Friday, May 25, 1984
Elk Garden to Breaks Interstate Park, Va.
There’s nothing like a big ol’ country-style breakfast to start the day — if you plan to go right back to bed.
Bruce and I weren’t napping, however. Rev. Chuck and his wife served us an extra helping of biscuits ‘n’ gravy, along with sausage, bacon and eggs this morning. He said we’d need that extra larder to get over “Big A” Mountain up the road. Being used to pop tarts or oatmeal for breakfast, I carried those extra helpings of undigestable grease high in my stomach all the way to the Kentucky border.
We climbed four or five ball-busting passes today. I’m getting discouraged and feel weaker each day, instead of stronger. Each climb is harder. I pedal in my lowest gear, stop to catch my breath and quiet the screaming in my thighs, then continue on. Bruce waits for me at the top of the climb, cool, calm and collected.
We’re in coal country now. Toward the end of the day, the hills got steeper and the coal trucks more frequent. They ride your tail then pass you at first opportunity in a cloud of diesel fumes and kicked up dirt. At Haysi, we talked to the wife of a coal truck driver. She told us how they go as fast as possible and cut the angles of the curves. The overloaded coal trucks chop up the asphalt at the edge of the road, where we’re trying to ride, and there are potholes everywhere. It’s a clenched-teeth, weary-legged ride here.
We pass through the hill towns of Honaker, Davenport, Council, Bee, Birchleaf, and Haysi before reaching the Breaks Interstate Park, right on the border of Kentucky. The bicycle riders from Connecticut have already passed us. Bruce wants to press on, but I’m spent. We stay.
The Breaks is an area where the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River cut through the sandstone of Big Pine Mountain. The 1,700-foot drop-off is called “The Grand Canyon of the South With Clothes On.”
We arrived early to a quiet campground, but the Memorial Day crowds begin arriving. Barking dogs, unmanageable kids on their Big Wheel tricycles, electric generators running to power the air conditioning and color TVs in their monstrous motor homes. Why did they ever leave home?
We walked down to the lodge for dinner. We hear a weather report that calls for rain tomorrow. We share a lot of fear and loathing about coal trucks and hills. I plan to adjust my brakes in the morning.
Morning at the Martins was as unusual as was the previous night’s dinner. Breakfast around the table was filled with nervous small-talk while everyone dug into the eggs, sausage, biscuits and gravy, and coffee. I say unusual because we still couldn’t figure out why these people are so self-sacrificing.
After the meal, Mrs. Martin tried to coax her Siamese cat–Victor–into saying “Mama” for a piece of bacon. The cat meowed loudly, but that was all.
Tonight we are camped at the Breaks Interstate Park at the Virginia-Kentucky border. The overlook view here is magnificent. Two ridges with a river flowing between them, and a large, severe bluff rising between it all. We are in the Cumberland plateau, but the particular section I just mentioned is known as “the Grand Canyon of the South with clothes on.” The clothes are the thick forest cover all around the mountains. We are now coming into the Appalachians, where the hill folk who were once famous for their moonshine and generational feuds live.
Today’s ride to the Breaks was 45 miles. We made it, despite two steep mountains and several smaller ones, by two in the afternoon. We could have gone on, but this was good camping.
Our neighbors here at the campsite have their tiki lights out by their trailers and their kids are screaming and playing their boom boxes. We are the only tent campers in sight. RVs everywhere. It’s the beginning of the holiday weekend and I’m thinking that sleeping will be difficult tonight.
We passed through a bit of coal country today. Towns that run along the river with trailers and shacks right along the road. Bee, Honacker, Haysi (pronounced Hay-sigh) and other small towns are populated mostly by coal miners and coal haulers. This is definitely back country.
Going through the gully road that was Haysi, some drunken good old boys in a mufflerless car gave us a scare: They threw a bottle out the window. And we were lucky it was a holiday weekend–there were no big, unforgiving coal trucks bearing down on us on these largely shoulderless roads.
Accents are thick here, pickups seem to be necessities, and the way of life appears to be pretty contrary to what I’m used to. Still, most people are friendly, and surprisingly, not too curious about bicyclists. I guess they’ve seen a lot of us on the TransAmerica Trail.
The coal trucks are intimidating. They are loud and take up a lot of the road, and the roads are winding, with low visibility, and as I mentioned, mostly shoulderless. You don’t have anywhere to go on a bike. You just have to hold your breath and your piece of the road.
Tomorrow, on to Pippa Passes and more mountains. We have roughly 200 miles before we leave the Appalachians and ride level until the Rockies. At least that’s how it looks on the maps.
I’m reprinting day-to-day journal entries from a cross-country trip my friend Bruce and I took in 1984. Read the journal index at TransAmerican Bike Tour 1984
Day 14 — A salute from King Coal
View 1984 Bicycle Tour in a larger map