Sunday, May 24, 2009

Come On Up For The Rising

5/15/09 – BRP Trip – Day One

Our first day of biking and hiking on the Blue Ridge Parkway dawned with a mist obscuring the mountains. We had spent the night in a Days Inn in Waynesboro, listened to the rain, packed and repacked gear for the big day. As we drove towards Milepost Zero, we listened to Springsteen singing “The Rising,” Jim’s theme song for his big adventure. Sure enough, we popped out above the clouds and there was that big ol’ Blue Ridge Parkway sign. Jim checked his gear, posed for the all-important inaugural photo, and he was off. He’ll tell you about his first day at the end of this post.

In preparation for our trip Jim made a spreadsheet detailing his biking plans, distance, mile markers to begin and end each day, where to find water, notable side stops (he is an engineer, after all.) Using his start and end points, I sketched out my hike plans according to how many hours Jim would be on the bike. For example, I calculated that his 45-mile, 5-hour ride would give me time for up to 5 miles of hiking, plus driving and visiting occasional overlooks or visitor centers, and I would arrive at the pick-up point with an hour to spare just in case. Using the Blue Ridge Parkway’s “Trip Planner” publication (includes easy-to-read trail maps of the major areas of interest) and Randy Johnson’s “Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway,” I narrowed the many choices down to “destination” points such as great views, waterfalls, etc. No longer trying to hike every trail, just the fun stuff!

My first hike was at Humpback Rocks Recreation Area, a place I had visited several times as a teenager with my aunt and uncle and cousins. I parked at the picnic area at MP 8 and began my 4.4-mile loop. Right off the bat I was huffing and puffing (how long since I’ve hiked? 4 weeks?) up this tough climb, 700 feet elevation gain in one mile to Humpback Rocks. For a Smokies comparison, this trail and destination is similar to hiking up to Chimney Tops. However, the trail was a little fuzzy, intermittent blue blazes, at least one trail sign missing (just the post there), passing several side trails that the guide book told me to ignore, and I really missed my reliable Smokies maps and trail signs. There were no other hikers along the way to verify the path, but a few of these neon orange lizards (red efts) helped light the way.

Like Chimney Tops, the payoff was fantastic, miles-long views and that beautiful spring green carpet over the mountains. I marveled at the crispness of the day and the inspired graffiti on some of the rocks, listening to four black crows arguing with each other over who saw me first. Then I backtracked a short distance to a signpost for the Appalachian Trail to continue on my counterclockwise loop. That old AT goosebump feeling persisted even here in Virginia and I bounced along the trail, passing several large clumps of yellow lady’s slipper and walking through an area thick with wild flame azalea in many shades of pink – absolutely stunning. Eventually the AT crossed an old road bed (unmaintained but very visible) and I turned left on it to complete my loop. This is the Old Howardsville Turnpike, a Colonial trace built between 1846 and 1851. More history hiking fun like the Smokies!

 A little unsure of timing here on our first day, I got back to the car and began my drive down the BRP. I committed the sin of driving through a few overlooks without stopping for photos, but I knew that Jim would be taking lots of them. One worthwhile stop is Raven Roost Overlook because of this awesome tree. As an example of how quickly things change in the mountains, I passed by 20-Minute Cliff Overlook because it was totally fogged in, but Jim has a great photo from there. I stopped at Yankee Horse Ridge for the easy leg-stretcher walk along a reconstructed railroad section on a grade used by the Irish Creek Railway for logging. Past the rail section is Wigwam Falls, a lovely cascade.

Cruising along the BRP I passed many cyclists, including two tandem bikes moving oh-so-slowly up a steep section. That takes monumental cooperation! I met Jim at our prearranged milepost – he was tired but exhilarated - and we drove to our second hotel, Days Inn in Lexington, VA, home of Washington & Lee University and Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and – guess what – graduation weekend! We unpacked, showered, and drove into downtown Lexington for an hour or two of exploring. Downtown Lexington is very picturesque and well preserved and we passed many families with cadets in uniform. We stopped by Stonewall Jackson’s home but didn’t want to cough up the fee for the last tour of the day. We also were not willing to pay to see the advertised legendary rattlesnake, figuring that the sign alone was good enough for local color.

We were hungry, but Jim had one more goal for the day: we had to visit the paper mill where he had a co-op job while attending Virginia Tech, and that meant a road trip to Big Island, VA. I’ll let Jim give you background on Big Island, but a funny thing happened on the way…

We took a wrong turn on the country roads and almost immediately realized our mistake. We pulled into a convenience store to turn around and noticed several hitchhikers scattered along the road in the direction we needed to go – and they were wearing loaded backpacks. We realized that the AT was just a few miles away and this was our opportunity to be trail angels for some thru-hikers. We picked up three young women who each started out solo on March 15 (I think), named Wind Up, Wags and Gangsta. (Wags and Gangsta are keeping journals of their hikes on Trail Journals.) We dropped them at the trailhead to continue their journey…and discovered that this was where my own hike for tomorrow would begin. Fate!

On we went to Big Island for the three-minute tour and we stopped at River’s Edge Café for dinner because they had a catfish special. Lo and behold, there were two tandem bikes out front! They were a mom and dad and son and daughter-in-law biking a large section of the Parkway. We loaded up on fish and coleslaw and chose a motto of “eat local, eat cheap, tip big” for the rest of the trip. On the country roads going back at the hotel we passed yet another roadside oddity – the coffee pot house. Before passing out for the night, we reviewed the day, compared notes, packed and repacked, and thanked God for a glorious beginning.  

Jim’s Day One: 

I love cycling. I love the mountains. After a few 15 – 20 mile rides in mountains over the past two or three years I realized that I loved cycling in the mountains and wanted to do it more often. The extended climbing added another dimension that I did not experience in the flat lands of Charlotte. Plus the views were fantastic. About 18 months ago I set a personal goal (known only to me at that time) of riding the entire Blue Ridge Parkway, all 470 miles, in one continuous journey. I am an average recreational cyclist….a Saturday morning group ride, a Sunday afternoon solo ride and usually 2 evening rides during the week. About 75 – 100 miles a week and an average speed of 18 mph or so. When I thought about it this seemed like an ambitious goal for someone who probably had no more than 50 - 75 miles total in the mountains. I did not want this to become a pipe dream though. Time keeps on ticking. A few months later I mentioned it to Smoky Scout, then some riding buddies, then some folks at work and soon I was adrift on the proverbial “burning platform”. I could not back out without losing face. This is what I needed. 

For the past year I rode with this goal in mind. I upped my weekly mileage when I could during the summer and fall and most importantly continued to ride through the winter….on the bike on the weekends and on the trainer in the garage three nights a week. The trainer is a great conditioning and torture device. 

Now the day had finally come. Put up or shut up. All the training, planning and talking had come to a head. It was May 15 and it was time to get started. It rained the night before but the clouds were lifting. As we drove to the BRP entrance I popped Springsteen’s “The Rising” into the CD player. This had been my “motivational music” over the past year or so. It tells the story of a NYC fireman climbing the stairs of the World Trade Center on 9/11. I could relate to it in many ways….my dad was a Jersey City fireman, I watched the WTC being built from my bedroom window as a kid, I am a Virginia Tech grad so 4/16 hit me similar to 9/11 and the mindless physical exertion of climbing the mountains on a bike seemed similar to the fireman in the song climbing the stairs. Of course the fireman was performing a valiant task and risking his life……..I am simply riding a bike. But I would always think about all the folks affected by 9/11 and 4/16 and say a prayer for them. 

Anyway………after the customary start picture at the BRP entrance sign I clicked in and was off. I felt more nervous than I thought I would and pushed too hard up the first hill but found my rhythm on the next. It was an 1100 ft climb and I locked in on a steady 9 mph pace or so. By the way I have a triple chainring and I don’t hesitate to use it in the mountains. I stopped very briefly at many of the overlooks to snap a picture of the mist floating around the mountains. I also saw a neat Christmas tree farm in the middle of nowhere. Mainly I just kept riding thinking how cool this is to finally be on the BRP. 

I planned this to be a relatively easy day to get acclimated and it worked out. I felt better at the end of the ride than I did in the beginning. I realized that not much of the BRP is flat and I needed to manage my energy….a comfortable steady pace up the climbs, glide on the downhills and stay under my usual pace on the flats. Mission accomplished. 

Stats for the day:  

Mile marker start: 0.0 
Mile marker finish: 45.7 
Total day miles: 47.3 
Avg speed: 13.7 mph 
Max speed: 36.0  

Get a bicycle. You will certainly not regret it, if you live. ~Mark Twain

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