Day 16: Leavin' the Beaten Trail

So. Yesterday, after we rode away from Horrible Guy, we pushed towards Wytheville (I wanted to say "Why-th" but it's "With") where we knew there was a coin laundromat. The sudden downpour from the night before had us riding with a bunch of wet clothes. In general, I really try to avoid plastic bags and to follow Tim Minchin's sage advice at all times, but it's kind of wild how much a handful of plastic bags come in handy on a trip like this.


Anyway, we waited around for our clothes to dry and then went to a local brewery where we made the mistake of drinking two beers each before riding on. Don't drink two beers in the middle of a long, hot riding day when you already feel shitty. I mean, do your thing, but for us it quickly became a clear case of You Chose Poorly. We were trying to make it all the way to Sugar Grove, but we soon realized we needed to cut the day short, and we ended up at a campground in Rural Retreat, VA. Do not visit this place. It's the kind of place where families roll up in their giant trucks and SUVs and car camp loudly while blasting country music and proudly displaying Confederate flags that they took the extra trouble to bring with them just to decorate their campsites. The day ended as it began — troublingly close to despair. But we just zipped up the tent, forced ourselves to sleep, and decided to get up at 4:30 and get the hell out of there.


And you know? Day 16 really turned around from there. It was our first really early rising, and we immediately felt the pay-off. Rolling out of that awful campground before the sun rose, skimming down country roads through mist rolling off the streams and lakes, distracting the sleepy cows — it was good riding. It felt like free miles. Miles where the road belongs to only you.

We put away 15 before we even saw the sun, and 40 or so before lunchtime, which had us in good spirits. We were also in good spirits because, the night before, we'd decided to give the official trail a miss for a little bit: it takes you down to Damascus and then back up again, and you know what? We'd just had enough of hills-hills-and-more-hills for a second. We needed to put some more straight-west motion behind us. We needed a shake-up. And so we just cut straight across in the direction of Emory. We were a little sorry to miss Damascus, but the relatively flat riding really helped us feel the wind in our sails again. Sometimes, leaving the trail is the right call.


Then, lunch raised our spirits even more — one thing I'll probably be returning to again and again in this record is how much this trip makes you constantly, deeply grateful for simple things. Good food, friendly people, laundry, a shower, somewhere dry to sleep — there's never a time when these things don't seem like tiny, amazing miracles. You are, quite often and quite literally, dependent on the kindness of strangers. You ask for what you need, and you try to offer back what you can. Gratitude is a continuous state, bigger than the moments of discomfort or bullshit.


Lunch, btw, came from the Harvest Table Restaurant in Meadowview, VA. Y'all these sandwiches were LEGIT. They gave us so much happiness and fuel that we decided to go ahead and attempt Hayter's Gap, a big ol' for-serious mountain pass that lay right ahead of us on the way to the Kentucky border.

Hayter's (pronounced Height-er's) Gap is NO JOKE. It winds up and up and up, all steep switchbacks that keep you permanently in the granny gear. Beau said something while we were riding it, though, that has helped me with every hill since: "Don't try to go faster; just go as slow as you can while maintaining momentum." I have a tendency to push. (Surprise.) But you can't push through these mountains. You just have to breathe and search for the pace that allows you to maintain. It's funny — people seem to have this idea that, when you do a trip like this, you'll spend your days on the bike thinking Deep Thoughts, mentally composing a philosophical novel or something. So far, I can present no evidence for that. Your whole being is absorbed in the riding. You're operating a machine and you are one. It sounds absurd, but what got me up Hayter's Gap was—no joke—just counting, repeatedly, in my head, "One, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10; Two, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Three…" while I pedaled. That's it.

Them switchbacks, tho.

Getting to the top was triumphant! And I can say that (not for the first time), I'm actually glad to be doing the trail in this direction. West-to-East is how the trail was designed, but zooming down Hayter's on the descent side, we were close to a wall of earth and trees, while the other side of the road had a tiny shoulder and an almost direct fall-off — I would not have wanted to come up that way at 4-5 miles an hour.

We did it! We made it over!

After Hayter's, we only had a few miles to go. We were headed for a Methodist church in Elk Garden, VA, which we'd heard hosted cyclists. We were in for something really special. Not only does this church (the Elk Garden United Methodist Church) host cyclists; it's been doing so ever since the TransAm was launched in 1976. Its then-pastor, Virgil Nedium Hale (whose name deserves to always be mentioned in its entirety), put up a hand-painted sign welcoming bikers, and the sign's still there today. Since then, the church—which is beautifully maintained and has a lovely outdoor shelter and shower and a full kitchen travelers can use—has hosted thousands and thousands of riders. There are binders full of guestbook signings, letters, and postcards. Beau spoke to the current proprietor, Bob, on the phone, and he gave us the full low-down and told us to make ourselves at home. We slept on the cushy red-carpeted floor of the nave itself, and cooked pimento-grilled-cheese sandwiches in the kitchen. (Thanks to Harvest Table for the pimento cheese and the Draper Mercantile for the inspiration!)

Day 16 lifted a weight. It got us back on course. Lying in our tent at Rural Retreat, we questioned being able to complete this trip — we questioned doing it in the first place. But we went on. I'm sure all that will happen again, and more than once. But we'll keep going on. And places like the church in Elk Garden are part of what makes that possible. We went farther than we thought we could today, and tomorrow we'll get up and do it again.


Day 16: Rural Retreat to Elk Garden, VA. 60.2 miles, 3375 feet of climbing, several fantastic sandwiches, 1 twisty mountain.


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