The storm is over and its time for me to finally continue my journey. Its still raining outside and th sky is covered with ominous shadows, the clouds look ripe to burst at any minute. Rob drives me up the hill to the start of the TransVirginia. All around are the signs of heavy rain, waterfalls pour off the road sidings and trees lie fallen by the road.
Rob drops me at a non-descript fire road just outside of Paint Bank. We say a quick but heartfelt good bye. Its s been an awesome few days and I am sad to be leaving.
I ride off into the woods to the dripping of heavy leaves echoing all around me. Its muddy as hell but at least its rideable. Again, I’m climbing into the clouds, the familiar grey haze fills my vision as I follow the 4×4 track. The twin grooves of mud are dabbled and pock marked from the rain drops. Fallen trees create chicanes and I have to switch lane to and fro. My feet are immediately soaked from the long grass mohawk in the centre lane. Everything I disturb showers me with icy water.
After a particularly swampy section I descend on an aggressive 4×4 trail, huge berms and 1m deep trenches carved out by supped-up trucks. It makes for fun if very tricky riding as I slip and slide my way down the mountain side. The earth is a orange clay and is completely saturated. My shins are thick with smears and splatters of mud.
Out of the blue I emerge onto a well-maintained road and suddenly I’m flying down. All of the height gained when Rob drive me in, now I’m shooting down the other side of the ridge line. Probably 700m of descent and I come out of the cloud into a warm summer’s day. Farmland either side of the road, and quaint red and white farm houses in the distance.
Out of the Clouds
I reach J&J’s Grocery store by late afternoon and have a nice chat with the owners? It’s hard to tell who is the customer and who is working. Everyone seems to be going behind the counter, answering phones and carrying in supplies. Just as equally there is a lot of people standing outside and chatting in pick-up trucks. The food is great though, grilled ham and cheese plenty of butter. I drink my Gatorade as I read my book in the shade. Watching the steady stream of beat up pickup trucks come and go on the sun-baked lot.
I don’t ride too much further knowing the topography of what is to come. There is a lot of big hill climbs tomorrow so decide to call it early, I roll slowly down farm roads trying to find a spot to camp. I find a beautiful whiteboard church, standing shaded by some trees overlooking a bunch of fields and small brook. Two chestnut horses are drinking from the stream and a little way away is a nice cosy looking farmhouse. I sit on the church steps a while reading as the shadows stretch over this view. then I unpack my bike and cook dinner.
A 4×4 rolls into the church and I am asked what I’m doing. She looks very suspicious of me and tells me it is illegal to sleep on church grounds. She is the caretaker apparently. After we chat for a little bit, she warms to me and lets me stay. Even offers to bring me over some spaghetti she just made. I found this to be quite common on my trip. Initial suspicion then overcome by kindness and the famous Southern hospitality. She warns me of bears and leave me to my already cooking dinner.
I wake up at dawn after an uneasy night listening out for bears, the quiet stillness of the dawn is so peaceful. The mist deadening every noise and leaving cobwebs shining like Xmas lights. The hills start fast and brutal. Potholed farm roads stretching into the pale blue sky. The summits unfortunately desecrated with wind blown trash and empty beer cans. It’s a shame and a real buzz kill after fighting my way up the hills. It doesn’t help my bike seems to be struggling already. I’m having problems shifting gears and my tyre keeps deflating. I push on for Pulaski hoping for a bike shop to change the tyre.
Pulaski seems like a nice enough town but there is definitely not a bike shop that I saw. There didn’t seem to be much of anything going on, the whole place seemed eerily quiet. I stop outside Food Lion and chat to some Mexicans eating their lunch whilst painting the outside of the mall. I managed to get some WIFI and make a rough itinerary of my trip also speak to a few hosts and my parents back home. It looks like Damascus has lots of bike shops.
New River Trail
The New River Trail as the name suggests follows the river some 100km on very smooth well-worn rail to trail conversion. It’s a welcome change from the quad-wrenching hills I have been tackling so far. I settle in and hold a over a 20km/h average. I switch off and let my legs just roll. Eating the kilometres as I gaze at the swollen river.
It has burst its banks and a bubbling, tumultuous, caramel has rushed over the sides. Small trees bob with the very top branches barely above the water, some of them swept away entirely and surf down into the distance.
I spend most of the day on the New River Trail. Holding my speed, I am finally getting into a good pace. The sun is shining and the threat of storms seems to have eased slightly. The roar of the river is a gentle white noise along with the whirring of my knobbly tyres on the smooth packed dirt.
The sun is starting to set and that glorious golden light fills the valley. On one side of the river is farmland and stunning colonial style houses, shining white with their big porches and quintessential rocking chairs out front. On my side of the river are huge cliffs and the occasional tunnel where the train used to go.
I stop at Bucks Dam. Its gates are fully open and plumes of heavy water shoot out. The power of it is incredible. I set up camp and watch the white tails of deer bouncing into the forest as I eat jerky and nuts for dinner. My food is starting to dwindle as I forgot to resupply in Pulaski.
I over sleep because I used a T-shirt as a blind fold during the night. The dam had flood lights blaring and it lit up my tent like a paper lantern. It’s a clear morning and crisply cold. My skin feels sticky and gross from the sweat and suncream of a few days riding. The smooth railroad riding is over and I turn back into the mountains and again crest a ridge and start pedalling. The heat soars as I meander along switch back after switch back. Stuck in the Green Tunnel yet again.
I take a well-earned break at Comers Rock another rare chance to see out of the forest and enjoy the panorama without the confines of the trees. I am sitting on the top of the ridgeline and can see the rippling sea of green, tinged with a dark blue in the distance.
A grey-haired old woman appears up the steps of the lookout. Sun visor, pale blue shirt and faded jeans. Next up is a tiny little lap dog, full body harness scrunched up face and tiny little legs, its tongue sticking out and struggling with the large steps. Bring up the rear is a camo baseball hat, a weathered old man in with a matching camo vest over a swollen gut. A large belt buckle struggles to be seen under the belly. They may look like walking stereotypes but they were very friendly. His accent was so strong I really struggled to understand him, they were thrilled to hear I was from the UK. Warned me about bears (another common theme) but also told me,
‘don’t git ya sel’ snake bit now y’hear’
Which I am pretty sure is the most Southern thing I have ever heard. He then showed me a picture on his phone of a Copperhead they had killed at his brothers farm a few miles away. I couldn’t believe it, it was massive! Probably close to 1.5m. as wide as a wrist with a giant head. I added it to my list of things to watch out for.
Now on constant snake watch I rode down from Corners Rock and attacked another two massive hill climbs. Then one amazing piece of gravel road riding. Cripple Creek Road was stunning, a playful little creek burbled on my right splashing over small waterfalls and tasted fantastic. The trail weaved and curved through some foothills opening up new views every few 100 meters drawing you along with promise of another epic scene.
By the time I make Sugar Grove it’s 2pm and I’m out of food and running low on water, I managed to lose a water bottle on one of the rattling descents. My left hand has gone mostly numb with a tingle of pin and needles. I roll into the town knowing there is a Dollar General in the centre of town and I urge my dehydrated body onward. I feel woozy and weak, my mouth sticky and dry. Like waking up from a wine hangover.
I burst into Dollar General like an animal, grabbing Gatorades and crisps and snacks of all kinds. I sit on the hot pavement outside the store and chug the Gatorade. Then my mind starts to clear and I realise I have bought nothing of nutritional worth. Surrounded by the makings of a preteen sleep over but not the makings of a meal. I have to go back and make a more measured approach.
I spend a few hours resting in the shade in the park. Before the day cools enough that riding seems like a good idea.There is a short section of highway back into the forest but the road is super quiet. I climb back up to 1000m before it starts to get dark again. I make camp at 1000m and its actually a very nice temperature to camp in.Watching out for snakes and bears then fall into a heavy but weird sleep filled with lucid and vivid dreams of the dehydrated mind.
Iron Mountain Trail
Continuing the climb in the morning I know I only have a small day to get to Damascus. My gears have made a recovery after I spent some time cleaning and re-lubing them, the tyre is getting worse though, needing pumping every hour or so depending on the terrain. Hopefully there is a tyre in Damascus so I can stay tubeless.
The TransVirginia Trail doesn’t actually follow the Iron Mountain Trail but after seeing it was all downhill, I rolled the dice and risked an other very rough track like the Tuscarora. And wow, did it pay off, epic tight, technical singletrack not too steep and a little over-grown but really fun and engaging. I stopped to try and take a video when I heard a rustling up ahead. My original thought wasn’t bear but deer. I maneuvered my bike to be between whatever it was. It came around the blind corner and it was a man on a horse. Looking like a legit cowboy! I love America. I moved out the way and he said he was alone so I continued to shoot down the trail.
Finally breaking through the bushes, I emerged onto incredibly smooth black top and a ribbon of fine tarmac unravelling down the hill. I hit over 70km/h with tears streaming down my filthy face. Only just slowing down as I see signs for the Virginia Creeper Trail. Another rail to trail conversion, the Creeper Trail is fantastic and genius. It flows mostly one way and that one way is downhill. People usually take a shuttle to the top and spend the day lazily floating down this winding track back to Damascus for food and beers. I love it!
I stopped a the Virginia Creeper Trail Cafe and enjoyed my half day of riding, eating a grilled cheese and listening to country music on the radio. Rob from Roanoke had reached out to a friend of his, Casey and he had agreed to let me stay with him. He was going away to a Bluegrass Concert and even invited me along. We had never even spoken and he just invited me along on Rob’s recommendation. I was torn on the Bluegrass Concert but decided to keep on pushing on the next day. But spending that night in the air-conditioned house after a proper shower was life changing.
The End of Virginia
I had reached the end of Virginia and it had been the toughest thing I had ever done. I was still only a quarter of my way through the trip but according to my research the hardest part was at least over. Virginia had been traumatically steep and the Tuscarora Trail had brought me to actual tears, the humidity had left me reeling and I don’t think the jetlag had helped. But the Dragons Back Trail., the Iron Mountain Track and Cripple Creek Road were absolute highlights. I recommend the TransVirginia Track over the VMBT any day. Spending time with my hosts and their families had gotten me through the hard times. Now I was excited for the next section the Trans North West Carolina.