited me over to their campsite for dinner. it's not really what i expected, but the further i get into the mountains the nicer the people are.

the climb

finally i was within riding distance of blowing rock. just a day later than i had thought, i started riding toward triplett, nc and then discovered my first real climb : 300 meters in the space of 3 km ! luckily the traffic was light, and the road had lots of curves and such to pull off and eat some more trail mix. as i pulled up to the top of the hill, i stopped to watch a thunderstorm amble about in the valley below, and a nice fellow stopped by in a van to ask about the ride.

the top of elk creek road joins the blue ridge parkway near parkway school. i lifted my bike over the barrier there, pushed it up a wee hill, and was finally on the blue ridge parkway ! a sign nearby validated my efforts by saying i had crossed the eastern continental divide. i powered my bike up another hill (the one between bamboo and aho ; somehow i'd always wondered whether i could do that hill on a bike, and now i know) and waited out some lightning next to a honeysuckle under an oak, and then rode up goforth, soaking and tired ... yet energized by the surroundings and the success of my ride for the day.

return to the homeland

it's strange and nice to be back here in this town, surrounded by these beautiful, beautiful mountains and all this green and life and water. it's rained here every afternoon for the past two weeks, so i've had the opportunity to soak in the rain, the mist, the clouds, and the rolling thunder while listening to bluegrass and eating nice sandwiches and barbecue.

it's strange that i never really noticed how wonderful it is to be up here in the north carolina mountains. i guess i was younger, and distracted by school and other things. but this area has to be one of the most beautiful places i've ever seen. it's nice to be back.

the ride for the next few days will take me to watauga lake (tn), natural tunnel state park (va), and cumberland gap (ky), on the way to mammoth cave (ky). i'll try to write more frequently if i can, so these won't be so long. but hey, it's an adventure, so i hope i'll have lots of stories to tell. :) i just hope you all enjoy reading them ; let me know.

the princess bride

i'd like to close by noting that the princess bride is a fantastic movie (and the book is excellent as well). but what i didn't know until i just saw it again is that cristopher guest (spinal tap, best in show, waiting for guffman, a mighty wind) stars as count tyrone rugen, and rob reiner (also of spinal tap fame) directed the film. go figure.