August 28, 2014
The Allegheny Mountains Loop route is a 400-mile bike route that begins and ends at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. The Adventure Cycling Association mapped it out several years ago. It skirts the Virginia/West Virginia border, frequently moving between the two states. The route includes dirt rail trails, gravel roads, grassy two-track, and pavement. There are many, many brutal climbs, including two climbs of over 2,000 vertical feet up Allegheny Mountain.
I began the route on a Thursday at 3:00 p.m., after driving nine hours to get there. I was already tired from competing in a triathlon just a few days before and not sleeping much before the drive, but at least the weather was good. Here I am standing at the War Memorial on campus, where the route officially begins.
My plan from the start was to strike a balance between a touring pace and a racing pace. I wanted to move fast and light, but I also wanted to take in the sights and experience some of the local culture. I was wearing a SPOT tracking device so my family would know I was okay. Much of the route is remote and there is no cell service. Within a few miles outside of Blacksburg the amazing scenery starts.
Thursday afternoon passed quickly. I knew this part of the route from a failed attempt a few years ago. I remembered that some of the climbs were tough and there was the “Dog Gauntlet” from Pembroke to Caldwell, a lengthy section where I would get attacked by big dogs every ten minutes or so. I was particularly wary of this as I’m a bit afraid of dogs, but it began raining in earnest after a few hours. By the time I got in the Gauntlet most of the dogs were indoors. A few managed to come at me, but a quick squirt of my bear spray sent them off in the other direction.
By 8:30 it was dark, misty, and fog descended. As I climbed higher on some of the small passes the fog became so thick that I could only see a few feet in front of me. My world closed to a little cone of light, eerie and lonely. I pedaled and pedaled and eventually stopped at Moncove State Park. I leaned my bike against a picnic table and set up camp. Here’s what that looks like (though the photo is from later in the trip).
I kept hearing this loud “SLAP!!” and then a splash of water. It took me a minute to figure out that there was a beaver in the area and he wasn’t happy about me being there. Too bad. I was tired.
I was up at 3:30 and pedaling by 4:00. My goal was to make it to Glady, the furthermost point on the route and 140 miles away. It would be a long day of wet rail trails. Rail trails aren’t hard to ride, but the Greenbriar trail is punishing in a surprising way. It’s a 1% grade up, so if you stop pedaling you’ll drift to a stop in just a few meters. Plus it rained on me for hours in the morning, making the dirt soft and squishy. I worked hard, but only averaged about 11mph. It’s a nice trail, though, with lots of interesting historical markers and beautiful bridges. I stopped frequently to read the signs and enjoy the river.
One of the biggest challenges of the AML is the section between the towns of Cass and Paint Bank. It’s over 100 miles and there are no services. Water isn’t a problem; there are plenty of rivers and streams. I used a Sawyer Mini filter and it worked very well, though it’s slow. (Every time I stopped to filter water I lost 15 minutes or so.) But food is a bigger issue, especially for me. I’m a big guy and I eat a lot. When I got to Marlinton (mile 140) I stopped for 1.5 hours to wash my clothes, get a meal, and stock up on food. My SPOT was working when I got there, but apparently that was it. When I checked it in Glady 10 hours later it was dead as a doornail.
At any rate, I took another short break when I got to Cass to eat some pizza and stock up a bit more on junk food. I sat with a group of locals in front of the store and listened to them talk as the downed beer after beer. They were straight-up hardcore West Virginia rednecks and proud of it. Appalachian redneck culture is not a thing of the past. It’s alive and well. Even though I’m an urbane university professor I relate to it. Maybe it’s from growing up in Idaho, maybe it’s my Scottish/Irish ancestry, but either way I respect their fierce independent natures and their basic competency in the outdoors. This menu from the restaurant in Paint Bank romanticizes the culture a bit:
It’s not so glorious, though. Alcoholism rages through those communities, and brings with it all manner of domestic violence and child abuse. Meth addiction is also a serious problem. Several of the guys that I sat with looked like meth heads to me. They were scrawny and wiry and had the bad teeth and skin and jittery mannerisms that come from meth. I never felt scared, though. Even though they knew I was an educated Yank, they respected me from humping my bike up those steep hills by myself in the remote wilderness. “Sheet,” one of them said, “You gots to git water and et vittles whiles bustin ass over yonder mountains n’ hollers n’ thats gots to smart like a sonofabitch. Your ass is fuckin hard.”
Not my ass so much as my mental fortitude. Endurance sports are mostly about mental fortitude, about being mentally hard. My fortitude would be tested many times over the next couple hundred of miles.
So I pedaled and pedaled, getting every closer to Glady, which sits at exactly mile 200, the midpoint of the ride. I was dog tired. Bone tired. It had been a long day and a half and I realized that deep down I was pretty burned out on bikepacking. I’d been doing a lot of it the last few years, pushing myself to ever further limits of my sanity and physical abilities. I needed a break. Problem was I was in the middle of West Virginia wilderness. I couldn’t exactly just call up Jessica and get a ride home. I had to finish this thing. One mile at a time. Getting to Glady became a mission, a quest. Glady, Glady, Glady. Darkness and rain descended as I rode on the West Fork Trail, a 22-miles stretch of rail trail that is rough and unmaintained. The constant rain rendered the ground mushy and slippery. I could either labor along in the grassy middle at 7 mph, or go a shade faster in the mud ruts, but then the wheels kept slipped out from under me. I fell over twice, cursing a blue streak. Why was I doing this? Why? Why? Why? I just knew I needed to get to Glady. I was deeply worried and out of sorts. This all sounds melodramatic, but believe me, when you’re by yourself in remote wilderness, you’ve been riding for 15+ hours, it’s dark, wet, and the trail is difficult, it messes with your mind. For some reason I thought Glady would make everything okay.
And then I realized I was in the throes of the first big illusion of this adventure. Why did I think Glady was the answer to how hard this was? What did I expect? My beautiful wife to be there with a hot cup of home-made soup and a back rub? Of course this was hard. Riding a mountain bike for 15 hours in one day in rain through wet trails and over mountains is hard. It’s hard for everyone. Some guys can do it faster, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier for them. If I wanted easy I would have stayed home, but I wanted a challenge, because without challenges we don’t grow.
At any rate, I made it to Glady and cached out under a dirty awning on a little building next to a pay phone. Home sweet smelly home for about five hours (the smells emanating from the depths of my bivy sack might best be described as “noxious”):
I was pedaling by 5:30. It was a rough start. The first big climb took me a while and the top of the mountain was cold and foggy. The descent was sketchy as the gravel road was rutted out and had many sharp rocks. I rode well, though, and avoided any sidewall gashes.
It was a day of climbing. First the gravel road climb, then up a paved road, state highway 250, over 2,000 vertical feet to the top of Allegheny Mountain. I made it, after much labor:
Then the most brutal climb I’ve done in a long time, the “Ridge Alternate,” another narrow gravel road that just goes up and up over seven miles at around 10% grade, again climbing Allegheny Mountain. Again over 2,000 vertical feet of climbing, most of which I did by pushing the bike. Here’s a photo of my GPS at the top, and me looking a bit peaked, as they say in WV:
I did that one in the middle of the day and it was hot and humid by then (though cold on top, which is why I had the rain jacket on before the descent). Sweat literally poured off of me and I burned through my water in short order. I was really getting tested on that one. “Why is this so hard?” I would ask over and over. But again, it’s the wrong question. Of course it’s hard, it’s hard for everyone. As the great cyclist Eddie Merckx once said, “It never gets easier, you only get faster.” A better question would be this: “How do I accept this difficulty? How do I get through this?” It’s been said that endurance sports are a metaphor for life and I believe that to absolutely be true. Most of the time we ask the wrong questions.
So, more climbs, more descents. I was doing okay on calories, technically enough to get me to Paint Bank, but of course I felt like crap. Lack of sleep, constant hard exercise, and junk food just isn’t a good combination. People often tell me that these bikepacking adventures make me really fit and healthy, but that’s not true. They are spiritually nourishing, but physically they’re terrible for your body. It’s really a triple blow: when you really need lots of quality sleep and healthy food to repair the damage from an elevated heart rate for extended periods of time, instead you end up increasing the stress by eating Butterfingers, Twizzlers, Slim Jims, and Chex Mix and then only sleeping three hours. But you have no choice. Perishable food doesn’t work well. It’s too messy and it goes bad quickly.
When I rolled into Mountain Grove I knew there was a store there and I was hoping I could at least get a microwave egg-and-cheese sandwich, but it was closed. As I stood there looking pathetic a man happened to come out of his house across the street asked me if I needed any help. We talked for a bit and I learned that he was an Entomology professor at Virginia Tech and came up to these parts every weekend since he was raised there and he still had a house there. He invited me in for spaghetti dinner. Yeah!
We had a wonderful time. I was deeply humbled by Stephen’s hospitality and found him to be an honest, intelligent, and sensitive soul. He shared all kinds of wonderful stories and anecdotes about the area. It was truly a highlight of the adventure. I bikepack to experience many things you don’t get in regular life, including different cultures.
That evening I stayed at a legitimate campground just ten miles past Stephen’s home. I was up and pedaling by 4:00. Again it was misty and wet, with a lot of fog. I rode for hours and hours in the dark, with nothing but that little cone of light. I worked hard at keeping my mind still, neither empty nor busy. Just still. If I thought about anything it was whether I was racing or touring the AML. I was kind of doing both. If I had truly been racing I wouldn’t have stayed two hours at Stephen’s house, nor would I have spent time stopping and reading all the historical signs, like this one:
Indeed, if I had been racing I wouldn’t have even taken any pictures. So I was more touring. But still, putting in 130+ miles per day average isn’t exactly a leisurely pace. If you’re a roadie that might seem pathetically slow, but keep in mind that the climbs are huge, the roads are often dirt, and the bike weighs 42 pounds with fat tires at only 35 psi. That’s a respectable pace, though I’m sure I can do it much faster next year.
So, racing or touring? I’ve wrestled with that one quite a lot this year, and part of the reason I dropped out of the Tour Divide is that I just wasn’t digging the race vibe. I like pushing myself and getting into a flow state of constant forward motion, but the constant pressure of maintaining calories and hydration gets enervating, and it saddens me that I often blow through interesting cultural or scenic opportunities because I’m so focused on time. There’s also a kind of materialism to racing that I dislike. More miles at a faster pace = better. That’s part of the reason I stopped doing so many sanctioned triathlons (and it gets way too expensive). What I really crave is being in nature in an active state. Why do I need to do that while trying to go faster than other people? What is the point? It often just seems like a lot of empty ego. What have I accomplished if I finish first in my age group, or second, or tenth? Who cares, especially if I’ve missed all the beautiful things that I came to see in the wilderness? Do I really need a medal or some kind of t-shirt so that I can show my friends and family how tough I am? Is that what this is all about? However, it’s inspiring to ride with other people, and sometimes competition is a good thing; it can push us to ever higher levels.
As I wrestled with these thoughts, I kept riding. The climb up to Mountain Lake was also extremely difficult, and again I pushed my bike up there. But it was cool to see the actual town where Dirty Dancing was filmed.
The descent was insane. Seven miles of paved road, with good sightlines. I hit 42 mph a few times, a huge grin on my face. Sorry, no photos of that . . .
The other thing I meditated upon quite a bit while I was out there was the financial aspect of pursuing endurance sports. It’s not something most of my friends in the endurance sports community like to discuss because it’s often a source of friction in their marriages and families, but it’s a big issue. In short, I’ve been spending waaayyyy too much money on endurance sports, especially given my income bracket. The sanctioned races have gotten completely out of control. Between race fees, hotel, and travel, it’s not uncommon for me to spend $500 on a single Xterra if I bring the family. I know friends who have spent $3,000 on a single Ironman. For a 12-hour race! This is one of the reasons I’ve stopped doing so many sanctioned races and turned to events like the AML. For this entire three-day adventure I spent less than $400. Next year I’m going to see if I can do the entire season with less than $500. That will mean only local, self-made adventures, but it will still be an amazing season.
And while thinking about all that I finally came to some closure regarding the Tour Divide, the 2,700-mile mountain bike race I dropped out of earlier this year. I had dreamed of doing it for years, but the reality is that it’s too expensive and too much time for where I am in my life. After seeing many friends stall their careers and destroy their marriages as they went crazy with Ironman training and racing, I realized I was headed down the same road with the Tour Divide. The AML is a much better fit for where I am in life. I can do it relatively cheaply and I’m done in a few days and can get back to my family and work. It’s easy to think that as events get longer they get better, but that’s a dangerous road to go down. People often say that the “real” changes inside only come after you’ve been racing X number of hours or days, but if that’s true then you can logically spin that out to absurd lengths. You think Ironman is intense? Then you haven’t heard of Ultraman. And if that’s not crazy enough, then try doing 10 Ironmans in a row in 10 days. Etc, etc, etc. There’s nothing inherently better about the Tour Divide than the AML or an Ironman over a sprint triathlon. Changes can occur at any length if we’re open to them. Someday I might ride the Divide, but for now the AML is my race.
After the descent from Mountain Lake I was close, only about 20 miles left. But still more climbing! God, why was this so hard? I asked it again and again, but it wasn’t until I rolled up to the War Memorial at exactly three days and four hours after I started that I finally began to understand the answer, which comes in two parts:
- It’s hard because it’s hard.
- It’s hard because you won’t accept that it’s hard.
All that talk about pushing through walls isn’t quite accurate. It happens, but there’s just another wall, and another, and another. The more focused we get on pushing through the walls, the less successful we become at the pushing. Of course climbing seven miles in the remote wilderness up 2,000 vertical feet with a 42-pound mtb is hard. It’s hard for everyone. When I finally began to accept that it’s the pushing—not the wall—that is the essence of these pursuits, my mind quieted way down.
As always happens on these adventures I arrived at the finish line and there was no one there. No crowds cheering, no medals around my neck, no one to tell me congratulations. Nothing. It’s tough in a way, but it’s also pure. I rolled up to the War Memorial and nonetheless put my arms in the air and shouted “I did it! AML! I did it!”
But actually there was someone there. A young man was sitting on a bench and he turned around and looked at me. I asked him if he would take a photo to verify my finish. He did and we got to talking. Turns out he’s a hard-core ultra runner. His name is Henry and he’s completed multiple 100-mile runs, and all sorts of extremely difficult adventures, including two times at the Barkley Marathons. (Google that if you don’t know what it is. Most ultra runners consider it the most difficult race ever conceived. Only 16 people have finished it in over 25 years.)
Henry is an intelligent and kind person and the more we talked the more it became clear we had much in common. He understood perfectly what I had just accomplished and he did in fact congratulate me. The more we talked the more I wanted to spend time with him. I was completely filthy, though, swimming in three days of sweat and dirt. He offered me to come to his house and clean up and have some dinner. Trail magic! Again! I took him up on his offer and had my first shower in three days, which felt wonderful. Afterwards we went to a Mexican restaurant and spent several hours talking about ultra endurance sports, the wilderness, and discussing why we do these things. I found an instant friend, a kindred spirit who really understands the need to push oneself and to keep searching for ways to make our lives deeper and more meaningful. Henry is the real deal, a serious athlete whose intentions are pure and not polluted with ego or commercialism. I ended up sleeping on his couch and leaving early the next morning. But we plan to see each other again, something I look forward to very much.