Day 6: Rural Retreat -> Elk Garden, VA (55 miles)
6:46 am - The storm never came last night. Starting to take my weather app with a grain of salt. Woke and packed up pretty early, as its always nice to get dressed and moving before passerby start to look at your make-shift campsite funny.
Sunday morning, nothing open. Starving, I settled for a Snickers and a Danish with plenty of coffee in the Marathon gas station across the street. I was in there a few moments re-juicing my electronics when all of a sudden I see this guy roll up on a fully loaded touring bike. My first sighting of another cycling tourist!
The man dismounted his steed and removed his helmet to reveal wiry black hair that fell just below his chin. He walked in sporting a wide grin and immediately and introduced himself:
Matt Christopher, Bristol, England. Mance is just behind me.”
We chatted for a few moments about origins, destinations, personal backgrounds, and experience on the trail thus far. Matt was a 56 year-old iron worker who took some time off to do some exploring. I related. He had started in San Francisco in March and had come across Old Route 66 to Virginia, where he hoped to reach Yorktown before heading to NYC and eventually, Spain.
True to his word, another rider rolled up moments later, sporting a neon do-rag with aviator sunglasses, and one of the thickest tans I’d ever seen. He introduced himself as Mance, 62 year-old retired U.S. Coast Guard vet. He’d started the TransAm Trail last summer, but was forced to call it quits in KS after breaking his collarbone. He picked up where he left off a few months ago and was a few days away from his destination in Yorktown.
When I asked how he broke his collarbone, he simply shook his head and replied:
“The trucks won that day, my friend.”
I looked at my watch and saw it was nearly 9:45am. Mance and Matt pulled finished their snickers and Dr. Pepper, and pulled out moments later. I shortly got on my way as well.
The TransAm Trail winded further southeast before breaking west and then northwest from Damascus, VA, almost at the NC border. I decided to save myself some distance by continuing further down Rt 11, which had treated me so well so far, and rejoin the trail in some 45 miles in Meadowview.
It was mostly flat riding to Meadowview with overcast skies that discouraged picture taking, so I made it there pretty quickly. I stopped in for a big lunch at Harvest Table on the tiny main street, charged my phone and took my time as the rain started to come down.
As I set out afterwards towards the first real mountain pass I’d encounter on this trip, Google maps was showing a shorter and much more direct route I decided to chance. This decision turned out to be disastrous. Extremely steep climbs early on culminating with loose gravel and finally very loose gravel and dirt. I probably should have turned around immediately, but for whatever reason continued on, until it become just impassable. As fate would have it, this was the moment the clouds opened up and the torrential downpour began.
I retreated to the suggested route as quickly as possible – mostly downhill, which can be tricky on slick roads – and soon began the miserable series of switchback ascents known as Hayter’s Gap, deep and winding through the dense Appalachia forest.
I had no idea just how long the climb would be, nor how long it would take me. I was soon damn near exhausted with just a few gulps of water remaining, and cell reception had dissipated miles ago. I finally stopped a biker on his way past me and asked him how much higher this went.
“You’ve got about a half mile and then it turns downhill”, he sputtered, and motored on through the drizzle. His estimation wasn’t quite exact.
Digging really deep now, I managed to grind out another half mile. Then another. And another after that. The slippery mountain face seemed infinite, taunting me with each futile turn of my cranks that seemed to take me nowhere.
Soaked to the bone and cursing at the rain and at the hills, I finally reached the peak nearly an hour after speaking to the biker. FINALLY! I let out a loud yell as I topped the hill. Miserable climbing gave way to rolling descents and a breeze that restored some life into me as it fluttered past my cheeks.
What happened next still seems unbelievable. Exhausted, waterless, and the nearest town over 10 miles away, I needed a savior. As the winding hills flattened, I came upon what looked like and old church – not an uncommon sighting in southern VA – except that this one had a cut-out of a cyclist in the front yard, and the words “Bike Hostel” written underneath.
I nearly fell off my bike I was so relieved. It turns out this church was set up as a refuge for cyclists coming through the Gap on the TransAm trail. This welcome note was pasted on the front door:
And thankfully, this was set up in the backyard:
I spent the rest of the evening watching the rain sputter on and off and eating delicious frozen meals. Not a bad finish to a pretty sh***y afternoon. Day 6 in the books!