Of companions, then: they affect the will in certain ways. Exactly one year ago at this writing I unpacked my car at the Sherando Lake camping grounds. It was two o’clock in the afternoon, and I had prepared myself for a tough ride. Instead of one climb and one descent as was usual, I was going to try two climbs and descents with a ridge section, for ardor’s sake. Why not? The total mileage would be forty or forty-five miles of mostly singletrack. The hardwoods on the valley floor, mostly red maples and post oaks, drooped with pollen and tender foliage, and I thrilled at how restricted my view was of the forest on account of spring. I’m defeated when, in January, say, the setting sun blasts the forest, stripped of all its leaves; and though I can see for hundreds of yards all around me, I feel such acute isolation. I prefer the dense, insulated singletrack of summer.
The fireroad, whose numerical designation I now don’t recall, is typical Shenandoah: red and ochre clay, limestone, deep green laurel and pine, brittle needles on the trail surface and the smell of balsam and pollen everywhere. Though not hungry, I forced myself to eat one of the date and almond bars I had brought. I reminded myself not to drink too quickly, but to do so in mouthfuls, one every so often. I thought I might refill my bottles at a spring if I could find one. I recalled that two years before I was on a ride with a different friend, exploring a trail system miles and miles north called Wolf Ridge. After washing the sweat off our faces and arms in a ridge top spring so cold as to seem barely liquid, this friend found a patch of small vegetation—little, brilliant green leaves just tall enough to be visible above the loam. He plucked a leaf and started chewing. Wintergreen. I tore from the ground and chewed my own leaf, which tasted not like mint, but more like sap and camphor and menthol.
It is rare that when riding alone I stop and interact with the world. But as I chewed the last inch of my bar on the Sherando Lake fireroad, I thought that while I was resting I might look for wintergreen. I should halt for a moment and actually allow myself a bit of the romance with which I’m always plying my imagination back at my desk. Here is the world; I should do more than try to ride through it as quickly and purposefully as I can. So I searched a bit and found a plant I took for what my friend showed me (wintergreen looks remarkably like laurel seedlings, and shares its habitat with that plant). I pulled one up by its roots and took a bite. There was that unmistakable piquancy, spice and fume, and for a moment I forgot about riding altogether. I pulled out my camera, even though I had just taken a shot of my bike sitting in the arbor of pine and laurel, and documented my little primal scene.
I know now that I was more than a bit concerned that I would not physically be able to finish the ride I had planned for myself, though I did not then admit it. But at that moment on the trail I was feeling able, quite able, to finish the ride. So I rushed through Big Levels. It is not a beautiful trail, it must be said: at the beginning, a shattered school bus has been hollowed out and covered over with graffiti; and the trail itself, a washed out tear of double track, is exposed and battered, sagging with stagnant pond-sized puddles. Up there on the ridge top, though it was mid-May, the trees were still bare. It was an eerie reminder that winter was not far gone, maybe not completely.
Wagner is the perfect soundtrack for this kind of ride. There’s great texture to the music, great dynamic range, great cliffs and ravines, happiness and sadness. I take him along when I can give him three or four hours at a time, not less; on this ride I played Tristan und Isolde. By the time I reached the third act of my ride, the third of four, the sun was behind the ridge and I was struggling in the gloom on the eastern side. I reasoned that I could expend my reserves of energy climbing “Mills Creek,” a trail that gains over one thousand feet in less than a mile, and simply hang on, exhausted, down the singletrack descent to my car. I had an hour to ride roughly fifteen miles of trail—I would be in the dark a while, but what’s the matter with that? At the spot on Mills Creek where my wife and I found the rattlesnakes, I stopped to change the music. I chose Falstaff, and started singing Sir John’s and Bardolfo’s parts as loudly as I could. There was no audience. About halfway up the notorious Mills Creek switchbacks, I ran out of gear.
The sun set. The wind picked up. I could not see the trail two bodies’ length away, so I settled on taking the section of fireroad—the one on which I had my little sensual interlude with the wintergreen—in reverse, back to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The road was my only resort. Once on blacktop, everything I did felt so slow and ponderous. I couldn’t seem to go fast enough, even though I had my feet perched on the crown of my fork going flat out downhill, even though I was trembling from the cold, and even though I couldn’t see much of anything in the dark that had come on so startlingly quick. I refused to believe it. I called my wife with one signal bar showing, still roaring downhill. The cranks spun and flashed beneath me like blades in the glare from my phone.
I am ashamed to say that I stood in the middle of the Parkway when I saw approaching headlights. I stood and waved, but the car swerved passed me. An instant later it stopped. I ran to the passenger-side window and, exasperated, explained myself as calmly and politely as I could. The car was an ‘eighties vintage Buick or Chevrolet, and inside there was rubbish piled on the floor where a passenger would put his feet. The rear seats were stuffed full of indecipherable objects. The driver, softly illuminated by the red glow of the dashboard instruments, wore glasses—that’s all I can remember of him. He listened, now glancing at me, now at the road ahead, as I said that I could use a lift to the bottom of the ridge. He said that he couldn’t fit my bike in his car, so good luck. I must have panicked a bit. I must have broken my composure, because, though I didn’t say anything to him, he didn’t pull away. He didn’t speak either, but sighed. He sighed again and told me to get in. I stashed my bike in the woods near an overlook and clacked back to his car in my cleats. The car was perfumed by warm air from the heating vents that stank of many years of cigarette tar condensation, but the velour felt good on my back and backside.
“I didn’t want to pick you up because there was a murder on the parkway last week.”
I waited for some kind of punch line.
“You don’t look like a murderer, but you never know,” he said.
I wondered whether he was himself the killer, and was being ironic, having a game with me before he let on that I was about to be a victim. But he started talking about his personal history instead.
“I grew up in Afton, and every so often, there’s a murder or a suicide or something up here. I don’t live in Virginia anymore. I’m just down for a weekend with old friends, camping and fishing. It was random: a couple stopped at the overlook where you left your bike, and someone just shot them.”
I was relieved to be off the bike, not really listening to the guy from Afton wearing glasses. I decided I should want to have a conversation with this man, but really I wished the trip were over already and I was back in my car, alone.
“I have a nice house in Pennsylvania now, not as big as I could have here, but nice. I built a swing for my son. My wife’s a nurse.”
I kept it up, a façade, a decorum, with this person who had saved me a lot of trouble, trouble I had brought on myself. Perhaps I acted well enough that he didn’t notice I was tired, hungry and miserable. I wanted to call my wife, but I thought it would be rude to do so before the car ride was over. I nodded and nodded, affirming whatever he said as he spoke.
“I wanted to leave for a long time, ever since high school. The people here are fucking ignorant, rednecks. But now that I’ve been gone a while, I miss it. But only sometimes. The fishing’s not that good.”
He pulled into the lot where I had parked my car that afternoon, but not very far into it. I got out, thanked him and shut the door. He implored me not to ride on the Parkway in the dark again, which didn’t seem like absurd advice at that moment. I took my Sidis off and drove barefoot up the mountain to fetch my bike.