Saturday, July 17, 2010

It's a Long Way to the Top

I stopped at an overlook today on my way across the Smoky Mountains, and a group of people wandered over to see what I was all about (nothing invites conversation like a loaded bike).

The onlookers turned out to be a couple of families that were camping together for the weekend, and they were very interested in my journey--especially when they found out how far I'd come.

In between their questions, one of the women brought me water and Powerade and was even ready to make me some sandwiches. Another asked me if I'd ever felt like giving up.

"All the time," I half-joked.

Little did I know that about two hours later I would be as close to completely losing it as I have ever been.

I left that morning from Sweetwater in an increasingly sluggish fashion. For while I'm in much better shape than when I began the ride, I've also reached a level of bone-deep exhaustion that I've never felt before. This isn't the typical tired-from-a-day-at-work fatigue; I'm so exhausted that I sleep fitfully, have to force myself to move in the morning, and feel the sand in my legs from the very first pedals of the day. This exhaustion doesn't go away so much as it gets supressed, and not very well at that; it's always lurking just below the surface of my riding.

Today was not a good day for keeping that exhaustion suppressed: I would be facing the last major physical challenge of the trip. The Appalacians.

I decided to cross them through Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains on the Cherohala Skyway, a 50-mile road that connects Tellico Plains (in the west) with Robbinsville (in the east).

The Skyway started out pleasantly enough, running alongside the Tellico River. The hills were gentle, allowing me to steal glances at the river, which flowed like liquid glass over the large, flat stones on the riverbed.

That changed soon enough as the road began to climb and wind. Early on, I understood that more climb lay beyond the curves, and I put my head down and ground out the miles. When I finally arrived at the overlook and talked with the campers, I had been climbing for so long that I was confident both the North Carolina state line and the peak were just up around the bend.

I was wrong on both counts.

When I got back on my bike, I worked my way through one false peak after another. There were easily over a hundred of them, so twisty was the road.

It was another hour and a half before I hit the Carolina line, and by then I was soaked with sweat and getting chilled (it was late in the afternoon by this point).

I figured--and in retrospect, I have no idea why--that the peak would not be far behind.

But no, it was another seven miles of climbing, and by climbing, I mean approaching one false peak after another and swearing my head off, the expletives echoing on the mountains. I shouted with all the rage I could muster. How dare the mountain do this to me! Didn't it know what I've been through to get here?

When I finally got to the top, I was done. I had been climbing for about six hours. From the start of the Skyway to the peak turned out to be a hair over thirty miles. I resigned myself to camping behind a picnic table at one of the rest spots. I changed my shirt and gobbled down half of what little food I had--half a bag of pretzels and a banana.

But I didn't have cell phone reception (thanks, AT&T!), I didn't want anyone to worry, and I felt a second wind coming on. So I decided to go for it.

As I started down, I ran into some paramedics, and they told me that Robbinsville was nineteen miles yet, but most of it was downhill. They also told me that four motorcycles had collided (I must have seen about 200 motorcyclists today), and one of the riders was killed.

That gave me pause. As I had been climbing and growing increasingly frustrated, I had developed an unfair animosity to the motorcyclists who relied on their engines to effortlessly pass me (apologies to my cousin Bill, a loyal blog reader and die-hard Harley man). The severity of the accident was yet another reminder about the fragility of life.

It wasn't really a reminder I needed as I got ready to head down a series of 9% grades.

The descent was every bit as terrifying as the climb was exhausting. And because it was "mostly" downhill, I got to feel extra sluggish on rises that earlier in the day would have been no (or little) problem.

But I finally made it, and I'm too worn down to take much satisfaction on the fact that I rode 78 hard miles and finally arrived in North Carolina.

I was hoping to end with some important lesson about persistence and perseverence, but the embarassing display of self-pity that I put on while searching for the top of the damned mountain kind of undermines my authority.


  1. That was an epic day on the bike my friend, and no amount of self-pitty diminishes that. Awesome job Rocco.

  2. Way to go, Rocco. I hope you enjoy today a little more.

  3. geez thats crazy, hope you enjoyed the extra water and powerade my mom gave you. hope your journey ends on a positive note. your an inspiration may God bless you and keep you safe

    -Alex Price(camper from Tennessee)-

  4. And to think I made lame excuses about why I couldn't go to the gym today. You are indeed an inspiration my friend whose journey has made me think a lot about the life I live. Bet you didn't expect that; I didn't.

    Sarah B

  5. The difference between your reaction to the Rockies and the Appalachian crossing is interesting. Tears for the first one; anger for the second. I think at this point, you are like, "Okay, enough with the epiphanies--I'm all epiphanied out!" Just hang in there--you are so close!
    Pat (not Zachary)

  6. Rocco,
    I am the "SkunkApe" guy that talked to you with the families on Sat. What an amazing and inspirational story you have. I admire and invy you in many ways.....Keep up the good work and let us know when the book comes out!!

  7. Hey Rocco,

    I was just on a business trip to NC and Virginia and was thinking about you and where you might be. I got woozy and car sick riding in a car through those same type of mountains and hills! It's unbelievable how windy the roads are in that part of the country. I admire you so much for actually biking through them and I feel like a huge wimp!

    Great work and stay safe...


  8. Way to go Rocco! I would probably have walk down the hill. I am so scarred of going downhill and with all the weight you are carrying it just seem scarier.

  9. Looking forward to hearing of your crossing of Soco Mountain and your ride through the Cherokee Indian Boundary. It will be an interesting contrast to the Skyway.