Day 24: Oak Hill, OH->Whitesville, WV; 1 more mountain day, then turn left and aim for the Atlantic!
The day started with oatmeal and coffee with Frank Homersky, then I headed towards West Virginia through the rolling farm country of southern Ohio on a beautiful, peaceful morning.
Without a doubt, today was when I really started thinking about the finish. For the first time in nearly a week, I wouldn’t see friends or family today, which mentally added to the sense of entering the home stretch. I still had mountains to climb, but they were minor compared to the Rockies: just 1 big day of climbing in the Appalachians vs. 5 in the Rockies. Only 5 days remained to the finish if all went according to plan. And so far- it had.
As I navigated back county roads, I encountered more unexpected gravel. I wasn’t able to view every section of road as I planned the route, and I was frustrated with myself that I chose minimizing mileage over road quality, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
Many descents in the hills of Ohio and West Virginia would have been a lot more fast and fun on asphalt.
I was able to get off the gravel after a few miles and enjoy 50 miles of sunny, scenic, and slightly hilly southern Ohio roads before I reached the Ohio River.
Into West Virginia near Huntington-
Once into West Virginia, however, I had to endure one of the last tough stretches of highway, a dreary 35 miles along US60 into Charleston. A little over 2 hours of riding seemed like many more. While I was in a mountain valley, the road was heavily commercialized with lots of traffic on a Sunday afternoon.
Once I made it through that, however, the surroundings monumentally improved. I expected scenery, but not this much- through the Kanawa State Forest, more places I had seen driving I-77 many times, and was now finally able to see up close.
One of my distinct memories from riding through the park roads is glancing off to my left and seeing what appeared to be a younger man down on his knee in front of a woman. A marriage proposal in process? Probably, but I didn’t disturb them to find out. It was a perfect location.
I stopped periodically at convenience stores for water and Gatorade, and often got comments and questions. One clerk took particular interest, and said he’d “friend” me on Facebook. Fortunately I never heard from him since I decline invites unless I know someone. It was a strange moment, and a little sad. Here I was on this incredible adventure, and the poverty and monotony of life in the area was impossible to miss.
As I rode, the distinctive smell of coal hung in the air. Coal is king here- even the picturesque river that I rode along is the Big Coal River. I passed many coal mines, but stopped to take a picture of just one:
I gauged my progress and plotted stops a day or 2 ahead, going through many small towns. The stop I planned tonight was a motel I found via Google Maps. I had called a couple of places, and one told me they were closed on Sunday (a motel?!) The one I eventually found did not take reservations but assured me that they’d have a room. Although I carried a bivvy sack for emergencies, I did not have camping gear (a last minute decision as I determined it was too bulky to carry on such a fast trip). If I did fail to find a motel with a room, I would have been forced to continue riding until I found one (and with a portable battery pack, I could have powered lights all night if necessary). Fortunately, that didn’t happen.
I lost cell signal but found the motel- most of the mountain towns were essentially 1 main street:
The owner was waiting for me, watching TV. He owned the motel with his wife, and lived a few miles away. His accommodation was amazing- all he had to go on that I would show up was my call the day before. I was incredulous that he was sitting there waiting, not knowing when I’d arrive- I was the only guest that night! He even gave me a cordless phone so I could call Alisa- with no cell signal for about 50 miles in any direction.
The room, however, was honestly, horrible. It absolutely reeked of cigarette smoke. I actually woke up in the middle of the night from the stench. As I laid in bed, I could see a couple ceiling tiles that had been replaced, and were only slightly beige. The others were completely discolored from the cigarette smoke.
I was happy to sacrifice some sleep and get back on the road just after 430am the next morning.
Although the scenic roads continued, I hit more gravel- the worst stretch of the ride.
At one point, I hit a steep hill covered in loose gravel. I spent probably a half hour pushing my bike. I couldn’t believe this. I had ridden over 3000 miles, was only a few days from the end, and here I was pushing a loaded bike up a hill at about 2 miles an hour!
I kept going, of course, bolstered with the knowledge that today was the last tough day. From here, the roads would flatten and although there would be a few more hills, I’d gradually descend- to the Atlantic Ocean!
This is beautiful country- the pictures simply don’t do it justice. I found myself thinking I could live in the mountains of Virginia- but it’s probably too remote (and way too far from water for Alisa!)
Although the riding was scenic, I encountered many more coal mines. West Virginia concerned me pre-ride. While picturesque, the rugged, remote country certainly does not have a forward-thinking reputation. Other cyclists had shared bad experiences with coal trucks on narrow mountain roads, loose dogs, and drivers with a general disrespect for cyclists- as this sign attests.
My experience, however, was great with no dogs to outrun (that happened in Ohio), and most drivers passing at a safe distance. There were just two small exceptions. One old pick-up that passed scaringly close was crawling along about 20mph. If it had been level road, I think I would have chased the truck down to say something. Then I got a look at the driver, and could see that the age of the truck was rivaled only by his age! A grandfatherly little old man.
The second experience in West Virginia was a pickup honking from behind as I descended a pot-holed stretch of road, weaving around the obstacles to avoid crashing. Being honked at on a bike is never appreciated (it’s basically like coming up behind someone and yelling “boo!”) In this case, the honk was straight out of Dukes of Hazzard. Yup, the truck horn played Dixie! You can’t make this stuff up!
Day 25 was a 130 mile day, right on my average. What wasn’t average was the 9600 feet of climbing- the single most of the ride. Another Christian Cycling brother and his wife had sponsored Virginia, but I missed the welcome sign as I navigated a fast descent, and didn’t realize it for a few miles. I took a picture at the NC/Virginia border the next day, trying to make up for it (I sent pictures at state welcome signs for all state sponsors, who donated at least $250 to WBR to sponsor a particular state).
Day 26: Dublin, VA -> Greensboro, NC; back into NC up hills, over trestles, & thru storms (but not at the same time)
What a day this turned out to be. Only 8 ½ hours of riding, but I hit the first rain of the entire ride. Before that, though, an awesome scenic surprise was in store as I encountered the New River Trail.
I started to skip it- trails tend to be meandering and slow- but turned around and wow, what I would have missed. It’s a rail trail that includes several old trestles which have incredible views:
I rode more scenic backroads and hills- which were steep but relatively short- and passed what has to be the smallest and remotest post office I’ve ever seen:
Crossing into NC was a section I really looked forward to. After dozens of times driving down US52 in the Virginia mountains during trips coming home from Ohio, I got to ride it. It was always a blast to drive down, and I couldn’t wait to experience the descent on a bike. I was not disappointed!
The 4 mile descent was one of the best of the ride. Courteous drivers and long, sweeping curves as I descended at 30-40mph made for an exhilarating time, albeit one that ended much too quickly. The combination of the curves and speed allowed me to ride as fast as some cars. As the descent flattened out, I was back in North Carolina, where I grew up. We moved here when I was 11 (I moved to Indiana when I was 25), so it’s still very much my “home state”.
North Carolina was sponsored by Mike Wahl & his family. Mike’s sister Eileen was a high school classmate back at Cardinal Gibbons, and he and I had connected in 2011 when we both lived in China at the same time.
Then it was into Mt. Airy, North Carolina where I scouted for a bike shop as my rear tire was low on air. Although I carried a small frame pump, I was saving it for emergencies. What a help the shop was- friendly assistance and no charge for air.
Then the real challenge of the day began as thunderstorms rolled through. I stopped a few times to check radar and scout for possible shelter ahead- which I sought twice. The first was under trees worrying about copperhead snakes, but the second was much better, in a small town (King, NC) corner drug store where I had coffee and a snack until the storms passed.
The storms passed but the rain continued, and I had to press on. I ended up riding through Greensboro in a continuous rain for over 4 hours. That’s probably the longest I’ve ever ridden in rain and with the 2 stops, my total time for the day was over 12 hours. But only 2 more days to go!
I found a Holiday Inn Express at the last minute. A comfortable hotel was an oasis, feeling refreshed after a long, hot shower, and made even better with the use of hotel points to save money. But dinner was a cold sandwich and snacks from a BP station. Nothing else was in sight, and I definitely wasn’t going out again.
Today was a big day. It was not only the last long day- 140 miles- before the finish, but if I could cover 80 miles by noon, I was planning to meet friends for lunch in Raleigh.
The terrain gave me the feeling of being back home, but yet another surprise was in store. As I rode into the outskirts of Chapel Hill, I came to a short stretch on Chicken Bridge Road:
Incredible! I ran my first half marathon- the Chicken Bridge Run- on this very road 30 years ago as I trained for my first marathon. That was a great enough memory, but it goes on. The night before the run in 1986, I had stayed with a college professor I had met during Search, a Catholic teen retreat, back in high school. That was a coincidence in and of itself. Professor George (I doubt he’d mind, but I’m leaving his full name out to respect his privacy) wrote a book that I used on a high school English paper. Amazingly, I still remember it, on the work of the poet, William Stafford.
Google being my friend in this case, as we drove home, I checked Facebook and then Google. I wasn’t confident I’d find him, knowing that he had to be into his 70’s at least. But I did find him easily, as a professor emeritus at UNC. I shot off an email to him to share the story, and he responded the next day. Very cool!
I enjoyed familiar sights as I passed through the outskirts of Raleigh, and met a few high school classmates. I didn’t see their text until a few miles past where they suggested to meet. I almost kept going but turned around and was glad I did.
It was definitely the best lunch of the ride! The pasta was good too!
After the great lunch, I continued on fighting more threatening weather. I didn’t have to stop, but ominous dark clouds kept me slightly on edge with open fields and limited places for shelter if storms developed. I turned south from Raleigh and felt giddy with excitement as the finish neared.
I also experienced melancholy today. I missed Alisa and my daughters, but riding across America was an incredible adventure that I hated to see end. I was excited for the finish, but I wanted to keep going. I daydreamed of turning around and riding back across the country, or hopping a plane to Europe and continuing to ride east.
Donations continued to come in, and I got an email with each one. In one of the coolest stories of the ride, as I was eating dinner tonight, I posted an update on donations: TDSU17 was just 6 bikes short of 100. I made a plea to donate and within a couple hours, a friend and former president of my last company before SRAM made it happen with a 6 bike donation. Wow! 100 bikes funded (which increased all the way to 112 as donations continued through the finish and more).
Next up: the Big Finish