[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Spruce Pine, 1971
Love, marriage, and cycling didn't work well together on this unhappy, one-way bike trip from Alabama into the Blue Ridge. However, the two kittens had a great time.
Comments | SECTIONS: | The New World | Writing | Thoreau | Home | Bike Pages |
DIRECTORIES: | Lifestyle | Commuting | Touring | Health | Advocacy | Traffic | Skills | Humor |Survey | Links |

Spruce Pine, 1971

A rough map of our 1971 trip.This 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.

However, Barbara 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.

Pooh, before the start of the trip.Before 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 seriously either.

Bessemer - Birmingham, 25 miles, June 4.

Getting ready to leave Birmingham.Day 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.

Barbara checking kittens before leaving.Day 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.

Spanky (at the quarry).Day 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.

Our tent in the quarry from above.Day 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.

Barbara, thinking by Lake Ocoee.Day 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.

On the outskirts of Ducktown.Day 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.

Bluff alongside the road.Day 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 the distance.

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.

On the climb from Cherokee.Day 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 a time.

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.

On the Blue Ridge Parkway.Day 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.

The last climb towards Mt. Mitchell.Day 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.

Going into a tunnel.That 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. 

Barbara at Little Switzerland.In 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.

Comments | SECTIONS: | The New World | Writing | Thoreau | Home | Bike Pages |
DIRECTORIES: | Lifestyle | Commuting | Touring | Health | Advocacy | Traffic | Skills | Humor |Survey | Links |
TOURING ARTICLES: | Touring | Door to Door | Travel | Camping | Camping Gear | Bags | Tent | Laptop | NE Alabama | Gears |
TOURING ARTICLES: | Maps | Weather | Cooking | Tips | Tourtypes |
TOURING TRIPS: | Long Trips |Short Trips | Smokies | Canada | Spruce | Penna | Colorado | Seven States | New England | Ontario | Penna II | Plains | ENAT |
http://www.kenkifer.com/bikepages/touring/spruce.htm | Copyright © 2000 Ken Kifer | Minor editing June 1999