When I set out on my cross-country bicycle tour 21 years ago, the one thing I didn't expect was to meet a host of unforgettable people along the way.
There was Lazy Louie in Missouri, the preacher in Elk Garden, Virginia, and a Navajo Code Talker in Arizona. But the first, and most memorable, was June “The Cookie Lady” Curry.
My friend Bruce and I met her when we stopped about three miles into a five-mile climb out of the Virginia Piedmont and up to Rockfish Gap on Skyline Drive. As we struggled uphill, we saw a hand-painted sign: “Water for Bike Riders.” An old rusted bicycle was leaning against the post, and a hose was coiled beneath a reflective orange sign with the Bikecentennial emblem.
We stopped to quickly tank up the water bottles, and a woman came charging out of the house and introduced herself as The Cookie Lady. By that time, June Curry already was a celebrity. She had been baking cookies and serving lemonade to bicyclists since the Bikecentennial route opened in 1976. Frequently mentioned by bicycle tourists, she also had been interviewed on CBS for “On the Road with Charles Kuralt.”
Inside the house, the walls were literally papered with postcards from travelling bicyclists. We rested up, talked for awhile (she passed along some useful information about who to look for and where to stop as we continued our tour west), and looked at her photo albums. She had hundreds, maybe thousands, of polaroids — sorted by year — of bicyclists posing at the bicycle sign. As we left, June took our picture at the water sign. I felt that snapshot gave us the prestige of TransAmerican bicyclist immortality.
Jump ahead 16 years, a marriage and two kids later. I'm visiting my friend Bruce for the Bike Virginia ride in 2000. The final day takes us over Rockfish Gap and on to Charlottesville. After cresting the pass and heading downhill, I see a roadsign “Afton” and veer off the route to take it. “I wonder if The Cookie Lady is still there?”
Sure enough. There's the sign, and the post with a hose and a bicycle leaning against it. I stop, knock on a door, and out comes June Curry… just as warm, and friendly, and giving as I remember from 16 years before.
On this visit, the house is still papered with postcards from around the world. She regularly corresponds with many of the riders — she is, afterall, a mother-like figure to many. It's not uncommon for her to be visited by former cross-country riders; sometimes they're joined by their children.
We talked for a while about people who have come through over the years, looked at the postcards and the old albums (the one containing my picture was in storage), and she fed me some cookies and lemonade. Before I left, another cyclist from Bike Virginia had left the route to pay a visit to The Cookie Lady.
As I left, she had me stop at the hose for a polaroid, this one for the Year 2000 album.
That's how I remember June Curry. She's currently recovering at home from a stroke she suffered in February. Check on this blog for an update on her condition.