San Francisco to New York to San Diego

May - July 1990

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Week 2

21 May - Monday - 55.4 miles/416 total
Front Royal to Big Meadows Campground

Neither one of us got up very early, and  cooking fairly full breakfasts meant that it was late before we even started loading bicycles.  Chris needed to spend some time on the phone with his bank trying to straighten out his cash card problem - he arranged to have a new one sent to Tulsa.  He also called the friends of his family in Tulsa to let them know we were coming, and then checked out the possibility of staying with someone he half-knew in Louisville.  This didn't pan out, just as well since Louisville would have meant either a detour or crossing the Appalachians through West Virginia. 

We were on the road and had pedaled the couple of miles to the entrance to Skyline Drive by 11:30.  The first ten miles or so were pretty much uphill, and it was at this point that we first started traveling separately, generally with Chris ahead.  But we met for lunch, as we would normally do until later in the trip, me eating sardines, crackers, and fruit.  It had rained the night before, sporadically but fairly heavily a few times.  The day was not hot, but fairly humid and not clear, with visibility limited by something between fog and mist.  The Drive doesn't get much above 3600 feet, but it rolls a lot, winding to follow the ridge of the mountain.  Our climb  was from 700 feet at the Drive entrance to 3600 feet at Big Meadows campground. The rollers go up and down maybe 300 to 500 feet, and don't stop.  The views of the plain to the east and the Shenandoah valley to the west were very nice, and so were the descents, a chance to reach some speed without working for it.

We arrived at Big Meadows campground around seven, making our average speed pretty slow - we had covered only 55 miles.  There were plenty of campsites, and we found one not too far from the entrance to the campground.  There were coin-operated showers, which we took advantage of.  Chris lit a fire, something he would be doing pretty often along the route, as he had no butane for his stove and anyhow he just liked lighting fires.  I boiled water for pasta on my gas stove, and ate it with bottled sauce and molasses cookies.

We generally came across two types of campsite along our route.  The first, the kind we had here at Big Meadows, was the type designed for car camping with a tent and had a sort of short dirt or gravel drive leading into a grassy area, usually with a hearth, a fire ring, or some kind of charcoal stove.  The second kind of campsite was an RV pad, with hookups for electricity, water, and sewage.  We never used the electric or sewage hookup when we had them, but the water spigot was always useful, as it saved a run off to find a water source.  Campgrounds almost always had showers and toilets, and if there was no toilet there was an outhouse. 

It rained all night, and once again I realized how bad my tent was at keeping water out.  But worse, I had brought all my food into the tent, thinking that there were so many people around that animals would not be a big problem.  As it turned out, some small animal was sniffing and scratching around my tent all night; I had a bag with an empty can of sardines.  Eventually I pulled out a surplus plastic garbage bag (the deodorant kind) and put the food bags inside it; this seemed to solve the problem.

22 May - Tuesday - 0 miles/416 total
Big Meadows Campground

When we woke, it was drizzling heavily, and the ground was covered with patches of thick fog.  I lay there for a while, hoping it would go away, but when I heard Chris start to make preparations to leave, I managed  to convince him that we really didn't want to ride up and down hills in fog and drizzle.  So we agreed to take the day off, and I spent the first couple hours of it in my cramped tent, feeling a little embarrassed about  getting Chris to stay put when he obviously wanted to be on the road. 

We had some lunch at the campground lunch stand, then did some postcard shopping and had a look through the camping supply store in the building. There were big propane  cylinders, but  they didn't have the small butane cylinders for Chris' stove.

We then moved on to the visitors center and saw the film there on the origins of the park.  Equal time for Hoover and Roosevelt, with lots of shots of Hoover fishing.

Afterwards, we went off in what was by now a very light drizzle for a four mile hike, down a trail by a stream and past a fifty foot waterfall.  The hike turned out to be good for my ankle - a little stretching off the bike seemed to be what it needed.  

We eventually had dinner at the Big Meadows Lodge - an old hotel, apparently dating back to the founding of the park.  It was definitely an improvement over what we had been eating,   I had trout (it had probably been frozen, though).

23 May - Wednesday - 116.0 miles/532 total
Big Meadows Campground to Lexington

At last some sun.  After we had eaten breakfast, packed, and were just about to leave, three very friendly college kids (two British, one American) traveling cross-country in their camper, came over and fed us cocoa heated on a big old Coleman stove. 

Actually leaving was a little difficult.  Southbound, the Drive was barred by a gate with a notice about gypsy moth spraying along the roadway.  Chris went on ahead anyway; I went back to the filling station at the pull-off to ask what was going on.  They didn't know anything, so I went on also.  Then I saw helicopters overhead, spraying from long tubes fitted across their undercarriages.  They were generally behind me, but it was like being chased down the drive; I'd get ahead on a downhill, but going uphill, they'd gain on me, then disappear.  But they never overtook me and eventually vanished permanently, after thirty miles or so. 

Big Meadows campground was at the mid-point of the drive; there was only 55 miles left to go, and it was mostly downhill.  The downhill was so winding that I played tag for a while with a group of motorcyclists in big touring Hondas who couldn't get up any speed down through the curves.  Approaching the end of the Drive, I caught up with a married couple on bicycles, both of whom taught at the University of Virginia, and who were riding cross country from Washington DC to Oregon.  They were  in their fifties or sixties, and the woman was not as strong as the man, but both seemed willing on the hills.  They planned to take the entire summer to do the trip, at about 50 miles a day. 

I rejoined Chris at the end of the Drive, where a major highway to Waynesboro and Charlottesville crosses, and where the Blue Ridge Parkway continues south.  There we had some lunch at a Howard Johnson's. At this point I really felt I wasn't getting enough calories for the work I was doing, and  I tried to eat as much as possible, even though it wasn't obvious that I had lost any weight.  But I was constantly very hungry. 

The climb southward, up Blue Ridge Parkway, was very difficult and very beautiful, possibly more beautiful than Skyline Drive.  While Skyline Drive is largely wooded, the Parkway runs through fields in working farms that slope up mountainsides and down the ridge that the road follows.  Skyline Drive is lush greenery; the Parkway is very austere greys, browns, and muted greens.

Along the way we met a few bicyclists, both touring and training, certainly more than on Skyline Drive, even though there were fewer cars.

After 28 miles on the Parkway, we left it to head down into the Shenandoah valley, toward Vesuvius.  The back road we took down off the ridge was very steep, narrow, and winding, but when we arrived at Vesuvius, the valley turned out to be flat as a pancake as we headed southward.  We learned later that the Bikecentennial route takes riders up the road we had come down from the Parkway - that would be a serious climb. 

In Lexington, where we arrived an hour before dusk, we stumbled on a small deli and coffee shop where we found some sandwiches for dinner.  It turned out that this was the meeting place for local folkies, and we had to eat fast to get out before the singing started.  Before we left we did get directions to a nearby KOA at Natural Bridge.  It was ten miles or so pedaling in the dark with no light.  After setting up camp, blindly in the dark, we passed out.

24 May - Thursday - 79.4 miles/612 total
Lexington to Christiansburg

By now we were squarely, if unintentionally, on the cross-country Bikecentenial route.  A couple miles beyond our night's stopping place, we ran into a pair, brothers, who were on their way from St. Louis to Washington.  They lent us their Bikecentenial maps for the remainder of Virginia, and for Kentucky, and we set off, following the route.  It happened to be a good point for this to happen; it was not obvious from our state highway map how we were going to continue southward without following an interstate.  The Bikecentenial map solved that problem, bringing us up into the foothills, through backwoods farming country well away from civilization.  The route did roll quite a lot though, and it seemed also that we were sacrificing more in directness of route than we needed to.  Certainly after a while it would have been possible to follow US 11 straight down the valley in the direction we were going; this would have been flat and fast, as well as much easier on my achilles tendon, which began at this point to get worse. 

Our route was very pretty, though.  Along the way, we ran into a lone rider who was an ex-skiing instructor from Aspen.  He had ridden from California, and said there had been snow in the passes in the Rockies.  He strongly recommended Zion national park, and told us about how the park service would occasionally, if asked nicely, close off the automobile tunnel so that bikes could ride through.  We had been planning to go through Zion; it turned out, though, that we later decided not to do the detour that would have required. 

We met one more group of long distance cyclists that day; this was a mixed group of four, roughly college age, going from Washington to Oregon.  They were closely following the Bikecentenial route, doing about 50 miles a day. 

Approaching Christiansburg, we were joined by a local college student, a woman, doing a training ride on a fairly serious bicycle.  She guided us at an uncomfortable speed into Christiansburg, where we climbed a seriously steep hill on Main St. to get into the center of town.  There was nothing resembling a campground around; the Bikecentennial map was not helpful; so we looked around for an out of the way lawn.  The high school seemed like a possibility, but we were a little uncomfortable about being discovered and thrown out of town by the police, so Chris suggested a motel. We had talked about spending one night a week in a motel; this was to be our first night on real beds (Patrick's futon in Washington excepted), and we agreed to split the cost.  So we had pasta in a local Italian restaurant and went up the road to a okay-looking motel, where we spent a reasonable $30. 

25 May - Friday - 80.3 miles/692 total
Christiansburg to Hungry Mother State Park

The morning was drizzly and dull; getting up early seemed unnecessary as the motel stay eliminated the morning ritual of rolling tents and stuffing sleeping bags.  We headed down US 11 toward Radford, where we found a bicycle shop able to deal with Chris' broken rear rack; he had been holding it together with cord.  There we both bought flickstands, as we had been finding keeping our bikes upright while leaning them very difficult; as it turned out, I never installed mine, despite good intentions.  The problem just never seemed all that great. 

While Chris was having his rack worked on, I went on ahead, following US 11 into Pulaski.  There, the map showed a back road into Wytheville, and I spent twenty minutes looking for it, with no luck.  Giving up, I asked a local, discovering that I could head toward the interstate (I 81) and take its service road the whole distance.  But getting to the interstate was no picnic!  It involved a major climb over a ridge above Pulaski, during which I rested a couple of times, and then I came down the slope to the interstate so fast that I whizzed past the service road.  Eventually on it, I pedaled toward Wytheville, and was caught up by Chris a few miles before the town.  Once there, we found a Chinese restaurant for lunch. 

From this point, it was flat or downhill with a tailwind all the way into Marion.  Chris was ahead, and I found him chatting with an old guy, 85 years old, carrying an alpenstock, and very talkative.  He was a retired insurance agent, and worked part time as a greeter for the local Walmart, which was just down the road.  He was  a great hiker, and told us about a state park, Hungry Mother, where he had often hiked and which he enthusiastically recommended.

We rode slowly down to the shopping center, and by the time we had decided what to do, the old man showed up, and offered to watch our bikes while we bought food.  This was very convenient, and turned out to be one of the few times we were able to go into a supermarket together. 

Hungry Mother state park - named after a local legend of a lost child - was mostly uphill, and several miles uphill, but when we got there, it had everything we needed, including showers, and had a stables as well.  Down the road a bit was the field the riding stock normally grazed in; the next morning as we left, we saw a line of horses being led from the field to the stables. 

Chris lit his usual fire, I cooked my usual steak on my gas stove, and we pitched tents and went to sleep, I feeling as good as I had the whole trip.  My ankle was in better shape, as the day's route had rolled considerably less than it had since New Jersey, and I felt as if I might finally be getting into shape.

26 May - Saturday - 99.8 miles/792 total
Hungry Mother State Park to Natural Tunnel State Park

Hungry Mother state park was half way up a mountain that got progressively steeper as we continued the climb that morning.  We crossed the ridge, and going down the other side, I hit my maximum speed for the trip - 42 mph.  There were mountains later on in the Rockies which I felt I should have done considerably better on, but it always turned out that I had headwinds that were too strong to let me get up to serious speed. Meanwhile, I was ahead of Chris and going fast enough to miss the road that we were going to head southwest on.  Chris did not miss it - we wound up riding parallel to one another, down opposite sides of a river valley.  I got the better deal, as my route turned out to be considerably flatter than Chris'.  We met in Saltville, then turned northwest again to cross another ridge through Allison Gap, then turned southwest, paralleling Clinch Mt.  We followed the valley, riding against a headwind, to Gate City, where there is a gap through Clinch Mt. on US 58.  From there it was up and down, on four lane highway, west to Natural Tunnel state park. 

The last bit off the main road, climbing to the state park, was possibly the worst climb so far.  Natural Tunnel state park was spread over the side of a mountain, and under one flank of it ran a natural tunnel which had had a railroad line running through it, from the early railroading days.  The road up twisted and turned over this tunnel, and headed up to a grassy, more or less flat area arranged for camping, with the usual showers, and several rangers.

After setting up, we went down the hill a bit to a diner for dinner, and as we were eating, the rain hit, a major thunderstorm, and we rode back uphill in this, through pitch black, as so far the only light between the two of us was my flashing yellow belt beacon.

27 May - Sunday - 79.6 miles/871 total
Natural Tunnel State Park to Pine Mountain State Park Ky

We had two major ridges to climb Sunday morning, Powell Mt. and the ridge just after it which we had been told was not as high.  Climbing Powell was hard; I rested a few times at switchbacks.  I don't think that now I would find that climb particularly bad, but I was tired after the ride of the day before, and just the fact that there were switchbacks was a little demoralizing. 

The next ridge turned out to be the same height as Powell, to within a few feet.  And the climb was just as difficult.  But the descent was fine, and followed by mostly flat countryside for many miles.  The road was marked as the "Daniel Boone Heritage Trail"; I thought I could see traces of the old wagon road from time to time.  But that may have been imagination. 

Chris and I were by this time hardly riding together at all; we met up at the first national park campsite access road near Cumberland Gap.  It was middle afternoon and I had not had any lunch, just eating junk food of one sort or another along the way.  Chris convinced me that we should continue on a while, not staying at the national park at Cumberland Gap, so we rode through the gap, which was certainly an anticlimax.  There was very little uphill, but a fair amount of downhill; I was expecting at least the equivalent of Powell Mt.  Arriving in Middlesboro, KY, we found a cash machine and a supermarket, and loaded up on dinner food for a night's stay at Pine Mountain state park, where we next headed.  The road we took was was the old Wilderness Road, it was now divided-median and four-lane, and it headed straight north across a pretty gap.  We had spent a little time in Middlesboro searching for a store where Chris could buy some butane, with no success, and as we left, the rain that had been threatening for some time hit hard.  As we approached the top of the gap, spectacular lightning bolts were falling all over up ahead; we needed to lay over until the lightning calmed down, so we found shelter by an elementary school.  We wound up having to fend off a caretaker who wanted to know what we were doing there; but eventually the lightning stopped, although the rain didn't, and we proceeded on up to the top, and through pouring rain, down the long slope on the other side. 

Pine Mountain State Resort Park was, of course, up a side road that included a nice steep, long hill.  A few dozen yards of this I walked.  There was an entrance kiosk to the camping area, but no ranger to check in with, or pay our six dollars per day to, so we went on and found a campsite, one that was not too soggy and not too far from the showers. 

Once set up, we showered, then moved cooking gear over to a nicely spacious pavilion that had a couple of large hearths and a dozen picnic tables.  Here we cooked our dinner in comfort, as the rain continued.

Week 3