Day 25: Clemson, SC to near Tuckasegee, NC - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

May 7, 2011

Day 25: Clemson, SC to near Tuckasegee, NC

I smell great. My face is shaved and my teeth are brushed. I have no bug bites on my legs and no sunburn on the back side of either shoulder. There's no tent to pack or air mattress that needs to be rolled up and crammed into a too-small stuff sack. I know what's happening in world events. I've seen all the latest Stanley Cup playoff highlights. Spending a couple of nights in a hotel has its benefits.

But I'm restless. I've filled up most of the last day and a half with pizza, sleep, and 50 other things that aren't bike riding across the country. I'm ready to go.

The first five miles kill. My legs turned stiff from sitting around, and pushing up even the slightest bit of a hill is a slow and uncomfortable slog. As soon as I start north from Clemson I'm back in the country, but a more upscale version where the homes are expensive enough that I don't have to worry about dogs running out from the well-maintained lawns and chasing me up the street. The morning takes me along both sides of Lake Keowee, past small churches, a few golf courses, and a nuclear power plant. The trees start to turn thicker and taller and I can see the mountains rising up above them in the distance. I down two giant cinnamon rolls at a place called Sisters, where the sisters in charge look more like partners.

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I ride up and down, up and down, and then up and down some more on my way through Salem and up Highway 281. In Florida I'd go several days without switching to a different chain ring, mostly staying in the same few gears in the middle of the range. Now I don't go more than a mile without running through all three rings and every part of the index. I start to get grumpy. I can see the mountains in front of me and I'm ready to leave the rollers behind, start climbing for real, and move on to the next big challenge of the trip.

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Soon I find what I asked for. The road starts going up, slowly at first and then very steeply. I drop into the third-smallest gear, then the second, and finally I'm all the way at the bottom and out of help. Sweat beads up on my hands and drops from above my eyebrows on to the top tube and water bottles. My legs burn from the most intense riding I've done in two years, but in my mind I feel better about it than all of the climbing that came before. I know I'm not killing myself just to reach the top of a hill, come back down, and start all over again. It's an hours-long mission and I'm ready for the fight.

At the end of the huge climb I cross into North Carolina. A sign at the top warns of the eight miles of winding road ahead. I have it in my head that the logical place for a state line is at the top of a mountain pass, so I must have a big, winding, amazing downhill ahead.

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I don't.

I drop 50 feet and then start back into the ups and downs again, where I stay for several more hours. My instinct tells me to turn mad or frustrated, but out here, with only one road that can take me where I want to go, there's no point. I just keep pedaling, sweating during the climbs and then shivering on the drops when the breeze quickly sucks away the heat. It's hard riding but I feel great passing through beautiful country on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

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I eat gas station fried chicken while country music plays in the background. The first guy loves Sundays for the following reasons: blue jeans, chicken with baked beans, every verse of Amazing Grace, sitting on the porch swing, having a Hallelujah good time, and cutting out coupons. The second prefers women who wear cut-off jeans instead of evening dresses, drink beer instead of wine, and get turned on by country music, not Sinatra or Coltrane ("Even Barry White ain't gonna work tonight.") He sings about getting lucky out in a field somewhere before ending the song with a big "Yee haw!"

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I ride past Lake Toxaway, lined with expensive second homes for people from Charlotte and Raleigh and Asheville. Soon Highway 281 turns into a rough two-lane track with crumbling shoulders and the occasional pothole. The branches of narrow, leafy trees with light green leaves hang over the pavement, which doesn't run straight for any longer than a quarter of a mile. Bits of gravel sneak out into the road in every corner, forcing me to ride with incredible concentration and clenched balls through a group of at least a dozen switchbacks. The steep grade, combined with the slow speed needed to dodge the rocks that threaten to send me to the ground, requires a death grip on the front brakes that leaves my left hand tight and sore and the front rim hot to the touch. The descent spits me out into a valley.

And then I hit a wall. It's a straight line of road angled up toward the sky.

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Within half a mile it starts turning left and right, left and right, weaving its way up the side of a mountain. It might be the most difficult stretch I've ever ridden, steep enough to make me want for the awful but flat sidewalk riding of Miami. It takes everything I have to keep my speed over four miles per hour. A nice guy in a Subaru station wagon offers me a ride up, but I say no. I won't walk any of it either, but I stop constantly. I'm in awe. These few miles are just insanely steady and unwavering in their steepness. It feels like a long, slow death. It must look that way, too; at one point I look up and see a group of hawks literally circling a few hundred feet above me. It was either Nietzsche or Sartre who famously wrote that hell is other people, but they were wrong. Hell is this stretch Highway 281.

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I let out a huge sigh, give a little fist pump, and stand and drip sweat all over the bike when I reach the top. I'm proud of what I accomplished but confident there's more to come. And there is. It's up and down, up and down, all through the early evening as clouds roll in. The hills are slightly less steep so I'm able to ride at five miles per hour instead of four. The Blue Ridge Mountains are no joke.

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I ride off a side road, up one last hill, and pull into a wonderful little park in a community called Canada, which I came across completely by accident last night while screwing around with Google Maps. I set up the tent as a house across the way blasts "I Believe in Miracles" from a scratchy radio. I dive inside and stretch out, tired from all the climbing but impressed that I just finished one of the toughest riding days in my life.

Safe and sound in the park.
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Within the hour the sun sets and the skies clear out. Crickets chirp under a sliver of moon and every few minutes a dog barks all by himself in the distance.

Today's ride: 62 miles (100 km)
Total: 1,306 miles (2,102 km)

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