Author: Adam Bratton
Read Time: 8 mins
Last week I completed a seven-day self-supported bikepacking trip from my current basecamp in Charlotte, NC to my childhood home in Montoursville, PA. In addition to some of the lesser traveled rural northbound roads, the 650+ mile route was set to cover 230+ miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway, 100+ miles of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park and 40+ miles on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. All, of which, are of the most beautiful and sought out cycling routes on the east coast. The bike was packed, the logistics were set, the mindset was dialed in. It was the perfect time for Hurricane Ian to come through and completely derail my plans.
Within a short few minutes of launching, I realized that covering 100 miles to my planned end point for day #1 would be way more difficult than expected. More accurately, the first day was a complete and utter shit show.
Riding 8+ hours through 4 inches of rain and wind gusts over 40 MPH quickly took its toll both physically and mentally. Sprinkling in over 6700 feet of elevation gain and a 25-degree temperate drop from the day before to the low 50’s would put my “warm weather” and “rain” gear to the test. A test that I would pass by the skin of my teeth. Not an idyllic start to the trip.
After arriving at a friend’s place (Jeff, you’re a saint!) and curling up to the space heater with a boiling cup of hot chocolate to warm up my shivering body, I laid all of my soaking wet gear out to dry, shoveled down some food, shared the disasters of the day with Jeff over a few beers, and climbed into bed. I barely slept as the swirling wind and rain worsened and was battering everything that wasn’t nailed down outside. I laid there and for a second started laughing. As bad as the ride was that day, I couldn’t help but to appreciate how fortunate I was to be inside and safe from the hurricane’s beating. This would be a reoccurring theme for the rest of the trip.
Although things got better on day #2, it wasn’t by much. The gusty headwind plunged to a casual and breezy 20 MPH and I only had to deal with 2 inches of rainfall and non-stop mist over the nearly 9-hour ride. I ended up covering the most single day distance of the trip at 112 miles with over 8000 feet of climbing along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I quickly remembered how secluded the parkway is as I demoralizingly passed multiple re-supply options that were closed due to Hurricane Ian. This would come back to aggressively haunt my plans over the next 36 hours. On a positive note, I had crossed into Virginia, was making northbound progress, and felt extremely justifiable in altering my tent camping plans in leu of a hotel room once I rolled into Roanoke, VA that night.
With a few hours of dry and warm sleep I was up well before sunrise to pack my re-soaked gear, and was out the hotel lobby at dawn for day #3. Weather for Roanoke was forecasted to be relatively good this day. It was for the first 15-20ish miles. Then the climbing began. As the elevation gain continued upward, the rain, temperatures, and morale all plummeted.
I had ridden the entire Blue Ridge Parkway in 2017 and knew that this was going to be a massive day. I also knew that the climb up to Apple Orchard Mountain Overlook (Virginia’s highest point on the parkway at 3994 ft) would be followed by descending to the James River (the lowest point on the entire parkway at 649 ft) just 12 miles later.
This was, by far, the sketchiest part of the entire trip. I hadn’t seen a single car for hours (unheard of for Sundays on the parkway in the fall), I was pedaling alone and on the ridgeline at the highest point in Virginia with 15 feet of visibility while in the depths of a storm cloud created by a hurricane. My entire body was shivering from spending the last 4 hours exposed to 40-degree weather with swirling wind and non-stop rain, and I knew that I had a massively curvy and extremely slippery decent ahead of me. Add in a massive amount of storm debris scattered throughout just for the fun of it. I vividly remember shaking all these external variables off and deeply focusing on the task at hand. Get down off this damn ridgeline and find shelter. My margin for error was completely nonexistent. Any split-second loss of focus, mechanical issue, or oddly positioned stick in the road would call an immediate end to my trip or worse.
Oddly enough, these exact moments pop into my head when people ask “why did you do it?”. I’ve embraced the reality that there is much to be learned from these experiences. I’ve found myself in these situations many times throughout my ventures ... some intentional, some inadvertent. The mental, physical, and emotional development that occurs through these moments is profound. This is something that I can't even begin to convey in this format. I has to be felt first hand in order to fully comprehend.
Now that I'm looking back, it’s easier to say, but this completely irrational situation that I sought out was a familiar spot. Although it lacked any semblance of tangible comfort, I had discovered the elusive sweet spot of my adventure comfort zone in this wet, windy, and foggy environment. I clearly understood the situation that I put myself in and clearly understood how to get back out.
After swiftly descending down to the James River maxing out at 45MPH, I found some reprieve in the form of a semi-defunct convenient store 3 miles off the parkway in Big Island, VA. It took me 90 minutes to stop shivering as I drank cup after cup of hot water and scarfed down whatever lukewarm food I could find. This is also when I made the decision to adjust my route away from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The combination of resupply options being closed, a lack of any other parkway users, and the downright harshness of the hurricane weather along the exposed ridgeline all lead to the obvious-to-me decision. I would continue pedaling northbound and stop in small towns or convenient stores every 15-20 miles to seek shelter and chug more hot water. Day #3 would end up being the longest riding day (8hrs 48mins of moving time) and most climbing (8022 ft) of the entire trip.
I limped to a hotel just after sunset and began my now familiar process of spreading all soaking wet gear out to dry, fired up the Jetboil to make a camp meal in the hotel room and shut the mind and body down so I could repeat the process again the next day.
The morning of day #4 was the first time that I saw a glimpse of sunlight the entire trip. The morale boost that I got from this simple, and often taken for granted, sunray was something magical. I needed something to keep me going. That sunlight and some encouragement from a few roadside friends made a world of difference in my current mindset.
I had felt a slight pain in my right knee towards the end of day #3 but had very little mental capacity to care. After resetting and restarting, that pain became more obvious. I alternated mental games of staring at the ridgeline to my East or the white line and rumble strips just below my tires to distract me from the knee pain and the consistent headwind. Truth be told, I don’t remember much from this day … the hump day of my adventure.
Day #5 started with another camp stove breakfast in the hotel room in Luray, VA before pointing my gear-packed front wheel northward. As I approached Winchester, VA I saw my familiar foe, storm clouds, gathering above and unleashing the now expected rain. After being cold, wet, and battered for the vast majority of the last 4 days, I decided to stop and seek shelter at the first place I could find. Fortunately, the local Subaru dealership had exactly what I needed ... hot coffee and snacks. This was the perfect spot to wait out another mid-day downpour. The rest was welcomed, but I was burning precious daylight and I couldn’t afford to wait too long.
As the rain eased, I took my chance and charged through the rest of Virginia, rolled through the West Virginia boarder, and kept the hammer down until I crossed the Potomac River into Maryland. The mental milestone of checking two more states and another day off my list was invigorating. I felt like a king as I spread out in my trashy motel for another night to recharge.
The second answer to the “why” question is because I haven’t been back to my hometown in over 6 years. I feel horrible about that. I’ve done a terrible job on prioritizing time with my extended family and HS friends. We're all guilty of defaulting to “I’m busy”. This is a massive pet peeve of mine. We’re all busy, it’s not an excuse, deal with it. This is the breakneck culture that we’ve created for ourselves in this country (another story for another time and another reason why human powered activities are so important in our lives). I simply felt the need to take a proactive approach of getting out of my “routine” to experience more in life with myself and with my loved ones. I put a trip home on my schedule, and although it might be a little unorthodox, this was a great, and positive, excuse to make it happen.
It was amazing to cross into Pennsylvania early on day #6 as an almost palpable feeling of “home” swept over me. Aside from a tree almost crushing me against the guardrail as I ascended up a 600ft climb over 2 miles to the highpoint of Tuscarora State Forest, I simply remember being filled with excitement, energy and enthusiasm.
I was completely re-enchanted by the rolling farmlands and ridgelines of central PA. I was wondering who I would see around my lazy hometown. And for hours on end, I was yearning for some hand dipped ice cream from Eder’s Ice Cream and an ice cold “lager” (That’s what you call a Yuengling in PA). 103 miles of cold and overcast but daydreamy pedaling later and I was one sleep away from accomplishing the goal.
Day #7 started cold and crisp with beaming sunlight creeping over the rolling mountains to my East. Those same mountains that I slowly pedaled over just 12 hours earlier. As if on cue, the six previous days of cloud cover completely vanished, and I was met with a warmth that I honestly hadn’t felt since getting out of bed the morning I left Charlotte. Town names, sights and adolescent memories came flooding back in a wave of familiarity.
My legs felt like they could pedal all day, but I was officially on the home stretch and couldn’t be happier. I rolled across a green bridge that is synonymous with the entrance to Montoursville and stopped along the greenway that circles the perimeter of the town. I needed a moment to collect my emotions.
I grew up at the end of a gravel road on the top of a mountain which meant the final mile and a half of my route required a 400-foot climb. Clearly, I didn’t need any more adversaries to overcome on this venture, but this final climb was a welcomed opportunity to embrace all the highs and lows that occurred over the past seven days. Some of those days were flat out disastrous but it didn’t matter at this stage.
"Why?" ... The experience gained is something that I will have with me forever. The feeling of mental and physical development will catapult me to greater adventures around the next bend. The feeling of being home is like nothing else … That's why.
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Journal - Heading Home: Why I Bikepacked 650+ Miles Through a Hurricane
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Adam Bratton is the Founder and Head Enabler at Human Powered Movement.
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