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

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