This bit of philosophy from Snoopy was seen in a bike shop restroom!

The last two days have been cold and wet.  Since we only have three cycling days to go we decided to sit one out, since tomorrow, Tuesday is supposed to be sunny and a pleasant temperature.  We’ve already missed some beautiful scenery as we crossed over into Tennessee, and are really heading toward the heart of the Smoky Mountains (although seeing the soft colors through the mists, and having glimpses of the layers of ridges had its enchantment too).

We lucked into our present motel,  Wet and cold, we took the first one we could find after arriving in Erwin (Home of Blue Ridge Pottery), and happily it has a guest computer. This was particularly helpful for us as we were able to really get the skinny on our route up and over the mountains into Asheville.  (We knew our pass was called Sam’s Gap, but we didn’t know how to get there since we must avoid the Interstate. (If you want to track the bike route we found, go to Google Maps, click on DIRECTIONS, select the bicycle icon, and enter from: 1101 N Buffalo Street, Erwin TN (our motel)   to Riverview Drive, Asheville NC.  It looks pretty crazy convoluted, and we were quite daunted.  But with the help of the mapping function, we were able to track each and every turn, noting particular places that seemed tricky, and even take a snapshot of the section with my iPhone!)  So tomorrow we’re off, and should be with family in Asheville on Thursday evening, if all goes well.

The last couple of days since I wrote from Abingdon, VA, (which, by the way, is an attractive and interesting town), took us into Bristol, VA and TN, then on to Johnson City, and then to Erwin.  (We almost didn’t get a place to stay in Johnson City because the Gun Show and the Apple Festival of Unicoi County were both taking place that weekend!  And we cycled past the humongous NASCAR racetrack in Bristol.  It’s quite the happenin’ area!)

After leaving the now dear-to-our-hearts route 11, the road opened up.  We’ve since been on 11E/19S which was almost super-slab proportions, even though it was billed as a bike route. But the broad prospects, fall flowers and colors, and easy rolling countryside meant that  the miles flowed along.  Big shoulders were a pleasant change too, from the last several days of route 11.  When it started to come down such that we needed rain gear, we tucked under at a small Used Car lot, which was closed for Sunday.  A sign warned the premises were under surveillance.  Since we were there for some time, having lunch and getting suited up, Mike wrote a ‘thank you note’ of explanation.  Wonder what those folks thought when the looked at the video!

A sweet point of that journey was the SkyLand Inn, a budget motel outside of Bristol. (Mike always looks at the coupons from booklets you can get in service stations, and often we get a satisfactory place to stay for under $40.  This one was $34.  It had two windows, creating a cross draft, which very few motels have.  The fridge was so silent that Mike told the receptionist it wasn’t working, and she showed us it was, and said, “It’s a silent fridge.”  We don’t even have that at home!  And the view out the back was of a gently winding country road, with animals, houses, and the sunset.  I loved too that the accent wall was a fine shade of pumpkin, while the other walls were warmly complementary.  When I saw the pumpkin-colored Hummer the next morning in the Hardee’s parking lot, (the only place we could find to have a warm snack all morning ;-(, no nice little cafes to be found, but I do like bacon and biscuits), I thought that all kinds of things can be pumpkin colored!  We have of course also seen some wonderful fields of real pumpkins too!

The Appalachian Mountains:The name is full of  richness and texture in my consciousness, and here we are, really immersed in them.  I learned that the range extends from Newfoundland, way up in Canada, down to Alabama, with a fascinating geology, geography and ecology, all of which have had quite an influence on history.  (The Adirondacks are often counted as part of the Canadian Shield rather than the Appalachians.)  I feel enriched by our having cycled though, and gotten a sense of, a number of the threads, ridges, sections of this ancient mountain range: the Catskills, the Poconos, the broad Shenandoah Valley between the Blue Ridge and the Alleghenies, and now the Smokies.

Recently during inquiries and meditations I have had the experience of my life as being a tapestry — a rich weave of many threads, textures, densities, dimensions… (The first first of Carol King’s song by that name says it nicely.)  And it feels like these weeks in and among the Appalachians has added many a thread and color to the cloth.

Apropos Appalachians — it seemed to us, as we were moving out into the western tail of Virginia, out of the Shenandoah Valley and into the mountain areas, that the people got a bit gruffer and tougher, there was more industry (brick, coal, lumber);  the anti-Obama, pro-coal and gun signs became more intense…  I had to think of all the troubles and hardships these people have been through, and are still going through.   (Not everyone was hard or harsh, but it was in contrast to what we’d experienced in Virginia thus far.)  Compassion, if not understanding, arose.

Brick was a major building material in the Valley, and still is.  I noticed that the earth had turned red, and guess there’s a connection!  We saw several plants producing ‘Virginia Brick’ and they had examples of the many different colors and styles out front.  Brick really is part of the civilized picture in towns like Staunton and Lexington.  And in the houses, estates, mansions which can be seen all along the road.  And there are stars, multi-colored, all different sizes that adorn many houses, garages, buildings.  I think they are for decoration, not a secret or religious organizations.  They are very pleasing to see.

Also interesting how many signs announcing Discount Tobacco and We Buy Gold appeared.  And there seemed to be a gradient in gas prices that left us puzzling as well.  The further south we went, the cheaper the gas became.  Over $4 a gallon in NY, and $3.49 in TN. Left us wondering how come, what it said about the willingness to tax, and what the taxes got used for…   On the other hand, and in general, there has been a noticeable increase in friendliness the further south we have come!

Many billboards advertise various health care programs, apparently competing for the consumer’s attention.  Certainly an odd thing to see, coming from Canada.
Among the simple pleasures I forgot to mention:  clean cycling goggles as we start a fresh day!  What a pleasure to pack up, gear up, saddle up, and cycle off for the day, with clean clear glasses, and an open, fresh, expectant feeling, not knowing what might be down the pike, around the bend!  We can bring this to each and every day, of course, and indeed, we never do know what’s around the next bend, and it helps to have clear eyes! And stocking up with fresh food and home made trail mix.  YUMMMMy!

And I really love the self-contained and ordered aspects of such a trip.   Everything can be tidy, sorted, and it’s fun to improvise to make good use of the various bits and pieces.  Oh, that plastic bag would work well for the trail mix, this elastic band would be perfect for the soap we take along so as not to use a new soup at every motel.  If I pack the food this way, there’s a better balance.  And planning and preparing our meals gives me great pleasure… using the mini-max principle.  I also love seeing how what looks a bit chaotic at the campground or motel then stows in short order into our panniers.  Simple pleasures 🙂

I mentioned the term ‘restroom’ before.  My son-in-law, who grew up in Virginia, uses that phrase, which to me has always sounded like the waiting room in a train station (rather than the Loo, or Toilet, WC, or Washroom, which is what I am inclined to say).  I found myself asking for the Washroom, and regularly being greeted with very puzzled looks, like they might have thought I was looking for a laundromat or some such place!  I finally got it.  Restroom is what is says on all the doors here in the south, and it’s taken me weeks to finally come up with that first, rather than starting with washroom, then mumbling, muttering til I remembered!

I also spoke about the startling array of processed material that passes for food, not just in convenience stores, but also in grocery stores.  (This is true at home too, of course, but I tend not to be in such stores much.)  But we have noticed a felicitous increase in the occurrence of fresh fruit and salads, and decent sandwiches that can be obtained even in gas stations.  That’s been a help at times when grocery stores have been scarce and is an encouraging trend.  Notable too, and of concern, is the almost complete lack of organic food in regular stores.

Back to reusing and recycling, I forgot to mention the startling number of Yard and Garage Sale signs we’ve seen.  Seems like they are not just Saturdays and Sundays, but 24/7!  Stuff and more stuff.  When we were packing up our camping gear and had the tent fly out to dry, and various bits and pieces still spread out of the picnic table, a car pulled up beside us and the driver said something I didn’t understand.  I asked again and finally got that he was asking if we were having a yard sale!  I have to chuckle every time I think about this 🙂

I have found it telling and somehow heartening that the front-and–center sign in many shopping areas/malls, (which in our part of the world might well be Walmart), is TSC.  After seeing this often enough, I checked it out, and learned that it stood for Tractor Supply Company! Not nearly so many Walmarts (although the number is picking up now), and actually scarcely a Starbucks, either.  But lots of TSCs.  Same planet, Different world!

One thing we have not been able to tap into yet is the music of the region.  (We DID hear some great Bluegrass in Asheville, though.  Thanks Dana!)  There’s a long and rich heritage, of course.  We got a sense of what we’d missed (partly just by not being at the right place at the right time, but in large part because the season of concerts, open-air festivals, has passed), when we saw a poster for The Crooked Road.  I sighed, and realized that this would have been the ticket.  Here’s what they say:  The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, winds through the mountains of Southwest Virginia. Here, the Bluegrass, Old Time, and Traditional Country music is as beautiful and rugged as the landscape itself. Our mission: Supporting economic development by promoting Heritage Tourism and Blue Ridge and Appalachian culture.   Nice at least to see and read about it, even if we didn’t experience any of it live.  When we were making our cold, wet way to Erwin yesterday, we heard what sounded like a hoe-down, behind the trees and up a hill.  But we didn’t have the energy to stop and check it out.  Maybe it was part of the Apple Festival, or just some folks a jammin’?

At the various libraries we’ve stopped by I have seen that all of them are running a program called “What’s Your Favorite Banned Book?”  Fearing the worst, I cautiously asked what it was about and was heartened to learn that they had a big collection of formerly banned books, such as Catcher in the Rye, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, 1984, and many more, both for kids and adults. One current, controversial kids’ book is called, And Tango Makes Three, which is about two male penguins in the New York Central Park Zoo that formed a couple and raised a baby from an egg together.  Cool, eh 🙂  The librarians were encouraging people to read the books, discuss them, talk about why they might have been banned, and basically learn about, demystify some of the taboos.  Seems like a really worthwhile program.

Perspectives:  my, how they change, and are changeable.  Not just the prospects and views, but also one’s perception.  For example, the road lookslevel, but we find we’re needing to pedal, not just easing along.  We often check with each other…”Are you working?” to make sure a tire’s not going flat, or something.  So uphill looks level, and when the modest downhill comes, it sometimes doesn’t look that way at all. But when you start to coast, you realize the shift.  It reminds me of how we often make assumptions based on our perceptions, and how off we can be.  A kind of life lesson as we roll along.  Things are not as they seem, and it’s a good one to remember!   It applies to people too,  of course.  A really grumpy looking fellow, about whom I had already passed some, mostly unconscious judgements,  insisted on holding the door for me, and then asked about our bikes and journey, and basically transformed before my eyes.  Sweet   🙂

Jill Schroder is the author of BECOMING: Journeying Toward Authenticity.  BECOMING is an invitation for self-reflection, and to mine our memorable moments for insights, meaning, and growth.  Check the website for a sample chapter, or see the reviews to get a flavor for the volume.  Your feedback is most welcome.
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