August 11, 2011
Stats: 132 miles (9:10 riding time); 974 miles cumulative
As I leave “The Place” at seven, I’m kind of bummed that I haven’t talked to anyone awesome in Damascus; I didn’t have any exciting run-in with the locals. Then I go to get breakfast, and everything changes.
Over bacon, egg and cheese biscuits I talk to Ken, or “Cowboy,” an older white-bearded guy that owns the gas station/convenience store I’m at. Cowboy is awesome. After complaining to a customer that he was charged $20 to change his own tire (I miss the full story, but it sound like a good one), he asks me where I’m cycling to, and ends up sitting down at the next table over and talking for an hour or so.
Cowboy relays the history of “The Place” – it was actually an old, abandoned house that was fixed up to house cyclists coming through for the Bikecentennial, in 1976. Only later did it evolve into a hostel for AT thru-hikers, its primary clientele now. Cowboy was out west in Colorado that summer, and remembers seeing cyclists by the hundreds, all following the same route. He returned to Damascus to find out that the TransAmerica Trail – or Bike Route 76, as it might have been known then – went through his home town. It used to be that there’d be a couple hundred cyclists coming down from the mountains each week – now it’s a handful.
As is standard in these TransAm towns, he talks about the past characters that have come through, including the not-unheard-of phenomenon of people doing the TransAm and the AT in subsequent years. Eventually New Hampshire comes up and we get into talking about the White Mountains and his brother’s trip to Vermont one time. He saunters away to do so cleaning at 8:15; otherwise I might have just talked all morning.
The map shows I’ve got an 1800’ climb coming out of Damascus. It’s not as bad as I expect, however; I just get down to my lowest gear and stay there. Cowboy tells me it’s eight miles to the top of the first climb. There’s a saying among touring cyclists that you should double the mileage when people give you directions because they’re used to driving (and they always think roads are flat), but, damn, Cowboy has got this climb calculated to the inch. At the eight mile mark, I hit the first downhill.
I’m pretty pumped that I don’t walk at all on that 1800 foot climb; in fact, I won’t walk my bike until a hill outside of Radford, some 102 miles later. I cruise at 3800 feet in the vicinity of Mt. Roger’s, Virginia’s state highpoint, and I honestly feel the best I have the entire trip. I was planning on riding 60 miles to Wytheville today, and camping there. But I get over 12 miles in that first hour, even with the climb.
Sixty miles isn’t going to happen. I’m going to blow that s*** out of the water.
I know it’s a net downhill for the rest of the day, so I hammer it. I eat a king-size candy bar at 25 miles, and another at 45. I spend more time in my highest gears than my lowest. I don’t really need to stop anywhere, as I’m on pace to make the 60 miles to Wytheville by lunch. I parallel the interstate for the last few miles in.
I look for a McDonald’s in Wytheville, but there’s not one along the route. It’s probably for the better anyway, as I don’t have time to waste with wi-fi. I’m riding like an animal, and just want to see how far I can get until the body breaks down.
Lunch turns out to be, ironically, at a truck stop near the interstate. The fast-food places there are swamped, so I go to the convenience store side and get a couple hot dogs (with sauerkraut, since it was there), a huge thing of pink lemonade and some more candy bars for the road. I leave at 1 pm, and for the first time on the trip I’m not thinking about the next town 10 or 15 miles ahead – the only goal is Christiansburg, some 55 miles away.
I’ll be at 115 miles when I arrive.
It’s still a net downhill between towns, and it’s still beautiful country. These are some of the fastest speeds I’ve been averaging – I do over 30 miles within two hours. I parallel I-81 for another stretch, then make a turn and follow country roads to Radford. Radford is a college town 12 miles shy of Christiansburg. I hit the century mark precisely on crossing the bridge into the town (traffic appreciates that I have to stop and take a photo of my watch at that precise moment). I stop at a convenience store for Gatorade and eat my two more king-size candy bars. My legs are tired as I start riding again. They’re going.
I get to Christiansburg by five and make a bee-line off route to an area where I think a McDonald’s will be. Luckily, I’m right, and I spend a couple hours there eating and recharging. I also engage in possibly the best conversation of the trip after ordering my usual.
McDonalds’ Cashier (eyeing my helmet): “You just defeated the purpose of riding your bike here, didn’t you?”
Me: “I’ve ridden 115 miles today. I started 11 days ago in St. Louis.”
Cashier: “Oh. Maybe not.”
The map says there’s a campground in town, so I figure I’m set and don’t leave until seven. I make some wrong turns, but pull up to the campsite after seven miles or so. It’s right off the interstate, and is largely an RV park, but I know cyclists have stayed there in the past. I pull up at 7:45 and a man walks down from the office. I then engage in possibly the worst conversation of the trip, which goes something like this:
Me: “Hey, how’s it going? Do you guys do tent camping?”
Man: “We got rid of our tent camping area last year. Paved over it for more trailer parking.”
I’m not too fazed. I don’t need a designated area. There’s some grass here by the office, for instance.
Me: “Oh. Well, is there anywhere I can just throw up a tent around here?”
Man: “We got rid of our tent camping area last year. There’s (Name of Campground) about seven miles up that way.”
Wait, is this guy seriously going to screw me over at 7:45 pm? I’m not going seven miles off-route on this busy highway. The guy follows me over to my trailer as I go to get my next map. I try one last time.
Me: “So you guys wouldn’t be amenable to me just throwing my tent up on the grass right around here?”
Like a broken record, he says it one more time.
Man: “No, we got rid of our tent camping area last year.”
I hastily close up my trailer bag and pedal back to the route. I can’t believe the utter lack of help from the guy, and the fact that they paved over the tent sites to fit more hulking RVs; both adhere more to the cynical image of America I’ve had previously than the America I’ve been riding through. I wanted to give him money in exchange for a place to piss and take a shower and a stretch of ground to sleep on, for pete’s sake.
There’s a gorgeous sunset, but I’m kind of preoccupied by the whole not-having-a-place-to-stay thing. I don’t want to stay in a motel (which most cyclists who stay in Christiansburg seem to do) because I just don’t. It looks like I’m stealthing.
I stealth camped twice on my New England bike tour last year – once next to a cemetery in Munsonville, NH (I love saying that) and once in a abandoned industrial lot type place outside Tilton, NH. It’s not a huge deal, but I’m in the middle of my biggest town in days, with hardly any time before dark to get out of it.
I stop at a gas station and get some water and candy bars (I don’t have any food on me). Then I pedal the route, looking for an isolated church or something. Nothing is isolated out here, though. At one point, I get off-route and go through a housing subdivision. Even worse. I turn around. As I roll back to the main road, I see a storage unit facility. It’s completely walled off, but the ground dips away from the road before it hits the wall, and there are some shrubs around. If I can just prop my bike up out of sight there and lay out on the ground…
I ride 132 miles, over nine hours, on the day and spend the night like an absolute hobo, a thin blanket protecting me from the rocks that line the ground against the wall. It’s a horrible stealth camping spot in every way except that I think I can make it through the night undiscovered. Every passing car raises my blood pressure, until finally darkness rolls in.
Best story yet?
Read on … day thirteen.
Go back … day eleven.
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