Before leaving on my trip, I promised blog posts and details and tales from the road, and yesterday, I promised more details on what I've been up to very soon. Having a bit of technical difficulties early on in the journey, I've only had the opportunity to start journaling just a few days ago, but here you are: a recollection of my first two days on the road. I'll like be posting stories like this over the next few weeks and months, but as a warning, they'll largely be excerpted from my journal entries, which means long, tedious, and lacking in visual detail. And because I've had little time to write, there will generally be a lag (as of right now, 13 days). So I'm not like, still in Ashville, NC (but rather Boulder, CO); this is merely the first time I've had an opportunity to reflect on Asheville, NC. Anyway, disclaimers and warnings out of the way, enjoy.
The trip began without any great moment of liberation, without the stark sense of breaking through some great barrier into some higher sense of freedom. As I crossed from the District to Virginia and snaked along the Potomac River toward the great Shenandoah, I felt not like I had just embarked on an epic adventure, but that I had, instead, simply fancied a morning drive to the countryside. Even as I reached Skyline Drive, a narrow, winding road that guides the driver from the valley of the Shenandoah to its mountainous peaks, my path thus far still felt more scenic day drive than cross-country summer road trip.
That is not to say that the Shenandoah was not a remarkable sight on that cool spring day. Indeed, it had been months since I'd last gazed at a proper mountain, and pulling to my first overlook, elevation 3,200 feet, I was taken aback by the beauty of the gentle peaks in the distance and the serene valley below me, dotted by quaint little towns from another time. Having left home almost three hours earlier, I had grown hungry, and amply sore, and decided to savor this vista for a few extra minutes with a small picnic of almonds and snack bars.
And then I was back on my feet, back on my seat, and back on the road, meandering southward toward ever-climbing mountains, flanked by bearded bikers who navigated the road's twists and turns with such speed and grace that I began to doubt my own abilities, to worry about my clumsy maneuvering, to feel shame each time I gripped the handbrake as I angled in on a tight curve, to wonder if I was indeed ready for a drive of this magnitude.
To steer a motorbike is to become one with a motorbike, to abandon deliberate thought and cede control to one's cerebellum, to not think about which way to turn or how much to lean or when to stop leaning but to simply let one's natural sense of balance protect him or her from catastrophe. Thus, the worst thing one could do would be to doubt, to try, to think, and here I was, just hours into my journey, with years of two-wheeled transit under my belt, doubting my senses, trying to drive, thinking about when and where and how to steer what is, essentially, a self-steering vehicle.
Driving difficulties aside, which gradually subsided over the initial few days, that first Saturday afternoon brought me through the Shenandoah and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, a magnificent five-hundred-mile stretch of road that would take me through Appalachia, over the tallest peaks in the East, and, I hoped, to my first true stop in Asheville, North Carolina. But that was tomorrow's destination. For that first night, I merely aimed to get as far south as possible, and as far south as possible, it turned out, was somewhere in southwestern Virginia about three hundred miles outside of Asheville. And so, as dusk approached, I veered off the ridge toward what a sign told me would be a campsite, and I was sufficiently dismayed to find, upon arriving at said campsite, that the grounds were closed for the season.
With darkness quickly swallowing the surrounding forest, I reluctantly decided to forego the luxuries of level ground and firepits, so appealing just beyond the fence, and instead trek into a nearby swath of trees for my first foray into backcountry camping of the journey. Backcountry camping without a permit, I knew, was illegal on National Park lands, and so, eager to avoid a scolding or worse from a particularly vigilant park ranger on my very first night, I retreated far into the forest, at least a half mile from the nearest road. Here, in the dark of night, I set down my bag and made quick work of pitching my tent, a lovely little cave for one that is erected with just a single tentpole and could be fully set up, by a hasty camper, in under a minute.
Satisfied with my work, and recognizing that a fire was out of the question in my state of hiding, not to mention the densely packed and very dry vegetation around me, I set about stringing a rope up in a tree, one hundred feet from my humble campsite, from which I'd dangle my small sack of food, non-odorous as it was, so as to keep bears from poking around my tent in the middle of the night. Actually stringing said rope on a tall enough tree was a surprisingly challenging task, which involved a fair amount of swearing and the tying of one end of rope to a broken branch and the hurling of that branch up into the air, aimlessly, with the hopes of it catching something, anything, up in a tree.
After a dozen failed attempts came one successful one, and, buoyed by my sense of newfound victory and the hubris of rugged masculinity, I retreated to my tent for a celebratory dinner, meager as it may have been, of more almonds, an apple, and a particularly delicious cupcake that had been given to me by a friend as a parting gift, which had come to be reduced to mush in my pack, but was no less scrumptious in its reduced state. I also enjoyed a hearty shot of bourbon in the hopes of dulling the cold, which, I should mention, there was much of. That first day had been crisp but enjoyable under that early May sun, but without those warming rays, the forest had turned into a frigid, inhospitable place, and even in my multiple layers of clothing and my sleeping bag, in which I had nestled myself like a caterpillar in its cocoon, my teeth chattered uncontrollably.
Sleep came to me, slowly, hesitantly, and never for very long, until, in the early hours of the morning, I gave up on the pursuit altogether, flashed on my headlamp, packed away my tent, acquired the rope which I had been too cold to actually tie any food to the night before, and, with dawn still slumbering soundly, I stumbled from the forest into the warmth of a small, dimly lit restroom. Here, I examined myself in the mirror: bloodshot eyes, smears of dirt, already looking a bit like a vagabond, and then proceeded to brush my teeth and, leaning against a sink, for I had nowhere else to go, ate a breakfast of a few clementines.
I passed the time, another hour, maybe two, reading from a National Park guidebook I had brought along, with occasional peeks out from the restroom door to determine if the sun had yet risen. When, finally, the black of night began to fade to a deep blue, I bid farewell to my temporary shelter and headed out toward my scooter, eager to get back on the road, back on the southward trail toward warmer latitudes. I rode alone, for nearly a hundred miles, without seeing another soul, and by 8AM, when the golden sun had finally pulled itself fully over the Appalachian peaks, my extremities were frozen in the worst of ways. With little feeling in the fingers of my left hand, I could hardly brake when needed, which was often on these winding, sloping hills. Eager for a touch of warmth, I pulled up to a small restaurant, where I was greeted with a smile and a "You poor thing, you must be freezing!" from the matronly hostess at the entrance.
I greedily ordered everything on the menu that I could eat, which, by consequence of my vegan diet, was little more than a side of toast and preserves, along with what must have been the most soothing cup of Earl Grey tea that I had ever tasted. In the course of my meal, I struck up a conversation with a pleasant elderly couple at the table next to me, who, eyeing my helmet and gloves, were curious where I was coming from. When I told them I had ridden down from DC, they seemed surprised, impressed, and I beamed proudly at having made it far enough from home to warrant such a reaction.
Before leaving, the kind man and woman wished me safe travels, and the latter, as an afterthought, alerted me that she heard bad weather was approaching later in the day. I thanked her, arrogantly explained that I was heading south and thus expected to evade any systems moving in toward this area, and prepared to leave myself, hoping the mountains had warmed a little with the rising sun.
They hadn't. Within minutes of getting back on the Ridge, I was just as cold as when I had first stopped at the restaurant, fingers, knees, and toes all begging for another reprieve from the biting wind. But I had places to go, miles to cover, and daylight on my side, so I persevered, climbing ever higher into Appalachia. The views grew increasingly spectacular, the peaks increasingly taller, but it proved too cold, too windy, for a full stop of admiration. Rather, when coming upon a scenic overlook, I'd pull in, slow to ten, maybe fifteen miles per hour, and rotate my neck, wheels still turning, to take in the view. Then off I'd go, feet never touching the ground, back onto the Ridge, accelerating up and away.
Around noon, the blue sky turned white, then grey, and the fog closed in around me. Spring comes to the mountains not all at once, but at a rate of one hundred feet per day, meaning that the trees around me, at 4,500 feet, had none of the lush promise of life I'd seen in their blooming relatives down below. These lifeless giants, arms curled and fingers gnarled grabbing wildly over my head, coupled with the void that the fog had created around me, left the road feeling not just otherworldly, but dangerous. Ten feet beyond my helmet, I could see nothing: not a road sign, not a turn, not another vehicle, just white. Consuming, infinite, blinding white.
Disappointed, frustrated, I surrendered to taking a lower, less scenic route the rest of the way to Asheville. At the next turn off the Ridge, I exited, careening down the side of the mountain to the nearest small town. Here, I expected to be greeted by clearer, if not wholly bluer skies, and was bewildered, angered, to find that the situation in these parts were worse than on the mountain! Sure enough, within moments of setting my alternate course toward my destination, the clouds gave out, spilling their entrails in torrents to the earth below.
Driving the remaining 130 miles to Asheville, through the rain and wind and cold, was likely the most physically and mentally demanding challenge I'd ever faced. Gusts of wind, bouts of hail, splashes from cars speeding by, and my own chilled fatigue all conspired to knock me from my scooter, to lay me out along the highway as a warning to any other bikers naive enough to confront such a storm head-on. For hours, I gripped the handlebars, gripped them so tight I lost feeling in both arms. I braked around each corner, each turn, slowed to a crawl at points and waved impatient drivers on past me. I counted down the miles, counted down the tenths of each mile, rejoicing at the fact that Asheville was no longer, say, 58.7 miles away, but now just 58.4 miles, 58.3, 57.9.
Along the way, I stopped at any gas station I passed, where I would refuel my body and my scooter with hot tea and petroleum, respectively, and pace about the small convenience store, shaking, dripping, eliciting angry looks of suspicion from the store's steward. Each time, I considered giving up, considered just burrowing into a little hole in the corner of the little shop and waiting for the storm to pass, but the truth was that I was as uncomfortable and cold and wet inside as I was on the open road. In Asheville, I knew, there was a good friend and a hot shower and a warm house. In Asheville, I knew, I could rest. And so I kept moving.
Finally, after what seemed like days, weeks, a green road sign welcomed me to Asheville, North Carolina, and almost on cue, the skies cleared, the rain stopped, the sun peeked out from behind the retreating clouds. I scooted about the streets and boulevards of the small city and soon arrived at Margaret's, a friend from back in the District who had moved south a few months earlier. Parking the bike, clambering off my seat, walking to and knocking on Margaret's door, I was greeted by a kind, friendly, familiar smile, and for the first time in hours, I felt myself relax, my muscles unclench, my lungs fully exhale. Margaret had a few friends over, whom I did my best to greet without shivering midway through, and sensing my near-hypothermic state, she disappeared into the kitchen, reappearing only moments later, like an angel, with a steaming cup of herbal tea.
I appreciatively accepted the mug and gripped it tightly, spreading my fingers fully around its contours to best capture its radiant heat. Its contents were far too hot to drink, so Instead I raised the cup to my lips and simply inhaled, savoring the aroma and warmth of the steam against my nose, my cheeks, my face. Meanwhile, Margaret, Blake, and Cody conversed jovially, laughed and joked in their t-shirts and shorts, and hard as I tried, I found my mind foggy, drifting in and out of lucidity, unable to focus on the words I was hearing or, really, to command my body to stop trembling. I excused myself to take a shower, delicately stripping away, or rather peeling off, the layers of wet clothing that had adhered like a wetsuit to my skin.
That shower was a magical, euphoric experience, six-and-a-half minutes of sheer glory before the hot water ran out and I resumed my shaking, shaking that continued even after I'd dried off, even after I'd dressed in new, drier clothes, even after I'd returned to the kitchen and gulped a full cup of tea, shaking that didn't wear off, not fully, until nearly an hour later. But when it finally did, when I finally felt some normalcy return to my disturbed homeostasis, Margaret and Blake and I, Cody having left, headed downtown for a lovely dinner of vegan pizza and jalapeño beers and delightful conversation of our fondest respective adventures in the great outdoors.
I left early the next morning, rejuvenated both physically and mentally, heartened by Blake's climbing tales of the West and by getting the opportunity to spend some time with Margaret. Bidding them goodbye, I headed westward, out toward the Great Smoky Mountains, out toward Knoxville and Nashvile, out toward many more days of trying, grueling, exhausting driving, but at the same time toward many more days of rewarding, liberating, enlightening adventure.