Tyler was three miles north on the Blue Ridge Parkway, spread-eagle atop a boulder and attempting to remain conscious as his body dragged him deeper into delirium. His electrolytes were whacked out, body coated in oily sweat, and there was a rift in the crotch of his chamois that spread with a slow, inexorable sort of determination.
I sat cross-legged in the grass at the climb’s peak, sobbing and stuffing cookie crumbs into my mouth, fighting down the bile rising in the back of my throat. My heart felt as if it had been recently run through a meat tenderizer. Even eating the stale, soggy bits of discount cookies was an emotional affair. I had a hole in the crotch of my chamois as well, and I’d be damned if I was worrying about it. It felt as if my life was over.
It was our second day cycling the Blue Ridge Parkway, and we were a day behind schedule.
The Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) is a 469 mile highway running from Afton, Virginia to Cherokee, North Carolina. This was another epic Franklin D. Roosevelt administration project to create jobs and lay sweet, scenic road. Visionary Stanley Abbott took on the project.
Abbot was not much to look at, his taciturn black and white photographs dotting information boards along the BRP were underwhelming for such an influential figure. But his weak chin and beady eyes were overcome by his burning desire to build America’s greatest highway, and so he galvanized the hordes of young, virile Civilian Conservation Corps men into a frothing, asphalt-laying fervor. They chugged their way through the Appalachian Mountains and built the road that would eventually connect Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park to North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Work on the Parkway began in 1935 and by 1946 the BRP was the most visited unit of America’s National Park System.
Now billed as “the ride of a lifetime,” you can zip up and around the rounded peaks of Appalachia with the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, and the fragrance of fresh mountain air dominating your smellscape. There are spectacular views of the valleys to the east and west that warrant spontaneous scenic picnics, and the number of selfies taken from the 500+ Parkway overlooks has threatened to overload Instagram’s servers.
On the Parkway motorists take it easy. They chug about at 45 mph because, hey, what’s the big rush? There is no commercial truck traffic, no semis roaring up and down the slopes, pulling their engine brake and spewing out noxious diesel fumes. There is just a healthy mix of cars, RVs, and motorcycles … like a well-arranged salad.
With such a reputation the Parkway attracts mush-brained folk like Tyler and I, who hope to pedal the BRP fully loaded on our cycling rigs. Coming off two summers of cycle touring across the country we were confident in our expectations of a leisurely tour. When we’d first discussed this Parkway tour some three months before I was scheduled to cry and cram cookies into my face while exploring the depths of emotional distress as Tyler contended with hypertension and tachycardia I distinctly remember the words “leisurely” and “vacation” being bandied about, as if there couldn’t be an easier thing in the world than pedaling the Parkway, as if climbing a gross elevation of 48,000 feet along the BRP would be as simple as covering our noses when about to sneeze.
Because we held such firm opinions in our cycling abilities there was neither training nor planning involved before dusting off our panniers and catching a ride with Tyler’s girlfriend Leah up to Afton.
I mention Leah because she was, in literary speak, a foil to my recent ex-girlfriend, the emphasis on recent a driving factor in all this psychological angst and cookie-cramming. I was living life with a broken heart. It was a gut-wrenching, devastating breakup that doubled me over and left me gasping for air. For two weeks I had been an emotional wreck, oscillating through periods of manic depression and unashamed surliness.
Tyler, on the other hand, couldn’t have been happier. Leah was in his life, and they were in love. Ooo, it gushed out of them, covered each other and everything around them in happy, sticky vibrations. Their love, fresh and fragrant as a scratch-and-sniff Hallmark card reminded me, of course, of that first month with my ex, which made me want to gargle Pine-Sol while clawing my eyeballs out. While together Tyler and Leah would slip into their own world, create elaborate fantasies, and – Tyler gaily admitted – giggle the nights away.
Which was why, starting off at mile 0 on the Parkway, Tyler had gotten a whopping total of six hours of sleep in the past three nights and I wanted nothing other than to rip my heart out of its bloody cage and throw it off the first overlook we pedaled past.
So it might come as no surprise that our first day on the BRP didn’t go over so hot. In fact, Tyler and I cycled like a couple of assholes. It turns out that not training, not sleeping, and hating yourself are insufficient policies for enjoying America’s ride of a lifetime.
We started off the whole event – Day One, Minute One – by talking about my ex. Let’s call her, what the hell, Samantha. Sam for short. Sam had, unfortunately, moved into the basement of Tyler’s house about a month before we’d broken up. This meant that my best friend’s place was off-limits. When I was feeling lonely and wanted to pop over from Winston-Salem to see Tyler in Asheville I’d be faced with the reminders of Sam, scattered about the house like unearthed ordnance on hair-trigger release. So I didn’t pop over to see Tyler. I stayed at home, two hours away, and gnashed my teeth at the injustice of it all.
I needed to talk with Tyler about Sam because we were planning to take a day off in Asheville, at Tyler’s house, where Sam was currently taking up space in the basement, hissing satanic literature with her forked tongue from the shadows of the wall she’d clawed her way into. At least, that’s how I was choosing to imagine her at the time. It somehow made me hurt less.
Tyler assured me that Sam wouldn’t be at the house while we were there.
“I mean, seeing her belongings in the basement and around the kitchen is going to hurt, sure,” said Tyler. “But you’re resilient, dude. It will be okay.”
Tyler, even through his haze of sleep deprivation, was a rock in my storm those first few miles. He was, is, remains, the most emotionally mature and well-adjusted individual I know. He bore my angst atop his weary shoulders and guided me back to a place of acceptance at the situation.
And then he started to bonk.
We ended that first day at the Otter Creek Campground. Darkness was settling into the valley as we rode in. I remember being in charge of dinner and burning the rice. Tyler was cross-eyed with exhaustion and electrolyte imbalance and went to sleep shortly after camp was set. Neither of us relished the beginning of tomorrow’s ride, a thirteen mile climb uphill.
That night, falling asleep, I struggled to remember why I enjoyed cycle touring.
It was the climb that led to our separating halfway up the mountain. I pedaled furiously for the top while Tyler stumbled around looking for a place to pull himself together. There was some part of me that believed if I reached the summit without stopping then I was worthy of Sam’s love. Tyler believed that, if he didn’t stop, he might pass out.
This was why, three miles apart from each other, Tyler took a nap on a rocky overlook as I rimmed cookies around my sweaty lips, blinking away the flood of tears filling my eyes. A birder might have wondered about the strange honking noise around Apple Orchard Gap that afternoon, might have commented that it sounded like a deranged goose had a pinecone stuck in its throat.
But it was just me, sobbing until I choked.
Don’t worry. This is a story with a happy ending. But to get from this low point in our tour to the final, life-changing descent into Cherokee eight days later, there had to be a turning point. This came during our third day on the road.
And, depending on what sort of person you are, you might find it either quite surprising or wholly unremarkable that our watershed experience occurred at an Outback Steakhouse.
“More beers?” asked Alex. Our gregarious waiter stood over the carnage of our table, which was littered with the viscera of a disemboweled blooming onion and the greasy puddles of cheesy fries that evaded our yawning maws by slipping from our fingers to splatter onto the tabletop.
Tyler rolled his head at me, like Wesley from The Princess Bride when he’s just been brought back from being mostly dead. It was a nod.
“Oh, for sure,” I said. Alex hurried back with steins. We toasted Alex, toasted Outback, toasted the motel room we’d bought for the night, toasted Tyler’s third night of sleep in a row, and toasted the thirty hours since I’d last cried.
Things were on the up-and-up. The night before Tyler and I had a long talk about Samantha. As her roommate I needed Tyler to lay things straight for me. He did. It hurt, a lot, like pouring battery acid into an inner ear canal, but he explained his experience as conscious observer to the fallout with grace and compassion and directness. The details of the conversation are irrelevant, the takeaway this: Sam’s a good person and she needs to be single for her own self-expansion. I’m a good person and it’s nobody’s fault that we broke up. It happened, and it’s hard, but we move on together.
I didn’t cry during this conversation. I accepted it, slept on it, and woke the next morning feeling like I could continue wearing the same skin I’d worn for the past 25 years. I could keep my flaying knife in my back panniers. No need to find another skin. It was going to be okay.
As we rode towards Roanoke that day my mood improved. Life was a little better for everyone: I didn’t want to impale myself on my front handlebars whenever Samantha filtered through my mind, Tyler was able to keep a pace faster than four mph, and we had a dinner at Outback Steakhouse to look forward to.
What more could we ask for?
Okay, so maybe the conversation with Tyler was the turning point in our trip. It was either our deep, honest conversation or the blooming onion’s dipping sauce that changed our tour of the Blue Ridge. Regardless, everything got easier.
Unshackled as we now were – Tyler from his dystopic electrolyte epic, I from my sadomasochistic relationship with lost love – the road began to feel smoother. The hills suddenly grew less steep, the descents longer and more enjoyable. Life opened up to us. As we rode south from Roanoke we met a cyclist who lived off the Parkway in Floyd, VA. He invited us back to his home for the night. Tyler and I cooked vegetables from their garden, went swimming in their pond, and clucked at their chickens, big plucky bastards who strutted around like the owned the whole damn place.
The next day we crossed into North Carolina and one of my best friends, another Tyler, let’s call him Tyler2.0, rode out from Boone to camp with us. Tyler and Tyler2.0 hit it off in the excitable manner expected of two hyper-sociable young outdoorsmen, and as we continued south to Linville Falls my two Tylers spent fifty miles discussing the complexities of trad climbing. Sentences that defied rationality were tossed around. “I barn-doored because of some sloppy popping but my dirtbag belay slave negged the slack and I flashed after that,” might have been said. I, not being a climber, was lost in a fog of vocabulary confusion and didn’t contribute much. But the conversation made both Tylers extremely happy. Tyler2.0 peeled off from Linville and his good energy remained.
The Parkway, so unrepentantly punishing those first hundred miles, now felt full of abundant life and opportunity. We had gone from sloshing through forty horrific miles of cycling a day to crushing eighty miles at a pop. We had made up that lost day and were back on our original schedule. Tyler and I were meeting people, making friends, picnicking at overlooks and laughing at almost everything that came out of each other’s mouths. The holes in our chamois were getting bigger and bigger, but nobody really seemed to care.
Days passed. We made our way south and careened towards Asheville, Tyler racing towards Leah, I towards the memory of Samantha. I was nervous for myself. Sam might not be there but I would feel her all the same. What would those two days look like for me? I didn’t know. I resolved to torture myself as little as possible and avoid her basement bedroom.
Things in the basement were basically as I’d last seen them. There was her watercolor canvas hanging from the wall, a few neatly stacked bins, a shelf dedicated to rocks and bird feathers, a small cup with Sam’s favorite pens resting on her nightstand. I sat on her bed, alone, looking around and wondering about this vanished woman. Her cat jumped into my lap. Her dog sat at my feet. I cried, silently, because the basement door was open and Tyler and Leah were napping on the sofa upstairs.
And then we left. Borne by a wave of goodbyes from Leah we rode through downtown Asheville on a sleepy Friday morning, Tyler giving me an impromptu tour of his favorite spots for dancing, drinking, and singing karaoke. He talked more than me, as if he words could count double as I worked to shed the weight of Sam from my back. We rode through the River Arts District, along the French Broad, and out of town towards the Parkway.
“What are you thinking, man?” he asked. We sat at a stone table by the river. I cut at an apple with great malice and premeditation. “You okay?”
I looked up. Put down my knife. Put down my apple. Folded my fingers in front of me and rested my chin in the cradle I’d made. I took a deep breath in.
“You know what, man? I am okay. It hurts, and it sucks, and this may be the hardest thing that I’ve ever worked through. But I am okay. It’s going to continue being okay. Having you here has been the best thing I could have hoped for. Thank you for putting up with all my shit.” I looked back down at the table, back up at Tyler. “And we’re going to crush these last two days.”
Tyler smiled, stood, came around the table and gave me a hug.
“I love you, man,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Love you too.”
We pedaled back onto the BRP, leaving the last of Asheville behind.
Cycle touring is like working through a breakup. The sport punishes you those first few days back on the road. It is unforgiving. You go to sleep with knots in your legs and shoulders, dehydrated but retaining just enough spit to curse as you curl, alone, into your sleeping bag for the night. The energy passes around you rather than through you. There is suffering.
But a beauty of pain is having the option to experience it with others. So Tyler and I shared this road and moved forward together, in the manner that only those familiar with winding highways and minor setbacks can progress. We traveled south, up and down the rolling mountains of Appalachia, working back into a state of acceptance and love. By day four Tyler’s body was no longer in open revolt and I no longer felt as if my essence was drowning in raw sewage. By day eight Tyler could look back on the start of our tour and laugh, while I could articulate how much his presence helped me step out of my memories with Samantha and into my life as a new man.
And by day ten? Well, by day ten we were descending into Cherokee, feeling the wind rushing by as we dropped 2,000 feet into the Smokies. The wind was warm, clean. I basked in it, reveled in the descent. This was our reward for all that climbing, all that crying, all those moments when it would have been easier to give up, go home, and sit in the darkness with all that pain. We rode downhill, straight downhill, looking at the road and at each other and laughing away the last fifteen miles of the Parkway.
So this is it. The end of a tour. The end of a story.
And still, somehow, the road goes on. It flows from one highway into another, one parkway to the next, like a new stage of life beginning with the ending of another. We find ways to continue moving forward.
The Parkway ends at a T-intersection. Two friends dismount from the bicycles and mill around, wondering what to do now. One of them suggests they follow this new road into Cherokee. The other agrees.
They get back on their bikes, take a left, and don’t look back.
About the Author:
My name is Reese Wells. I am an author and photographer from Winston-Salem, NC. My work has been published by Narratively & Bikepacker. With Narratively I helped create and produce content for their first ever 15-part series while cycling from Florida to Alaska. This series was selected at Narratively’s best of 2015. reesewells.com. I’m currently out on another adventure, the Greater Patagonia check it out if you please. Follow me on Insta: @reese.wells