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  • Tom Blower

East of the Mississippi - NC and TN


Greetings from Nashville! I'm sorry it's been a while since I've uploaded, but I've not got particularly regular access to the internet and so I'll only be updating rather infrequently, but at least I'll have a lot of material to cover in each post (I hope). Right: formalities and apologies aside - *draws in breath and begins in a pirate accent* - listen and I will tell you a tale.

Monday 11th August - London to Wilmington NC

After a morning of frantic paranoia and worry that I was going to miss my flight, or that it would be cancelled in the wake of the downgraded storm that was Hurricane Bertha, I successfully took off from Heathrow to Atlanta. Unfortunately, the uni reading I'd been planning to do on the plane became backgrounded by the watching of such high-quality programming as the sequels to 300, Despicable Me and Anchorman. Perhaps it was rather hubristic of me to think that I could spend 8 hours reading dutifully with a TV right in front of my face. Atlanta's airport security was, well, thorough, and after multiple scans and checks, I managed to make my connection to Wilmington. I should probably mention that none of these tasks were made particularly easy by worrying about the safety of my boxed bicycle, a package which weighed almost 32 kg and was the size of a single mattress. Despite the intensity of the induction into American culture at Atlanta (swarming with police all carrying guns etc.), the two Wilmington locals I was sitting next to on the plane, Sean and Julie, reassured me that there was a lot to love about America and about the South in particular. Certainly, my fears about the upcoming experience weren't enough to smother my excitement about what was sure to be an interesting journey at the very least. Landing at Wilmington, I was surprised at not only how dark it was (it was only 8:30), but also that it was raining. I suppose I was glad that it made my decision easy to take a taxi to my Days Inn for the night, where I was up until midnight ensuring that my bicycle was correctly unpackaged and assembled, a process not helped by slicing open my right index finger with my brand new penknife. Exhausted, I flopped into bed and fell almost immediately asleep.\

Tuesday 12th August - WIlmington NC to Elizabethtown NC - 65.47m, 65.4 total

Waking up at the standard 5:50am, I groggily pulled on my cycling gear and breakfasted in the restaurant of the motel, where I was rather surprised to be charged $13 for some eggs, some fries, an orange juice and a Coke. At that point, however, I was more concerned with getting enough carbs and protein so I wolfed it all down and paid the bill before rolling my bike out onto the sidewalk. By now, of course, these bustling 5-lane boulevards are hardly a common sight to me, but at first they took a bit of getting used to. This, combined with an intial navigational paranoia, meant that I was rather slow to get down to Wrightsville Beach, even with an enthusiastically high 22mph average speed. It felt strange to be standing on a new side of the Atlantic, so far from the place I call home. After dipping my rear tyre in the ocean, I dubbed my bike 'Atlanticised' and began to head inland. To an English person, the geographical 'centre' of Wilmington in no way resembles a 'town centre', and this apparent norm has still taken some getting used to.

Eventually, my navigational paranoia was justified. In a panic to avoid getting caught up in ruch hour traffic, I managed to accidentally cycle onto the interstate. North Carolina is the only state through which I'm travelling in which it's outright illegal to ride a bicycle on the interstate, but after making a sketchy crossing of an adjoining on-ramp, I figured it would be worse to try and go back, and, looking at my map, I saw that it was only about 1.5 miles until the turning off back onto my intended route. However scary, it was incredibly convenient - I'd crosed the Cape Fear river on one of the only bridges for miles, so I was just glad to be able to get off the interstate and grab a drink at a McDonalds. The coastal plain in which I was travelling through was shrouded in a low mist that drenched me to my skin and nearly drowned my phone in its pocket before I decided to deploy my waterproof phone case. Heading through the settlement of Leland, I stopped by a local produce stand set up by the side of the road. The guy running it was fascinated with my trip (or at least the concept of it), and introduced himself as Jimmy. I'd enquired about the price of a cantaloupe, but he shook his head and gave it to me for free, smiling and adding "Welcome to the United States of America!" I thanked him and made on for Riegelwood, the tiny town where, despite there being no available accommodation, I'd planned on stopping. Joining a main highway, I took advantage of the generous shoulder to avoid becoming a new flavour of jam on the asphalt. Reaching Riegelwood before 10:00 in the morning and finding that it really was barely a settlement at all, I decided to push myself for another 35 miles in an attempt to reach Elizabethtown, up the Cape Fear river, where I was informed there was a motel. It was here that the straightness of America's roads began to test me.

Looking down Highway 87 back towards Riegelwood

The longest piece of straight road in the UK is only 15 miles long, and the multiple-mile stretches of road, combined with the dense, kudzu-covered forest preventing me from seeing more than a hundred or so metres from the road, started to dig at me. Any sense of progress felt negated by the straightness of the roads. despite their merciful flatness. It felt like Suffolk. Except set in the jungle. Eventually, however, I reached Elizabethtown and checked into the Days Inn, where I was somewhat accosted by the - almost incomprehensible - Indian (from India) manager, who insisted on giving me the url of www.karmastura.com, adding "There's some great shit there." Somehow I thought that he wasn't too interested in the philosophical and spiritual sides of karma sutra, so I took the url on a piece of paper and hastily made my excuses. Finding nothing within walking distance of the motel but a gas station, dinner consisted of crisp spamwiches. Glad that I'd managed to cut down the following day's ride by a half, I fell asleep.

Wednesday 13th August - Elizabethtown NC to Fayetteville NC - 43.40m, 108.8 total

The ride to Fayetteville from Elizabethtown was what I believe the Americans call a cake walk. With a paltry 600 ft of climb, all on well-paved, reasonably quiet country road, I reached 'downtown' Fayetteville by 9:40. I figured that the motel wouldn't let me check in until mid-afternoon, so I sat in the shade of the visitor centre of the North Carolina War Veterans Memorial and read. It was impressive just quite how much such a militarised nation invested in the simple act of rememberance of service by the various military branches, but then maybe not so: just outside the town lies Fort Bragg, a massive US Air Force base. The memorial garden was pristine and prim, with shiny marble and astroturf lawns, but I wasn't quite moved by it, and the occasional wandering in and out of people in military uniforms made me uneasy, so I found a quiet spot by a creek opposite the park and rested and read in the shade for a few hours.

The edge of the visitor centre is just about visible on the right

I was reasonably relaxed, but there was a road to my back and I was still nervous of being set upon and robbed at any minute, so I eventually relocated to the park, before deciding I'd give checking in early a go anyway. After pretty much the only hills of the day, I arrived at the Knights Inn, another commerical building on a road of pawn shops, discount outlets and lawyers' offices. Managing to get my room earlier than normal check-in time, I showered and headed over to the nearest grocery store. The girl who served me had dead, glassy eyes, but the speed with which she scanned and bagged my shopping surprised me. It can't be an enjoyable life, working a job like that in a store like that facing a 6-lane highway like that. I headed back to the motel and managed to get my first interview with the maintenance guy, a guy called Michael. It was interesting to hear his conception of America as a land of freedom and opportunity. I ended the evening by indulging in some more classic American TV. Dr. Phil. America's Funniest Home Videos. Wheel of Fortune. It was pretty much what I expected: pretty dreadful, although some channels were much better than others. I watched some films and felt myself drifting off, so I turned in.

Thursday 14th August - Fayetteville NC to Albemarle NC - 91.55m, 200.4 total

Navigation was comparatively difficult. After heading north out of Fayetteville and passing north of Fort Bragg through miles and miles of piny forest, I began to feel more accutely the need to pay more attention to the names of the turnings I was passing.

Forest road just north of Fort Bragg. My camera had only just become used to the humidity of North Carolina mornings

This came to a head as I took my second major wrong turn. I'd cycled about half a mile before I became suspicious of the fact that the road was heading in completely the wrong direction. I asked a passer-by who confused me further by giving me even more directions of which I was not sure. It turned out that I had cycled past my intended turning by about 7 miles, but luckily the road I took instead headed to the same destination - Carthage. I think the Americans have a bit of an obsession with ancient geographies: I've cycled through Carthage, Troy, Sparta, Alexandria, and I've yet to reach Memphis. Reaching Highway 27, I was able to concentrate once more on just getting miles done and forget about remembering turnings. This is when I began to experience my first real hills. It's only within the last year or so I've begun fully utilising my gears to deal with cycling with a lot of weight on the bike, but even with a reasonable preparation, these hills were killers. Particularly once west of the Pee Dee River, the gradients were so sharp that I was completely thrown by them. It was also here that I learnt the value of stopping little and often. Pulling over at Biscoe, I stopped at a local produce store and was served by Indra, a 16-year-old student who impressed me with her genuine appreciation of the educational opportunities afforded her which were unavailable in her home country of Mexico. Her desire to learn was truly inspirational, and reminded me of just how much of my middle-class lifestyle and education I take for granted.

Highway 27 just east of the Pee Dee River

Continuing into Albemarle, the road was getting even tougher, so I was glad to finish my day with a mile and a half of gentle downhill before pulling into the driveway of Fred and Renee Carpenter. I was welcomed into their home like a king: my own guest bedroom, access to the fridge, free reign of the TV, and Fred even drove me to the store to pick up some provisions. Unfortunately my hosts were due to be out for dinner with friends, but before they left it was nice to be able to sit down in the living room and talk about our own travel experiences, particularly of the Carpenters' time in Belize and Costa Rica doing mission work.

Renee and Fred Carpenter

The Carpenters were fantastically welcoming and generous, and I'd like to thank them again for taking me into their home. The evening wore on, and after filling out my logbook, eating some of Renee's delicious grilled chicken, and generally clobbing out in front of the TV, I turned in for the night shortly after my hosts returned from dinner.

Friday 15th August - Albemarle NC to Conover NC - 78.03m, 278.4 total

Early-morning mists just west of Albemarle

The day began with a sluggish start, not helped by the hills just outside of Albemarle. However, I found that I had developed a half-decent hill-climbing mode, in which I simply sit and stare at the road 2 metres ahead of me in a reasonably low gear and just keep going. I decided, as I'd only decided upon my accommodation in a rather last-minute fashion, to change my route in order to save some miles. This was perhaps not the wisest idea, as I ended up saving only 1.8 miles and actually increasing the amount of climb for the day, but it was worth it to be able to take quieter roads on the whole. However, by keeping my gearing low and my pedal rotations high, I was able to deal with the day's climbing quite easily. Now more used to life in the saddle, I was able to become distracted by various roadside oddities and amused by some of the more outrageous elements of American culture.

Tell me that this isn't a great bargain. I dare you

The advertising varies between being extremely vague and pretentious and being short, sharp, to-the-point, and often very funny. Maybe I wasn't supposed to find this billboard funny, but it rather tickled me.

Perhaps a first of the trip was cycling through Newton, to which Conover is an effectively annexed suburb, and finding a discernable town centre. Although laid out like almost every single town I've been through - grids of blockish buildings - it felt like a truly communal centre, with local shops surrounding the central building of the local history museum. Thus far, I think that Newton has been my most stereotypical experience of what - given my own limited experience of the States - I would call small-town America. Knowing that my own accommodation was not to be found in such homely circumstances, I turned onto Highway 70 and found my Days Inn a few miles down the road, crammed in amongst a few oddball eateries and motels. I did, however, manage to enjoy a swim in ym underwear in the motel pool, before heading across the road to a Wendy's. Facing the sun whilst chowing down on a 'Son of Baconator' and a 44 oz. drink with fries, I soon realised that my eyes had been far bigger than my stomach, and began to hate myself for succumbing to the very excess and wastefulness that I'd been discussing with Fred and Renee the previous evenig. Finishing a day's cycling - for whatever cause - doesn't materially change the fact that billions of people worldwide are starving and impoverished and doesn't give me the excuse to act like a total fucking slob.

Saturday 16th August - Conover NC to Black Mountain NC - 71.50m, 349.9 total

This is where the slightly hillier Piedmont becomes the outright mountainous region of western NC. With several thousand feet of climb, the sense of urgency spurred me into gear and I made a good early start towards Marion, stopping briefly for my now habitual morning snack of a strawberry Nesquik and a packet of Reese's: the perfect booster of fat and carbs for getting me through to lunch. Between Marion and Old Fort the hills of US 70 weren't too bad, but the heat was beginning to get to me. Even now I'm sometimes struggling with prolonged temperatures of above 32 or 33 degrees. The countryside became almost Austrian in its hilliness, and I wasn't surprised to see town names like Glen Alpine flashing past.

View from the top of Point Lookout Greenway Trail

Reaching Old Fort, I stopped off briefly at the local museum and was relieved to find some more information about the last leg of the day's journey. As I couldn't t take the interstate through the mountains, I was forced to take the old US 70, now a bike greenway trail, through the hills to Black Mountain, incurring both navigational difficulty and lots of climbing. Luckily, however, just as I reached a critical intersection where a wrong turn would have taken me many miles deeper into the hills, I was caught up by three road cyclists, John, Julie, and Hap ("short for Happy"), who rode with me all the way to the top of Point Lookout, and then a screaming last few miles into Black Mountain itself. They even pointed out some local landmarks and escorted me to the park where I was to meet my hosts for the night.

Bidding goodbye the first serious cyclists I'd seen since Wilmington (I'd literally only seen about 4 people on bicycles since my first morning), I took some photos by Lake Tomohawk and called Mike Macdonald, who arrived in his truck and then guided me back to his house, a nice parsonage on a wooded, sloping road a few minutes away.

Lake Tomohawk Park

I was met at the front door by Mike's wife, Delaine, and was welcomed into a room that had been graciously given up by Caleb, one of the two children of the family (the other being Rebekah, Caleb's twin). I showered, and was helping carry some food down to the truck for a church picnic in the park when disaster struck - Mike's knee buckled under him, preventing from walking almost completely. Nonetheless, he soldiered on, and soon we were at the park with Mike's congregation, where I was treated to an incredible range of Southern foods and drinks. Packing up and arriving back at the house, I was fortunate enough to meet Caleb and Rebekah as they returned home from work, and stayed up late talking to them even though all of us had to be up early the following morning.

Sunday 17th August - Black Mountain NC to Cosby TN

After a hearty breakfast of eggs, fried potatoes and bacon (which it is apparently ok to east with your hands, unlike everything else on the plate!) cooked by Delaine, I departed from the Macdonald house and made out for Asheville, the last big city I would be going through before crossing the border. Back on US 70, the road was simple and not too hilly, and, being a Sunday morning, almost completely deserted. Taking a ring-road down by the Swannanoa river, I stopped for some Nesquik and Reese's before turning onto a small riverside greenway which prevented me from cycling onto the interstate for a second time. However, once it rejoined the road, the route was convoluted and indirect on my map, but as I climbed a hill alongside a tributary of the Swannanoa, tucked under the interstate bridge was a decomissioned road bridge which put me perfectly back on course to get around Asheville without having to climb too many hills. I rejoined my intended route on an upward slope, and was quickly caught up with by a guy called Richard on a second-hand Giant, in the US on holiday from Durham. We rode together and chatted for a few miles about the terrain and our biking experiences and plans. It was fantastic to meet a fellow British cyclist, even if only very briefly, and this boost in mood gave me a pickup to get me over the next few hills and out towards Canton. Whilst largely downhill, the road to Canton was broken up by some incredibly long hills with a not incredibly steep but challenging gradient, worsened by an incredibly hot morning sun and a thick humidity, but from Canton to Clyde was one sweeping downhill stretch, and I managed speeds of about 34 mph wihthout too much trouble. Turning off of 70 into the country backroads at Clyde, the roads became much hillier, and the almost Swiss pastoral scenery fluctuated between passing in a blur or at a snail's pace. As I reached the top of a pass at Iron Duff, I began to see the ridges of the mountains forming the edge of the Cataloochee Valley.

View of the edge of the Cataloochee Valley from near Iron Duff

Stopping briefly at a gas station for a highly nutritious Slush Puppie, I contemplated the climbing ahead of me. I'd done 6000 feet over 114 miles on my JOGLE three years ago, but this was 8500 feet over 85 miles, an average of 100 feet per mile, but most concentrated on the two mountain passes I would have to cross in order to get to Tennessee without cycling on the interstate. I decided to just get on with it and hit the road. The first climb of about 7 miles I made in just under an hour, without putting my foot down or stopping once. I was pretty chuffed, as the last 25% of the climb had been on unpaved dirt roads: compacted red soil peppered with fat gravelly chunks and patches of looser stuff that could bring you close to the unbarriered edge of nearly vertical drops through dense woodland. I crowed with excitement reaching the sign at the top announcing I was officially entering the Cataloochee Valley, but my excitement was quickly dampened by the extremely hairy descent down the other side of the valley. The road worsened, the gravel becoming looser, and jagged sheets of rock jutting out from the floor made staying vertical a challenge in its own, preventing me from going over 15mph for fear of careening over the edge. A further fear of cornering straight into a car kept my speed right down with the knowledge that in any collision scenario I would be the worse off.

The road down into the Cataloochee Valley. The road doesn't look that bad, but for a heavy bike without suspension

it was a pretty sketchy descent.

After several miles I reached the bottom of the valley and a bridge from the early 1900s that had been constructed across the creek running out of the valley. The drainage basin of the Cataloochee Valley is only 43 square miles because the sides are so steep, and it is these sides that made the second descent out of the valley, on even worse gravel, truly hellish. There were to be many stops on this ascent. I nearly screamed in frustration when my bike pulled a classic and tipped over sideways as I stood taking a break, scraping the front chainset up my shins and cutting the skin in several places. To further add to my growing exhaustion, the first rain that had fallen since my first arrival at Wilmington began to fall. My pace slowed to 5 or 6 mph, and I was desperate to know how far I was from the top of the pass. I managed to flag down a driver so cheerful I was irritated at his happy demeanour, safe in his Mercedes. He told me it was about three quarters of a mile to the top. Hmm. After about two further miles, I made it to the top, where a great young couple from Alabama filled my water bottle and assured me it was all downhill to the Pigeon River on the other side of the pass. They weren't half kidding. As I left the park area itself I was met by a more compacted dirt road, on which I was able to scream down at over 20 mph. The only break I took was out of curiosity to see a mountain chapel, Mt. Sterling Baptist Church. It was truly like a scene from Cold Mountain: a simple, white, wooden-clad chapel in a cleared glade, filled inside with two pianos, a few rows of basic black pews and a small lectern in front of a picture of Jesus at the front. The simplicity and neatness of this small building was truly humbling, a reminder that connection and community between humans can be formed in even the most adverse environments. I was so frustrated that by this point, both my cameras had run out of battery.

At the bridge over Cataloochee Creek. At this point my camera was suffering both from low battery and the humidity

I had been hoping to have a simple cruise from the Pigeon River down to Cosby, but instead I was faced with another unpaved road heading uphill at a stupidly adverse degree. Some lost college girls coming down in a four-by-four ensured me that the road became aved not far ahead. Funnily enough, this is how I recognised I was in Tennessee. Often at the passing of county lines there was a distinct end and beginning to where the road was looked after, and between North Carolina and Tennessee it could not have been more different: the dirt track gave way to the most beautifully smooth parkway I've ridden since being in the USA, and even though there were still several miles of climb left, they passed so much faster because of the higher pedal stroke I was able to maintain. After cruising down from the top of the parkway at well over 30mph, after 8 hours on the bike and nearly 12 hours since I'd started riding, I reached Cosby, where I was shown to a luxurious four-poster, which had been generously donated by the owners of the motel, Patrick and Bobbie Collins. Patrick even drove me to a local food store to get some food. After a full cucumber and a steaming portion of hash browns, I fell asleep having just finished watching The Two Towers. I counted myself lucky at having completed the most brutal day of cycling I have ever done in my entire life, on over 14 miles of unpaved road, without a single puncture.

Monday 18th August - Cosby TN to Kingston TN - 83.88 miles, 522.6 total

The clouds hung misty over the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains as I set off toward Sevierville from Cosby. The Jones Creek Cove Road sloped downhill for the majority of the way, making the first few miles a good starter to get my wearied legs back into gear.

I found the foothills of the Smokies to be a rather Tolkeinian sight

For the first half of the day I experienced virtually nothing of particular interest, with the exception of the old Harrisburg historic covered bridge - normally a sight I would have associated with the New England area of the northeast, but still a really cool sight.

Again, my camera was having some trouble with early-morning humidity

Sevierville was, quite honestly, completely undistinguishable as a town. I cycled right through it, and saw nothing but strip malls, fast food outlets, gas stations and other equally uninteresting features. This continued through the marginally more interesting Maryville (although my experience may well have been a little soured by further heavy rain showers), but passing out over the Tennessee river and rejoining with Highway 70, the sun came out again, and despite a further bunch of hills across the last 10 miles of my ride, I wasn't stopped from eventually dragging myself into the riverside town of Kingston with a smile on my face.

The Tennessee River from its dam. Luckily I was able to stop safely as roadworks brought the traffic to a practical standstill

I met with Gary Alley of the Kingston First Baptist Church, where I would be staying the night, in the middle of giving a guitar lesson, which pleased me greatly: I'd not seen anyone with a guitar since the UK and I was itching to have a play. Not only did Gary lend me his guitar for the night, but drove me to a grocery store, paid for my food, as well as breakfast the next day, but also drove me to the local football field just so I could have a shower. Meeting Brian, the local highschoold football coach, and his assistant Ron, we discussed my trip, and I was given a free Kingston Football t-shirt. Brian assured me "You'll be the only one in the UK wearing one of those". Having met all these cool people, and even having been driven alongside the picturesque Clinch River just for the heck of it, I realised that Gary was right when he'd said "No-one has more fun in Kingston than me!" I still cannot thank this man enough for his generosity and bottomless enthusiasm for life. As I bedded down on a sofa in the church, I hoped that I would be as vivacious and alive, with such a continuing thirst for knowledge, when I reached his age.

The fantastic Gary Alley

Tuesday 19th August - Kingston TN to Smithville TN - 87.01 miles, 609.6 total

I woke up 20. Not that I had much time to think about it: I had to be up and gone if I was to make it to Smithville on time. After an awesome breakfast at Handee Burger with Gary and Ron, I made my goodbyes and headed west over the Clinch towards Crossville.

On the eastern bank of the Clinch River

After crossing the river, US 70 then did its thing and headed into the hills, sapping my energy and my morale as I crawled up slopes too many to count, although some highlights did involve nearly running over a tortoise and crossing over my first time zone line.

This guy's just lucky I'm not a 20-tonne 18-wheeler

West of Crossville, the clouds that had hung heavy all day finally dropped their payload. A rain fell so hard that I couldn't see without my cycling glasses, and after a further 10 minutes, I noticed my cycle computer wasn't working. Without this, I wouldn't be able to tell my speed, my daily distances and, most crucially, my overall distance. This was the last straw. I screeched to a halt, screaming "Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!" at my handlebars. After eventually managing to dry them out by wiping them down with one of my only two pairs of underwear, the thing started working and I continued in a slightly better mood. The day got better though. About 7 miles from Sparta (yes, another unashamedly self-aggrandizing classical name), the road started descending, and the sun started shining. By the time I reached Sparta, it was so hot that the clothes that had been utterly drenched were now bone-dry and showing several days' worth of salt stains.

This, it turns out, is Sparta.

Blasting through Sparta and out across a 10-mile straight across the edge of Centre Hill Lake, I covered the nearly 20 miles to Smithville in just over an hour in such gloriously hot sunshine and, finally reaching the Bridgeway Motel, I was surprised to find a fully-decorated birthday cake which in my room which had been delivered by a woman all the was from Murfreesboro. I only managed to eat half of it, but it was absolutely amazing: that and a phone call to my parents brought a good end to a day of ups and downs. I was glad to finally turn in and get some sleep.

Wednesday 20th August - Smithville TN to Nashville TN - 61.62miles, 671.3 total

I was so keen to reach Nashville that I was on the road by 6:35, blazing downhill on the descent of out Smithville at about 45 mph. This high speed was soon cut short by the road turning off of US 70 and across-country in a more direct but hillier route into the city, meeting the main highway about 8 miles east of downtown Nashville in the adjoining city of Donelson. The climbs had been hard, but the drive to reach my first proper day's rest kept my speed up to a blazing average of 16.5 mph.

It's getting to midnight, and I've got nearly 100 miles ride tomorrow, so I should go to bed. Besides, I think that Nashville deserves its own entry, which I'll try to do as soon as I can. In the meantime, thanks for waiting and for putting up with such a logn entry, and I'll leave you with a picture looking back up at the early-morning descent just west of Smithville. I love you all.

#bicycle #route #plan #north #carolina #tennessee #mountains #forest

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