Huddling beneath an overpass, sopping wet from the rain and freezing, a thought crosses my mind that day one of the TransVirginia Bike Route—a 550-mile, mostly gravel bikepacking route from Washington, D.C., to Damascus, Virginia—is perhaps a little harder than I was expecting. The first 63 miles are mostly flat, I’d assured my companions. The route begins on easy bike paths, I’d said. And, be that as it may, after a crack-of-noon start, a few wrong turns in D.C.’s labyrinth, and hours of spitting cold rain, I can’t help but wonder: Am I a sandbagger?
Two years ago, I never would have put myself and “sandbagger” in the same sentence. When I’m kayaking, I take the conservative lines. When I climb, I sweep but never lead. When I ride, I’m the slowest to descend. But in the summer of 2017, I bit off a lot more than I’ve ever tried to chew: bikepacking the 2,700-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Banff, Canada, to the U.S.-Mexico border. When my boyfriend and I set out from Canada, we’d only done one overnighter on our bikes. We finished in 44 days, during which time I endured more bonking, chafing and forehead tan lines than I ever cared to repeat. Or so I thought.
I could hardly resist the temptation to ride the TransVirgina Bike Route. It connects all of the best parts of my home state with forest service gravel and quintessential country roads. About one-fifth the distance of the Divide, it seemed like a relatively approachable adventure. David Landis, the route developer, provided the directions, itinerary suggestions, and lodging and resupply points. If you follow the nine-day itinerary, you’ll average a stout 5,800 feet of elevation gain per day. Two friends joined me. Dan is a 2018 Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, and Wendy, despite being 20 years my elder, is probably my favorite ski-bike-travel companion. Wendy is along for the first two days, after which it’s just me, Dan and some 450 miles of open road.
I look over my shoulder to where the Washington and Old Dominion Trail leaves the safety of its protected corridor and crosses the road, which, at 5pm on a Friday, is a madhouse. Wendy, who had lagged a bit behind us, appears at the intersection. She stops, looks both ways, crosses. A car turning at the light doesn’t see her and narrowly misses her rear wheel. Beside me, Dan grimaces.
“Do you think she’s tired or bonking?” he asks.
“Maybe a little of both,” I say.
“Well, I haven’t crumbled yet,” he says, “more like, crumbling.”
Wendy joins us in the comparative luxury of the sheltered overpass. We have 15 miles to go till we reach the hostel at Bears Den. It’s been dark and cloudy all day and I worry about the final bit of road we’ll have to ride tonight, the same State Route 7 that’s roaring with traffic above our heads. None of us had anticipated any night riding, so with the exception of a few safety blinkers, we’ll be riding without lights.
We’ve planned to ride an average of 60 miles per day and finish in 10 days, a pace that falls somewhere between cushy and cruel. Though we’ll be pitching tents most of the way, roofed lodging exists along the route in case we need a break from the elements, which, by day one, we already do. My folks have promised to deliver pizza for our first night’s meal. The thought of that and a warm bed pulls me forward.
“One day we’ll look back on this and fondly remember how bad it sucked,” says Dan.
“Tomorrow will be beautiful,” I say, more to convince myself.
It’s officially dark when we pedal the last two miles toward the hostel. The rain has subsided but a heavy fog—so thick I can hardly see the mailboxes on the side of the road—is settling in its place. The strobe of my pathetic red blinkie does little in the misty gloom. We sprint across four lanes of traffic to the shoulder, which is wide and well-maintained but still uncomfortably close to the cars speeding 70 mph through the dark. Route 7 is one of the busiest roads we’ll ride, a necessary evil to linking up the quieter gravel and country roads. While it’s inadvisable to ride on a foggy mountain highway at night when you’re tired, hungry and cold, hindsight is 20/20. We follow the rules of the road, climbing single file on the far right side of the shoulder. I know we’re close, but I’m so disoriented, we might as well be pedaling in place.
We pull off in a driveway to break as a line of cars files past. Across the street, I catch the reflective glimmer of a sign. Squinting, I can just barely make out the words, “Welcome to Bears Den,” on the mailbox.
Even with dry clothes and a warm bed, I hardly sleep that night. The mountain is still shrouded in fog come morning. On our bikes, less than a mile from the hostel, I hear the zzzz of seat-pack-on-tire rub. I stop. Repack. Re-cinch. Two miles later, I hear another sound, this one a faint click...click...click coming from my rear tire. When I hop off to assess, I find the flathead of a nail sticking out menacingly from the tread.
Before the Great Divide, I had taken an introductory bicycle mechanics course, which, if anything, made me feel even more incompetent. The number of things that can go wrong with a bike is mind-boggling. In general, before setting out on a multiday bikepacking ride, it’s important to know how to fix a flat, maintain your chain, and make modest adjustments to your derailleur. At the very least, be familiar with the closest bike shops to the route in the event of a serious mechanical failure.
Fortunately, a quick plug in the tire and we’re off again, meandering along the swollen waters of the Shenandoah River. Like the fog burning away in the sun, my sour attitude begins to evaporate. It’s spring in the Shenandoah Valley and the forest is exploding in green. We cruise along rolling gravel roads lined with mayapples and blooming redbuds.
After 60 miles, we leave the urban jungle behind for good and cross into the George Washington National Forest, making camp along a creek. It’s our last night with Wendy, so we gorge ourselves on her leftover rations of chocolate and gin. Yesterday’s cold and soggy start seems light-years ago. Sitting by the fire listening to the sound of spring peepers in the night, I feel so intimately in tune with and at home in the woods, I wish I could ride my bike forever. But the sentiment is short-lived.
By noon the next day, the whimsical high has vanished. I’m sunbaked and weary from the morning’s 3,500 feet of climbing. When we stop for lunch at a gas station in Mathias, West Virginia, I can feel that my left arm is completely burned. I buy the only sunscreen available, an all-natural off-brand, fighting back tears when it leaves my tender arm an angry shade of purple. Note to self: You’re not as tan as you think. Never forget sunscreen.
We roll out on full stomachs beneath a blistering sun. In my desperate attempt to refuel and re-energize, I’ve eaten entirely too much. My brain and body are so sluggish, riding is the last thing I want to do. For two hours, I fight the overwhelming urge to abandon my bike and crawl into the fetal position to nap. Our camp is still more than 30 miles and another 3,500 feet of climbing away via some of the most unrelentingly chunky gravel roads of the route. Pavement turns to gravel turns to double-track littered with baby-head-size rocks. Our pace slows from 13 mph to 10, then 8, then 5. I think bitterly to myself that I could walk as fast as I’m riding, only to eat my words later when I have to push my 50-pound bike up the steepest pitches.
I am well-acquainted with the hike-a-bike. Many a time on the Great Divide I slummed my way up mountain passes, mentally and physically wasted to the point of tears. But in those lowest points, I discovered a very important weapon—a peanutty, caramelly candy bar, my “get out of jail free” card. When even the most moderate of hills feels impossibly hard, that salty sweet log of corn syrup (king-size, please) might as well be ambrosia.
I eat half my candy bar and save the rest for later. It takes us nearly two hours to gain the ridge. Even there, the going remains mind-numbingly slow. Road-wide potholes filled with tomato-soup-colored water divert us to the muddy peripheries where soft clay sucks at our tires. We decide to make camp early and within minutes of stopping our bikes it starts to rain. The humidity has already made my sleeping bag damp, but I crawl in anyway.
The next morning is anything but sunny. Through a steady drizzle, we cautiously pick our way along overgrown double-track. Downed branches impede any suggestion of speed and threaten to rip the derailleurs from our bikes. My wimpy wind shell clings to my arms, saturated to the point of uselessness, and I force myself to remember that, like all type 2 fun experiences, this too shall pass.
Over the next seven hours, we climb another 6,400 feet. We break through the clouds only to descend in a total downpour. At a local gas station, we splurge on hot french fries and discover (but do not partake in) a local specialty, pickled possum peckers, the ingredients of which include pulverized possum parts and Cajun seasoning. I find all of this delightful, truly: the way the storm cell stalked us down the mountain, that my quads feel worse when I’m not on my bike, how the locals regard us with friendly incredulity, why crappy gas station food tastes so much better when you’ve ridden 60 miles to get it.
Maybe I’m losing it. Or maybe, now four days in, I finally feel settled into the rhythm of bikepacking again, the physical and emotional roller coasters of every mile. Frustration, elation, exhaustion, ease, despair, curiosity—I feel it all, sometimes in the same breath. At 250 miles, we’re nearly halfway through and I’m so certain of finishing, I can practically feel the glossy paint on the caboose at the route’s end in Damascus.
But Dan has grown quiet. I can tell he’s digging deep. During the final push to our campsite, he veers off into the woods, doubled over. We flag down a car, conveniently belonging to the game warden, and Dan gets a lift to our camp at Shaw’s Fork where he spends a sleepless night battling a stomach virus.
I make my dinner in silence that evening and prepare for another day of riding, though deep down, I know we’re going home. When Dan tells me he’s done, I’m hardly surprised. I’ve been there before. On the Great Divide, I was so utterly spent I begged my boyfriend for a zero day, an early camp, just one night in a hotel. Which is why I don’t try to talk Dan out of his decision. It doesn’t matter how far we went or how hard we pushed. For me, adventure is about sharing experiences with friends.
Still, in the days that follow, I grapple with the turn of events, berating myself for not continuing solo while feeling anxious about the prospect of doing just that. Yet the thing about unfinished business is it has a way of digging into your psyche, reminding you (whether you like it or not) that your doubts and dreams are a part of the human condition, as are the failures and successes to which we all are subject.
The beauty of any outdoor adventure, as my friend Jennifer Pharr Davis, an Appalachian Trail record holder, reminded me, is that the universe, the trail, the route gives us what we need and not necessarily what we want. “It’s not win or lose, it’s not all or nothing,” she texted me. There’s a space between, for us winner-losers, the all-and-nothings, the unfinished-business people, that keeps us humbled, determined, but not quite defeated.