By Frank Soos
The First Day
The Blue Ridge Parkway. The Skyline Drive. Say their names and my brother Moose and I see highways narrow and arduous, long climbs and wicked descents, deep woods and rolling farmland. Sparse traffic and low speed limits. Roads, if not imagined for cyclists, have come to suit us better than any I know. We would ride them both, a trip, a challenge. We weren’t getting any younger.
I went to my local bike shop and for his birthday bought my brother a small bag designed to fit on a bicycle’s back rack. I bought myself one just like it. All we would allow ourselves to carry on our travels must fit in these bags. We agreed the next summer we would go.
Our mother’s illness took over instead. A tumor, diagnosed but not discovered, killed her in September, days before Moose’s next birthday, days before her own. Days we had imagined and set aside for our trip. The strain of dealing with that illness and death and its attendant aftermath came between us.
Three summers later, this trip would be a way to return to each other. A test, a friendly competition between allies, something like the contests of equals each with his special attributes among the Greek heroes I read about as a boy. Now is the time to set off. We aren’t getting any younger.
Cherokee, North Carolina. Six-thirty a.m. In a tourist town, only the working world is taking breakfast at this hour. Among them, Moose and me and two other early rising tourists. We begin with French toast and pecan pancakes. The right thing? The best thing? Outside the road is damp with dew.
We walk back to our motel past the closed souvenir shop, its stuffed black bear, fur worn to the hide, wheeled inside for the night. No bows, arrows, hunting knives or moccasins for us. Quickly, quietly, we change into our cycling clothes and load our small bags. To make do with little, we’ve weighed the value of each article of clothing, every part on our bicycles including the spares. Exigencies for weather, for mechanicals. We carry food chosen with the same care. What had fit comfortably yesterday now has become much too much. Is it what we need, or what we think we need?
For we have come too far now. It’s not a question of closing the motel room door behind us and leaving off the key, but of our expectations. A trip begins in maps and we have pored over them. Yesterday, the road into Cherokee, a toboggan slide down US 19, showed us what we could expect better than any chart in our guidebook.
Beyond Black Mountain
Ridges deep and high waiting:
Too little left to chance.
After a short ride along a highway, we turn away from the delivery vans and commuters onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. An obligatory picture beside the welcoming sign, and then the climb.
Wait. I’ve let my sunglasses removed for the photo op slip off onto the grass back there. Mustn’t this trip like all trips be fraught with just this sort of near-mistake caught just in time? I’ve told myself this often these past days of preparation: My front derailleur that doesn’t quite work right and must be replaced by another we’re lucky to find. With departure close, cost becomes a secondary consideration. Got to have it. Mustn’t there be a reckoning to come when we have to make do?
We climb. Straight away, I am back in my gears, on the 30-tooth chain ring in front and the 24-tooth cog in my cassette. My lowest gear is 30-28. Don’t go there. I need to keep something in my pocket in case a brutal rise appears around the next curve.
The chill lifts. We shed vests, arm warmers. Under the canopy of hardwoods we’re almost alone. In the understory are mountain laurel and rhododendron well past their bloom. Deeper in: sourwood, ironwood, dogwood, sassafras. Wildflowers, some in bloom, line the roadside. We have the luxury to look. Moose counts six cars our first two hours. I count six dead snakes. Three miles along, we approach Sherril Cove, the first tunnel.
My puny headlight
Fails to show the way. Helpless–
Bouncing to daylight.
Rattlesnake Mountain, Big Witch, Bunches Bald, Lickstone Ridge. On better pavement, we slip through each in the dark, the only sound our tires hissing in the damp. Dug mostly by hand by CCC men, called make-work at the time, their intricately cut stone facades say otherwise. Eight, count ‘em, between us and our first night’s lodging. Pinnacle Ridge, Devil’s Courthouse, until at last we come to Frying Pan.
Halfway up our first long climb, I pull off and wait for Moose, surprised he’s behind. Much stronger, his weight works against him now. We snack and drink sparingly. Having been caught in a tunnel with on-coming Harleys, he notes the absolute absence of silence they create.
Here, as with every stop, Moose’s poorly repaired broken hip plagues him. It’s hard for him to throw his bum leg over the load on the back of his bike. He tries a variety of strategies, to stand on a curb, to swing his left leg and then his right, to lean the bike well over to the side. Any way, it hurts. Before we are done, Moose will simply straddle his bike on the shorter breaks.
We climb. I count, not miles, but elevations read off overlook signs. Our pace affords ample time to read. First true summit comes after a nine-mile climb with over 3500 feet of elevation gain starting from Cherokee at around 2000 feet. Having made it to 5200, we begin a long slide down to Saco Gap, 900 feet below. At such times, Moose and I both come to resent a descent. We must earn every foot back plus 400 more before we come to our first stop with water.
The stone rangers’ station at Waterrock Knob offers few rewards. Water, yes, for two dollars a bottle. No snacks. We sit on the curb, drink and eat from the food we carry. Before we leave, we will have spent twenty dollars on water. Another cyclist arrives. Moose tries to chat him up with not much luck, “How’d you get up here?” I note of his two water bottles, only one is half empty. He did not ride the ride we did. “There are many ways,” he answers.
Inside, the older ranger considering our trip says to his companion, “If I was a younger man….” Later he tells a couple of car tourists the most beautiful views on the entire Parkway lie ahead to the north. We make a point of sailing through the next overlook on our descent, spectacular with its green ridges reaching as far as we can see to westward, but we do not stop.
To see, to feel, to
Find no honest words, what can
I say? I say, “Wow.”
We see the world two ways. On our slow grinding climbs, we see plants–and all too rarely animals–in all their particularity. Open vistas swing into view and past majestically before us. We see, but our attention never drifts for long away from the climb. On descents, the world flies by us, the wind dries our sweat soaked jerseys, ruffles our hair under our bike helmets. We soar knowing few of these descents require much braking. We roll joyfully on. These drops are bought and paid for.
After this long downhill, my legs have stiffened. I feel my calves, then my quads, then my hamstrings, each in their turn wanting to cramp. Cramping is not an option. Pulling my pedal stroke through ever so slightly differently, I comfort each muscle as it complains.
Now we must climb again, this time to over 6,000 feet. Again, I mark the elevation as we pass from 3,400 upward. Once I pass 5,000 feet, I allow myself to rest and snack again. A park ranger pulls up in his pickup. I consider bumming some water from him. Yes, he’s seen two cyclists on the road. Moose soon swings into view followed by a rider in red. I let Moose rest awhile, and we push on.
The rider in red–
Useful to pace on—Catch him
If only I could.
To climb is to think about climbing. Any ideas that come are short-lived. I try to imprint an unknown flower on my brain so I might identify it later. Wild iris, daisies, black eyed-susans. A red flower I don’t know. I’ve seen its picture in the ranger station at Waterrock Knob and have already forgotten its name. I will look it up this evening and forget again.
Richard Balsam Overlook, highest point on the Parkway. Our first major goal, the first place we encounter clots of other tourists at an overlook. These others have driven in cars or on motorcycles. Feeling justifiably righteous among them, we lean our bikes against the sign announcing the elevation and make more commemorative pictures.
A boy approaches and asks where we’re headed. Moose answers as he always does, Winchester, Virginia. Had I answered, I would have said, Mt. Pisgah for today. Winchester seems way away just now.
A large SUV bears a sticker reading, “Is it 2012 yet?” I would grab its owner by her scrawny tanned neck and say, look around you. The Parkway we ride on is the greatest stimulus package this country ever knew. And beyond, these woods, deep woods of the Pisgah National Forest stretching east and west as far as we can see with neither roads nor houses in sight, belong to us all, our common wealth.
Two-thirds on our way to Mount Pisgah, the hard climbs behind us, we ride on. On our last climb out of Wagon Road Gap, a young woman in a little blue car passes and shouts from her open window, “You guys are awesome. I could never do that.” “Did you hear that?” Moose hollers. A little boost for us both. At mile 409, I tell Moose I’ve made a mistake, the inn is in mile 408. “Aw, man,” is all he says, but soon enough the roof of the Pisgah Inn comes into view just over the ridge.
Resting our bikes against a tree outside the office, we trade our cycling shoes for sandals. As we do, Moose reads me the daily figures from his computerized cycle gadget:
We’ve ridden long, hard.
Slow, I grouse. A woman giggles,
Such silliness. Such men.
Frank Soos (1950-2021) was the Alaska State Writer Laureate, 2014-2016. He is author of Early Yet, Unified Field Theory (winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award), Bamboo Fly Rod Suite, Double Moon: Constructions & Conversations (with artist Margo Klass), Unpleasantries: Considerations of Difficult Questions, and posthumously, The Getting Place.