Wednesday, July 21, 2010
I headed out from Bryson City and into Cherokee, which is on the Cherokee Reservation. This was the second reservation I've been on this trip (the first was the Navajo Reservation in AZ/UT), and the contrast was striking.
Where the Navajo area was, too often, a beer can- and liquor-bottle strewn desert with dilapidated, bone-jarring roads, Cherokee was in the midst of a boom.
A giant Harrah's Casino was the focal point of my path through Highway 19, and a thriving tourist industry had grown up around it. Unlike the monoliths that command attention on Navajo land--the ancient formations in Monument Valley--the forces at work in Cherokee are far less spiritual than economic. Judging by the quality of life on display in both places, it's clear which force carries more weight in this modern world.
After moving through Cherokee, I hit Soco Gap, which formed the second big day of climbing through the Appalacians. While it didn't match the six hours I spent on the Cherohala Skyway, Soco still kept me occupied for almost two draining hours.
After coming off the mountain, I hit the flats for a while until Asheville, where I stopped for the night at yet another Warmshowers host, Christine North.
Christine is a proponent of simple living, meditation & yoga, and healthy eating. She's also a very sweet person, but a tad scary to drive with in a car. I know this because after dinner she took me out to show me how I should bike out in the morning. We got so turned around (as she managed to look around at everything except the road) that I wasn't sure I was going to see the morning. We finally made it to downtown Asheville, where she decided that she'd just ride out with me. "I know where I'm going better on a bike," she told me.
She wasn't kidding. We headed straight out the next morning, and I struggled to keep up as she took us--with nary a wrong turn--through the posh neighborhood of Biltmore Forest and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we said goodbye.
And so began my third and final day of climbing through the Appalacians.
About 12 miles out of town I hit the switchbacks that wound higher and higher through the countryside. Cars would cautiously pass me, and at one point I heard some vehicle laboring behind me like a dying elephant. I pulled off to the side as three giant orange trucks--each marked "slow moving vehicle"--sped past me.
At the crest was a sign marked "Eastern Continental Divide," and past this point I gripped my bars in fright as I sped down through a few miles of turns equal in curviness to the ones I just climbed.
The road eventually shifted into rollers, which for me are the most energy-sapping of terrains.
When I was near exhaustion, I pulled into a little gas station at Green Hill, and as I leaned my bike against the side of the building, an older gentleman walked out.
"I passed you a little ways back," he said. "I was hoping you'd stop here."
He held out an ice-cold bottle of water.
"I got this for you."
It was the latest in a string of remarkable acts of kindness that I've been lucky enough to receive since being on the road. It's impossible to overstate how quickly these acts can make exhaustion dissipate.
The man's name was Sam, and he hailed from Forest City, a few miles down the road. He told me that he wanted to take a trip like this after he retired, but because of foot problems, he'd probably do it by motorcycle. He also told me about his favorite book--Peter Jenkins's "A Walk across America."
"Have you read it?" he asked.
I told him I had, in college, when the idea of an epic journey first took hold of my imagination.
"Let me ask you something," he said. "Walking, bicycle, motorcycle...what advice would you give someone who was going to do this?"
Well, I can only speak from my own experience, but here goes:
Take chances--on people, on routes, on weird little roadside shops and diners.
Record everything you can with a camera and in a journal. If you don't like to write, use a digital recorder. You probably won't pass this way again, so pay attention.
Embrace setbacks. Bum knee, sore ass, flat tire, shorter day than expected, getting lost, rabid dogs--they're all part of the experience.
Always remember that this is your journey; don't measure it against or compare it to others'.
Enjoy the moment. It's not about destination (well, not completely); it's about finding meaning at this particular time and in this particular place, whether we're rooted by tire or shoe tread.
And finally, don't bring a hatchet.