Day 41: Christiansburg, VA to Wytheville, VA - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

May 23, 2011

Day 41: Christiansburg, VA to Wytheville, VA

Road number 666 runs between Christiansburg and Radford, but there's nothing hellish about it. I cruise through the countryside over gently rolling hills on a beautiful strip of freshly laid blacktop in a fog that turns thicker the farther I ride. I know that hills, heat, and headwind are coming my way, so I start before 7:00.

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Most passing drivers have good intentions. When they round a corner or come over a rise and see me slowly crawling my way up a hill, I hear them let off the gas and start to slow down. But as soon as their right foot leaves the pedal, impatience starts to build inside. I can almost feel it radiating out from behind the windshield as they hover fifty feet in back of me. The good will almost always wears out within two seconds—even if we're bunched up in a blind corner, or with a car coming from the opposite direction, or in the grayish haze of thick morning fog. I can better understand when it happens in the evening, when the person behind the wheel is tired and wants to head home to see their family, drink a beer, or watch a game on TV. It's the mornings I don't get—especially Mondays, when the driver's only reward for almost running me over or slamming into oncoming traffic is a few extra seconds spent at a job they don't like, talking to a boss they can't stand.

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I push west from Radford on a rough two-lane road next to a wide river. It's cool and quiet and the birds chirp all around. It's perfectly easy riding. Later I fly downhill through tight corners that run nearly blind because the grass and bushes and trees bump up against the white line at the edge of the road. In the light green fields off to my right, two baby cows run stiff-legged up a small hill. Rabbits hop from one side of the road to the other, with fuzzy white tails pointed straight up. Every day I start riding with the expectation that I'll finally reach the point where I get bored or homesick or completely frustrated, and then inevitably I see something beautiful, or find a great road, or meet an interesting person that makes me fall even more deeply in love with this trip. My only jobs are to ride, eat, talk to people, and write about crossing America. And it's awesome.

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A road fronting the interstate drops me into a truck stop. I order a sandwich that arrives sitting under roughly a gallon of light brown gravy. It turns out it's possible to order gravy on just about anything in Western Virginia, and that's a wonderful thing. I hit the restroom on my way out, which goes according to plan until I push the handle of the toilet down. The water swirls and drains and rises back up again—and then keeps on rising, higher and higher, inching toward the rim of the bowl. I want more than anything in the world for the water rushing in to magically shut itself off, but within seconds the men's room takes on the sound of a waterfall. There's no end in sight and I know it. I do the adult thing and beat feet out of the place as fast as I can. I throw everything in my pockets into the closest bag, toss on the helmet without buckling the chin strap, and pedal madly away over the next hill and out of view. I feel a lot less shame than I know I should.

"Man graduates with degree from WCC." Wytheville: home of the country's laziest headline writer.
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I say goodbye to the morning and hello to a strong headwind. And hills—lots and lots of hills. I try to keep my head up, but every time I lift it even a little bit the wind blows dirt or a bug into one of my eyes or my nose. The bike moves wildly from left to right when I turn and the breeze hits me on the side. The wind rushes around me so strongly that I can't hear the cars and trucks coming up behind me until they've already started to pull around. Still, I can't complain too much. I've been riding across the country for more than 40 days and this is my first serious headwind. I turn off the part of my brain that worries about speed and grind my way to Wytheville with brute force, one slow pedal stroke at a time. It works until I see a fat old guy on a small green riding lawn mower heading up the road behind me, slowly gaining ground. The thought of being passed helps me find a reserve of strength I never knew I had.

I've seen pictures of this old barn on at least a dozen journals. It turns out it's the only wind break around for miles. Now I understand why it's such a significant bike touring landmark.
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I ride down the wide streets of Wytheville, past long blocks of brick houses and churches, on my way to the city park. Cruising up Main Street I look over my shoulder and see a familiar face riding up behind me. It's Chris, the touring biker I met a couple of nights ago in Troutville. We grab a quick bite of food and then pedal a few blocks over to the park, where we set up and spend hours bullshitting about bike touring, John Steinbeck novels, failed relationships, what's coming up on the TransAm over the next few days, and whether the place we ate for lunch was called Skitter's or Skeeter's.

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A young woman walks into the large picnic shelter where our tent and bikes and gear sit spread out. Her name is Nicole. She's in her early 20s, with long brown hair, a tank top, jean shorts, and sunglasses. She's a little bit country, a little bit trashy. Alongside her sits a brindle-patterned Pit Bull that pants like it's dying of heat exhaustion. She welcomes us to town and points out the location of the notable landmarks.

"It's too bad y'all ain't here durin' Chautauqua," she tells us. That's the name of an eight-day event filled with music and dancing all kinds of country fun. It takes place a few weeks from now and it's the biggest thing that happens all year in Wytheville.

"When Chautauqua happens, the shorts get shortah, the top gets smallah, and the belly ring comes out. If ya got it, flaunt it!" she says and starts laughing.

She tells us that we should come to her favorite bar later tonight. It's called Turn One—as in the first turn on a stock car racing track.

"Me and mah girls'll be theah. Be theah just about every night. Ya can't miss us. We'll be the only ones out theah dancin'!"

The dog breathes hard the entire time. It drools everywhere. I keep looking over, expecting it to flop over and pass out on the concrete floor.

"Y'all really should come," she tells us again after a few minutes of awkward conversation.

"And if ya come," she says to Chris as she starts to walk away, "Make sure to bring him with ya."

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Chris doesn't follow directions, riding off to Turn One without me as the sun starts to head down. I hang back and watch a mother teach her two daughters how to ride ATVs using the lawn and parking lot of the park. A few locals pass by walking their dogs. A stream runs quietly through the middle of the park and long strings of Christmas lights hang in vertical lines between the trees, splashing everything around with a soft, golden-yellow tone. The early morning start gets to me and I head to bed with the sky still a dark shade of blue.

Today's ride: 56 miles (90 km)
Total: 2,091 miles (3,365 km)

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