(On the Mid-Atlantic Backcountry Discovery Route)

“Seven, not three” I was saying in my helmet as we paddled knee deep across what turned out to be the last water crossing on the Mid-Atlantic Backcountry Discovery Route. The DVD we had viewed before leaving, obviously not made in June, said there were only three and showed riders happily splashing across what was no more than a wet spot in the trail, only a tiny spray from the tires visible for the camera. My boots were full of water.

This started on June 19th, 2018, as my brother in law Jay (68 years) and I (just shy of 70) left Winchester, Kentucky on our XT250’s for Damascus, Virginia where the first Backcountry Discovery Route (“BDR”) in the eastern US would begin. We had ordered the paper map, DVD, and the GPS tracks earlier in the year, though true to our usual “causal navigation” style, we hadn’t really studied them. On the morning of the 20th, we attached Jay’s BMW Garmin GPS to my handlebars and turned it on for the directions to the first leg of dirt roads and trail. “Acquiring satellites “ is all it told us for the next three hours. Using old school maps and dead reckoning, we found our way along the first bits of the trail high up into the mountains of Tennessee. At one point we stopped near a cabin where a woman was cleaning a deck. Seeing us poring over the map, she asked it we were “following that trail”. “We see you fellows up here all the time”, she said with a smile, confirming that we were on the route and pointing us to the next turn. Lots of wildlife up here, deer, rabbits, groundhogs and one black bear, curious about these strangely dressed critters invading their space, but we were worth only a moment of their time before they went back to the business of survival.

Late in the morning, the GPS awoke and reported for work, but only would give us directions back to our starting point at Damascus, no matter what exhortations and threats we threw its way. We carried on with maps, finding the Wyrick Trail, a rough gravel and dirt track that took us high onto a ridge overlooking a wide green valley. Though we could see from the maps that there were towns nearby, from the ridge top there was no sign out there that civilization ever had intruded on these woods.

Nearing the end of the day, we came out onto pavement and found a gas station near what the map showed as a turn back up into the woods. The numbers on the map and the road sign didn’t match, so we asked a local who was getting in his pickup about the discrepancy. He was perfect, as if Central Casting had received the order for “Old Farmer in Overalls, with Heavy Southern Accent” and supplied him for this scene where he encounters the lost protagonists.

He scratched his head through his feed cap, looked us over carefully, then opined that he couldn’t see why in the world we would want to go up that “road”, even though it did, he admitted, go to the destination we had inquired about. He stared at his shoes, shook his head, and then told us which turn to take, and slowly got into his truck from which he watched us wheel around and head for the trail. I’d like to hear what he told his buds down at the store about us.

After a few miles of standing on the pegs on the steadily rising path, we began to doubt our directions and as if on cue, there was a wooden board with hand painted wording proclaiming that the “Woods Hole B&B and Hostel” was up a side road. We detoured up to the hodgepodge collection of rough cabins on a hillside where an eclectic mix of what one might describe as aged hippies and societal misfits were gathered on a porch. They confirmed that we were on the right track, but if we couldn’t make it to our destination, they knew of a homeless shelter in Newport where we could stay for the night.

Sixteen dirt and gravel miles later the track ended at Rt. 100, where the map said it continued on the other side, straight across…..but on the other side of 100 was a high solid wall of rock, extending as far as we could see in either direction. We opted to spend the night in the BDR suggested lodging, the Mountain Lake Lodge in West Virginia a few miles away.

This lodge was the setting for the movie “Dirty Dancing” back in the 80’s and still has memorabilia displayed for the faithful who return to relive the experience of seeing the film. Since Jay and I are among the twelve people in the world who have not seen the movie (the dozen of us have a meeting every other year to share the experience of not seeing it), much of that was lost on us, but it was a pleasant place to stay. The desk clerk looked us over and gave us a cabin well away from the regular tourists in the main building, rustic but comfortable. The restaurant was excellent. Supper was trout with roasted Brussels sprouts and hash browns, washed down with a very good local porter, dark and smooth with just a hint of some coffee notes in the finish.

In the morning, we took the road from our cabin around the lake and straight on to the dirt path the BDR prescribed. The GPS, atoning for its recalcitrant behavior the previous day, was flawless, directing me turn by turn such that by the end of the day I had no idea where on the map I had been, knowing only that without the device, I never would have found the otherwise unmarked trail branches. I can say that nearly all of it was off pavement, with lots of trees forming a canopy over the trails. From yesterday’s rain and the frequent showers today, the surface was mostly mud, but so well mixed with rocks that traction was not much of a problem. Even on the downhill sections, we were able to keep up a second or third gear pace, while I wondered just what a rider on a 600 pound loaded 1200 adventure bike would be doing right about now. We have yet to see any other bikes on this route, but occasionally spot the telltale tread pattern of 90/10 “Adventure tires” in the dirt. There were several long uphill sections, steep, rocky, and a bit slippery that would have been challenging on anything much bigger than these bikes. I recall in my 50’s taking my then new R100GS/PD up a steep, rutted, (but dry) pipeline hill in eastern Kentucky and being impressed by how it handled the climb. Then I realized that I had to get the big beast back down. The bike and I made it unscathed, but I am sure it wasn’t pretty. Now, 20 years of advancing age make that seem like an impossibility.

Our second bear spotting came today, with the furry critter, probably a relatively new edition, running hard from the woods on one side of the trail to the other. From its speed, it is easy to see why they say you can’t outrun the bear.

We have encountered numerous turkeys, in flocks by the side of the trail and in one case, a large one who exploded from a tree right beside me, launching itself into the air in front of my face, struggling for enough altitude to avoid collision. We, the bird and I, were both grateful for its success. Several deer have wandered across our path, on two occasions accompanied by spotted fawns delicately picking their way exactly in their mother’s footsteps. Momma kept an eye on us, the fawns looked only at her.

The seventy nine miles of Section two were completed as the steady rain began by mid afternoon in Covington, Virginia. We took a late lunch at Cucci’s Italian restaurant where the thoughtful waitress put us in a distant booth so our sopping rain gear wouldn’t create a hazard for other diners.

Section three, the longest one at 193 miles, started just a few blocks away with a narrow blacktop road that quickly became dirt just a mile or two out of town, heading up into the mountains. I thought how nice it must be for an off road rider to live in a town such as this, where access is so close. The rain, which had politely paused while we ate lunch, returned and kept us and the trail dampened for the remainder of the day. We managed only a few miles before turning in for the night at the Warm Springs Inn at, no surprise, Warm Springs Virginia. The Inn is a former Colonial era courthouse, now converted to a lodging and restaurant with the bar in the former Clerk’s office, complete with the old vault that once held important records. They tell us that Thomas Jefferson frequented the hot mineral baths here to treat his rheumatism. If we had known what the next day would bring, we would have soaked in them ourselves.

There was more rain overnight, but we were able to start out in a brief period of dry weather. A short bit of pavement, then back on to the mud pathways leading high into the mountains. This is the kind of thing we came for, endless twisting trails with views of mountains and valleys at every summit, riding that was technical enough to hold one’s attention but still not too challenging for our old bodies to take.

Until we came to the water.

The trail ended, it seemed, rather unceremoniously as we came around a turn to face not mud but a rushing river, complete with whitecaps. It was about 60 feet wide and of a depth we couldn’t immediately discern. There were rocks, big rocks, on the approach, leading us to believe it wouldn’t be any more hospitable under the water. Still, on the DVD we had viewed, the crossings looked simple and surely it couldn’t be THAT deep even with all this rain, could it ? So I went in. The younger me, a lot younger, would have kept feet on the pegs, leaned back and gassed it to splash across. The now me is much, much more cognizant of what can go wrong and the consequences of old bones hitting rock. Abandoning any hint of style or ego, I put both feet down and went slowly into the current. Within a few feet, the water was well over the tops of my boots, filling them completely, and the engine was up to the bottom of the cylinder. No choice now but to keep on and soon I was on the other side, looking back at Jay who was contemplating which of us was the crazier…me for going in not knowing what I’d find or him for now going in knowing how bad it was. His bike stalled in the current, requiring the two of us to wade through the torrent to push and pull it out. It took only a minute or two to dry out the spark plug and get the bike going again and then another few for us to convince ourselves that this must be the worst one of the three that were predicted and going back wasn’t a good option. The next six crossings told us just how wrong we had been.

I don’t have pictures of the worst ones because I just didn’t think of it at the time. The “getting across this” took all of my limited attention span.

In between the “water features” there were the fallen trees (three of them in various places) across the trail, some of which required some branch removal to clear a space big enough for the the bikes to fit through, long uphills and descents that kept us up on the pegs in our soaked boots and provided plenty of moments to say bad words inside our helmets. It was late afternoon when we emerged from the woods to what the GPS told us was a numbered road that led to a town. We met a young man going in, riding a BMW 450X, and stopped him to warn of the fallen trees and water. He smiled and pointed to the SUV following him and said they were his support vehicle, complete with chainsaw and winch to remove such inconveniences as trees. We realized that we had utterly failed to consider including such vital things in our trip planning.

The GPS, no doubt in “protection mode” to keep two overmatched old geezers from committing further folly, refused at this point to give us any directions forward on the route, insisting now that we go back to our starting point. We put it in “time out” to consider its disloyalty and used the paper map to set off in the downpour to find lodging for the night. We were beyond tired, weary to the point of near incoherence, soaking wet inside and out. In Petersburg, VA we found an “interesting” motel with a vacancy and the amused proprietor of a nearby Chinese take out restaurant helped these dripping customers load an amazing amount of food onto two bikes for dinner in our room. Being sophisticated diners, we stopped into a gas station for a bottle of their finest red wine for accompaniment.

Things always look better in the morning and a bit of sunshine and blue sky gave us all the optimism we needed. After way too much breakfast in a local restaurant, we filled our tanks and set off on the next route. Section 4 is shaped like a carpenter’s square and is mostly tiny paved roads in the countryside, working its way perilously close to the Washington DC area. The squiggly black lines on the map were a welcome relief after the previous day’s travails (we still had our wet boots as a reminder) and the 250’s ate up the miles easily, swinging back and forth through the tree lined lanes. We were detoured a time or two as a result of flooding but managed to find our way back to the route eventually. The GPS again decided that it knew better what we needed and kept taking us to major roads near, but not on the BDR, so again we shut it down and went with the paper.

On this route is the Oldtown Low Water Bridge, one of the very few private toll bridges still operating in the US, requiring a 50 cent fee to cross the Potomac River from West Virginia into Maryland. The wooden structure, first erected in 1937, was not much above the fast moving water when we crossed, making our way to the tiny toll shack on the other side. A tin cup on a long handle comes out, the change clinks inside and a voice from the booth says “Thanks ! You’ve just made my day !”

By late afternoon we had finished the section in Shepardstown Maryland and stopped at a church to take advantage of their outdoor pavilion to spread out maps and figure our next move. Jay had a prior obligation that required him to be home in a few days and we could see that the next sections would take us high into Pennsylvania and would necessitate taking major roads on a forced march back to Kentucky. Since we were now only a few miles from Front Royal, the beginning of the Skyline Drive (and a motel we knew was across the street from a fine brewpub) we elected to shelve the BDR for later completion and head south. We will come back.

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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