Friday, May 29, 2009

Julie Andrews and Cussing Benches

BRP Trip – 5/18/09 - Day Four

The weather was much more promising today, cold but clear. I dropped Jim off at Tuggle Gap and quickly passed him on my way to the Rocky Knob Recreation Area. Jim’s bike plan was for 80 miles again and my hike plan was my longest yet, 10.8 miles on the Rock Castle Gorge Trail. The Berg Wanderers have been camping and hiking at Rocky Knob (with side trips to the winery at Chateau Morrisette) and I’ve missed out, so I was very much looking forward to this hike.

The spur trail began across the road from the Visitor Center (surprise – it was closed). Near the junction of the spur and the Rock Castle Gorge Trail was an oddity – a silk flower arrangement in a basket of the sort used at funerals. A small patch of earth, maybe 2 feet by 2 feet, looked newly disturbed. This was not visible from the parking area. I’m just hoping it was someone’s dear pet and not…

I turned right onto the green-blazed Rock Castle Gorge Trail and followed it paralleling the BRP over open meadows, pastures, although with cows at a safe distance. How about this scraggly old tree? Once again I felt myself channeling a movie character…can you guess?...Julie Andrews! “The hills are alive…with the sound of muuuusic!” Soon the trail passed over a stile and then through a fat man squeeze in the fence and I began to walk down into the gorge. For a while I followed a stream downhill, and apparently sometimes the cows are allowed in this portion because a barbed-wire fence followed the stream too, until another stile put me on the other side of that fence and at last into the gorge. The trail went steeply down, down, down and I crossed the same stream a couple of times. Very interesting to note that there were benches here and there along the trail. There were also incredibly big mayapple plants, larger than my mother-in-law's Thanksgiving dinner plates! In the distance I heard some pretty big water and began to pray that there was a bridge to go over it – fortunately there was. I passed through a rock field of enormous boulders that no kid could resist climbing around on. And guess what? There was a stacked stone chimney there in the middle of a flat area, Smokies-style.

The downhill ended at an old road bed that paralleled Rock Castle Creek. I turned left and followed this for about a mile and a half, hopping across side creeks spilling across the road to join the larger flow. Now, I had read that there was an old house along here and even seen a photo of it in Johnson’s book, “Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway.” Sure enough, here was the Austin House. Grass grew quite tall in the front yard and birds darted aroun. I sat on the front porch to eat my lunch and decided to take a tour around the outside of the house. On one side I glanced at a window and – what’s this? Looks like a dining room table with a tablecloth on it. And what’s this over here? Looks like split-and-stacked firewood. Perhaps I should not be here…….

I skedaddled away, passing the falling-down barn, looking around for any signs of a vehicle (there were none). The road is in good enough shape that the house is perfectly accessible, so it is possible (probably? Likely? For-sure?) that someone still occupies the Austin House. Lucky for me it was a weekend and maybe they were at the office. I casually looked over my shoulder only about 37 times before I got around the bend to be sure no one was following me waving a shotgun or a chainsaw. (Note: the guidebook is vague, says it is the “only home in the gorge today.” Well, that could mean a lotta things!)

My route (okay, is it a trail or a road now?) continued for another one and a half miles or so to a primitive camping area, formerly the location of a CCC camp, and here my map directed me to turn left again for the 3-mile climb out of the gorge. For a short while the trail followed Little Rock Castle Creek before the creek turned away to the right. It was at approximately this point that the trail makers lost their ever-lovin’ minds, for the trail was ungraded and so steep in places that I actually had to side-step it up the mountain. Occasionally benches appeared and I realized that they are actually “cussing benches” where you stop to gasp and mutter very ugly things about the trail makers and their ancestors. I have never hiked such a steep trail – and I’ve been on Jenkins Ridge in the Smokies!

After a few miserable hours (okay, maybe it was just 2 miles) the trail leveled out and I passed another old chimney and old homesites, and I could hear traffic on the BRP. Yes – nearly there! No – not yet! I popped out into open meadows again and walked another mile under the blue skies singing, “Doe, a deer, a female deer, ray, a drop of golden sun…” On this section I passed a group of cows, including a white one eyeballing me pretty hard. This reminded me of a story…

 A couple of years ago I accompanied a group of Girl Scouts on a trip to Switzerland, the location of a world conference center for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. One of our grand adventures was an overnight hike where we would sleep a few hours in the cheesemaker’s hut and then continue on to the top of Mount Something to see the sunrise. The night hike was very foggy and I could see nothing except the hiker in front of me, but I knew we were walking up through open meadows filled with giant boulders and I could hear this beautiful music like bells. How wonderful! The cheesemaker and his wife are playing music to guide us in! Suddenly as I passed by, one of the boulders stood up and a loud clanging sound could be heard above my scream. Yes, we were walking amongst those wonderful Swiss cows with their giant cowbells on.

Back to Rock Castle Gorge. The trail turned back into the woods and I realized that I was going up to the namesake of the area, Rocky Knob, and another outstanding view of the mountains and valleys to the east. Once upon a time this was part of the AT, hence the shelter. I wonder if Connie still loves William?

I was overjoyed to see my car again – this hike really kicked my butt. I was tired and hungry, but I had completed it and in good time, too, about 5 hours. My car and I headed south on the BRP again and completely passed up Mabry Mill, supposedly the most photographed place on the entire Parkway. We had stopped there a couple of times before and I felt sure that Jim stopped today and got photos. One place I made sure to check out was the Puckett Cabin with its amazing story of “Aunt” Orelena Hawks Puckett, who became a midwife at age 50 and assisted at 1,000 births before her own death at 102. Ironically, none of her own 24 children lived past infancy. I am in constant awe of these women and the hard lives that they lived.

At Cumberland Knob I stopped at the Visitor Center at MP 217 – also closed. This area includes a picnic section and a cemetery, but I can’t report much else. Continuing on, I passed a little pond with a parking area and saw this weird guy lounging on the picnic table…hmmm…there’s a bicyle….that weird guy is my husband! I stopped to see how he was doing (fine) and he was getting ready for the home stretch.

Since I was a little bit ahead of Jim, I had time to check out the Brinegar Cabin, home of Martin Caudill, a weaver, and his wife and 16 children. You can’t get inside the buildings there but you can peer through the windows.

Our resting place for the night was Bluffs Lodge at Doughton Park, a simpler version of Peaks of Otter (yes, it’s possible), simple rooms, quiet, no air conditioning but a big porch with long views, and to my delight there was a large stone terrace and a fireplace. We ate supper at the restaurant across the road and went back to a roaring fire with other guests gathered around. After the sun disappeared we wrote notes for the next day, packed lunches, and slept the sleep of the truly contented.  

Jim’s Day Four – 

I planned today as another long mileage day (80 miles). The terrain was primarily rolling hills except for the climb up to Doughton Park at the end of the day. I could tell as soon as I woke up that I was nowhere near fully recovered from yesterday’s effort. 

Smoky Scout and I went out to breakfast instead of eating in the room. A big breakfast would help. We went to the Blue Ridge Restaurant a classic small town place right in the heart of Floyd, simple good food and a pleasant staff with a lot of regulars. I had another motive for eating besides just fueling up. Smoky Scout and I happened to be eating breakfast at the Blue Ridge Restaurant on the morning of 4/16/07. We were on a weekend getaway to the New River. It was there that we first heard about the Va Tech shootings. The details were very sketchy at the time but the little I heard was overwhelming. We listened to the radio reports on our way back to our cabin and they just kept getting worse. I wanted to cleanse the memory of the last time I was at the Blue Ridge. Of course I will not forget that morning but by going back again it helps me regain a sense of perspective, accept what happened and move on. It is similar to the saying about “getting back on the horse that threw you”. Having additional good memories about a place helps dilute the bad ones (at least for me). It was a great breakfast and the Blue Ridge Restaurant was now much closer to simply being a restaurant to me. 

 Speaking of moving on……..Smoky Scout dropped me off at Tuggle Gap at about 9:30 AM or so which was about an hour later than my usual start. It was quite cold for mid May (about 30 deg F) but brilliantly clear. Just as I was pulling out, three other cyclists were pulling in. They were bundled up.

 As expected my legs were pretty heavy. Early in the ride I decided to use my brain rather than my muscles. Hey, I couldn’t lie around the motel and recover but I could do a recovery ride on the bike. This is actually a common practice for cyclists. Work hard one day and take it very easy the next. Sometimes it is hard to do because the natural tendency for most cyclists is to constantly push yourself. I always tell Smoky Scout cycling involves a lot of pain and it’s true. But today I decided to make it a real easy ride….no more than 15 mph on the flats, coast when I could but still maintain my 7 – 10 mph climbing pace. The 7 – 10 mph climbing pace was already a relaxed pace compared to my usual climbing pace on the much, much, much shorter hills at home. Overall this strategy worked well. The cool weather and lack of big climbs helped a lot too. I felt stronger at the end of the day than the beginning. 

The scenery was different than the first three days but just as striking. Lots of farmland and pastures and a brilliant blue sky. Within the first 15 miles or so I came to Mabry Mill, the most photo- graphed place on the BRP. Oddly I did not take a picture of the mill but I did meet a group of motorcycle riders and got a picture with them. Many of the folks I met on the trip were motorcycle riders. They were all cool people. 

 A little further down the road I came across this authentic country store, the Mayberry Trading Post. This was not a Disney version or a cutesy tourist version. Local folks and cyclists rely on it. Check out the sign that the nice lady running it keeps on the counter. I hope these places survive. If the entire world turns corporate it is going to be a bland place. 
It was during this ride that I passed from VA into NC. You could see Pilot Mountain in the distance for much of the ride. Objects like that become true landmarks when riding a bike. You travel at a slower pace so you see them for a longer period of time. You can judge your location and pace by them. 

The ride from the state line to Doughton Park was through forest much of the time. It was nice and cool. The only real climb was for a few miles up to Bluffs Lodge, our place for the night. Like I said before, I felt better at the end of the ride than the beginning. Honestly, the climb up to Bluffs Lodge was fun. Cycling does bring on endorphins. Smoky Scout got to Bluffs Lodge before me and I met her out on the large flagstone patio overlooking the mountains. We then did the Dew of course. 

This was an 80-mile day so a lot more happened than I jotted down above. I’ll just throw out a few key words for the rest of the ride and you can imagine what you want for the details….Floydfest Park, Buffalo Mountain, rail fence exhibit, turkeys, cemeteries, Puckett Cabin, Brinegar Cabin, rolling mountains, Blue Ridge Music Center (closed, dang!!!). 

A little about Bluffs Lodge before I close. Similar to the Peaks of Otter Lodge but a little smaller and more remote. It is a clean, rustic place to stay right on the BRP. No phone, TV, internet or AC. You don’t need them nor want them. The rooms are simple but have all that you need. It is fairly remote so the only place to eat is the restaurant across the road but it was just my style. Again, simple food in a vintage 40’s style place. I went with roast beef tonight. This restaurant closes by 7:30. If you are staying at Bluffs Lodge and get there late you are out of luck. After supper it was a cool night so someone built a fire in the fireplace on the patio. Smoky Scout and I met some nice folks from Kansas and Georgia while watching the fire but by 9:30 or so I was beat and away to bed I went. 

 Stats for day:

Mile marker start: 165.3 
Mile marker finish: 241.1 
Total day miles: 79.5 
Climbing for day: Still need to get this 
 Avg speed: 12.9 mph
Max speed: 37.1 mph
A bicycle does get you there and more.... And there is always the thin edge of danger to keep you alert and comfortably apprehensive. Dogs become dogs again and snap at your raincoat; potholes become personal. And getting there is all the fun. ~ Bill Emerson, "On Bicycling," Saturday Evening Post, 29 July 1967

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ain't No Sunshine

BRP Trip – 5/17/09 - Day Three

We woke up to rain so we slept in a little bit – still raining after a half hour so nothing to do but hit the road. As we packed up I kept looking out the window at Sharp Top playing peek-a-boo in the clouds, now you see it, now you don’t. Sure, I’ve hiked in the rain plenty of times working on my Smokies 900, but the goal on this trip is to see sights, have fun…stay dry.

Jim’s goal is to complete the BRP, though, and today was scheduled to be his longest – 80 miles. How could I let him bike 80 miles in the rain and not be willing to walk 3 miles? So we took the morning photo of the mighty cyclist lined up with all the motorcycles and Jim rode off into the drizzle. We planned to rendezvous at Milepost 129.6 at around noon.

 A shuttle bus runs from the trailhead parking lot up to near the tip of Sharp Top, but there wasn’t nobody there today ‘cept myself and a pileated woodpecker working on a stump. Even the bus driver was absent. It’s raining, you know. So I had the 1.5-mile trail to myself…sigh…But there was no real rain in the woods, just the trees dripping, and the temperature was just cool enough. Here was another strenuous trail, very eroded. These Virginia folks are loving their trails to death! As I climbed, I heated up a lot and thought about how unbearable this trek would be by midsummer.

The last quarter mile before the summit, the trail was lined with brilliantly blooming spiderwort in red-purples and blue-purples, a great incentive to keep going. I walked into the clouds and my heart sank – all this work and no view today? The top of Sharp Top is composed of house-sized rocks and no trees, and an old stone house that was once used for over- nighters. Now it is apparently thought of as a trash collection point - lots of water bottles on the floor inside.
To add to the fun, the wind was whistling. I stowed my hat away and began to climb the stone steps, and around the first corner I nearly went over the edge. I have never been in such fierce winds! Everything around was white and I could not tell what direction I was facing. Suddenly the white mist was blowing up into my face and rushing over my head and I could see all the way down to the valley. The lodge was in front of me – and then it was gone again. The wind kept blowing clouds up and over me as I climbed higher on the rocks, views there and then gone again. I was a bit afraid to let go to use both hands for the camera, but I tried a few pics and was surprised that they turned out at all, the way I was being blown around. It was a truly exhilerating feeling and I was thrilled that I had made the effort. Remember the scene from the movie, Titanic? “I’m the king of the world!”

I did not stay too long because wind plus wet equals cold. My hike back down was very quick, but I did take the time to fall flat on my butt once. Once I got out of the woods and to my car it was truly raining. I drove down the BRP looking for Jim and he said he was okay, so I continued to the meeting point and read my book until he arrived. (I’ll tell you about the books I read later – great stuff.) Jim ate lunch with me, reported that it was tough going but he was getting through it, and the rain was slowing down to intermittent drizzling, so I decided to go on to my next planned hike on the way to our stopping point for the day.

Smart View Recreation Area is near MP 154, south of Roanoke, with several good leg stretcher trails and a large picnic area. I confess, I did not feel like doing the planned hike, but once I started I really enjoyed it . I checked out the Trail’s Cabin here and the view from its back door out to the mountains – what they called a “right smart view.” The hike was easy-going, about 3 miles, a nice change from the lung buster going up Sharp Top. A snort made me jump as I startled two deer (and vice versa). The trail was routed to follow some enormous trees I could not identify. I really need to learn this stuff…Part of the fun was going through the “fat man squeezes” in the fences.

I met Jim at the hot spot of Tuggle Gap and we checked into the much-anticipated Hotel Floyd, a great hotel in the awesome little town of Floyd, Virginia, home of Floyd Fest and many bluegrass venues. Sad to say, we were here on a Sunday night and there was no music. BUT our hotel room had a flat screen TV, wireless internet and it was the night of the “Survivor” finale! I was in heaven!

 Before “Survivor”, though, we needed food. Jim was burning something like 4,700 calories a day (yes, ladies, I hate him too) and the next meal was always on our minds. We ate family style at the Pine Tavern, sweet tea, fried chicken, ham, all the veggies, mashed potatoes, biscuits, blackberry AND chocolate cobbler for dessert. We were stuffed like the Thanksgiving turkey. We stayed up much too late watching the “Survivor” reunion show (I hate Coach, don’t you?).

 Jim’s Day Three 

Before I start talking about today’s ride let me introduce you to my bike. It is a Specialized Allez Comp with Columbus FoCo steel frame, Shimano 540 wheels, carbon fork and all Ultegra components. I invested $200 in a top of the line Selle Italia Gel Flow saddle about a year ago and it has been well worth it. The only thing unusual about my bike is the steel frame. Most bikes now are aluminum, carbon or titanium. When I was looking to replace my mid 80s vintage Trek a few years ago I came across this Specialized at a decent price for all Ultegra components. I wasn’t looking for a steel frame but it was not much heavier than aluminum and I knew steel has a more supple ride. Carbon and titanium were significantly more expensive at the time so I went with the steel. I have been happy with it. I considered getting some better wheels before the BRP trip but decided to save the dough. I’ll consider upgrading to a carbon frame in the next few years. My body and this bike have become very compatible though so I’ll think hard before any changes. The best thing is my bike has been very reliable and it did not let me down on the trip. 

Now to the ride. I thought this was going to be my toughest day and it was. The plan included 80 miles with a considerable amount of climbing. The BRP dipped into the Roanoke valley. It is about a 2000 ft climb back out in addition to numerous other smaller climbs throughout the day. In addition the weather had turned bad. It rained through the night as a cold front swept in. I delayed leaving by 30 minutes hoping it would let up but it did not. As long as it was not a deluge I was ready to go. I put on just about all of my riding gear including long sleeve base layer, wind vest, raincoat, leg warmers and arm warmers. I pulled out in a moderate rain, chilly temperatures and a stiff wind. I had ridden several times this past winter in similar conditions so I felt I could survive. I purposely made sure I did not wimp out during the messy rides this past winter. On a few Saturday group rides we only had 2 or 3 folks due to the cold and/or wet but I knew I needed the riding and the bad weather practice.  

The views were not spectacular but they were interesting due to the swirling clouds. Most of the ride to Roanoke is either on the ridge top or the side of the mountain so there are plenty of views. The BRP was desolate and that was good and bad. Not much traffic to be concerned about but between the wind, the rain and the lack of people it felt kind of ominous. For the first time I felt a little vulnerable. A guy on a bike is no match for Mother Nature. Speaking of Mother Nature, I did see my first 3 deer of the trip as well as a snapping turtle. The first deer ran along the road side about 25 yards in front of me for about 15 – 20 seconds before darting into the woods. It’s amazing how they mix leaping with running. The turtle was only a few feet into the road. At first I thought I would move him off the road but I had no idea where he was really headed. I decided to let nature take its course and let him continue on his way. I thought about the turtle during the day especially when I found myself pushing a little too hard. 

The ride around Roanoke was not as bad as advertised. Folks talk about the heavy commuter traffic and the “unscenic views” on this stretch of the BRP. It was a rainy Sunday so not much traffic at all. As far as the view, those folks must not have driven around Charlotte much. A bad view on the BRP is way better than all the views on my regular rides. The BRP goes over the Roanoke River on a very tall bridge just outside of Roanoke. There is a hydro electric power plant there. I am a mechanical engineer that has been in the power industry my entire career. I love power plants in addition to biking, the mountains and Smoky Scout. I never pass up a chance to take a picture of a power plant in my travels. 

Simply put, the ride out of Roanoke was hard. It was steep, long and had a few brief down hills that annoy you because you know you will need to regain that elevation again. I met Smoky Scout for lunch at an overlook about half way up the 2000 ft climb. I was tired, wet and hungry. I did not want to linger long and get cold and stiff. About 5 minutes after I left I felt I was in trouble. My legs were like lead. The brief lunch stop had not helped much. I still had 35 miles to Tuggle Gap. I set an intermediate goal of 15 miles. I told myself don’t think about 35 miles just think about 15 miles. Instead of sitting and spinning I stood and used a smaller gear. It worked. I can stand for a long time if I need to. I also kept my theme song in mind. I sang out loud and in my head the phrase “Come on up for the rising, come on up and put your hand in mine” over and over. 

The road finally leveled out somewhat and the rain fully quit. My lunch kicked in, raising my blood sugar and lifting my spirits. I wasn’t kickin’ butt on the few flat spots but I went past my 15-mile intermediate goal without stopping because I felt much better. I did finally take a break somewhere to take a few pictures of some nice houses and a few scenic spots. The terrain had changed from mountains to rolling hills and farmland. I monitored my effort level by feel and my heart rate monitor. Once more…’s all about energy management on long rides. Oh yeah, I did do a GU on that break. I really think they help as long you have not totally bonked. 

On the way into Tuggle Gap the sun finally came out although the temperature was dropping. The terrain was relatively easy for a bit. I stopped at the Floyd Dry Goods store which looked interesting but was closed. The final 3 – 4 miles into Tuggle Gap included an 830 ft climb but my GU had kicked in and I was tired but fine. All in all I rate this as the toughest ride I have ever done. There have been longer ones and certainly faster paced ones but this was long, in the mountains, in bad weather and solo.  

Smoky Scout met me at the Tuggle Gap Restaurant and gas station with a Mountain Dew in hand. It was a quick 6-mile drive to Floyd VA. Floyd is a cool little town. It is a Mecca for bluegrass (which I also happen to love) as well as mountain arts and crafts. We checked in at the Hotel Floyd (a great place by the way). We found the perfect spot to eat…the Pine Tavern….family style, all you can eat, great country food. It’s not a replica of a 1940’s roadhouse it is a 1940’s roadhouse. I loved it. It was Sunday evening so there was no bluegrass to be found but I was quite tired. Back at the room I cleaned and lubed my bike and got in bed to watch the Survivor finale with Smoky. Tomorrow was another 80-mile day and I did not have much time to recover. 

Stats for day: 

Mile marker start: 85.6 
Mile marker finish: 165.3 
Total day miles: 82.1 
Climbing for day: 5000 ft 
Avg speed: 13.4 mph 
Max speed: 36.3 mph

 The best rides are the ones where you bite off much more than you can chew--and live through it.  ~Doug Bradbury

Monday, May 25, 2009

(Finally) Smoky Scout Sees a Snake

BRP Trip – 5/16/09 - Day Two

Beginning at MP 45.7, Jim had a little trouble getting oriented onto the road, but was finally on his way for Day Two. My first stop today was the Visitor Center at the James River Water Gap where the BRP crosses the mighty James. The VC was closed – very disappointing, since it was a Saturday in mid-May – but both of my hiking guides had info on the Trail of Trees, so I took a stroll along the half-mile loop. I am responsible for the homelessness of thousands of spiders, as I was the first person on this trail today and had to constantly remove spiderwebs from my face. The Trail of Trees is a real treat, cool views right beside the river and dozens of tree identification signs. I’m not too well versed in trees so it was fun to learn something new. I might be able to distinguish an American bladdernut from a mockernut hickory now, but don’t even ask me about the royal paulownia.

In this photo you can see the BRP as it crosses the James and the footbridge suspended underneath it. There is another interpretive trail that crosses here to see the Battery Creek Lock, built in 1848. I didn’t take time for this one, but all in all I’d say the James River Water Gap VC is a great stop for families with kids.

My reason for excitement today was a 4.4-mile out-and-back hike on the AT beginning where we dropped off the thru-hikers last night, about four miles off of the BRP on Highway 501 West. This section begins on a footbridge across the James River completed in 2000 and dedicated to William T. Foot. (Click on the photo of the dedication sign to read the whole story.) This section is a re-route to follow Matts Creek and the James. What an exhilerating way to start an AT section hike!

On the other side there are signs designating no camping for the first mile (basically as the trail paralleled the James) and right there was a campsite with a little trash in it. My guess is that locals are responsible for this, because after a mile there were a couple of primitive sites recently used, hopefully by conscientious thru-hikers. I cleaned out this fire ring on my way back to my car. Brownie points! Rhodies were blooming all along the way so I added photos to my collection.

The walk beside the James River was awesome. There were tulip tree blooms everywhere. As the trail turned left to walk up Matts Creek, camping was allowed, as evidenced by the sign and the creative hikers’ cairn on top of it. I noticed a real difference here from the Smokies creeks. The water in the Smokies has a greenish caste to it, I’m sure for some biological reason, while the water in Matts Creek had a lighter, tan color, almost sandy. Even the deep pools seemed brown as opposed to the green of the Smokies. And as I was making these observa- tions, I prepared to cross a side seep and…look closely...I nearly stepped on this fellow. Imagine, I hiked 1,075 miles in the Smokies and never saw a snake, and he was here on the AT in Virginia the whole time! He was about 18 inches long and did not slink away, just posed for photos. I finally got tired of watching him and walked on.

 I soon arrived at Matts Creek Shelter, a dismal place by Smokies standards. My experience with shelters is limited to the Smokies, so now I know that they are not the norm (yes, some are even nicer, but most are smaller). I took a lunch break and was nearly ready to turn back when a couple of northbound section hikers rolled in, self-described “young seniors.” After a short chat, I retraced my steps, crossed that awesome bridge one more time and headed back to the BRP.

 My next stop was the Thunder Ridge Overlook , which was fantastic. I turned onto what I thought was the .2-mile loop around the ridge and immediately became entranced by the sea of mayapple and nearly-spent trilliums at mid-calf height as far as I could see. After a few minutes of walking I realized that I was going straight, not in a loop, and there were those familiar-looking white rectangle blazes – well, here I was on another AT section. I backtracked to the car and turned south again.

I passed Jim on my way to my next hike at Fallingwater Cascades. This is a nice little 1.6-mile loop in the Peaks of Otter Recreation Area. Since I had an idea of where Jim was, I had time for this hike. The hike was moderate to strenuous (takes some effort to get to a waterfall) and the cascades reminded me of the unnamed waterfall along Meigs Creek Trail in the Smokies.

On the way to the waterfall I got behind a family that included Grandma and Grandpa. Grandma was doing great, but Grandpa seemed frail and unsteady on his feet, yet he was last in line, so I followed him for a while since his family seemed to be paying no attention. Eventually I passed them, though, or I would be there still...

From here I drove the short distance to the Peaks of Otter Lodge, our home for the night, and found that Jim had passed me and was now in a rocking chair outside the main office, chugging a soda and talking with other guests. Jim is no longer self-conscious in those tight black cycling shorts! It was barely 1:00 p.m., but we were allowed to check in and we quickly moved our stuff inside, then took snacks and sodas out onto our little balcony to unwind.

A little background: Peaks of Otter Recreation Area is a great area to visit. It’s a valley between two peaks (duh) called Sharp Top and Flat Top. There are several theories of the origin of the name – feel free to make one up on your own. (Hint: it’s close to the Otter River). Peaks of Otter Lodge is one of four concessionaire-operated accommodations on the BRP, open year-round, and very popular. We were on a waiting list for several weeks to get a room. The rooms are simple (no TV, no internet, no cell phone service) and their dining room is very, very good. There are camping facilities open May through October and other amenities. Check it out here and here. One bit of advice: it is extremely popular with motorcyclists, so if that’s not your thing, be aware. On our overnight stay, we were the only car parked in front of our building – the rest were motorcycles. They were a large group and they partied out in the breezeway until at least 2:00 a.m., not obnoxious but audible. We just turned on the air conditioner, put in the earplugs and snoozed away.

 Back to the story: We had the afternoon to goof off and the weather was beautiful, but upon looking at Sharp Top from our balcony (see photo right) we decided against hiking it that day. I would give it a run the next morning after Jim took off on his bike. We walked to the camp store and VC (great exhibits) and walked the little trail around Abbot Lake. (Here is a photo of Flat Top with the Lodge in front of it). Then I brought my little traveling blanket outside, spread it under the tree by the lake, and face-planted for a nap. When was the last time you just laid on a blanket outside and went to sleep? It needs to be a more regular occurrence.

A little blonde-haired boy (appeared to be about 3 years old but we learned that he is 5) walked up and laid his face beside Jim’s on the blanket. We saw a woman in the distance and asked him if that was his mom, but he did not reply, and the woman walked off in another direction. After a couple more questions with no response, a man jogged up and explained that his son had “lost his words” after an MMR vaccination at age 2 and that they had worked hard to get him to the level of sociability that he currently displayed. As the dad gave us a little more information than we were looking for, Andrew put his nose to mine, mimicked head movements with me, and stared with great intensity as if he were a mind-reader – but no words. After a few minutes his interest waned and he continued on around the lake’s path, with his dad following and waving cheerfully. The word autism was not mentioned, but I’ve read a bit about vaccinations as a possible connection to it and will look into it some more.

After a wonderful meal in the Lodge’s restaurant, we went back to our room to prepare for the next day. The weather forecast was not looking good and Jim had an 80-mile ride planned. We sketched out a plan for me to meet him halfway for lunch and water resupply. As part of my nightly routine now I wrote out two copies of my day’s plan, the hikes and the mileposts where the trailheads were, and gave one to Jim and put one in the front seat of the car. Then we re-packed as much as we could and snoozed.

Jim’s Day Two –  

A little bit more about day 1 first. Smoky Scout and I had a really great time in Lexington after my ride. It’s a nice small town with a vibrant main street. Going back to Big Island brought back a flood of memories. Truthfully while I lived and worked there as a co-op student I was still more of a city slicker. I did not appreciate being in such a beautiful location. My mindset has changed a lot in 30 years. Smoky was a great sport for eating at the little restaurant. Like many folks I enjoy a restaurant with a lot of local color. I have eaten in many hole-in-the-wall type places including little grills in out of the way gas stations and country grocery stores. The people are down to earth and the food is much better than you would expect (most of the time). The catfish here was very good. The only regret I had for the day was not seeing the south’s largest rattlesnake.  

Day 2 dawned nice and clear with just a few wispy clouds floating around the mountains as I pulled out of the Buena Vista Overlook. The ride started with over 10 miles of downhill to the James River at elevation 650 ft or so. I stopped at Otter Lake to take a few pictures. Sometimes I have been putting my bike in the picture to add some sense of perspective to the view but here I met a father and his young son. They were happy to take my picture and I returned the favor. All (and I mean all) of the people I met on the trip were very friendly. The fact that I was riding a bike was a good conversation starter. 

After a brief visit to the James River Visitor Center (very brief because it was not open yet) I started one of the famous climbs on the BRP. You go from the lowest point on the BRP (elev 650 ft) to the highest in VA atop Apple Orchard Mountain (elev 3950 ft). About a 3300 ft climb in a little under 14 miles. I felt pretty good about it. For the past 6 months I had been not just riding but “training”…..lots of intervals on the trainer in the garage at night and hanging with the fast group (or trying to on some days) during group rides. Still my plan was to bust the climb up into a few segments (3 or 4) and take a quick break after each one. Shortly after I started the climb I saw another rider in the distance. I thought it sure would be good to have some company so I upped my pace a little and caught up with him in about 10 – 15 minutes. Any longer than that and I was going to have to back off. Like I said before, it’s all about energy management. I did not want to empty my tank. 

The rider was a nice guy, Mark Becht, and he does this climb 3 times a week. He is a strong rider…..stays at a steady pace in the middle ring all the way to the top. He graciously accepted my company. We talked on the way up and this took my mind off the climb. I simply followed his pace of about 8 – 9 mph (me in the small chain ring as opposed to him in the middle). I like to alternate sitting and standing during long climbs and that helped also. At about 10 miles into the climb I needed a break and took a quick one while Mark forged ahead. I rejoined him at an overlook where he was waiting just a little below the summit. We rode to the summit together. My plan of 3 or 4 segments was not needed which boosted my confidence a little. I got a quick picture at the summit sign and then went on a little side trip and Mark headed back down to the James River. 

There is a radar installation atop the true summit of Apple Orchard Mountain. The road itself is not quite at the true summit. There is a side road off the BRP that leads to the radar site. It has “KEEP OUT” signs and gates and I heard that it was quite a bit steeper than the BRP. I tried it anyway. Yes, it was steep and covered with fine loose gravel that made for sketchy traction on such a steep climb but it was less than a mile long. I made it and quickly snapped a picture to prove it and headed back down before I got in trouble. Actually I think hikers head by here often so it is probably not a big deal. 

Before I headed down to the Peaks of Otter Lodge it was interesting to note that the leaves were just coming out up here as opposed to the valley where they were fully out. 

The ride was either downhill or close to level from here to the Peaks of Otter Lodge. I got there a little ahead of Smoky Scout. It felt great resting in a rocking chair in the shade of the front porch until she arrived. We quickly checked in and headed to our room that had a great back porch with a perfect view of Sharp Top. I had my customary post ride Mountain Dew (diet) and enjoyed the rest of the day with a walk on the grounds and a great meal.

Stats for day:
Mile marker start: 45.7 
Mile marker finish: 85.6
 Total day miles: 43.0 
Total day climbing: 3750 
ft Avg speed: 12.3 mph 
Max speed: 36.3 mph  

I thought of that while riding my bicycle. ~ Albert Einstein on the theory of relativity

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