Dreaming About the MountainsTalk about a dream
Try to make it real
You wake up in the night
With a fear so real
Spend your life waiting
For a moment that just don’t come
Well, don’t waste your time waiting
My apologies, but this TR doesn’t contain much, if any, useful hiking or climbing beta. In fact, I hiked less than five miles on this whole trip. As the name implies, this TR is about a bicycle trip. So what it is it even doing on SummitPost? Shouldn’t it be over at MBPost? Well, it actually is about the mountains, and more specifically my own personal “where it all began” story. I’m sure most everyone here on SP has there own version. A defining moment, a trip that got you hooked on the mountains, or your first big adventure. This would be mine.
This is the story of my 27 day solo bicycle trip in 1982 that took me to the mountains for the first time. I got the itch to finally post this abridged version of the trip to SP after I saw that Bob Sihler had updated his Blue Ridge Parkway page. And this is a very abridged version of the story (the original version I completed about five years ago was over 10 times longer). I have not included much detail about my days on the road, although I will admit many of those stories are much more entertaining than the 8 days I spent pedaling in the Smokies, on the Blue Ridge Parkway and in Shenandoah National Park. Like on the second day of the trip, where a long series of events in Lawrenceburg, IN resulted in me spending the night at a total stranger’s house in Cincinnati, OH, or meeting this guy named Jack Kennedy in Charlottesville, VA on a Sunday morning and then drinking beer all afternoon with him in a café near the UVA campus.
But anyway, this story is about the mountains, and in June of 1982 I spent six days pedaling my bike from Fort Wayne, IN to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, because I wanted to see mountains. I suppose I could have driven, if I had a car, which I didn’t, but the mountains weren’t the only point of the trip. I also wanted the adventure of the journey, the beauty of the mountains combined with the adventure of traveling by bicycle. For a number of reasons our rare family vacations never took us out of the flatlands of Indiana to the mountains. This trip was my chance to end the drought.
My Flame Burned BlueCan you remember back to that moment when you were smitten by the beauty of mountains? I don’t remember any such specific moment. But I know that at a very early age, even back in elementary school, being enamored with mountains and hoping that some day I would go see them. And while I can’t remember the specific day I fell for mountains, I do remember the day I was smitten by the bug for adventure. I was about eight years old and one of my older brothers had just returned from a motorcycle trip to Colorado and Wyoming. I was a sponge soaking in all the stories he told of being out on the road and in the mountains. The seed for a long adventure was planted.
The desire to head out on the road and travel only grew over the years. Particularly in high school, I read quite a few books and articles that fueled my desire to get to the mountains. Fortunately my Dad had a subscription to National Geographic. He saved all of his old copies, so I had many years worth to peruse. More so than any source it was in National Geographic that I discovered the beauty of our country’s national parks and mountains.
But it was my Brother Joe’s trip west that stoked the fire to blue! In September of 1980 he went on a trip to Yellowstone, The Tetons and Rocky Mountain National Park. He arrived home proudly wearing his “I climbed Longs Peak” t-shirt and he had picture books from all three parks. I went to bed that night looking through the books and I had an immediate desire to head west to Colorado. I was a senior in high school, and while I should have been thinking about upcoming tests and where I would be going to college, I spent the evening tossing and turning dreaming about heading west and hiking in the mountains.
1982 would be the pivotal year. A wayward soul, I dropped out of college two weeks into my first attempt in the fall of 81 and then in the Spring of 82 quit my full time job working at my Dad’s butcher shop, my last day being Saturday June 5th. I proceeded to head out on the road the following Monday morning June 7th, pedaling south toward the Smoky Mountains. The mountains I longed to see were a mere 600 miles away!
Keep in mind that back in 82 I was not the astute bicycler that I am today. Yeah, as a kid, I rode my bike everywhere, getting in lots of miles. But as you can tell by my attire, I was not a student of the game! I didn’t have any of the gear that today I would consider “essential”: no riding shoes, riding shorts, odometer, cadence meter, blah, blah, blah. I wore Chuck Taylor’s and basketball shorts (and dig the socks). Amazingly, the lack of this “essential” equipment didn’t keep me from averaging about 100 miles a day, even over the tough riding terrain of the Parkway. I wasn’t what the in crowd would have considered a real bicycler, but that didn’t matter to me, as the bicycle was just my way of adding to the adventure. My chosen mode of transportation!
Pedaling to the Mountains
I left home on a Monday morning and arrived in Gatlinburg, TN six days later on Saturday afternoon. There were many adventures along the way and the learning curve was somewhat steep. While the physical demands of pedaling weren’t much of an issue, I did deal with some homesickness, and the many doubts that sometimes accompany such extended trips. I camped in Pigeon Forge that Saturday night, a mere five miles from the foothills of the Smokies. I rode into Gatlinburg on Sunday and spent the day hanging out waiting to head up and into mountains on Monday. Attempting to ride up Newfound Gap Road on a Sunday would have been flirting with death due to the high traffic volume on that narrow road.
Monday June 14 was the big day. Even though I had been in the area for two days, I really hadn’t had my mountain fix yet. I was just in the foothills, and while I did get some good views, it was nothing compared to what I was about to experience. The ride up Newfound Gap Road to the pass is 13 miles and up to this point, was the highlight of my trip. The beautiful views were what I had been waiting so long to see. I had dreamed all my life of seeing the mountains and now I was pedaling through them. The mountains were more beautiful than I had imagined. But while I loved seeing the mountains, riding uphill for that long was physically exhausting, and between the busy road, no shoulder, and a 13 mile climb, I should have known it was going to be a tough day. I stopped quite often. Sometimes to take in the views, other times just to get a rest. It was a grueling and I was not prepared. But the beautiful scenery made it all worth while.
Eventually I did make it all the way to the pass at Newfound Gap. I stopped in the parking area, to rest, eat, and take in the views towards TN and NC. Originally I had planned to ride all the way up to Clingman’s Dome. This would have meant another seven miles of riding uphill. I had plenty of daylight left to complete this but by now I was too exhausted to consider tackling the climb. The ride up to Newfound Gap took too much out of me so I decided it was time to head downhill.
And this is where another real treat of the trip started, when I headed down from Newfound Gap to Cherokee, NC. 18 miles downhill at 40 to 50 mph! This was my first experience riding at these speeds for this long and I was quickly addicted to the high. I loved the rush and I wanted to go as fast as possible so I actually pedaled much of the time to keep my speed as high as possible. I didn’t realize this until later, but the speed was somewhat of a problem. I loved the thrill of riding this fast, but the speed took away from the enjoyment of seeing the beautiful views of the mountains. But it was this way the entire trip. I had so many downhill rides on the Blue Ridge Parkway and I did the same thing so many times. I tended to go downhill full tilt! The adrenaline rush was too much!
I coasted into Cherokee, a tourist trap just like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, and headed towards Bryson City so I could camp within the park boundaries at Deep Creek and get ready for my trip up the Blue Ridge Parkway. I did go on my first hike that afternoon, a short half mile stroll to Juney-Whank Falls.
Pedaling the Parkway
If I thought pedaling up to Newfound Gap was difficult, it was nothing compared to what I was getting myself into on the Parkway!
Riding the Parkway had always been part of my plan for this trip. I was motivated by the challenge and by the chance to ride on what appeared to be a road with incredible scenery. I would not be disappointed, as it would be not stop mountain vistas for 469 miles. And the road was as challenging as I could have ever imagined. I will always swear that there are no flat parts on the Parkway. 234.5 miles go uphill and 234.5 go downhill. The grade may change, but it’s either up or down! Fortunately, when I was in the Smokies I picked up a wonderful map at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, which had an elevation profile for the entire Parkway as well as information on points of interest. More importantly the map let me know where all the campgrounds were located as well as where I could pick up food.
Because of how beautiful it is, riding the Parkway was my favorite part of the entire trip. I had always wanted to go to the mountains, and now I would literally be in them for the next six days. Six glorious days of one mountain vista after another! And while the entire Parkway is beautiful, I always remembered western North Carolina as the most spectacular.
There are very few services available on the Parkway, which made the 469 mile ride more challenging. During the rest of my trip I was on standard US highways, riding through numerous small towns every day. I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to get food, a drink or supplies. On the Parkway, it was different. There were a few places to get supplies near some of the developed areas, like Mt. Pisgah and Doughton Park, but these were the exceptions. So if I absolutely needed to get food, I had to take one of the few highways that hook up with the Parkway and take (usually) a downhill ride into a small town, pick up supplies, and then ride back up to the Parkway. This in and of itself was usually exhausting.
Speaking of exhaustion, beyond a doubt pedaling these 469 miles was physically the most difficult feat of my life. I know that on several days on the Parkway, and it was probably every one of them, I was physically exhausted by the time I made it to my campsite. I was averaging about 90 miles a day on a road that is either up or down, so that means I was riding uphill for 45 or more miles each day. I know I would rather ride 90 miles of flat road than 45 uphill. I can still visualize one place on the Parkway where I bonked, no energy left at all, struggling those last miles just to get to a campground. Those last miles took forever as I would ride for a ¼ mile at best, get off the bike exhausted and rest for a few minutes, repeat countless times, until I finally got to camp. Riding the Parkway was somewhat of a sufferfest. (A few years later I came across the book Miles From Nowhere. It was about a couple that rode their bicycles around the world. I felt very proud when I read that they thought the Parkway was the toughest mountain riding they did in their entire around the world bicycle trip.)
Other than the beautiful scenery and the sometimes painful pedaling, there are several other general aspects about my six days on the Parkway which I do remember.
Starting at Sunrise; I was always awake by first light, and as soon as I woke I would pack up my camp and hit the road. Getting such an early start had its benefits as I would often ride for a few hours before I ever had a car pass me, in either direction. This resulted in a lot of solitude, and I enjoyed the solitude when I was riding.
No Truck Traffic; The Parkway may be a highway, but the speed limit is 45 mph and semi-truck traffic is not allowed. This made the ride quieter and a lot safer.
Tunnels; There are a large number of tunnels on the Parkway, and while driving a car through tunnels may be a lot of fun, bicycling through the tunnels was always scary, whether I was crawling uphill or screaming downhill. While going uphill I was always afraid of getting hit from behind by a car that wouldn’t be able to see me. Most of the tunnels are several hundred feet long, and by the time I was far enough in, it would get dark, as there are no lights in these tunnels. This made it difficult for cars to see me. When I was riding downhill, the tunnels were still scary, because as I said, the tunnels would get dark. I had no headlights, so trying to see the road in the dark at 40 mph was a little scary. Fortunately I didn’t have any accidents either direction.
A Long Curvy Road; The one question everyone asked me when I got home was “Did you wear out your brakes?” The fact is I rarely used my brakes on the Parkway. The road is not straight. There is a never ending series of curves. But the curves are long, with very few sharp turns, so on my bike I was able to lean into them without having to use the brakes. I was extremely happy about this as it kept me at maximum speed through the entire descent, which in some cases was 15 miles.
Mile Markers; When I was slowly pedaling up a mountain I lived for seeing those mile markers. There are small cement poles, probably 18” high and 3 inches square, that mark each of the 469 miles of the Parkway. Going uphill it seemed like I would never get to the next mile marker. But as I would pass each of them I knew I was getting that much closer to the pass, where I would be able to rest and coast downhill.
My six days on the Parkway went as follows:
Tuesday June 15th - Deep Creek Campground (GSMNP) to Mt. Pisgah Campground at MM 406
Highlights of the day included: Waterrock Knob at MM 451; the high point of the Parkway - 6,053 feet at MM 431; the Devil’s Courthouse at MM 422, and then Mt. Pisgah at MM 406.
Wednesday June 16th - Mt. Pisgah Campground to Linville Falls at MM 316
On this day I road past the Craggy Gardens at MM 364; the Mt Mitchell Overlook at MM 350; the Twin Tunnels at MM 344; Crabtree Meadows at MM 340; Little Switzerland Tunnel at MM 333 and Little Switzerland at MM 331.
Thursday June 17th - Linville Falls to Doughton Park at MM 239
Before I started up the road this day I took the short hike to Linville Falls. Besides the short hike this day’s sites included: Grandfather Mountain at MM 305; Price Lake at MM 296; Northwest Trading Post at MM 258; and Doughton Park at MM 239 which is where I camped for the evening, and drank some Lowenbrau’s with a couple from Iowa, who invited me over to their campsite so I could tell them about my trip (a regular evening occurrence – not the beer, but meeting people that wanted to hear about my adventure, and the resulting free meal that tended to come along with the invites).
Friday June 18th - Doughton Park to Roanoke Mountain at MM 120
This was the day I crossed from North Carolina into Virginia, at MM 217. I always remember North Carolina as the most beautiful part of my trip. The scenery was breathtaking. But Virginia is the state I remember as having the friendliest people. As for other sites I saw that day, this would have included Mabry Mill at MM 176. I stopped for the evening at Roanoke Mountain campground at MM 120.
Saturday June 19th - Roanoke Mountain to MM 27 and Vesuvius, VA
The two highlights from the road this day that I remember were first, the Peaks of Otter at MM 85 and the second was at MM 64. Actually the highlight started at about MM 79 with a 15 mile descent to MM 64 which is the lowest point on Parkway at 670 feet. This was one downhill run I do remember. I think it must have been the longest downhill on the Parkway, and it was fast! At MM 27 I cut off on highway 56 to go to Vesuvius, VA to get to my campsite. It was about a ½ mile ride downhill on tight switchbacks to reach the KOA campground.
Sunday June 20th -Vesuvius, VA to Charlottesville, VA
After climbing back up to the Parkway, I finished the last 27 miles and got off at Afton, VA at MM 0 and headed east to Charlottesville. I had a cousin that lived there so I spent the next 8 days splitting my time up, hanging out in Charlottesville and then pedaling to Williamsburg to see the colonial historic park.
On Monday morning June 28th I left Charlottesville and headed for Shenandoah National Park. I pedaled back to the Blue Ridge Parkway at MM 0, which is the southern terminus of Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive. Skyline Drive runs through Shenandoah National Park and is a beautiful 105 mile drive. I do remember the scenery being much different than on the Parkway. There were lots of views down into valleys as opposed to the big mountain views on the Parkway. I rode all day and it was dusk by the time I made it to Matthew’s Arm campground on the far north side of the park. Another 100 mile day!
The next morning I exited Shenandoah National Park in Front Royal, VA and my mountain experience was pretty much over. I should have been thinking about heading to New England but a month traveling alone was as much as I could handle. Originally I had planned on being on the road for a couple of months, and making it to the mountains of New England. Maybe if I would have been with someone else I would have continued? While in Charlottesville I spent a fair amount of time considering my options, head north to New England or head west for home? By this time I was satisfied with what I had accomplished and I had seen plenty of mountains, and after having experienced my first big adventure, I knew that I would be heading to the mountains next summer, so in Front Royal I decided to turn my bike west and head for home.
My Flame Still Burns Blue
The next year I did continue with my bicycling adventures by taking a trip along the North Shore of Lake Superior and through NW Wisconsin. On that trip I actually did do a fair amount of hiking, particularly to waterfalls. Being a little wiser the second time around, I pedaled fewer miles each day and stopped when I wanted if there was some hiking that I wanted to do.
But it was only a 10 day trip. The idea of any long term adventure was now on the back burner. By the time I drove to Minnesota for this trip, I had found a new job, finished my first year in college and had met my future wife. And this would be my last trip to the mountains for hiking or biking for 10 years. As so often happens, over those 10 years the focus changed to career, marriage and raising children.
But the fire was still smoldering and in September of 1993 I drove back to the Smokies, for a four day trip, bicycling and hiking, and on that trip I did ride all the way up to Clingman’s Dome. Finally in 1997 my nephew Dave and I went to the Smokies to hike and bike which was the trip that got me hooked on hiking. And I have made my pilgrimages to the mountains at least annually since then. There are at least three planned for this year!
Back in 82 I wanted to see the mountains via bicycle. Things have changed and these days I want to experience the mountains via the trail. I still ride quite a bit, but I’ve lost that itch to travel by bicycle. But the bicycle was the vehicle that led me to the mountains …and thus to the trail.