I got up early in Berea and gathered my things quickly. I had big intentions for the day. I wanted to make it to the final state- Virginia. The first order of business was a quick stop at the gas station across the street for some grub and a shot of caffeine. On my way over, I saw the Italian pair leaving the Motel 6 next door. They went on down the road and I figured I would be chasing them all day. I ate something quickly and took off. I was on the road before 3:45AM.
It was a cool morning and I felt good in the pre-dawn darkness, but required my rain jacket. I settled in right away on the aero bars and started cranking it up. A mile or so down the road I glanced at my GPS and saw that I had missed a turn already. Ugh! I turned back around and got on the right track, scolding myself for not paying better attention.
As I rode along Main Street in Berea, I saw the light of a cyclist coming up from behind. I was surprised to see Irena Sosinska, the Polish girl. We said our hellos and carried on into the downtown of Berea. As we turned left and out of town, I decided to up the pace and went on ahead.
I have heard Berea referred to as the entrance to the Appalachians and I experienced that right away. Just a few miles out of town, the road turned up and up. It was very foggy and it seemed like I was on another planet with the kudzu covered steep slopes shrouded in fog everywhere my light shone. I climbed that first hill well and came off the other side cautiously in the dense fog. It was so thick that within 30 minutes of riding, my freshly cleaned and dried clothes were soaked through. The water condensed on everything and made it difficult to see as my glasses continued to get droplets forming on them. When I would pull the glasses down so I could see, drops would form on my eyebrows and lashes, dripping into my eyes. It was a challenging just to see, much less ride.
As I approached McKee, I saw a rider ahead. It was Jimmy Bisese. As I caught up to him, he stopped and I went on. Just up the road I saw another rider in the dark in front of a shop that was closed, but didn’t know who it was. I carried on into town and stopped at a gas station for a snack and to dry out a bit. I grabbed some paper napkins to dry my glasses and face. I was stalling a bit, waiting for the sun to come up and burn off the fog. A quick check of Trackleaders showed that there were 9 racers, including myself, within approximately 10 miles either direction of where I was and 7 of them were in the little town of McKee. While I stood there at the station, Piero rolled by and waved. I figured the racer I had seen in the dark was him. Jason and George were in town somewhere as well. It looked like they had stayed there for the night and were still bedded down. I decided to get rolling and right away saw Michela and Stefano. As usual, there was a round of “hi” and then “ciao”. I was happy to have passed 7 out of the 8 other racers near me. I went on ahead, once again repeating to myself the mantra from the day before: stay moving.
The sun came up and the fog lifted. Soon I was plenty warm and had stowed my rain jacket. About 10 miles out of McKee I passed Luke. That made 8 for the day and it was only 6:30AM. It was shaping up to be a good day!
When I got to Booneville, it was 7:45AM and I was 52 miles into my day. It was time to eat. I stopped at a gas station, but was unimpressed with their fare. I asked the attendant if there was a diner close by to get breakfast. He said there was, but the directions I got seemed sketchy at best and the diner was off route. I decided it was better to grab some snacks there and move on.
The heat was cranking up again and the humidity was omnipresent. Added to the hills, it made for a chore. Once again, I came across a place where the signs and the GPS differed. I followed the signs and went off out into the seeming middle of nowhere. As I rode along through depressed areas with rundown mountain shacks, I came across a general store where I never would have expected one. I took that opportunity to grab a few things to eat and re-fill my drink stores, then took off into the hills again.
Before long I made my way back to civilization and into little town of Combs. I found a McDonald’s and went in to grab burgers to go, as I didn’t feel comfortable leaving my bike unattended there for some reason. I got my food and went back outside to eat while standing next to my bike. I kept the stop short and got moving again quickly.
Heading out of town, the road turned up and up again,following the folds of the steep mountains around me. Upon reaching the crook where two mountains met, it was then down the other side and into yet another valley. This process seemed to happen over and over with no end and made everything look the same ad infinitum.
When I reached Hindman, I was getting smoked by the heat, so I stopped at a station there for cold drinks and a snack. I stood inside a bit to cool off in their air conditioning. I was 120 miles in on the day and the hills just kept getting bigger and more numerous. As I stood there, trying to cool down, I chatted with the two ladies that ran the store. They asked in their drawl if I was doing the cross country route and I said yes. Then they asked where I had started that day and I told them Berea. They didn’t believe me. Just to add fuel to their disbelief, I added that I planned to make Virginia before the day was out. They replied, “Yo crazah!” I had to agree.
The next stretch of road was much more enjoyable than the earlier parts of the day had been. The road rose gently over 5 miles, then fell gently for 10. It was a nice respite in the mid-afternoon heat and should have served as a warning sign for what was to come.
At the junction to SR7 and CR1091, I stopped at the Marathon gas station/deli/post office/local hangout. I grabbed some food and sat in the shade. I knew that the tranquil ride along streams that I had been enjoying for the last few miles or so was about to end. From where I sat looking up CR1091, I was looking straight up a valley that ended in a wall of mountains. I finished my snack and got back to the saddle begrudgingly. Immediately the road turned up and I was reduced to a crawl.
On either side of the road were the most run down homes I had ever seen. Trash was strewn everywhere and most of the cars that were in the drives were on blocks. Many of the homes were actually small portable buildings that were intended to be used as sheds. Almost every house I went past had the door wide open, folks inside struggling to stay cool in the mid afternoon heat. These folks were literally dirt poor. The further I climbed, the steeper the road got and the closer the houses got to the road. Toward the top, most of the places you could sit inside and spit to the road. I just kept my head down and kept the pedals turning over. I felt a bit guilty that my bike and all the kit I carried was likely worth more than many of the houses I saw. Those thoughts occasionally turned to fear as I wondered if someone might come along and decide they wanted my stuff more than me. But with every person I saw, those thoughts would go away. These people were poor, but they were kind. You could see it when they looked at you.
The climb was, in my opinion, the hardest climb of the entire route going East. It took everything I had to make it without putting a foot down. As I reached the top of the climb and started off the other side, I was thankful for the relief in topography. The top of the hill not only meant easy street for me (at least for awhile), but the change in lifestyle of the inhabitants was drastic. Every home on the Eastern slopes was well kept and sat back off the road with manicured lawns and nice new cars in the driveways. It was a completely different world. I don’t know the reason behind the difference, but there was certainly a boundary of class and it was at the top of that hill.
The ride down into the valley was a short and fast one. Once at the bottom, the road turned up again, this time headed up the even bigger Abner Mountain. It was a leg breaker of a climb, but not as bad as the previous one. Either way, the compounded efforts of hill after hill had me beat down and I spent all my time in the little gears, just trying to stay moving. Once over and back down the other side, I stopped at a BP station in the next valley for supplies and a break.
I was in the very heart of coal country and very thankful for the day of the week. It was Saturday, which meant most of the trucks that normally flood the roads with traffic through the week were not operating. What a relief! I got back on the road after my stop and headed for the next climb. They just wouldn’t quit coming.
Up and over two more climbs as big and as steep as the previous two, I finally started down into the valley toward Elk Horn City, the last town on route in Kentucky. At this point, I was absolutely spent. I felt as if I had nothing left to give and didn’t care if I made it to Virginia that day or not. I rolled into EHC about 7:30PM with the intent to get something to eat and then grab a room at the little motel on the East side of town that I had stayed in back in 2011. I found a Subway right away coming into town and went inside to feast. I ordered big and ate while I chatted with my wife on the phone. I sat there chilling out a bit long, but it had been a big day and I wasn’t too worried about spending a little bit of time. When I finished I packed up and headed across town to a gas station for supplies. I knew there wasn’t anything on the East side of town and I would be leaving early the next day anyway, headed off into an area with little services.
At the station, I grabbed a bunch of stuff, preparing for my morning ride into Virginia. In passing, the attendant asked me where I was headed and I told him the little motel across town. Much to my dismay, he reported to me that the motel had closed several years ago. I was gutted. I had my heart set on a bed and had ridden 180 miles of tough hills. I asked the guy if there was another motel in town. Nope. “But there is The Gateway up toward Breaks.” He looked up the phone number for me and called, but got no answer. He then called the motel in Breaks Interstate park. They were full. I got the number for the Gateway and went out to my bike to pack up my supplies I had bought. While doing so, I called Gateway several times without an answer. It didn’t make sense to me. It was 8:30PM on a Saturday night in June. Why would a motel not answer their phone?
Frustrated and feeling I had nothing else I could do, I started riding that way. Surely there was someone there. I would just have to go see them in person. The sun was getting low in the sky, I was smoked and I was heading off into “the wilderness” again without a solid plan. To make matters worse, Elk Horn City is down in a hole. The only way out was up. I wasn’t happy.
About 5 miles out of town, I crossed the state line into Virginia. My last state. It was somewhat bitter sweet as I didn’t want to ride any further that night, but I had made my goal for the day and I was now in the final state of the Trans Am. I carried on another mile up the road and found the Gateway Motel.
I got really excited when I pulled in the lot because there were less than a half dozen cars in the lot and the building looked to have 30 rooms or more. Vacancy! As I got closer to the office, I saw a sign that said closed. Closed?!?! There was a family playing frisbee in the parking lot and I asked them if they knew where the office person was. They told me that the old lady that ran the place had left before 8:00 and said she would be back to check folks out in the morning. I was floored. They also said that they had tried to get a room at Breaks and it was full. The thought honestly crossed my mind to start trying doors and see if I could get into one of the rooms that was vacant. I could always pay the lady later. My conscience made the better decision and I got back on the road to continue climbing.
As if a curtain was pulled, upon leaving the Gateway Motel, the sun went down. I rode up and up, watching for the turn to Breaks Interstate Park. I planned to see if they had any cancelations. Anything. It was either that or ride on through the night and I didn’t want to do that.
I finally made it to the entrance to the park about 9:30PM. I made the turn, rode the mile or so up to the motel and went inside. At the desk was the nicest lady I could imagine, but when I asked about a room, she had bad news. They were in fact full and had no place for me. I begged and groveled a bit. Surely they had some folks who had not made it there to check in yet? She said that there were 3 rooms reserved for folks coming in, but each one had already called and said they were on their way. The rooms would be filled for the night. I groveled a bit more shamelessly and explained that I had ridden the 190 miles from Berea over hill and dale and more hill. I was too tired to go on and needed a place to stay. She had an idea about a camping spot and called her supervisor. When she got back with me, she said, “I may have you a room.” The heavens parted and angels sang!!! Upon further review, they in fact had a room. It was an older room that they kept on reserve for volunteer workers with the park service. The maintenance man on duty would have to check it first to see if it was truly available.
I waited as patient as I could. After about 30 minutes, she got a call that the room was good to go. I would get to stay. I was stoked! She spent another 15 minutes or so trying to figure out how to get through the computer system so that she could rent me the room. Being a room for volunteers, they don’t typically rent it. Soon enough, I had keys in my hand. I thanked her over and over, then rode up the hill to the room, went inside, showered and got in bed. It was 10:30PM. I wouldn’t get to clean my soaked clothes, but I hung them over the air conditioner to dry the best they could. I had a monster day. 190 miles and 13933′ of gain. Sleep found me easily.