Middle America is an American colloquialism for a cultural mindset or region of the United States that, geographically, comprises the bulk of rural and suburban America. Middle American is contrasted to the more metropolitan areas and, particularly, those of the East and West Coasts. So, there is Wicki saying you will find it in your head and not on a map, that the search is Quixotian. We biked over a river last week, and went from the north to the south without going through any hinterland or middle, which felt strange.
I was born in England, near Birmingham which is in ‘ The Midlands ‘, and has a northern above and a southern down the road towards London. It made sense, which is quite how geography should be. We are biking in the south, but a glance at a map shows there is a whole lot of the USA south of here. In year one we biked in the Midwestern states without being anywhere near the west, and not particularly mid of anything. I would have said we were East Midlands then which to me is less confusing and a whole lot more accurate. Even Tolkien’s universe has a Middle Earth, but there was a man who spent a lot of time in the Midlands and would not have had it any other way.
We turn onto the 522 and head west towards Mineral. A blue sky, bright white summer clouds and a strong wind at our backs. Within the first mile there are two dead Skunks that force you to ride and hold your breath. Thank goodness they are on the flat and not going up a hill. We have been on Adventure Cycling’s Atlantic Coast route most of the way so far but at Mineral we begin to head west. We will be on route 76, the Centennial Route AKA, the Trans America bike route all the way to the west coast.
A Groundhog runs across the road in front of Esther’s wheel. You do not want Esther on your quiz team ” animal, that film, big, not a rabbit “. So there you are, it was a Groundhog and she wins points for unusual mammal, which is one of our ongoing games. Trees are far more in leaf now since our two-day rest from the road. Spring is about 72 hours long, and then it is headlong into summer and storms and you have only just put away the snow shovels and winter hats. It is a miserable time to be allergic to tree pollen. Dark coloured cars look fluffy under a coating of pollen thick enough to write your name.
By early afternoon the hills begin in earnest. No longer can you sprint and catch the wave of momentum to take the next rise. These have to be taken on individually and climbed, which is as it will be for many days ahead. The line of the mountains of the ‘ Blue Ridge ‘ are ahead and we are far from being road-fit. Our legs revolt and we are nowhere near a campground. There is a likely spot to pitch and the owner is in the yard. It is English and possibly our mutual first language, but that is not as helpful as it might be. This is where he grew up, but there is the usual tale of divorce and step this and half that. You can’t help getting to the end of every sentence seconds before John gets there. ” Watch out for the Copper Heads “. We pitch the new Big Agnes tent and brew tea. John comes across for some more good-natured snake chat and tells us about the guy next door who owns a wolf.
A quiet night other than the single close gunshot at about 1.00 am, and the damp air that crept along the stream and into our tent after that. Breakfast porridge and we set off into another blue sky riding day. Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home comes up early on our ride. The Appalachian chain ends quite a few dreams of biking cross country and you can see why. After a punishing morning we pitch up at the rather nice town of Charlottesville in search of cheap calories.
It feels like a metropolis after just a few days on the road. Bike lanes, trucks and a bit of studentish culture. We like it a lot. I ask the owner of an antique shop my usual question ” In a fire, what would you try to save? ” Throughout the world this has been a good question to ask and a way to find out what are the best things to see. ” I would walk out the door and retire on the insurance money ” . Which in a single answer tells of the American way. ” You going west? ” well ” yes we are ” we reply. ” Well the hills start here “.
The Trans Am goes for a bit of a wonder, but we stay on the highway. Which is where we meet Adnan, behind the counter of a deli. Adnan M. Yousef owns the store and the lot and arrived here from Jordan in 1973 with an economics degree. He fled through much of southern Europe after war broke out. You must use Turkish pistachios, they are the best. He is showing us the sweets that he makes and points at a photo of his grandfather. The family similarity is striking. ” He rode and fought with Lawrence of Arabia and never went near the inside of a car ” He died at the age of 109, going to the only place that he could not ride his horse to.
We turn left onto a minor road that will take us up the climb to the Parkway. Our legs are gone and it is push, walk, ride up to the hamlet of Afton and the home of ‘ The Cookie Lady ‘. The home come hostel is a shrine to the memory of June Curry and her hospitality to cyclists and walkers. A stay here is a must do on the bicycle USA list. We roll out our sleeping bags and cook a meal amongst the thousands of cards and memorabilia. Throughout our trip it has been a constant nightmare to leave something behind. Tonight we have to keep track of everything to save it disappearing into the background stuff.
We join the Blue Ridge Parkway at Rockfish Gap ( Great name for a band? ), after an unholly pig of a climb. 1500ft higher in just 10 miles and we are riding the crest of the ridge. We have ridden the whole Blue Ridge some years ago, right the way to the end in Cherokee. Neither of us is sure when that was but the road is so familiar to us.
Clouds start to fold over the crest. They pile in like waves making landfall on a rocky shore and we know that rain is coming. It is fun to watch, until those first drops fall as big cold drops that sting face and legs. We are up over 3,000ft and then descending in what is now heavy rain. Zen masters consider that being in ‘ the moment ‘ is the greatest attainment of enlightenment. To spend just 5 minutes a day in such a refined state may take a lifetimes dedication to the discipline of meditation. Well try a long descent on a heavy touring bike in the wet if you want a feeling of being in ‘ the moment ‘, and slightly terrified as well as a bonus.
STAY IN LOVE, BE IN LOVE. Is the irresistible plug for the cabins and beds of the small resort in LOVE. It mentions hot tubs and honeymoons but does not have to try quite that hard for us to pull in. The rain lasts most of the night and there is a storm with lightning close enough to take out the power.
The next day begins with a climb to 3,350ft before we turn away to the left and begin one of the steepest descents of the whole journey. On a wet day this would be suicidal. The reward of the drop to Vesuvius is second breakfast and the first full on dinner experience of the trip at Gerthies. ” We ment to get a guest book back in 78, but didn’t get around to it “. There is graffiti and signatures on every flat surface of bikers and drifters that passed through. There are photos on the walls too of people with rifles and Nascar greats and local fire heroes.
We ride on. There are more hills on our way to Lexigton, which is a sort of mongrel town of military academy and university. Somehow it works and the atmosphere is great and town thriving. There are skinny girls in Paisley patterned frocks and men in white uniforms and it is 90’f and feeling relaxed. We pick up supplies and head to the KOA campground which is about 5 miles further than I would like it to be.
The next morning begins with a cultural high of Foam Henge. It began as an April Fools project but never got put away. This has the feel of a flatter day than the 3,000ft of climbing that the bar meter says and today it is hot, very hot. The hogs are out for Sunday rides and possibly a polish. Our route takes us away from the screaming of HWY 11 and onto a blissfully perfect back road to Lithia.
We are seeing coverage of a storm that is moving from the east towards us as we sit eating a hot-dog. We take a hotel in Troutville and take a closer look at the weather forecast, it is not good at all. We have a Warmshowers host stay a little further ahead, but it is two days time that is the problem. Tornados have caused devastation and the storm is heading towards us. This is just the first of our weather problems that will be a feature of this trip. You can get killed by the weather here, so we have to pay attention. There is a continental breakfast included with our hotel booking. I am not sure what continent but we have paid for it, so we eat it. Fruit and food with any sort of crunch are going to be our worries as we ride on westward.