It’s ten in the morning on the fourth of July and I am about 2,000 feet high and dropping through long tunnels of shade and into bright fields and pastures. I am zipping along on a trail originally blazed by ancient cultures but made passable for my bike by railroad capitalists at the turn of the 20th century and then, some thirty years ago, by agencies of the State of Virginia. It’s the Virginia Creeper Trail. Thirty-seven miles of abandoned railroad bed winding its way through the highest mountains in Virginia along the valleys of creeks and then rivers from White Top (about 3500 feet) to Abingdon (2087 feet).
I round a turn and see the end of the forest canopy a quarter of a mile ahead. I amp it up on the pedals and sprint toward the light and in moments I am shot out into a glorious panorama, all green mountain pastures, blue sky and golden sun. My momentum makes the next uphill easy and as I top the ridge I cross cattle gates on both sides of a farm road and head down the other side of the mountain. Part way down I come to a long bridge and, coasting, look to my left at the perfect geometry of a healthy sorghum crop and to my right at a scattering of cattle shaded up here and there under tall oaks. In less than a mile I re-enter the forest and feel my legs chilled by zephyrs rising off of the Holston River in the ravine below me . There are many reasons I ride my bike – many good reasons – but the exhilaration of this silent flight from sunlight into shadow and back on a clear summer morning is surely at the top of that list.
I whisk past hikers and slower cyclists and with every turn of the trail I am farther down and nearer to the river. I rumble over bridges, once trestles, now all new lumber with high guardrails on either side, over one rushing creek and then another and finally out of the woods again and onto the thousand-foot-long bridge over South Holston Lake, a clear emerald in the morning sunlight.
I press on. Today is my second straight ride on this section of the trail and I am determined to make it all the way to Damascus, a center point of the trail. In only a few minutes I am in Alvarado, passing what is left of what I guess was once a railroad town. There is the old station, sitting without a railroad like a ship out of water, still an architectural delight, still bearing the marks of the work of men who could fashion frills who worked for men who could afford them. Here a small, Baptist Church; a restaurant catering to trail-riders; and a few residences. From there I pass house after house along the river; some of them old farmhouses, built while this was still a working railroad. Two-story, white clapboard constructions with tin roofs and long porches and neat rows of green beans and tomato plants in the adjacent fields and then, here and there, newly-minted vacation homes with river-rock trim and manufactured log walls. Now and then the trail crosses State Route 711, but there is no need to stop, I haven’t seen or even heard a car all morning.
My bike is what they call a “fitness bike,” with flat handlebars, tires just a little wider than road-bike tires, and no suspension. What I ride is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is just right for this trail. There is a soggy spot every now and then and maybe a place near a parking lot where the gravel is a bit mushy and slows me down, but for 99.9% of the time I am sailing along on hard-packed crushed limestone and maintaining 13mph without straining. The trail only admits walkers, runners, bicyclists and horses. No ATVs or dirt bikes. And there are no barking dogs. Paradise for me.
When I hit ten miles on my odometer I am out of the woods for good and riding parallel to the State highway. Here there is traffic and roadside businesses – an auction-house, a used car lot. I am surely nearing the city. In only two miles the trail makes a turn into the little mountain town. There are some nice homes here. Well preserved, big-family dwellings, white with green roofs and shutters that somehow say South and Mountain and Small Town and 1939 all at once. Grace and style. People must have at one time actually made livings up here. I think for a moment of the trains that moved when this trail I am on was a means of commerce – of wealth creation, of livelihood – and I think of the unimaginable motherlode of hardwood that must have been carried out of here, carload by carload, day by day, year by year, decade by decade. All of that poplar, maple, cherry, walnut, beech, birch, hickory, ash and oak. How monstrous those first trees cut must have been. Men cutting, men carrying, men sawing, men lifting and sorting and driving teams and locomotives and still more than enough value in the product to pay for it all and surely to make fortunes for a few. The logs and the lumber – the beams, joists, studs, boards, sheathing, posts – all going down the mountain and out into the world to build house after house, churches, schools and hospitals and chairs and cabinets for the Nation. I stop at a busy crossing and ask a couple of cyclists the question I already know the answer to: “Is this Damascus?” The man answers “Yeah. Don’t blink your eyes.”
I leave the trail and ride down the main street past brick storefronts and white clapboard churches. It’s as quiet here as you would expect any small town this far from an Interstate highway to be on a summer morning. I coast slowly along the sidewalk, to take it in. A few stores, a couple of churches and several residences with Bed and Breakfast signs in the yard. I see that this town connects not only with the Creeper Trail – all short-term riders and hikers – but the two-thousand-mile long Appalachian Trail as well.
When I am a block or two past the old downtown I start to see the signs of the new times. Bike shops, coffee shops, ice-cream parlors. This is as fine a day as could be, and right in mid-season. There are people everywhere. I see vans and pickups, one after another, hitting the road headed east – and up – carrying customers and pulling low-boys loaded with racks of bicycles to White Top, the head of the trail.
I find a bike shop and walk inside to see the inventory of maps, t-shirts, energy bars and the kind of overpriced, famous-label outdoor clothing that people who buy it use to wear to neighborhood barbeques. The signs say that there is something here dedicated to traditional Appalachian music and I am intrigued but decide that I want to try a little more of the trail. I am surprised to learn that there are seventeen miles more to go to the high end of the trail at White Top. I know that I can’t make that. Not today, anyhow. After a salad at a chain restaurant I get back onto the trail and head up. The trail is steeper now and the stream beside it is no river, but a rushing trout stream with shoals and rapids and waterfalls at almost every turn. I stop and take pictures and videos with my phone. Beautiful, but the trail here is far more crowded. Every few minutes I meet a long line of riders coasting down from White Top. I think of what a challenge it will be for me to get past these groups when I decide to turn around.
When my odometer shows fifteen miles I turn, right in the middle of nowhere. On my way back to Damascus I find that the lines of cruisers are polite and accommodating to me as I pass them going down the mountain. Back in Damascus I search in vain for cell-phone service. I am going to be back later than I promised. I am without means to get a message to my group. I jump back onto my bike and double-time it back to Abingdon and home.