Several years back, I decided that I wanted to travel outside the US at least once a year. But in 2015, my life was overtaken by the needs of my elderly parents and I needed to stay close to home. Those next 18 months I blogged about the wonderful rural sacred sites of America, places that my life serendipitously lead me to. Five years later, life once again has me visiting the world close to home and I’m enjoying delightful places that I would not have prioritized in the past. Just like hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, I want to take you along with me on a few of my local adventures. Here is a chance for me to share some of the wonderful and charming parts of Appalachia so that you might also enjoy a land that is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. I want to paint you a beautiful new picture of this remarkable region full of beauty and culture.
Alexandra’s birthday is early in October, so we planned an overnight trip to celebrate. I suggested the Virginia Creeper Trail just a few hours’ drive across the border in Virginia. This trail is an old railroad right-of-way from the 1880’s that runs through the rolling hills and low mountains of southern Virginia and is bisected by the Appalachian Trail which runs north and south. The trains stopped running in the 1970’s and the Forest Service secured the land for a recreation trail. It is now a 34-mile hiking, horse and bike trail from Whitetop Mountain to Abingdon, Virginia. But it is mostly used as a biking trail with outfitters who rent bikes and take riders to the end of the trail for a mostly down-hill ride back to the town and car. I’m not much of a biker so this was perfect for me.
The adventure started the night before when all four of us drove to the little town of Mountain City, Tennessee, to an Airbnb, stopping in Johnson City for some gourmet pizza for dinner. The next morning, we had a picnic breakfast and Alexandra opened some birthday gifts. We headed toward our next destination along a winding road beside a creek. The trees were just beginning to change colors and a few leaves were accumulating on the road. The narrow gorge is dotted with tidy farms highlighted with crisp white farmhouses and weathered barns. This was just the beginning of the perfectly picturesque “hills and hollers” of the gently rolling Appalachia. We wandered a bit around the tiny trail town of Damascus. There are outfitters and hostels to meet the needs of the Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. We had coffee and loaded our backpacks with water and snacks, got our rented bikes loaded on the outfitter’s trailer and climbed in the van for the 30 minute drive to the top of Whitetop Mountain. As the van climbed the narrow curvy road, the terrain transformed to steeper hillsides with perfect rows of tiny Christmas tress beginning a decade of growth before harvesting for their intended Christmas home.
The first few miles on the trail were a bit wobbly for me—it had been awhile since I was on a bike. The trail was wide and slightly down-hill through a rich canopy of yellowing leaves. The air was crisp and the smell of the dry fall air that is such a relief after the humid hot summer. It was a little too crisp for Alexandra’s hands and she fashioned mittens out of shirtsleeves and socks and I gave her my jacket. We crossed tall trestles and stopped to look down the rocky gorges. There are well over a dozen trestle/bridges to cross on the trail. We took a short break where one side of the trail had several men in a field loading pumpkins on a truck and the other side was a steep incline of Christmas trees—it was like being on a movie set of idealized American holidays. The next short rest was by a hillside full of goats protected by a Great Pyrenees dog. It was my childhood dream of being Heidi in Switzerland. Fortunately, a bit later there was a sign for coffee and gloves—Alexandra was saved. The sock fix wasn’t quite good enough and we quickly purchased gloves and hats from the small outfitter across a little bridge. Warmed by coffee and a wood stove inside the old hut gave a renewed spirit of pleasure for the amazing scenery.
We pedaled/coasted on for awhile until we came upon a little café with picnic tables for the tired and hungry bikers. A delightful menu of hot dogs, grill cheese and tater tots was perfect to feed us body and soul for the last third of the trail. Over more bridges until the trail flattened out just before Damascus and our car, 17 miles from the mountain top and the half-way point of the trail. We loved every minute but the last bit found us saddle-sore and rubber-legged. It was good to turn in our bikes and climb into the car for the ride home. There was a quick stop for chicken sandwiches and iced tea in Abingdon and then just a few more hours home to hot showers and comfy beds. I wanted to bottle up that day and save every breath, leaf and tree to store away for hard times. I wondered at the land, my family and the simple joys of fresh air and knew I had a moment of rest to enjoy life even if it was just for a day.