Saturday, May 31, 2008

Rolling Through Illinois

[Note: I've been wifi-less for a few days, so I've backdated this post.]

After ferrying across the Ohio to enter Illinois, yesterday I rode over the Mississippi to leave the state. It was a short trip through Illinois, basically two days of riding extended by one rest day in Carbondale. Though Illinois is a relatively flat state, the Transamerica manages to find the one band of hilly terrain that stretches across Illinois' southern tip.

I had prepared myself for a potentially unpleasant ride through Illinois based on the reports of other cross-country riders. Most people who have completed the Transamerica will offer you their opinion on the state whose residents are most likely to throw a bag of trash out of their car window at you. Illinois is mentioned often. (Missouri runs a close second.) Fortunately, I had no such experience.

I spent Thursday in Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University. With the students gone for summer, the town was quiet. It offered the first selection of ethnic food in hundreds of miles. Thursday morning was spent at the Bike Surgeon, one of the three bike shops in Carbondale all within one block of each other. Chris, co-owner of the shop, tuned my bike and fixed a number of minor issues. (For any readers who found this blog because you are thinking of riding the Transamerica, I highly recommend the Bike Surgeon. While I'm on the subject, based on my experience and those of others I have spoken with, I also strongly suggest that you avoid Blue Wheel in Charlottesville, VA. They have been repeatedly unhelpful and unfriendly to Transam riders.) The afternoon was devoted to a double feature at the first movie theater I've passed since Charlottesville: Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Iron Man.

I left Carbondale late in the morning yesterday, so that I could stop at 17th Street Bar & Grill in Murphysboro for lunch. It was only a twelve mile ride, but I still managed to work up an appetite. Cyclists, who had done the Transamerica in prior years, emailed me to make sure that I didn't miss this award-winning barbecue. The combo platter of baby back ribs and pulled pork did not disappoint.

The hush puppies, thankfully, were also delicious because I was regretting ordering another fried food and not taking advantage of the rare opportunity to eat a vegetable.

As I approached the Mississippi, I had some of the flattest stretches of land since my first days of riding. Unfortunately, I also had my first notable headwinds. The last ten miles of road were dominated by commercial traffic. I felt like I was being run out of the state by coal trucks.

The bridge over the Mississippi was in Chester, IL, the hometown of the creator of Popeye. The city celebrates this fact with a museum/giftshop, murals, and statues of the cartoon characters scattered throughout town.

It is also home to a large prison that once housed John Wayne Gacy. After two shakes at Sweet Pea's, the town ice cream shop, I headed to Sainte Genevieve, MO, a historic French town that used to sit on the banks of the Mississippi, but now rests to its West. I had dinner at a local bar where the town lawyer and the waitresses exchanged the type of banter that I thought only existed in screenplays. I spent the night at a well-worn downtown hotel, the only affordable option among the luxury B&Bs.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

When Animals Attack

As I mentioned earlier, Kentucky is lousy with dogs. Despite its reputation for almost certain canine attack, I managed to make it through the state without any serious incidents and never sprayed a dog. The most memorable chase took place on my last day in the state when a pair of smart dogs working in tandem charged out of their yard at me. One dog came at a diagonal in an effort to head me off further down the road, while the other one went straight for my back tire. All this while the owner stood silently by her mailbox. It made me want to spray her, not the dogs. After a swerve and a high speed chase, the dogs eventually gave up and headed home.

While I didn't live through any attacks, they do occur. Pete, a rider in the Adventure Cycling group, had a dog sink its teeth into one of his rear panniers and rip it. A guy riding from the West told me that he had a real scare a few days earlier. A dog with teeth bared was tearing at him. He thought that the dog had probably broken its chain given the ferocity with which it was charging him. Just as the dog entered the opposite side of the road and this cyclist thought he was going to be mauled, a speeding SUV rolled the dog.

The best story of an animal attack doesn't involve a dog, but a pig. Caitlyn, the leader of the Adventure Cycling group, stopped to take a picture of a pig that was in the middle of the road when it started "charging" her and ramming her bike. It then proceeded to chew on her bike bags. I'll post a few photos of the pig attack, if I can get my hands on them in Carbondale.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pirate Tales

Following the suggestion of my friend Greg I pulled into Marion, KY today to have lunch at Marion Bar-B-Q. I asked the first person I saw on the street how far the restaurant was from town. "Oh, that's pretty far," he told me. "But there's another barbecue restaurant, S & J, just about a mile out of town and it has really good food." One mile sounded better than an undetermined "far away," so I headed over to S & J. The waiter recommended the pulled pork. As I ate my meal, the man I met on the street walked in with his wife. Turns out they owned the joint. All conflicts aside, the recommendation was solid -- the barbecue was tasty.

A dozen miles from Marion, I caught a car ferry that took me across the Ohio River and into Illinois.

As I waited to board the ferry, the sky was darkening behind me and thunder was approaching. By the time the ferry dopped me off in Cave In Rock, IL, the downpour had begun. I ducked under the awning of an abandonned restaurant. A guy, taking cover on the other side of the street, crossed over. He had just moved back to town after living in Florida for years. He and his wife bought a building with retail downstairs and an apartment upstairs in the faltering downtown. He hoped to open a camping supplies store capitalizing on the state park and the regular motorcycle rallies held in the area.

Though I didn't get a chance to explore the town, the guy gave me a little history lesson while waiting for the rain to subside. Apparently, the cave in the town's name was a pirates' cove. Pirate gangs would stop flatboats coming down the Ohio and offer to help the crew negotiate the rapids. Once aboard, the pirates would dispatch of the crew and then sail the boats down to New Orleans to sell the cargo. In the early 1800s, the law attempted to tame the area by decapitating some of the pirates and putting their heads on spikes in front of the town courthouse. Supposedly, another gang hijacked wagons travelling West on a popular, nearby trail. "It's a wonder the West ever got settled," the man told me.

The setting for my last ten miles of the day was like a rain forest. The narrow road curved through thick woods. Rain dripped from the trees, steam rose from the ground, and a green-tinted light colored the air. With rain predicted throughout the night I booked a room at the Rose Hotel, located on the banks of the Ohio. Opened in 1812, the Rose is the oldest, operating hotel in Illinois. Elizabethtown is also home to a number of buildings picturesque in their disrepair.

Bye Bye Bluegrass

This past weekend ushered in my first really hot days. Blazing sun and humidity add a whole new element to the ride. But, yesterday, my last full day in Kentucky was more about the rain than the heat. I rode for several hours through heavy rain, opting to get soaked rather than donning rain gear. Before lunch the skies were a smudge of pale gray in all directions and I thought I would be riding through the rain all day. Yet, by mid-afternoon I eventually rode out of the storm and into drier pastures.

At lunchtime I pulled into a gas station in Whitesville, KY (one of the few places open on the holiday) and found Cam and Don eating lunch at a booth. I had passed them last week, but they got ahead of me again when I went down to Mammoth Cave. It's always a nice surprise to see familiar faces on the Trail. I hope to catch up with folks from the Adventure Cycling group in the next day or two as well.

I ended my ride in Sebree, KY, where the First Baptist Church is well-known for its hospitality to cyclists. The pastor, Bob, and his wife Violet live next door to the church. After showing me the facilities for bikers, complete with a shower, mattresses, television, and a ping pong table, Bob invited me back to his house for dinner. Violet fixed me a heaping plate of food from a BBQ that they had earlier in the day - hamburgers, ribs, beans, potato salad, and cake and ice cream for dessert.

The last few days of biking through Kentucky have taken me past many fields of bluegrass, most of which have already been cut down. Pay lakes dot the countryside and often have a number of fishermen. While many cyclists don't find Kentucky to be the most pleasant state to bike through, I've enjoyed my time here and have been treated well by many. My only complaint is that on the few occasions when I really desired a beer after a long ride I always ended up in a dry town or county. When I mentioned this to a clerk at a motel where I was staying, she said, "Well, maybe you should take that as a sign." I will. A sign that Kentucky needs to change it's liquor laws.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Mammoth Cave

I apologize for the lag in posting. I haven't had access to a wireless signal for the past few days. Over the next two days, I'll try to catch the blog up to my actual whereabouts.

On Saturday, I had a fast and easy ride into Mammoth Cave National Park. Since I had camp set up, had showered, and had done laundry by 2pm, my afternoon was free. So, I went for a bike ride.

My ride took me down a road that dead-ended in the Green River. A free ferry shuttled three cars at a time across the 100-foot-wide river. After catching the ferry to the other side of the river, I biked to a set of trail ends in the park's extensive trail network and hiked a loop. During my two-hour hike, I realized that hiking allows the mind to wander much more than biking. While walking through the woods its easy to fall deep into your thoughts and move down the trail essentially on autopilot. There's no threat of a speeding delivery van broadsiding you on a hiking trail. While biking, you can never fall too deep into thought because you need to remain more alert of traffic, turns, and other obstacles. This all reminded me of a story that a cyclist told me a few days earlier. Before he began his ride, he asked his younger brother, who also had biked the Transamerica, about what music to take along. His brother replied, "Bro, you don't bike cross-country to listen to your ipod, you bike cross-country to listen to yourself." Hilarious. And true.

Sunday morning I went on a three-hour tour of Mammoth Cave. There is a host of different tours of varying lengths and themes. Since it was a holiday weekend, my selection was limited. My tour was by lantern light. The idea of the tour was to recapture the way that visitors experienced the cave from 1816 (when tours began at the cave) until the 1950s when electric lights were first installed. It seemed appropriate to see the cave in flickering lights and shadows. Unfortunately, I don't have any good pictures of the cave because I was on a tour where the only light was lantern light.

During my ride back to the main Transamerica route, one stretch of road had more horse-drawn buggies than cars. It was mid-afternoon and several Amish families presumably were headed home after Sunday services. My destination for the night was the Double L, a gas station and store owned by Arnold and Lucy Lucas, who let cyclists camp out behind the store. After pitching my tent, Arnold and Lucy returned from visiting relatives, opened the store, and fed me. Always a good end to a long day.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Bourbon Road

As I rode out of Bardstown, KY, yesterday morning a sweet and distinct smell hit my nose. The smell of Bourbon. Unknowingly, I was leaving the "Bourbon Capital of the World." I was only about a mile into my ride but a sign for tours and tastings at Heaven Hill distillery beckoned. I pulled over and signed up for a tour. As it turns out Heaven Hill's distillery burned to the ground over three days in 1996 and ever since production has taken place in Louisville. The company now uses the Bardstown location for bottling and storage. After learning about the history and process of Bourbon production, we toured one of the warehouses.

Allegedly, the discovery that aging corn whiskey in charred casks improved its taste and color was a happy accident that occurred when a distiller was too cheap to replace casks that had burned in a warehouse fire. The process for handling, aging, and storing bourbon is surprisingly old-fashioned and labor intensive. The tour ended with a tasting of 13 and 18 year-old whiskeys.

With a belly full of bourbon, I started my ride in earnest after 1 pm. I was headed for Mammoth Cave, a detour to the South of the Transam. On the way, I passed Abe Lincoln's birthplace. I was hoping to get a look at the humble, log cabin that we all heard about in grade school history class. I pulled into this national historic site at 4:45 pm to find that it closes at 4:45 pm -- truly a government closing time. I rode around the site in a quick loop unsure what I was looking at. I saw several log cabins but I'm not sure any of them can claim to have been Abe's first home. The remainder of my ride took me through Kentucky's rolling hills and farmlands.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Covered in Cicadas

After an uneventful rest day in Berea on Wednesday (except for the fact that I bowled a 160 against Chad, Mike, and Caitlyn from the Adventure Cycling group), I biked my first century ride (100 miles) of the trip yesterday. It wasn't my intention to bike so far, as I didn't get a very early start, but the weather was so pleasant and the terrain, while not exactly flat, was much more gentle than what I have faced the past few weeks.

Those hundred miles included a few extra miles that I added when I missed a turn. I would have pedaled several more unnecessary miles if it wasn't for a kind woman in a red pickup, who sped past me and then pulled over. As I rode by, she asked if I was supposed to be on a certain road. I checked my map and told her I was. She said that many bikers miss the turn and it was about two miles back. She told me that she tries to catch cyclists before they get much further because there is a big downhill ahead that would be painful to climb back up. I thanked her profusely. I wasn't in the mood for another big climb, especially one that wasn't even on my route.

After stating in my last post that I haven't really had many noteworthy dining experiences, at lunchtime yesterday I biked past the sign below, which naturally caught my eye.

As I rolled into the parking lot to take a picture of the sign a woman wearing an Obama T-shirt came out of the house next door. I told her my last name was Dunn and she said "Mine too. Maybe we're kin." So I had to stop and eat. I had a pulled pork sandwich that overflowed with meat, spicy baked beans, and potato salad. All delicious. It fueled me through the second half of my ride.

I pulled into the My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown, KY at about 7:30pm. There were two other cyclists there that I talked with for a bit around a campfire. Then, I retired to my tent to find a nightmare scenario. After getting inside my tent, I heard the distinct sound of clawing and scratching -- not the noise of a large animal but the noise of many small "animals." I turned on my flashlight to find that cicadas were all over the mesh and rain cover of my tent. There was over a hundred of them. I looked outside the tent and saw that they were covering the ground and heard them falling from the trees. It was a little freaky. I confirmed that there were none inside the tent. But as I stared up at the mesh ceiling I could see them crawling around and the sound of their tentacles made my skin crawl. Images of the electronic bug coming out of Spock's ear in Star Trek 2 kept running through my mind. Fortunately, I was exhausted from my ride. As I wondered whether I would be able to sleep during this horror show, I fell asleep. I woke up this morning to find the shells of all of those cicadas covering my tent, my bike wheels and inside my sandals.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

KFC and Other Delicacies

There's been a request for more discussion of road food, especially the regional delicacies. Judging from the request, there may be a slightly romanticized view of the culinary options available on this route. Let me dispel some of these notions.

The other night I stayed at a bed and breakfast a few miles outside a small Kentucky town. Linda, the owner, offered to drive me back into town to get something to eat after I had cleaned up. When I asked her where she would recommend that I eat, she winced and said, "There are two restaurants in town, but let me put it this way, you won't be asking for any recipes." That more or less summarizes my dining experience thus far. Nonetheless, due to an insatiable appetite, everything I eat these days tastes good. But, of course, that doesn't mean it is good.

Most of the towns I pass through are not even big enough to have a proper restaurant, diner, or cafe. Many have a gas station that also has a flat grill and a deep fryer to make hamburgers and fried frozen foods. Options are often limited. For example the other morning, when the local gas station/food mart was out of breakfast sandwiches, my breakfast consisted of a corn dog and chocolate milk (and to prove my point, it tasted great). My diet is guided by two main tenants: eat calories and carbs during the day and eat protein in the evening. I have eaten more Poptarts and Snickers bars in the past two weeks than I had probably eaten in the previous ten years.

This is not to say that there haven't been some standouts. A lunch in Eastern Virginia was memorable more for the locale than the food. I ate in an original soda fountain in a basic, operating pharmacy. None of the women behind the counter were under seventy and my double bacon cheeseburger set me back about $2.50. In Charlottesville, I had some great pizza at Christian's. The toppings on a large selection of pizzas by the slice were creative and fresh.

The aforementioned slaw dogs served on napkins at Skeeter's in Wytheville were tasty and the historic setting added to the experience.

It's often easier to find homeade desserts than main courses and I rarely pass up a dessert. A pecan tort from a cafe in Lookout, VA and a plain cheesecake from the restaurant in Booneville that Linda didn't think too highly of were both memorable.

I keep my eyes peeled for authentic local cooking, but as of now the noteworthy restaurants make up a short list. Perhaps, my options will improve as I move West.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Election Day

So today's the primary election in Kentucky. I can't say that there's much buzz about it in the places I've traveled the last few days. I've seen a few Hillary Clinton signs along the roadside in rural areas, but the majority of signs are for candidates in state and local elections. I hadn't seen an Obama sign until I rode into Berea this afternoon. However, I did see a sign posted with a variety of other candidates' posters that read "Elect Jesus For Savior."

Last night on CNN there was a story about Clay County, Kentucky, which sits just to the South of Owsley County, where I was staying the night. The report was gauging the political climate in this forgotten corner of Kentucky. It's the poorest county in Kentucky and one of the poorest places in the country. The per capita income is $9,600 per year. Essentially, the conclusion seemed to be that there was little interest because there is little belief that elections have any real impact on the residents' lives.

Based on my rides on the backroads of Kentucky, the counties I'm riding through are little different from Clay County. A majority of the housing on these roads is permanently-placed trailers. Trash heaps in yards are a common sight as are shuttered businesses like the one pictured below.

Every house seems to have three dogs and every third house doesn't lock any of them up. Though I've yet to be seriously bothered by dogs, it is common to ride down a road in the middle of nowhere and see two or three dogs traipsing down the side of the road. Maybe they're scavenging for food.

As for the rides, yesterday I was on the least pleasant roads of the trip thus far--four lane divided highways with a steady stream of coal trucks and high speed traffic. The coal trucks left a cloud of dust in their wake that eventually coated my teeth. There was a fairly wide shoulder, unfortunately it was rumble stripped and covered in rocks, coal, and assorted other debris perfect for popping a tire. The ride ended on a high note though. I stayed just outside Boonesville in an old church and schoolhouse that had been converted into a B&B. Cam and Don, recent retirees from Seattle who are also biking the Transam, were also at the inn.

Everything that was wrong about yesterday's ride was right about today's. Linda, the owner of the B&B, provided directions on a shortcut to Berea. The first half of the ride was full of wonderful rolling hills, a light and easy ride spent waving to farmers on their tractors and a few passing drivers. (Not that all Kentucky drivers like bikers. I've been honked at from the opposite lane many times in Kentucky, while this never happened in Virginia. I'm not sure if it's an F.U.-get-off-the-road-in-your-spandex-shorts honk or a hey-that's-cool-a-guy-on-a-bike honk. I'll choose to believe it's the latter, but my gut tells me it's the former.) The second half wasn't as enjoyable but still legions better than yesterday. And it included a ride down the aptly named Bighill, a two mile descent with a 6% grade.

I'm now in Berea, a small town known for its Appalachian arts and crafts. On Saturday I tweaked my left knee a bit and have been favoring it the past few days, especially on the climbs. I'm hoping a rest day tomorrow will allow for a full recovery and it will give me an opportunity to explore the town.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Kentucky Crossing

It felt good to cross into Kentucky yesterday, making Virginia my first completed state. However, soon after entering the state I was reminded that I may be out of Virginia but I'm not completely out of the mountains. I slogged through a hard rain for about an hour but the dreariness and sogginess of the ride was a distant memory by the time I arrived in Hindman, my destination for the night.

I stopped to take a picture in the small town of Hellier and an older man in an Opryland hat came out of his house to talk to me. He reminisced about seeing Lance Armstrong ride near Blacksburg, Virginia before his multiple Tour de France victories. I also crossed-paths with the first rider coming from the West coast. On his forty-fifth day, he was set to finish the ride in less than sixty days. He told me a few times how tired he was and that he was ready for it to be over.

There seem to be fewer options for lodging in Kentucky. Last night, I camped outside the Knott County Historical Society. The Adventure Cycling group was here as well.

The Society runs a B&B but it is closed right now for renovations. Nonetheless, they still provide a place to stay for bikers. David Smith, the caretaker, is an incredible host: he had a glass of ice water for me when I pulled up, did laundry, and arranged for food to be delivered. Several kittens provided the entertainment.

And after several days without cellphone service or internet access, it's nice to get a signal. I have another challenging day ahead before the terrain flattens out a bit.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Breaks

Several days ago when I was coming down from the Blue Ridge Parkway, I had a fun but harrowing descent into the town of Vesuvius. The steep road was narrow and winding forcing me to ride hard on the brakes. I stopped twice to let my brakes cool so they wouldn't fall apart. Yesterday I had to do that same sort of ride in reverse and it was much less fun. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Friday was a light day, I biked twenty-eight miles into Damascus. I had a one-hour climb through Mt. Rogers and a several mile coast into town. I was in Damascus by 12:30 pm and spent the rest of the day walking around town and exploring the Trail Days festival.

Trail Days is basically a big party for the hikers on the AT and those who wish they were. There are also vendors hawking the latest and lightest gear and seminars on various hiking-related topics. Unlike the Transamerica Trail, groups that monitor the AT seem to have a pretty solid count of how many start the AT and how many actually finish. Only about 120 to 140 hikers make it all the way to Maine each year, which is about 10% of the number who start it. Despite the small number, I ended up talking with a suspiciously high number of folks who had hiked the whole thing at some time in the past. I hung out most of the day with Alex, a PhD student at the University of Florida, who had just arrived in town and was planning to hike the AT for about two weeks. That night we went to a new documentary on the Continental Divide Trail. What a challenge that is – hiking over 3000 miles in six months over some tough terrain. Back at the tent city where we stayed, there was a large bonfire where some drunkards came dangerously close to self-immolation.

After an easy day on Friday, I had my toughest ride so far on Saturday. I rode from Damascus on the VA/TN border to Breaks Interstate Park on the VA/KY border. I had a number of tough climbs including the climb out of Hayters Gap, mentioned above. The last fifteen miles of the ride provided an unwelcome series of shorter but steep climbs.

The reward for making it through the day was that I caught up to a number of other riders. A group of seven riders on an Adventure Cycling tour were camped at the park, as was another solo rider, Jon. They told me that there was at least one other couple staying in the area as well. Unfortunately, as I arrived late yesterday and want to push on today, I'm not going to be able to enjoy Breaks but it's a beautiful park with large rock formations rising from the Russell Fork. Supposedly, the river provides challenging white water rafting.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Works

I did a full day of riding yesterday -- Radford to Troutdale, almost 80 miles on some challenging terrain. I stopped in Wytheville for lunch and had a few of Skeeter's world famous hot dogs with the works (mustard, onion, chili, cheese, and slaw). Man, were they good. This helped me replenish some of the 6000 calories that my heart rate monitor said that I burned. (Could that possibly be right? I'm suspect.)

As I rolled through Rural Retreat about 23 miles before Troutdale, I thought I would call it a day. It was 5pm, I was getting tired and a light rain was falling. But there were no motels or hotels in town. My map indicated there was a hostel in Troutdale but I couldn't get a cellphone signal in the mountains, so I couldn't confirm. I decided to push on and I'm glad I did. My ride ended with a six and a half mile climb up toward Troutdale and then, mercifully, a one and a half mile coast into town. I immediately pulled into the town diner, had dinner, and then made my way up a hill to the unattended hostel. There I met my first AT hikers, trail names, Brahma Bull and Sweet Potato.

Brahma Bull and Sweet Potato, two Virginia natives, are hiking the entire AT and are fifty-four days in. Over cups of hot chocolate, we exchanged stories about our trips and the people we had met. You can read about their adventures here. When I mentioned that I planned to spend tomorrow in Damascus, they told me that this weekend Damascus is home to the largest thru hiking festival in the country. Twenty thousand people are expected to descend on this town of 981 residents. Supposedly, I'll be able to pitch my tent in a tent city that will form on the outskirts of town. We'll see if I make it out of there on Saturday.

P.S. Thanks for all the emails and comments. I'm sorry I haven't been able to respond to all of them, but I'm reading them all and I appreciate them.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Milestone (No, I'm not in Kentucky yet)

Before I left for Virginia, I had lunch in New York with my friend Pete who biked cross-country seven years ago. He advised that I not look at a map of the entire United States too often because then the ride seems really daunting -- better to focus on local maps to chart progress. This was good advice and it's why riders need to break down the trek into a series of smaller goals such as miles biked per day and state lines crossed. Another milestone is completing one of the twelve maps that chart the Transamerica Trail. Yesterday as I rode through Christiansburg, VA I finished the first of those twelve maps. Only eleven more to go.

The past few days have provided a steady stream of hills. Unfortunately, other than a fun, open stretch of roller coaster hills on Tuesday that had steep descents allowing me to coast almost to the crest of the next hill, most of the downhills do not provide much momentum for the next uphill climb. The weather has been overcast but warmer and until about an hour ago, the rain has held off. It's been ideal weather for biking.

Yesterday, I met my first biker traveling West to East. Mark Reed started in western Virginia and is riding to Yorktown to complete a cross-country ride, the majority of which he rode last summer. He plans to write a book about his experiences. Mark tells me that there are several groups of riders one to two days ahead of me. We'll see if I catch up to any of them.

The highlight of my day yesterday was staying with the Lee family. Thad and Sarah Lee left a note at the bike house in Afton offering a free place to stay for cyclists who stop in Radford, VA. I called Dr. Lee as I approached Radford and he told me that I was welcome to stay at his home. Dr. Lee biked the Transamerica ten years ago with his two sons but was only offered one homestay during his travels. As a result of that experience, the Lees now offer a place to camp or a bedroom to 50-60 bikers a season. I found the casualness with which they welcomed me, a complete stranger, into their home remarkable. When I mentioned this to Sarah, she told me that she sees this as a type of ministry to show people, foreigners and nationals alike, the good in this country. Not to get too sentimental (or trite), but I found my time with the Lees to be a potent antidote to all the cautionary tales that make us so wary of one another.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Yesterday was more about sightseeing than riding. (Unfortunately, I did not see the attraction advertised above.) I spent the morning in Lexington, touring Jackson cemetery, Lee chapel, and the campus of Washington and Lee. After walking around Lexington, I returned to the motel to get my gear. As I loaded my bike, the motel maintenance man gestured at it and said, “It's the only way to travel these days.” (Gas stations serve as a common rest stop for me, so I hear a lot of anxiety over gas prices.) He asked about my trip and provided some directions. He reminded me of a younger Hal Holbrook. There was something reassuring about him sending me on my way.

I didn't get out of Lexington until after 1pm. Then twenty miles into my ride I stopped to talk to a woman who was at her mailbox. She convinced me that I should make a short detour and see the Natural Bridge. It didn't seem right to bypass what is billed (albeit in its own brochure) as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. June had also recommended it but protested that “they should make a charge for a natural site.” Charge they do ($12), and they even went so far as to erect wooden fences on both sides of the road that runs over it, so no one sneaks a free peek.

The bridge, which is 215 feet high and spans 90 feet, was carved by Cedar Creek. Allegedly, George Washington carved his initials in it. After taking in the bridge I biked about thirty more miles to Troutville. I had another hour of sunlight, but the town park guaranteed a free place to camp. I pitched my tent as kids played on the swings and couples walked laps on the park track.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Blue Ridge Parkway

Today's ride was tough but rewarding. After binging on carbs, left-over Spaghetti O's and oatmeal (I decided against mixing them together), I rode away from the bike house. The mountaintops were cloud covered when I set out.

After about a mile, I was on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was a cold, damp day. The temperature hovered just above 40 degrees and a cold wind was blowing from the North. Overcast skies threatened rain but never delivered (fortunately, as I was already chilled). Traffic was light on the Parkway and the vistas were spectacular, making the climbs easier.

I reached 3300 feet at one point in the ride. After several hours of climbing at 5-7 mph and then descending only to climb again, I exited the Parkway and rode into Vesuvius. A 14-mile stretch of mostly flat road was a welcome change, as was pedaling at 17-19 mph. I decided to spend the night in Lexington. June recommended that I take a look around as it is steeped in history. Both Jackson and Lee lived here. I passed the Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University on my way through town. I'm holed up at a Red Carpet Inn tonight as it looks like foul weather and cold temps are in store once again tonight. I haven't needed my sunglasses for the past four days. I'm ready for a little sun.

June Curry aka The Cookie Lady

I spent yesterday with June Curry, affectionately known as “The Cookie Lady.” It was appropriate that I was there on Mother's Day since she has been like a mother to thousands of Transamerica riders who have passed in front of her house. The story goes that in 1976 when the Transamerica Trail was inaugurated in honor of the bicentennial, two riders knocked on June's door to ask for some water. Ever since, June has provided water, food, lodging and conversation to over eleven thousand cyclists.

After cycling about twenty miles out of Charlottesville I called the number that Adventure Cycling listed for June. She was about eight miles away in the small town of Afton, Virginia. I had heard that June had been in poor health recently so I thought that someone else may have been handling cyclists' requests. To my surprise June answered. Though she doesn't hear very well on the phone, she could tell I was a biker, so she gave me directions to her house, told me that the “bike house” was available for me to sleep in, and that she had recently stocked the kitchen. It was still early in the day and I would have only logged 28 miles by the time I reached Afton, but I decided that I would spend the rest of the day soaking up history there.

After a tough climb into Afton I arrived at June's house. June is 87 years old, and has had a host of health issues but you wouldn't really know it by looking at her. As she explained it, she was raised to always be doing something, so even with health issues she can't sit still. I talked with June for about two hours. She told me about her stroke and how after she had recovered her doctor told her that she could return home on the condition that she hired in-house care. As she couldn't afford it, she was forced to remain in the hospital. Word got out about June's situation among touring cyclists and soon the checks started to arrive. Not long after, June had enough money to hire help and was discharged. As June said, it was all from her extended family of bikers.

One of June's projects to keep busy was creating a model of Afton as it was in the 1920's. She had built buildings and a train bridge from old boxes and tar paper. Each piece in the display was true to the town as it once was. While at one time there was commerce in town, three stores, and a post office, all of that was gone now. The house where June was born was now known as "the bike house" and used solely as lodging for cyclists. June lives in the next brick house down the road. She told me that records show taxes were paid on the house as early as 1875. Between the bike house and June's house is a cinder block building that used to serve as June's father's auto shop.

After talking with June, I settled into the bike house, which offers its own history lesson. The four main rooms of the house are packed with memorabilia from the last thirty years of the Trail. Cyclists who have stayed at the house have adopted the tradition of leaving a memento -- shirts, cards, equipments, and art line the walls.

Thirty years of photo albums, newspaper clippings, and postcards also fill the rooms. I spent a few hours reading over the notes from bikers from all around the world and flipped through the photo albums. Thanks to the efforts of a few cyclists, the photo albums of all the cyclists who have stopped by June's house are now available online.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Reasons to Love Virginia

I thought I better focus on some good things about this state because I know I'll be cursing it over the next few days. Truth be told Virginia has treated me well so far. Some of it's best attributes after four days:

1) Route Markers. I have not really needed my route maps so far because Virginia has done such a thorough job of marking this portion of the Transamerica Trail, known as Route 76. All the roads on the trail are marked with both road signs and Route 76 signs. Though I made one wrong turn yesterday, adding six miles and several hills to my route, these signs have otherwise kept me on course. (Note the dozens of bikes in the yard in the background of the picture above. I was a little concerned about what happened to all those riders.)

2) Log Books. At each place that I've stayed (save the Omni in Charlottesville), folks keep log books for Transam riders to sign. Even in small stores on the route I've been asked to sign their books. It's cool to see how many people have stopped in so far this year and where they have traveled from. It also provides a nice connection to the locals.

3) The Drivers. I'm only four days in and it only takes a few bad drivers to change one's perception, but so far Virginia drivers have been almost universally courteous. They give a wide berth as they pass and they wait patiently when they don't have the sight lines to pass.

4) The Scenery. Much of the route has been on narrow country roads running through lush green farmlands and an occasional wooded area.


I arrived in Charlottesville yesterday in the late afternoon. I knew I would like this town right away. It's an Ann Arbor nestled at the base of the Appalachians. The tourist office directed me to the only hotel in the downtown area. It's located right off a pedestrian mall lined with restaurants, outdoor cafes, and shops. This city has to have more bookstores per capita than any other. Not knowing when I would get to another town this comfortable I decided to take a lay-over day. Last night, I watched a local indie band give a free concert at an outdoor amphitheater before catching my first movie of the trip. Though in most towns I'll be limited to the summer blockbusters, the theater right outside my hotel was showing Mamet's latest movie, Redbelt -- definitely not a summer blockbuster. Unlike many of Mamet's movies, which involve intricate plot twists, Redbelt is a rather simple story of a man of code and honor fighting against a corrupt world. I agree with A.O. Scott, it's a good B-movie.

This morning I hit the city farmers market. I bought a pint of fresh strawberries (my first good fruit of the trip) and a fresh, piping-hot donut. After I tried a sample of goat cheese at John Cole's stand, pictured above, he started telling me about recent state legislation that disallows him from selling his non-pasteurized products. So now he gives away his cheese for free, though donations are accepted. As he said, score one for agribusiness. Unfortunately, by the time I got there all he had left were samples. I took care of a few errands, including shipping home 9 lbs of gear and buying dog spray. (I had my first dog chases yesterday, but none of the dogs turned out to be vicious). The only downside of staying in Charlottesville is that the mountains loom around the city. They're like a school-yard taunt that's going unanswered. I'll deal with those bullies tomorrow.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Nature Always Wins

Carnies and Funnel Clouds

I had my first real taste of riding in the rain yesterday and it wasn't that bad. After light rain in the morning, a heavier, steady rain fell in the afternoon. Fortunately it was still in the 60's so it wasn't unpleasant. Eventually the clouds lightened and long before I hit my destination I was dry. The roads and landscape made the ride really enjoyable. For the majority of the ride I was on secondary county roads, pedaling past horse farms and open fields. The second half of the ride had some decent downhills and climbs providing me a small indication of what's in store.

I made it to the Mineral fire station at about 5:45pm expecting to see Mark and Dillon, but they were nowhere to be found. I figured they continued on further down the road. A volunteer fireman showed me in and let me set up in the weight room. They offer cyclists full access to the shower, kitchen, and laundry room. It was the first night of the fire station's town fair and a beauty pageant was being held in the engine house. About an hour after my arrival, Mark and Dillon rolled in. After Mark got a flat on the first day, Dillon broke a spoke on the second. Fortunately they did it right outside the house of an avid cyclist, who drove them forty miles to two different bike shops so Dillon could buy a new wheel.

The day ended with more bad weather. A tornado alert was issued for the area, the fair grounds were cleared and the firehouse became the town shelter. Fortunately, the tornado warning was a false alarm. This morning I'm hanging out in the firehouse kitchen listening to emergency calls come in over the radio ("pediatric head trauma from pogo stick accident"). More rain is expected this morning but today will be an easier day as I only plan to ride to Charlottesville.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Day One

My first day on the Transamerica was ideal: beautiful weather, interesting scenery, fairly mild terrain, and no major mishaps. I started the day with the ceremonial rituals of cross-country bikers. I dipped my front tire in the York River and then took a picture in front of the official starting point, the Yorktown Monument. The first leg of my ride I retraced the same route that I biked into Yorktown. I tooled around Williamsburg, dodging large groups of school kids and senior citizens and then headed on to Jamestown. I decided to make a detour and visit the ruins of Jamestown. (J. Searcy, you should be proud.) A five-mile one lane loop on Jamestown Island made for a great traffic-less ride under a canopy of green. From Jamestown I had about another forty miles to my destination -- Willis United Methodist Church, another congregation that offers cyclists a free place to stay. Much of the way was lined with plantations and estates. Only a few miles from the waterfront, I was now in lush farmland. The last ten miles of my ride took me through Richmond national battlefields.

After 72 miles I arrived at the church. As I stood in the parking lot wondering who to contact to make arrangements for my stay, Juanita, a woman who lives next door came out to greet me and open up the church. I had a kitchen, bathroom, and garden-hose shower at my disposal. After unpacking and making a quick trip into town to go to the store, I was joined at the church by Mark and Dillon, two bikers from Knoxville. A soon-to-be-grad and a recent grad, Mark and Dillon had also left Yorktown on Wednesday. They are planning to complete the ride in two months and they are packed for it. They both only have rear panniers and they've kept them light. I need to take a page out of their book. We talked gear and backgrounds and made dinner in the church kitchen.

This morning we woke up to gray skies and by the time we started riding at 7:30am, it was raining lightly. I decided to try out my rain gear. Not a drop of rain water touched my clothes, but I was still soaked because the gear doesn't provide much ventilation. I rode with Mark and Dillon for about 22 miles into Mechanicsville before parting ways so I could stop off at the library. If I'm ambitious, I may catch up with them again this evening as we'd all like to stay at the same volunteer fire station.