[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Bike Trip to the Smokies, 1965
My first bicycle camping trip, from Alabama to the Smoky Mountains and back, made on a three-speed bike. Only two days were written up, but some additional events are recalled.
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Bike Trip to the Smokies, 1965

The following two reports from my trip were actually written during the following spring to try to sell the idea of publishing my trip reports from my next trip in the local newspaper. While not being immediate, they demonstrate a clearer memory of details than I could provide now.

Rough map of my 1965 trip.My equipment on this trip was rather primitive.  My bike was a three-speed black English "racer" that I purchased for $44 the previous November.  The pannier bags used on the trip were small ones I had made for school which sat on the fenders. For camping equipment, I carried two wool blankets, a borrowed gas stove, a small plastic tarp, a pot and a few utensils, and very little clothing, mainly cotton.  Unfortunately, I have no pictures from the trip or of me with that bike.

The trip taught me that I needed more gears and dropped handlebars, but it barely whetted my desire to travel.  I immediately began planning a much longer trip.

August 2, 1965

My watch shows it is about four o'clock.  I am camped on a wooded hill about 60 miles from Gadsden.  A breeze is blowing rather strongly as I sit here on the black dirt and pine straw of a small clearing.  Nearby is my bicycle, which is leaning against a small tree.  Between two other small trees, I have strung a rope about two feet off the ground for my tent.  Beside me is the gasoline stove which I carry, giving off a hissing sound as it boils some corn.

It's been a hard day for me, and even though I've rested two hours, I'm still somewhat tired.  I feel hot in spite of the breeze because the sun has burned me slightly on the way here.  And how was my day and what am I doing?

Nearly a year ago, I borrowed a boy's bicycle to take a ride in the country.  The ability it gave me to go, to see, and to do made me decide to get one of my own.  By November I had a bike and used it to explore all the area around Jacksonville.  I rode to Anniston, Piedmont, Ohatchee, Gadsden, and Centre; I went to the local springs, where I would sometimes read, watch birds, or just get a drink; to the caves that I knew, where I explored with my carbide; to the Coosa near Ohatchee, where I watched the fishermen; to Yellow River, where I once went swimming; to the local mountains, which I climbed; and to Little River Canyon, where I only had time to look.  By the end of July, I had covered 2,000 miles on my bike.  But that was not enough.

On each of my trips, I had reached a point where I had to turn back, even though I never wanted to.  I realized that if I kept on going, I could be twice as far away the next day.  For this reason, I planned a trip that would let me do just that.  And so this morning at eight o'clock, with my bike loaded with equipment, and my mind both doubtful and eager, I set out from Gadsden for the Smoky Mountains.

On the way up the valley, I spent as much time as I could studying Lookout Mountain.  Two years ago, I had walked that mountain to Fort Payne, taking two days because the going was so rough.  Today I traced my trail along the ridges and noted the place where I had stopped one night.  This time, I made it to Port Payne in three hours.

In Port Payne I stopped for supplies, and where the highway leaves the mountain, I stopped to eat my daily loaf of bread.  I ate sitting on top of a cement table or walking around to flex my legs and watching the cars blur by.  I had been following their trail all day, but my eyes had been, when possible, on the mountain.  The drivers in their cars, on the other hand, had been intent only on getting to their next destination, and so had hurried on.  Yes, I had been following their trail all day, but now they would go down one road and I another.  Perhaps we should have separated a long time ago, but in another sense, I think we had.

August 9, 1965

The night is dark, and the rain has let up some after a hard burst.  I am riding my bike down the gleaming black highway that goes along the top of the mountain to Gadsden, with the spots of water on my generator light throwing a weird pattern of splotchy light in front of me.  Going around a bend, I see an open store, and I ride into its graveled yard to rest.

The people on the porch are curious.  Where have I been on that bike?  What am I doing out at this time of night?  They offer to fix me a sandwich, but I refuse and ask for a drink of water instead.  I am very happy because the rain and the night riding have exhilarated me. Even so, it is easy to see that I'm tired.  I should be: I have already come 110 miles today and still have 13 miles to go.

Yesterday I camped seven miles this side of Cleveland, Tennessee.  I had left Cherokee, North Carolina, the day before, had crossed the Smoky Mountains, had passed through Maryville, and had battled a storm before I stopped.  The next morning I rode down through Madisonville, Ocoee, and Cleveland, and again stopped, having traveled 176 miles in two days, first over mountains and then against head winds.

This morning I woke up at 4:30.  The night had been cold, and I had had trouble sleeping.  I laid on the ground in my two blankets shivering for a while and then got up.  I stuffed my things into the panniers on my bike, folded and tied my blankets over them, and started on my way.

At Ooltewah, I turned off the Chattanooga highway and headed for Ringgold.  Each mile went by slowly since I was again fighting head winds; each hour seemed like a lifetime.  La Fayette, Summerville, Cedar Bluff, and Centre used to be only names on a map, but as I fought my way through them, a bit of each was burned into my memory.

Why make a trip like that?  Because I want to experience all of life.  I want to cross every ocean by raft, walk through every blizzard, ride through every country, swim every stream, and visit the depths of every cave.  I want to enjoy every pleasure and suffer through every pain.

One of my dreams had been to camp for a week in the Smokies, and here I was, coming back early.  I had wanted to see and enjoy the wild forests and high mountains I had read about; instead, I found the Park merely a large recreation area for tourists and auto campers -- small cities of tightly packed tents contrasted with empty campsites far back in the woods cluttered with garbage and smelling from horses.  A dream was shattered, and yet I know now to find my own way and not somebody else's. One dream crushed, but did it hurt me?   As Thoreau said, "If you have built your castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put your foundations under them."

I have to tell some nice stories from this trip that I did not report above.

At one point on my way to the Smokies, I felt like giving up because I was tired and had no more energy.  So, I actually turned around and was astonished to find how fast I could go.  I realized then that I had been climbing, so I turned back and continued on.  In a short while, I crossed into Nantahala Gorge and traveled the next three miles at 50 mph, yelling in my astonishment.

On the day I crossed Newfound Gap (5,048 ft.), I found climbing the Smokies with just three speeds to be only boring.  At the top, I let the cars get ahead of me, and then I was able to travel at 50 mph for the next nine miles with no car able to catch me.  Near the bottom was a short tunnel that the road first went through and then looped back over.  At the tunnel, I flipped on the front-wheel generator at full speed, wondering if my tire would blow, then unhooked it on the other side.  Climbing over the tunnel on the over side, my speed dropped to pedaling speed; only then was a car able to catch up to me to pass me.

Traveling southeast through the park, I meet two younger fellows on a ride. We stayed together until Maryville, and they showed me how they cooperated with the traffic by signaling when it was safe to pass.

That night I stayed at a motel, little as I could afford the $5.  But the sky was black, heavy rain was approaching, I was far from any woods to camp in, and one sign announced, "Slippery When Wet," a second sign announced, "ELEVEN PEOPLE KILLED ON THIS STRETCH OF ROAD LAST YEAR," and a third sign announced, "PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD!"  I have always wondered if the motel was responsible for the signs.

Twenty years later, when I finally decided I ought to keep a record of my mileage, I thought the information for this trip might be lost.  However, I discovered a stick on which I had whittled my mileage on the way to the Smokies and then had left at my campsite near Cleveland.  On the way back, I stopped at the same campsite, whittled the new speedometer figure, and this time kept the stick.  The stick plus my memory of other distances made computing the total easy.

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