When Ryan and I first came up with the idea to bike across America, we had just returned from an adventurous hiking journey through the Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. National Geographic calls the Corcovado the most biologically intense place on Earth. It was nothing less than magnificent. We hiked through lush canopy jungle alongside pristine, white sand beaches. We encountered tapirs, white nose coatis, peccaries and a jaguarundi. It was the closest thing to paradise I had ever experienced. But it wasn’t the rare wildlife sightings or the magnificent jungles and beaches that made it paradise. It was the people we met along the way, the stories we swapped, and the laughs we shared that made it unforgettable. I didn’t want the journey to end. I wanted to meet more amazing people and recognize WHY they’re amazing. That’s when the idea for America ByCycle was born.
It was the fourth week into our bike trip when a feeling of monotony started to set in. It was going great, don’t get me wrong. We had seen beautiful places, met kindhearted people, including some fellow TransAmerica cyclists, and we were literally kicking our asses into fine shape. But something was missing. I wasn’t sure what it was exactly, until we arrived in Damascus, Virginia.
Tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia is the charming town of Damascus, known as THE ultimate outdoors mecca. In 1977, after the lumber industry collapsed and the railroad was removed, the US Forest Service decided to construct a recreation trail in its place called the Virginia Creeper Trail, a gravel path that stretches 34 miles from Abingdon, Va to White Top Mountain. This trail along with the TransAmerica Trail and the Appalachian Trail (a famous hiking trail that stretches 2,181 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin Mountain in Maine), is what shaped Damascus into the outdoors nexus it is today.
It was Friday afternoon on July 2nd when Ryan and I arrived in Damascus, and our first mission was ice cream. It was blisteringly hot that day and we had just killed it on the trail, riding almost 50 miles uphill in less than four hours. We deserved nothing less than a bowl full of sugar. Our next mission was to find camping. We had heard of this place called “The Place,” a hostel run by the United Methodist church, which offers wooden bunks, warm showers and a communal kitchen to long-distance hikers and cyclists. You can stay there for two nights and are asked to make a small donation, but only if you OBEY the rules (more on that later). When we walked inside the hostel I immediately felt strange.
The old house reminded me of an abandoned fraternity house, but instead of drunk college boys inside, we found stacks of prayer books covered in dust, faded Jesus posters on the walls, about a half-dozen “ABSOLUTELY NO DRINKING OR SMOKING” signs, and one very hungry hiker named Grant. Grant was a “through hiker” heading northbound on the AT (Appalachian Trail) and had also just arrived at “The Place.” After a quick introduction he asked us what our plans were. “Are you guys hungry? I’m going to go to this restaurant called ‘WhistlePig Bistro’ to stuff my face. You should come.” Having just eaten ice cream we weren’t really hungry, but we were excited to hang out with an AT hiker and pick his brain about the raddest hiking trail in America. “We’ll meet you there!”, we replied. We quickly pitched our tent on the hostel’s lawn (hard, wooden plank bunks just didn’t seem like a good sleep) and made our way to the highly recommended bistro.
The WhistlePig Bistro is a family-owned restaurant that caught my eye when we first entered Damascus. They had a sign that said, “Good, Organic Vegetarian Meals.” Need I go any further? Walking inside was like walking into Cheers, without Ted Danson behind the bar. Even better was Rodger and Cindy Goodson, the cutest, kindest couple in Damascus. They took ownership of the location about a year and half ago and having been working tirelessly to make it the best darn restaurant in Southwest Virginia.
The other member of the WhistlePig family was the hard-to-miss Mrs. Tessa Hammel. If there were one person I’d live vicariously through, it would be Tessa, aka “Sweet Baby Lettuce” (her soon to be trail name). Tessa is a prodigy child. She dresses like a hippiebilly (a hippie, hillbilly combo I just made up), has the energy of a rockstar, can entertain like a Freddy Mercury or Jim Carrey, and to top it all off, she cooks like Jaime Oliver on culinary steroids. If you’re wondering where you might spot Mrs. Tessa outside the WhistlePig kitchen, it would probably be on her old, but very awesome green tricycle with a basket on the back. And if you’re lucky enough to find her, follow her. That’s where the party will be.
My first meal at WhistlePig was, of course, the veggie burger and Ryan, of course, a regular burger. I have to admit, I was skeptical about trying a veggie burger in a small mountain town. My experience with vegetarian food so far on the trip was nothing more than disappointing. However, the positive energy in the kitchen made me feel confident about my selection. Plus, Grant had just finished his second meal (crab cakes with gazpacho), and was thinking about ordering another. Not yet knowing about Grant’s bottomless pit of a stomach, I figured the food must be amazing if this guy is about to indulge in his third entree. Once the food came the conversation pretty much became non-existent for about eight minutes, while Ryan and I devoured the most incredible sandwiches either of us had ever tasted. No joke, this food was GOOD, and made with 100% love. Grant asked what I thought of the veggie burger, and just from the look on my face, he immediately ordered one along with a generous slice of coconut pie.
Roger Goodson, hands down, is a phenomenal chef. He loves to experiment with different flavors and alter his menu depending on the season. He and Cindy both care a lot about the health and happiness of their customers and community, so every week Roger visits a local farm called Abingdon Organics to pick out the best produce he can find. Before our food comas set in, Ryan, Grant and I made our way to WhistlePig’s back patio to enjoy a few beers. This is where we stumbled upon more of the town’s local color.
If Seinfeld took place in Damascus, then Gary, Craig and Timber would most definitely play the part of Jerry, George and Kramer. Gary is the town ambulance driver. He’s not a doctor, but offers a shuttle service for hikers (run by donations) who need a hitch into town. Timber is the woodworking handyman. He was hiking the AT southbound a few years ago, and originally planned on going the entire way, but came to like Damascus so much that he decided to stick around for a bit. He currently lives in a teepee on White Top Mountain and works on a variety of home improvements for people in and around Damascus. Both Gary and Timber started exchanging tips about hiking the AT with Grant. They both suggested that he should “flip-flop” if he ever planned on making it to Katahdin. “There’s no way you’re going to make it man. No way,” Timber stressed to Grant. “You have to flip-flop if you want to make it before the snow”. “Flip-flopping” is a term used on the AT when northbound hikers hitch a ride to Maine, or southbound hikers hitch a ride to Georgia, to make their final climbs before the weather gets too bad. Then they hike back in the opposite direction to finish the trail where they left off.
Like us, Grant was a little behind in his journey, but unlike us, it wasn’t really Grant’s decision. One month earlier Grant had a nasty spill on the trail. He was under a waterfall filling up his water bottle and slipped. Instead of just sliding down on his butt (which we was later informed was actually possible), he tried grabbing on to the rocks, but he could’t get a grip and ended up hitting his chin on the rocks below. What came next was two broken teeth, several stitches and three weeks of healing off the AT. His bloody trail book showed how serious the accident was. After about an hour of trail stories, the WhistlePig was closing, so we had to take off. Craig, who hand’t said much that night, invited all of us to his apartment. “Do you guys want to come hang out at my apartment? I could go pick up some beer. I have a washing machine. Do you need to do some laundry?” We were sold.
That night at Craig’s apartment felt like I was hanging out with a group a friends I’ve known for years. Craig, who’s known in Damascus at “Damascus’ sweetest local”, was the greatest host I’ve ever had. All night long he made sure our beer cans and the chip bowl were never empty. While Grant was kicking everyone’s butt in chess, Timber shared stories of close bear encounters and weird characters he’d met during his days hiking the AT. The night went by fast, and before we knew it was 1 am, which was WAY past our exhausted cycling bedtimes. We all said our good byes and walked back to “The Place,” which was less than one block away.
The next morning Ryan and I went to a cafe called Mojoe’s to do some editing while eating breakfast. The plan was to spend the morning in Damascus, do a quick bike maintenance check and then head to Meadowview, the next town on the TransAmerica route. Ryan and I both ordered an egg and cheese bagel, and not surprisingly split an order of pancakes to satisfy our ravenous appetites. Turns out that when you burn 6000 calories a day, you are hungry ALL the time. We ate our food and began working, but just like our past few editing attempts, we quickly became impatient and needed to get outside, away from our computers.
We returned to the hostel to work on our bikes, but instead ran into some more intriguing hikers. There were five total, all hanging out in the living room talking about whether or not they should stay in Damascus for the Fourth of July fireworks. Four of them were traveling together: “Bacon Bits,” “Crazy Top,” “Yeti Man,” and “Gypsy” were their trail names. A trail name is part of the AT hiking culture. Everyone, at some point, will receive a trail name on his or her journey. It could be a name that compliments their personality or a name that represents a unforgettable experience they had on the trail. For the fifth hiker who we met that day, his trail name symbolized how naive he was. His name was “Denim.” Denim was hiking the trail southbound solo. He got the name “Denim” by making one of the biggest mistakes someone hiking through jungles and rivers in humid, 90 plus degree weather could make, by deciding to bring one pair of thick denim jeans. “It’s hot and doesn’t dry.” It was probably the third or fourth day when those jeans became jean shorts.
Denim, a 24-year old English major from Binghampton, NY, had hair like Brad Pitt in “Legends of the Fall” (come on Denim we all know you really try), and an attitude like Chris McCandless in “Into the Wild.” He had hiked all the way from New York on the AT, taking a few buses in between, and was ending his journey in Damascus. When we asked him why he was throwing in the towel, he bluntly replied, “I thought I’d like it, but I just fucking don’t.” On the flip side, he did get to spend one evening drinking with a random guy beside a dumpster, but the night ended quickly when the guy began talking about a world-wide alien abduction. He also got to feed a pony peanut butter with his walking stick. He was really enjoying it until the the pony started wrestling him for the sunflower seeds in his backpack. He screamed, “No pony! No!”, and wrestled it right back.
The three of us, Denim, Ryan and I decided to go have a few beers at the towns only pub, Quincy’s, but since they were closing early that night the new plan was to go pick up a six pack of Yuengling at the gas station, then stop by “The Place” to grab some dice from our tent and then head down to the creek to play Farkle (for those of you who don’t know how to play Farkle, learn it and play it, it’s a good time). Remember when I was telling you about the half-dozen “No Drinking On Property” signs posted all over “The Place?” I wasn’t joking. This place is as strict as Miss Trunchbull from Matilda. There had already been a police officer inspecting the grounds earlier that day, in fact.
Right when Ryan walked up to our tent to grab the dice, Wolf, the hostel caretaker, charged outside the front door with a flashlight. He was on a fire and immediately shined his flashlight on our six-pack of Yuengling. “That’s it! Pack up and get the hell out of here!”, he yelled at Ryan. We tried explaining to him that we had not planned on drinking beer on the property and were only grabbing something out of the tent, but it was hopeless. He wouldn’t let us get out a single word. “I’m tired of this shit! I’ve been dealing with this all week! You have 30 minutes to pack up and get the hell out!” Apparently, this guy was sick and tired of previous hikers disrespecting the hostel rules and was taking his anger out on us. We quickly packed our things and went to Craig’s apartment to figure out our next plan of action. Being team players and not really all that thrilled with the hostel, Grant and Denim grabbed their bags and joined us.
Shocked and confused about what had just happened at “The Place,” Craig began explaining to us about the two types of people from Damascus. He told us that there are the older locals, those living there since the railroad was still operating, who feel like the sudden boom of tourists in their town are nothing more than an inconvenience. Then there were the younger locals, who recognize the need of tourism in their town, and therefore have come to embrace the hikers and bikers passing through.
Ever since the collapse of the lumber industry and the introduction of the explosive, mountaintop removal technology in the coal industry, thousands of jobs have been lost and hundreds of towns have been abandoned in Appalachia. Without the steady influx of eco-travelers, small businesses like the WhistlePig wouldn’t be able to survive in a town like Damascus. We believed Wolf to be the latter of the two, and didn’t really regret getting kicked out.
Craig kindly welcomed us in. “I really enjoy having hikers stay here. I used to put Ramen Noodles and beer on my steps so they’d stop by and hang out,” he told us. It really felt nice to be surrounded by good people once again.
The next morning Ryan and I ran into the four crazy hikers again at Mojoe’s, and as it turned out they also got kicked out of the hostel that morning. Since they had stayed two nights, check out time was 8 am, apparently. We all had our much needed vent session about the rules at “The Place” and then headed to WhistlePig for our much anticipated third meal.
Our WhistlePig visit this time wasn’t to just spoil our stomachs with tasty food, but to give the bistro the recognition that it respectfully deserved by shooting a story about the uniqueness of the restaurant. The shoot went amazingly. Roger and Tessa were both sweating up a storm, rushing around the kitchen, while Cindy and Merri gracefully served a packed dinning room. It was like watching a episode from Iron Chef, but instead of serious, competitive faces, there were smiles, laughter, and hip-hop free-styling. They even managed to give us a few on-camera interviews in between feeding a hungry restaurant and ringing up the customers. It was a great time and to celebrate, Grant, Denim, Ryan and I decided to treat ourselves again with some ice cream from “Off The Beaten Path.”
Now, I wasn’t kidding about Grant’s bottomless pit of a stomach earlier. In appearance, I would describe Grant as tall, not particularly muscular, but fit. His long 6 foot 4 inch frame stretched his body out to make him even thinner looking, but still was filled out enough to look like he was a basketball player at one time. It would be surprising if he weren’t an athlete, considering how competitive he was. Grant would never back down from a challenge, especially when it came to food. If “Landfill” were to go face to face, or more appropriately stomach to stomach with Adam Richman on “Man vs. Food,” I’m sure there would be many moments where Richman would look at the camera in amazement and yell “WHO IS THIS GUY!?” In our four days in Damascus, Grant routinely would spend more money and east more meals than both of us combined. The first time we met him at the WhistlePig Bistro he ate 3 entrees, 2 desserts, drank 4 beers, and then got ice cream afterward! This would be the trend during our time with Grant.
As if Ryan and I weren’t already blown away by Grant’s appetite, today would be the day he would cement his legacy, and the reason would be a five pound dish called the “Fantastic Finale.” The “Fantastic Finale” is an ice cream explosion, consisting of seven scoops of ice cream, four brownies, a banana, walnuts, pineapples, strawberry and chocolate syrups, whipped cream, and the proverbial two cherries on top. Since no one ever orders the “Fantastic Finale,” the girl at the counter had never made the sundae/dessert/abomination of human creation, therefore she needed her co-worker to help pile in the scoops.
It was the largest dessert I had ever seen in my life. Grant waited patiently as the girl behind the counter piled on the toppings, paid the $9 and walked outside holding the Mount Everest of treats in his hands. Everyone he passed just stared in confusion, mouths gaping open. He sat down on the picnic table, and without hesitation began devouring the ice cream as he had devoured everything else: slowly, deliberately, and never stopping to take a breath. Some of the onlookers from earlier came by to wish him good luck, good riddance, and say GOOD GOD as he shoved more and more of it into his mouth. Every bit was consumed with such elegance. His pace was remarkable. It was like watching a marathon runner pass runners, one-by-one with perfect consistency. Grant was a sculptor, patiently and meticulously carving his masterpiece and enjoying every minute of it. However, instead of creating a beautiful work of art, Grant was shoving a sloppy, milky mess into his face.
In the end it was “Landfill” who took down the “Fantastic Finale”. I would say something about about how it was Grant versus the “Fantastic Finale,” but the word “versus” implies that the ice cream actually had a chance to fight back. After a few burps and a few short breaks to let the dairy settle, the whole leftover box-sized treat was scarfed. In 18 minutes. We found the store owner and convinced him to take a picture of Grant and put it on his wall as the first person to take down the “Fantastic Finale.” So if you ever go through Damascus and stop at the “Off The Beaten Path Ice Cream” and see a picture of a miserable looking guy in a Tampa Bay Rays hat sitting on a picnic table, that’s our friend “Landfill.” Or maybe he goes by his new trail name, “Fantastic Finale.”
After the spectacle was over, we slowly all made our way back to Craig’s apartment. Grant was burping and holding his stomach the entire walk, while the rest of us talked about what we had just witnessed that day. We’d only planned on stopping by Craig’s for a few minutes to grab a camera battery, and Grant just needed to drop off the kids at the pool. Just as we were about to leave to go see the town fireworks, Timber walked in. We were surprised to see him, since he’d planned on hiking all day and was only gone for maybe 45 minutes. He looked nauseated and was holding his middle finger, which had gauze wrapped around it. “That was a short hike. Everything okay?” one of us asked. “I was making a bow drill on the mountain and the knife slipped, slicing my finger wide open,” he replied. He then asked Grant if he had a strong stomach, and If he could help him stitch up his finger. Grant too looked nauseated, but we were’t sure if it was because he just wolfed down ten pounds of ice cream, or because he was about to play surgeon on Timber’s finger. Apprehensive, Grant just said, “Sure” and casually followed Timber to the back bedroom. 20 minutes later Timber was stitched up and Grant was ready to go see some fireworks.
We all made our way including Grant, Denim and Craig to the town’s Fourth of July celebration. Tessa had invited us to her place to swim in her pool while watching the fireworks, so we were just killing time until she got off work. When we walked across the bridge that overlooked the small festival, I was hoping to hear the sounds from a local bluegrass band, but disappointingly it was a rock cover band singing “Brown Eyed Girl.” Ryan, of course, was happy to know the lyrics to sing along, and even more happy to spot a funnel cake stand. He managed to talk the two sweet, local ladies into giving him a free funnel cake. It was really humid that day, therefore his hair like Brendan Fraser’s in Encino Man, so I think the two ladies thought he was someone special that deserved a special cake. While enjoying the free powdery dessert, we stood there listening to “Stuck In The Middle With You,” until it was interrupted by a loud chick yelling at people from her tricycle. “Tessa!” We happily said goodbye to the town shindig and followed Tessa and the four crazy hikers (she also befriended) to her house just a quarter-mile away.
The rest of the evening was a blast. We swam in the pool, switched off riding the tricycle, Tessa fed us her delicious home-made Italian pasta, then serenaded us with an impressive Nina Simone, not long before the highlight of the evening came. We were all in a circle sharing trail stories when a loud, painful screech came from the pool. We all looked over to see Yeti on his stomach, face forward at the bottom of the pool’s slide, arms hanging over into the water. He had attempted to slide down the completely dry slide without running water on it first. We all nearly pissed our pants from laughter. The night ended with all of us yelling (not singing) “America The Beautiful” as the bombs burst in air.
Our time in Damascus was winding down. Grant, Denim, Ryan and I had all stayed longer than originally planned, but we’re glad we did. This had been the most fun and memorable experience on our trip so far. We were sad to see it end, but excited to get on the road again. We all went back to the WhistlePig for our last meal and said our sad goodbyes to Roger, Cindy and Tessa. Grant thought about going for round two in the Fantastic Finale challenge, but came to his senses and figured that it would probably slow him down on the trail. After leaving the WhistlePig, we knew we had to head back to Craig’s to do a “shake-down” and pack our things.
A “shake-down” is a term that the AT hikers use when they get rid of unnecessary items to shed some weight and lighten their packs. The hikers take weight very seriously, and will go as far as ripping the pages out of their hiking books as they finish each page. Ryan and I desperately needed a “shake-down,” since we were both carrying around 90 pounds of gear, and we’re about to attempt the hardest climb in the TransAmerica trail. It couldn’t have been a more appropriate time to ship some stuff home. Both Timber and Denim were there to assist us with the “shake-down,” but I think it was also for entertainment. Timber was laughing at all the ridiculous stuff we brought. “You brought a full size can-opener?! Get rid of that shit, go visit ‘Yard Sale Larry’ and get a P38. It’s a tiny can-opener that weighs less than an ounce.”
Item by item, pound by pound, Ryan and I painfully threw things away. Fire starters, clothes, a recorder, a sleeping pad that wouldn’t stay inflated, three books, and Ryan’s 7D Canon camera (there was no reason to be carrying two cameras) were some of the items thrown into the pile. When it was all over, we weighed everything on Craig’s scale. Amazingly, we were able to “shake-down” around 21 pounds of equipment. Both Timber and Denim we very impressed. The final task that remained was to visit the much talked about, “Yard Sale Larry.”
Like Timber, “Yard Sale Larry” was also hiking the AT until he arrived in Damascus. He decided to stay and have a yard sale–a never-ending yard sale that is. Every single day Larry sets up a yard sale just across from the town’s gas station to sell everything from gear that hikers leave behind, to antique lamps and NASCAR-themed knives. When I asked him where everything came from, he replied with, “people from all over just bring me stuff, sometimes all their stuff.” Larry talked about how much he enjoyed talking to all the hikers passing through and would do whatever he could to help them out. Right now he’s helping out a hiker named Joseph who is spending a few hours a day working in his garden. “I used to be a different person before the trail. I had trouble with the law and was running away. I was in a bad place in my head when I first started hiking. Then there were so many generous people I met on the trail who took me in and helped me out. Those people really changed me. I too wanted to help and this is my way of giving back.”
And that was it. That is what I was missing this entire time. I had been so focused on meaningless things like getting that perfect photo of the Blue Ridge Mountains before sunset, finding internet to update our website’s map and making sure the camera equipment was charged for the next day. It was all distracting me from what was more meaningful. It was the people. It was seeing Cindy’s smile when first walking into the WhistlePig and the high I got from eating Roger’s mouth-watering food. It was witnessing Grant conquer a five-pound plate of ice cream and hearing about Timber’s high-adrenaline close calls on the trail. It was laughing until my stomach hurt from Yeti’s unsuccessful slide and the goosebumps I got from listening to Tessa’s breathtaking voice. And it was Craig’s genuinely kind heart for taking us in and cooking all of us huge spaghetti dinner on our last night.
I felt at home in Damascus and I realized that day that our trip was never meant to be about the destination. It’s about the journey. It’s about the unexpected places you stumble upon, and it’s about the interesting, beautiful and inspiring people you meet along the way. These are the experiences you’ll take with you forever.
Not surprisingly, Larry just gave both Ryan and I two P38s and wished us the best of luck on our journey. We then said our goodbyes to Denim, who decided to hitchhike his way to Orlando, and Grant, who was going to continue his journey on the AT and hopefully burn off all the calories he accumulated from WhistlePig and the Fantastic Finale, but we didn’t part ways before all agreeing to return to Damascus next year for a Trail Day’s reunion. Ryan and I walked back to Craig’s to grab our bikes and say goodbye to Timber and Craig. We thanked them for helping us out, got on our bikes and pedaled away. It was a quick goodbye, but we all knew it wouldn’t be forever.
So now the journey for us continues. There will be many more grueling hills, rewarded by beautiful scenery to come, but even better, there will be many more amazing people to meet. Here we come Kentucky!