Day 4: Getting intimate with the BRP

by James

We woke up in our strangely inclined tent on the morning of day 4 and we were ambitious. We’d taken half the last day off after the insane bout of climbing we’d done in hopes that it would prepare us adequately for round two with the Parkway. What naive children.

Waking up was excellent. We were inclined downward, our feet lower than our heads, and we’d left the window of the tent transluscent so we could see bits of sunlight stream through the foliage.

Eventually we got up and began to disassemble tent and do myriad other things that have become routine over the last few days, e.g.

  • sterilizing my hands and inserting contact lenses within the tent,
  • changing into biking clothes and applying chamois cream in, ahem, the right places,
  • taking care of business with the help of a tense squat, a half-roll of toilet paper, and a trowel,
  • disassembling our tent,
  • repacking our bikes,,
  • recovering the food bags from wherever we hid them from the bears,

etc. We’ve gotten the whole rigamoral down to a routine and, at this point, we can usually get out of dodge within an hour. This particular morning took a little longer because we were still a little green behind the ears.

We didn’t cook anything in the interest of time. We knew it was going to be a big day… we just didn’t know how big. We scarfed some trail-mix and got rolling.

Don't fall off
The sort of thing we woke up to.

The first portion of the day, as you’ve probably discerned from the elevation profile, was basically all downhill with a few climbs interspersed. This was awesome; imagine going down a road at 30MPH on a chair surrounded by Bavarian scenery. Awesome.

We did this for a few hours and, by noon, we’d gained 40 miles and lost about 2200 feet of elevation. We were jazzed at the gain, but slightly nervous about whatever it was we’d have to do in return.

By this point, we were getting lower on food than we’re comfortable with. Luckily, we saw that near the end of our descent, there’d be a restaraunt right on the Parkway. We got to the advertised location and, to our horror, the place was more boarded up than half a block of Detroit. A campground was nearby, so we decided to go get some information from the attendant working the check-in desk.

We doddled around for a while, looking at a map of Virginia, while she talked to some elderly couple who were complaining about rich folk driving million dollar campers pulled by Hummers. I smirked at old people griping like that (does anyone who respects themselves gripe to strangers?) and went back to the map.

After a long, long while, the couple left and we cornered the lady working the desk. She very promptly told us that, yes, the building with half a facade of plywood was in fact a closed restaurant, but, there was a restaurant/convenience store just a few miles out of town. The two of us hungry morons rapidly become bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and giggled like twelve-year-olds over the prospect of more trail-mix and maybe a hamburger. The lady gave us directions and we split.

The directions took us out to a place called Big Island. We didn’t find the island, but we did find the H&H Restaurant, which will serve you a half-pound hamburger for $3.19. Mike and I parked our bikes, gathered all the electronics gear, and went in. There was a group of blossoming Good ‘Ol boys and girls about our age sitting at a table in the center of the place, wearing T-shirts outfitted with four-wheeling pictures and rebel pride slogans. They seemed nice enough.

We gave our order to our black waitress, who had the conversational presence of a piece of dried leather. That being said, she got us our bbq-pork sandwiches just fine, and we chowed down while surreptitiously setting up our electronics to charge.

After chowing, I did a few site updates and threw some of the newer photos on Flickr. Then we looked at the profile and the shit was officially scared out of us. We had a climb from 800ft to nearly 4000ft ahead of us.

Yesterday’s escapades had only entailed about a 2000ft gain, and that had scared us into calling it an early day with only 30 miles under our belt. What the hell was this thing going to do to us? Would I be able to walk again? Would my heart explode on the side of this godawful mountain? Like any sensible person of my generation, I began to tweet frantically.

Eventually, we settled up at the restaurant, picked up a few items from the convenience store, and got back to the Parkway. The tension between the two of us was obvious. We weren’t talking much. I think we were both pretty scared; I can certainly say I was.

Then it started. Somehow it’s never as bad as you think. I think back to Orwell’s words:

It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs - and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

Yes, it’s awful. Your legs hurt, you perpetually don’t think you can go any further, sweat runs down your face, yellow-jackets circle around your head for a nip of the Tang on your breath. But you keep your head beamed on that goddamn 5x10 block of pavement in front of you and you watch it move. And it does. And forward you go.

It’s a physical representation of something I hadn’t consciously understood until now that’s a motif in life: if you want to accomplish huge things, you don’t do so by keeping your eye fixed on the end. You do one minute task at a time until you can stand back and see progress at a macroscopic level.

I got to do so when Mike said that he would puke if we didn’t take a break. So we did. Mike said his heart was beating irregularly; I didn’t say a damn thing because I couldn’t talk, and we had a nice sit on the side of a grassy hill.

Mike rolling out from a break
Mike rolling out from the break.

After a little while, athletic-looking men and women began to pass us going up the hill. They were on unloaded road bikes. We cheered them on from our restive vantage point on the side of the road and they shouted encouraging things back.

Mike rallied and decided that he wanted to chase these fellow cyclists; I told Mike he was crazy and that we’d never catch them, but we got back on the saddles anyway.

Rest no. 142
On break, feeling rough.

The day for me is mostly a blur of the frantic-panting, eyes-half-closed, forward-leaning, 60lb-wobble pumping of the legs that climbing the BRP entails. Do it sometime: it’s awesome.

Finally, we hit an intersection with the Appalachian trail, which included a parking lot, a picnic area, an incredible overlook, and some camp-able grassy flats.

One of the spots on the Appalacian trail. Probably my favorite picture of the entire trip so far.

We ogled the views awhile and then got to setting up tent. In the middle of setting up tent, a friendly cyclist came by and informed us that we may get kicked out of the area by park officials, since this parking lot wasn’t a part of the Jefferson national forest, but he recommended a spot two miles down (or, more accurately, up) the road. We thanked him and dismantled our half-built tent.

Another day in
One of the ogled views.

After just barely making it to the fire-road the friendly cyclist had directed us to, we walked down the unkempt road and saw a place flat enough to set up the tent.

The place gave me the creeps. Very strange plant-life and quiet as could be at near 4000 feet high.

Home no. 4
Our creepy camp site.

We got tent set up and cooked beef stew. We were both in fairly foul moods after the difficult climb and said little that wasn’t laced with contempt or condescension. Luckily, nothing got nasty; thanks again to my father for having us kids travel enough to know the transient demons brought on by an empty stomach and a long day.

We ate our soup, changed into sleep clothes, and set up tent. Pretty immediately, the tent went dark and we closed our eyes for sleep. Until we heard the human-sounding footsteps somewhere outside of our tent.

I grabbed my knife and shut up. The only two things I could hear were those footsteps and my heart beating about as fast as it had been earlier on the hill. I whispered to Mike about it. We waited a few minutes and it went away; the time was around ten and all was dark.

I fall asleep; fast-forward to 1AM. I wake up and feel something isn’t right. I’m probably just a little dehydrated. I take a hit of water and roll over.

The footsteps again.

I immediately grab my knife and listen. More footsteps. Christ.

I wait. Eventually, they die down, and I sleep for the next two hours with the knife in my hands.

I’m not superstitious, but I have heard stories about strange things happening while camping, and certainly my Irish relatives have a few things to say about ethereal happenings. I will say this: near where we camped, there looked to be a structure that had collapsed long ago that was made out of cinderblocks. I dunno what went on in that thing, but it had a strange feeling to it.

I was glad when we got out in the morning.

The Blue Ridge Parkway exemplifies a characteristic I’ve seen in other awesome presences of nature: it’s extremely beautiful and completely unrelenting. By morning, we were still exhausted.

We pulled 58 miles on Day 4, and I can still feel it.

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