Day 27: Near Maggie Valley, NC to Asheville, NC - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

May 9, 2011

Day 27: Near Maggie Valley, NC to Asheville, NC

It's 6:45 on a Monday morning and the Blue Ridge Parkway is all mine. The locals are back to work, the tourists are still at their motels finishing off a disappointing continental breakfast, and this stretch of the Parkway is remote enough that no one uses it as a shortcut between towns. I don't see a car for more than an hour as I push up an 1,800-foot climb on the smoothest, most beautiful mountain pavement I've ever seen. Birds chirp all around, the wind lightly moves the trees, and clouds roll by just above my head. They partly shade the sun, but the valleys below still cast long shadows in the early light.

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At the top I bundle up with two shirts, fleece gloves, and a bright yellow rain jacket. The arms flap wildly as I fly down the side of the mountain at nearly 35 miles per hour. Mostly I'm out of the sun, so it's cold but amazing riding, winding quickly through the switchbacks in the drop handlebars and hearing nothing but the noise of the wind and the clank of the panniers as I speed over small bumps. I don't pedal once for more than nine miles. The last bit of downhill shoots me out at Balsam Gap, nearly half a mile below. I ride on 30 feet of flat road before I start right back up, on my way to the Parkway's highest point.

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The trees shine green, yellow, orange, and brown. Haze hangs above the long line of valleys off to the north. The clouds move in front of the sun every few minutes, leaving dark spots on the surrounding hills. I hear train whistles coming from Waynesville a few thousand feet below, but the Parkway stays mostly empty. When cars and motorcycles pass, the smell of sulfur pumps out of their hard-working engines and follows behind them like a fart cloud.

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The ride through the tunnel at Pinnacle Ridge takes me out of the shade and into the light and brings one jaw-dropping view after another. The skies shine blue. It's warm but not hot. I realize that I might be experiencing the absolute best day of the year to ride this stretch of the Blue Ridge and can't stop thinking about how lucky I am to be here at exactly this moment. I've done a lot of mountain riding near the West Coast, but never in my life have I experienced anything so profoundly beautiful. Several times I swear out loud to myself, not because of the hills or the sweat or the bugs, but because I round a corner or crest a hill and see the mountains and valleys in the distance, fading away to what seems like forever.

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At noon I reach Richland Balsam Overlook, the tallest spot on the Parkway at 6,053 feet. I figure that at least a few thousand people are on the road at that moment, somewhere on the 480 miles it runs between Virginia and North Carolina, but none of those chumps are higher up than me. I celebrate my victory with crackers and peanut butter and then watch 50- and 60-year-olds in Buicks and Ford Tauruses pull into the overlook, stop, squeeze out of the car, snap one picture, talk about the number of miles to the next place they can eat or take a dump, and then drive off.

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It's not a straight shot down. I deal well with the big, long climbs where I have a goal to reach, but strings of ups and downs drive me insane. So do the bugs. Every time I stop they attack and instantly form a pale black halo around me.

"Ahhhhhhh!" I scream. "Stop flying into the vents of my helmet you stupid assholes!"

I can feel them flying in, getting stuck between the inside of the helmet and my head, wiggling and buzzing around, and generally annoying the shit out of me. I stand along the side of the road, dripping in sweat, quickly shaking my head from side to side and waving my arms around the upper half of my body like a complete idiot. None of it does any good. When I finally head seriously down, the bugs slam into my face and arms and legs. They feel like rain drops and stick right to me, covering my skin in little black dots the size of a pen point.

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Hah.
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I didn't sleep much last night. I'm running out of water and feel a little dehydrated. All I've eaten are some crackers, a danish, and a couple of energy bars. The afternoon runs on and on as I slog up hills, down to a gap, and then back up again. By the time I see the Mt. Pisgah camp store sitting on top of the next long hill I'm spent, but by some miracle a tailwind kicks in and pushes me up at better than 13 miles per hour. Soon I sit on a light blue wooden rocking chair in the front of the store, in the breeze, and devour potato chips, an Oreo cookie ice cream sandwich, a Snickers bar, a Mountain Dew, and a liter of cold water. I'm no longer the highest person on the Parkway, only the happiest.

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I scream down the other side of Mt. Pisgah with the hot sun shining on my back and shoulders. The vistas remain stunning, with tens of thousands of acres of perfect, untouched forest covering the sides of the hills and mountains as far as I can see. The view goes dark and the temperature instantly drops 25 degrees each time I pass into one of the nine short tunnels on the eight-mile descent. It lasts no more than half a minute and then I'm back out into the heat and brightness. The downhill is smooth and winding, shaded but warm. The sweet smell of spring fills my head as the miles zoom by and I'm reminded why it's good to be alive.

The Parkway turns busy around Asheville, where evening commuters use it as a highway. They're impatient, anxious to head home, and very much want the slow biker to die or at least get the hell out of their way so that they can make it there nine seconds sooner. By the time I reach the house of my Warm Showers host Tom I've done 77 tough miles. I'm completely done.

Back into the city.
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Tom's a talker, but after a few days and nights by myself that's ok. He's ridden the Blue Ridge from Asheville to the northern end and back, so he gives me helpful advice for the days ahead. Stuffed on spaghetti and rolls and ice cream I head to the cool downstairs and crash hard.

Today's ride: 77 miles (124 km)
Total: 1,438 miles (2,314 km)

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