Day 7: Elk Garden, VA -> Lookout, KY (62 mi)
Updated: Jul 8, 2018
7:52 am - I woke up feeling cozy and refreshed on the chapel floor in the Elk Garden Community Church/Bike Hostel. After packing up and wolfing down a couple of microwave burritos the hostel graciously supplied in the freezer, I set out for the Kentucky border. It was roughly 35 miles away, and over the second mountain pass I’d be encountering on the trip.
After the miserable experience traversing Hayter’s Gap the day before, I was less than thrilled to hit a second pass so soon, but the weather was much more promising – cool and clear – so I had that at least.
The climbing started 15 miles in, after rolling through Rosedale and Honaker, a couple more on-stoplight-towns (not a whole lot down here in the woods). Maybe yesterday warped my perception of what a bad climb looks like, but as this one got underway it didn’t seem bad at all. When I got to the top I felt great – energized, comfortable, eager to keep pedaling.
Before bombing down the backside of the pass, though, I pulled into a dirt lot where a guy named Joe was selling fresh fruit. I gave him $1 and he handed me two huge peaches. I sat and ate them while he told me he’d been coming up here to sell fruit to cyclists since he was a little kid.
He also told me he’d never been out of southern Virginia. I told him I was from New York City, and asked him if he’d ever like to visit was interested in visiting. He just smiled and said, “Nah, I seen pictures”.
His words hung in my head for awhile after I got going. There’s something to be said for that kind of contentedness with the same unchanging environment for so long. I wasn’t able to last 2 years in Brooklyn before ditching everything and hitting the road. Even on what has been the trip of a lifetime, I envied his sense of belonging. Life is funny sometimes.
I bombed down the backside of the toothless mountain and floated over rolling hills until stopping for “lunch” (Gatorade, Pop Tarts and a bag of Baked Lays) in Haysi, the last town before the border. More of small town America at it’s finest. I popped into a post office on my way out of town to mail some postcards and soldiered on.
After some more wooded switchbacks through Breaks Interstate Park, I made my first border crossing(!) of the trip, rolling into Kentucky at around 3pm. Not long after I arrived in Elkhorn City, the eastern-most Kentucky town on the TransAmerica route.
I decided it would be a good idea to stop and figure out a sleeping situation while I had access to service. I had been warned by other cyclists about was how off-the-grid most of eastern Kentucky is as far as cell reception.
In fact, as it turned out and something I hadn’t realized, eastern Kentucky is home to 9 of the 30 poorest counties in the United States. Owlsley county, where I’d be passing through over the next couple of days, hosts the nation’s third-highest rate of poverty – a whopping 45.2% of residents.
I could certainly sense the oppression really as soon as you got over the border. A region socially and economically devastated and left for dead with the collapse of the coal industry. I’d read and learned about all this before, but seeing it up close from the seat of a bicycle was like revisiting those lessons under a microscope.
I ended up pulling into a Subway right off the Trail and getting a second lunch, this time a Veggie Delight footlong sandwich. When I’d finished paying the cashier, a nice young lady roughly my age named Jane started asking me about my trip.
JANE: “Are you going across the country?”
ME: “Yep! Along the TransAmerica Trail - it passes right by this place. You get a lot of cyclists that come through here?”
JANE: “Oh all the time during the summer. Most going the other direction, but not all of ‘em. Are you planning to stay at the Freeda Harris Baptist Center tonight?”
JANE: “The Freeda Harris Baptist Center. It’s a church about 12 miles down that hosts traveling cyclists all the time. They’ll take you in, and you’ll probably see other cyclists there.”
I was floored. A second church/bike hostel in the span of two days?? To encounter such hospitality anywhere in the world is certainly rare, but in one of the poorest places in the country? Astounding.
I thanked Jane and made my way towards the shelter hoping that, unlike last night, I’d find other like-minded non-traditional travelers at my destination. Sadly when I pulled up there were no bikes outside. Oh well. I called the number on the door and a woman named Rita answered.
Rita told me she wouldn’t be able to let me in for an hour or so, but would check if someone else was closer. I thanked her and told her not to worry about it but she insisted, and within ten minutes she delivered.
Out of the car stepped Greg and Alice, heads of the Baptist Center and orchestrators of yet another trail-haven for weary cyclists on the TransAmerica trail. Greg opened the doors to the center and showed me around. It was an old gymnasium that now housed four long picnic tables covered in clothes that Alice told me were donations that were to be folded and distributed by volunteers to needy families.
Also inside was a full kitchen area, a stocked pantry I was told to help myself to, and an upstairs bedroom equipped with beds, linens, towels, a TV and DVD player complete with a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's stone. AMAZING!!
Greg and Alice told me to holler if I needed anything, as they lived next door, and mentioned volunteers would be arriving tomorrow at 830am to fold clothes. I thanked them and they left me alone for the evening.
I whipped up a gourmet meal (two boxes of mac and cheese, a can of baked beans, and a whole stick of butter), and stuffed my face as Harry, Ron, and Hermione squared off with a three-headed dog, Devil’s Snare, and Wizard’s Chess.
I soon drifted off to the pitter-patter of rain coming down on the tin roof.