Day 1 - Friday 09/14/2012
I made what I thought were ambitious but perfectly achievable plans to ride my bike, with camping gear, from our home south of Alexandria to Arlington, then to take the W&OD rail trail to its Western terminus in Purcellville. I would then travel through the Piedmont on a variety of roads to camp at Sky Meadows State Park. On the second day, I would ride about 20 miles from the park to Shenandoah National Park, and continue to the park's halfway point and campground at Big Meadows. On the last day I would finish the Skyline Drive and stop only a few miles into the adjacent Blue Ridge Parkway. The mileages would be approximately 80 miles the first day, 70 the second, and 60 the third.
To keep myself moving swiftly I carried fairly minimal gear. I didn't bring any cooking equipment, brought few toiletries, and only my phone (with an extra battery and charger) for entertainment. I was well-stocked with audiobooks, of course. I would eat mostly at restaurants, though I carried ample snack food to keep myself full of energy.
This would be the first significant ride on my new, custom-built Soma Saga touring bike, which was put together over the course of two months by a very talented mechanic at Capitol Hill Bikes in DC. The bike had been ridden and fully broken in over the course of the previous four months, so I was quite comfortable with it by this point.
I set out very optimistically, and the early and most familiar portions of the ride blazed by. I had to road-adjust my rigging of the tent's groundpad, but that was the only real trouble. Stopping minimally, I was at the Vienna Whole Foods at 10:11, in only 126 minutes.
By 11:35, I was having a (delicious) lunch at Carolina BBQ in Ashburn.
Soon after, I was at Leesburg's Georgetown Park at 12:25, where I had relaxed on the lawn the year before. Moving quicker this time, so no real break here!
I'd made it to the excellent Magnolia's restaurant in Purcellville by 1:16. I reminded myself to get my average speed here, since I didn't have an odometer. 58 miles in 5.17 hours is 11.2 MPH, even with breaks! Not too shabby...
I loitered at the restaurant for a bit, eating a big soup and sandwich. Then I was buying more on-the-road snacks at Trail's End bike shop across the street before hitting the road for Sky Meadows. One of the roads I picked, Millville Road, was unfortunately paved only with gravel, something I didn't pick up from Google Maps. It was a short stretch through pastures with distant mountain views, so it was at least nice to look at.
Another interesting thing on the way to Sky Meadows was a place called Wolfe Tone's Pub, attached to the Blackthorne Inn. The place looked beautiful and I almost stopped in. But my appetite hadn't quite recovered from Magnolia's, so I kept going. I hope to go back.
The roads between Purcellville and Sky Meadows were much more rolling than the bike trail had been, so I spent a lot of time slogging up mostly minor hills and gliding down the other side.
By 4:15, I had come to Sky Meadows. I spent some time at the park office charging my phone, buying more food, and studying and old USGS map to get some more route details for the next day. I also covered myself with trusty Maxi-DEET for my mile hike into the woods for camping.
The trail was much-overgrown through a veritable sea of weeds. I rode my bike, slowly, where I could, and pushed the rest of the way. I spent too much time looking at the area topographical map and not enough at the park - a gravel road was much easier. I'd save that for tomorrow.
I really appreciated the quiet isolation of the campsite. A kind man named Dave let me borrow a wheelbarrow to haul far too much wood to my campfire, which at least made things easy. I didn't have anything to cook, though, so I retired early at 8:45. The early Autumn night was really too warm, and I spent the night with the fly open to watch the fire burn low. The bugs were noisy too, influencing, perhaps, some dreams of rain.
Day 2 - Saturday 09/15/2012
I was up at five to find a morning warmer than I had expected. I was packed up pretty quickly in the dark, and was going slowly over the gravel road to the park HQ just as dawn was breaking. I took a little time for a "bath" in the restroom before setting off.
Quite a bit of climbing was in my future, even before I got to Shenandoah NP. A particularly long climb before coming to VA-55 had me riding up the side of Naked Mountain, past a winery we'd been to three years before. I'd never appreciated this fine country at this speed. It was largely dense woodland, with many wide pastures and a lot of grazing animals. Indeed, before breakfast, I certainly made more eye contact with more four-legged creatures than the two-legged sort, especially when I was chased by a sheepdog. It would have caught me if a fence wasn't in the way!
By 7:40 I was at the Apple House of Linden. I was soon devouring a huge combination platter of pancakes, sausages, and potatoes, along with a big coffee. It was fine stuff, and an interesting place full of country knick-knacks, but I had to be off, down the road to Front Royal.
I was through the town and at the North entrance to Shenandoah NP by 8:38 AM. I took a few pictures at the entry sign and then waited to enter behind some slow and noisy motorcycles (a real scourge on Skyline Drive, both for their noise and their langorous pace, at least when you're driving behind them). The slow bikes didn't slow me, however, as I slogged up the terrific climb to the visitor's center at Dickey Ridge. Since it's 5 miles and almost 2,000 feet of vertical, it took me nearly an hour. It was at least a climb in the shade, with pleasantly cool air. During the ascent I was passed by a cyclist, which happened to be my only encounter with one of these folks on Skyline Drive itself, at least in the same direction.
Past this point there was more climbing, of course, but some speedy descents too. I blazed past a number of overlooks, pausing at some of the nicer vistas to pose myself and/or my bike. Memorably, I was at the next big stop, Elkwallow Wayside, at 11:57 AM. Here, famished once again, I downed a double burger, sweet potato fries, and a blackberry milkshake (a Shenandoah specialty). A few bearded AT hikers were raucously drinking beer and taking up the outlets for charging their phones, so I didn't get a chance myself. I just rested for a bit in the shade, listening to their stories and enjoying the air.
After this I soon came to the most blistering descent yet, a speedy flight down to the next entrance station at Thornton Gap. I found these portions a bit unnerving, since any crosswind made the bike feel alarmingly unstable, a result of the altered center of gravity from my camping gear and, probably, the extra surface area for the wind to act upon. Suffice it to say, I held on tightly, and sometimes used the brakes to actually limit my speed! Wild...
At 2:16 I had come to one of my favorite overlooks, Jewell Hollow. I found it to be the most extraordinary feeling, lying on the high wall of the overlook in the warm sun with the cool breeze blowing. I turned my head and opened my eyes to see a magnificent panorama spread before me under the vast dome of the sky. There seemed to be nothing between me and the vista but a vast gulf.
Moving on, I was soon at Skyland after a long photo session by the park's "highest elevation sign. All I did here was get some water, since I was unsure how late the camp store would be open. There was really nothing to worry about - I made it to my campsite by 4:43 PM. I spent the rest of the evening setting up, carrying a huge load of wood on my bike, and buying supplies at the camp store. After a long day of drinking nothing but water, the cream soda and root beer were particularly delicious! I got a roaring fire going, too, and this time made sure to cook up hot dogs and s'mores.
Before 9PM I was turning in. It was a calm, clear night, though much colder than the night before. No problems falling asleep on this night - I was utterly spent!
Day 3 - Sunday 09/16/2012
The next day, I once again woke at five. It took me a while to eat a cold breakfast and get going, but I still set off in the dark at 6:10. I had to use my headlight for a while, and it certainly was quite harrowing, since this early period was dominated by swift descents in the frigid air.
By 8:48 I had come to another favorite place, Brown Mountain Overlook. My phone's first battery finally gave out here, but it was alright because I spent a long time taking photos from this wonderful viewpoint. After this it was a short ride to the Loft Mountain wayside, where I had a big but not so good breakfast. I knew I was making good time, so I extended my morning ablutions while letting my phone charge, and covered myself liberally with sunblock.
I wanted to update the wife on my journey, as she hadn't heard from me since yesterday morning. It seemed like I would never get signal with my carrier, and the park's pay phones were either broken or far from Skyline Drive. Oh well - I'd ride until I got a long valley view, and try again. I left the wayside after more than an hour, at 10:18.
Much of the rest of Skyline Drive was characterized by swift, cold descents, making for a really easy time. I was really enjoying the scenery despite the overcast sky. I hoped it wouldn't rain on me, but the clouds did keep the day pleasantly cool. At Turk Mountain, I paused to take some pictures, and for the first time heard a train's whistle from the drive. I looked around for a while until I spotted it, passing through distant green fields.
Finally at 1:15 PM I came to Rockfish Gap, the end of Skyline Drive and the beginning of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was very pleased and pleasantly surprised that I had ridden the 105 miles of Skyline Drive in a shorter time than I had anticipated. Here I paused for a bit to get some photos of the 105 mile marker and the parkway entrance sign. Considering that I had scheduled a 6 PM pickup only six miles up the parkway, I was in no hurry. And attempts to make an actual call to the wife weren't getting me anywhere!
35 minutes later I had climbed back out of Rockfish Gap on the parkway. The road surface here wasn't in quite the fine shape that it was on Skyline Drive, and, combined with the 45 MPH speed limit for cars (10 MPH higher), it made for a less pleasant experience. Still, there were a few fine views before I pulled into my final stop at the Humpback Rocks visitor center. Here I was surprised to find a veritable festival going on, complete with historical reenactors and live bluegrass music. The mountain farm here, a preserved and restored settler site, was full of craftsfolk and people attending to chores in the pioneer manner. It was quite enjoyable to wander through this and to talk to some of the people running the place. There were even a few chickens walking through the crowd, which prompted a young boy to cluck and imitate them. The whole place was quite impressive.
Once I had locked up my bike at the only realistic place - a stout rhododendron - I went back to the festival. The old buildings, kids dressed in period attire, and the bluegrass really made it feel like a different era. I said this to a blacksmith and he mentioned a photo taken here, probably at a previous festival, of all the reenactors on the cabin's porch. With a horse and wagon in front, the only "anachronism" was a blue plastic bucket. The man solved the issue by printing the image in black and white, so he might be able to fool someone with a period photo!
This was a great journey that I just might repeat. I've proved to myself that I can handle loaded touring, and there will need to be an even longer trip in the future. I think I'll need to pursue my ambition to ride the entire Blue Ridge Parkway in one trip!