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?

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