Whoosh! The flames shot up and ignited the tee-pee of dried twigs that Chet had meticulously stacked in the fire ring. “Yes,” he said excitedly to his wife. “Looks like we finally have a fire, hon.”
Amber, his wife of 16 years, sat cross-legged in the doorway of their tent sipping her morning cup of coffee. She’d watched him for 20 minutes as he’d tried to start a fire to knock off the chill of the Appalachian morning. She smiled at him and thought about how just three weeks ago they’d started on this journey into the wild together. Three weeks on the Appalachian Trail (AT) and four more to go. “It sure is cold for June,” she mumbled and moved in closer. The fire was now burning nicely and the chill was slowly leaving her body. They both looked up just as three mountain bikes blew by on a trail in the woods a few hundred feet above them.
It was late in the day when they’d left the AT trail yesterday to pitch their tent for the night and they hadn’t realized just how close they were to the bike trail. They had watched a few cyclists ride past them already this morning but no one seemed to notice them in their little camp down by the river. Just then, another bicyclist whizzed past, but this one waved a greeting. Right behind him was a smaller version, obviously a lady with her purple helmet and bike shorts and she too tossed up a hand. Then, on the bridge, the purple helmet did a 180, hoped off her bike, walked through the woods and headed right into their camp. She approached with a smile and her frozen, numb fingers extended towards them. “Would it be okay if I warm my hands by your fire?”
“Of course you can,” Chet said with a grin and a wink at his wife. “I built it just for you.”
Today is our first day off from our volunteer position as campground hosts at Hungry Mother State Park. So, we loaded up the bikes and headed to the town of Damascus for a little two wheel adventure down a mountain. The shuttle van up the mountain runs hourly and we barely made the 10:00 o’clock trip.
When we left the campground this morning, I know it wasn’t that cold! But, once we rode the shuttle bus the 45 minutes up the mountain to where our bike ride down the Virginia Creeper trail would start, we were shivering. Of course we’d checked out the weather before leaving but partly cloudy and 60 degrees sounded perfect for a bike ride. What we weren’t prepared for was the 2000 ft. ascend to Whitetop Station where the temps were in the 40’s this morning. At least we both had on long sleeves but our legs and hands were completely exposed. Before setting out we did a quick set of jumping jacks to get the blood flowing.
We’ve been hearing about this bike trail for ages and have always wanted to experience it for ourselves. It is a 34 mile rails-to-trail which stretches from Whitetop, Va to Abingdon with a halfway point in Damascus, Va. The original railway trail dates back to the 1800’s and was purchased by Virginia-Carolina Railway in early 1900. In 1977 the first tracks were removed and eventually the whole trial was turned into what is now known as the Virginia Creeper trail. This awesome trail runs parallel with parts of the AT and is regarded as one of the most pristine, picturesque, bike trails in the country.
The first part of the ride was pretty much a blur as I peddled as fast as I could, even though I was going downhill, just to try to keep warm. As we soared down the path I had visions of warm, fuzzy gloves and cups of steaming hot coffee dancing in my head. Three miles in we stopped at Green Cove Station. It’s a 19th century restored railroad depot which serves as a Visitors Center and Creeper trail head. The gent behind the counter said that the store didn’t have running water, so a hot cup of coffee was out of the question. There was a rack of gloves but I couldn’t bring myself to pay $10 for a pair of knit gloves that I would never wear again. He did have a little furry puppy in his arms that looked so warm and cozy. I would have paid 10 bucks to snuggle my hands in his warm little belly.
Another mile or so and we saw a sign for a cafe right off the trail. We biked over to it only to find that it was closed.
Then, there it was, out of the blue and down through the pines. I smelled smoke. David was in the lead and he glanced back and mouthed, “Fire” but he just kept on riding across the railroad trestle. I turned and looked down just as a tall man with a scruffy beard looked up at me and smiled. I saw the fire and an instinct that I never knew existed took over. Suddenly I whipped my bike around and headed back towards warmth.
In a matter of minutes, I had found new friends. Amber and Chet immediately made room for me by their toasty little campfire and welcomed David who hit his brakes a few seconds later when he looked back and saw my bike leaning against a tree. Amber became all concerned about my cold hands and started rubbing them between her warm ones. Then, like a ray of sunshine from heaven, she said something that confirmed my belief in the Almighty. “I am a massage therapist.” Sweet heaven. She worked the kinks out of my back and wrapping her arms around me, lifted me off the ground. Pop! Pop! Pop! all the way down. My spine sighed in relief as the stretch put bones back in place. All the while she explained that most likely a nerve in my back was pinched from being so tensed up on the bike. We learned their story of how they were hiking the AT to get in better shape, physically and spiritually. They had already had a few adventures of their own and we told them about the bear that had came into our campsite the night before. What seemed like an entire afternoon of conversation, laughter and healing touches, slipped by within a half hour. Soon we gave goodbye hugs to our new friends and continued on down the mountain with the smoke from their camp still lingering in my hair.
As the morning passed and we descended down the mountain it did get warmer and the sun showed it’s warm face every now and then too. The trail takes you across 40 or so beautiful bridges and old railroad trestles that crosses over crystal clear mountain streams. We ate a snack on a huge boulder, in the middle of a roaring stream by a waterfall and watched a dozen or so tiger swallowtail butterflies sip from a recess at the top of the rock. We zipped past thousands of acres of Christmas tree farms and valley’s of showy white and yellow flowers. We followed the trail through hardwood forests and tall cedar thickets. Even though there were others out enjoying the trail, we felt like we had it all to ourselves. It was serene and quiet except for the thump, thump of our tires and the sound of crunching gravel as we soared down, down, down.
We stopped at The Creeper Trail Cafe and ate lunch with about 20 other bikers and hikers before making the final descent into Damascus. We only did half of the Creeper trail this time but plan to return to do the other 17 miles from Damascus to Abingdon before we move on from Virginia.
I’m so glad that I followed my gut and my nose that led me to Chet and Amber’s campfire. I know that there was a time when I wouldn’t have opened myself up to receive the gifts of a strangers touch. I’m thankful that I have learned to accept and receive what God has in store for me. Be it a smile, a massage, a story or a campfire on a road with two lone hikers. I truly believe that the fire was built just for me and I like to think that we left a little ember of love in their fire too.
Planning a visit to the area?
Virginia Creeper Trail – Official Website
There are several bike rental and shuttle services in Damascus. We used the Shuttle Shack. They are a family owned company and have provided their services for many years. The driver was very informative of the area and kept us entertained with stories of the mountain. The road up is extremely windy and if you are prone to carsickness, I highly recommend sitting up front like we did.
You’ll find a few restaurants and even a brewery in town. We didn’t explore too much since we had already had lunch and the brewery was closed. We would definitely do this again.