Troutdale, VA to Berea, KY

10 Jun

 

If possible, Please give to the Seattle Chapter of Engineers without Borders at this websitehttps://www.ewb-usa.org/chapters.php?ID=6

MILES: 740

6 days ago I’m in a log house built in the 1850s drinking wine and watching hockey with Brian and Rebecca, an awesome couple living in Troutdale, VA. It’s raining so they’ve invited me inside to sleep on their couch. As I run my fingers over the rough splinters and axe marks on the original hand-hewn boards in the wall, they tell me about when a 90 year old woman stopped by one morning with her 70 year old son. She grew up in this house that her father converted from a barn, the baby of 9 children sleeping upstairs, and now asks to explore her childhood home. One of the first things she notices: “Oh, you have toilets now!”

I’ve lucked out finding this house. When I knock on the door, hoping to camp in their yard I hear the Rottweiler barking and see the rifle over the mantle and think “This ain’t good.” When Brian opens the door, wearing flip flops and a Bruins hockey shirt with a friendly “What’s up man?” I think “This is good”

As I leave the next day they tell me I’m heading towards the more economically depressed area of VA and KY, poorer, steeper, meth-ier, and uglier. They are right on all counts.

When I was in Japan there was a problem of “Monotonous Beauty” where my surroundings were so idyllic all the time they became unnoticeable. Eastern Virginia is the same. The first time you see the rolling hills, the green mountains, the pastureland of monochrome cows and prancing horses, the barns old and new you want to stop and paint a picture. After 10 more miles of it all I can think about is “My ass is fucking killing me, is this bike seat made of rebar?”

I get a few breaks from the pasturelands. Long climbs into the forests of Mt. Rogers, of Breaks Interstate park where I reach Kentucky. I stand on overlooks and see “The Grand Canyon of the South” where the New River has carved through sheer sandstone cliffs and deep into the more yielding shale beneath to create a steep valley running through the forested mountains. It’s all I can do not to build my own cabin and live there.

But then there’s Western VA and Eastern KY, which is not beautiful, just monotonous. Green hills and mountains loom across the valley, or in front to remind me of the climbs ahead, which are hard; I breath hard, my legs pump hard, my heart pounds hard. I never think I’m going to quit but it’s never enough to be a rewarding challenge. Countless steep hills drain my legs and yield no views at the top, just a sign announcing a new county. I coast on the descents at 35 mph, insects that would spatter on a windshield bounce off my face with a sharp thwack.

The valleys below are full of trailer homes and poverty. People sit on the porches staring at nothing. Confederate flags flap outside homes, sometimes alongside the “Don’t Tread On Me” flags, which is confusing because one represents freedom and independence, while the other represents enslavement and subjugation. Wide yards contain 7 cars with 9 tires between them. Dogs run barking to the end of their tethers or burst from their yards chasing me. I bark back at them till they stop their pursuit, as even dogs know to avoid the mentally ill.

Clothes and toys fill tables and blankets along the roadside. Either everyone is having a yard sale all the time or homes here are built without closets. I even see a sign advertising a yard sale held inside a general store. Most shops are closed and buildings shuttered in the downtowns. Churches, Pawn Shops, Gun shops, and Cash 4 Gold shops remain open. A grocery store I pass by advertises 3 foods on their billboard “Spam. Parkay. Kraft Cheese.” The same orange and black “For Sale” signs adorn empty trucks, ATVs, and homes along the roadside.

The only bicyclist I’ve met so far is Lucas from Denmark. I could immediately tell he was Danish because of the “sh” he adds to the end of every sentence and his indecisiveness about killing his fratricidal uncle. Otherwise, the roads are empty of bikes, just coal trucks, regular trucks, cars, motorcycles and ATVs, all of whom give me plenty of room as they pass and I wave in thanks.

Yesterday I’d had enough of Eastern KY and my 2nd map, so I decided to bicycle the 123 miles from Hindman to Berea (actually 113, but hooray not-admitting-I-made-a-wrong-turn-for-5-miles). For the last few days I’d been trying to remove myself from the equation here, to tell myself these hills don’t have it in for me personally, but in the end I wanted out and it was worth the exhaustion. I know I’m on the trip of a lifetime, and that I need to appreciate this now because it will be over sooner than I think. However, some days all I take as comfort is the flip side of that mindset: “Well Paul, you won’t be in Eastern Kentucky forever”

Onward from Berea.

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