Monday, March 27, 2017

Maybe It's the Rain

The brown and gray hills blurred by, obscured by rain, and speed, and construction barrels.  I was soaring high on the ride I had just completed on the Dawkins Line Trail in Eastern Kentucky.  I was out of the “restaurant row” construction along the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway where they had carved out a great canyon through the hills to widen the road. I have to be honest, I think the Parkway widening project is a lot of wasted money.  The road was originally built as an economic development road.  While I do concede conditions in Eastern Kentucky are better than they would have been without Bert Combs vision for the road, I don’t think the promises made were fulfilled, and I don’t think adding a couple of lanes and decreasing the drive time west by a few minutes is going to be a billion dollar game changer.  Maybe I’ll be proved wrong, but I just don’t see this being a worthy investment.

Much like the Mountain Parkway the Dawkins Line was built with the promise of bringing in big dollars.  While the Parkway was intended to be a conduit for industry and as a way to get the coal out of the hills the rail trail is intended to extract tourist dollars from the pockets of visitors to the region from elsewhere.  I’ve ridden the Dawkins about four times now.  I’ve finally seen all of it that is currently constructed.  And on this last ride I felt the least welcomed.  I can’t put my finger on it, but something was different.

I landed in Royalton at about twelve hundred hours.  Ol’ Fatter than Average deployed behind the church there.  It was still dry as I’d outpaced the rain heading east from home.  The skies were gunmetal gray but it seemed like the weather might hold off for a while.  I was on the bike and pedaling west within minutes of arriving in Royalton.

My plan was to ride thirty miles.  I needed the distance in preparation for the upcoming Mohican 100 (kilometer) in Ohio the first Saturday in June.  First I wanted to see Carver Tunnel.  Tomahawk told me about it after his ride exploring around that end of the trail.  It was a long easy grade for 7.4 miles from the trailhead to the tunnel.  As advertised it’s still closed.  I lingered a few minutes before turning the ol’ Pine Mountain east. 

Right away I picked up considerable speed.  I was back at Royalton in no time flat.  I’d been riding a little over an hour when I reached the equestrian trailhead a half mile west of Royalton proper.  I checked the restrooms, but they’re still closed.  It was a good opportunity to stretch unconditioned legs a bit.  I ate half of the incredible breakfast burrito my lovely wife had sent with me.  After a short rest I was back on my way heading for the eastern terminus of the trail at Hagerhill.  I didn’t know if I would ride the whole thing, but I wanted to.

Through Royalton I cranked away.  A couple of spokebait lapdogs came running after me, but I was moving too fast for them to be much of a threat.  I climbed toward Gun Creek Tunnel.  A few heavy drops fell as I approached the first road crossing east of the trailhead.  I stopped at the bench and stowed my phone in a Ziploc.  It wasn’t too much further down the trail—just after crossing a trestle—when the attack dogs came out.  I say “attack” dogs, but they were really just a couple of herd dogs who thought they’d nip me along.  But the first one came all stealth like and was right on my back wheel before barking.  I called out in threat reaching for my empty water bottle.  I’d carried the hydration pack for drinking and figured to use the water bottle in case of dog attack.  I didn’t check to see if there was water in the bottle.

My shout fended off the first attack, but as I turned my eyes over the handlebars a second sally came.  I couldn’t tell if it was the same dog, but by then there were two medium sized black dogs.  Again, I called out menacingly and kept pedaling.  They backed off, but I knew I’d likely have to face them again on the return trip.

Gun Creek Tunnel

At the tunnel I got off the bike again for a minute or so.  On the other side I was on all new ground. And I was picking up solid speed again as I cruised toward Ivyton and the Mountain Parkway crossing.  I’d been riding for a couple of hours and my hands weren’t used to that kind of riding.  As I continued downward from the tunnel I sat up and let my arms dangle at my sides as I kept pedaling.  Homes flashed past.  The trail was a blur under me.  I couldn’t help but smile and push a little harder on the pedals.

I crossed the Parkway at a pretty good clip and kept right on moving.  Then I was in new territory again (I’d ridden a short section of the Ivyton and Parkway segment on my way to the 2013 KBBC conference at Jenny Wiley State Park) and climbed to a low gap and began descending into a narrow hollow.  The road then turned off and I found myself on a section of trail unlike the rest of the Dawkins.  There was no road paralleling, no homes, no development.  The trail was cut into a steep hillside overlooking a rock-filled and mossy stream in between forested slopes. 

That section was truly amazing.  I wished more of the trail was like that.  There was no litter, no ramshackle Appalachian backdrop, and it offered a more natural passage through the hills.
Past that section I knew I was getting close to Swamp Branch.  The day was getting long.  I was feeling the miles and my stomach was beginning to nag at me with its growing emptiness. 

I stopped at the first kiosk when I reached the large but empty trailhead. I looked at the map and quickly realized that if I continued on to Hagerhill and then returned to my car under my own power it would be a fifty mile ride. I had not signed up for that. My goal was thirty miles.  I did my best head math and figured if I turned back around I’d get at least thirty miles.  And I had ridden everything east of Swamp Branch Trailhead in 2013 with Mandy after the KBBC. 

I looked west and saw a sky that was bruised blue and black.  It’s about eight miles or so from Swamp Branch back to Royalton.  It didn’t scare me to think of heading back that way.  I went prepared.  I had a rain jacket.  I’ve ridden through worse than whatever would thrash me on the way.  I wasn’t worried. 

The car is that way...

It wasn’t the rain that felt heavy, it was what I imagined would be a slow slog all the way back to Gun Creek Tunnel.  I knew all there was for it was for me to get on the bike and move.  There is no steep parts of Dawkins.  It was a railroad for cryin’ out loud!  Quickly, before heading out, I filled my water bottle for defense against the dogs.

I stopped once to rest again as I entered the undeveloped stretch.  There was a trestle there and I checked it out, drank a little more water, and as I was getting ready to start moving again the rain came.  It was sparse but heavy drops.  With it came a sense of urgency to keep moving. 

Finally I reached Gun Creek Tunnel and I only stopped at the bench on the west side to stretch a bit.  My knees were singing. And then I was on the home stretch, gaining momentum, rolling along faster and faster until I was in my highest gear, elbows resting on my handlebar, and pushing, pushing, pushing on the pedals.

As I approached the spot where the dogs came after me I grabbed my water bottle, but they didn’t come back out.  Maybe it was the rain.  Maybe it was the ghost of the coal train I was channeling as I cranked along at likely fifteen miles an hour on my way home.

I didn’t stop until there was nowhere else to go.  It felt good to lift the bike up onto the tray rack and settle into the driver’s seat.  The rain had subsided as I approached Royalton, but as I climbed into the Jeep it began in earnest.  By the time I reached the Mountain Parkway my wipers were outpacing the beat of Whitehouse Road blaring on the stereo. 

The construction slowed traffic but not as much as the heavy rain.  The great, garish road cuts looked like a linear strip mine.  Apparently that’s what we do in Eastern Kentucky: strip mines and road cuts.  And ATVs on the trail.  And illegal garbage dumps.  And avoiding eye contact with the crazy mountain biker on the trail in the rain.  And completely and totally failing to capitalize on a huge asset to the community because it’s a cultural oddity.

There are two trailheads at Royalton.  There’s really still not much in the way of services in the area.  Other than the trail itself there’s little that makes the area seem bicycle friendly.  It’s not overtly hostile, but it’s also disappointingly not welcoming.  Yet.  I hold out hope.  And maybe my timing was off visiting on a rainy Sunday in March.  

We were supposed to ride at Brown County, Indiana on Sunday.  We’d gone up to that area to help our friends with Next Opportunity Events volunteer at an ultra.  But the forecast was so wretched, and it was raining hard as we drove out of the state park where the race took place.  We decided to return home instead of blowing money on a hotel room.  And that’s how I ended up riding thirty-four miles on the Dawkins Line over the weekend. 

Riding through the Nashville, Indiana area in the rain we were excited about the prospects of returning to ride.  Everything we saw in Brown County and the Bloomington area said: “Come back!  We want you!” but as I drove home on the Mountain Parkway in a similar downpour I couldn’t help but think that the residents of the corridor along Bert Combs’s visionary road don’t yet get it, and right now could care less if I come and ride my bike in their neighborhood.  I’m sure we’ll keep going there to ride because it’s close to home and great fun.  And again, and again, and again I have hope that the Eastern Kentucky bike culture will grow.

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