“What did you get me into?,” Sarah says as my head hits the pillow. It’s a cold Sunday night in Minneapolis. We are leaving at 5AM tomorrow morning for Virginia in our rented minivan and the start of a 5 week, self-supported cycling adventure down the Atlantic Coast.
I’m nervous too. My mind is racing. We are newbies to long-distance cycling. The trip feels above our qualifications. And I can’t stop thinking: What did I get my wife into? But I know trips like this come at you hour by hour, day by day, rather than all at once. I try to focus on tomorrow. That’s my plan, think about the next mile, the next town, and everything will work out. It may not be true, but it helps me fall asleep.
Should I Drop the Keys?
Two days later, Sarah and I find ourselves in a very empty Newport News, Virginia airport and I’m standing next to a Hertz return key drop box. I hesitate before dropping the keys, considering our options.
The road trip down to Virginia was more enjoyable than I expected, both because we won’t have our own car again for some time, and because we left Minneapolis just before a freak October snowstorm dropped 9 inches of snow. It felt like driving back into early fall and then late summer, as we counted off the states we drove through on our way south.
But as we got closer to Chippokes Plantation State Park in Surrey, VA, the roads got narrow and we both started to wonder out loud, “are we biking on busy roads like this with no [bleeping] shoulders?” We are following the Adventure Cycling Association’s Atlantic Coast route, a fact I point out to Sarah, as I assure her that they wouldn’t put us on this crazy highway. Or would they?
“This feels sort of like swimming,” I say to Sarah, and then clarify, “like we are on a comfy boat right now, but we are about to jump into the water and start swimming when we drop this car off at the airport.” A different mode of travel and experience. Total immersion.
After checking into our Yurt at the Chippokes campground, we both hop back into the car for the 50 minute drive to the airport to return our rental car. We buy a bottle of wine at Trader Joe’s and a few final supplies. It strikes me how everyone looks so normal and comfortable. Of course they do, I think, they all have cars.
It is only 8:30PM when we make it to the airport, but the place is literally empty, adding to my unease. “I could keep this car an extra day, and we could scout the route tomorrow,” I say, hesitant to cede control. But Sarah is having none of it. “No way,” she responds. We wait until we see our Lyft ride pull up, and then I drop the keys. They clang loudly in the Hertz box. No turning back now. We are officially swimming.
As we leave the city and head down one winding, dark country road after another, I ask our driver Michael if this is one of the craziest rides he has done. “It is,” he admits, “but as long as my GPS works, we’re all good. I’m surprised I haven’t hit no deers out here,” he adds in a Carolina accent.
We have Michael drop us at the entry to the state park so he doesn’t have to drive all the way into the campground loops and risk getting lost. It is completely dark and Sarah turns on her headlamp as we leave the car and start walking the half mile park road to the campsites. I can’t stop laughing, as I can hear Michael saying, “I dropped some crazy old white folks off in the middle of the woods tonight.” I convince Sarah to turn off her headlight and we walk for a bit in the dark. I will remember this moment for a long time.
The Yurt was cool. We planned to tent camp our first night, but as the date of our departure approached and I got more nervous, I changed the reservation to a Yurt – it seemed like a better way to easy into things. It was a great decision. We had a table, a futon bed, and lots of space to organize our gear and ensure it fit evenly on our bikes.
The campground was pin drop quiet, as there is a no generator rule. After eating dinner and downing our $6 Trader Joe’s wine, we listened to tree frogs chirping in the woods, and fell asleep.
Head of Security
“I’m nominating myself as Head of Security,” Sarah says as we pull up to the bike rack at Jamestown the next morning. “It’s a little early to be handing out titles, don’t you think?” I respond, but we both know Sarah is the Head of Security. No one, and I mean no one, is going to steal our bikes on her watch.
The historic Jamestown settlement is actually north of our campsite, but I couldn’t resist taking a day to ride our unloaded bikes here and explore the museum and the site of the earliest English colony in America. Sarah, bless her, does not enjoy museums and historical reenactments as much as I do, but she joins along for the day to humor me.
The ride over from Chippokes campground puts us at ease about our route south. The roads are quiet, and the heavy fog from the Chesapeake Bay is burning off in the hot sun as we jump on the ferry ride across the James River. I envision an old English three masted ship out there in the mist – Sarah rolls her eyes.
The Head of Security keeps our bikes safe and we enjoy the day kicking around the grounds and riding a loop of Jamestown Island through old forest and salt marsh.
Back at Chippokes, we discover a working farm with donkeys (Sarah’s favorite) and tour the old mansion grounds that were donated to the State of North Carolina provided they keep the surrounding land as a working farm. Living in the Midwest, I’m not used to seeing a lot of farms that are over 300 years old.
After dinner in the Yurt, we have the first, of what I’m sure will be many, “team meetings” to discuss our route for tomorrow. Our options include, 47 miles to the city of Suffolk, VA, and a crappy hotel or 78 miles to a nice state park campground in North Carolina. We both hope our legs feel strong enough to avoid the EconoLodge next to Highway 13 in Suffolk.
Before bed, Sarah tries to pack up all of the food we bought and announces that there is no way we are going to fit everything, even after she leaves behind the crappy t-shirt and sweat pants she wore for the car ride down here. “It will fit,” I say, reminding her that we got all the gear on the bikes last week in Minneapolis for a test ride without any issues. I hope I’m right.
My alarm goes off at 6:30AM the next morning. It’s very dark. I’m used to camping in the summer, so getting up in the dark on a camping trip is a new experience. I make coffee on our camp stove outside and watch the woods wake up, as the stillness of the morning sinks into my body. An Eagle flies over and then a huge flock of blackbirds changing direction in unison. An old guy emerges from a camper down the way and stretches. The sun turns the thin clouds from grey to vibrant pink.
Sarah gets up at 7 and immediately starts packing. I’m always envious of how she can roll out of bed and just start cranking. I jump into the mix and after lots of effort, rearranging, and a few bungie chords, we get everything onto the bikes and roll away at 9:30AM. A few campers give us strange looks on the way out and we wave.
The traffic, with the exception of a very short stretch of Highway 10, is great all morning. We pass fields of cotton, turned over peanut plants drying in the sun, old sharecropper cabins falling down, and big chicken coops. We couldn’t ask for a better start – it’s sunny and warming to 78 degrees, we are on quiet country roads and we have everything we need on our bikes. Life is good and we feel alive and in the moment.
Just before stopping for lunch, we pass three cyclists in a church parking lot and they flag us down. They have done big tours like ours; one around Lake Superior, another on the Great Divide. I can tell they are looking at us enviously, but also with a hint of “man those people have a lot of gear.” Their enthusiasm lifts our spirits even more.
Reaching Suffolk at 2pm, we vote unanimously to press on to North Carolina and Merchants Millpond State Park for the night. Suffolk may be a nice town, but the part we saw was tired and ragged. Shortly after leaving Suffolk, I notice a slow leak in my front tire and we stop along a pasture to pump it back up. My new pump is not intuitive, and Sarah saves me by pulling up a YouTube tutorial. Bike touring often reminds us of wilderness canoe trips, but we have never pulled out our phone for YouTube instructions in the Boundary Waters.
Eight miles outside of the campground, we stop in Sunbury for some fresh veggies for dinner. The store is ancient, and there are three gentleman sitting inside shooting the breeze with the owner. These guys are as ancient as the store. After a few strange looks, Sarah kills them with kindness and they smile. We learn there are 22 cats on the property and we can take one with us, if we like.
78 miles in, we reach our campsite. We agree that anything over 60 miles in a day starts to hurt. After a hot shower, Sarah cooks us an amazing taco meal over the camp stove. I could not be more impressed and thankful.
Falling asleep in the nearly empty campground, I realize that we are on our way. “We can do this,” I think, and drift off to sleep.