Lost in the Mountains

triprptFor a full week, my first SUUSI had kept me hopping. Up at 9am, ballroom dance lessons, running to meals (or missing them), staying up singing at 3am, napping, dancing all night, catching a snack, riding into town for supplies, and meeting new people at every hour of the day and night. In all of that confusion I had not taken any time to sit down and plan what to do next.

I had been kicking around the logistics of my next destination and my route, but nothing serious. I had 16 days ahead of me, two full weeks, until I was due in northern Michigan at AMUUSE, my next Unitarian summer camp. So I had only rough ideas. I wanted to go to New Jersey to visit Jack, my unexpected friend from last summer’s atheist cruise. I also planned to drop in on an old friend that lived in Manhattan, but had to hurry since he had already sold his co-op. But mostly, for some time I had been exchanging text messages with an internet friend, a woman living in the city. I wanted us to have that “cup of coffee” to finally meet, but our schedules were crazy. She was taking a long week-end trip to Puerto Rico (which I almost spontaneously joined), and she’d be crazy busy when she returned to work, right as I arrived. I also wanted to spend time in the Poconos, to possibly visit my old friends now living in Pittsburgh, and to drive across northern Pennsylvania and southern New York, an area I was visited and enjoyed during a work assignment in Williamsport. And, of course, ride the Blue Ridge Parkway.

When Saturday dawned my only “plan” was to head to Roanoke, based on a suggestion from a classmate in my SUUSI seminar on protecting indigenous peoples. That group spontaneously met one evening after class for beer at sunset, and when I mentioned ballroom dancing and my trip she showed me their very active Roanoke meet-up dancing group. She also invited me to attend her UU church Sunday morning, although ironically she would be out of town for the coming weekend. THAT constituted my “plan”.

Departing SUUSI on Saturday was very emotional, with hugs and tears, then followed by my standard total confusion. After breaking up from our hug around the fountain, I chased down my Clearwater UU friends and sent them home with a gym bag of extra clothes and literature and souvenirs. I’d also discarded my first jetsam, so it was nice to have space in my suitcases and my bike cubbies again.

To physically depart, I had to go retrieve my bike from the distant lot, then ride it back to the dorm and park it amid the confusing swarms of cars and kids loading up and leaving. I had to shuttle my bags and packs and stage them outside, making sure I didn’t leave anything behind in the room, then lock up and leave my key with the dorm rep. Despite prepping the night before, this took me over an hour to get myself packed up and kickstand ready.

suusi0In this process, Dale and Kristi passed by on their way to their camping trip, and we hugged and cried some more and we accidentally took my now favorite picture: me and the scooter on a bright sunny morning, in my favorite shirt, at my thinnest weight, emotionally exhausted from a week at my first ever SUUSI. It was a spontaneous accident, but that picture has become a keepsake. We wished each other well on our adventures and headed off in different directions.

I had been stationary for 7 days, bags unpacked, with meals, schedules, even a laundry provided without any need to think or be organized. I’d been deprived of sleep, staying up late, with a regular nap overcoming me each afternoon, splitting my waking hours. I’d been dancing every afternoon also long into the night. This erratic pattern gives anyone a bit of brain fog, exhaustion and a loss of mental focus. For some they become groggy, others depressed, withdrawn or detached. I’ve been in such a positive mood on this trip and at SUUSI that it encouraged a mild euphoria, bad to have when on two feet, but downright dangerous when on two wheels.

For thirty years I used my tendency for “hypomania” to power my career success, but I had been careful to avoid it so far this trip. When I can’t avoid euphoria, I keep myself hyper vigilant to know when I’m making poorly considered optimistic decisions (“let’s go double or nothin!”). In life, the best plan is to be sober, second best is to know when you’re drunk. The same goes for hypomania. But after a week safely hunkered in a dorm room and walking around the campus, I didn’t know and didn’t know I didn’t know my own elevated state.

So with little planning, and a “this’ll work” positive attitude, I followed my instincts, took a chance, and headed south from campus to meet the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) through the scenic Bear Creek and Wolf Creek reservoirs. Heading north would have been so simple; a straight shot to town, following highways and freeways into Asheville, and on my way to distant Roanoke. But I impulsively trusted my usually reliable travel instincts and followed a gut hunch. This was the first time in decades that my instincts let me down. Just too much going on, all at once. And as the day unfolded I felt more and more devastated by this disconnect. This simply NEVER happens to me.

The southern route was beautiful, but I needed to head north and east to Roanoke, and it kept tailing off to the south. The farther east I traveled, the farther south it curled, and looking at the map showed there were no shortcuts back to the north. I was below a regional natural divide and would be forced to follow this route to its end. This is something I could have figured out at a table, an my laptop, in Google maps, in 20 minutes or so. It proves the adage an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

And of course, the sky was growing cloudy, with rain blowing in, and my cell service in these ravines was disappearing with greater and greater frequency (meaning no online maps, no online weather). I finally hit a clearing with solid cell service during a light rain so I pulled off under a roof, ate some jerky, and did the map analysis I should have done all week. At this point I found an alternative route to the north, that my GPS would not suggest. I did this under overcast skies, with slow connectivity, and on my tiny phone display. I drilled deeper and deeper into the map and, indeed, the two little roads on either side of the divide connected deep inside the national forest. So despite my GPS constantly saying “Make a U-Turn” I headed to the north for about 5 miles, confident that I knew better.

brp1At sone point I encountered a road sign I had never seen before in my life: “School Bus Turn Around, No Parking”. The roads, it seems, were so narrow and twisty up this far that the buses needed a cut-in to turn around and head back down into town. In my crazed optimism I assumed I had “crossed over” the divide, that school buses from the other side needed this space to turn around to head back forward, in the direction I was headed. I failed to note that the road continued to climb in elevation and get more narrow and twisty (not wider and flatter and more traveled). Suddenly heading around a hairpin turn the road simply stopped, becoming a mix of sand and gravel. I paused for the briefest moment, then hit the accelerator up the continued incline. The wheels spun….

It had been a week without any serious riding, or regular sleep, and without my normal edge I almost dropped the bike … 20 miles from nowhere. I caught it and held it up as both my feet slipped and slid on the loose pea gravel on a 10% grade, behind a blind curve. Oh great.

My instincts finally cut in and I simply stopped, and held the bike in place … then I turned off the motor amazed at my own stupidity. Once I knew I had reasonable footing, I sat still and listened in the silence to make sure no motors were following up from behind that blind curve. Then I laughed. I had a good long laugh, out loud, in the middle of nowhere.

After a minute of spectacular amazement, I started to clear my head, to think what to actually do. I tried to see-saw the bike, hoping to turn its nose around and ride it back down the hill. This would also provide me a rest in the middle, when I got perpendicular. But the wheels immediately started to slip sideways (along with my feet losing their grip). So instead I pointed the nose directly up the hill, and got the bike perfectly centered in the abandoned road.

I then used the engine to pull up the hill a foot or so, then slowly released the brakes and rolled backward, being careful with the exaggerated steering in reversing my top heavy bike down this steep grade. I stopped frequently and established solid footing, rolling backward two or three feet stopping each time fully, to gain solid footing.

This is when I noticed there was no guardrail on the one side protecting me, or the bike, from the sheer drop off to a ravine. So I took a cleansing breath to focus my attention and pulled forward and rolled backward one, two, three more times until I was on solid footing, beyond the gravel and past the hairpin. I could now actually look back down the road leading back where I started.

I set down the stand and dismounted and stretched my aching legs. The road was wide and stable enough that after a couple minutes I could now simply turn the nose and ride downhill, slowly. I manually put the transmission into low, so I would not to burn out my brakes or accidentally over rev the wheels. Of course, I stopped and took a picture of that road sign, and had another good laugh at myself for my euphoric optimism. Here I could finally put the bike into gear and ride normally. In 10 more minutes I reached the clearing again, having created my own death defying experience and wasting all of this time for absolutely no benefit. Having good cell coverage again, I had a snack and let the mapping software pick the best route to Asheville. I put the bike in gear and headed out.

I must say that the scenery was just breathtaking, like nothing I had been seeing so far. It was all the natural green beauty I had seen in the smokeys without the crazy twisty roads or the speeding daredevils racing up your tail. This is what cross country motorcycling is all about. Next year (since I plan to return to SUUSI) I will actually plan to take this route, leisurely, and enjoy myself. I may even bring a tent and spend the night.

I eventually met up with the Blue Ridge Parkway and rode to the north east. As I paused at the entrance, a group of 20 motorcycles whizzed by, their loud Harley motors announcing their approach. On the Parkway the roads were still twisty and fun, but instead of being deep in a shaded tree nestled valley running along a creek, I was now riding atop the crest. Time after time I pulled off to see vistas of tree covered hills stretching out for miles. My cell service would come and go, so I could finally get weather, and email and rest and upload a facebook status. But also, in that euphoria, I somehow figured I could still make Roanoke by bedtime and used my temporary internet connection to book a hotel, holding it for late arrival. I was still blind to the disconnect between reality and my artificial Sunday deadline. I ignored my several bad decisions and their consequences, and still did not call myself to task.

brp2Some sprinkles blew in and out (keeping temperatures cool, but making riding dangerous), and I suddenly could not stay awake. I pulled out at a scenic turnout (nominally to take pictures) and when everyone else left, I sat on a picnic bench, lightly closed my eyes, and fell asleep for 30 minutes. This matched my week’s pattern of napping each afternoon, but these were definitely 30 minutes I didn’t have. As I finally came into Asheville at 6pm, I was working against my own ridiculous hotel deadline in distant Roanoke. That plan was intended so I could attend morning service Sunday, which was already DOA since I was due to arrive well past 2 am.

brp3
Arrived in Johnson City in the rain, just before dark.

As the rain picked up, I stopped at a Hardees (the Dunkin had no power outlets) for a snack and WiFi and I made all new hotel arrangements. I finally unpacked and donned my full rain gear, and tried to cancel the night in Roanoke. Sunday service was out, but I could easily arrive by 3pm to attend the ballroom dance group. Looking at the map, I set my sites on Johnson City, TN. This was midway, easy striking distance to Roanoke in the morning, and I found a low cost independent motel on the web. After my snack and coffee I headed north in now steady rain, on the wet freeway. I’d arrive just before dark, and could enjoy a dinner in Johnson City. Who knows, maybe they have a UU for morning?

I told myself that I would relax and enjoy these mountains, and the parkway, when I passed through the area on my way home in August.

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