My first day of biking in the Commonwealth I saw more of Southern Virginia than I ever had. I’d lived in Virginia all my life and was very familiar with about a hundred miles of it. The rest of Virginia, what Sarah Palin had called on the 2008 campaign trial “The real Virginia”, might as well have been a foreign country. In place of the shopping complexes and manicured lawns of its northern cousin, this part of Virginia still had tiny general stores, flag poles hoisting the stars and bars and a sense of heritage that is still apt to term that business back in the 1860’s as the War of Northern Aggression.
I kept biking that day up 221 with the hopes of making it past Floyd, a bucolic bohemian town that hosts a big blue grass jamboree every summer. At the end of my day, I was expecting a ride from a friend from school all the way to Roanoke. With these plans, I became keenly aware that I was in fact living actual lines from that Old Crow Medicine Show song.
Travel that day was windy and hilly. I made it past Floyd but not much further and ended the day in the one street town of Check. Pulling into town, a dog sleeping on a front porch woke up and gave chase. He darted towards my bike then back into the other lane of traffic where his chasing days were almost ended by a pickup truck.
I parked my bike in a vacant lot across from the Check Country store. It was five o’clock, quitting time, and the locals swarmed the store for their day’s end purchases. Every few minutes, a muddy pickup would growl into the store lot. The driver would step out, give a long stretch, adjust his suspenders and remove the empty packet of cigarettes folded into his shirt shoulder to toss in the garbage. A few minutes later, he’d come out of the store mumbling Good Day through a lit cigarette with a fresh thirty pack in hand. I think it was a Tuesday.
I changed my clothes and tried to make my bulging, dirty trailer look reputable and organized. I saw Amanda’s car coming over a hill leading into town and hailed her down. We had met during the last semester of school in a ballroom dance class and had stayed in touch since. She was in the rotation year of PA school in Roanoke and was dressed like a medical professional, black slacks and a blue blouse with ruffled front. We shared a long hug.
We got to Roanoke by dark. I’d never been to Roanoke and my first sight of the city came on the big downhill of a mountain pass. Tucked into the Blue Ridge foothills and surrounded by forests, I bet it looked beautiful in the fall.
Amanda’s place was designed exactly as I had imagined it. Cozy, tasteful, adult. She had a little Christmas village set up on a desk top, a fake Christmas tree assembled in the corner. On a wall hung a picture of a couple waltzing in an alleyway underneath a street lamp. After I took a shower, we sat on her couch swapping stories about the trip and PA school. For dinner, Amanda dimmed the lights and plugged in the Christmas tree. From the kitchen, she brought out two steaming bowls of venison stew. I felt like a crude creature of the woods, in from the cold at last.
The next day I hitched a ride with Amanda on her commute to Bedford. With some Google Map research, I discovered that if I started off in Bedford I could feasibly make it to Charlottesville in a day going straight up 29.
Before dropping me off at the highway, Amanda and I had breakfast at a bagel shop. The shop held a contest where contestants could win ownership of the place with an essay on how they would run the business. With my trip near end, I had started thinking about my next move. The serious consideration I gave to entering the contest demonstrated just how poorly these brainstorming sessions were going.
At the highway junction, I assembled the gear and said goodbye to Amanda. I got on the bike, she got back into her car and we set off to begin a day of work at our separate occupations.
With Charlottesville standing a hundred plus miles from my house, this ride had the potential for my penultimate day on the bike. I had a desperate eagerness to get to Charlottesville and then home and thought of little else while biking. But in the middle of these happy thoughts, I had to check myself. Once I got where I was going, I’d have nowhere else to go. I would stop moving and the trip would be over. I made a special effort that day to enjoy these last moments in the saddle.
My four months of biking allowed me to spend all but ten minutes on the bike that day. This was now my job and I felt very competent in the task at hand. 29 had no shoulder and I biked the entire day on the highway’s white line tightrope. It had the most traffic I had seen in a long time. The cars came so close that the normal Run Forest Run jeers were yelled right into my ear.
Eventually, I got used to the mayhem and entered into the private universe of thoughtless pedaling. I said lot of prayers. It would be a real shame to die so close to home, I thought.
The prayers were answered and I made it to downtown Charlottesville by 4:00 o’clock without incident. UVA’s campus, the bars on the Corner and the students wearing madras and bowties without apology were the first recognizable sights I had seen since Montana.
I’d spent enough weekends here visiting friends to earn an honorary degree and knew the streets well. I navigated my way downtown to a friend’s place, a small run down looking house off Roosevelt Brown St. I sat on his porch until he came home from work.
I hadn’t seen Jeff in a year in a half, the last time was at his graduation party here in Charlottesville. We’d known each other since kindergarten. Jeff had gotten me into running and we’d done our first marathon together in Charlottesville and then another one in Boston.
Jeff pulled up to his place near dark. Looking over my bike and trailer, he shook his head in the same way Matt, my friend in Tucson, and Amanda had. I’d come to appreciate that the setup invites all sorts of speculation on the rider’s mental well-being, and with what I’d gone through to get here, I couldn’t dismiss these conjectures as entirely unfounded.
We got dinner at the Virginian. Mike, a friend from high school studying at the med school, joined us for some study break pints. I shared some stories of life on the road, the Greyhound ordeal, hitchhiking, my four month use of nature as a public restroom. Mike had gone on a cross country trip the previous summer-in a car he admitted with some shame- and we compared notes on Yellowstone, Tetons and Zion.
After dinner, we parted ways with Mike and went to the Biltmore, a bar Jeff used to work at. We got a pitcher and played Buck Hunter into the night. On the walk home, Jeff proposed a midnight run. I was kind of wobbly at that point and had 100 miles to do the next day but a run with old friend Jeff, sure. We laced up the shoes and hit the town.
When running, Jeff has a tendency to expend most of his energy within the first five minutes. In high school, this characteristic earned him the league wide nick name as the Rabbit. Coaches would caution their runners not to chase the Rabbit believing his sole goal as a runner was to wear out the competition early and sabotage their races.
After Jeff had gotten his yah-yahs out in the first mile, we settled into a nice pace and traced a path through the campus’ grounds. Seeing these familiar sights brought back the college nights spent running around this place. Popping up into this thought stream came nights from the trip, nights camped in the middle of nowhere beneath stars and black listening to coyotes while falling asleep. The intersection of these two periods brought a strange convergence of memory and I was surprised at how seamlessly they all flowed together not as separate compartments of my life but all just things I had done.
After a good five or six, I passed out on Jeff’s couch and woke up a few hours later to begin the last day.