Let’s get this out in the open right from the start. We’ve clearly underestimated the physical challenge of cycling the TransAmerican.
The Appalachians are a major hurdle, the largest chain of mountains east of the Mississippi extending from Canada, all the way to Alabama. We’ve been cycling through them for well over a week now and the climbs just keep on coming. We’d thought once the Blue Ridge was crossed the worst was over. How wrong can you be. The mountains will be with us well into Kentucky. They are our beautiful, constant and cruel companion.
We’ve not had a single easy day of cycling so far. Yes there have been some great fast descents but you pay for them in sweat and tears. The adventure appears to be more like a journey from Lord of the Rings than a cycle ride, as each day presents a new horror. Yesterday the Devil Dog of Damascus – what next?
Well today Frodo Wooller and Bilbo Dunt set out to climb Hayters Gap and Big A mountain and we were not in great spirits as we left. It had been a cold night, down to 2 degrees C. A few days back we’d been sweltering in the early 90s. We’d both slept in our sleeping bags with a layer of clothes on, but by morning everything felt damp and we were cold.
Before leaving Damascus we headed to a local coffee bar where they were cooking up biscuit breakfasts for the hikers. We downed a hot latte and egg biscuits and contemplated staying all day. It was warm and cosy. Outside it was not. But the trail was calling (it never stops) so we said our goodbyes to Atlas and set off.
Our spirits lifted shortly after leaving Damascus when we came across a group of cyclists taking part in an organised TransAmerican ride run by the Adventure Cycling Association. A group of around 15, led by tour leader David, had left Yorktown a few days before us and were gradually cycling their way across America to Florence, Oregon. It costs several thousand dollars to do it this way, but the beauty is that you don’t have to worry about booking your own accommodation or finding food. Among them was Mike who was riding a long wheel-based recumbent. They were a great crowd and were clearly all getting on well. They had also been attacked by the dog at Damascus with seven riders facing a similar attack to mine. The incidents have now been reported to the police.
We rode with the group on and off for the rest of the day including the never-ending climb up Hayter’s Gap, one of the major challenges of the crossing. It was like Ditchling Beacon (on the South Downs) on acid. Switchback followed switchback, legs grinding on the lowest gearing, gulps of water to get you through, using Terry’s weaving technique to remove as much of the gradient as possible. Endless.
At the top the Adventure Cycling Group were waiting and then a fast and hazardous descent dodging fallen rocks and branches followed by a few miles of relief alongside the cows in the valley below and then up again, climbing the Big A. How we under-estimated the Appalachians!!!
We had planned to cycle 80 miles today but exhausted (and still cold) we followed the Adventure Cyclists into a campsite at Council where they were happy for us to pitch our tents for the night. We looked on with envious eyes and hungry stomachs as they unpacked boxes of food and fired up the burners. Our day had not gone as planned and we contemplated the night ahead with a slap-up meal consisting of half a fruit-bar each. And did I mention that we were cold?
I left Terry putting up the tents while I went in search of food, but without much hope. At the entrance to the campsite we’d noticed a community centre. I wheeled up on my bike and quickly found myself among a party of wedding guests – the reception had been taking place in the hall. Looking rather incongruous in cycling shorts and fluorescent jacket I tried to ask as discreetly as possible if there was anywhere nearby to buy food.
Instantly I was ushered inside where an amazing feast, four tables long, was laid out before me – fried chicken, ham, pasta, potato salads, cakes – a entire wedding spread. Thereupon a group of ladies proceeded to help me fill three huge containers of food – one vegetarian for Terry, one with some meat for me, plus helpings of cake.
These were some of the kindest, most generous and welcoming people I have ever met. While the happy couple were outside preparing to go on honeymoon, they were doing everything they could to make sure we didn’t go hungry. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, the warmth and hospitality we’ve been shown by the people of Virginia has been amazing – and at times humbling.
But the welcome I was given by this West Virginian coal-mining community was something else. So many congratulations to Ryan and Britney and heartfelt thanks to the good people of the Sullivan Branch of the Pentecostal Church in Bee, Virginia.
Terry could have kissed me on my return (I think he tried actually) and we ate like Kings as we joined the Adventure Cycling Group for their nightly map reading session. Terry and I also gave a short chat about what we were up to. We were still cold (Frodo Wooller had become frozen Wooller) when we went to bed (with our tents lit up under the floodlights of the local sports field) but our bellies were full.
Trail Magic or help from above? I’ll let you decide.
Damascus to Council: 51.16 miles
Total mileage since First Landing: 618.27
Here’s today’s Garmin report – check out the climbing!: