Tuesday, July 13, 2010
VIRGINIA’S CROOKED ROAD
(Published in SPOKES, June 2011)
Photos by Joseph Insalaco
The Crooked Road is Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail that celebrates the roots of American Mountain Music. It meanders 400 miles through the southwestern part of the state (http://www.thecrookedroad.org/) between Rocky Mount and The Breaks Interstate Park. The road goes through wonderful towns, provides many sites to experience great music, and allows interaction with interesting people. The road is also very challenging for cyclists with its difficult climbs and fast downhill rides.
We started our journey in Pikeville, Kentucky, just west of the Breaks Park. Initially we planned to follow the Crooked Road highways identified on their webpage. Doing so, the first day’s cycling would have been 76 miles on some very busy highways with nearly 10,000 feet of climbing. Subsequent days would also be spent on some very busy roads. Once the reality of highway route set in we devised a more bike friendly one. Our bike route and elevations can be found on our trip blog (http://crookedroadtour.blogspot.com/). Our route took us to all of the Crooked Road stops except the Breaks Park. While the park is wonderful, Joe, my cycling companion and I had cycled to the park and camped in it during our cross country bike trip in 2002. The park’s main feature, Breaks Canyon, is five miles long and ranges from 830 feet to 1,600 feet deep; earning it the name of “Grand Canyon of the South.”
Leaving Pikeville early, we missed the morning traffic. Just outside of town we
cycled 7 miles on a deserted one lane country road. After this, we transitioned to a major highway with a wide shoulder that lasted us until we got to Virginia (30 miles into our day). During the day we had some great down hill rides and several serious climbs. However, the only one that was challenging was the last one up to the town of Wise. We were tired and the climb seemed like it would not end. Our first cycling day turned out to be "only" 47 miles and we climbed "only" 5,000 feet. With temperatures that exceeded 90 degrees we were thankful that we did not follow the car route through Breaks Park.
Our route for the second day avoided cycling 47 miles on route US 23 that goes directly from Wise to Gate City. However, avoiding traffic on roads without shoulders had its consequences. We chose to cycle 39 miles on country roads. Less mileage over country roads sounds like a “no brainer”, except for the added climb. The first few miles out of Wise we had a nice downhill and averaged 25 mph. In the town of Norton we got on route 619 which turned into a climb of 2,000 feet over 4 miles to the top of High Knob Hill. Once we got to the top, we looked forward to a wonderful and long down hill ride. However, the asphalt road ended and we had to traverse down a steep gravel road. While that may not have been so bad, a torrential downpour started and the gravel turned to mud and then the mud turned into a river. We were “white water biking” as our brake pads deteriorated and our rims got too hot to touch.
Surviving that down hill, we arrived at a smooth asphalt road where we were cycling at 20 mph for about 7 miles. Eventually we had to climb 3 more hills (all 10% grades) but with adequate shoulders and minimal traffic.
Arriving in Gate City, we had a fast descent but came to a quick stop where town folks lined the road. We stopped and were congratulated for being the first to complete the Clinch Mountain Challenge Bike Race. We smiled and explained that we were on loaded touring bikes and not racers. However, we did accept offered bananas, trail bars, and friendly conversation.
The bike race was not the only attraction in Gate City that day. The town’s main street was closed to traffic for the 5th annual Clinch Mountain Music Festival.
A stage was at one end of the main street and vendor tents extended for several blocks. Despite being soaked to the bone, we were cheered to spend the afternoon listening to numerous country groups (including Papa Joe Smiddy and the Scott County Boys), talking to other spectators, eating excellent food (and getting rained on several more times).
Even though the town was focused on its music festival, many people took time to greet us and make us feel welcome. The town’s bike shop provided us new brake pads and Tom and Martha (festival volunteers) offered to put us up for the night. Check out the link to our photos on our travel blog and watch the video of some of the musicians and dancers--especially Carl Wooten doing a dance called Flat Footin’.
Since Gate City did not have a hotel we cycled 5 miles south to Kingsport, Tennessee for the night. If we had not had guaranteed reservations, we would have accepted the offer to stay in Gate City. We were also told that if we had contacted the local chamber of commerce we would have been given a list of homes that host visitors for the night.
We left Kingsport early and headed toward a Virginia country road that took us eastward to Damascus, 62 miles away. The first 36 miles were relatively flat with some minor rolling hills and no traffic. Along the way we stopped at A.P. Carter’s birthplace cabin and country store and the Carter Family Fold (a music theater where only acoustic instruments are played). On this section we averaged 14 mph under cloudy, but dry skies. After this, we had an 8 mile trek on a 4 lane highway with a shoulder (small but adequate) as we climbed 700 feet to the town of Abingdon. During this climb, we experienced our first rain shower of the day.
Cycling down the main street in Abingdon, it appeared that everything was closed for Sunday. We expected to go without lunch and headed for the Virginia Creeper Trail that would take us on our final leg to Damascus. However, near the trail head we found the Trail Café and enjoyed its excellent food and hospitality.
The Creeper Trail, with a slight downhill grade, took us 17 miles to Damascus. The Virginia Creeper Trail began as a Native American foot path and by 1900 it became a railroad right-of-way. Going to Damascus, we cycled just half of the trail. (The trail extends 17 more miles beyond Damascus to the North Carolina border.)
We were rained on several times as we cycled on the Trail but enjoyed our traffic free ride. The rain did not deter other trail users either and we all shared a muddy veneer. Near Damascus we saw a sign for a winery and took a side trip. The tasting was fun and Joe purchased a bottle of wine for “later”.
Damascus is a small, but important town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is the gateway to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and is traversed by the Appalachian Trail, the Virginia Creeper Trail, the Trans-America National Bicycle Trail, the Iron Mountain Trail, the Daniel Boone Heritage Trail, the Crooked Road Musical Heritage Trail, and Virginia's Birding and Wildlife Trail.
We stayed at the Mountain Laurel Inn, a historic B&B that was built between 1901 and 1903. Innkeepers, Jim and Nathalie Graham, welcomed us to their Queen Anne Victorian home with a grand tour and introduction to the other guests.
Since the intermittent thunder showers continued, another guest and her husband offered to take us to a local restaurant for dinner. Before leaving we sat on the B&B’s front porch and shared Joe’s bottle of wine and got to know the other guests. Our conversation was only interrupted by the birds chirping and the occasional rain shower. After dinner, we returned to the front porch and finished off another bottle of wine, watched the fireflies, and enjoyed the night air and good company.
We stayed in Damascus for a second day just to cycle the rest of the Creeper Trail. While our morning started with thoughts of the weather and anticipation of the ride, our thoughts quickly mellowed at breakfast. Our hosts served a nice hot breakfast that we enjoyed with the other guests. As we were winding down with our second cup of coffee, our host turned up the volume on the CD player. We all looked at each other wondering why this sudden change in atmosphere. Then he began singing; entertaining us with 2 songs. His singing is great! So much so that this facility should no longer be called a B&B but rather a BB&E (Bed, Breakfast & Entertainment). You can listen to him sing by going to the pictures/videos on our travel blog.
Shortly thereafter, we headed to the bike shop for our shuttle ride to the top of the mountain. As previously mentioned, Damascus is a long but gradual down hill from Abingdon. Damascus is also downhill from the other end of the trail but a much steeper downhill. It took the van 45 minutes to get to the top of the mountain for the start of our ride. Before heading down, we toured the restored Green Cove train station and learned of its interesting history.
Our ride down was great. We probably could have done it without pedaling and still have had a fast ride. The only thing that slowed us down were the large mud puddles that dotted the trail. As we reentered Damascus, we spotted the café that we stopped at in 2002 as we came through here on our cross country bike ride. This café is very special. In 2002 we spent a wet and cold night on top of the mountain in a rustic Forest Service camp ground. In the morning, we had to pack in the rain and gave up trying to have breakfast. As we dropped down the mountain, we got colder and wetter. This café provided a warm and dry haven for us. Over the years we have often reminisced about the hot breakfast we had and how that café brightened our day.
The next day we cycled to Galax and were exhausted after cycling 75 miles and climbing lots of hills. We were doing well until we got to within 8 miles of Galax when we hit the wall during our ride up a never ending hill. The good news is that it did not rain on us. Well, actually, that may not have been bad, as the temperatures got into the 90s. Otherwise, our ride was very scenic and, until we got near Galax, without traffic.
Our evening in Galax got more interesting after a hardy pit barbeque dinner and a stroll down the street to the Stringbean Café. Every Tuesday, the Stringbean hosts a country music jam. Between 6 and 9 p.m., the sleepy café was transformed into a very lively place. They have 2 stages. One stage shares the room with the café and the second is in an adjacent room with a dance floor. The café stage had about a dozen musicians and the other stage had nearly 20. The dance floor was crowded with folks flat footin’ dancing. When a group of children from fiddle camp arrived at the café, a third area was set up for them. With 3 groups playing music the place was hopping. We had an incredible evening.
Cycling out of Galax took us on major roads with shoulders, essential because of the heavy traffic. We were heading to Stuart, 50 miles northeast. When routes US 221 and US 58 split, we took route 58 and lost the shoulder and most of the traffic. We climbed for about 36 miles until we got to the top. There, a sign informed us that we were about to experience cyclists’ ecstasy, a 9 percent down grade over the next 6 miles. Joe flew down recording a maximum of 44 mph. I, the more timid, only hit 37 mph. While the downhill became less steep, it continued another 6 miles into Stuart. Stuart boasts a historical theatre featuring performing arts and concerts, traditional Gospel and Bluegrass venues, music and dance studios, coffee shop, restaurants, and a museum.
Before leaving Stuart we had an early morning breakfast at the local café. We walked into the café at 5 a.m. and its tiny dinning room was already busy. We were greeted by several local men who spent minutes checking us out. It wasn’t long before they warmed up and started asking questions about our trip.
From Stuart, Floyd is only 26 miles away. Since it was a short day, we decided to take a side trip to Fairy Stone State Park. According to local literature, fair stone crosses are only found here. Joe being a “rock hound” could not miss this stop. My wife has had a fairy stone cross “forever” but I have always been skeptical that these crosses were found in nature. After we got to the park, a sign directed us to a digging site 3 miles further off our route. We searched the site for about half an hour. Since we did not receive instant gratification, we went into the nearby rock shop.
There we saw a craftsman transforming the crystals into the crosses. While we could see the crosses in the rough stone, they looked nothing like the stone cross my wife wears.
To get back on route we ended up back tracking to the main highway. Thus, our 26 mile short day became a 50 mile day. To get to Floyd, we had to cross the Blue Ridge Parkway which meant a 6 mile climb, which for the last 2.5 miles had a 12 percent grade. Once we conquered this climb, we looked forward to a great down hill. However, there was none! We dropped some but had 5 miles of rolling hills to get to Floyd.
We stayed at the Hotel Floyd. It is a fantastic hotel that did not cost us any more than some of the less desirable hotels we stayed in. The rooms are spacious and have natural oak doors and trim. Each room was individually decorated by a different community group—i.e. a winery, music store, and the Crooked Road. All furnishings and art are local. Our room was the “holistic room”. Inside the room we found lotus blossom paintings, yoga pads, books, and other amenities that convey peacefulness. Check out Hotel Floyd’s web page for more details (www.hotelfloyd.com).
The hotel is shaped like an “L” with an open air amphitheater. At 5 p.m., we purchased dinner from a barbeque vendor set up in the parking lot and sat outside our room eating and listening to a local blue grass group. They played until 8 p.m., which was about the time our beer ran out. What a great climax to our day!
Arriving in Floyd, we were disappointed that we did not get a good downhill ride. However, leaving Floyd we were glad that we did not have that downhill and could easily get onto the Blue Ridge Parkway to head 50 miles north to Roanoke. The Parkway is scenic with minimal traffic and no commercial vehicles. We cycled lots of rolling hills and generally climbed until we got near Roanoke. The Parkway has many scenic overlooks but the most exciting thing we saw were 2 black bears crossing the highway not more than 25 feet in front of us. As we watched the first bear cross the Parkway, we complained that we just could not get our cameras out fast enough. Then the second bear crossed and we were once again caught off guard.
About 8 miles from Roanoke, the down hill from heaven started. We cruised down at 25-35 mph. After getting off the Parkway, we experienced about a half mile of very heavy traffic before getting on some city streets for our trip across town to our hotel. Later in the day, our friend Jenny, who was part of a 2002 trip across the United States, picked us up and took us to her home for dinner. It was a wonderful end to our journey.