Day 37: George Washington National Forest to Afton, VA - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

May 19, 2011

Day 37: George Washington National Forest to Afton, VA

Chirping birds in an otherwise silent forest wake me up after an amazing night's sleep. The morning is overcast and windless, cool but not cold, and thin clouds run in lines over the valley off to my left. It's a beautiful final morning on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

At the crest of a hill I startle two white-tailed deer, who spring instantly into full flight in front of me, hopping across the width of the road in two jumps, hooves clicking on the pavement and tails pointed up to the sky. They cut quickly through the woods and within seconds fall out of sight. Mostly motorcycles pass me on this remote and winding stretch of the Parkway, where I ride under the cover of trees for much of the morning.

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My stomach begs for food but I can't do much to help. Poor planning means I have to push through 35 hilly miles on four packets of peanut butter sandwich crackers and a small bag of peanuts. I try to think about things other than being hungry, like the reasons why so many deer along this stretch think it's reasonable to take a dump in the middle of the road. It doesn't work. My energy drains lower and lower, my mind wears down, and I turn surly, cursing the hills and begging out loud for them to end. I'm distracted for a moment by a group of hawks with five-foot wingspans who float effortlessly on the drafts pushing up off the side of the mountain—and then four seconds later I remember I'm hungry.

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I roll up the rough gravel road to the country store in Love, Virginia as the happiest person in the entire state.

It feels like a different day when I ride out, no longer thirsty or hungry, my legs rested and strong and pulling with power up the hills. I check the mirror regularly, expecting to see some of the guys I met yesterday pulling around a corner, but it never happens.

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I pull off into an overlook at the top of a long climb and lean my bike against a stone wall. A cool breeze blows. The cars and trucks look like ants heading across the floor of the Shenandoah Valley 1,800 feet below. It stretches 50 miles into the distance before running into a long line of hazy hills. Huge and puffy white clouds fill the sky, blocking the rays of the sun and blotting the valley floor with dark spots. Birds chirp all around and the faint sound of a jetliner drops down from above. The towns and cities that crop up throughout the valley give it a distinctly different look than the broad sweeps of empty land I saw at the start of this road back in North Carolina, but the view and the feeling it gives me are impressive and wonderful all the same.

The big drop down the other side shoots me into a hollow, leaving one last 300-foot climb before a lazy three-mile descent to Rockfish Gap and the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Between its 470 miles and the climbs back up to it from the towns and cities I visited, I gained more than 50,000 feet of elevation since leaving Cherokee. I earned every single one. Yet for all the strain, the heat, the bugs, the freezing downhills, and the torrential rain, I ride away with only great memories of the indescribable beauty, the charming small towns, bending the rules on camping and closed roads, pushing myself beyond what I thought possible, and hours and hours lost in thought or singing to the music in my head. I feel a profound sense of accomplishment.

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I also leave with a bit of sadness—not for me, but for so many of the people who passed by in cars and trucks and RVs and motorcycles. For as much as I lived and breathed the Blue Ridge, most travelers never felt much of anything, stopping only briefly at overlooks, visitors centers, or gift shops. Over 470 miles I saw only a few people out for a walk, stopped to lay in the sun, eating a sandwich outside, or sitting quietly and appreciating the incredible beauty in front of them. I know that most people don't have the time, money, desire, or ability to bike or hike the Parkway, but nearly all the travelers I saw seemed content to do nothing more than sit in a leather car seat for hours on end and watch the world pass by in front of them like a high-definition TV program that requires no input at all. Checking "Blue Ridge Parkway" off a to-do list seemed the common goal. As a result, the Parkway ends up being an amazing experience that almost no one actually experiences.

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The Appalachian Trail crosses a major highway at Rockfish Gap. Hikers coming off the trail try to hitch a ride down the long hill to Waynesboro, standing on the shoulder of the road with backpacks, walking sticks, long beards, and dirt-stained bodies that probably smell worse than my sleeping bag.

I drop off the highway and rumble down a rough gravel road into Afton. It's a tiny, unassuming place with only a post office and a few churches sitting along a single two-lane strip of pavement. But on the hill that leads steeply up toward the highway sit two of the most significant sites in bicycle touring: the Bike House and the home of the Cookie Lady.

To celebrate the United States' bicentennial in 1976, a group of dedicated bikers set out to create an organized cross-country ride across America. Called the Bikecentennial, the event attracted several thousand riders who traveled over 4,000 miles between Yorktown, Virginia and Florence, Oregon during the summer, camping mostly in large fields, high school gymnasiums, and cramped community centers along the way. It just so happened that the route in Virginia ran through Afton and past the home of a then-58-year-old woman named June Curry. During the Bikecentennial, she offered water and fresh-baked cookies to bikers struggling through the area's huge hills. Later, when the route became known as the TransAmerica Trail, she also began to provide touring bikers a place to rest or spend the night. In the 35 years since, more than a thousand riders have passed through her doors.

I round a corner and recognize the place instantly. The pair of two-story brick houses sit tall and narrow, very close to the road, with a large brown cinder-block garage between them.

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I walk up the stairs to the door of the house farther up the hill and ring the bell. A minute later the latch clicks open and I'm standing in front of the Cookie Lady, the patron saint of bicycle touring. She's 92, stands no taller than five feet, and speaks in a high-pitched voice with a sweet Western Virginia twang. As we talk I smile so wide that I feel the skin bunching up below my cheekbones. June recently had a stroke and doesn't move well, but she still speaks a mile a minute and tells me at great speed about the Bike House, how to use the outdoor shower, and where in the house to find food. She also gives me tips on the road ahead, reminds me to load up on water before I leave, and fills me in on the latest events in Afton. I try to get a few words in, but even when I talk loudly I'm not sure she hears me.

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It doesn't matter. Hearing old stories told with heart and great detail from the a sweet, generous, trusting, legendary, and truly amazing 92-year-old is enough. June hands me a pair of keys and wishes me a great night's sleep as I step off the porch. I'm already sure it will be.

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I push the bike down past the garage and rest it against the screens that enclose the porch of the lower building, called the Bike House. I place the key in the pad lock, open it slowly, remove it from the latch, and then open the door and step into the covered entry way. The history hits me over the head immediately. The walls are covered in cards, letters, newspaper articles, and thank-you notes from bike tourers from around the world, all of whom spent a few hours or a night here. I scan the walls for names I recognize and soon see the card Joy Santee posted back in 2006. Other riders list home towns like Greenbelt, Maryland; Clinton Township, Michigan; Franklin, Tennessee; and Rabobank in the Netherlands. I've been here five minutes and my stomach's already twitching.

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It's only the start.

I open a second screen, take the other key, unlock the front door of the house, turn the handle, and then step inside. The wood-trimmed screen slams loudly behind me and the musty smell of bike touring's Mecca fills my nose. It takes a moment to notice that the front room's walls are painted light blue, because nearly every inch is covered by postcards, Polaroids, patches, hats, stickers, tires, and tubes. More than 30 shirts hang on racks from the ceiling. Binders full of the photos of past travelers sit in stacks of four and five on an old white desk. I stand in awe for a few minutes and then scan again for familiar names, eventually finding Mike Riscica's card from back in 2005.

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I walk into the next couple of rooms and it's more of the same: newspaper articles about June and bike touring, hundreds of postcards from previous guests, signs, t-shirts, holiday cards, gifts, a tandem welded together from two single bikes. It goes on forever and the artifacts date back decades. The depth of gratitude and sense of shared history is absolutely overwhelming.

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It gets to me, this place. Standing in the poorly-lit front room again I'm overcome with emotion. Barely a day has gone by in the past four years when I didn't think about the time I'd finally be able to ride across America on a bicycle. So many of the stories that inspired and taught me about bike touring took place on the TransAmerica Trail, where the riders came through Afton, met the Cookie Lady, and added their small mark to the Bike House. I always imagined myself having the same experience one day, and now, after all this time, after all the dreaming and preparation and sacrifices, I'm here. It's a punch in the gut. It brings home in a way I haven't yet felt that I'm actually out here making my dream come true. I stand alone in the entry way, proud and humbled, so happy to be part of such an incredible community.

And tonight I get to sleep here.

This is one of the greatest days of my life.

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Two guys pull up on bikes a few hours later. Jonathan's the dad, Austin the son. They're from San Diego and are out on a two-week trip from Yorktown to somewhere in Tennessee. After meeting June they decide to stay the night. It's a strange dynamic. They think the house is interesting, a novelty. I'm over the moon, in love, quietly freaking out in my head. They read magazines, send text messages, and go to sleep early. I furiously write notes in my journal, trying to make sense and put into words a day I'm struggling to process. Several times I just stop and stare and breathe in the stale air, feeling like my head's about to burst.

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Cars roar by on the road that runs 25 feet from the house. A train rumbles past on the nearby tracks and shakes the old window panes. I set up my sleeping bag on the couch in the front room and think about what will happen to this amazing place once June's no longer around to keep it going. None of the possibilities make me feel good. I head to sleep dreaming up scenarios that will let me buy the house, move to Afton, and keep the memories alive for another 35 years.

Today's ride: 55 miles (89 km)
Total: 1,885 miles (3,034 km)

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