August 24

It is atypical for houses like these to grace a railroad corridor

This morning, what led us into town, led us out. Ellen and I pedaled away from the franchise strip on the outskirts of town to intersect with the Center Street rail line that formed the spine of Ashland’s center city. A connection to the railroad must have been of great importance to 19th century residents, because many grand Victorian era homes flanked both sides of the tracks. These were proud-looking homes, bursting with color and character. The rumble and roar of the passing trains were perhaps a comfort, and seemingly not a nuisance, to these track side dwellers.

After leaving Ashland we began traveling in the northeast quadrant above Richmond, a city where significant historical events took place during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. In the Colonial Era, Patrick Henry gave his “Give me Liberty” speech here. In 1786 the Virginia legislature, relocated here from Williamsburg, passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This law first defined the separation between church and state and granted religious freedom for all Virginia citizens. During the Civil War, Richmond was of both economic and political importance. Well positioned as a crossroads for river, then rail traffic, it became one of the prime manufacturing cities in the South. This industrial prowess, coupled with its emergence as the capital of the Confederacy, made Richmond strategically important (for diametrically opposite reasons) to both the Northern and Southern forces.

At this point we had reached the tide line of Richmond’s urban expansion, which had washed the land behind it with busy roads and dense commerce. But jutting out from underneath that tide were outcrops of history that took full shape only in our minds.

As we turned onto Route 156 near Mechanicsville, Ellen and I joined a path that retraced the progress of the Seven Days’ Battles of 1862, an intense series of conflicts in which Robert E. Lee’s armies successfully repelled the Union Army’s second attempt to capture Richmond. We first rode over Beaver Dam Creek, where the second of six battles was fought. The road crossed the creek right near the point of the heaviest fighting. As a tourist, I had the time to ponder how this now-placid stream was once a place of mayhem. But as drivers impassionately zipped past us on the road, I began to wonder how often local people thought about what took place here.

One hundred and fifty years ago Confederate troops swarmed out of those trees and overwhelmed the Union gunners

A few miles away we reached the site of the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, which took place one day after Beaver Dam Creek. It was located in a quiet field, away from the main road. The National Park Service had recreated the bulwark fence of the Union line, behind which cannons were aimed toward a creek’s ravine. From this vantage point the Confederate soldiers were mercilessly barraged most of that day as they repeatedly tried to advance onto the field plain. Ultimately though, the Southern soldiers broke through and forced a Union retreat and eventual abandonment of the Richmond assault.

The battle was declared a victory for Lee and the Confederacy. I could only understand that claim from that macro perspective (and isn’t that how wars are judged). Standing on that field, at a point where the Confederates first saw the Union cannons, then where the cannoneers would have been overrun by the Confederates’ surge, I could only think about war from a micro/human perspective. There were 15,000 casualties across both armies that day, the most of any of the Seven Days’ Battles. Over 2200 deaths and 10,000 wounded. Today, the field existed in an ironic silence. Because buried beneath this quiet veneer was the cacophony of war—the sounds of fear and hate and pain. Suffering imposed not only upon the combatants, but also their families. As I had on the Flint Hills prairie, I struggled to absorb and understand an experience totally foreign to me. But here I was thankful I have never lived it.

We rode on and reached White Oak Swamp, where lethargic actions by Stonewall Jackson unraveled a plan by Lee to cut off and destroy a significant part of the retreating Union army. Our day’s travel ended down Willis Church Road near the town of Glendale, where on the next-to-last day of the Seven Days’ Battles, the Confederates came precariously close (even given Jackson’s blunder) to defeating the Union forces.

This road took us along where the Union reinforcements had once staged before moving up to plug breaches in their front lines. The fighting took place less than a quarter mile to the west. As we cycled past the Union cemetery, I again began to think about how much these battles were on the minds of today’s landowners. How often did they think about the war when they walked or tilled these lands? Were they somehow compelled to honor the sacrifices that were made?

We stopped to bunk at the Willis United Methodist Church, today a faithful reconstruction of the original church that was situated in the midst of this battle. At that time it had served both as a Union headquarters and later a Confederate field hospital. It took a bit of effort to have it serve as our lodging. The pastor had left for the day, so we were presented with locked doors and a list of phone numbers to call. Contrary to wireless carriers’ boasts about wide-ranging cell phone coverage, I could only get a reliable connection within a 5 by 5-foot square section of the parking lot. In it, I paced like a caged animal while working through the list of numbers. On the last call, I finally made a connection with a couple who could unlock the doors.

This toad stood for a larger-than-life photo outside our lodging at the Willis Church

True with my other stays at churches, we were once again entrusted with full access to the church and our sleeping quarters in the “Hut.” We cooked our dinner in the church kitchen. Ellen played the piano for a bit, then read through the logbook entries written by cyclists who had preceded us here. She discovered a small toad outside on the sidewalk, which surprisingly endured my close-up flash photography. Our day ended soon after I called Wayde, my serendipitous acquaintance from the Virginia border, to confirm our meeting/dinner two days hence in Yorktown. Alternating feelings of ambivalence, regret and accomplishment began to swirl in my brain. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rebounding

October 17, 2010

August 23

Today needed to be better than yesterday. I wanted Ellen’s trepidation born out of yesterday’s experience to transform into confidence about unsupported touring. Sun and a good breakfast are two things that rapidly improve cyclists’ spirits. The patchy morning sky eventually cleared, and we rode down to the store to purchase some substantial breakfast food. But Ellen was still nervous—she couldn’t finish her yogurt and cereal.

The Bumpass Country Store had a homey quality to it, right down to the freshly prepared lunch items

We began our cycling day around 10:30 after thanking the firemen for our stay. The morning roads were flatter, in part due to a large, fingered lake we skirted. Near Bumpass we came across a “Country Store,” what today’s convenience stores were once called. Although we were only 15 miles out of Ashland, small towns in central Virginia seemed to be lacking in services, so we stopped for lunch. I wanted to eliminate any possibility of hardship for Ellen that I could.

Judging by its architecture, this store had been there for some time. It had a front porch I imagined once shaded owners who perched there waiting for the next customer. Inside, there was true food service; a person who made your sandwiches to order instead of a selection of pre-packaged goods you stuffed into a microwave. As we waited to place our lunch order, I recognized the person in front of us as the first volunteer fireman we met last night. He recognized us in return, then apologized for yesterday’s cold shoulder. A family quarrel had resulted in a triple killing, and not surprisingly, the police and other emergency responders had been overwhelmed. I could tell the trauma from the situation still lingered.

We set off again through scrubby forest land, attempting to stop at the home of Patrick Henry. Henry was Virginia’s Revolutionary Era governor and is most remembered for his “Give me Liberty, or give me Death” speech, urging the Virginia militia to take up arms against the British. Today though, we were not granted the liberty of seeing his home, or even stepping on the property. The grounds were only open on the weekend.

Horse farms came back into the picture around Ashland

Funneling ever closer to Yorktown

There were ten more miles between Henry’s home and Ashland, which had the promised lodging comforts awaiting Ellen (and me). Our route now took us perpendicular to the rivers, traversing in and out of several carved valleys. This tired Ellen, but not to the degree it had yesterday. We arrived in Ashland at the end of the afternoon, following the straight, pancake-flat railroad tracks into the heart of town.

Ashland was a college town, embracing Randolph-Macon College, a Methodist-founded liberal arts college which had been located in the community since the late 1860s. In fact, the woman at the Ashland Visitor Center recommended the college cafeteria as one place to have dinner. Ellen and I instead opted for less proletarian fare, turning into bike commuters to transport ourselves to a semi-fancy track side restaurant. After a satisfying meal, she, and thus I, pedaled back through the approaching darkness in better spirits compared to last night. Back in our motel room, it was finally time to switch from the thought of to the reality of finishing the trip—I called Amtrak to purchase train tickets for the trip back home at the end of the week.

Untethered

October 9, 2010

August 22

It was if we were at the Continental Divide. One half of my family, Anne and Paul, would hop into the car and head west back home. Ellen and I would hop onto our bikes riding east to complete this journey. We again left at mid-morning after sorting through what was now a haphazard organization of equipment and clothing spread throughout a car and six panniers. We winnowed our choices down to what we thought was necessary during this final week.

The University of Virginia campus

University of Virginia students had just returned to campus this weekend, turning a typically sleepy Sunday morning street scape into one energized by their presence. We rode past the tall, white pillared campus buildings—prime examples of classic colonial architecture. Well, they not only represented the style, they defined it. This was Thomas Jefferson’s university. He founded it in 1819, and made it the first non-religious university in the country. Like Robert E. Lee would do a half century later, Jefferson decreed students would learn practical knowledge and prepare for public service.

Ellen and I rolled a few miles up and down Charlottesville’s dense urban streets before reaching the countryside. A long, steady climb on a narrow road took us to Jefferson’s Monticello estate. Although I had visited here before, it did not seem right to pass up one of our country’s major icons while on my survey-course journey through America.

Since we still had a considerable distance to go before reaching Mineral, today’s stopping point, my intent was to head up to the house, snap a few photos, and travel on. But here such simple acts came at a price. Forty-four dollars in entrance fees and a half mile of road lay between the visitor center and his home. To save time, we hopped on the shuttle bus. Gleaning some information from the bus driver about Jefferson’s life helped rationalize the expense.

Throughout his life, Jefferson had the nation’s well-being in mind. He planted tens of different kinds of imported apple trees on his mountain top orchard with the intent of finding varieties that westward settlers could plant and prosper from. Even his design for Monticello had patriotic purposes. Jefferson was a self-taught architect who used the writings of Palladio, a 16th century Italian architect, to establish the form and proportions of his home. By creating Monticello in the style of high Renaissance architecture, he desired to set a national standard to demonstrate that Americans could develop as refined a culture as the Europeans.

The famous Monticello dome was added during the expansion from a two to a three-story structure

This elegant building and grounds offered tangible evidence of Jefferson’s brilliance. Yet some of his actions were less luminous. Wandering past the “dependencies,” the rooms where his slaves did the work of the household, it was hard not to think how his writings on liberty contradicted (from a modern viewpoint) his actions as a slave owner. However, he did grant his slaves opportunities to be entrepreneurs and sell goods and services back to the plantation.

The day had gotten hot as we prepared to move on down the road. Seeing we were two-wheeled travelers, a couple stopped to ask questions about our bikes and our journey. They, and especially the woman, were quite impressed with Ellen’s intent to ride across the state.

We remained among rolling upland hills as we cycled past James Monroe’s house (“We’re not stopping here, are we Dad?”) deeper into central Virginia. The land gradually became more wooded, smelling of pine. Parts of this area were less picturesque–scrubby fields that were clear-cut and left fallow.

Lunch in Palmyra was as barren as the setting

Our mid-ride stop in Palmyra was full of disappointments. Sundays had always been an iffy day to find services in small towns, and today was no exception. The town’s grocery store was closed. The only food we could find were cold drinks at a gas station vending machine. But what was more disconcerting to Ellen was that we had another 30 miles to pedal, 10 more than she was expecting. I could tell this was more than she wanted to deal with on her first day of unsupported riding.

The rest of the afternoon we rode through more ups and downs, passing in and out of creek valleys, before the road began to flatten out near Mineral. It was around 6:30 when we arrived in town. Mineral’s grocery was still open, so we were able to pick up some fresh fruit and vegetables. Farther into town we found the volunteer fire department, our only lodging option, but no one to approve our stay.

After seeing a Bike Friendly Virginia sticker on a window, I felt pretty confident we could camp here, and began pitching our tent. As the setup progressed, a fireman did arrive, but he was disinterested and non-committal to our presence. But as at Monticello, his female companion was gushing with admiration over Ellen’s efforts. “I couldn’t ride my bike down the block,” she proclaimed. Eventually, other firemen arrived, and OK’d our stay.

Our unadorned campsite next to the volunteer fire department and city water tower

The sun had set by the time I got dinner cooked. As we sat eating, I asked Ellen how the day went. One look at her drained expression gave me the answer. Physically and mentally, this had been a hard day for her. Sixty miles of riding after some significant climbs on the Blue Ridge Parkway the day before. On top of that, camping in a field with few amenities did not seem just compensation for the day’s efforts. I tried to rejuvenate her psyche by declaring that she had just finished the hardest parts of the trip. The land would continue to flatten out. I promised more comfortable accommodations tomorrow evening. As darkness enveloped us, a heavy dew dampened the ground. Had the Earth absorbed Ellen’s feelings?

Climb every mountain

October 2, 2010

August 21

Montebello Mountain had begun casting its shadow on me way back in Illinois. A hiker/biker guest at the River Rose Inn had talked about how tough this ascent was for him on a fully loaded bike. Yesterday a man on a Lexington street said the climb up Montebello would be “the hardest thing you’ll ever do.” This morning, Tom was suggesting I hang my frame on the car’s bike rack and motor up the mountain. Montebello Mountain was the final big spike on the elevation map, the last mountain to climb before traversing the Blue Ridge Parkway and heading down through the Virginia Piedmont to the sea.

I began to conclude that the advice of this dire chorus ranked alongside the information you collected while researching an illness on the Web—you learned of every undesirable outcome, most of which likely did not pertain to your situation. I did not want this footnote in my TransAm record book: *Walked up Montebello Mountain. After meeting 4500 miles of physical challenges I had to ride the 4 miles up this mountain. I would take whatever time and number of breaks I needed to make it to the top. And I would find out if it was truly as bad as advertised.

The Mangus breakfast was of the same scale as its dinner—huge. Consuming the pancake, egg, fruit and orange juice breakfast meant I wouldn’t run out of energy on the climb. Brenda ziplocked two of her hefty homemade cookies for me, but I had no need, or room for them now.

Neither Paul nor Ellen felt compelled to tackle this mountain, so they planned to join me at the top. Since reuniting with my family, I had not found the need or ability to mount early morning starts, but neither was I interested in lollygagging around until midday.

My departure from the Mangus Inn was fifteen minutes later than planned because both Tom and Brenda had more stories to tell. I finally set off on this sunny and mildly warm morning retracing the road back through Vesuvius. I crossed over the railroad tracks onto Route 56, where the 4-mile count for the climb began. It was to be a road of discovery. I would finally gain the answer to what could simply be posed mathematically: was y >z, <z, or =z? Where y = the dire chorus’ assessment of this road, and z = the actual climb.

The first mile covered flat to rolling hills. This was both good and bad. This mild effort allowed my muscles more time to warm up, but that meant the hard climbing was to be concentrated over a shorter distance.

Halfway up Montebello Mountain, and already towering over the Great Valley

When traveling at less than 10 miles-per-hour you do not instantaneously experience the incline of a mountain. This pace provides you with a prolonged preview of the steep road ahead. Your mind begins to remind your legs of the discomfort of past climbs; then you just wait for reality to catch up.

The second mile was probably what stuck in the dire chorus’ minds. Sharp switchbacks cut upwards into the mountainside. My breathing got heavy and my heart rate zoomed higher. I stopped after a half mile on this section to rest my pained legs and slow down my heart. I would make it another half mile before having to stop again. This time, instead of just staring blankly down at the ground, I looked up and over through a break in the trees. I was towering over the Great Valley, its floor now far below me. I felt accomplished, and moved on.

Emerging at the top of Route 56

That ended up being the worst of the climb. Miles three and four were still work, but less agonizingly steep. I was seeing a lot of blue sky when Anne and the kids drove by, cheering out the window. My computer registered 47 minutes of ride time at the top; likely an hour total with the rest breaks. The correct answer to the mathematical equation? Probably y>z. This hadn’t been any harder than those eastern Kentucky mountains, and thinking way back, the real y, the toughest climb, was the one out of Oxbow Park near Portland–it had me wheezing up that hill.

The sinewy curves of the Blue Ridge Parkway

Paul, Ellen and I took off on our second trip up the Parkway, this time under delightfully clear conditions. We dropped into a big saddle, then had some long, meandering climbs up the other side. There were deep, distant panoramas on both sides of the road, and viewpoints with names like Ravens’ Roost that attested to our supreme elevation. From these we got a Google Earth-like view of the mountains melting back into the valleys.

The view from Ravens' Roost

When we began an extended, dramatic descent from the high ridges, I wanted to do it in slow motion. I wanted to savor this last reward for my demanding, yet energizing efforts climbing not only Montebello Mountain, but every pass, mountain, hill and knob back west for as long as I could. Climbs had always been more satisfying than miles of flat road, and now there would be no more.

Gravity is not sentimental, so we quickly zoomed down until we met up with Anne at a turnout. Neither of our two expected lodging options had panned out. The motel in Rockfish Gap was no more, and the Cookie Lady was too ill to welcome cyclists in Afton. Stopping at the Cookie Lady’s house was a tradition for all TransAm cyclists since the first ride in 1976. June Curry has always had a plate of cookies for arriving riders, and later, a place for them to sleep.

Tonight’s sleeping arrangements ended up being in Charlottesville, thirty miles away. Combined with what she had already ridden today, that extra thirty miles would push Ellen well beyond distances she was comfortable riding. So she flew partway down the final descent from the Parkway with me, then loaded her bike onto the car to drive into Charlottesville.

I had a mild, Harrodsburg-esque anxiety over this last leg. We made the motel reservations after 4 p.m., so my trip would run through the early evening. I traveled on down the rest of the hill determined to ride at the most maintainably efficient pace.

A menacing bump in the road

Bypassing the Afton option kept me on a busy US highway instead of shunting onto a designated back road. When I finally was instructed to leave US 250, I approached what looked like a big boulder on the pavement. I turned to go around it, but quickly stopped nearby. The “boulder” was an impressive snapping turtle. Its shell was over a foot long from front to back. Its size, along with its “don’t mess with me” stare, eliminated any thoughts of the aerial turtle rescue I had done in Kansas.

A local cyclist pulled up and also halted at the turtle, and we eventually rode together for about five miles. The Blue Ridge foothills were initially short and steep, but gradually lessened. I wasn’t needing to shift into my granny gear anymore. The sun was now silhouetting the Blue Ridge Mountains behind me. I had entered an area of horse farms and white rail fences. Cadillacs and other fancy vehicles now outnumbered pickups on the road. I was enjoying the sights and the feel of this road, and expecting more of this in the days to come.

The Blue Ridge--fading in light, and soon in memory