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Wednesday, 28 January 2015

A Winter Cycling Microadventure

By Andrew Hendrickson
Photos: Andrew Hendrickson
I was itching to do something—itching for the road. Being confined at a school 3,000 miles from home just wasn’t doing it for me. So what would be better than a weekend bike trip? 
My friends… Ah, they don’t understand. “Why would you do this?” “You’re crazy!” “It’s cold, man!” Sorry, I gotta go.
I look at the map and pick out a spot. The top of a mountain—how cool is that? Too cold? I don’t care. I’ve just gotta go. It’s only 35 miles away; I should have no problem making it in a day.
And so I set off. Oh, the joy of being out on the open road again, with the sun at your face, and your cares to the wind! This… This is life. 
I make my first discovery of the weekend: ear warmers not only keep your ears warm, but also reduce wind noise, better enabling you to hear traffic. Hmm… That might be helpful. I keep wearing them, even as I warm up, taking off other layers to compensate.
I begin to tire. I stop to eat. Can I still make it to my destination on time? It’s a toss-up. A straight 50/50, as I see it. Better keep peddling.
Fortunately, this part of Virginia is relatively flat, and I’m making good time. Peddling up, speeding down.
Ah, the mountain. Hmm… I have a couple hours till sundown, but only six miles left. Can I make it?
I push on, now walking my bike. The road is steep. I’m exhausted. But exhaustion is fun when it comes after work.

The road is steep. I push on. I’m exhausted. Finally! I’m past pavement! Yes! I’m finally in the "wilderness."
I’m exhausted. I push on. This is one of the steepest roads I’ve ever surmounted. But I’m making progress, right? I’m almost there?
There’s no way I’ll make it. I’ll push on for one more hour. 
Somewhere to camp. Where…can…I camp…? Where…can…?
The road…no…flat…camp…
Yes! An abandoned side road!
I’m 4 miles from the top. I set up camp. Well, I’ll finish off this mountain tomorrow. Hey, why not have a campfire?
I learn that potatoes are hard to bake on a fire without foil, and I don’t have the patience to learn correctly. Ah, well, a half-baked potato never killed anyone. 

Fires are wonderful, but I must sleep.
I wake up slowly. It was a little cool last night, but not too cold. I was fine, but if I go up higher I might need more protection against the cold. Not to fear: I have warm pants I've not worn yet. 
I’m in no hurry. I eat poorly cooked lentil soup. I’m the world’s greatest cook, can’t you see? Will I have enough water to get me through the weekend? I’ve used half of it already, and I’m barely a third of the way into my weekend. 
I hit the road. I’m in no hurry. I’ve only got 4 miles to go and all afternoon to do it.
Man, this hill…will make a person breathe. This…hill will… Is it…maybe… possible…today…not…make…top…?
Even pickups crawl past. Hey, I wonder… Could I catch a ride? 

He stops. “Wan’ a lif’?” “Sure, if you don’t mind!” “Wan’ a col’ beer?” “No, thanks.”
I get in. Glorious bliss. To sit in a vehicle!
He tells me about the place. There used to be 40 families up here, including himself. But the roads are a pain in winter. Two people live up here now. The rest of the houses, a church, and a school were burned down over time. By hippies? Not likely.
In no time, we’ve covered three and a half miles, saving me as many hours. The road ends. We unload. I thank him. He wishes me well. Just a quick three quarters of a mile, and I will have made it! Finally, I’ve got time. No rush.
I’ve gained 2,300 feet of altitude on this trip already, with only 300 left to go. I can do this!
After a quarter mile, the road levels off. Finally I can ride again!
The air is colder. I put on more layers. 
Finally, I see my destination. I’ve arrived! 

Relief. I write a note. I scout out the place. Cool! There’s actually a high-volume spring here! My weekend has been saved. Time to relax and take it easy.
I’m getting cold. I put on every layer I’ve got. A hat, ear warmers, my light jacket with a hood, a down vest, a wool shirt, a long-sleeved cotton shirt, a poly t-shirt, gloves, jeans, insulated pants, socks, shoes. I make another discovery—my watchband is so large it can be worn overtop of my shirt/jacket complex. 
I’m getting cold. Man, this is concerning. The sun doesn’t even go down for over an hour. How cold will it get? Will I be able to survive the night?
I frantically begin running about collecting firewood. Everything is wet. Nothing lying on the ground will burn. At least I’m not freezing now.
I build up a pile. I pour gas on it. I light it. It burns…for a moment. It goes out. I put more fuel on and relight it. Now I’m really getting worried. There’s not enough fuel to start a fire in the morning. I must get this to burn! 

Frantically, I do everything I can to get it going. I gather dry weeds. They burn quickly. They burn, b! ut how can I get the large stuff burning?
I prod the fire. I add small fuel. I run and grab more. It’s intense. I must get this fire burning!
Finally, it’s going. 
Wait… Has the larger stuff caught? Will it go out again?
Back at it. 
Ok, finally. I’ve done what I can. It’s burning. It should be alright. I’m warm. I can relax. 
You know, if I can’t get a fire burning in the morning, what in the world will I do to keep from freezing up here? What if it’s too cold? Hot rocks? Worth a try... Hot water? Way better. 
Good thing I have a spring. 
I boil some water. I pour it in my military-grade Camelbak. I’m glad I have good leather gloves; the scalding water just runs off my hands without effect. 

I boil more water. I fill up my second Camelbak. I start to suck out the excess air, quickly discovering that the plastic fumes burn my mouth. No way I’ll drink that water… I put them inside my sleeping bag.
I boil more water. I top off my Camelbaks, as I’d spilled so much.
I boil more water. I secure the lid of my pot and add it to my collection. 
Crawling into bed, I discover my feet are almost too warm. Almost. Eventually I drift off to sleep, with a rock for a pillow. 
I wake up dreaming I am in a sauna. I’m beginning to feel the cold, though I’m not cold yet. The water was boiled over 8 hours ago, so it’s now barely warm—but not cold. The temperature outside is around 25*F (-4*C). It’s windy, but I’m sheltered from the wind. I go back to sleep. I’m in no hurry. I can take it easy just a little longer.
I get out of bed and am suddenly too cold to do anything. Only one solution—I run to the top of the mountain, half a mile from here, and 300 feet higher altitude.
The top is windy, cold, and uninspiring. But it’s the top! It’s taken me 3 days to get here, but here I am!
I go back, I pack up, and I head down the mountain. Do I have enough time?

Flying down at 10-20x my speed of ascent, I quickly pass my campsite from the night before last. 
It's warm down below, and I'm soon removing every layer of clothing I can without losing decency. 
Ah, the exhilaration of a shared narrow road. Just don't get into a wreck over me, ok?
Traffic is heavier than I remember, which bothers me. 
So lovely. So charming. The quiet country road, the almost busy country highway. I'm in love. 
I'm making good time. I get a shirt caught in my chain. Guess I should have secured it better. I meet a Santa and elf giving out presents to random kids. 
Familiar sights. The cairns along the road, the Mennonite nursing home… I'm nearing my journey’s end. 
I'm back…with a solid hour to spare. 
I'm falling in love with the road again. With soreness. With cold. With exhaustion. With hunger. With discovery. With adventure.

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