Friends: "Lucky fer you I came along when I did and was able to give you a lift," the man behind the wheel of the pick-up truck who had just stopped for me said as I slipped into the cabin of his truck after hefting my bike into his cargo hold. "If a cop had seen you ridin' on the interstate here, he would have given you a ticket fer sure, that is if you hadn't been keeled first. This is a downright dangerous tunnel. You'd have been lucky to get out of it alive."
He was right about the tunnel, the mile-long East River Mountain Tunnel just before the Virginia/West Virginia border. It had no shoulder, though it was well-lit and the mid-morning traffic was light. I've survived much worse, but I was still much obliged to this guy coming to my rescue shortly after I slipped onto Interstate 77 when the road I was on, Route 52, joined up with it, not knowing that a tunnel awaited me. I feared I might have a brief interstate interlude before 52 separated off towards Bluefield, but it was either take that risk or take a twenty mile detour with considerable climbing.
The woman in the Visitor Center at Wytheville forty miles back had assured me bicycles could go this way. She had been right about the free ice cream cone at the Big Walker Mountain Lookout Country Store if one mentioned the Wytheville Visitor Center, so she'd won my confidence, though I well knew she was more accustomed to catering to Civil War buffs than to bicyclists. Her town was dotted with signs documenting Civil War battles and skirmishes. She said they'd already had one reenactment commemorating the 150th anniversary of the start of the war and had more planned. All through Virginia I had seen "Civil War Trails Route" markers and plaques. Many towns had statues dedicated to their sons who died fighting for the Confederacy just like those in nearly every French town acknowledging their World War I and World War II dead.
The sharpest evidence I've passed though in these travels, reminding me of bygone times and that I was in the South, was a road sign for Hanging Tree Road just north of Hillsville, Virginia. I had already passed through the town so I couldn't ask anyone if it was a description of some unique tree or the purpose the tree served.
Highway 52 through West Virginia is also known as Vietnam Veterans Highway. It would be a stunningly beautiful ride in the fall with the steep hillsides flaming with fall foliage down to the creeks and rivers the road follows, but it is still a quite enjoyable ride with the trees just beginning to bud. I had to share the road with coal trucks and pass under huge conveyors transporting coal from one side of the road to another at various mining complexes. The homes are largely mobile homes interspersed with the occasional substantial home with swimming pool looking almost like a mansion in comparison. Towns can extend for two or three miles with the homes lining the road through the narrow gorges they are built within.
The county seat of Welch found a flat bulge in the mountainous terrain for a bit of a downtown. It had blocks and blocks of fine two-story brick houses reflecting the once great prosperity it enjoyed. Though the mining is in decline, the town still had a captivating character and shine to it and about the most friendly librarian I have encountered. When I told her I was from Chicago she asked how long the Chicago library allows its patrons to use a computer. I told her it allows two one hour sessions a day. She said, "You can use our computers as long as you like as long as no one is waiting."
After I had sat down at the computer she came over and asked, "Do your Chicago librarians give you hugs and kisses?" I hesitantly replied, "No." "Well we do here in Welch," and then she handed me two Hershey kisses in a small packet with a slip of paper saying "National Library Week" and a photo of the Welch library.
When I left the library a fifty-year old guy was standing by my bike waiting for me. "I was curious about your travels," he said. After I told him, he said, "I'm gonna hike the Appalachian Trail next year. Its something I've been meaning to do fer years. I was all set to go a couple years ago but my brother got killed and I had a lot of things to take care of. But next year fer sure."
"A lot of people start, but not many finish," I replied.
"I know. I've read every book there is on the trail. I know I kin do it. I live in the backwoods. I do a lot of hikin' and I run four or five miles every day. My doctor tells me I should quit the runnin' as its bad for my joints, but I like it too much."
"Have you chosen a trail name?"
"I know all about that, but I haven't decided on one yet. I reckon it will come to me or one will choose me."
"Do you know when you're going to start?"
"I'm still tryin' to figure that out. There's a boy in the next town over who hiked it last year, I got to talk to him. I know it will take about six months, but I know I can do it."
"You sound like you have a better chance than most people. I'm sure you'll have the time of your life and wish you'd done it long ago. You could be a star, helping and encouraging everyone you meet along the way."
"I think so too."
He certainly seemed sincere and looked quite fit. I just hoped he wasn't one of those talkers who tells everyone he meets of some grand ambition that he'll never accomplish. I've met plenty of those over the years. I'd like to think he only opened up to me because he recognized I would be one to appreciate his dream. I certainly could and was glad to have shared in his happy anticipation of what could be the greatest event of his life.