The Blue Ridge Parkway, Broken Bottom Brackets, and Trail Magic
Lately I’ve been remembering Felkerino’s and my short-lived honeymoon bike tour from four years ago. This adventure happened before I brought this blog to life, but on occasion I like to recall some of these blasts from the past.
This story is particularly special to me and not just because it was our honeymoon. It was also a time when one of our worst bike mechanicals occurred and we experienced our first brush with trail magic.
Our honeymoon tour began from our front door in Washington, D.C., out the W&OD trail into Virginia, and over to Skyline Drive. After completing the 105 miles of Skyline, we planned to traverse a large portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway, starting in Waynesboro, Virginia and ending in Pisgah, North Carolina several days later. It was an (overly) ambitious plan, with Felkerino and I planning to average 95 miles per day for the length of our tour.
Aside from a couple of flats, the first three days of our tour passed uneventfully. We rode out of town on Day 1, successfully managed the ups and downs of Skyline Drive, and three days later began what I thought was going to be a long trek along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Before we departed, I dreamed about how awesome our Blue Ridge Parkway tour would be, how we would return after ten days of wedded bliss on the Blue Ridge, and how we would feel like bada$$es for riding it. And on our honeymoon, even.
That story was never to be because on the fourth day, ten miles into the Parkway, our tour abruptly ended.
The previous day (Day 3), we had ridden up to Humpback Rocks and over to Rockfish Gap, staying the night at the Wintergreen Resort. Have you ever climbed to Wintergreen? I knew nothing of Wintergreen Resort except that I heard they do a climbing race there and it is hard. What an understatement. That is one hideous climb. Straight up for two-and-one-half miles. Felkerino and I made it, though, with nary a peep out of our bike.
After overnighting at Wintergreen, we bombed our way down the hill (or mountain, if you prefer) and began another rigorous 15% graded climb of about a half-mile up to the Parkway. It was a beautiful sunny morning and I looked forward to all that was to come after our initial climb.
Two-tenths from the Blue Ridge Parkway, though, we heard a hideous grinding sound, so hideous that we stopped and walked the bike to the Parkway entrance. We hopped on again and tried to ride it. Ed looked back and noticed the crank arms swaying back and forth.
We had fried our Phil Wood bottom bracket. This was a show-stopping mechanical. Cell phone service was sketchy, but somehow I managed to connect my phone to the internet long enough so that I could get numbers for the bike shops within 50 or so miles.
We called the nearest shop, in Waynesboro (12 miles down the road), and discovered their mechanic was out for the next two days. We called another shop, I can’t remember the town, but the connection was bad and I eventually hung up.
Soon after, I walked back down the hill to the police guard station outside of Wintergreen to see if we might get some help. They offered me a phone that worked. Better than nothing, I guess. I called all the people I could find in the local phonebook that seemed like they could help us out of a jam (with no luck), and then I hauled myself back up the 15% grade to join Felkerino. Now I knew what it was like to both ride and walk that darn hill.
Felkerino was sitting calmly at the top of the climb. It looked like he was having a nice day up there, relaxing. We talked a bit about what we might do, and then someone drove off the Parkway, stopped, and came over to us. His name was Bill Gallagher, and he was an Appalachian Trail trail angel!
I had never heard of trail angels before and did not quite grasp the concept of locals helping people on the Appalachian Trail “just because.” I mean, who does that in this day and age, I asked myself.
Bill thought we were AT hikers, and had stopped to find out where we were going. We relayed our plight to him and he offered to drive us into Waynesboro. How lucky were we?! We were so fortunate that he had stopped and that he had a vehicle that could accommodate our fairly long tandem.
We stuck our bags and tandem in his vehicle, with the end of the tandem hanging out of his jeep and wound our way back to the shop in town, Rockfish Gap Outfitters, hoping something could be done about our bike.
Felkerino attempted to fix the bike himself (as the shop’s mechanic was out for the next two days), but to no avail. I recall him saying, “This tour is over!” I would not accept that news.
In the interim, we had made contact with our friend Lane back home and he was looking into our options. In the other other interim, Felkerino called a car rental company and rented a truck.
Lane called back and told us that Bill the trail angel was on his way back to us and would take us to another bike shop. I still am not sure how Lane managed to reconnect to Bill, as we had told him nothing about him, but that’s trail magic for you. By that time, we had our rental truck, so we didn’t need a booster dose of trail magic.
We headed up to Harrisonburg to see if another bike shop might be able to help us out, but there were no mechanics on duty that Monday. We then decided to haul a** back to D.C. (a 160+ mile drive), drop off the bike, grab our hiking gear, become hikers, and get back on track with our honeymoon.
Rest of Honeymoon
We took the rented truck back to D.C., retired the tandem, threw our Camelbaks and hiking garb into our backpacks, slept for a few hours, and headed back out the next day, eager to get back on track.
The following four days were filled with extensive day hikes exploring what lay beyond the Parkway. They were incredible. We capped off our hiking with an intense six mile excursion up Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi, and another six miles back down. Tough and rewarding!
The final day of our hybrid bike-hike honeymoon tour we stayed at the Pisgah Inn in North Carolina. As we dined, we encountered a cyclist riding from Roanoke down the remainder of the Parkway. We asked him about his trip, and he told us how he had originally started his tour two years ago in Washington, D.C., just as we had.
He had ridden from home down to Roanoke and had been forced to abandon his trip due to failing brakes. As he reported, “It was really tough to make that call,” and to get picked up and driven back to Arlington.
Two years later, he had returned to the Parkway to complete the trip he started. How serendipitous it was to meet this person on our very last day and have him share this story with us. As the cyclist talked I felt a little bittersweet about our own journey, but also hopeful that we would return someday to complete the ride we started.
Our honeymoon tour taught me so many things: the importance of being adaptive, the fact that we cannot control everything that happens on the bike; and that, when you are down and out, sometimes people– perfect strangers, even– will come your your aid.
When we thought we had exhausted our options for getting off the Parkway, trail angel Bill Gallagher willingly took our bike, bags, and us down the mountain to the bike shop. He was even ready to come back and provide us further assistance. And he asked nothing of us.
That meant so much because others were not so willing and able to stop and help. We really needed to get off the Parkway at that point, and it would have been a huge all-day effort for us to coast (since we could not turn the pedals) and walk our way 12 miles down into Waynesboro for further assistance.
We also learned about the persistence and support of our friends. Lane really buoyed my spirits and kept us going when we were tired and I felt we were running out of tour options. It helped Felkerino and me feel like we were not alone in this.
When this was happening, I was certain that it was a metaphor for something bigger. After all, it was our honeymoon. But everything “bad” that happens to a person does not necessarily have some underlying meaning. We had an unfortunate and serious mechanical. It altered our plans, but now I don’t ascribe anything more to it than that.
In fact, I got to see some incredible stuff as a result of our broken bottom bracket. I learned about trail angels and felt trail magic for the first time. And as a cyclist to boot! People came to our aid, and we found another way to have a great trip.
Those moments on the Parkway were humbling and angst-filled. But they also showed me that there are people out there, some who might not even know you, who are willing to lend a hand when you are in need. They expect nothing in return. They only want to help.