Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Appalachia, Va.

Friends: Not long after I crossed back into Virginia from North Carolina on my way back to Chicago I found myself on Route 58, a Highway with two names--"The Crooked Road" and "The Virginia Music Heritage Trail." The 34-mile stretch leading to Damascus, "The Friendliest Town on the Appalachia Trail," had so many squiggles there was a warning discouraging trucks. The speed limit was a mere 15 mph for 2.1 miles before Grayson Highland State Park.

Its high point of 3,500 feet at White Top is the starting point for a very popular bike trail, only occasionally visible from the road, that descends 2,000 feet to Damascus, 17 miles away, and then continues on to Abingdon for another 17 fairly flat miles. I stuck to the highway not aware of the bike path until it was too late. The bulk of the minimal traffic on the road was vans ferrying bikes and riders to the summit and transporting them back to Damascus from Abingdon. There are three bike rental and shuttle service companies in Damascus. The largest, Adventure Damascus, has a fleet of 300 bikes. Most weekends they are all booked--$17 for the bike and $23 for the shuttle. They have hourly departures and pick-ups.

The bike path has had several incarnations before evolving into its present, highest use. Originally, 250 years ago, it was a footpath for pioneers, including Daniel Boone. In 1900 a railroad was built on the trail bed to serve the logging industry. When logging died in the 1970s, it was converted to a bike trail. It is called the "Virginia Creeper National Recreational Trail," as the trains used to creep up its fairly gentle grade.

Abingdon, the oldest town in Virginia west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was another of the many southern towns I've passed through featuring a statue of a Confederate soldier in a place of prominence. Here he stood beside the county courthouse. They are very similar to the statues of young men cradling a rifle in many French towns honoring those who died in the World Wars. Even though Abingdon has a population of only 8,000, it attracts enough visitors to have a 12-screen multiplex on its outskirts, along with a vintage 3-screen theater in its center. Along with many current releases, the multiplex was offering "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Ten Commandments." The downtown theater was showing that Southern favorite "Driving Miss Daisy" on one of its screens.

There are many other reminders that this is the South. Women regularly call me "Dear" or "Hun." Yesterday, the elderly waitress who served me a heaping plate of biscuits upon realizing I was traveling by bicycle gasped, "My goodness child, you're not actually biking in this weather, are you?" The temperature had dipped into the 30s that night and had barely climbed into the 40s. I awoke with a thick crust of frost on my tent and a layer of ice on the water bottle I left on my bike. People naturally and unhesitatingly offer me a friendly word, and more than the usual, "How fer you ridin'?"

As I sat eating a burrito at a Taco Bell a guy asked if that was my Lincoln parked outside, not recognizing a cyclist when he saw one, only that I wasn't from these parts and Lincolns aren't all that common. He said he wished he could afford such a car. A couple minutes later a 79-year old guy asked me if I were German. He noticed my Ortlieb panniers and the "Made in Germany" on them. Having never seen a touring cyclist, he assumed I must be a foreigner. He said he had two ten-speeds at home that he no longer used and had a spare tire which I was welcome to. After moving over to join me he said he had worked as a bicycle messenger in LA in 1946 when he was 18. He had traveled the world and spoke six or seven languages and was sorry he couldn't practice his German on me. Kentucky is just a few miles away.

Later, George

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