After a few day’s rest in Nashville, I loaded the bike and trailer into Ron’s car and we hit the road headed east towards the Smoky Mountains. Ron planned on dropping me off at the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Cherokee, North Carolina where I had designs to bike the Parkway following the Blue Ridge mountain range up into Virginia.
As a geologist, Ron has a love of nature that runs deeper than my Oh-Wow appreciation for mountains and forests. His quiet appreciation for the outdoors made good company for a morning drive through the Smokey’s fog. He shared stories of back country trips he’d taken in the area as well as some geological tidbits on the mountain’s history and formation. Ron proved himself as good a guide in the country as in town. During my stay in Nashville, he had dropped me off in the downtown area giving me a thorough itinerary of sights to see.
I hadn’t been to Nashville since I was a youngun, the sole memory from that trip being me running naked through a sprinkler on my family’s front lawn. I was glad to reacquaint myself with the city under more mature circumstances and rediscovered Nashville as a pleasant place to get lost for an afternoon. In the same way Salt Lake’s identity links with Mormonism, Nashville’s character binds to religion as well with country music as its church.
Just wandering around downtown, my path followed an unplanned pilgrim’s trail of country music’s holy sites. I passed by the Ryman Auditorium once home to the Grand Ole Opry, and further on saw the purple front of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge where many stars had cut their teeth.
Venturing into Nashville’s Honky Tonk district, I ambled down Broadway’s bar lined sidewalks where each establishment had their mid-day band picking away on some country music classic. A good deal of this scene was lost on me. Even though America’s radio programming has been all but taken over by country, I don’t count myself among its millions of ever-growing fans.
One summer I really did try to give it an honest shot, but decided the genre had far too many songs about tractors, someone’s favorite bar and the liberating effects of tequila on the female libido for its own good. But since I now found myself in the capital, I decided to give country one more try and spent the rest of my afternoon in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Complete with listening stations, video clips, Elvis’ gold plated Rolls Royce, original Les Paul guitars and a number of Nudie Cohn’s suits from country music’s rhinestone golden era, the museum walked visitors through an interactive tour of country music’s storied history. Even with that thorough education though, I couldn’t quite muster the enthusiasm for country music’s recent output but did enjoy the style’s bluegrass, hillbilly roots as well as an exhibit on the meteoric and tragic life of country’s first star, Hank Williams.
That night, we all had dinner at the Listening Room Café, a venue that featured song writers performing their own songs. Nashville’s true unsung talent, these workers in song labor in complete obscurity for the unlikely chance that a star will record one of their tunes and make it a hit. The best they can hope for is a royalty check and a credit in the linear notes. It was cool to hear the song writers, some of them seeming just as talented as the artists they write for, performing their songs the way they had intended. A few of them had even penned some chart toppers. One woman had written “Shoes,” a Celine Dion song. And as luck would have it, the esteemed author of “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” was performing. He’d had a little too much to drink that night and forgot most of the words to all his songs and just kind of mumbled through his set.
After we’d made it to Cherokee, NC, Ron and I were busy assembling my gear at mile one of the Blue Ridge Parkway when we made a terrible discovery. The custom quick release for my back axle that fastened trailer to bike was missing. During my Nashville stay, Ron had generously taken my bike into the shop for a tune up. The shop, unknown to us, had replaced the special quick release with a standard one with no attachment capabilities. Without that little piece of integral metal, I couldn’t travel a single mile.
Frantically, we tracked down an REI in Ashville, NC that carried BOB trailer parts. Another hour on the road put us in Ashville where by the grace of God we secured a new quick release, the last one in stock. Ron left me at a frontage road that led to the Parkway. With the day nearly done, Ron had to hurry back to Nashville for a senior ceremony at my cousin’s school. We said a quick goodbye and Ron wished me luck on the road ahead.
I did fifty miles on the Parkway that day, my trailer packed down with food and warm clothes that Aunt Sharon had added to the dwindled stock. I made my way past the city of Ashville, up into the mountains on the Parkway’s thrilling rhythm of climbs and downhill. With the sun setting, I finished a long climb that brought into view a whole valley of contoured ridges and forest.
I found it kind of funny that I had gone on this bike trip to see America’s natural wonders and here in the Blue Ridge, in my own backyard, were some of the best I’d seen.
The sun set and a full moon started creeping up from behind the surrounding ridgeline. I continued biking in the dark having made it to a closed section of the Parkway that afforded me a safe stretch of untraveled road. The Parkway took me up a 5,000 ft climb. As I made my way higher, I could make out the light clusters of Ashville. Nestled into the crook of the Blue Ridge foothills, the city looked like reflected light coming from the bottom of a well.
Along the roadside, I passed icicle gardens clinging to rock walls. I went through a series of tunnels in complete black. Clear moonlight turned the snowy and iced roads into a highway of crystal. I biked through a dreamscape of shadow and shape; the only sound coming from my pedals and night’s still on the mountain. I would occasionally wake from these reveries whenever my bike lost its traction and keeled over. I fell many times during the night ride and eventually just ended up walking my bike for a mile or so. I set up camp on a grass patch two feet from the road.
Three days on the Parkway took everything I had. These were the last days of the trip and my body knew it. The stores of my second, third and fourth winds lay scattered all over America’s backroads and I biked on mere fumes. The Blue Ridge Parkway follows the mountain’s hilly ridgeline very faithfully and at the end of three days, I had gone no more than a hundred miles.
The day before, I had finished my ride in view of Mt. Pisgah. I had spent that whole day biking in its shadow watching its curved top get closer and closer but never actually reaching it. Setting up camp, I couldn’t help but look at the mountain and recall Moses’ Pisgah, the mountain Yahweh instructed Moses to climb after forty years of dessert wandering to view Canaan, the promised land. On account of some unforgivable transgression- I think he had hit a water-bearing rock twice instead of the instructed once or something like that-Moses was permitted to see the promised land but never enter.
I like to think God had softened a bit since his Old Testament days, but even still, I’d been a stiff-necked people myself during the trip and had more than once abandoned the notion of a fair and just divinity while repairing many a flat tire. I hoped that the Pisgah I now stared at did not signal the end of my own trip, a last glimpse at the promised open road, but if I continued on the Parkway I knew it might well be.
I had wanted the Blue Ridge’s scenic lengths as backdrop for the trip’s last stretch, but decided if I ever wanted to finish this damn trip by Christmas and sane, I had to seek other avenues. My last morning on the Parkway, I glided down twenty miles of road that hugged the side of the mountain, a whole valley of mist in front of me. In the early light, the mountains really did look blue, ancient and faded, half-material like a cloud mass.
At mile 280 of the Parkway, I turned onto 221. The road was more reasonable, but still winding and hilly. My goal that day, Virginia’s state line. I passed Christmas tree farms and thought of home. I also remembered a late summer afternoon in Omak where I had gone into the town bike shop to get some parts for my trip. I noticed asleep in the corner a scraggly haired kid. The shop owner said the kid was on a bike tour and had stopped into the shop to pick up a new bike. I struck up conversation with the biker.
He told me he had started in North Carolina and had been pedaling for four months and was sleeping in the town park while waiting for his new bike. My housemates had all left Omak by that point, so I invited him back to the double wide to spend the night. When I asked him if he was hungry, he said he had eaten a power bar that day but could probably make room for some more food. I was living the bachelor life then and only had enough in the cupboard for a grilled cheese. I’d never seen anyone enjoy a grilled cheese so much in my life.
He told me about his tour. After he reached Seattle, he would bike down the California coast and then head east again back to North Carolina. He thought the whole thing would take him about two years. When I expressed some concerns about my own trip, my biking abilities and general lack of trip planning, he dismissed them. All you have to do, he said, is just get started. Just keep moving and everything else works out.
I had lived by that credo for four months and it had taken me from Washington all the way here to Virginia’s state line.
In the day’s closing minutes, I passed the welcome to VA sign with the red cardinal perched on a dogwood branch. Right at the state line, there was a closed campground that seemed a good place to spend the night. I set up my tent under a covered stage and went to sleep with the New River flowing cold and icy just beyond my view. Welcome home.