Meet Virginia: South Shore cyclist experiences the spiritual side of the rich Appalachian countryside
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles submitted by South Lake Tahoe photographer Rick Gunn, who is riding his bike around the world to raise awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Over the next two years, he will be chronicling his journey around the globe for the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
All I wanted Sunday morning was a little privacy. There, on a secluded bank of Virginia’s Holston River, I thought I’d found some. It had been two days and 150 miles since my last bath. I grabbed my soap and waded in.
Slipping into the emerald water, small whirlpools spun to life, then faded downstream. A magical light filtered through the trees, touching the river with a pastel gleam, rendering me awake and alive. After a quick shave and a full lathering, I was washing my hair. That’s when things went desperately wrong. My attention was stolen by the low-rumble of car engines.
I turned my head upstream to see a cavalcade of late-model sedans and minivans, perhaps 15 in all, signal, slow, then pulled up to the bank right in front of me. I was horrified. Dust dissipated and a swarm of people poured out – Young, old, and all ages between, dressed in their Sunday best. They gathered at the river’s edge and stared out this curious stranger. I stared back sporting a bubbly-white afro. Then as if on cue, the crowd transformed into a well-oiled machine.
They gathered in a semi-circle, handed-out Bibles and hymn books, and began to pray. An elderly woman sang, accompanied by two men on guitars. Some hugged and others joined hands. I took that as my cue. I rinsed my hair, bolted from the water and mingled among the crowd like a wet cat. A minister wearing slacks and a crisp white shirt stepped to the fore. He waded into the river up to his waist, turned to face the crowd and announced: “If you-all are ready, I think we’ll get started.”
With that, three young boys shuffled shyly to front the crowd. One at a time the boys waded cautiously toward the man. The minister spoke a few words, embraced the child, then proclaimed: “In the name of Jesus Christ, I baptize thee.” With that, the man gave the child a hearty dunk, pulling him back out of the water with great force. The elders smiled, and mothers wept. When the last child approached, something seemed to change.
The minister spoke again. “This is a very special moment for me. I’ve waited 9 years for this. This is my son.” His voice cracked and a wave of emotion passed through the crowd like lightning. A tear dropped from the preacher’s eye. For that moment, in the magic light reflected light off the river, I wept, too.
I hopped on my bike and moved on.
Several days later, pedaling long after dark, I went to sleep and awoke on the edge of an old railroad. Known officially as the Virginia Creeper Trail, this 35-mile stretch of former rail line has since been converted to a rails and trails project. Wanting to get my things packed on my bicycle before the first hikers showed, I was stuffing one of my bags when a hiker approached. “Morning!” he said. “You travelin’ by bike?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
“Well keep your eyes out for an older fella. He’s a local legend who rides this trail start to finish every day,” the hiker said.
No sooner had he spoken the words than an elderly man came around the corner. He was tall and lean, riding a titanium mountain bike. “Why, here he is now,” the hiker said.
The hiker spoke again: “This guy’s got you beat, Lawrence. He’s cyclin’ around the world.”
The cyclist reached over from his bike and shook my hand. “The name’s Lawrence Dye. Would you like to ride together for a while?” he asked.
We rode side-by-side for nearly an hour. I asked how he got into riding.
“I never was really athletic when I was younger. … I only started cycling seven years ago. … Now I cycle 400 miles a week.” Lawrence had just earned a large chunk of TV coverage for completing the 100,000 mile mark. He is 76.
I asked what it was about the trail that brought him back day after day. As we rolled around the corner the question seemed to answer itself. In the trees, just above the trail, a spectacular sunburst broke into fractured beams. Lawrence gazed at the light as if it were someone he knew. He smiled, answering: “It’s like visiting an old friend.”
Moments later, I left those two old friends to the pleasure of their own company and pedaled Highway 58 through the heart of Virginia. From the Mouth of Wilson I cycled past Independence, through Galax and up the eastern slopes of the Appalachia. At 10 p.m. this particular evening, after 10 grueling hours of riding, I logged my first pedal strokes on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Now, for those of you who have not pedaled a 10-hour day carrying a 90-pound load on your bike, the end of the day looks a little like this: You step off your bike in a drunken manner, as if someone had just freshly whacked you in the head with a mallet, and your attention turns almost immediately toward food. You make for it like a vampire seeks blood. You do so because there is hunger tearing at your insides. It emanates from your core and gnaws at your bones. At this point you’ll eat anything – sawdust, deer droppings or shredded plastic.
I was in exactly such a state, with my tent half-pitched illegally when I got a visit from the man – Parkway law enforcement. I was eating the last of a full package of iced oatmeal cookies. The door opened and shut and the stinging beam of a flashlight brought temporary blindness. I wiped a ring of crumbs that circled my lips.
“You plannin’ on camping here?” the voice behind badge inquired. A beam of light moved toward the ground. My eyes focused. Wait a minute. This was not “the man.” It was a woman with a badge. And furthermore, she was stunning.
“I’m tired,” I said, moving my head in a circular motion. She smiled and said: “Technically, you’re not suppose to camp here, but we make exceptions for cyclists.”
“You should really just come up to the ranger station and camp out front there, its safer and better,” she said.
And that’s exactly what I did.
Rising early the next day, I loaded my bike with sweet anticipation of the parkway. Perched on an undulating ribbon of ridge-top pavement 2,500 feet above the rest of Virginia, a jaw-dropping view opened up and stretched for miles. I cast my eyes over endless ridges covered with pillowy tufts of trees, as they faded from a deep emerald, to charcoal then to a hazy greenish-blue. I was cycling alongside hawks and felt as if I, too, were soaring, or somehow floating atop an ethereal green cloud. Stopping at every lookout, and photographing every leaf, every vista, every tree, I made no progress that day. Nor the next.
The third day, I made a pact with myself, 70 miles or bust. But there was something ahead that would stop me in my tracks: a double-chocolate-chip cookie.
“Would you like one? They’re homemade,” a stranger offered, holding out a gallon-sized bag of cookies. “Thank you,” I said, trying to hide my fiendish hunger. “How far are you going,” the stranger inquired.
“I’ve come 40, but I need to go 70,” I said.
“That’s too bad,” the stranger said, holding out the cookie bag. I reached in and grabbed a handful like popcorn. “My wife is cooking homemade chicken pot pie. You’re welcome to stay with us if you like.”
“Really, I must be going,” I said feeling my resolve about to crumble.
“You can have a bed and a hot shower,” the man said. I reached back into the cookie bag one last time and said, “All right. Why not?”
“I’m Paul Lacoste, and this is my wife, Jean, my son, Crey, and daughter, Alea.” Their three smiles sparkled from the cab of a truck. “My house is right down the road.” We pulled up to an expansive home nestled on 22 acres of prime Appalachian forest.
A pond adorned one side, with an organic farm next door. His home, which was more a work of art, utilized passive solar technology and was positioned strategically to catch the morning sun. Paul, an architect and builder, had built soulfully himself.
The Lacostes were kindness itself, taking me in, feeding me, talking of their lives, loves and losses. The family confided that several years ago, Paul was nearly killed in a plane crash. The headline in the paper read, “Lucky to be alive!”
Paul seemed changed forever by that event, turning the headline into a way of life. Living and giving as if each day were a gift or an incredible stroke of good luck. I took a small piece of his philosophy, thanked him and said good-bye.
“You cannot leave the parkway without staying at Rusty’s,” Paul said before I pedaled away.
“I’m never going to finish the Parkway if I don’t put in some miles,” I thought to myself. Then some time later I came to a small dirt side road with a service gate that read simply, “Rusty.” My curiosity got the better of me. …
– The story of Rick Gunn’s journey through Virginia will continue next week.
Aug. 18-30, 2005
Jonesville, Bristol, Abingdon, Fancy Gap, Floyd, Charlottesville, Warrenton.
Mileage log: 3400-3900
Elevation: 200-3950 feet.
“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby
some have entertained angels unawares.” – Hebrews 13:2
“Just as a mother would protect her only child at the
risk of her own life, even so, cultivate a boundless
heart towards all beings. Let your thoughts of
boundless love pervade the whole world.” – Buddha