36 Busted Spokes, part 3

Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge

After three days and 133 total miles, we decided to take our first day off from riding at Big Meadows Campground in Shenandoah National Park. Big Meadows is the park’s hot visitor destination. It is a small village with several tourist services, a restaurant, visitor center and a large campground. It’s not the place to escape civilization. But after two days of tackling the ups and downs of the Skyline Drive, we were happy to have a place to hang out and let our legs recuperate.

The rangers warned everyone of a skunk problem in the campground, but it took some first-hand experience to drive home just how pervasive were these pesky Pepe La Pews. Chris, Don and I were sleeping under the stars the first night. We staked claims to our own spots at the campsite, each of our beds consisting of a ground tarp, foam pad and sleeping bag. That was comfortable enough for me to fall asleep until I was rudely awakened by a curious skunk nosing around, poking at my sleeping bag. Needless to say, I didn’t want to do anything to startle the creature, so I just pulled my head inside the bag, pulled it closed and went back to sleep.

I rose just at first light, walked up the hill, past the snoozing campers in their RVs and popups, for a better view of sunrise. Venus gleamed above the eastern horizon, with a fainter Mercury just below. I watched the light show until daylight leached all the fire from those two shining gems. This is how I imagined my days would start when I was daydreaming about this trip.

As I returned to our campsite, the clank of pots and pans, the smell of woodsmoke signaled that day was getting underway for everyone.

I decided to rest my aching knee while my companions headed out for a hike. Like a nosy skunk I poked around the visitor center, trying to get some perspective on the park around us.

At one time the area was inhabited by a rare breed of mountaineer with a special talent for scratching a living from the rugged Appalachian terrain. The Park Service went to great lengths explaining how these folks were on lean times, because of soil erosion, depleted wildlife, excessive lumbering, and chestnut blight among other things, before the government came in and relocated them in order to establish the park. I didn’t doubt this, but it also felt like some self-justification.

The mountains are healing themselves now from man’s excesses. This process was very apparent at Big Meadow. Locust trees surround the campsite along with stunted pines. These, I believe, are pioneer species that are the first to invade formerly open fields. I read that one can find traces of the old farmsteads: rail fences, stone walls, degenerating apple trees out there in the forest.

That night, the skunks once again invaded camp, but we were prepared. Don and I had joined Scott in the tent. Chris bedded out on top of the picnic table, which kept him above the commotion.

Next day we were back on the road, with a leisurely 29 miles to our next campsite at Loft Mountain. Riding the Skyline Drive, the main “park” way through the park, was a pleasure, at least mid-week in the off season when the traffic was light. There were no broad shoulders to ride on to stay out of the road, but drivers were courteous for the most part and gave us a wide berth. Because the route follows the ridge of a mountain range, the road is naturally hilly. The downhills were fun and fast, but we always knew there was a long climb awaiting us on the other side, like the peaks and valleys of an EKG.

Climbing our hearts would pound, and we’d peal clothing to stave off overheating. Then, damp with sweat, we’d need to add layers to keep from becoming chilled as we sliced our way downward again. This rhythm would become habit over the next few weeks, as we delved deeper into Appalachia, and would reach its zenith on a morning that would become known to us as Hungry Mother.

This is part 3 of the story of a 13,000 mile bicycle trip around the United States (and a wee bit of Canada). See part 1 here.

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Stephen Zeoli

Stephen Zeoli

Carl Sagan and Edward Abbey are among my heroes.