Day 43: Damascus, VA to Elk Garden, VA - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

May 25, 2011

Day 43: Damascus, VA to Elk Garden, VA

Damascus is a town of less than a thousand people, but it's filled with bike touring awesomeness: cheap camping, a wonderful library, grocery stores, a laundromat, at least three outdoor gear shops, and a legitimately great pizza joint. I don't expect to find many places like this in Eastern Kentucky and I'm in no hurry to leave.

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I spend the morning in the library, where hikers shuffle in and out to use the computers and connect to people at home for the first time in a couple of weeks. That means a steady stream of beards, backpacks, chunky boots, dudes and bros. Two Glenn Beck books and "American Idol: The Untold Story" sit featured near the front door. The place smells vaguely of dead birds because there are, it turns out, dead birds stuck in the roof above one of the back rooms.

Not in the library.
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It's 1:00 by the time I head out. The sun shines bright and hot with nothing to block its path. The hills do their best to kick my ass, but the reward is absolutely worth it. I fly down roads just wide enough for one car and a bike to safely pass, leaning strongly to the left and then the right, into the cooling shade formed by the trees that grow into one another overhead. I pass at least four old guys mowing or weed whacking their giant lawns.

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I speed through switchbacks and down into the wonderfully named Hayters Gap. There, not far from the middle of nowhere, just a hundred feet from the road, sits a beautiful little library. It takes three seconds to decide I'd rather hang out in a comfortable chair, inside, with my feet up and the air conditioning blasting, than power over a steep, 1,500-foot climb during the hottest part of the day with the sun beating down on me for every turn of the pedals. Most touring bikers seem compelled to make miles at any cost, pressing on even when it's blazing hot and uncomfortable and a mountain stands between them and their destination, but never in my life have I had that feeling.

I have nothing but love for Hayters Gap.
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By the time I pull myself away from the cool of the library, the sun hangs behind a thin layer of clouds, the road runs mostly through shade, and a light breeze blows. It's perfect. The highway heads steeply up, curving and winding in a string of switchbacks that seem like they'll never end, always at an eight or nine percent grade, and sometimes steeper at the apex of the turns. It's not fun—I sweat by the gallon, my quads burn, I spit and grunt and swear—but it's manageable. Then I realize that after six weeks on the road, the last three of them spent bobbing over one hill after the next, it sure as hell should feel that way. The center line runs faded through the middle of each corner and rocks line the edges because the cars and trucks that use the road don't worry much about things like lanes or oncoming traffic. I grind, I grind, and then I grind some more.

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I see a county line sign up ahead and pump my fist, because I know that around here they mark the end of long climbs. The drop down the other side is unreal—it's sick, it's filthy, it's disgusting. It's absolutely incredible. It's a rough, lane-and-a-half-wide track with a steep, barrier-free chasm down to my left. The switchbacks seem even tighter and steeper than what I just rode up, but I scream through them anyway, leaning through the corners as much as I can without scraping the bottom of the front panniers on the pavement. The descent flings me out into a valley, where I moo loudly at the cows standing alone the fence line and send them running in fear. I'm drunk on bike riding again.

America's most ridiculous hairpin turn.
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When I pull up to the Elk Garden Methodist Church I see Chris sitting and reading in the porch swing. The guy's got wheels; he's been there for hours. Our riding styles are different, but we both agree that the free camping in the welcoming parks and churches along this stretch of the TransAm are awesome and make every day a little bit better.

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Chris decides to sleep outside in his tent, underneath the picnic shelter. I choose to set up inside in the sanctuary. Soft red carpets line the floors and the three short levels of stairs that lead up to the altar. A line of dark-colored wood stands three feet high and rims the room. Everything above that line, including the ceiling, is painted pure white, and when I look closely I can see the ridges that mark the end of one plank of wood and the start of another. Six narrow windows—three on the west wall, three on the east—rise eight feet tall before arching to a point at the top. The place holds ten rows of uncomfortable, creaking, wooden pews that run in three lines, the middle one wide and the outer two only large enough to hold four people each. A silver jug, cup, and plate sit up front on a white tablecloth, which drapes over the top of a table engraved with the words "In Remembrance of Me." A golden cross lies at the center of the altar, backed by a dark purple curtain with gold trim.

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The building is older than any person I've ever met. It's dead still and absolutely quiet inside, except for odd creaking and popping sounds that echo through the sanctuary every few minutes, and the occasional hum and click from the refrigerator in the adjacent kitchen. A rider who came through a few days ago wrote in the church's log book that the place is haunted. After just one night in the place he came away completely convinced. It's all profoundly creepy.

I head to sleep with the lights along the far wall still on.

Today's ride: 34 miles (55 km)
Total: 2,186 miles (3,518 km)

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