I Ain't Never Met a City Slicker I'd a Traded Places With - The Great Unwind - CycleBlaze

May 4, 2017

I Ain't Never Met a City Slicker I'd a Traded Places With

We're all rain jackets and gloves and fuzzy hats on the half-mile ride back to Gertie's for breakfast. We show up five minutes before it opens, but there's already an old-timer in a dirty dark blue ball cap waiting for the front door to unlock. He's soon followed by a bunch of guys with thick beards and thick accents with names like Big Mike that say things like "How yew doin' this mornin', bud?"

The food is killer. We're all doin' pretty good this mornin', bud.

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We ride between railroad tracks and a creek that tilt down in the direction we're going. I look up into the outstretched arms of the oaks and the maples and startle the rabbits and deer that conduct business near the road's edge. The horses and cows and goats watch me pass with either confusion or curiosity spread across their faces.

These roads. These peaceful Virginia country roads. No matter how old I become or how far I travel, I'll never lose the lift in my heart that I feel out here.

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The message board hung up on the front of the first country store we see has ads for the local chapter of the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, the volunteer fire company's fundraising schedule, and Guy Carawans' Annual Bluegrass Jam. I'm staring at it when a lightly loaded bike rolls to a stop. That's when we meet Biff, a guy who lives not far from here ("Just ovah those mountains right theah") who's also westbound on the TransAm.

He's done a bunch of long-distance hiking and has worked all over the world and now he's taking this bike ride and he has a son and a girlfriend and he recently took a trip to the Sierras of California and hiked the John Muir Trail and it was really hard on his body now that he's getting older and his trail name is Moccasin and he was recently given a copy of the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by a guy on the Blue Ridge Parkway who's also named Biff and it's so hilly over by where he lives in Lynchburg and—

The dude can talk.

Biff holding court.
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Rolling hills, then Lexington. We ride past the Virginia Military Institute, a military college so old that Stonewall Jackson used to teach there and, according to Biff, do calisthenics on the quad. Riding past, I watch unsmiling cadets with dark jackets and bright white pants and hats with wide, flat tops walk between stately old halls of a dark grayish green.

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Beyond Lexington we head off down quiet little country lanes I'd ride all the way to Washington if I could. We get waves from old men in weathered hats in all kinds of vehicles: beat-up trucks, a tractor, a mail delivery Jeep, a riding lawnmower. From some it's a full-on open palm; from others, just the lift of a single finger.

The road less traveled.
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Soon Biff flies past, all lightly loaded and cranking in his big chain ring, with a few words and a wave. This happens as we take our time eating graham crackers and peanut M&Ms and talk to Jerry next to the calm rush of a little river. There's a right pace for everyone out here. We know ours.

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Around a bend we find Jerry talking to a tiny old woman. She's no more than five feet tall with a thin, ratty dress draped over one of the skinniest bodies I've ever seen. Her mouth is two lines of jagged, yellow teeth, or at least it is where the teeth aren't missing. I can't see her eyes; they're behind a thick black bug net attached to her wide-brimmed hat. Her name is Mary.

She tells us she's pulling up weeds. She would have been out there sooner, but the sun decided to sleep in until noon today, she says. We talk with Mary about how beautiful it is out here, how lovely it is to ride on this road. The TransAm brings people from all over the world right past her front door. When Jerry tells her he's from Michigan, she launches right into a story about a time she traveled there as an eighteen-year-old girl. She's laughing and smiling and happy.

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Then she tells us they cut off her mail service. She wrote a letter to the government about it; now the FBI and IRS and others are tracking her. She doesn't leave home now, because when she does, they steal from her yard and then sell what they steal.

"They wear ya down, then they kill ya," she says.

It's the vague but ever-present they of schizophrenia.

"If Trump can fix what's wrong with this country, I say let him stay longer than four years, let him be dictator. I always thought Obama was gonna be the one to do that, you know, always flyin' around to different parts of the country, seein' what they was like, so he'd know how ta take it all over. Did you know they took my Social Security? They just took it from me. Now I'm out here all alone, ain't got no money, ain't got no car, ain't got no phone, ain't got nothin'."

It goes on like this for twenty minutes. Kristen and Jerry have already left before I can pull myself away.

"I been livin' out here fifty-fih years, no runnin' water, no 'lectricity," Mary says as I say goodbye and start to pedal away. "And I ain't never met a city slicker I'd a traded places with."

Of that I believe her completely.

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We coast down, down, down into Buchanan. Biff is there waiting for us, talking up thousands of words with some locals in the way he talks up thousands of words with everyone he meets. We stop at pharmacy with an old-time kitchen and soda fountain attached to it. It's all tile floors, narrow wooden booths with vertical backs and no cushions, and a counter with a series of chrome-plated stools with circular seats covered in red vinyl. Ceiling fans wobble back and forth above our heads.

But the sense of nostalgia competes with an equal sense of decline. The menus are thin paper photocopies. The seat of the stool next to mine is gone. There's exactly one flavor of ice cream left for milkshakes and sundaes. The ice cream tastes cheap. And outside, the giant marquee that used to stand as tall as the second story of the building has been removed. In towns like this, once something like that is gone it doesn't often come back.

Every town we've passed through so far has felt healthy and thriving, but Buchanan is different. The buildings look a little more tired. There are a few more empty storefronts. The soda fountain fits right in with all of it. I think we'll start to see more of this in the small towns as we head farther west.

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There's no place to camp, so we press on. Dark skies loom ahead of us as we crank out seventeen hilly miles like its nothing. The clouds let loose halfway there and we ride into Troutville in pouring rain. By the time we set up the tent, rain falls so hard on the metal roof of the pavilion that we have to raise our voices to hear each other, even though we sit only two feet apart.

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With rain still cascading down from the thick clouds above hours later, our day draws to a close in the most appropriate possible way: to the sound of Biff, on his phone, talking.

Today's ride: 61 miles (98 km)
Total: 323 miles (520 km)

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