Tuesday, November 9, 2010

New England bike trip November 1-11, 1985 -- floods, cookies, kindness... and home.

Friday November 1 - Monday November 4, 1985

These four days were spent in Washington DC. I was only planning to stay two nights, but that quickly turned into five nights because of heavy persistent rain. The remnants of Hurricane Juan had come up from the Gulf of Mexico and sort of stalled out over West Virginia and Virginia, and it just poured rain for five days. Jon, David and Susan were happy to have me, for which I was thankful.

Jon didn't have a car so we got around town on bikes or the Metro. One night we were out on bikes 'til 2am, getting totally soaked in the rain. Having the time of our life, though, so what the hell?!?

One of the last things we did that night was go to the national mall to look at some of the monuments. The Lincoln Memorial was pretty spectacular on a rainy night. Towering white pillars against a dark black and orange sky. And all the surfaces were shiny and wet. At Lincoln's feet we found a temporary escape from the downpour. We stood quietly and read the inscriptions on the walls, and took in the view across the Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument and the Capitol beyond.

Our next stop was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a couple hundred yards away. In my journal I called it "definitely the most impressive monument in Washington." I went on to write "An incredible feeling hangs in the air when you are by it. We just stood there in awe in the pouring rain as we read name after name after name after name on the wet black marble panels. 55,000 names. Horrifying."

I once again realized there was something especially powerful about being there when it was sort of quiet and lonely and meditative. It didn't matter that we were getting wet. That really paled in comparison to the experience, and in fact added to it.

I spent some time with my friend Janet in DC as well. She was an intern for Indiana Senator Lugar. She took me on a tour. We rode a little subway shuttle from the Senate office building to the Capitol. She walked me though the House, the Senate, and showed me statues and what not beneath the Dome. We were able to walk just about any place, including what seemed like some more secure areas, because she had a government badge and I was with her. I wrote in my journal "fun for me, but I wondered about lax security…" I suspect that it's a lot different today…

Tuesday, November 5, 1985

We were up early. After some breakfast we loaded my stuff into David's car and Jon drove me out of the city center, to a point just outside the Beltway on the west side. From there I was off again, heavy-trafficked roads at first but thinner as I got further out of the city. "Sproing" went another spoke, but I sort of couldn't be bothered by getting angry about it any more. A few more days of riding and that ol' wheel was going in the trash heap. When I got home to Colorado I planned to buy a brand new wheel.

David, Jon & Susan. Washington DC, November 5, 1985.

Jon & me. Washington DC, November 5, 1985.

Soon after that the rain started again. I'd left DC on the 5th because the weather forecasters were all but certain we'd have nothing but "a liiiiiitle bit" of rain that day. Bad luck for me: It began to rain at least as hard as any time I'd seen during the past soaking days in Washington. Despite that my mood was just fine. Westward I went along highway 55, finally stopping for a break at Markham, VA. The post office there had a spacious covered porch. Lunch spot! I had leftover falafels to eat, and some pleasant people interactions with postal customers. One woman told me a lot about a pretty bad flooding situation ahead of me at Front Royal. Perhaps preserving my mood, I had already decided that I was moteling it that night. I had no interest in remaining soggy all night.

I crossed over Manassas Gap, at the low north end of the Blue Ridge. It's only 887 feet elevation there, so not a very big climb. On the other side I descended into the Shenandoah River Valley and the city of Front Royal. The Chamber of Commerce helped me find an inexpensive motel. Had me a hot shower and turned on the black-and-white TV to check the weather forecast. Rain was on the way out, at last. But the flooding was to get worse, with peak river levels expected in Front Royal the next morning. I was glad that my planned route was up, up and away from the water, onto the Skyline Drive.

Later on I walked 1/2 a mile to a large grocery store, grabbing a little fast food dinner en route. I loaded up on food to carry, because the Skyline Drive would take me 2 days to ride, and it was not clear that I'd find anywhere to buy food up there. Lightweight Ramen noodles, whole wheat rolls, cheese, instant oatmeal…

Wednesday November 6, 1985

Grapefruit and donuts for breakfast, patches of blue in the sky above. Time to ride! I looked forward to the exhilaration of the climb ahead and the views from up there. It was not far to the entrance to Shenandoah National Park and the 105-mile road along its length, the Skyline Drive.

Up I went. Two miles in, I'd climbed from Front Royal's altitude of ~600 feet to an overlook at ~1400 feet. Great views almost immediately, including the flooded river down in the valley. I went through a lot of film!

Skyline Drive, just south of Front Royal, VA. November 6, 1985.

Flooded Shenandoah River visible at right.

By milepost 15, I was up to 3000 feet. This Colorado boy was lovin' it! Then I lost 400 feet or so, only to get out of saddle and climb some more, back to 3300 feet at the Hogback Mountain overlook. After that, great swooping downhill curves, 1000 feet down in over only a couple miles. Just past milepost 30 I arrived at Thornton Gap, where a visitor's center offered hot chocolate to complement my lunch of rolls & cheese.

Various views from the Skyline Drive, November 6, 1985.

Flooding seen again in the photo above.

Me up there on the Skyline Drive, November 6, 1985.

After my lunch break it was back up onto higher ridges again. I was back up to 3300 feet within five miles, and soon after to the high point of the Skyline Drive, 3680 feet somewhere around milepost 42. Big Meadows, my campground for the night, was about ten miles beyond that, still above 3000 feet. Soon before my arrival there, I met a woman from Florida who was driving all over the USA in an old white van. We had a fun talk. This included an explanation of the cardboard sign taped across a big dent in her van. It said "MOOSE KISS!" in memory of hitting a moose up in Vermont. Ouch.

In the campground, I met another van traveler, Al from New Jersey. We struck up a conversation and decided to split a campsite. Made for a real cheap overnight. Just $3.50! We combined out foodstuffs to create a dinner with two courses: Ramen, baked beans. Right on, campfood! I gave my mom a call to reassure her I had not been swept away in any floods.

Big Meadows campground. That's Al from NJ.

Here's what the flood looked like on ABC News (below). Notice the waters rolling through Harper's Ferry. The very site of the above photo well-underwater!

'Nuther bit of dramatic news footage:

Thursday November 7, 1985

Beautiful cold, clear morning up on the mountain. Al made scrambled eggs and insisted on sharing them with me. On the way over to the bathhouse to brush my teeth I ran into Moose Kiss woman again.

Off onto the beloved road I went, feeling good about the trip but a little sad that it was soon to be over. The sun was great that day. It cast tree-shadows across the road in stripe-like fashion for long segments of road, creating a great strobe light effect if I was zooming across them on a descent.

Midday I found a good spot for lunch. Just as I dismount the bike, a hiker emerged from the woods. I was at a spot where the Appalachian Trail crossed the road. This guy from Richmond, VA was up for a 3-day backpack trip. We sat and ate and talked together.

Much of the remainder of the day was downhill, as I was gradually getting closer to milepost 105 and the south end of the Skyline Drive at Rockfish Gap. There I crossed under I-64. Hoping for groceries and more film, I found none there. Instead I settled for a sandwich at the Howard Johnson's.

Nearby lived the famous (in cycling circles, anyway) "Cookie Lady," June Curry. Her informal hostel was where I hoped to stay that night. When I asked directions, the guy knew exactly where to send me, as though he'd answered that question more than a few times before! I had to ride a short distance along highway 250, then right onto a tiny road that plunged sharply into the valley, leading me to the village of Afton, Virginia. Just before the railroad tracks, I found two brick houses with a mechanic's garage between them. The sign above the big wooden garage doors said "Haven Bros." I walked up to a man there to ask about the Cookie Lady. "I'm the Cookie Lady's dad!" he replied. He happily welcomed me to Afton and led me to one of the houses, where I met Ms. Curry.

View from above Afton, Virginia. November 7, 1985.

Before reading on, it's best to know why I was here to begin with. Go here to read about the legend of the Cookie Lady, and my visit with her 25 years later! Included there: pictures of us then and now!

OK, now that you're back from that little side bar… back to the trip! I was cyclist #271 of 1985 to experience the amazing hospitality of the Cookie Lady, the last of the year. It was way beyond the usual season for cyclists, so she did not have any fresh-baked cookies ready and was very apologetic on this point. "This is all I have," she sighed, as she stuffed me full of those really good Danish butter cookies from a round tin. She was so kind, it really didn't matter. The cookies were washed down with lemonade. I had so much that I wasn't really hungry at any kind of "normal" dinner hour.

I got settled into the Bike House, the house dedicated to travelers. There was a jar in there for donations. I made one. She accepted no formal fee to stay there. I wanted to help out around the place if I could, and asked what I could do. She asked me to go through the guestbooks and tally up the number of visitors by state. This was a very fun activity and a great way to get a sense of the scope of this woman's unique world contribution! Fun to see where everybody was from and read their notes of thanks.

Around 8pm I thought I'd better eat something, so I went into the Bike House kitchen where some canned goods were available for guests. I was about to open a can of spaghetti when there was a knock at the door. The Cookie Lady entered, bringing me a lovely dinner consisting of a hamburger, greens, cake, and a bowl of jello! She said she hoped this would "make up" for the lack of fresh-baked cookies earlier! I was speechless other than managing "thank you" several times. Wow.

Friday November 8, 1985

I was Charlottesville-bound for my last day on the road. I was planning to stay with a college friend of my parents. It was only 20 miles east, if I rode directly. I had planned a longer "scenic route," south first and then east to the town of Scottsville, and finally back north to Charlottesville. But Scottsville was under water! It is located on the northernmost bend of the James River, upstream from Richmond. Two days earlier, the river had crested at 31 feet above flood stage, their second worst flood on record.

Check out this 1985 video of the James, 50-60 miles upstream from Scottsville in Lynchburg, VA:

Needless to say I abandoned my route plan. Didn't know what sort of road closures and so forth I might come across. I did want to get some riding in on such a nice day, though. So, I rode my unloaded bike on a morning side-trip, back up and over Rockfish Gap and down the west side to the town of Waynesville. I was out of film and really wanted to take some pictures of Ms. June and her father before I left there. Found what I needed at a large drug store, and headed back uphill again. Went I reached Rockfish Gap, I decided to go south along the first couple miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway (basically a southward extension of the Skyline Drive), just to see it. More beautiful views from up there, including the Cookie Lady's house far below.

When I got back, I began to gather my things together and re-load the bike. It was a really warm day, first one in awhile where I rode in shorts. As I made preparations, the Cookie Lady appeared and handed me a plate of cookies still warm from the oven! "Eat as many as you want; they're all for you!" she exclaimed. My my! A truly kind and amazing lady. They were delicious, of course. We took pictures--some with her Polaroid for her archives, some with my camera. And then I was off, down the mountain toward Charlottesville, inspired by kindness and psyched to pay the world back some day.

The Cookie Lady's father & me. Afton, Virginia, November 8, 1985.

The Cookie Lady & me. Afton, Virginia, November 8, 1985.

I rode straight to Charlottesville on U.S. 250. Pretty Piedmont landscape, but too many cars. One kind soul decided it would be fun to SCREAM at me out of the bed of a passing pick-up truck. Thanks, bud. Nothing deflated my mood though. I really felt great about the trip, now drawing to a close.

In town I just sort of followed my nose, not in a hurry, 'til I found the UVa campus. Looked around for a bit and then used a pay phone to call Chuck, my parents' friend who was a UVa professor. He'd been through Boulder not long before and visited with my Mom. She told him about my trip plans and he told her to send me to him! We made plans to meet in a couple hours. I continued to look around the campus, and met a friendly graduate student named Laurie. We had a nice conversation and went and had a bite to eat and a beer at a nearby place having happy hour.

Chuck and I rendezvoused later and went to his house, where I stayed for the weekend.

Chuck on the UVa campus

He was a terrific host! We went to Monticello, looked around the campus, went out to eat a bunch, went to some parties, etc. I got a bike box from a local shop and got my bike packed into it for the trip home.

Three views of the UVa campus

My grandma and grandpa came up from Richmond and we enjoyed a nice lunch together. Little did I know that 4 years later I'd be living nearby :) and seeing them a lot more often.

My grandparents and me in Charlottesville.

Monday-Tuesday November 11-12, 1985

Bus to Washington --> flight to Newark --> sleeping overnight on an airport windowsill! There were probably 30-40 people crashed out on the concourse floor, chairs, and windowsills, so I was in good company so to speak. Managed 3 hours sleep, wandered around, ran out of food. But eventually was on a plane headed home……


A big blogosphere thank you from the bottom of my heart to all the kind, friendly, generous people I met all over the place on this trip and many others. From Arnold, Nebraska to Scribner Hill, Maine to Afton, Virginia to Icking, Bavaria to Budapest, Hungary and so many other places, I have seen the basic goodness of people shine. It is inspiring and makes me (still) have a lot of faith in human nature.


I'm happy to be riding back into this country. It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all, and has an appeal because of just that. Tensions disappear along old roads like this.

--Robert M. Pirsig, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance


Mandy Tripp said...

I want to hear another story Mark! I loved reading this! And the pictures!
Nice legs in those Cookie Lady pics by the way! :)

DeLardo said...

Thanks Mandy. Maybe starting next summer I'll blog about the next big trip I did. Went to Europe in '86 for 4 months and rode the beast all over, worked on a farm, etc. Dunno if I can keep up for that much time... Got photos though!