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WORDS: Michael Loranty
In West Virginia the physical and cultural landscapes are inextricably linked. Landscapes are defined by the physical and biological processes that shape them--the topography, climate, the geology, and the ecology. Cultural norms are often predicated by livelihoods, which are often predicated by the physical landscape. From there a positive feedback ensues. It is like this in many places, and it is difficult to experience one without the other. If the bicycle is the ideal platform from which to observe the interplay between the cultural and physical worlds, then West Virginia is an ideal venue.
A late night arrival assured a slow start for the day's ride. The realization that we needed to start pedaling came too close to lunchtime. We rode along a stream out of the park to its confluence with the Greenbrier River, where our ride would begin in earnest.
For the remainder of the morning and into early afternoon we make our way down the valley. The Greenbrier River was the main artery in the region from the times of the earliest settlement. A rail line paralleled its bank carrying would-be timbermen up river, and the currents carried logs down. Accordingly many towns were established near rail stations along the river, most often where relenting gorge walls allow access. Most of these towns no longer exist, but the roads still go there, and so our meandering through bucolic lanes was punctuated with startling descents down to the river followed directly by a climb back out. This sort of ceaseless undulating relief made organized pace-making difficult, resulting in conversational speeds. This pace was fine, for these sorts of rolling roads are most dangerous on long rides. When elevation gain comes at tens to hundreds of feet at a time it is easy to be over zealous. Besides, the weather was perfect and there are too many details to be missed along miles of roadside fence-line.
Tucked away behind an auto repair shop on US 219 in Frankford, West Virginia, is Lowell’s Bakery. A handful of tables and chairs on the front porch offer perfect respite for the wayward cyclist. Inside Lowell himself greets us and soon a familiar conversation begins. You’re going where? Do you all know how far that is? I’ve found that disclosing such information up front garners much needed respect for scrawny cyclists in rural Appalachia. A cinnamon roll at Lowell’s constitutes a meal in and of itself. Soon enough we were back on our bikes, heading westward away from the river and towards one of the many mountainous ridges along the Allegheny front, heading towards Cold Knob.
Cold Knob is the kind of climb that forces you to pick lines. Gentle grades for the first few miles offer a false sense of security, perhaps even confidence. Initially the surface is actually fast and more than one of us takes the bait, charging out of the saddle up the hill. Rather abruptly, after a smooth sweeping switchback, the true nature of this climb is revealed. Instantly the grade becomes steeper and rocks of all sizes appear seemingly out of nowhere. The pace slows to a crawl. Riding out of the saddle is not an option on pitches nearing twenty percent. Ever so slightly, after no fewer than three miles, the road relents. However the damage is done, the group is shattered. Each of us left in solitude, to overcome the brutality of the climb and the oppressive afternoon heat on our own. I will my legs to turn the gear, to keep ticking over in metronome-like fashion, using only the shame of having to walk my bike for motivation. Forward progress comes tens of feet at a time. What had begun innocently enough ended over six miles later in a sweat-soaked stupor atop Cold Knob.
The dirt roads traversing the ridge beyond the summit of Cold Knob had a markedly different feel. Wider than any we had been on all day, the surface was hard, and scattered with marble-sized gravel. Nonetheless, we rode fast, barreling along the open flat stretches and drifting through corners, barely in control. Three flat tires in rapid succession allowed us to notice the endless sea of green rolling mountains visible in most any direction. Even more prominent were the lifeless moonscapes in the foreground. Most, entirely devoid of vegetation, the scenery depicted the stark reality of how humans can impact the landscape. The mood became almost apocalyptic.
Soon after, directions from a passerby sent us down a long and unnerving descent, after which we were treated to a hard charging ride on fast dirt. Hillsides draped in the leafy green of hardwood forests all around us seemed to breath new life into the our ride, inspiring a series of playful attacks and counter attacks that sent us hurtling through the midst of a local bear-chase. Luckily the bear was long gone by the time we passed, and we had only to contend with a few good-natured hunting dogs. Eventually we found ourselves on a road with painted lines, and a town-line sprint won with tactics that were questionable at best, marked our arrival in Richwood, the largest town we would see all day.
A mural spanning the side of a two-story building paid homage to the loggers and coal miners on whose backs the town of Richwood had been built. Had we not been concerned with finding food we may have ridden right through town without noticing that every single storefront along the four blocks of Main Street was vacant. It is often said that at the turn of the century it was possible to walk across West Virginia stepping only on tree stumps. And so it was that Richwood was born with the timber boom of the early 20th century, spurred on by industry tied to wood products and later, coal mining. Exhausted resources and industry collapse resulted in devastating economic and environmental consequences – the ultimate hardships for residents that remained.
As our seventh hour in the saddle approaches we were deftly in tune with each other. A fluidly orchestrated rotation had materialized with little need for words. Twenty miles slipped past and we found ourselves in the valley between Kennison Mountain and Blue Knob. Once again we pedaled across the Greenbrier, now with a deeper understanding of this place, West Virginia, simply as a result of riding a bicycle.