Day 39: Vesuvius, VA to Troutville, VA - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

May 21, 2011

Day 39: Vesuvius, VA to Troutville, VA

The cook and all the old timers eating breakfast at Gertie's wish me a safe trip as I make my way to the door. I ride north out of town and get a wave, a honk, and sometimes both from passing drivers. I'm in a part of the country where men drive trucks with their dog sitting next to them in the middle of the bench seat, both with their eyes fixed on the road ahead, while a gun rack holding a rifle or two hangs behind their heads in the back window.

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A mile and a half out of Vesuvius the road comes to a T. On the opposite side of the intersection, mixed in with a bunch of highway and interstate signs, sits the marker I've been waiting years to see:

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I rode a portion of the TransAmerica Trail heading east at the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but now I'm on the route on for real. I'll use it through the rest of Virginia and then off and on through parts of Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Just like when I visited the Cookie Lady and the Bike House, joining up with the TransAm drives home the fact that after all the years of waiting I'm finally crossing the country by bike.

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Under a nearly cloudless sky I ride slowly up and then down rolling hills, past cows, barns, country homes, and a few wineries. The route's quiet enough that I fly down a hill and around a corner and come upon a dog laying in the sun in the middle of the road. Farther on, fields of tall grass sit both to my left and right and make the rising and falling countryside look fuzzy and soft. It's spectacular riding. For four years I dreamed of riding the TransAm in Virginia on a day exactly like this. Now it's here and it's every bit as incredible as I imagined and hoped.

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I drop into Lexington, past the campuses of the Virginia Military Institute and Washington & Lee University. It's an orgy of red brick, white columns, arched windows, church spires, and decorations that call out, "Hey, look at me, I'm historical." I pull up to a sandwich shop and grab a spot on the front porch, where I watch students, parents and locals walk past. Every few minutes a horse-drawn carriage shuffles by with two horses harnessed side-by-side, a driver sitting directly behind them, and three rows of oversized tourists in polo shirts and flower-printed blouses. Everyone looks a little uncomfortable and not quite entertained.

Bob sits at the table next to me. He does catering work at one of the colleges in town, and between graduations and other events he's been working 60-hour weeks lately. This morning he's taking a break with a smoke and a drink. He's probably in his 50s but it's difficult to tell—he's got the scratchy voice and creased face of someone who's lived a hard life. All of the teeth along the top of his mouth are missing. We talking about traveling, both my trip and the two-and-a-half years he spent hitchhiking around America back in the 1980s. He says Wyoming's the most amazing place he's ever seen, with its sweeping hills, huge herds of grazing cattle, and mile after mile of wide open spaces. I tell him I can't wait to get there.

Awful songs from Christina Aguilera, Savage Garden, and Hootie and the Blowfish play most of the time while we talk, but when Bob Seger and Rolling Stones start playing over the speakers he sings along. Bob hasn't been in town long, but he's already a popular guy. At least five people stop in and say hello or wave from the street in our half-hour together.

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Bits of his life come out in conversation—talk of burned bridges, family members he hasn't seen in eight years, a long line of jobs that didn't work out. He never quite mentions alcohol problems, but the stories point in that direction. Bob's a guy with so many reasons to give up, to lose hope, to think that the pursuit of the American dream is something that's possible only for other people. Most who followed the same path would have checked out already. Yet he's endlessly positive—about his catering job, the life he's building in Lexington, and the idea that all of his hard work will one day pay off. Bob's also the most genuinely friendly person I've met since leaving Key West. When he gets up to leave he wishes me safe travels, gives a God bless and a firm handshake, and flashes a sincere smile. He manages to make a great day even better.

The ride out of Lexington takes me past beautiful century-old homes with covered porches, shutters on the windows, huge old trees, and perfectly trimmed lawns. Soon I pick up a quiet, rough, lane-and-a-half-wide back road along a slow-moving river. Trees grow over the pavement and provide shade from the sun. Cows munch on grass, fart, and stare at me as I head past. Butterflies dart through the air trying to avoid slamming into my helmet. The route continues on like this for hours, subtly winding and rising and falling, losing one stream and then picking up another, but always making for great riding. If the trip across America was like this the whole way, every bike rider in the country would be out here.

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The following stretch to Buchanan runs the opposite: grinding in the sun, always next to the noisy interstate, with the same stupid Hootie and the Blowfish song playing on repeat in my head.

The evening puts me back onto country roads as the heat of the day starts to fade. I ride next to rushing creeks and railroad tracks, both good signs that point to mostly flat riding ahead. Outside Troutville I grab dinner at a roadside restaurant where the roast beef, mashed potatoes, and gravy come on a tin that looks like a dog food bowl. The different parts of the meal range between kind-of-warm and just-out-of-the-fridge cold. I could ask the waitress to send it back. I could eat around the cold parts. I could, but I don't, because it doesn't really matter; it's carbs and protein. Down the hatch it goes.

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I meet another cross-country rider at the city park in Troutville. His name's Chris, he's also 28 years old, and he's from Philadelphia by way of Key West; Ashland, Oregon; and at least a few other places. A two-man band plays bluegrass music in the nearby picnic shelter for a large group of people celebrating the successful end of chemotherapy treatment for one of their friends or family members. The rest of the park is packed with playing children and watchful parents, all out enjoying a cloudless and perfectly warm spring Saturday evening.

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Chris parked the van he used to live in at his parents' house in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, made his way down to Virginia on his bike, and in the past few days has started hacking his way along the TransAm using a 15-year-old guidebook. He travels slow and just got back to riding this morning after spending four days in Lexington. He uses a one-man tent but misses the convenience of the two-pound bivy sack he grew to love on previous tours to points north. He rides an old mountain bike frame that he outfitted himself, because he's an experienced bike mechanic. When I talk about wanting to take a shower, he tells me about a months-long van trip from a few years ago where he showered in a place other than the sink exactly two times. (He says that after a certain point he started to feel sub-human.) Our traveling styles are different, but he's a genuinely good guy and I'm happy to have someone under the age of 50 to talk bikes with.

I set up under the picnic shelter, but don't crawl into the sleeping bag until a few minutes after midnight, completely exhausted.

Today's ride: 70 miles (113 km)
Total: 1,986 miles (3,196 km)

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