Day 30: Asheville, NC to Linville Falls, NC - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

May 12, 2011

Day 30: Asheville, NC to Linville Falls, NC

I leave Asheville the happiest person on two wheels, rested and ready to go after two satisfying days off. I ride seven miles back up to the Parkway, which instantly sets me climbing into the hills and the clouds. The air feels thick with humidity. I sweat like crazy even though I can't see the sun.

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I'm grinding up a long hill when a brown Toyota Camry headed down the other direction stops. The driver puts down his window, tells me he's with the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper, and asks if he can take some shots of me riding. I say yes, so he turns around and speeds away to the north. About a mile up the road I round a corner and see him kneeling in the middle of the other lane, snapping away as I pedal past. I also talk to several day riders from Asheville throughout the morning, all of whom sound impressed when I explain where I started, where I'm headed, and how much weight I'm lugging over all of these hills. I realize I'm going to be a whole lot less interesting once this trip ends.

I'm mostly in the trees. Some views open up along the way, but nothing as quite as dramatic as the first two days on the Parkway. Clouds move quickly by, just a few hundred feet above my head at times. The asshole bugs are still absolutely awful and everywhere.

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I put on sunscreen in front of a visitor center near the top of a long climb and watch a man in his 70s pull his Honda minivan toward the spot closest to the front door. Halfway in he realizes it's a space set aside for disabled drivers. The car doesn't have any special license plates on the bumper or placards in the window because he isn't handicapped, just overweight. The guy slows down and almost stops, knowing he shouldn't park there. His conscience tells him it's the wrong thing to do. But convenience wins out a split second later. He keeps going and parks anyway, unwilling to take ten extra seconds to back up, move three slots over, and walk a little farther to the bathroom to take a noisy dump. I sit and wonder if people from other countries are as lazy as Americans.

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After topping out around 5,700 feet I round a corner and start down. With 35 pounds of bike and racks, 40 pounds of gear, and 175 pounds of rider I fly down even the most subtle grades. At better than 30 miles per hour, a butterfly floats in front of the bike and gets sucked under the front fender, where he sits pinched between the fender and the spinning tire. He fights for his life, with everything he has, struggling against the force of the wind trying to push him under. Just when it looks like he's about to head in toward the spokes and slice up into a dozen pieces he manages to pop free and fly off to the right and up into the sky, safe for another day. A few moments later I ride through the bottom edge of a cloud as it passes over the mountain. All along the drop I feel like I'm being pelted by tiny rocks, which turn out to be bugs. By the time I reach the bottom and start going up again my arms, legs, and face are a mess of dirt, sweat, and the blood and guts and dead bodies of black and green insects.

Trading the bike for something with more power.
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I'm ready to stop for the day by the time I reach Crabtree Meadows, but it's closed until next week, just like every campground I've passed on the Parkway so far. The camp store isn't open, either. It's a ghost town. Thunderstorms rumble behind me as I push on, hungry and tired, on a slow ride to Little Switzerland.

Knobs.
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Gooch.
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There's no place to camp in town and only a little bit of daylight still hangs in the sky. With no destination in mind I head back to the Parkway. I think about diving off to the side and setting up the tent in the trees, but stop and look at the guidebook instead. Linville Falls looks promising, but it's at least 13 miles up the road with a 1,300-foot climb over a mountain standing in the way, and I've been pushing hard for hours.

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I look around and notice that the dark clouds are gone. I'm cool in the shade of the trees as the sun heads down.

"What the hell," I say out loud to myself. "Let's see what happens."

It's outstanding riding. I have the road to myself, the bugs are finally under control, and it's completely quiet except for the noises from the birds and insects. The air sits still, streaks of blue line the sky above the nearby hills, and the mountains to the south fade into the distance, swallowed up by the bluish haze that gives them their name.

A train whistle blows far away as I climb, easily up at first and then steeply. I ride in a rolling sweat with a calm confidence in my ability to conquer the mountain before the evening turns dark. It's the kind of bike touring moment I live for, where I push beyond what's comfortable, beyond the point when I should reasonably stop and call it a day. Whether I make it to Linville Falls or not, I know I'll remember tonight for the rest of my life—although I'll edit out the part where the gnat flies into my open mouth and straight down my throat.

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I power to the top of the climb at 4,100 feet as the clock turns over to 8:00 exactly. I stop and stand with the bike resting between my legs, lean my head back, and throw my arms straight out to the side, doing my best impression of either Jesus or the letter T. A single drop of sweat comes loose from my left sideburn, rolls down my cheek to the middle of the end of my chin, and then falls to the ground.

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The sun burns a brilliant orange off to the west, hanging low in the sky as the valleys below sit covered in fog. Moments later the road cuts to the right, runs across a ridge, and starts to drop me into a fog-filled valley of my own. Several cold miles down the road I head off the Parkway and make it to the campground with only the smallest bit of light left in the sky. I write by the light of the laptop as rednecks yell at their children and dogs bark angrily a few hundred feet away. I run through all kinds of words to try and describe how I feel about what I just accomplished, but settle on proud and leave it at that.

Today's ride: 74 miles (119 km)
Total: 1,527 miles (2,457 km)

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