Saturday, May 26, 1984
Breaks Interstate Park, Va., to Pippa Passes, Ky.
If your bike touring plans are cancelled by the coronavirus, maybe you’ll enjoy following along on a cross-country tour my friend and I made in 1984. See the index at 1984 TransAmerica Bike Tour.
Last night’s fear and loathing about spending the foreseeable future dodging coal trucks on narrow roads turned out to be a waste of time.
Coal is king in these parts, but even the king gives a holiday to his subjects over the Memorial Day weekend. No coal trucks confronted us today. We could see them parked in gravel parking lots behind chain link fences, their trailer beds tilted up so they wouldn’t collect rainwater. It was as if they were saluting our passage.
Although the coal trucks were absent, we still had to deal with the grinding terrain. As we broke camp in the morning, an old camper who knew the area said our route would be “rough as a cob.” We didn’t know how rough a cob is, but we soon found out.
Riding beneath stone cliffs on the way down to Elkhorn City, we passed the “Welcome to Kentucky” sign. Two weeks into the tour, and we finally crossed into another state. At Ash Camp we turned off the main road and headed up narrow, winding, steep roads over the hills.
We were pedaling through abject poverty. A drizzle made things more dreary. Flood damage was evident everywhere. Recent rains had flooded creeks. The stream beds were littered with clothes and tree limbs. Shreds of paper, plastic, diapers, and clothes actually hung from the trees — left there after the floodwaters receded.
Coming down our first hill, we passed the towns of Henry Clay and Lookout. Small frame houses hang onto the mountain tops; the bigger homes are in the valleys below. Our next turn took us through Poor Bottom. The winding road was washed out in places. The creek ran right along the right-hand side of the road, and people who lived along there were still trying to get their houses and yards cleaned out. A sign in a little store at the top of the holler read: “Credit due every two weeks. Those who can pay cash do not get credit.”
Our long day’s journey into the heart of the Cumberlands led us to an American Youth Hostel at Pippa Passes. The rambling house is set into the side of a hill. This is our first hostel, and we are very comfortable. There’s a kitchen for cooking, but we opt for pizza at the bottom of the hill. If we had called ahead, Charlotte, the woman who runs the hostel, would have cooked up something for us. She said she cooked for those guys from Connecticut last night. They must have ridden about 100 miles to get here in one day.
Headline: May 26, 1984 — The Sandinista Government in Nicaragua announces it would allow opposition parties 12 weeks to wage the first national political campaign since the 1979 guerrilla takeover …
Today’s ride was not inspiring. It rained most of the morning and the roads were in poor condition. We still made our 60 miles. The remarkable thing about today, our first day in Kentucky, was what we saw: we cycled through the heart of Appalachian coal country; through dirt and gravel roads and unbelievably small, poor towns whose survival seems directly connected to the mines. All these towns are in the narrow valleys. The road runs along a stream and the houses (mostly trailers) are on the opposite side of the road. To get to their homes, the people build little bridges that serve as driveways.
Cars, machinery and other things are junked in yards or just abandoned wherever they went bad. The stream, from recent floods that closed many of the roads, was littered with all kinds of debris. And an amazing amount of garbage–clothes, shoes, paper products–was lodged in high branches of trees. Which was odd, until you realized that’s how high the water had risen. It looked eerie, and unnatural, like a war zone.
Poor Bottom was the most amazing of these towns, and was exactly described by its name. Trailers were all along the winding back road. The shack which was the town’s grocery–little more than a rusted tin and wood shed that someone might have in their backyard–extended customers’ credit on a two-week basis only.
I was amazed by all of this, and realized that had it not been for this bicycle trip, I might never have seen this part of the country.
I have talked to many people about coal mining. Two guys told me that most workers can make $100 a day in the mines. The money is good but the work takes its toll. Everybody seems to live in trailers and drive Corvettes or Z-28s. And, of course, pickup trucks.
This morning, as we were leaving the Breaks [tiki lights, air conditioner, midnight and Bis hulking out], a fellow came over and started discussing our route. When he learned we were going through the mountains and all these small towns, he informed us, “Youins going up them mountains–they’s as rough as a cob.”
I hadn’t heard “youins” since W&J in western Pennsylvania. But despite his diction, the man was right. It was a tough day.
We are here at Pippa Passes tonight in a youth hostel which is very nice. The husband and wife who run it are nice and very accommodating and I can’t wait to sleep in a bed–it will be the second time in two weeks, if you count the rollaway at Jane’s as a bed.
Photos — Top, trains in Elkhorn City. Bottom, Bruce coasting downhill at Virginia-Kentucky border.
Day 15 — Hill hell