Spruce Pine, 1971
is a difficult trip to write about. I had intended to ride my bike from
Alabama to New Brunswick (at least) to Vancouver Island. I had also intended
to start a new life out there, either in Canada or in Seattle. I wanted
to write a book about my trip. I figured that it would be a good time to
do so, as many young people were now interested in cycling, bicycle touring,
and going back to a more natural way of living.
I met Barbara shortly
before I made this decision, so I told her about my plans. At one point,
she wrote a beautiful, illustrated poem about what my leaving meant to
her that touched me very much. I still have the poem, but I haven't read
it in 25 years.
At some point we
drifted into the idea of making the trip together. The leaving date would
have to be pushed back to the first of June and the number of miles reduced.
Still wanting a big slice of Canada, I cut New England and New Brunswick
off of the route, and I intended for us to go through New York into Quebec
before turning west, in all, a 5,000 mile trip. In addition, I passionately
wanted to tour the Blue Ridge Parkway, so I left it on the trip as well.
In fact, I was fairly obsessed with our trip through North Carolina: I
could see it by closing my eyes, and I dreamed about it at night.
I had earlier tried
to buy a lighter-weight bike than my Varsity, but the demand was making
them hard to get, so the Schwinn had been overhauled instead. For Barbara,
I purchased another Varsity, this one with a 21-inch frame with upright
seat and handlebars (her insistence). Besides being heavy (my bike weighed
40 lbs. and hers 45), the Varsities also had a narrow 40 - 100 gear range.
Since we had ten
weeks between our marriage and the trip, I figured that we could ride up
to twenty miles on the week day afternoons and up to one hundred miles
on the weekends in order to be physically prepared. Barbara was not the
athletic type, but she was no wimp. She felt self-conscious about her body
because she was a little heavy -- 150 lbs. and 5' 8" -- but that was far
from being fat. We had been on hiking and caving trips together, and she
had no physical difficulties that I can recall. She took to cycling readily,
demonstrating no bike handling problems in spite of not having had a bike
as a child, showing no fear of traffic, and not tiring easily. She wasn't
very fast, but she didn't travel at a boring speed either, so getting enough
mileage seemed easy. In fact, she even agreed to sell her car and to use
only the bikes for transportation.
On the better days,
we accomplished the distance goals. I think we rode 20 miles on one afternoon
ride, and on two weekends, we rode to her mother's and back, 25 miles each
way. We also practiced camping in the backyard and on a very short overnight
trip. I also took a ride each day while Barbara was at work, partially
to build up, partially for pleasure, and partially to remove tension.
rode a total of only 430 miles during the ten weeks. When you consider
that her normal week included 20 miles of riding, that meant most afternoon
and weekend rides just didn't take place. Besides the trips to her mother's
and the short camping ride, the only other long weekend ride ended in her
getting very mad at me and returning home, with me following behind. The
430 figure really stuck in my memory when it also became the total length
of our trip.
the car was sold, Barbara's mother's cat had had a litter of kittens, and
Barbara wanted two, which she named Spanky and Pooh. The names were very
appropriate: Spanky had an open, outgoing nature that took everything in
stride; Pooh found life to be a terrifying experience; even when brave,
he acted like Barney Fife. We agreed that the cats would stay with her
mother and be sent to us but, before we left, Barbara insisted that the
kittens come along, so they rode in a basket on the front of her bike.
When we left, they weighed 3 pounds together; when we returned, they weighed
a total of 17 pounds. Barbara also carried about five pounds of cosmetics
in spite of the fact that she had never used much makeup.
I might add also
that I tried to persuade her from making the trip. She had not been willing
to ride the miles I thought she needed, and I was afraid that her underpreparation
would cause her problems. I would be perfectly happy if she met me
on the West Coast. However, she was very strong about wanting to
go; in fact, she said she would go without me if necessary.
Day One: The first day of the trip
took us from our apartment to her mother's house. This was not a very good
trip day, as we had too much to do and too much to worry about. Nonetheless,
the ride itself caused no undue problems and could be considered a success,
considering that it was the first time we had carried everything (i. e.
cats and all). The day had been very hot, but that had not bothered us
Bessemer - Birmingham, 25 miles, June 4.
Two: Barbara picked a good route to take us out of Birmingham, but
we did run into a short section of heavy traffic. The cats were uncovered
and the honking cars terrified them, and they nearly got out and run over.
We had to stop and assess the situation and decided to buy another basket
the same size as the first in Gadsden, to make such escapes impossible
and to cover them up. Actually, we never again had a problem from traffic
or from the cats being afraid.
Barbara's route included a climb which had her worried, but she made
it OK and enjoyed the downhill. The rest of the ride was flat and uneventful.
When we reached Gadsden and stopped for a brief rest and to phone ahead,
she was really excited. The sixty mile distance had really worried her,
but she had made it with no problems. Although we didn't know it at the
time, that would be the longest ride she ever made in one day.
Birmingham - Gadsden, 60 miles, June 5.
Three: In leaving Gadsden, we started too late in the day, something
I always end up doing when leaving my parents' home. The weather was very
hot, and Barbara seemed to lack any energy. We finally arrived in Fort
Payne very late in the day and camped at Manitou Cave.
Our arrival in town was not without incident. Some fellows, driving
by, had said something, and Barbara had cursed them in return, so I had
found myself surrounded by four guys looking for a fight.
During the night, an amusing event happened. We had allowed the kittens
to wander outside, but some dogs had come and chased them into a tree.
After I chased the dogs away, Spanky came down, but Pooh was stuck in the
tree, and I could not coax him down. Seeing a plank, I rested one end under
his feet and held the other end near my shoulder. Pooh understood that
I wanted him to descend, but he was afraid. He put his front feet on the
plank and stopped. I then played him a dirty trick. I jerked the plank
out from under his feet and then pushed it back against the tree. Pooh,
as a result, came rolling down the plank like a black rubber ball, bounced
off the end, hit the ground running, and shot into the tent.
Throughout the trip, whenever dogs appeared, the cats would make
a beeline for the tent. One day, when we had stopped to rest and dogs appeared,
Pooh headed for the bicycle.
Gadsden - Ft. Payne, 35 miles, June 7.
Four: This day started with a "food fight." Basically, we had x
dollars to make the trip, which gave us so much per day. My idea was to
buy inexpensive food and camp out. Barbara never gave me any flack about
camping out, but she wanted to eat in restaurants frequently and buy junk
food (the little packets that cost so much) at every stop -- and she stopped
at every opportunity. That morning, she gave in, but she remained angry
and from then on bought what she wanted.
On this day, we continued along at the foot of Lookout Mountain,
a route that is almost flat, and we had little traffic as well. When we
crossed the Alabama state line into Georgia, Barbara showed some excitement
again. When near the Tennessee line, I found a dirt road leading
into the woods where we pitched our tent.
Ft. Payne - Tennessee line, 43 miles, June 8.
Five: In the morning, Barbara discovered a ring missing, and although
we searched, it was nowhere to be found. She remained in a bad mood for
much of the day and insisted on eating a late breakfast in a restaurant.
I also discovered a new problem. Barbara had insisted on riding in
front, when I could have been blocking the wind. Now that we were hitting
some hills, she would just coast down them instead of pedaling. So, I was
riding my brakes all the time. I could understand a low speed uphill, but
the low downhill speed was frustrating.
That afternoon, I found a tiny quarry for us to camp in (I have never
been able to locate it since).
Tennessee line - Ooltewah, 30 miles, June 9.
Six: We were slow getting started this day, and Spanky turned up
missing. After I had crawled into several holes, she finally showed up.
She was probably just taking a nap.
In the afternoon, we arrived at Ocoee Lake, and, at the last minute,
decided to camp at the lake rather than going on. We hadn't bought any
food for dinner, so I volunteered to go back to the last store, but Barbara
didn't want me to leave, and she said she thought we had enough. I don't
think she was afraid of strangers; I think she was afraid that, once out
of her sight, I wouldn't return. She enjoyed staying at the lake so much,
that I decided for us to stay a second day. I also convinced her to get
rid of much of the unnecessary weight she was carrying, and to set a good
example, I also added items to the pile. For instance, I had purchased
two miniature stoves, so we could cook faster and also have a spare, and
now I got rid of one.
Ooltoweh - Ocoee Lake, North Carolina, 24 miles, June 10.
Seven: One of the funniest things I've ever seen happened this morning.
On the trip, Barbara had bought potted meat with the idea that it was good
camping food, but neither of us had wanted to eat it. When we got up to
leave, the kittens were very hungry, and we had nothing left. Then Barbara
found the potted meat. We both smiled, we could get rid of the stuff without
having to eat it. Barbara called "kitty, kitty, kitty" and plopped the
meat on a nice leaf. The two starving kittens raced up, arrived at the
potted meat at the same time, each gave it a sniff, and simultaneously,
both turned around and covered it with dirt! Barbara thought that they
had made a mistake and carefully dug it back up, but after the kittens
buried it twice more, she was convinced. Actions are louder that words;
they knew what that stuff was! I've never tasted potted meat since.
Our route for this day was the most difficult so far, yet Barbara
was a trooper, so we managed to accomplish good mileage too. We first followed
the Ocoee River up through its gorge, a beautiful ride. Then we had to
go through the wasteland around Ducktown (destroyed by sulfur dioxide
pollution), where at last we could buy food. The rest of the day was hilly
and hot, but we did so well, that we even passed Murphy before we found
an isolated spot and camped. This success after a day of rest suggested
to me that her biggest problem was lack of preparation.
Ocoee Lake - Marble, 57 miles, June 12.
Eight: After leaving Marble, the road is flat until Andrew and then
begins a steep climb to Topton. Barbara was in a bad mood on this climb.
She stopped at the store in Topton and loaded up with food. I tried to
help her get up the hill by saying that I rode for six miles downhill through
Nantahala Gorge, one of the prettiest places I know. But she was less than
delighted with the trip through the gorge and told me only that I had exaggerated
When we stopped in one town, for some reason, she decided that she
wanted to cut my hair. So, using a bench in a small town park, she proceeded
to do so. Several men came to watch, in a friendly way, and started a conversation
with her. One of them suggested that rather than moving to Canada that
we just stay there. From then on, Barbara seemed to see this as a reasonable
offer on the part of the community that we should have seriously considered.
That night, she insisted that we camp in some people's front yard.
I'm sure the people were astonished at my request; I was even more astonished
when they said yes.
Marble - Bryson City, 36 miles, June 13.
Nine: Our route was fairly flat until several miles beyond Cherokee
when we reached our last major climb before the parkway at Asheville. Barbara
rode to the foot of the hill and stopped; she did not intend to pedal one
inch uphill. So, we walked. On the way up, it started to rain.
After crossing the top of the mountain, we began to descend at good
speed, when Barbara spotted another restaurant. So, there we stayed for
By the time we reached Lake Junaluska -- where she had gone to summer
camp -- it was already getting late, and I was worried about where we would
camp. Right there, Barbara indicated. Right there, on private property,
without asking permission or anything? That's what we did.
Bryson City - Junaluska, 43 miles, June 14.
Ten: The route from Junaluska to Asheville was almost flat, on a
too-busy and uninteresting road. After reaching Asheville we pulled off
into a small shopping center to buy food and were hit by a fast thunderstorm
before we had time to take cover or put our ponchos on. Fortunately, there
was a car wash nearby, so we scooted for its protection.
Then we had the parkway to deal with. In leaving Asheville, one makes
a monster climb. Barbara's dislike for climbing, seemed to have lessened
at the beginning, perhaps because of the thrill of the parkway. However,
it was a very long climb and a very long day for me, as I was the target
of her frustration. We couldn't make it to the top in one day, of
course, and once again camped where we were not supposed to.
Junaluska - Craggy Gardens, 31 miles, June 15.
Eleven: We finally made it to the top, and Barbara began to enjoy
the trip. The tops of the Black Mountains were beautiful and green then,
and not covered with dead trees as they are now. She also enjoyed riding
through the tunnels. We almost had the road to ourselves. She was happy
to cooperate in the taking of pictures, and I felt that everything was
at last going to be all right. We arrived at little Switzerland and enjoyed
together the pleasure of being there. To me it was the best day of our
trip. Things were finally looking up. I took a picture of her looking happy.
evening, after passing the road to Spruce Pine, we again reached an uphill
climb. Barbara became angry again. Near the top of the hill, we saw woods
on the right and followed a logging road to a good camp site. I don't know
what she had been expecting. Did she think that once we got past Mt. Mitchell
that it would be downhill all the rest of the day? At any rate, that evening
she attacked my idea of having chosen to travel on the parkway and every
other decision I had made. She said that she had not come to be just riding
a bicycle all the time; she expected to be working on her art also. I agreed
to leave the parkway and descend to highway 11 in Virginia, but I had no
illusions about such a change creating any improvement. I knew that highway
11 was not flat in Virginia as it was in Alabama. I also knew, that
while she had not prepared enough, that it was her attitude and not her
strength that was the problem. So, that night I was terribly depressed.
The only way I could save the trip was by leaving her, and I was not willing
to do that.
Craggy Gardens - Spruce Pine, 40 miles, June 16.
the morning, after traveling a short distance towards Spruce Pine, I blacked
out alongside the road. I can't remember now why we stopped. I just remember
her trying to get me to sit up and my blacking out every time she pulled
me up. Somehow, someone took us to the hospital, and someone else took
the bikes to a motel, I don't know why. After I had been neglected for
a long time at the emergency room, someone suggested a nearby doctor, and
he discovered my throat was badly infected. In fact, I found I could no
longer eat solid food, and I almost lost the ability to talk. Someone took
us back to the motel, and somehow we were on a bus being carried to my
sister's home in Charlottesville, Virginia. When I left the bus at Charlottesville,
I heard the driver exclaim, "Cats! They didn't tell me they had cats!"
Our marriage managed
to last another three years. In that time, we never went for a bike ride
or camped in the woods together again.
On June 10, 1988,
17 years later, I reached Spruce Pine on my way home from Pennsylvania.
I deliberately traveled the Blue Ridge "backwards" because I did not want
to renew old bad memories and regrets.