Archive for the ‘Western North Carolina trips’ Category

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.


Chapel Hill is not exactly sea level but it is near enough to sea level that the heat of the summer is oppressive.   There is a reason the wealthy used to spend months “summering” in The Mountains.  (Some still do!).    Elevation cures the illness of hot weather.  Because we could not really go outside here in Chapel Hill,  Tootie and I went to the mountains for one night.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the great bicycle rides in America.  However, to spend the night or even eat a meal,  a cyclist almost always has to descend about a thousand feet to a town of a much lower altitude.   At an elevation of 3500′ Little Switzerland NC is one of the very few spots on the entire 469 mile long Parkway where a bicyclist can stop, spend the night and have dinner right on the Parkway.   Neither of us had ever been to Little Switzerland before so we wanted to see what it was like.

This would be an up and back one night bike trip.   Leaving early, we drove our Prius three and a half hours to the Parkway and then up to an elevation of about 4000 feet, a spot on the Parkway near the town of Linville Falls.  We parked in a place that looked reasonably legal to leave our car for twenty-four hours.   We unloaded and headed out by bicycle, carrying with us all the luggage we would needed for one night and to have a picnic lunch along the way.

Biking the Blue Ridge Parkway in the summer is glorious.    Even at this peak season there is not that much car traffic.   The weather was sunny but refreshing, with temperatures in the seventies.




At lunchtime we could not find a picnic table so we ate while sitting on a guard rail.


Two or three hours after starting we pulled into the Switzerland Inn where we had made a reservation.


I really like this place.    Clean rooms, lovely view, good food, even a decent bar scene. They have lawn games out front.    A nice cross section of America was staying there, including a sizable contingent of sixty-something motorcyclists.


When there is a view this big everybody just stares at it.



We walked around.   Dinner that evening was really old school; we split a $ 33.00 chunk of meat entitled “King Cut Prime Rib au jus 14 0z.”    Delicious.

The next day we bicycled back to the car.     The views were stunning.


The Parkway went up and down, but the last seven miles were straight uphill from 2700′ to 4000′.   Tootie is turning sixty in a few months and she does not bicycle all that much.  She was very proud to have completed such a sizable climb!




My son Sam is in a band that was performing at a restaurant near Asheville on Friday night.  I drove the almost four hours out there early Friday morning, so I could spend most of the day bicycling around Asheville before going to see the show that evening.

There are very few flat areas of Asheville and most of that is either flood plain along the river or the relatively small area of the downtown.   I wanted to discover by bicycle the areas outside of downtown.

Older residential neighborhoods with 1920’s houses are scattered in several directions from downtown, but most are cut off from downtown by steep slopes and Interstate highways.  I sweated  all day bicycling up steep slopes.  Outside of the immediate downtown it is difficult to imagine Asheville as a nirvana for biking or or walking.  There does seem to be a decent bus system.  For most situations here you really need a car.









I bicycled up a long steep hill on the north side of town, looking for the Grove Park Inn, built in 1912.

I thought I had arrived there when I saw this building.



That turned out to the just an apartment building with a view; the Grove Park Inn was further up the hill, around a corner.



Downtown there are some lovely 1920’s-30’s high rises.    This is one of several.



I am probably the only person who appreciates this place.



Likewise The Beaucatcher Motel on Tunnel Road which I stayed at for $59.00 a night.  It is in the process of renovation and the rooms are actually quite nice.   They seem to be betting that people are going to want a 1962 Mad Men experience.



Sam, on the far left on the banjo,  is in the band Red Clay Revival, who played at the pleasant restaurant Native Kitchen in the nearby town of Swannanoa.   I left the camera back in the hotel room so I could only record on my I-phone.   Sam said they sounded better the next night but I thought they sounded fine.


Tootie needed to go to Roaring Gap for a day, so I had her drop me off near there on the Blue Ridge Parkway.     This is in northwestern North Carolina, about twenty miles south of Galax, Virginia.   My plan was to bicycle down the Parkway to Boone, spend the night, then come back the next day where she could pick me up.

Tootie and I shared a picnic lunch in one of the Parkway picnic tables before I set off.  Boone was almost fifty miles to the southwest.   It is a beautiful highway.


The Blue Ridge Parkway was conceived and built mostly in the nineteen thirties at a time when people really wanted to take car rides for pleasure.   The automobile vacation was a new form of escape from the confines of regular life.   Maintained as a linear National Park, this highway remains an American treasure, built specifically to have great views.



People have asked me “do you feel safe bicycling on such a narrow road?”   The answer is yes.   Even on a summer Sunday afternoon there was not much traffic.    By my vehicle count there were more motorcycles than cars.   Of the cars I saw, a much larger percentage than normal were convertibles, or some classic older car.    It is now mostly motorcyclists and bicyclists that still take trips just for the pleasure of the ride.   Maybe modern Americans spend so much time in their cars that taking a beautiful slow car ride does not have as much attraction as it used to.




The other attraction of this trip was altitude.   The whole ride would be at over three thousand feet in elevation.   Taking a bike ride anywhere else on the East Coast during late July would be suffocating.  Temperatures here were comfortable the whole time.  The bike riding, while pleasant, was tiring, always going up or down.   Compared to normal highways there is almost nowhere to stop and get a drink or something to eat.

It did feel sometimes like we were up in the clouds.




Eventually the clouds opened up and I got wet.    There being nowhere to seek cover, I just soldiered on.  Boone is some distance from the Parkway so I rode the last ten miles on US421.    There was a full size shoulder lane so it felt quite safe, but obviously biking this section did not have the intimacy of the Parkway.  The mountains had taken their toll on my legs; I was ready to stop.


I know something of Boone because my son Jack went to Appalachian State for four years and graduated in 2012.   For the past month I have been following the weather at various places all over the East Coast, looking for somewhere to bike that is not blindingly hot.    Boone seemed to be cooler than even some places in New England.  A Wikipedia search confirms this.    The average high temperature in Boone in July is 79, while the average high temperature in Burlington, Vermont in July is 81.  I learn that at 3330 feet, Boone is the highest elevation town (with a of population over 10,000) on the East Coast.  Boone is significantly higher elevation, and cooler, than other mountain cities like Asheville.

Culturally, Boone is a great place.   It has the cosmopolitan nature of a college town and the scruffy ex-hippie vibe of a small  Asheville.   Several famous musicians have come from this area.   The Appalachian State campus is right downtown with its almost twenty thousand students.   School was out for summer break but some young locals look like they came out of hipster central casting.   There were also other people roaring around in jacked up pickup trucks.   But the North Carolina Department of Transportation has insured that any growth beyond the small older downtown core is completely car-centered, and frankly unattractive.   Boone has grown tremendously in the past few years and it would be so much better if the newer areas were as pedestrian friendly as the small downtown area around the University.   I realize how complicated these issues are.    There is effectively no public transportation to the town of Boone from elsewhere in North Carolina.   Everybody is going to drive get here.   The town is built around steep slopes.   How does Boone prevent perpetual traffic gridlock without making much of Boone a strip mall wasteland stuck up in the mountains?

Over time the NCDOT chose the strip mall route.    North Carolina state law acts like the NCDOT does not do local zoning, but it effectively does.   As US421 comes into town, it widens even further.   The designers make themselves feel good by putting a bike lane and sidewalk along this monstrosity.   (The other side of town, near the Walmart, where US421 goes towards Blowing Rock, is even more hideous.)   Every North Carolina town, and indeed most American towns have this same problem.   But up here in the mountains it felt more of an affront to see chain motels lining a wide highway.


As you near the university and downtown it reduces to “just” four or five lanes.



Once downtown the town has a reasonable human scale.


There are lots of chain motels on the highway, but no motel or hotel in the core downtown.    At about six o’clock I found a downtown bar on Yelp and stopped for a beer to ponder the situation.


Eventually I booked a room at a Sleep Inn a mile away from downtown.   I biked back to the place, checked in, took a shower, and collapsed into the bed.   After chilling for a spell I got back on the bike and went downtown to eat.

I ate outdoors at a place called the Hob Nob Farm Cafe.   It tries to be simultaneously Mexican, Italian, Indian, and maybe a couple other ethnicities.   I applaud their ambition but the ravioli and meatloaf felt a little heavy, even after having biked fifty miles in the mountains.


The next morning I rode back down US421 to the Parkway.    After turning onto the Parkway, the first three miles were  continuously uphill.   The views were terrific.


My legs still felt sore from the previous day, so I decided after about twenty miles to ride “off”  the mountain.   Tootie could pick me up closer to sea level.    I could go downhill.     Near the mountain settlement of Obids I turned right off the Parkway onto NC Route 16.    There was a long downhill from here.


Even after a couple miles at about forty miles an hour, there was still more to come.



When you got off the Parkway you could see a less sanitized view of people’s lives in this area.




I stopped at a gas station and got a cold Starbucks Frappuccino.    However, after all these years I still have never eaten any of these types of snacks.


As I rode further  I talked with Tootie on the phone.  She would meet me near the main highway in Wilkesboro.    I stumbled onto Pa-Paws Bar-B-Que & Seafood just as I was getting into North Wilkesboro. I did not want to keep Tootie waiting, so I bought a barbecue sandwich, with slaw, to go.  It was a very white working class crowd.   I still wish I would have photographed the four pot-bellied sheriff deputies as they were leaving; all four in civilian clothes but each sporting a badge and a pistol on his belt.   They all silently watched me unlock my bicycle.



I struggled on the last few miles.   At the highway exit where I would meet Tootie, I sat under a tree and had lunch.