I wanted to do something sort of special to mark my graduation into the ranks of septuagenarians. The last couple of years leading up to that status had been pretty rough, with four significant surgeries in less than eighteen months, a substantial loss of my ability to walk and a shoulder repair that resulted in a partially paralyzed left hand. Things had been looking pretty grim, but a lot of work and many rehab sessions with some excellent physical and occupational therapists had produced considerable improvement and I was beginning to feel somewhat functional again.
Bicycling had been an interest of mine, though not exactly a passion. But now, with walking very much restricted, I needed to do something to keep moving, for exercise and to expend enough calories to accommodate my addiction to pie. I decided a few months before the big Seven-Oh that I would return to the Virginia Creeper Trail and do the whole thirty four miles at one go. I know that’s nothing for a dedicated bicycle person, but for me, it seemed a challenge and an attainable goal for the purpose. I had done the Trail three times before, years ago, with friends and family but in two day halves, going down from Whitetop Mountain to Damascus one day and then the next, from Abingdon to Damascus to complete the journey. There are shuttle companies there that make that sort of thing easy. This time, a few days after my milestone birthday, I would get a shuttle from the Abingdon end to Whitetop and ride back to my truck.
On the day, I left my motel room and drove to the little park where the trail begins or ends, depending on your direction and waited for the shuttle driver. He took me and my bike to Damascus where I boarded another van with nine others for the long winding trip up the mountain to Whitetop. Dropping us off there at 9:45 on this cold morning, with a light misty rain starting, the driver told us that if we really wanted to do the entire length, we would need to go seven tenths of a mile in the other direction to the actual beginning and start from there. The rest of the shuttle passengers headed down the trail while I and a young couple from North Carolina took his advice, heading the opposite way along a muddy track that looked as if it had seen little traffic lately. We ducked under some fallen trees, skirted a few mud holes and finally came to a road that seemed to be the end of the trail. The only avenue across the road was someone’s gravel driveway, marked by a mailbox. We had thought there would be something more to mark it, but this was it. As we started back, we came to a stone marker, visible from this direction, indicating a half mile. The young couple went on at their quicker pace, leaving me alone as I had wanted it. This was to be, in my mind, a solitary endeavor.
This was what I had envisioned, a day by myself on the trail without anyone else’s schedules or needs to consider. It had been several years, but it came back to me quickly that I really loved being out in the woods on a bicycle. The quiet, the calm, the peace of the forest though it’s a cliche, is true.
The rain stayed with me, intermittent, all the way down to Damascus. Never really enough to get very wet, but enough to be on my glasses and make me cautious for slippery patches.
The first 17 miles of this trail are downhill, sometimes fairly steep, and on this day, muddy. There are rocks and roots and holes, enough to keep my street bike, with its lack of suspension and skinny tires, jolting the whole time. The trick is to stand on the pedals, balancing your weight and like riding a dirt motorcycle, keep nearly no pressure on the grips, holding on just as lightly as possible while maintaining contact with the bike, two fingers on the levers.
Once in a while I would hear a clatter behind. me and a young person or couple would call out “On your left” and fly past, confident in their strength and reflexes, unworried about any consequences of a fall. I remember being like that.
Sun broke through the overcast intermittently as the elevation decreased and the trail leveled out, requiring a bit more pedaling. . By late morning, I had come out of my jacket and stashed it in the little backpack brought for that purpose. Near noon, I stopped for lunch at the crossroads in Taylor Valley, the Va Creeper Cafe, where I got a “super foods salad” and, there being no pie, their “famous chocolate cake”, a bottle of water and a cup of coffee. Smokers had gathered inside, so I ate on the porch, holding down my paper plate from the light wind.
I rolled into Damascus at about 12:30 and went to Sundog to drop off payment for my morning shuttle. To straighten out my legs and back a bit, I wandered around their extensive shop, perusing the various bike-specific goodies on offer, but being a less than Really Serious Biker, I didn’t find anything I needed enough to have to carry in my pack. I backtracked to the little restaurant/bakery and ice cream shop on the east side of Damascus for a snack but since my last visit here, the place has been sold to the Damascus Brewing company and made into a restaurant with beer and sandwiches but no pie and no ice cream.
On the other side of town the trail changes character for a while, running beside the highway for a bit before ducking down again to stay by the Holsten River. There are rapids at various points, so raucous that I can hear the whitecaps before I see them. There are more riders here, probably because this portion is flat and connects the two towns of Damascus and Abingdon. A few miles from town I meet a woman, head down and riding hard, coming the other way, who frantically flags me down. She is so tired that she drops the bicycle when she stops. Breathlessly she tells me that “two couples from Kentucky” had encountered a black bear in the road, standing up on its hind legs, and that the big animal had then run over the embankment toward the water and, of course, the Trail. She gasps at me to “go the other way, fast”. I look at her and she at me, there’s a long pause and then she says quietly, “you’re going on, aren’t you ?”, and I reply “yes”. She shakes her head slowly and gives me the “lost cause” look that I am so familiar with, and resignedly picks up her bike to pedal off.
Since I am here writing this, you may assume that there were no marauding bears to challenge for the trail ahead. I did feel the need to tell the few other riders, as they came up from behind, that I had been warned. They, like me, went on. One girl said, laughing, “I need more information !” I told her others had gone ahead of her and most likely the bear had eaten them instead.
Nearing Abingdon, the trail widens and becomes a steady, very slight, uphill just enough to require pedaling, but not much effort. The beautiful wooden bridges, some curving with the old railroad path over the wide rocky stream are more frequent now. Sometimes as I approach one, the afternoon sun now bringing out the soft colors of the yellowing grass, the water glinting and a barn off in the distance, it seems too perfect, a picture postcard or a Disney cartoon. As Queen put it, “is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?” There are benches in the shade at various points now and I stop at one to rest a bit and just take in the scenery. I’m eating an energy bar when a chipmunk pops up from the grass across the trail. I flip him the remainder of my snack and get back on the bike.
A few miles from the end the trail runs behind the suburban houses, causing me to wonder what it’s like to live in a house with this marvelous place across the back fence. Would I, if I lived here, get jaded to it, not come out here anymore ?
I reached my truck at the Abingdon end at 3;41 PM, having started at 9:45 that morning. My bike speedometer/computer on the handlebar says my actual time rolling was 4 hours and 30 minutes and, including my backtracks and detours, a bit over 37 miles. As I’m loading the bike into my truck, a couple arrives to unload theirs. They aren’t going far, they say, just spending a little time there to unwind. I have to agree it’s good for that.
Back at my motel, I’m tired but not as much as I thought I would be. I decide to celebrate with a dinner at the Tavern, an historic restaurant near the downtown. I’m escorted to the balcony overlooking the courtyard and provided with a fine meal while I watch the couples dining al fresco below. A perfect end to a perfect day.
Then the bill comes and I realize that my wallet is still in the little pack I had used on the trail, safely ensconced back in my motel room. Welcome to my 70’s !