Cycling in America: biking through Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky
11 July 2009
Total kilometers cycled: 56,922Specific country info available here.
giving up a life of comfort
Voluntarily giving up a life of ease and comfort isn't easy for anyone. At my sister's place in rural Maryland we could sleep in late enjoying the comfort of a bed the size of our tent, wake up to a cup of freshly brewed Starbucks coffee, peruse the morning newspaper out on the deck while listening to the birds chirping away, dive into the pool for a late afternoon swim and raid the fully-stocked fridge at our leisure. Why leave? Well, the pull of the road is strong for those who know its freedoms, and, like the early pioneers, we need to make it over the Rockies before cold arctic winds start blowing down from Canada and the high passes over the Rockies get covered with snow.
what to expect?
With our panniers loaded down with chocolate chip cookies and potato salad we said goodbye to Lynn and Manuel and promised to meet up again in early September at my parent's place in Montana. Manuel has promised to treat us to more of his delicious Mexican cooking and maybe squeeze in a couple of tennis lessons during their visit to the Big Sky country. As we cycled down their drive, past the pond and back out into the world of the unknown we wondered what awaited us in America. We'd been warned that America had become a more insular place since I left in 1995. As cyclists we often rely on the kindness of strangers. Would farmers bolt their doors in fear when they saw us riding up? Would motorists blaze past when we tried to flag down a car to ask for directions? Would little old ladies slam the door in my face when I asked to fill our water bottles?
get off my property!
We were merrily on our way, trying to get the legs back in shape after almost six weeks of unbridled laziness, when I spotted a box of magazines on the curb. Oh, oh, something free to read. The first title, something like 'Gun Owners Weekly' should have put me off. But I kept flipping through until I found a couple of Smithsonian magazines and tucked them under my arm and started sauntering back to my bike. I was interrupted by fast footsteps and a booming voice, "You put that right down young lady."
Although the 'young lady' was quite flattering, the large man (followed by his wife and son) running frantically across his well-groomed lawn gave me a fright.
"You put that back right where you found it and you get off my property this minute."
Technically, I'd never been on his property, unless the American government has sold rights to streets and curbs. He didn't have a shotgun in hand so I tried to explain.
"I just wanted to read this magazine, sir, since I can see you've put it out for recycling I didn't think you'd mind."
"That magazine belongs to me and it's got my name and address printed on the cover and you better put it down now or else I'll call the po-lice."
Of course I didn't take kindly to his threats, but he looked to be on the verge of a heart attack and I didn't want that on my conscience so I complied. We rode off shaken and wondering what lay ahead. Fortunately, our first road encounter was entirely unrepresentative of our overall experience in the US.
Later in the day we started thinking about a place to spend the night. Since we no longer had a king size bed at our disposition and there were no campgrounds in sight, it was either ignore all the 'no trespassing' signs and take a chance of being surprised by an angry farmer with a loaded shotgun or ask a local for permission to camp. We took our chance on a gray-haired couple in rocking chairs on their front porch enjoying the cool evening air. They turned us down flat. "We're too old for that kind of stuff."
But just down the road their neighbor, a rugged looking man out washing his Dodge pick-up truck, told us to, "go on down to the creek (pronounced crik)". We were welcome to camp on his land. It was "real pretty down there". It was a lovely spot and I stripped off to bathe in the rushing water and then trudged back through the tall grass to the tent hauling water for cooking and washing up. After watching the fire flies flickering as the moon slowly rose, sleep got the best of us and we crawled into the tent, tired but contented.
watch out for the hillbillies
A few days later we crossed into West Virginia, where we'd been advised to watch out for the 'hillbillies and hicks'. "What are hillbillies?" Eric asked, not having grown up with Uncle Jed and Ma on re-runs of the Beverly Hillbillies. Our couchsurfing hosts just smirked. One thing is for sure, they don't ride bicycles and they don't wear lycra.
In rural West Virginia, most people roared past us in big trucks. Many homes flew the Confederate flag. And a lot of locals eyed us suspiciously when we told them we'd cycled through Africa. "Africa, huh? Well I'll be." Telling people we'd rode out from New York got a much more enthusiastic reaction. "Wow! You rode all the way from New York on a bicycle. That's incredible." New York was a bit crazy, but believable. Tell people you're cycling around the world and they think you're completely insane or just pulling their leg.
The mountain folk of the Appalachians may have a simple way of life and be a bit rough around the edges, but they're as generous and welcoming as other people we've met around the world once you get past their tough veneer. Although we didn't push our luck by ringing the doorbell at the house with the No trespassing--Violators will be shot--Survivors will be shot again sign in their front yard, we did meet many people that sophisticated city dwellers might label as hicks or hillbillies. As Eric approached one slightly run down mobile home the woman on the porch called out, "whadda ya want?" After explaining our situation she left the crying baby and went off to fetch her husband, to see if it was okay to let the two foreigners from 'Canada' (we told her we were from France, but maybe that was just too far removed from her reality) camp on their property. Once he agreed they were as friendly and obliging as could be and even strung out an extension cord so we could charge the computer.
On another occasion, the local Methodist church came to our rescue. During a heavy rainstorm, the church secretary offered us overnight accommodation in the sanctuary. We wheeled in the bikes, unloaded our gear, dried off and made ourselves right at home amongst the pews and hymnals. When the prayer group members started showing up for their Wednesday evening bible study nobody even flinched when they found us barefoot stretched out on the plush red carpet laughing at a French film we were watching on the computer. Instead they showed us into the church kitchen and opened up an enormous fridge and told us to help ourselves. There was enough food in that kitchen to feed an entire African village for a week. The two slices of German chocolate cake, four brownies and bag of chips went down like a treat.
Independence Day was a scorcher in West Virginia and when we stopped off at a General Store and asked to fill up our water bottles, the man in overalls seated behind the cash register replied, "Water from the spigot ain't no good round here. You kin buy yerself one of them there bottles in the fridge." I declined (for environmental reasons) and his wife came running out from the back, "Give that girl some water. Take this honey," and she thrust an ice cold bottle of water into my hands. Simple people with big hearts.
the steepest climbs in the country
We huffed and puffed our way up the Allegheney mountains and over the Eastern Continental Divide at 3,295 feet. When I emailed my parents to brag of this feat, my father wrote back unimpressed. My hometown of Missoula lies at over 3,000 feet and it's in a valley. What's in store for us as we battle our way over the Rockies? I keep reminding myself that according to the Adventure Cycling Association, the climbs in the Appalachians are the toughest in the country. Much more difficult than slogging up the gentle slopes of the Rockies out West. I hope they're right.
small town America
We love riding down main street in small town America. The streets are lined with little Mom and Pop shops, antique dealers, diners where the food is tasty, cheap and plentiful and a gas station on the corner where farmers huddle in groups catching up on the gossip and trying to predict the weather. We can picnic in front of the stately white pillars of the county courthouse and locals stop by to ask us where we're coming from and where we're headed to. It's a slower pace of life and much-needed relief from highways crowded with identical-looking strip malls and big-box shopping centers.
so many interesting people
So far we've stayed with a wide range of people in the US-- all friendly, all interesting. Shelley and Steve, who hosted us in Maryland, live on a horse ranch and Shelley organizes the Hike the Tatas fundraising event to help in the fight against breast cancer. Kenny and Laurie are 'back to the land' people who live in a beautiful secluded spot called Sassafras Ridge growing their own food and living a simple, satisfying life. Jerry and Jane are two energetic early retirees who see the world whizzing by on their tandem bicycle. Rose is a twenty-something cycling enthusiast who's fighting for bike lanes in her town. And I'm writing to you from the home of Mary Ann and Blake in historic Lebanon, Kentucky. He's a Vietnam vet who turned into something of a hippy after a stint in corporate America and she's a motorcycle enthusiast who's done everything from building barns to repairing airplane engines and teaching yoga. We feel fortunate to be able to learn and share with those we meet on the road.
Next up is a short ride through Illinois and then into Missouri, a state we know little about. Then it will be on to the rolling wheat fields of Kansas where we're sure to be hampered by headwinds. We're enjoying the beauty and diversity of America's landscapes and can't wait to get 'out West' where we can explore the great outdoors without sharing them with so many others.
- Don't forget to check out our fundraising page for World Bicycle Relief. WBR has provided bicycles to approximately 50,000 school children in rural Zambia and is working in many other developing nations. We support WBR because we've seen their program in action and know it works. Bicycles are simple technology that yield big results.
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