Archive for July, 2020

There’s a pandemic and it is hot.  What to do?  Whatever bike riding one does, it has to be done early.   I left home at 6:45 AM and drove the white Prius thirty-five miles from Chapel Hill NC to the northern edge of Sanford NC.  I skipped breakfast and coffee.   Sanford (population 28,000) is by government statistics considered part of the Raleigh/Durham area, although far off to the west and south.  Sanford is geographically in the middle of North Carolina, forty-two miles west of Raleigh and sixty miles southeast of Greensboro.   It seems to always have been a factory town.  It is the seat of Lee County, which I just learned today was formed as a county only in 1907 and named of course for General Lee, just at the height of the stirring up of memories of the “lost cause” and new state laws restricting African-Americans.   Robert E Lee was NOT from North Carolina, as if anyone needs to be reminded of that.

Sanford is also “Brick City” because it sits in an area where the red clay of the North Carolina Piedmont meets the Sandhills.   There are several brick making facilities here.  I stopped on a Sunday morning at 7:30 AM at the parking lot of Lee Brick & Tile, about five miles north of downtown,   It seemed a good place to leave the car; who would care if I parked on a Sunday?   There were brick samples in the yard in front of the office.




I headed by bicycle south towards downtown.   The last few miles into Sanford are on a stretch of the original Maine/Florida US-1.   Back in the late eighties/early nineties I used to drive repeatedly to Sanford for air freight sales calls.  I am struck how by how little has changed in this stretch of road in thirty years.  All these signs and buildings look the same.





Dodge Trucks are now just called Ram.


I saw several pre-WWII gas stations.

This one is now a mini-mart and a church!

These two are more likely postwar but I like their style.



I continued on towards downtown.




Sanford is a factory town that is also a railroad town.  (Amtrak’s NY to Florida train comes right through here but does not stop.)




Mid-century modernism!



Sanford is one more town where even today the tallest building in Sanford was built during the 1920’s real estate boom.  The Hotel Wilrik of 1925 has been senior housing for many years.



I biked much further to the south and east as Sanford sprawls towards Fayetteville.


I am not sure what this means.

The St. Luke UMC is an impressive piece of modernism.

I had been biking around Sanford for over two hours.   It was getting hot.   I biked back to the car and was home before eleven in the morning.


Like everything else in the pandemic, this trip was put together at the last minute.  My frequent riding partner Lyman lives in Austin TX.  We wanted to get together to bicycle on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  A friend of his suddenly had a family emergency in Hendersonville NC and the friend decided to drive the 1,100 miles from Austin TX.   Who wants to fly anymore?   Lyman caught a ride for himself and his folding bicycle.  The guy let Lyman off early in the evening at a cheap motel on the fringes of Asheville NC.   The following morning I drove the four hours from Chapel Hill NC to Asheville.    We used the motel parking lot as a starting point for a three day bike ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway.    I parked my car and pulled my bicycle out of the back.   Lyman circled around on his Bike Friday.


The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches for 469 miles  through North Carolina and Virginia.  We obviously would be cycling only a small portion.  During a covid-19 pandemic what would be a way to overnight on the Parkway without putting ourselves or anyone else at significant risk?   Twenty-four hours before I left home I had reserved two rooms at the Pisgah Inn, elevation five thousand feet, one of the very few hotels that are right on the Parkway.   From the Asheville motel it was thirty miles of road and three thousand feet of elevation gain (uphill!).  We could then use the Pisgah Inn as a base for more cycling.

As a covid-19 mitigation effort Lyman and I decided it would not be that difficult for us to stay socially distant from each other for the entire trip.  We bicycled out into Asheville suburbia.    The Parkway was about three miles away.  Once on the Parkway it was up and down for about four miles.   After crossing the French Broad River the Parkway started climbing seriously.    It was an overcast day.  Pretty quickly it felt like we were lifting up into the clouds.



Yes, it was all uphill but if you put the bicycle in the lowest gear and kept pedaling the bicycle indeed kept moving.    My shirt was soaked in sweat even though the temperature was in the sixties.  We pulled over repeatedly.


I had made some peanut butter sandwiches.   We stopped and ate those while sitting on a guardrail in the mist.   About four in the afternoon we finally pulled into the Pisgah Inn.   It sits by itself in the wilderness at five thousand feet, overlooking mountain ranges to the south and east.


We got separate first floor rooms next door to each other.   Each had a large wide balcony overlooking the stormy sky.    Occasionally the sun would poke through.


We had checked in across a plexiglass screen.  Pisgah Inn seems to be taking the mask and social distancing thing seriously but they did not have outdoor dining.  They do have indoor dining with tables spaced out.  If you are going to worry about catching some disease how much fun would dinner be?   When asked Pisgah Inn will let you take your dinner with real dishes and real silverware back to your balcony.



Elsewhere in North Carolina it was a punishingly hot summer day.  Here at five thousand feet it was pleasantly chilly and drizzly.   Comfort food like homemade chicken pot pie and red wine really hit the spot.   We ate on Lyman’s balcony, outdoors and socially distant.  Delightful.

The next morning the view out our balconies was brighter.  I could poke my head around the barrier and see what Lyman was doing next door.

After breakfast we left for a daylong up and back bike ride further south.   The hotel sells to-go sandwiches in the gift shop and we bought one to carry with us to split for lunch.   South of the Pisgah Inn the for the first six miles the Parkway edges mostly downhill.  It then starts mostly uphill for miles and miles, peaking at the highest point on the Parkway, sixty-one hundred feet.





There were a lot of motorcyclists.   At one overlook this guy was using a selfie stick.


To get to sixty-one hundred feet we would have had to descend somewhat and then climb again.  We turned around at fifty-five hundred feet.


There are picnic areas along the Parkway and we stopped at one to have our lunch.  Hardly anyone was around.  Later we passed an overlook where cars park for the quarter mile walk to a popular waterfall, the Skinny Dip Falls.   It was startling to see so many people.

I am sure the waterfall is beautiful.   While many were wearing masks and it was obviously all outdoors, during this pandemic we had no interest in joining any kind of crowd.  We cycled on.  Part of the time we were in the clouds.


The rhododendron was lovely.


We eventually made it back to the Pisgah Inn.    Later on we ordered dinner and carried it back to our room.  Lyman got mountain trout with blueberry butter, me pasta with grilled chicken.


We again ate seven feet apart outdoors on the balcony, enjoying the view and the vibe.


The next morning we “cycled” back to Asheville.   I put that in quotes because so much of the way involved just piloting the bicycle downhill, it was like riding a motorcycle.    At one point I stopped and looked back at Lyman heading towards me.


The Parkway does a good job of always appearing to be in the wilderness.   Once we left the Parkway near Asheville we quickly realized we were back suburban America.    We cycled through the tony neighborhoods of Biltmore Forest, then the Biltmore Forest Country Club.

We cycled uphill into downtown Asheville.


We sat far apart but shared a hummus plate at an outdoor table that sat pleasantly lonely at an establishment called Foggy Mountain.     We then bicycled back to the car.   I drove Lyman to Hendersonville before driving home.   Just to finish our social distancing, for the half hour car trip we both wore masks and rode with the windows down.


Is there some way to take a safe overnight trip and not contribute to the pandemic problem?

Also, it is too hot to bicycle most places close to home during early July.   I even thought of driving up into Pennsylvania or Ohio to bicycle but temperatures there were also predicted to be in the nineties.

At elevation in the North Carolina/Virginia mountains there is cooler summer weather.   The major problem with bicycle touring on the Blue Ridge Parkway is that it is devoid of services.   Even drinking water is not always available.   The Parkway was specifically built to give automobile passengers an experience of being outside of commercial culture.   While it is not a problem for a car traveler that most motels and restaurants are several miles off the parkway, usually down a long hill, that can be challenging on a bicycle, especially when you have already been pedaling up and down hills all day.

I did find one small inn just north of the Virginia line that was near the Parkway and I booked a room for one night over the phone.  There would be no restaurant or grocery stores so I had to bring my own food.   On a recent morning I drove three hours up from Chapel Hill NC and parked at the Smart View Recreation Area on the Blue Ridge Parkway, elevation about 2500 feet.  It was not near any town but the closest ones are Floyd VA,  Hillsville VA and Meadows of Dan VA.  It would be a forty mile bicycle ride south on the Parkway to my inn.    I brought a change of clothes, two water bottles, lunch, dinner, and breakfast, and my ukulele.


The Blue Ridge Parkway is a delight to bicycle.   In this section there were stretches of ten or fifteen minutes between seeing a car.  Sometimes it felt like a giant bike path.  About half of the vehicles passing me were motorcycles.  The Parkway was built at a time when going for a car ride could be a liberating experience.  Who thinks like that now?   On a bicycle the weather was cool and the scenery lovely.





I stopped for lunch at the Rocky Knob picnic area.   I think it used to be a campground.  The Blue Ridge Parkway is funded and maintained by the National Park Service.   The picnic tables were totally falling apart.

If we are the richest country in the world why do we have to beg for donations?


I had said there were no stores on the Parkway but at the Meadows of Dan interchange within sight of the Parkway was this touristy store with real coffee.   I sat on the porch in a rocking chair and had my usual mid-afternoon cup of joe.


It had been a long but nourishing bike ride when I pulled into my motel at about 5:00 PM.

I was their only guest, but she said they were going to be full the following night. The Inn portion was like a suburban house divided into about eight rooms. Sixty-nine dollars including tax is a good deal.  The very welcoming proprietress apologized for the room decor which she said was too feminine.  She said she had a masculine-themed room that was not available. (!)



There is a great YouTube video of some guy with an English accent who cooks a chicken dinner in a motel room, using the coffee maker, iron, and hair dryer as heating units.   Here I had more tools than that.  This motel room had a microwave plus dishes and utensils, but no stove or pots and pans.   I have almost no experience in cooking solely with a microwave.   Can you boil pasta in a microwave, using a large coffee cup?  Apparently you can.

These were my groceries before leaving home in Chapel Hill, stuff I already had in my pantry.  I packed it all onto the back of my bicycle.    1/4 of a bag of Pisgsah Crunch mixed nuts trail mix, 1/4 of a box of pasta, the most expensive sardines I could find, one peanut butter sandwich for lunch, one piece of local Eco Farms squash, one unshucked ear of corn, 1/2 cup of plain raw oatmeal for breakfast, one chunk cheddar cheese, 1/4 of a box of local cherry tomatoes, Tupperware containers of olive oil and salt.  One lime.


Despite my lack of experience cooking in a microwave with no pots and pans it really worked!   I had corn on the cob as an appetizer course, then the main course of noodles with cheddar cheese and tomatoes with sardines on the side.   I have recently learned that good sardines are really delicious.  (Kudos to Bob from Tampa on his recent email to me about finding quality canned Spanish and Portuguese seafood.)


After finishing the pasta I sliced up the squash on the plate and added olive oil, salt, and lime juice and then microwaved it.   I had opened the window to the motel room, it was nice to have fresh air without the noise of an air conditioner.  Nevertheless eating in the room was too hot.  I took everything outside onto the porch.   There was a lovely view in the cool evening air.


It is really quiet out here, I could relax with the window open at night and listen to the silence.   I woke up the next morning, watched Morning Joe on TV, then prepared my oatmeal in the microwave.   Next to the coffee maker there were sugar packets; I added a packet on top of my oatmeal.

The woman who runs this place has interesting yard art.

On the bicycle I headed back out the way I had come the day before.   The Parkway was again lovely.


Stopping at the one gift shop/restroom building that I passed there were not a lot of masks or social distancing going on, although this was outdoors.


My car was still there and I made it home to Chapel Hill in time for dinner.