Day 36: Roanoke, VA to George Washington National Forest - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

May 18, 2011

Day 36: Roanoke, VA to George Washington National Forest

Back-to-back nights in motels make me feel lazy. I load up and head out the door early to try and make up for it. I slowly work into a sweat as I climb back up the side of the mountain I wound down yesterday morning. I soon reach the Parkway, which hums with traffic, full of cars with Virginia license plates on their way to work or school.

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I take a break at an overlook that used to sit high above an untouched mountain, but now looks down upon a couple of strip malls and a Lowe's. As I sit and make notes, a guy on a loaded bike rides up the Parkway from the south and pulls in.

"Are you Jeff?" he asks as he rolls to a stop.

Even though this has already happened a few times on this trip, it still absolutely weirds me out for half a second.

His name's Dennis and he's from Virginia Beach. It turns out he heard about me through a guy named Jacob, who I met yesterday at the bike shop and who works at the front desk at the Quality Inn in Roanoke. That's where Dennis and his four riding buddies stayed last night. They're out riding the Blue Ridge Parkway together from one end to the other and then continuing on north up the length of Skyline Drive. Dennis is the most loaded member of the group, so he left an hour earlier than everyone else to gain a head start.

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It feels strange riding up a big hill, looking ahead of me, and seeing another loaded bike slowly crawling the same direction. Within the hour I look back in my mirror and see another—and another, and another, and finally one more. Paul organized the ride and also lives in Virginia Beach. Dean's from Bar Harbor in Maine and John from Boone in North Carolina. Tom comes from a town in Tennessee called Soddy Daisy, the most Southern-sounding place in America.

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For awhile I ride while talking, something I've never done before. It's a break from my routine, a change of pace, and it makes the morning climbing pass more quickly. But most of the guys are strong riders, and after hanging back with me for awhile they push quickly ahead into the hills and disappear out of sight.

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When the ridge cuts out of the trees it opens up views of a large valley at least a thousand feet below. Farms break up broad sections of trees along the valley floor. The surrounding mountains now stand shorter when compared to the huge peaks I saw farther south. Clouds turn to rain and then into sunshine within 15 minutes. The Parkway intersects with the Appalachian Trail a couple of times during the morning and I pass several through-hikers, their beards thick and full, legs strong and toned, and upper bodies ridiculously skinny and weak from two months of non-stop walking in the woods. Dennis and I ride slowly, well behind everyone else.

Why I don't look behind me.
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Everyone leaves before me after lunch and I ride alone in my slow, steady pace again. I slice through several millipedes, with a crunch under the front tire that's immediately followed by a slightly quieter crunch under the back. I check the mirror and sometimes see them continuing to wiggle and slink their way across the road. The afternoon's climb is my last major uphill on the Parkway. The route rises and levels, rises and levels, and then rises one last time on a long push to the top. After 400 miles of ups and downs it now feels almost easy. Except for a dark-colored Honda hatchback from Quebec that passes a little too close it's an uneventful ride.

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The wind blows strong and cold from the east at the top. I turn the pedals exactly three times and then let gravity take care of the rest. My eyes water from the wind on the way down, salty drops escaping from the corners and quickly cutting back across my cheeks toward my ear lobes. The scenery turns beautiful, with the dark green hills running into the lighter-colored valleys, but the long strings of switchbacks and occasional rough patches of pavement require constant attention. The downhill stretches into one of the longest of my life, dropping me more than 3,000 feet over 12 incredible miles. I freeze even though I'm bundled up and my neck muscles turn sore from holding up my fat head.

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After dinner with Paul I keep riding, past the campground where everyone else stops and where I reasonably should, too. But I can't bring myself to do it. The rain holds off, the sun shines, and the road winds easily uphill in the shade of the trees, along and sometimes over the quietly moving Otter Creek. I slowly spin away the evening, pedaling alone on a completely empty road, drawing huge blasts of cool and clean mountain air into my lungs. It's the kind of riding I dream about and it proves to me that choosing to ride across the United States on a bike is the second-best thing I've ever done.

With daylight fading I come across a Forest Service road leading off the left side of the Parkway. I turn, ride a tenth of a mile up a gravel and mud path, and soon find a flat spot in the trees. A truck speeds by on the narrow road within an hour, bright lights on and radio blasting, but it's either just dark enough that they don't see me or they're drunk enough that they don't care. I hear them yelling not far in the distance as I unroll my sleeping bag and try to head to sleep.

Today's ride: 77 miles (124 km)
Total: 1,830 miles (2,945 km)

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