Real and ethereal

September 26, 2010

August 20

None of us were compelled to do an early rising, so we had to hustle over to the Natural Bridge Hotel to catch the last half hour of the breakfast buffet—or so we thought. A large group of people were more lethargic than us, so the buffet items stayed on the table past 9, enabling us to have a more leisurely meal.

Our cabin did not have internet service, but the hotel did, so I discovered that the Oakdale newspaper interview about my trip I did back in Hindman had made it online and into print. It was flattering to have been deemed newsworthy, yet somewhat scary to think about someone else interpreting and juxtaposing my thoughts for public consumption. I didn’t regret anything I said, I just wished I had been a bit more articulate on some questions. I am a ponderer, an attribute not particularly complimentary to real-time interviews. My family was sufficiently pleased with the article though, enough so to tell our waitress, who was now interested in following the blog.

Ellen did not experience the mental octane boost I had from visiting Natural Bridge last night, so she declined to do the mile-and-a-half climb back to the route. I emerged at a frontage road bordering the interstate, then spent a mile enduring the peace-shattering sounds until my route ducked under the highway, crossed over a ridge, and entered a quiet, creek-side corridor.

Just before the point when the flat meandering ended, Ellen joined me to start her cycling day. We climbed some minor hills, then entered Lexington, a town of multiple significances. Both national and family history took place here. Two of the Civil War’s major generals, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, are part of Lexington’s heritage. Jackson taught at Virginia Military Institute (located in town) before he joined the Confederacy at the beginning of war. He died of complications from war wounds and is buried in a Lexington cemetery. Lee came to Lexington after the Civil War, when he was offered the presidency of what was then called Washington College. In the five years before his death in 1870, he worked to add “practical” studies, such as engineering and physics, to the school’s classical curriculum. Lee believed these studies were necessary to help rebuild the American society torn apart by war. After his death, Washington College was renamed Washington and Lee University.

The main lawn of Washington and Lee University

Jumping ahead over half a century later, my father-in-law Jack attended Washington and Lee in the 1940s. When Ellen and I met up with Anne in town, she was sitting on the long, sloping main lawn of the university telling her dad of her whereabouts while in view of his old fraternity house.

Prior to heading over to the university, I stopped at the local bike shop to get an assessment on my troublesome front derailleur. Crud seemed to be the culprit that got into the pivots and hindered the shifting. I was to clean these joints with some solvent, then relube it again after it began working well.

These various stops caused us to linger in Lexington until mid-afternoon. We began the last 18 miles of the day again riding past Washington and Lee, then VMI, only to make a premature turn uphill into a dead end. A man mowing his lawn saw us looking puzzled in the middle of the street and came down to help us. In “The bear went over the mountain” fashion, we figured out we were supposed to get on the shoulder of the busy four-lane to get to the road that would take us under I-81 so that we could get travel along the South River on the road that would take us to our bed and breakfast in Vesuvius.

Despite it being Friday night, the river road to Vesuvius was peaceful and scenic. The Blue Ridge remained in view to our right, sharply lit by the falling sun. The heat of the day was also waning the final few miles into town, resulting in delightfully pleasant cycling conditions. Vesuvius had gained its name from Italian immigrants who once worked as ore smelters in the mountains east of town. At night, the sparks that emanated from the smelters reminded them of the lava spurts spewing from Mount Vesuvius back in Italy.

We had figured out a lodging upgrade here. The map had listed only one lodging option–camping behind Gertie’s Store. I instantly began thinking about Muddy Gap Junction in Wyoming and spending the night on that junk-laden hill behind the gas station. A little Internet browsing had turned up the Mangus Inn Bed and Breakfast, and owners willing to house our pups.

Their website had promised guests would not leave hungry, and by dinner’s end we concurred that was truth-in-advertising. Brenda had cooked us a meal of barbequed chicken, baked potatoes, rolls, veggies, baked beans, sweet tea and peach cobbler in quantities that could have fed a second family. Then, just as she and Tom had loaded our plates with food, they sat down on the sofa near the dining table and began to tell an equally full plate of stories.

Tom and Brenda, proprietors of the Mangus Inn Bed and Breakfast

The “normal” history is that their house is located on land once owned by Cyrus McCormack, the producer of the first successful mechanical reaper. There had once been five mills on this road, but only the Osceola Mill, located across the road, remains standing today. The Mangus House was built as the miller’s house. During the Civil War, the Union Army was advancing down this road. Local residents dismantled the mill, making it look dilapidated, and saved it from destruction.

Brenda and Tom claim that the Mangus House also has a paranormal history. They believe the house is haunted, by friendly spirits, they say. Both have seen a cloaked, Civil War-era soldier appear on their grounds. A local paranormal group has done an investigation of the Mangus House, reporting “multiple, intelligent hauntings.” Links on the Mangus House website allow you to listen to the spirits’ voices.

I’m not sure I had ever met adults who believed in ghosts. Tom claimed to have been suspect of Brenda’s claims until he witnessed one in his garage one night. I began to wonder if these claims/beliefs were sincere, good for business (they were, since they were taking reservations for a “paranormal investigation” weekend), or just part of their enjoyment of tall tales and theater.

The latter hypothesis gained more credence as they told us more about their lives. Both were on their second marriage. Their ceremony was held at the Mangus House, but the guests were not told they were coming to a wedding. They received invitations for a Halloween Party. All, including the bride and groom, celebrated in costume.

Brenda had grown up in this area, then moved away to Richmond to work. Once Tom decided to retire, they wanted to leave the city, which paved the way for Brenda to return to her roots. She, and now Tom, are very connected to their community. Each Easter they hold a free egg hunt on their property for 500-800 kids. Around Halloween, they turn their property into a haunted house as a fundraiser for the volunteer fire department. “The farm kids around here don’t have much,” Brenda confided. “I want them to have experiences they’ll remember after they’ve grown up.” Some adults don’t seem to hold them in high regard, though. They’ve had thefts of meat from their outdoor freezer. She thinks she’s been somewhat spared from greater losses because “I’m known around here as a good shot.”

After 10, I had to take the dogs out for their last walk. After all the stories, I couldn’t help but scan the grounds for spirits. A nearly full moon was up—I don’t know whether that helps or hinders sightings. Ditto concerning the dogs, although they don’t even recognize themselves in the mirror. Nothing unusual crossed my path, so I headed back inside, thinking more about what was real—tomorrow’s climb up to the Blue Ridge—than was ethereal.


Ghostly to grand

September 19, 2010

August 19

Anne and I often make travel itinerary choices from the same perspective—it’s worth going out of our way, sometimes beyond reason, to see something worth seeing. Traveling by bike has sometimes caused me to temper that perspective, but some people might say that biking 50 (to the Flint Hills) and 85 (to Mammoth Cave) miles off route is beyond reason. Naturally as parents, when our children are traveling with us, we believe it is doubly important to see something worth seeing in order to historically/culturally/environmentally/and any other “-ly” educate them.

So this morning, Anne invoked the double rationale to suggest we travel off-route a bit to ride along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Yesterday she had driven along today’s Trans Am segment and found it to be less interesting compared to the Blue Ridge. She promised a reasonably graded climb and a sprint downhill. Ellen approved the change of plans, so we headed down from Daleville towards Roanoke to pickup the highway connector to the Parkway.

The fog and the mist enveloped the silence along the Blue Ridge Parkway

After two or three miles we turned north onto the noisy, busy four-lane connector, continued downhill a few more miles, then began a gradual climb. Fittingly, a cloverleaf ramp took us off and under this road to the Blue Ridge. This natural form had taken us from a harsh, human-centered environment to a soft, serene natural one. A light mist was falling, deadening the sound even further. Being a weekday, there were few other travelers on the Parkway. The road noise faded into complete silence as we pedaled up the ridge.

We earned these views after the 1500 foot climb up the Blue Ridge

We began going up on a steeper grade. In a little less than 10 miles we climbed 1500 feet. Now, we had not only climbed to the top of the ridge, we had also climbed into the fog. When we reached the first overlook, we saw…nothing. The thick fog was crammed all the way down to the valley floor like pillow stuffing.

We pedaled on. None of the overlooks afforded any different view. Then, in what could have been a scene from Star Trek, Anne, Paul and the dogs evolved into view along the road. They had parked at a viewpoint and had been waiting for us to appear.

If we could have seen what there was to see, we would have been looking down into The Great Valley. This was the more easterly of the two valleys I had described a few days earlier. Extending from New York to Alabama, this valley had first been a natural highway for the Native Americans, and then early white settlers as they moved farther out into the wilderness.

The Appalachian Trail

Paul was ready to ride in this mysterious environment, and so our trio headed into even thicker fog. The poor visibility concerned Anne, so she drove slowly behind, buffering us from any tailing traffic. At this point we were riding adjacent to the Appalachian Trail. My brief glimpses into these trail corridors made me think of how different, and similar, a journey on foot might compare to mine on a bike.

After about five miles on the ridge tops we began to descend a bit. The two-to-three hundred foot drop was enough to bring us down beneath the fog, which I now recognized was more of a strata than a full stuffing. We began to get precipitous views into the valley.

Around this time my front derailleur became cantankerous. It would not shift into the smallest chainring–the one most needed for hill climbing–without a suggestive kick from my heel. This was really old-school shifting, and conjured up visions of early Tour de France riders coaxing their machines through the Alps.

At around mile 23 we reached the junction of State Road 43. Here, we made a fast, winding, 3-mile descent into Buchanan. Ellen sped off ahead of me. I chose to lean more heavily on the brakes because of the wet roads and twisty turns. When I stopped to check out a chattering noise on my bike, my leg pressed against the front rim. Ouch! I jumped back, realizing that the constant downhill braking had caused a friction heat buildup in the metal. I felt like I had sat on one of those now-antiquated sun-baked metal playground slides.

Buchanan was in sunshine, and we saw the temperature reading rise a degree every five minutes or so. Lunch options at the north end of town were bleak—a Burger King in a gas station, so Anne headed down Main Street to find a more desirable choice. “See that green sign down there?,” she reported. “That’s in front of an old fountain grill.”

We sidled up to this iconic 50s fountain grill counter for burgers and fries

Throughout much of Virginia you can step back in time. Ransone’s took you back 50 years. High-backed wooden booths sat in front of chrome-edged counters and seating. We sat at arm’s-length across the counter from the waitress as she prepared milkshakes and soda. The cook flipped hamburgers facing the wall at the back of the counter. We had a 50s meal in a 50s place. It was no more nutritious than much of the other recent lunch fare on this trip, but forgivingly palatable because of the setting.

We had to ride one final leg to Natural Bridge. The combination of this morning’s climb up the Blue Ridge and some high rollers on this stretch had fatigued Ellen’s legs enough that she decided to jump in the car mid way to the end. I completed the final downhill into Natural Bridge a half hour later.

Natural Bridge

Natural Bridge was only slightly off-route, but because I would have to work hard to climb out of the area tomorrow morning, I was set on making this a purposeful diversion, meaning seeing the Natural Bridge. While there is a community of Natural Bridge, it is named after a geologic phenomenon. Thirty dollars and a 150-step descent later, Ellen and I discovered that the Bridge did indeed earn that status. We were dwarfed by an enormous arch, 215 feet tall, and thick enough to support the road we crossed to get here. Unless you stood about 50 yards away, you could not capture the entire arch with a single camera shot.

Not surprinsingly, the Bridge has had significance for many people. It was a sacred site to the native Monacan tribe. A young George Washington was believed to have surveyed this area and carved his initials in the arch wall above the creek. Today’s private owners have conveniently painted a white outline around George’s marks so that you don’t miss them; that gesture took away all the fun of discovery for me . Thomas Jefferson was impressed enough with Natural Bridge that he purchased the land from the King of England for the less-than-princely (kingly?) sum of 20 shillings, or $2.40.

You could just take in the beauty and grandeur of the arch and be satisfied with your visit. But we continued on along a path alongside the architect of this area, Cedar Creek, and transitioned into a lush, sublime canyon which ended about a mile from the arch at a lace waterfall.

This lace waterfall anchored the north end of the Natural Bridge canyon

It was moving into mid-evening as we walked back into this canyon. “There are no lights beyond the Bridge,” the ticket taker cautioned us as we entered. Discounting that risk, we moved upstream, in opposition to both the water flow and the tour groups that were returning to their bus. It was a perfect time to experience this beautiful, subtle environment. The canyon was quiet except for some bird calls and the sound of the flowing creek. Flat sheets of rock jutted out of the creek bed, adding texture to that surface. I wanted to sit here, with the book I didn’t have, the meal I didn’t have, and the time I didn’t have just to exist among the sounds and sights of this canyon. But we were already near the time we had promised to return for dinner. As we hiked back up toward the exit, I had already decided that tomorrow morning’s climb from here would be a little less taxing. The mind fuel from today’s history and geology lessons would help spur me over the top.

Staying dry and living high

September 15, 2010

August 18

Today’s weather forecast warned of possible flash flooding. If I were on my own, I would have set off and taken my chances on encountering a deluge. But there was no good reason to possibly subject the kids to the rains. We could take the day off and still arrive in Yorktown by the end of next week. So I presumed a washout and cancelled today’s ride.

The motorized faction of our family was not deterred by the forecast. We were near the city of Roanoke, and Anne had learned that a famous institution, the Hotel Roanoke, had reopened after extensive renovations. She encouraged Ellen to travel there with her for a fancy lunch. I was content to stay in Daleville and work on the blog. Paul was content with being a body at rest.

In Daleville, the floods never materialized. We had one intense downpour around noon and nothing more. The only exercise I got today was walking the dogs around the motel parking lot a few times. (The motel was situated on a hill, so I did have to walk uphill at times).

The elegant lobby of the Hotel Roanoke

Anne and Ellen returned in late afternoon, pleased with their outing and their lunch of the Hotel’s famous Peanut Soup. Anne urged me to take the kids to the Hotel for dinner, volunteering to remain in Daleville with the dogs. After many convenience store, one-pot, and franchise chain meals, I was amenable to some refined dining.

A generation ago, the maitre’d would have likely only pronounced Ellen appropriately attired to enter the restaurant. Paul and I were not scraggly, but tieless and wearing sandals. Nonetheless, we were politely welcomed into the near empty restaurant. The menu only offered from better to best. In increasing sophistication, here is what we ate: Tom—Crab Cakes; Paul—New York Strip Steak; and Ellen—Filet Mignon. After the first course we were served a lemon sorbet. The kids were confused why we were getting dessert early. I had to explain the fine dining concept of palate cleansing. The grandeur and protocol of this restaurant were almost too overwhelming for teenager Paul; but the tender steak and second (real) dessert helped get him through this (un)comfort zone. We stepped out of the Hotel into the moist city air—an appropriate watering down medium between the rarefied Hotel and HoJos.

Valley views

September 15, 2010

August 17

Except for many of the larger communities, the TransAm Trail takes you smack dab through the center of town–Main Street–and nothing less. My reactions upon traveling the Main Streets of the Trail fluctuated between the pleasure of seeing thriving downtowns, and disappointment over the vacant storefronts, which signaled the loss of business (and character) to the big box retail giants, expanses of free parking and easy highway access of the periphery.

Businesses’ exit to the edge typically caused me to go out of my way to find lodging or food. Such was the case in Christiansburg, as Ellen and I had to backtrack a couple of miles on a busy feeder road to get onto the Trail. All became quiet again as we left town, eventually riding a long downhill that deposited us next to the North Fork of the Roanoke River.

The North Fork was more of a creek than a river, sometimes even disappearing in the brush, but that did not pale the significance of it, and the multitude of other creeks, I sidled up to on this journey. Although their volume was often inconsequential, their orientation and mere presence made them as influential to a cyclist’s progress as mountains and wind. Perpendicular=obstructionist. Parallel=facilitator. It was usually as simple as that.

Ellen entering a man-made portal to the Catawba Valley

The North Fork ran between what seemed like two distant castle walls, one being the long continuation of Brush Mountain, which I climbed yesterday, and Paris Mountain to the east. While the road was not flat, its moderate ups and downs were a preferable alternative to the steep mountain sides on our flanks.

The mid-day temperatures were bordering on hot when rain clouds overtook us near Catawba, where we planned to have lunch and connect up with Anne and Paul. I was at first tempted to ride on as is, but the rain began to feel and sound more intense, so we stopped to put on rain gear for the last two miles before our break.

Catawba had one “country store,” an all-in-one amalgam of gas station, grocery store, deli, and hardware store similar to Crowheart in Wyoming. Ellen and I opted for freshly made sandwiches over the packaged fare and were told we could eat in the warmth and dryness of the back room. Once back there, we discovered the store offer one more, likely after-hours service. Rules about card game etiquette were tacked to a support post next to the two round, now obviously, card-playing tables. Given that the only other commercial buildings in town were the post office and clinic, it made the store the default choice for this pastime.

It was easy to understand a resident's professed love of this valley

The sun had returned while we ate, so we spent a few minutes in front of the store drying clothes and warming bodies. A steady stream of customers funneled through the gas pump overhang. We chatted with one customer about the beautiful valley views. “We love our area,” he crowed. It was not hard to see why. Long, open valleys were bordered by unbroken mountain ridges, making for miles and miles of picturesque views. From the looks of the homes, people were better off here than their eastern Kentucky neighbors.

These castle-like walls gave you a very secure feeling

It was to be near 50 miles from Christiansburg to Daleville, and Ellen was uncertain whether she wanted to ride the entire distance. However, our inability to get a cell phone signal in this terrain eliminated this option. We were now traveling parallel to Catawba Creek, mounting continual ups and downs like ants traversing a washboard road. After a final long climb to leave the creek valley, it was mostly downhill into Daleville. We received the same greeting as we had outside Catawba, as the clouds again opened up and released rain upon us. Ellen pulled up to the motel room door wet on the outside, but radiant on the inside. She had biked the entire 48 miles, a new personal best for her.

Virginia’s stegosaurus

September 11, 2010

August 16

Like Union soldiers and future presidents Hayes, McKinley and Garfield, our stay in Pearisburg was short. They, as members of the Union Army, occupied the town for three days in 1862 before being driven out by the Confederates. We only stayed one night, driven by our desire to continue eastward toward the coast. Today’s destination was Christiansburg, the point where we would rejoin the TransAm Trail.

Just outside of Pearisburg we crossed the New River again, dropping down to bridge-skim over it, then climbing up the other side, much like a pilot doing a touch and go landing. We were on US 460 again, the road that took me through Bluefield and Princeton late last week. We had options to take some side roads to avoid traffic, but could fall back on staying the course on this main road a good part of the way into Christiansburg.

Little discoveries like this help maintain the joy of touring

Unladen and unburdened with a complex route, Paul headed out fast and far beyond Ellen and me. We played slingshot for awhile, with Paul shooting out ahead, then stopping to let us catch up. Like yesterday, we never located our first side road turnoff. I eventually spotted the next turns in the route sequence, but with Paul already past these, it didn’t make sense to leave the main road.

Past Pembroke we did a long, curving climb, crested a ridge, then did an arrow-straight descent toward a mountain. It stretched perpendicular to us across much of our view. Happily, we turned and biked parallel to it until a gap, then turned again to get by it.

Here we began what would end up feeling like climbing a Stegosaurus’ back. Up and down. Up and down. We were now in the region known as the Ridge and Valley Appalachians. These were the western set of mountains that stretched down a good part of the East Coast. An equally long valley separated these heights from the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Ellen and I caught up to Paul resting on a guardrail and learned he wasn’t feeling well. I began to think about the solutions for this situation when a heretofore non-existent option appeared–Anne. She drove up on the shoulder behind us and loaded Paul, and Ellen, who had decided to break early for lunch. I would travel on alone until Blacksburg, ten miles further, where we would reassemble for the afternoon’s ride.

Having Anne and the kids along was making this portion of the trip somewhat luxurious. We were biking fewer miles, so our start times were later. Anne was able to reconnoiter lodging and route options, and run errands that would be time-consuming for me on my bike. This morning she was heading for a bike shop to find a replacement for my 20 year-old frame pump that had gotten as much use in 3 months as in the prior 19 ¾ years. Despite our bikers’ demands, she did get to do some touring on her own. Yesterday, she drove through the West Virginia region and towns featured in the movie Rocket Boys.

One of the stegosauric (?) plates--heading down Brush Mountain toward Blacksburg

I rode over Gap and Brush Mountains, then headed down toward the valley where Blacksburg was situated. Just outside of town 460 was closed to bicyclists, so I forked off onto Main Street into town. Blacksburg was a college town, home to Virginia Tech, and had that attractive mix of quiet green space and urban amenities. After spending much of the summer in small town America, Blacksburg’s wealth of eating options bedazzled me like a country boy first seeing city lights. Family travel now also gave me the opportunity to indulge in this wealth, so we had a slow lunch at a patio restaurant.

The sign should read "Your Speed: 05." It so greatly amused me that this equipment was informing me of my plodding, versus my haste, up this hill, that I circled around 3 times to try and capture my speed on camera. Laughingly, by the time I got close enough to see the numbers in the camera viewfinder, I had ridden past the range of the speed detector and the screen went blank.

In her trip to the bike shop Anne had learned of a bike trail that would take us into Christiansburg. A post-lunch shower delayed our departure a bit, but eventually Paul, Ellen and I took off on the Huckleberry Trail from behind the library–a thoughtful routing decision that made this a practical as well as scenic trail.

We rode past urban backyards up into open lands skirting Virginia Tech, where I discovered some prolific, yet sour blackberries. Then, the trail took on the tunnel-like feel of a rail corridor. It ended with an uphill into a shopping mall parking lot, a disappointingly unscenic but again understandably practical end point. Paul decided to forego the remaining few-mile tussle with rush hour traffic that would take us to our motel. I extended that tussle a few miles plus one when I prematurely exited at the wrong highway/interstate intersection. A Bicycles Prohibited sign quickly informed me of my gaffe, and we turned back and journeyed on a little farther.

Ellen's peaceful passage through the Huckleberry Trail

Later that evening at dinner, I earned a Genius rating doing the peg game provided at all Cracker Barrel restaurant tables. Labeled as an I.Q. test, you play on a triangular block, jumping pegs over others in the quest to have only one remain after your last move. Normally my kids outperform me on these challenges, but here I was the only one to reach this goal. Is there any research connecting long-distance cycling and enhanced I.Q.?  : )

A new dynamic

September 7, 2010

August 15

Today was the ending of a short story, the beginning of a new chapter, and the continuation of a long narrative. The anniversary gathering was coming to an end. Amidst breakfast and packing, we all gathered for a group photo and goodbyes. We even took a photo of the people who took a photo of us (they were celebrating their 40th anniversary, and were without a camera). Two new cyclists would now travel the roads. Paul and Ellen would bike away from Pipestem with me, ready to journey through all or parts of Virginia. I would reenter the final state on my route, winding down my trip by heading from the mountains to the sea, symmetrically finishing was I began on the West Coast.

I always think it takes an amazingly long time for me to get ready to cycle each morning. Now the prep time was multiplied by three, and further slowed by things such as bike tires not being inflated since June.

The newly enlarged touring group

It was late morning by the time we began the roller coaster route out of Pipestem. Ellen started getting used to cycling with packs. I had to remind myself there was now family in my rearview mirror. Earlier Anne had left by car to collect our dogs from the kennel, do some sightseeing on her own, and ultimately rejoin us at the end of the day. She would follow along for the next week, providing the kids with opportunities to stop cycling any time during the day.

It would be two days before we rejoined the TransAm Trail, so I was again relying on Google Maps to negotiate the back roads of West Virginia. You can now request that the software create a route specifically for bicyclists. My experience with this option on this trip has been that in return for minimal traffic you need to be prepared to make a multitude of turns on sometimes obscure roads.

I was not interested in subjecting my kids to any adventure-by-miscue our first day on the road, so once we left the resort road I began paying acute attention to the distance to the next turn. The local roads were well marked, but the sign for our first turnoff did not appear when expected.

We were in the midst of a long, steady climb when I rode past a man and woman doing yard work. “Can you tell me where Pumphouse Road is?” I inquired even before coming to a stop. “You stopped at the right place,” the man answered. “I’m a land assessor for the county and I know all the roads around here.” He said we had just passed Pumphouse, but it was a gravel road. The thought of “Doesn’t anyone at Google have kids?” passed through my mind. Like what had happened with Butch in Bluefield, I showed him my map and he declared it unsatisfactory. On the back he detailed a new route, and described the landmarks that would guide us.

We pedaled on a little farther south, then reached the intersection where we would turn to the east.  Advised by the assessor that his route would take us into a very rural area, we stopped for snacks at the first available food mart. It seems that now we had become a triple strength cyclists’ magnet. As we were packing away our purchases, a man with a Tour de France cap approached us. He asked us about our route, then reviewed the assessor’s suggestions. He had some recollection that the last road before the Virginia border might be gravel. Out came his cell phone, and he made a call to a buddy who knew the area better than he did. Everything checked out smoothly. Thanks again to helpful local people, in a matter of 30 minutes I had gone from being highly anxious to doubly certain about the roads we would travel on this day. In his quest to be the most help to us, the man had also told us of the multiple dogs we might encounter ahead. This unnerved Ellen a bit, so I had to share my Kentucky dog encounter strategies with her.

The kids had a satisfying ride their first day on the road

Leaving our snack stop, we cycled down into a valley before beginning a two-tiered climb up a ridge. No dogs materialized, only friendly homeowners who waved to us as we passed. The climbs were thankfully not too taxing for my new companions. We reached the summit of the ridge just as a cloudburst released some cooling rain. It gave us a good excuse to find some cover and enjoy the view for a few extra minutes.

You can see the cloudburst that gave us pause to stop and enjoy this vista

We pedaled on, finding the landmarks as described. Paul said he was enjoying the quiet roads and the easier-than-expected climbs. We remained high on the ridge until reaching a fork in the road. A “Downhill next 3 miles” sign signaled the next turn. For the next 10 minutes we would delightfully twist and dive down toward the Virginia state line. We exited West Virginia into the New River valley–the widest river I had seen since the Mississippi.

The New River

There were river/valley views for the next seven miles before one last climb into Pearisburg. The kids and I had done 38 miles–an appropriately reasonable distance for new tourists. The day had been a bike touring sampler–big and small climbs, wide vistas, long downhills and a bit of uncertainty. That uncertainty had exposed the kids to the most satisfying element of the trip, the support and concern of people along the way.

Gathering to honor

September 5, 2010

August 14

Despite all the hoopla over my arrival in Pipestem, the real reason family and friends gathered here was not to see me show up, but to celebrate Polly and Jack’s (my mother and father-in-law) 60th wedding anniversary. Eighteen people arrived from various parts of the country to mark the occasion.

The celebratory dinner was in the evening, so the daytime was free to spend as we liked. Pipestem Resort has its highs and lows, both worth seeing. We were situated up high on the plateau, privy to far-ranging views across the ridge tops and a glimpse down into the Bluestone Gorge. After breakfast a group of us chose to head down into the Gorge to take a ranger-led hike along the Bluestone River.

The lodge at Pipestem offered this grand view west into the Appalachians

The tram makes quick work of the half mile difference between the top and bottom of the gorge.

You can hike down to the river, but the quick and unique way is to descend via the aerial tram. In six minutes we dropped 3600 feet down to river level. This portion of the Bluestone River has a Wild and Scenic River designation, meaning it has no man-made impediments to its flow. This restriction on development has enabled plants and wildlife to flourish. Over 100 tree species exist in the gorge, along with animals ranging from mink and bobcat to bear and beaver. Our group of 20 hikers likely made the animals nervous, because we saw nothing except a worm and millipede until we passed over a group of wild turkeys on the tram ride back up to the top.

Hiking the Bluestone Turnpike at the bottom of the gorge

Much like how the gorge now provides an isolated environment for these wild animals, nearly a century ago a community of people lived down here, isolated by the depth of the gorge. Today’s forest had once been cleared for farming and clear cut for timber. The path we were walking on was then called the Bluestone Turnpike. Humans, horses and Model Ts moved between the farms and settlements that were spaced roughly a mile apart. Remnants of stone walls are now the only evidence of this past human habitation.

At 6 p.m. our crowd has exchanged shorts for slacks and assembled for Polly and Jack’s anniversary dinner. Table talk first involved the quadrant of people you were sitting next to; then shifted to the center as our honorees opened gifts and shared a delicious anniversary cake.

60 years! Friends and family assembled here in West Virginia to celebrate Polly and Jack's marriage milestone.

After dinner we reassembled in the lounge area to be participants in or spectators for some favorite family games. One of Jack’s favorites is Parcheesi–advertised as a “Game of India,” but it actually had its origins in the Aztec culture. Over the years, Jack has freely offered mid-game advice to opponents. Paul, and now Ellen, have absorbed this wisdom well. Since last fall, Jack and Ellen have kept a running count on each of their head-to-head victories. Ellen, at this point, holds a comfortable lead. Others joined in tonight’s Parcheesi and card games, and I can’t remember who won. But it was evident from the teasing banter and smiles that even those who didn’t win, or didn’t play, had a great time being together.