A bad day . . .


April 25 - still on U.S. Route 11

By midmorning I had ridden twenty-five labored miles into a sharp headwind. It had stopped raining but it was still chilly and overcast, and after three cold damp days I was altogether sick of weather. I'd been paralleling I-81 for a hundred or so miles, and the towns I was passing through were soulless dilapidated things, any remaining life sucked out of them by businesses that had sprung up closer to the expressway. There were no hotels anywhere near the day's destination of Troutdale, and it looked like I'd be pitching a tent in the rain. In short, the riding was lousy, the rest stops were lousy and I didn't know when any of it would improve; I was in a foul mood. Worse still, none of these hardships was particularly challenging or painful. I wondered how I'd make it across the entire continent when three merely disagreeable days could demoralize me so completely.

In Wytheville -- a pretty place -- I found a quaint diner and had a good lunch. I briefly began to hope that my luck might be turning, but not five minutes after paying my tab I was caught out in a sudden, soaking downpour. Then five minutes after that, one of my cleats got stuck in its pedal at a stoplight and I toppled over in the middle of the street. Pinned down by my hundred-pound bike and still locked into my pedals, I flailed helplessly like an upended turtle for almost a minute before finally righting myself. (In retrospect this image is really quite funny; but at the time of course I wasn't playing for laughs, and my self-inflicted slapstick was infuriating.)

The day was unsalvageable. All I wanted was to be done with it.

. . . gone good

I picked myself up off the street and walked to a pay phone in the surely vain hope of figuring out a place to spend the night, and was happily surprised when a single call to Information produced the number of a bed & breakfast outside of Troutdale. More surprising still, they had a vacancy. The owner warned me of a "really big hill" I'd have to climb to get to the place, but I wouldn't mind that if a warm, dry bed was at the end. I set out on the thirty or so miles I had yet to ride, a bit buoyed but still eager more than anything simply to finish.

The thundershowers apparently marked the edge of a front, because the sky behind them was clear; a few minutes after I left Wytheville, the sun came out for the first time in days. Not long after that the route turned away from the expressway -- this too for the first time in days -- and I found myself riding through rolling farmland on a quiet road uncluttered by 7-11s or truck stops. The crisp, rain-scrubbed spring air smelled fresh and good. Suddenly I was on a pretty nice bike ride.

The last leg of the road to Troutdale -- the "big hill" -- wound upward through a national forest. I'd been a little apprehensive about the climb but after two weeks on the road I had evidently become stronger than I realized; I rode up it steadily and strongly, almost effortlessly. This unaccustomed stamina, coming as it did after 55 or 60 miles, was exhilarating.

The best came a few minutes later. A couple of miles before the top, some movement in the woods caught my eye. I looked up to see a tall figure, dressed entirely in black, approaching from a clearing. He called out to me; suppressing my city-honed instinct to keep moving, I stopped. "Hi!" he said. "My friends and I are hiking the Appalachian Trail and we could see you coming up the hill. It looks hard, and we thought you could use some trail magic!" He produced a couple of granola bars from behind his back. "These are for you!" "Trail magic", he explained, is spontaneous gift or kindness bestowed on or by an AT hiker. "Unbidden" is key -- someone who tries to solicit trail magic is said to be "Yogi-ing", after the perpetually freeloading Bear. I didn't need a granola bar (I still had half a pannier of bon voyage Powerbars) but the gesture was so delightful and surprising that I barely knew how to say thanks. I burbled something about the day starting out crappy and him turning it around completely but that was as good as I could do.

I was so tickled by the day's transformation that the Fox Hill Inn could have been a dump and I wouldn't have cared. But in keeping with the new tenor of things it turned out to be a lovely hilltop house with a sweeping 360 degree view of the surrounding Appalachian foothills. Without even pausing to check in, I laid down in the grass and watched the clouds for half an hour or so, thinking how lucky I was to be taking this trip. I managed to snap a photo:


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Page posted September 7, 1999