I felt like absolute trash, but hoped this purge helps. I relocated my tent with the help of Jonathan and David. I climbed back in, but not 30-minutes of sleep went before the episode replayed. This continued for most of the night. A nice bout of food poisoning to begin a 550-mile trip. I managed a few hours of sleep and woke up with the sun. I ransacked my stash of Skratch mix and pounded bottles of electrolytes. I stomached some light snack food and started to feel like a human again.
The rest of camp woke and checked in on me. They gave me the comforting option of going home. I still don’t feel great and wonder what is to come as I pedal out by myself, but I knew ending here wasn’t my desire, no matter what the circumstances.
I initially set out to do the majority of the route by myself. I value my alone time and wagered that I could use a bunch. Plus, I had some of my favorite eras of the Grateful Dead downloaded for offline consumption in the woods. I don’t always buy that; “music in the woods ruins the experience mentality.” That’s kind of an Instagram bullshit thought. Jerry Garcia ripping solos through my eardrums as I pedal a 70-pound bike up a hill of 19 percent grade helps numb the pain.
I got a message the night before I set out from my friend Jeff down in Roanoke, Va. He informed me that he and his buddy would be starting out on Saturday, the day after me and that we should get up for some riding. This turned out to be the best news I’d receive.
I waved goodbye to Jonathan, Nate and David with a Coors Banquet in my other hand. You know, ‘cause beer on a tethered stomach shortly after 10 a.m. really makes sense. It soothed my nerves as I pedaled west toward the Interstate 81 junction near Winchester. Jeff informed me of his departure from D.C that morning and how weather was on the way. The remnants of a tropical storm were to come across us and linger. We’re going to get wet.
We tossed around the idea of meeting in Stephens City and grabbing a hotel to wait out the storm. This was about the last form of civilized society we were to see for a few days. The timing just didn’t work out. The rain wasn’t supposed to hit until early Sunday morning, so a night in a hotel would just spoil us to deal with the impending storm.
We planned to meet at Van Buren Furnace, a primitive camping spot. I’m solo almost all Saturday. The rollers of the valley began to dent my confidence, as inertia wasn’t on my side. I was getting a little cranky with my stomach still making noises and the looming specter of storms on the horizon. It was at that moment when I saw two riders coming directly toward me from the opposite direction.
“Wait, I know them,” I said out loud with excitement. It’s my friends Robert and Drew! They had set out from Damascus six days prior completing most of the Trans VA in reverse order. Robert had left his car in for me to collect upon my arrival in Damascus. These were just the two smiling faces I needed to see! We shared some stories and parted ways. I had no idea that A revitalizing interaction.
After a crucial resupply at Sheetz, I made it into Wheatfield around 5:30 p.m..
This was home to the last resupply stop for the night. By this time, I had been passed by a couple of riders who had also begun their journey earlier this morning. These were the cats attempting to complete the route in about three days tops. Their setups were light. They’d be sleeping in ditches, if anywhere at all.
The Garden Market in Wheatfield became the night’s Trans VA happy hour as hosts of riders rolled into get provisions before heading out into the night. By now, it’s about 6 p.m. and Jeff sends me a line that he’s about 30-miles behind me in Stephens City. A few of us bounced out of the market and toward the forest as we turned on our lights and zipped up our vests. I made it to a church on the top of a hill in the valley to observe the last remaining sunlight to the west. Another rider, Jason, from Queens, NY was at the church making some dinner. I joined in with some snacks and before long Jeff, Rob and another rider, Chris, emerged at the top of the hill with their headlights beaming.
This was an inadvertent meeting spot, but it proved crucial as if I would’ve headed further toward Van Buren Furnace, my chances of meeting up with Jeff would’ve diminished. Cell service completely dropped off by the time we reached this section of forest and the camping proved to me more vast than I initially thought. Fate, and yes, maybe even some of that trust was on my side.
The five of us pitched camp and turned in for the night. We’re 130-miles in.
An overcast Sunday morning greeted us. Still no rain. The next section we encountered is labeled “hike-a-bike” on the route’s itinerary. We loaded up on camp coffee and large-scale muffins. We said goodbye to Jason and the four of us remaining slowly but surely rode almost all of the hike-a-bike section with smiles on our faces.
By early afternoon, we had made it just over 23-miles as the rain began to set in. Following a long descent into West Virginia, we ducked underneath a church pavilion just shy of the town of Matthias--church pavilions and fire stations are always a pro-level bicycle touring hack for camping. Any guarantee of shelter ahead was flimsy. We heard about some baseball dugouts about five miles ahead, but that wasn’t for certain. Jeff advised we stay there for the night and see what Monday has to offer. We didn’t know much, but we knew the rain was here to stay.
Chris and I found a slight break in the weather and rode into Matthias for beer and some other luxuries. We were recommended a bar four miles north in Lost City, W. Va. Hell, why not. We were already wet. A shot of whiskey and a beer; or four at the Lost River Grill layered us with liquid warmth. We stocked up on to-go food and headed back to the pavilion for dinner with Jeff and Rob. We’re 153-miles in.
Monday morning turned out to be the hardest stretch yet. It rained the entire day as we re-entered Virginia. By late afternoon, we hit Switzer Lake. Riding challenging terrain in wet conditions all day long and then camping in the wetness deflated my momentum. Plus, I was 20-miles west of Harrisonburg, home to many of my close friends where some heat and dry clothes sounded oh so tempting. I quickly erase those thoughts as we’ve got business to take care of. We’re 200-miles in.
I pulled a spare chainring out of my frame bag and swapped my gearing setup. I had been running a 34-tooth chainring with a 10-speed, 11-42 cassette out back. I had cut the chain just right to accommodate this switch. The elevation was getting to me with all the weight on my Surly. I dropped down to a 32-tooth ring. It made all the difference, as we could’ve paid rent for how much time we spent in our low gear on this trip.
By lunchtime Tuesday, we saw sunshine! The first time since late Saturday. We make it to the top of Reddish Knob and unpack everything from our bikes so it may try to dry out on the guard rails at almost 4,400 feet of elevation. We caught up on some texts with a smidge of service and began our descent south toward Augusta County and Shenandoah Mountain. At this rate, we loosely aimed for Douthat State Park by nightfall. That would serve us a whopping 80-more miles for the day. It proved to be a little too much to bite off. Still enjoying the fresh sunlight, we extended our stop at the Mountain View General Store in Augusta County. There, we load up on Hunt Brothers pizza, chicken tenders, fries, beer, energy drinks, etc.
Eating with no remorse may be one of my favorite aspects of bicycle touring. I had never felt my metabolism work so fast in my life as I did this week: I was rarely satisfied with my food intake, calorically speaking. There was always more room.
We found some primitive camping about 20 miles north of Douthat by nightfall and set up shop. My friend Justin was set to meet us in his truck with a resupply and his contagious laugh. I sent him the wrong coordinates for our camp spot and by this time, with no coverage, even the GPS spot trackers couldn’t get a message out to him with the correction. I felt terrible
We could’ve easily stopped 10-miles back at Shaw’s Fork, a much easier landmark to locate. There was simply nothing we could do, but hope fate is on our side. Maybe, a little trust, too. As we prepared dinner, we saw headlights ascending the dirt road. It’s Justin! Elated, we all greeted him at his truck while I profusely apologized for the mix-up. As we popped open his cooler stuffed with beer and fizzy waters, he got a fire going. It’s our first fire of the trip, and, man, it felt good. We’re 273-miles in.
Wednesday, the group split up. Rob and Chris, got a head start out of camp and headed for the hills. Jeff and I planned to catch up to them around Douthat State Park, but we wouldn’t see them again on the trip. They made two huge efforts on Wednesday and Thursday and finished the route Friday, a day prior to Jeff and I.
Jeff and I gtt to ride with Justin for a bit before he trucked home. His presence reinvigorated our drive. We showered at Douthat and made our way toward Covington, Va. We toasted over our Wendy’s meal in a local park, and made a plan for the rest of the week.
We aimed for a Saturday arrival in Damascus. By dusk, we found a church pavilion tucked away from the road and adjacent to a fire station. This will do just fine.
Anytime you can avoid one less task in bicycle touring, the more energy you can preserve. On this night, we didn’t need tents as we sprawled out on the concrete floor and poached some energy off the pavilion’s functional electrical outlets.
“Tomorrow’s our day,” I said over dinner. I didn’t feel like we were behind on any itinerary, but I knew we were due for a big day. With the red lights gleaming from our headlamps, we enjoy some ramen and a hot chocolate nightcap. We’re 320 miles in.
An early departure Thursday pointed us toward Pulaski. The morning was cold, and I’d lost one of my gloves the day before---fortunately Jeff provided me with his extra pair. We picked through the early morning fog as we embraced a 90-plus mile day with over 10,000 feet of climbing. Oh, and most of that climbing is featured on not one, but two mountain passes. The weather warmed up and we cleared the second pass by mid-afternoon.
I pushed us on this day. My body felt great, but the last six days of riding started to catch up. As a whole, cycling is way too competitive for me. I gravitate toward touring because it lacks many of these competitive vices that hold cycling back. Jeff and I were on the full encouragement train. On this night and the ensuing, we met a slow, long and steep climb well after sunset and just shy of our destination. With the night’s silence settling in and our headlights leading the way, we each hollered words of affirmation to each other as we continued to grind up 20 percent grade in the darkness.
We’re close to Pulaski, Va., but it felt so far away. My low-mounted headlight shined on each incoming piece of technical elevation. I was close to getting off and walking some of it. My body was done. Jeff was done. At the moment of a potential mental crack, we crested the top and saw the city lights of Pulaski. We’re 408-miles in.