Virginia Is For Lovers …. Of Boiled Dinners!

Virginia is for lovers, they say. They forgot to finish the sentence.

Virginia is for lovers of boiled dinners. In the folds of the Blue Ridge Mountains are acres of potato fields, rows of cabbage and enough walking future slabs of corned beef to satisfy any New Englander.

Virginia also is for lovers of mountains. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469-mile national park back road, which follows the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia to North Carolina and deposits travelers smack at the feet of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Life is no Virginia Beach along the parkway. Take the Kancamagus Highway, the 30 mile-plus twisting roadway through New Hampshire’s White Mountains and multiply it by 15. Remove the covered bridges and frequent water sources, and add, say, a 3,000-foot mountain to climb every 10 or 15 miles. Now, forget to turn off the heat. That’s what the parkway in Virginia is like. Virginia is for lovers of pain.

Forget about climbing Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. You say Mount Everest isn’t in your budget; that’s not a problem. Come to Virginia and pedal the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway through North Carolina to its end. Doing it that way, cyclists climb a total of 48,601 feet. That’s like stacking Everest on top of McKinley. Granted, the Blue Ridge is all pavement, but the elevation gain is a perpetual force to battle during Indian Summer days. The challenge of the Blue Ridge reached me long before its beginnings outside of Waynesboro, Va., straight after tackling the sinuous Skyline Drive. A few years back, a colleague and husband pedaled a portion of the parkway. What was it like? She said something like this: “If I wasn’t going up a big hill, I was going down a big hill.”

Lots Of Big Hills
What she forgot to mention was this: when you are going down a big hill you are constantly thinking about the next big hill you are about to go up. The beauty of mountain roads is that it is a no-brainer in terms of directions. Either head north of south. That’s it. Busted odometer? Mileposts mark the distances.

There are plenty of pitfalls though. Campgrounds aren’t conveniently placed along the road, forcing cyclists to seek alternative accommodations in towns that can be right off the parkway or a few miles down the road. Water sources are infrequent. A few camp stores have inadequate supplies for late season cyclists. National park campgrounds have no showers, which isn’t a problem until about the fourth day when it’s a toss-up as to whether it’s a dead skunk or a live cyclist scenting the area.

But just when it seems the parkway is a lonely stretch of the planet only occupied by deer and squirrel foraging for food in the downed leaves, there’s a stranger to shed light on the solitude. A jogger out for a 3-mile run turned out to be a chemical plant explosion investigator. He gave me a ride two miles to a general store when a roadside restaurant was closed.

The views are varied en route to Skyline Drive, a 100-mile-plus ride in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Marty Basch photo.

There was another long distance cyclist, Mike, a high school teacher from Elmira, N.Y. Bushy and bearded, he was taking a year off to do some biking and hiking. It’s amazing what people can tell you in a 10-minute roadside conversation. He was biking about 700 miles from Raleigh, N.C., back to upstate New York. He had saved $10,000 for his yearlong odyssey and was proud he was carrying a scant 12 pounds of gear in his backpack. Saturday is a day for local riders. One couple, an engineer and doctor from Eastern Europe, were out doing about a 25-mile loop from their Mount Airy, N.C., home. At a small store, they invited me to their home for lunch, about 15 miles away. That would have brought me to the hometown of Andy Griffith of Mayberry and “Matlock” fame. I decided to stick to the parkway, but now had a new tune to whistle along the way.

That’s when I met half of the Orchard Gap Bicycling Club. They nearly scared me to death, sneaking up in stealth mode on a hill. Actually, it wasn’t a “they,” it was a “he.” His name was Don. He was half the club. The other half was some guy who had moved to the area from Rhode Island. Don was an excellent local tour guide and led me right to a motel parking lot just off the parkway before continuing his ride.

It was there, after 200 miles on the parkway, just 17 miles short of the North Carolina border, I also learned that Virginia is for lovers of long, hot showers.

Marty Basch is riding his bicycle from Maine to Georgia. Reach him

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