A Strange Little Plasticky Smear on the Canvas of Time - The Great Unwind - CycleBlaze

May 3, 2017

A Strange Little Plasticky Smear on the Canvas of Time

Super Brad is super gone long before I wake up at 6:30. The wind from yesterday evening is not. I step outside to find a cold breeze shooting down from off the Blue Ridge Mountains and a chill in the air we haven't yet felt on this trip.

The last time I stayed at the Cookie House, I remember thinking with certainty that once I rode up the hill and around the corner — with June watching me go from her balcony — that I'd never see the Cookie House again. Today I have that same feeling. Only this time it's because I wonder what will become of this place over the decades to come now that June isn't around as its shepherd. The place has the feel of waning. I don't know what would come along to help it wax again. I'm guessing the fact that you can now pay to spend the night here through Airbnb isn't it.

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Back then I left a short note expressing my love and gratitude for this place. This time I don't. That note hangs where I left it, undisturbed, and despite my worry about what the place will become, in this moment I feel the exact same kind of love and gratitude I did six years ago. I take one last walk from the front of the house to the rear and then back again. This place is indeed a national treasure and I know that I will once again feel a twinge of both sadness and joy as Kristen and I crawl slowly up the hill, around the corner, and out of sight.

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Two miles of climbing straight up brings us to the spot where the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive, and the Appalachian Trail all come together. Together with Jerry we hang a left and head south on the Parkway.

We stop at every overlook. It becomes normal for us to shout from excitement at the views that stretch out before us and holler with pride as the elevation numbers listed on the signs grow larger and larger.

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There are very few cars and trucks are not allowed. The pavement is pure and smooth, like it was laid down last week just for us. There's no garbage beyond the edge of it. About all we hear besides our stupid commentary are the calls of the birds and the rush of the wind through the green and yellow leaves high above our heads. Butterflies dance above and behind me. I can't see them, but I watch their shadows dart across the road beyond my front tire.

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I keep coming back to the same thought: it feels so, so good to be out here on this day, at this time, with this woman cranking a steady four miles per hour just ahead of me. There are few roads in the country better for cycling that the one we're on right now. And there are few finer days each year in which to ride it.

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With a sheer face of granite rising up above me to the left, I think about how the Blue Ridge Mountains came to be. They were pushed up out of the ground when North America and Europe collided 320 million years ago. It's almost impossible to imagine, but they were once taller than the Alps before the forces of erosion knocked them down to their current height.

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The most powerful forces you can imagine brought this landscape into being. And yet here I am, on this weird little machine of metal and rubber, looking over at a tiny stone mile marker that says 10 on it and wondering if the country store up the way will be selling honey buns for a dollar or just fifty cents, and man, I really hope it's fifty cents.

What a strange little plasticky smear on the canvas of time we are.

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In the end, there are no honey buns at the country store in Love. An oatmeal cream pie and an entire sleeve of graham crackers have to do.

That's also where we find Chris and his dog Remington. Chris's dad owns the store and the campground and the cabins that surround us. He tells us that Brad sped through here this morning and that a Belgian guy stayed here last night.

"You wouldn't believe the people who come through here," he says. "We had a guy on one a them bikes, you know, with three wheels. Came down from Canada, it was still snowin' on him. Then there was the guy on roller blades. Roller bladin' across the country. I don't know what you'd do on the steep hills. I guess you'd have to kinda walk it with yer feet out, like cross country skiing. But man, he made it. Sent us a postcard from San Diego. There he was, holdin' those skates above his head, standin' in the Pacific."

The most amazing story is the guy who passed through while hiking the Appalachian Trail with his dog.

"He was blind," Chris tells us. "He said the dog followed God and he followed the dog. We found him; he was standin' near the trail. He said the dog could usually find the trail without too much trouble, but where it crossed the road it'd throw him off sometimes, so we helped him out. Anyhow, I found out later he made it. Saw him in the newspaper and on the PBS, up in Maine, standin' there at the end. Wrote a book about it, too."

It's not as if we didn't know how lucky we are to be out here. That's especially true on a day like today. But it's humbling to be reminded just how difficult or impossible our lives could have been, had only a single gene mutated, or one domino in the series of our lives fallen some opposite direction.

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Every last cloud disappears from the sky in the early afternoon. It's warm but not hot. The climbs we thought would be long and hard and verging on brutal are not. We're all laughter and smiles and dirty jokes. It's a day without flaw.

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Later we drop off the Parkway as the road continues south for another unbroken 430 miles without us. In its place, we head more or less straight down the side of a mountain. The road runs down so steep and tight and fast that I wouldn't be surprised if it's actually the off ramp for hell and that we're about to end up at the dark and fiery gates. But there are more immediate worries. For one, the bicycle rims that become scorching hot and risk causing a tire to blow out. For two, the little bits of rock and gravel that sit not just near the edge of the road but sometimes right in the middle of it. I'm not only worried for myself, but afraid I'll round a corner and find my wife or our new friend all torn up and bleeding in the middle of the steepest highway I've ever seen.

But we all survive, then pedal on to Vesuvius, where we roll to a stop in front of a tiny cafe and store called Gertie's. While drinking sweet tea and eating one of the greatest cheeseburgers in the known world, a middle-aged man in a tidy Oxford shirt walks up and asks where we're going and if we have a place to stay. Then he says we're welcome to put up tents at the pavilion behind the Baptist church, where he's a deacon. There's power and water and it's quiet and no one will bother us.

We can't say yes fast enough.

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Rick wishes us well, but not before asking in half a dozen ways if there's anything we need, or any problem we need help solving. He is kind and generous to a degree that is surprising, even when held up against all of the kind and generous people we've already met. Where others might like to help, he is driven. After he leaves the cafe, I look over at Jerry, leaned back in the booth with a smile spread wide across his face. In his charming Northern Michigan accent he looks at us and says, "Ya know what guys? It doesn't get any better than this."

He's right.

But then it does. I look over at a rack of pastries near the cash register and see that the store sells something called a Boston Creme Honey Bun.


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Kristen and Jerry and I toast our excellent day with Budweisers and PBRs beneath the large covered pavilion behind the church. Dogs bark and lawnmowers drone in the little yards of the neighborhood beyond.

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It's all smiles and happiness as we look over maps of the road ahead and wonder what the route might have in store for us. If it's even a fraction of what we experienced today, it's going to be one hell of a wonderful ride.

Today's ride: 35 miles (56 km)
Total: 262 miles (422 km)

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