Escaping on the Creeper Trail

It has been a tumultuous year for me personally. Sure, there’s a pandemic, toilet paper shortages, a confusing array of government programs to navigate and the isolation of being thousands of miles from my immediate family. But during this year, I am finally financially free of my ex and from the burden of taking care of my beloved lakeside home. Once I was moved into my apartment just miles away from my prior home, I really wanted an escape and my sweetheart Roy had the perfect solution: the Virginia Creeper Trail in Damascus, Virginia.

Roy and I on the Creeper Trail

As a thru hiker veteran, Roy is very familiar with the Virginia Creeper Trail as the Appalachian Trail goes through the middle of the tiny trail town.  In fact, right in the middle of town there is an entire side of a building painted with the bold letters: TRAIL TOWN USA. Roy had experienced riding down the Creeper Trail some five years ago and he had been riding his bike downhill for seventeen miles. I have to say that being newly reacquainted with bike riding in the last three years, I was pretty skeptical of sitting on a bike for several hours, regardless of riding downhill most of the way. But I was so focused on escaping the drudgery of unpacking and my dog’s anxiety with my new space (she’s newly attached to me anytime we go outside, i.e. not chasing squirrels at her leisure), I was willing to be uncomfortable for a few hours and get saddle sores from a bike seat.

My reflections of escaping on the Creeper Trail:

Rent bikes from an outfitter

Roy and I both have our own mountain bikes and figured we would take them to both save a few bucks and to be on a familiar bike rather than a rental. Thank goodness we changed our minds and decided to rent bikes instead. Carrying the bikes on the back of the car, dragging them in and out of a hotel room and being vigilant about whether they are securely stored is a drag. It was worth the extra $20 a piece to rent bikes and not have to contend with keeping track of our bikes on our three-day weekend vacation. There are at least five outfitters in Damascus that will rent you a bike and then carry you to the top of the trail in a van with a bike rack behind. They will even carry your bike up to the top of the trail. We went to Sundog Outfitter in Damascus, which is super convenient, because the Creeper Trail goes right by Sundog as it enters the town after the seventeen mile ride. No need to try and navigate returning the bike. The other advantage of the rental bike was an extra-large seat (don’t forget that seat, you’re on it for a minimum of two hours!) and they provide repair kits for free, in case any issues come up on the trail. 

The Virginia Creeper

The Virginia Creeper is the name of the train that ran from Abingdon, Virginia to Todd, North Carolina. The tracks were built in the 1894, mostly for moving timber and people in isolated far western Virginia. It was dubbed “The Creeper” because of the speed at which the train trudged up the mountainous terrain amidst sharp curves and rickety trestles; it went about 5 miles an hour. Eventually, the timber industry faded and the passage travel was not profitable. The last train ran in 1977. In 1978, the U.S. Forest Service purchased the right of way to build a hiking/biking trail that exists today.

Gliding down the trail

Sundog Outfitter took us up to Whitetop station on a beautiful fall day and we arrived around 10:30 AM. It was cold at the top of the mountain, and Roy and I set off down the wide 8-foot-wide trail with about twenty or so hearty souls. The top of the trail near Whitetop is pretty steep and it didn’t take long to figure out that brakes were about all I needed to know on the bike.

Roy stayed behind me as I started flying down the hill and I realized that there were no shock absorbers on the rental bike. The shock absorbers were apparently my arms. It is a bumpy trail and at high speeds (greater than I initially realized…gulp) I was pretty terrified in the beginning. I was torn between focusing on avoiding any large rocks, holding onto the brakes for dear life, passing other folks and trying to take in the spectacular fall foliage. I must say that the first fifteen minutes were a blur and once I was acclimated to the trail, the bike and my brakes, I finally was able to take in the experience. 

I think I have been waiting for this since first taking the training wheels off my bike at age 7. Gliding down a hill free of cars and pavement and barely any pedaling for almost three hours; covered by golden trees, gliding parallel to a picturesque river, and the smell of fall in the air while easily gliding through the air was a dream come true. It was wonderful.

Roy did not tell me how fast I was going until the trip was over. I think I had it in my head that I had to glide as fast as possible before the next uphill…which never came. It was a magical trip, almost dreamlike in its simplicity and its beauty. I pronounced at the end that we needed to make this an annual pilgrimage. I hope we do.

I almost felt with each bump, each change of scene, my recent traumas flew or melted away. It was nice to feel refreshed!

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