On July 16, an Eastern Mennonite University coach and three alumni began biking uphill. For 20 miles. And that was just the first day of a 500-mile trip, traversing the Blue Ridge Parkway from its southern end in North Carolina to where it becomes Skyline Drive in Afton, Virginia.
“For a cyclist it’s pretty tantalizing,” says Joanna Friesen, who organized the trip with three cross-country alumni (Friesen, a seminary student, is an assistant coach for the team). Friesen, Hannah Chappell-Dick ’16, Michaela Mast ’18, and Abigail Shelly ’20 biked about 50 miles a day for eight days, although in one long haul they pounded out 85 miles.
“It’s been on my radar for awhile as a beautiful long road, perfect for a week’s touring with no stop signs or traffic lights,” Friesen says. She’s started blogging about the experience on her website American Wanderings. We’ve reprinted her entry about day one below; check out the blog to read more about their journey.
Continuous Climb: Day one on the Parkway
Part 1 in a series of reflections on mine and my friends’ unsupported bike tour on the Blue Ridge Parkway from July 16 – 24. Day one was 19.21 miles with 4,508 ft of elevation gain, it took us 3:42:12 to complete at an average speed of 5.2 miles per hour. SLOWWW GOING. In addition to our bikes we each carried 40-60 pounds of additional gear (tents, cookstoves, food, everything we needed and some extra). I had decided while packing that this was the ordained time for me to finish “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, turned out to just be more weight to carry. My brain got too fried for Russian Gulag literature.
An elk greets us, a tenth of a mile into our northbound foray on the Blue Ridge Parkway. An elk. They were reintroduced to the Great Smokies in the early aughts. I learned this a few days later, poring over a biodiversity pamphlet as I sheltered out a vicious thunderstorm at a visitor center some 300 miles up the road. The elk was my first clue that we were going to learn how much we didn’t know this week.
Late in 2019, I sketched out a race schedule for myself, tracing the contours of 2020: a “big year” for me athletically. It was all engineered. A part of this was my plan to ride the Blue Ridge Parkway, in its entirety, as fast as possible, supported by my husband driving a follow car. At the end of every day, he would whisk me to an AirBnb to recover, I would put in monster mileage days, and I’d see if I could do it in five to six days. This was an afterthought though, nestled amongst marathons, half-marathons, and triathlons of increasing distance and challenge. Then all the races got cancelled. My calendar was a series of dates highlighted in red, “cancelled.” All I had left in my schedule was this lone un-highlighted, un-cancelled sketch of biking the parkway.
And then I reached out to some friends, a fellow coach, two graduated star EMU athletes. All women, all stubborn, all strong; all looking for some kind of something to make this summer be more than a summer of loss and upheaval. Reaching out for companionship for this trek was the best impulse I’ve had this summer. We started planning in earnest in early June; borrowed gear, expert bike mechanic advice, and my own experience from my cross-country ride in 2017 heavily mined.
And, then there we were. We drove down one of our cars, and left it by permission in the parking lot of the Great Smokies visitor center. Some chaotic packing, learning and re-learning how to efficiently pack a bike was a continued process throughout the ride, and a short roll down the highway and we were turning left onto that 470 mile ribbon that carves through the many blue ridges and smoky mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. We were off.
Or rather, we were up. Lesson two was that all of our uneducated (why did we do so little research?) guesses around elevation were incorrect. At least personally, my rationale is that if I don’t know the specifics of a ride, it doesn’t matter, because I’ll stubbornly force myself through it anyway. Plus, I reasoned, nothing could be worse than that one day in Wyoming’s Bighorns, so I’d be able to do anything the East Coast could throw at me, I’d been out West.
So, I told my friends we wouldn’t see a climb over an 8% grade (true) and that we wouldn’t have a climb longer than five to eight miles (not true, no idea where I got that idea from). And also, an 8% grade is no walk in the park when you’re doing 50-plus mile days hauling 40 – 60 pounds of gear. So.
The first day began giddily, with laughter and excitement. It soon settled into the uphill grind. Twenty miles of it. Just around the bend, there was just another upward bend. As it got dark, and inched towards 8:30 p.m., we were bathed in the soft pink light of sunset, golden rays, and soft clouds in orange light. The mountains became a deeper blue, even purple. We continued on the upward path, in utmost beauty and the still of an Appalachian mountain evening.
And eventually, we saw a sign that there were bathrooms in three miles. We continued on, and found our way to Waterrock Knob, elevation somewhere around 5,500 feet. We set up a surreptitious camp, ate our dehydrated foods in the dark, and settled in for a restless night. I kept thinking about bears. The wind howled around the top of the mountain. Some teenagers partied in the parking lot at the top of the world. The bathrooms were closed and there was no water access. Some kind sunset-watchers earlier had humored our humble requests for water (which we needed for the next morning, we didn’t know when we would find more water). And that was day one. We started in a parking lot, and ended at a parking lot on top of the mountain.
– Joanna Friesen