by Matt Schiff
The last week on the road has been anything but typical. Actually, there hasn’t been a typical week of bike touring, and even though we’ve said it enough to sound cliché, the saying, “you never know what to expect [when bike touring]” holds true on this trip. Yeah, there’s similarity and routine in each day, but oftentimes the people we meet and the advice they give us, the accommodations they provide, or the people they put us in contact with, dictate where we’ll be staying and what we’ll be doing for the next 24 hours. This past week has felt especially random, exciting, and a little nerve wracking as the tough biking weather has drawn more people to help us and for us to gladly accept their offers. Each day we’ve biked well into the afternoon with no plan other than to wing it and see what happens. Here’s how we’ve survived each night.
We’ve been to the library and checked our route on the internet for the day, locating some National Forest land to potentially camp on. The problem was, now that we’d stopped and made a plan, there wasn’t enough hours of daylight to get where we’d hoped to go.
We rode through Staunton, VA and the snow showers become heavier. While we’ve seen what can be considered no more than specks of ice falling from the sky earlier on this trip, Virginia wins the contest for the first state where we experience snow.
Sara and I lag behind – Sara because she likes to ride slow and me because I’ve got a groin injury from running around and celebrating a few days earlier. We pass a spaghetti dinner happening at a community center that would have been the perfect place to do a bit of “networking“. Sara and I think about the missed opportunity but soon see Tommy and Aaron stopped on the side of the road.
Tommy is busy talking to a guy up at his front steps. I never know whether it will help our cause to hang back near the road as we’re doing or to come up to the front door where we all can be inspected. I definitely think slowly moving closer doesn’t work. There’s some pointing going on and things are looking good for camping. Tommy comes back and tells us it’s fine to camp on the lawn but there‘s not much flat ground. We begin to set up right near the road.
Our host, Paul, comes out to see if we need anything and offers hot chocolate, breakfast in the morning, and even a shower. This is when things get tough. Every time you go inside and treat yourself to the comforts of home, it becomes much harder to go back out. You can also imagine the position our host is in. On a cold snowy day it becomes that much harder for him to send us back outside. Paul heads inside and we try to set our tents up quickly so they don’t get wet.
Once complete, I stare at the rainfly as a small amount of snow accumulates, slides down the fly, and piles up on the ground. It won’t happen tonight, but if it snows enough you’ve got to clear snow from around your tent or it creates a frozen barrier and suffocation is possible. I remember a time when I camped high in the mountains of Colorado and it snowed over a foot.
Paul’s voice brings me out of my winter mountaineering daydreams. “I just upped my offer. Why don’t you stay in the bedroom above the garage. It’s got a shower and a bed and we’ll turn the heat on so you’ll stay plenty warm.” Paul walks down the grass to discuss this with us and gather our answer. We all look at each other, smiling slightly uneasily, as if someone just mentioned sex and we were too young to deal with the subject. “Well, we’d be stupid to refuse,” says Sara.
Where is all the Forest Service land? Our map showed a blanket of green in the direction we were heading, but in actuality, there’s private land all around state highway 39 and the green stuff is off yonder. We have no idea of the topography we’re traveling into and that’s why we’re half way up the mountain (near Warm Springs, WV) with the temperature in the low 20s and less than 30 minutes of daylight left. We’re divided on what to do. Half of us wants to keep riding and look for Forest Service land. The other half wants to head down a road that leads to Forest Service land, but after an undetermined amount of miles. The more stubborn half wins and we keep on trucking up the mountain.
Sara stops and asks a guy chopping wood where we could camp. Actually any piece of grass will do she tells him. He gives us permission to camp across the road on his neighbors’ property and if anyone gives us trouble, just have them talk to him. It shouldn’t be a problem because everyone has left for the winter or lives somewhere else most of the time. We find the best wind break – behind a small one horse barn – and cook dinner inside on a pile of very mature horse manure. At night the wind rips through our tents and snow pelts against the great-for-summer mesh walls. We experience our coldest night of camping on the trip at 19 degrees.
We get a motel.
Google Maps failed us by incorrectly placing a grocery store 9 miles from its true locations so we ended up in a town at sundown, needing to get groceries, and having no idea on where to stay.
What’s memorable about this stay? We fail as usual to talk the owners down and give us a bargain. We were given the largest room the Old White Inn had to accommodate for our bicycles. But the most memorable moment is a quote from one of the cleaning ladies in the morning. She sees me, Aaron, and Tommy in the lobby eating breakfast that morning and can’t get over how crazy we are to ride our bikes, but then Sara enters the lobby and she shouts, “Oh nooo, you got a girl with you!” That’s right, we’re all dragging each other through this.
Highway 63 and 219 from Caldwell to Rich Creek, WV is quite a dandy. It’s a fairly quiet 2 lane road that winds its way through valleys of farmland, with the occasional quick climb thrown in there. While riding, the wind blew at our sides, redepositing snow onto the road, but it was all right; the night before we’d been in a motel and we expected to do the same tonight.
The problem was, we left no earlier than 11am and we hadn’t gone farther than 10 miles when Aaron felt something funny with his rear brake. He examined the situation only to find out his brake was fine, but rim was not. The thing has split from 10,000 miles of riding and braking and the bead of the tire looked about ready to blow off. The process of finding a bike shop with a wheel was time consuming and the best option was still 80 miles away in Bluefield, WV. With not too many other options, Aaron took the chance of riding it. That is how we found ourselves 15 miles from the nearest motel at the end of the day and right in the little town of Rock Camp, WV.
The first round of knocking on doors proved unfruitful, but no one was rude. We rode a little farther and came across a couple chopping wood. Indecisive as usual, we stood in front of their house long enough, deciding whether or not we should ask to camp on their property, to get noticed. A woman came from around back and after we provided a little explanation of what we were up to, invited us into the basement where the wood heater was going. She had no problem with us setting up in her field and said we could come in the basement to cook or if we got cold during the night. We expressed how good the warmth felt, and it may have been because of this or because she couldn’t imagine how we’d stay warm with the temperature being 15 degrees, but she soon added we could even sleep in the basement if we thought it would be comfortable enough. Feeling indecisive, we went ahead and wheeled our bikes down to the field like we were about to camp, but I don’t think we were kidding anyone. Ten minutes later we opted for the warm basement and that’s how we got to sharing stories of “crazy things that have happened to us” with Tommy and Teresa.
The rim on Aaron’s bike isn’t looking worse than when we first noticed the crack, but if it makes it 45 more miles into Bluefield, WV, I’d still be impressed.
As we travel into Bluefield and towards the bike shop, somehow our directions are wrong. We think we have 10 miles to go before we look for our turn when in fact we have less than five. We end up riding through Bluefield, WV, and all the way to the eastern extent of Bluefield, VA. At the end of town we try to figure out what went wrong. That’s when Donnie notices us, notices the lost and confused looks on our faces, and can’t imagine we’d be riding in such cold and snowy weather and not be in some type of trouble. Donnie gives us directions to the shop – 5 miles back in the direction we came from – and at the time we assume it’ll be the last we’ll see of him.
We ride towards the bike shop and know we’re at the right place when we see the Rasta colors of True Wheel bike shop sign and a photographer standing out in front snapping shots as we roll in. We assume Buzz, the owner of the shop, must have called the press but we never really found out. By this time though, we later learned, calls had been made to the right people and the word that four cyclists traveling around the country were in Bluefield, had gotten out, thanks to Donnie.
Once inside, Buzz gets down to business which means making us all a cup of coffee with the French press. While he’s working on that, Donnie and a second person from the newspaper enter the shop, and soon things turn into a bit of organized commotion. Donnie starts calling his church and a motel up the road trying to arrange a place to stay for us. Buzz works on strengthening a cheaper wheel by bringing up the tension while Aaron videos the process and the paper photographer snaps stills. The reporter from the newspaper tries to grab a word with whoever isn’t busy while occasionally passing his phone to Sara as he’s also trying to set up a place where we can stay. Soon we realize it’s not a matter of if we’ll have a place to stay but rather what will suit us best. I’ve forgotten who called who, but soon a professor from the college, Kelly, walks into the shop and patiently waits to show us our accommodations for the night.
We stay at the guest cottage of the local college, equipped with 3 beds, cable TV, high-speed internet, washer, dryer, stove, and fridge. Man, was someone looking after us here! (thanks Donnie, Buzz, Kelly, and everyone else who showed us how generous and hospitable the people of Bluefield are).
That’s 5 days of living, five unknowns about where we’d spend the night, and five stories that are still fresh in my mind. The next 5 days were just as interesting and random as these 5 so this is a “to be continued blog” because we’ll continue to have more stories like this on our trip and, time willing, we’ll share them with you.