22. Rich Creek: Over the Hump

October 21, 2011

I am resting for a day, even though the rainy weather broke. This is a good spot, and a good time, for me to take a breather.

Yesterday, about an hour before dusk, I started looking for a cheap motel, thinking I’d watch the World Series game, do my laundry, hook up to the Internet and have my first hot shower in two weeks and two days. I saw a sign that said “Budget Inn,” figured that sounded about right for me, and took the turnoff into town. Fortunately, the owner wasn’t there. Other guests told me that single rooms went for $50 a night, which didn’t sound too “Budget-like” to me, and in any case was more than I would spend to sleep in a bed – with or without the amenities, i.e. laundry wasn’t available.

Less than a mile up the road, however, I stumbled on a very pretty and well-run campground right beside the river. They let me set up my tent for $10. I got a hot shower, did my laundry … and the proprietor Brian set out a little cable TV under an awning for me so I could watch the ball game from St. Louis. Couldn’t have asked for more.

After waffling a bit, I made up my mind to hang around for a second night, even though there won’t be another World Series game until tomorrow, and it’s unlikely I’ll luck into another place like Gentry’s Landing.

I unloaded my bike and left most of my gear at Gentry’s Landing – where Brian assures me, and I believe, it’ll be safe. I fixed a slow leak on my front tire this morning – much easier to do at a place like that, on a picnic bench, than at the roadside. I had to submerge the tube in a sink full of water to locate the tiny pinhole I was losing air out of. Now that’s taken care of. For less than $5 I mailed a few items home that I don’t need to carry any longer – my Kentucky atlas pages, literature, business cards and a 2-pound plastic jar of local honey for Elizabeth. Now, if I can bring my blog up to date, I’ll feel well prepared to set out at an early hour tomorrow … towards Roanoke: 460 to 42 to 311.

I felt like West Virginia was the hardest part of my trip. All I have to guide me through this region is a folding map of Virginia and West Virginia. It doesn’t have much detail, but I didn’t figure I wanted to buy anything bulkier or more expensive for the limited use it’s likely to get. There was no indication of what I’d be facing here.

Highway 52, between Williamson and Bluefield, is maybe the toughest stretch of road I’ve been over since I began long-distance bicycle touring in the summer of 1984.

As noted many times, people have been friendly and curious about what I’m doing all along my route. This was true in West Virginia as well, but I also encountered unfriendly vibes here for the first time on my journey. Very soon after I’d left Kentucky, a sheriff rolled up alongside and warned me not to ride “in the middle of the road … [that I …] might cause an accident.” Somebody must have phoned in to him. Clearly, people in these parts were not used to seeing bicyclists. Later that day, somebody threw something at me from the passenger side of a pickup. Probably a plastic bottle of pop or juice. It missed me, but I got splattered, so I had to stop and wipe off my glasses.

The terrain is forbidding – very steep hillsides, with all the flat patches of ground occupied and posted “No Trespassing.” I saw a lot of dogs too, like in the back reaches of eastern Kentucky, but the ones here were meaner, and there was a higher proportion of the mean-looking kind. “Beware of Dog” signs proliferated. So it was hard to find suitable camping sites. When I saw one likely spot, I asked people on a trailer porch across the road if it would be OK to set up there for the night. They didn’t think so, and indicated I should keep moving along, warning that people in these parts didn’t take well to trespassers.

In fact, I was warned many times to “be careful.” Not just of the bears and coyotes either. I heard, “There are real outlaws up in those hills; they’ll cut your throat.” I also heard that people drive like crazy on Highway 52 … and I saw many crosses at the roadside, marking the locations where, indeed, casualties had occurred.

Not everything here was down at heel, but I saw a lot of shacks and shabby trailers and a lot of derelict buildings.

Some of the climbing was very steep. I ran into heavy rain again too. Neither of these factors would present a huge obstacle in itself, but in combination with heavy traffic, lots of big trucks, a winding road and many places where there was no shoulder at all … well, this was one seriously scary piece of road.

Perhaps the worst moment came late in the afternoon Wednesday, a little ways out of Kimball or Elkhorn – I’m not sure which. I was climbing a pretty steep and winding hill in heavy rain with lots of traffic moving in both directions.

The old sandals I’m wearing are less than ideal. At the best of times, they give poor support. But when they’re soaking wet, my feet slide around in them. At one point – studying the road surface for rocks, branches, cracks, loose gravel; snatching quick glances up ahead, through my steamed and misted glasses, then back into the rearview mirror that’s mounted on the left side of my glasses – my heavy load got the better of me and I swerved off into a 3-foot ditch right past the painted white line on the edge of the highway. My whole rear end went plunging into the wet, rocky, uneven gully bottom, but I managed to keep the front wheel on the road. Fortunately, it didn’t land on me or throw me over. I struggled to get it upright, scraping my gears on the rocks and asphalt.

I waited for an opening as vehicles went whizzing by in both directions. I made several unsuccessful attempts to muscle the bike back up onto the road. It occurred to me that the people in those cars and trucks must have thought I’m a total idiot, as they saw me straining under those awful conditions like a bug on flypaper. This thought didn’t bother me in the least. I didn’t feel the slightest bit of embarrassment. All I wanted was to reach a safe place and get off of Highway 52 as soon as possible.

I don’t know how I got the bike out of that ditch – the thing would be way too heavy for me to lift under the best of circumstances. But I did get rolling again. Pretty soon there was a flat stretch next to the road on the other side, running parallel with a brook at the bottom of the usual precipitous hillside. I lay my bike down on the grassy gravel approach, drew and untelescoped my walking stick, and went poking around in search of a place to spend the night. After some looking, I found a pretty good one. Albeit very close to the road, it was sheltered by trees and bushes and would have only been visible to someone actively watching for it from the highway.

I was soaking wet and, while not exactly shaken, I was sobered and grateful to just take myself out of play for the night and gather strength for the next day’s effort. I set up my tent carefully and stayed snug against the rain. Once I got dried off and in my sleeping bag, I warmed up again and had a good night’s rest.

That was about the lowest moment. I really wondered if I was going to get out of there alive. But I didn’t have far to go. Next morning, I took it slow, deliberate and easy, aiming for the junction of 123, which would save me a steep climb into Bluefield and give me a short cut over to 460 East.

I stopped at one of those lots where they sell prefab sheds. I talked with the proprietor, accepted some of his literature, went into one of the units that looked interesting to me – good grief, you could live in something like this, couldn’t you? “Sure could,” he answered. It had a loft, a built-in table, windows. No insulation, though, mostly cheap pressboard. I could build something much nicer, along that same design, for much less than the $4200 he was asking … including delivery. But it’s interesting to look at stuff like that, just for the pattern and the ideas. I mentioned the traffic on this road. “Yeah. That’s why I’m here,” he said. “32,000 cars a day come over this piece of road.”

So here I am now, next day, sitting with my back against the brick wall of the Rich Creek Library and Community Center, about ten feet from the comfortable desk chair I was sitting in an hour ago, on the other side of the wall. Anna’s lunch break is from noon to one, and she’s one of these no-nonsense females who does things by the book. Very well … no argument from me. So I’m locked out until she gets back and opens the place up again. At least it’s not raining. The sun is out. It’s very crisp. There is lovely golden foliage up on the hill in front of me, and some manner of raspy-throated birds are talking up a storm.

If things go well, I ought to be home in about two weeks. I figure it’ll be pretty easy through the rest of Virginia, and that the temperatures will be more moderate when I get down into “the valley.” There may be some tough climbs again in Pennsylvania, some challenging back roads, maybe even harsher weather still as I’ll be farther to the north, where more of the autumn will have already passed. So I’m in a bit of a race to get home before I run into ice and snow, or another session of cold, wet days with ever few hours of light.

I will probably post less frequently than I’ve been doing. (Yeah, I know. I said that before … a bunch of times.)

The main thing is to get home in one piece … no rush. Nothing wrong with enjoying my experiences along the way either. It is so refreshing to be in places like this – if only for an hour, for a day – places that are so unlikely, where I’ve never been before and will never be again. These are days to be savored and put away in memory’s treasured store.

Here is my latest haul of pictures, covering the past several days. The memory card on my camera filled up, and I was taken by surprise. So I had no ammo to fire at Pinnacle Rock yesterday morning, at just over 2700 feet of elevation, probably the highest point reached on my journey.

  • #8635 – Site of my last river bath in Kentucky, after leaving Pikeville. 
  • #8633 – Long, steep climb on 119 between Pikeville and Williamson. This would have been last Monday. But the ample shoulder and good surface, taken in the little granny gear – the smallest of 3 rings on the crank end of my drive chain – made this pretty routine. Slow, to be sure, but not at all difficult or harrowing. Notice where the highest part of the mountain has been blasted through. 
  • #8637 – More blasted-away rock, up close. 
  • #8638 – No “Welcome to West Virginia” sign here, just across the Tug River. Only this big slab of concrete. 
  • #8641 – This was my first sight of Hwy 52, looking back down into Williamson, from the steep shortcut someone had told me about back in the deli section of a grocery on the Kentucky side of the river. Incidentally, I bought the most delicious apples there that I’ve tasted in a very long time. Wish I knew where to get more. I’d eat apples every day if they were all that good. 
  • #8642 – On the way out of Williamson, one of many indications that this is the heart of coal country. Back at a flea market in Kentucky, I saw T-shirts that said, “Ban Coal and Freeze Your Ass off … In the Dark.” I picked up that there was a whole culture of defensiveness concerning political threats to the coal industry – among impoverished people whose livelihoods depend on coal. 
  • #8647 – That first night in West Virginia, with likely campsites hard to come by, I wrestled my bike up a steep hillside and slept amidst trees and brush beside a small cemetery. 
  • #8648 – On Tuesday morning, I stopped when I reached a hilltop gas station convenience store. I was craving some coffee to wash down what was left of the chicken lunch I’d bought at the grocery deli over on the Kentucky side the previous afternoon. Men were at work putting in a new road over to Logan (if I remember correctly). As I was enjoying a refill and taking a few moments to reconnect with The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler, the lights went off in the convenience store, all the vehicles scuttled over to our side of the road, and everyone was told to vacate the store and get out back. They were going to blast … 
  • #8653 – Boom!!! Another piece of roadway cleared. Bad as the economy may be, everywhere I go, I see people at work. 
  • #8657 – More coal. 
  • #8656 – Another typical stretch of Hwy 52 – the road beside a streambed, with steeply forested walls on either side. 
  • #8660 – Some of the ramshackle housing you see out in this area. My sense is that these people are not to be pitied. They are tough, ornery and self-sufficient. Many or most of them have deep roots in these parts. A lot of the history here is harsh. I saw the names Hatfield and McCoy, and I supposed that this was the locus of the notorious feud between those two families. This is not a region of the country where I could picture Obama coming out to press the flesh. You see a lot of US flags, veterans memorials, and churches … of course. But I don’t think there’s much love here for big government, or much trust for sophisticated city types. 
  • #8666 – One angle on this little wide spot in the road features not one but two churches. 
  • #8669 – Another relic of better times. As in so many other places like this, it’s the house trailers (e.g., to the right) where people are living today. 
  • #8670 If I remember correctly, these next two shots depict the town of Welch. There is an exquisite harshness to the weathered and often abandoned redbrick buildings here, a forbidding rawness to the ingrained poverty that matches the almost perpendicular hillsides. 
  • #8674 – Same town, from an overlook. 
  • #8694 – I believe this is the entrance to Kimball, where I answered the usual questions at the Quick Stop on the right, in exchange for information about the road up ahead. I spoke with several rough-looking men, both black and white. For the first time in a while, not all the people are white. The black and white guys I spoke with seemed at ease with one another. 
  • #8707 – A sample of the heavy traffic this highway conveys. 
  • #8710 – I have nothing but respect for these monsters. I keep constant watch in the rearview mirror on my glasses. Though there is a shoulder on this road, the loose gravel can be treacherous for a thin-tired bicycle like mine. At best, it slows me up considerably, compared to riding on the asphalt. 
  • #8712 – Dismal roadside housing. 
  • #8714 – Hulk of an old school. 
  • #8716 – Switchback, and the usual, almost constant traffic. 
  • #8718 – My last photo before the memory card filled up. I didn’t figure out and resolve this jam until I was at breakfast the next morning. At the moment this shot was taken, I was simply grateful to be safely off the road and to have my little bubble of warmth and dryness set up for the nighttime hours. 
  • #8719 – First picture on my cleaned-up memory card. I would never choose fast food, and by now I’m pretty tired of it.  I only stopped to eat at this Burger King because they answered in the affirmative when I asked if they had wifi. But this information was incorrect. Nevertheless, I was grateful to put something hot into my belly, and the coffee went down real nice on a cold, wet morning – even the very average Burger King brew. I chatted with a fellow at the table across from me, enjoying a meal with his demur wife. He was a truck-driver who made cross-country runs. He says he likes it out west better than here – not just because he likes the wide-open spaces, but because the people are friendlier. 
  • #8720 – The table across from me, after the truck driver and his wife had left. You are looking east along 52, right at the spot where it meets 123. Even without wifi, this was a moment to pause and give thanks. 
  • #8721 – Facing back in, towards the Burger King, our unshaven, road-worn wayfarer finishes his coffee beyond this reflective glass sound barrier, where – blessedly – the atrocious din of pop music can no longer assault his harried eardrums. 
  • #8727 – Seldom if ever have I been so glad to see the last of any road as I was, yesterday morning, when I took this turnoff onto 123. 
  • #8728 – Before much longer, I reconnected with 460 … and thought I was in Paradise, cruising along – much faster now too – on this smooth, ten-foot shoulder. 
  • #8731 – There is still some climbing, and there’s a lot of traffic. But I have a channel all to myself, and the ascents are gradual. Nor do the light rain and variable winds bother me in the least. On the long, fast descents, when I get up above 30 miles an hour, my poncho flaps wildly in the breeze. I concentrate, watch for rough spots or debris, keep a firm grip on my handlebars, and fingers ever ready on the brakes. A strong, sudden gust of wind could knock me over at that speed. 
  • #8733 – Taken from the same place, this telephoto image communicates the moist, autumnal nature of my ride on 460 yesterday afternoon. 
  • #8735 – Looking back, at last, a proper welcome sign. 
  • #8738 – Something about this “Welcome to Virginia” sign meshes with the spirit of my journey at this time. What could it be? 
  • #8740 – Gentry’s Landing Campground … so glad to bed down here for the night. 
  • #8739 – The table where I fixed my tire this morning, above the New River, whose waters I could hear bubbling over a section of rapids in the night, after the traffic had subsided. 
  • #8742 – Office of this neat and well-managed campground, as it looked this morning. The proprietor Brian kindly set up a small TV with cable so I could watch the ballgame last night. The TV is barely visible, on a high shelf just under the awning, to the left of the central entrance. There is a settlement of long-term trailer-dwellers off to the left. 
  • #8743 – A pretty neighborhood for trailer-types. 
  • #8744 – The main drag through Rich Creek. 
  • #8746 – The breakfast place in town that Brian recommended wasn’t open. But I ran into Brian again at the post office, and he told me that the Dairy Queen just over the hill, two miles away in Peterstown, serves a very good, country-style breakfast. One brief, pretty ride later, on a crisp and sunny fall morning, I was able to verify the truth of this assessment. Here is a litmus test you can try for yourself, anytime you like. If you walk into a business establishment with your bicycle, and nobody squawks at you or gives you a hard time, you know you’re in the presence of genuine, proper, down-home fellow human beings. Note the vintage photographs of this old Dairy Queen in Peterstown. If I hadn’t been constrained to get back over to the library in Rich Creek and link my laptop to the Internet – the morning being already mostly gone – I’d have taken a few more photographs of this gentle village in the hills. 
  • #8750 – They did a brisk business here, and I could understand why. The food was delicious and inexpensive, while the staff was nimble and friendly. There was scarcely any letup in the stream of customers. After my first breakfast platter, I ordered a load of buttermilk pancakes … all very good. The young gal who took my order kept calling me “honey” and “sweetie” … every time I went back for a refill on my coffee, or to take on my second helping. What a sucker I am; my heart just melted inside of me. Obviously an outsider, even with most of my gear left back at Gentry’s Landing – maybe it was the mirror on my glasses that gave me away – soon I was answering the standard questions about where I was from and what I was doing. Towards the end of our conversation, the proprietor put a ten-dollar bill on the counter and told me my breakfast was on the house – she was the owner and could do whatever she wanted. This gesture bears witness to how generous and kind the people in these out-of-the way places can be. 
  • #8749 – Peterstown Dairy Queen ethic … here and still in other small places without number. 
  • #8752 – My perch at the moment. First time I’ve sat in an office chair since I left home, going on two months ago. 
  • #8753 – Inside the Library, attached to the Community Center, in a converted school building, on the hill at the outskirts of Rich Creek. 
  • #8755 – Anna’s lunch break. As noted, the library closed for an hour, and I had to sit outside. Where do you think she ate? (… at the Dairy Queen in Peterstown. Where else?) 
  • #8754 – The hillside before me, when Anna went to lunch. 
  • #8756 – View back towards Rich Creek, in the hollow, with the Community Center to the left. 
  • #8759 – My beat-up sandals. I bought them more than four years ago, the day I poured my father’s ashes into the surf on the Jersey Shore, at the southern end of Island Beach State Park. Since we had a rented car that day, Elizabeth and I drove back up through Paramus, along Route 17 – one of the premiere shopping districts in the entire country – and I invested in a couple items of footwear at Global Shoes, after being unable to find anything I really liked at Campmore (my all-time favorite outdoor store). In recent years, I’ve determined that sandals are ideal for my style of bicycle touring. But I’ve never been out this late in the year before. Dealing with the wet and cold is an issue. Also, I have other sandals, a bit more rugged, that might have worked better than these. I brought these, however, because they’re leather, and so they look slightly dressy, which suited the tenor of my first week or so, focused on family in the St. Louis area. 

All for now. Almost closing time at the library. I’ll probably have to finish posting this on the lawn out back.

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