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Hills and Hollows - Adventure in a Crumpled Countryside

It's Sunday, July 28, 2002. I have dreamed about a bicycle camping trip in West Virginia since Christmas. I'm packed and rearing to go. It will be as close as I have ever been to my 'ideal' vacation: no schedule, no route, no time limit, with all decisions made on the way. I'm going it alone, so instant decisions are practical.

I gave myself the month of August. The longest I'd been away on vacation had been a 3 1/2 week trip 'out West'. Our family of five was packed into a mini-motor home just as the Iran hostage crisis was unfolding. I remember pulling into a Colorado gas station and realizing that gas had skyrocketed to fifty cents a gallon.

Why West Virginia? It's true I'd just gotten a new sub-18 gear-inch granny gear for Sarah Dipitee (my Tour Easy). I'd ridden in Michigan and Wisconsin so much it was becoming too familiar in both geography and culture. I limited myself to places within a day's drive from home. Two of my daughters had enjoyed West Virginia twice while riding the rapids.

But it was reading about the history and people of West Virginia that made me certain. The people in the western part of pre-Civil War Virginia were a lot different than those in the east. They were rugged, independent, and self reliant. I figured I could learn a thing or two from them.

I was told that it was 'hilly'. Looking at maps of West Virginia, I figured that if a stream or river flowed along a road, I'd just be able to follow the water downstream and save a lot of pedaling. I also knew that rail trails had gentle inclines, so to get to a higher place, I would use a rail trail. Riding would be easy in West Virginia if I played it smart.

I wanted to avoid the home-away-from-home mentality of campgrounds, including generators and air conditioners. Also, I wanted to meet real West Virginians, not other tourists.

Since over 75% of West Virginia is wooded, I could just pull off the road out of sight and set up camp. I had concerns, however. One was bears. Other cycle tourists had said not to worry, but they had been on the busier roads and hadn't wanted to wild camp. I packed what I thought would be enough pepper spray, and could get more if I ran out.

The time had arrived. A big storm the night before had me up. I left home a bit groggy, but happy and excited. In less than 9 hours and 500 miles, I went from Michigan to West Virginia and the town of Cairo (pronounced KAY-row, like the syrup).

I stopped at the Country Trails Bike Shop. Being Sunday, I didn't expect it to be open, but it was. Inside, it was mostly a convenience food store, with a few bike parts along one wall. I didn't see a larger room behind a door, loaded with bikes for rent and for sale, until I returned later.

I drove on to North Bend State Park. A "Bluegrass Weekend" was scheduled in two weeks. Campsites would fill fast for it, so I would have to make special arrangements.

For the night, I picked a site and set up my tent. As I was walking around after dark, I approached a couple of guys fishing in the campground pond. I heard a noise and asked what it was. "Frog" one said. Another different noise - "Bullfrog". Then there was a sudden, strong odor. I asked if that is what frogs smell like. The guy said "That's a skunk" and whipped around with his flashlight to catch it. There was nothing to be seen, but a nearby dog was acting funny.

Mon 29th

It's Monday morning, and the old song about it seems to fit. The campground "quiet hour" didn't start at 10 - it didn't start at all. Put that with the thunderstorm the night before I left, and I'm running without much zzzzzz.

In Weston, the police told me I could leave my car in the lot across from the station. Looks like I'll be featured in the next issue of the Weston Democrat newspaper - perhaps with a photo. They said they'd mail me a copy. (Note: There is an article, on the front page, and a photo, in color.)

Finally, Sarah and I are off to Fairmont and hope to get there by Thursday. It's 2pm and the temperature is about 100. Some nice lady at the Foodmart told me that West Virginia is only 2% flat. I expect I'll not see much of that. Really short hills are a half mile long and steeper than a 5% grade. 20 miles today would be really, really satisfactory.

Within a couple of miles, I missed my first turn. It wasn't until I got to Jane Lew (that's a small town) that I realized it. I asked a Frito truck driver at a convenience store how to get back on course. I didn't know it, but for the next 24 hours, there would be no more stores to stop at.

The county roads here are numbered, like 19. A road coming out of a hollow to a main road gets numbered like 19/4; it's the 4th road to come into 19. (It is actually nineteen over four, but my computer can't do that.) At some intersections, it is the only way to know how to stay on the main road.

When someone tells me something is just over the hill, I have to take them seriously, and should really spell it HILL. This often translates into pushing at least a half mile up a 10% to 15% grade, although once or twice I've ridden 1/4 mile of greater than 10% grade.

I've stopped for water at homes along the way several times. It comes in several different flavors. I've been on a road too narrow to have a center line - less than 14 feet for both lanes, and there is no shoulder. Many West Virginia roads, cut into hills, don't have room for shoulders.

It was after 6pm and I'd gone 21 miles all afternoon, fueled by only 2 or 3 granola bars. Someone called out "nice bike" from their porch, so I had to stop. A whole family was there, including some in-laws. Jim (don't really remember his name) is a cracker. That means he puts something down newly drilled natural gas wells. It explodes and cracks the rock, releasing more gas. His wife Kathy works at Wal-Mart. They have two young boys.

Jims Place

They offered me their yard for my tent. As I was setting it up, someone yelled to me "Supper's ready". The hamburgers, baked beans, mac and cheese, and pop would have been good even if I wasn't very hungry.

As we ate, Jim told me about a discussion he had with his wife about getting her breasts enlarged. (His choice of topic caught me off guard.) He said she should rub Charmin between her breasts a couple times a day for a month. She wondered what proof there was it would work. He reminded her that with the same procedure, how large her butt had gotten.

I asked her if she was going to let him get away with that. She said he was right - her butt had been getting larger. These are easy-goin' folks, indeed!

They have a coon dog puppy that hasn't been trained yet. Mutt has already cornered three coons in the rafters of their front porch, where Jim used his shotgun on them. There is still blood on the porch.

Tue 30th

It is under 70 degrees this morning. There was a big storm overnight. I lost some sleep (so what else is new!), but the tent was dry inside.

In the first mile, I pushed the bike a thousand feet, up a HILL that was 15% - 18% in places. Riding down the switchbacks on the other side was fun. A bit later was a 1600-foot 10% HILL that I rode the whole way. After 12 miles, I was at US-50. A couple in a car who had seen me earlier on a HILL said I had been making good time. I good-naturedly thanked them for lying. They told me how to use Old US-50 to get to Reynoldsville for food. I continued to Wilson. That put me off course again. I bought a cold cantaloupe at a roadside market and got more instructions.

A bit later, I found a crew that was resurfacing the road for a couple miles, with one lane traffic. (Yea, I was back on a road with two full lanes.) The lady in the shuttle truck said her husband was at the other end of the construction area, and it would be good if I would stop and take a break with him. I did, and shared some cantaloupe. A couple years ago, he had a quad-bypass - his best blood vessel was 90% clogged.


I stopped for the night at a place in Lumberport that advertised camping. They had buildings and mobile homes, too, for temporary construction workers. The only flat spot on the whole property was barely large enough for my tent, but for ten bucks, I did get a shower and a towel.

I met Jesse Nila, an Iron Worker who was working on the Harrison Power Plant. He is a foreman, and invited me up the next day for a guided tour, and maybe a trip up to the top of the smoke stack. He is a Mexican/Indian and wanted me to see how hard the blue collar workers worked. He had also worked on the Frito headquarters in Plano, Texas, describing it just as I had remembered when I was there last winter.

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