Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
‘Boredom’ is a term for the sadly stationary. ‘Adventure,’ as in ‘quite an adventure,’ as in ‘sounds like quite an adventure [you’re having],’ has passed from overuse into the irrelevant. Liminar: ‘neither here nor there; they are betwixt & between the positions assigned & arrayed by law, custom, convention.’ Plan is a thing to pin down; to crucify; to push tacks through the brilliant blue wing of the tropical bird.
& everything is circumstance, everything unknowable:
Where the paved road turned gave way to gravel I met the liminar. Tim had fair hair & a big pack & rainbow waterproofing covers for his sneakers, & he was walking & then biking from the mountains to the sea: my route in reverse. We sat by the side of the road, pasture behind us, the Blue Ridge Parkway up a hill in front, sharing cigarettes and my sourdough bread wrapped in a red handkerchief.
In getting lost near Boone, I found, through Tim, some definitions I would need. Among ‘through-hikers,’ he said, there were Three Types of Fun. Type One Fun: fun to do and fun to tell about: how the couple who picked him up hitchhiking bought him a pizza at the Mellow Mushroom: how he ate the whole pie in one sitting. Type Two Fun: not fun to do but fun to tell about: how it rained for three days straight & he forded the swollen river naked, the water up to his neck. Type Three Fun: not fun to do & not fun to tell about: how it rained for three days straight & he had diarrhea the whole time.
We stood up from the dirt, he swung his pack up onto his back again, and he walked North. I crossed the road to bushwhack up the little forested hill to the Parkway: branches in every possible way, stubborn tender-footed Alexander the bicycle like a ram butting his head against every possible trunk (limitation: bushwacking)–
Then having finally made it to the road, saw some vague construction on the bridge over Goshen Creek; saw that there was only one lane open on the bridge, and it was empty of cars, and so not really thinking about it started across; and halfway over came a big long line of cars headed straight for me—heard a woman cry despairingly through the open window: what are you doing! Then an ominous crunch as the big dark van behind her struck the cement side wall. I dismounted and waited shamefully for them to pass. And this pattern of angering cars, of being on too-narrow roads, of not-really-even making it up hills, and of being, more than usual high levels, spectated upon, was to mark my brief (forty-eight hours) on the Blue Ridge Piece of Shit Way.
The plan was not the sort that is tacked lifeless behind glass. I had tied a single thread around the foot of the plan, long enough for it to fly around the yard a good deal but tight enough to ensure it would not fly off altogether. I would start off from Boone to Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a narrow two-lane road that runs some 500 miles through the Appalachian Mountains into the Smokies. The plan was to stick it out a day, see how my legs were holding up, and then possibly hitchhike the rest of the way.
3:57 pm Saturday October 20th—marooned at Wilson Creek, elevation 4,357 feet. Too much wind, traffic and no shoulder whatsoever but with beautiful views that one could only catch snatches of, no gas stations for funny encounters, and also, the hills: not hills, mountains. You know how when you’re biking up a hill and you can see the crest of it, where the cars dip over, and where you know the downhill starts? Not here. The road does not bend itself down just around the next corner. The road continues, impossibly up, as though someone had unfurled a scroll from their held hand, had let its end fall to the floor, and for some reason, you find yourself traveling, by bicycle, up it. You climb for miles at a time—five, ten—the cars heaving hot and impatient just behind, lining up, sometimes flooring it through the other lane.
I stopped at one overlook after another, asking vaguely for a ride: two good young families (mother w/ nose pierced, sipping beer, father Rayban’d, harmonica-playing). They did not know which way they were going; then they knew they were going North: Oh, I am going South, the little sad song of the one-human migration (land of 49-cent grits, the racialized soil, land of people who are all very kind but are all heading north–) Scroll, take me to Asheville, I thought: or I will cross my fingers and stick out my thumb.
It was four o’clock, five o’clock by the time I got to Linn Cove Viaduct Visitor Center. The gift shop sold four-dollar Clif bars and Blue Ridge hats. I bought stupid postcards of some lady on a motorcycle on Blue Ridge Shitway (young blonde Hitler Youth-esque ranger: It’s just like you but with an engine!). I walked Alexander around and around the parking lot, half-chanting my sad little song: I must have asked twenty (of only the safer-looking) rides, being reluctant to flat out hitchhike: Gee no we’re heading North or Gee we have a small car or Gee we have a full car.
It got on towards dark. The cars in the parking lot thinned; the bathrooms were locked. I grew more and more forlorn. The other ranger, a withered, white-haired, prune of a woman in her grey-green uniform, turned the sign on the visitors center to CLOSED. I went up to the door & [scowlingly]: Can’t you read the sign: we’re CLOSED: Yes–but I just have a question–is that alright: What [scowl scowl] is it: & I went into the store & stood timidly, the counter between us, feeling like a wayward student at the desk of the principal: Well you see, I am on a longish bike trip from Philadelphia to New Orleans (I am a student, I am taking a year off from college, I know to add quickly for credibility’s sake): & I had no idea the traffic would be this bad & it just feels really unsafe biking & so I’ve been trying to hitch a ride: I can’t have you (scowlingly) asking people for rides. I’ve had several visitors complain about it already: Well: it’s not like this is a situation I want to be in: I guess I’m just turning to you for advice: HONESTLY I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO TELL YOU: If you’re going on a journey like that–you’ve got to be prepared.
I did not explain my theory on the crucifixion of plans: I readied myself for a night of luxury behind the restrooms. As I was pitching my tent alongside the wall, a young mother with toddler rounded the corner & stopped: Oh—excuse me—they locked the bathrooms & he needed to go—Oh, hey, no worries, I’m just camping here illegally because I’ve been biking and my hands are numb—Oh— (she eyeing me so cautiously & pityingly)— and so eating handkerchief bread in the dark, too cold to get out peanut butter, then getting hurriedly inside, crying a good deal and reading As I Lay Dying a little, and not really sleeping for the cold wind sounding like the ocean coming up through the trees, like the rushing in-rushing out of a million trains: I managed, for a moment, to transform its hostility by thinking every tree a person I love—Ariel & Iz & Mommy & Zoe & Thomas & Liz standing right over me and doing their best with their lost leaves to break the wind: longing to record the sound, record the cold in my toes, for the most accurate representation of travel by bicycle.
Dawn behind camouflage print. Sounds of bathrooms being cleaned, the door not ten feet away around the corner being opened and a wheeled thing being pushed around; half-slept, & faintly in my hearing so many car doors were being slammed I imagined it to be a long line of doors, all leading to nothing & all attached by a beam at the top, running the length of the parking lot, that someone would walk along and open and slam at random. I am hesitant to label anything Type Three Fun, but let’s say the Blue Ridge was, on average, a solid Type Two Point Six. Every possible bit of bone ached. It was Sunday.
Thanksroll: the Ralph family for housing & feeding me, your son was right about the ice cream, David at Sandy Springs Baptist Church for letting me pitch my tent there (and was it you who left the egg sandwich in my helmet–still warm when I woke), Pal and Miles Ireland at the Cook Shack, Andrew Jackson for the rad palling around, Brandon and Chloe for housing me and letting me bake handkerchief bread, Tim for the tips.
Photo by Leah Gallant/the Daily Gazette.