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Beware bears bringing gifts

On the seventh day, we lie around the motel.  Michelle and I have biked from New York to the foothills of Appalachia in Front Royal Virginia, a quarter of the way to our destination: New Orleans.  After seven days of biking, we are incapable of moving before noon.  We lie in bed, watching the weather channel, resting our poor abused legs.  The sleep is doing us good.  The diner food is not. Tomorrow, we will start moving, no matter what.  But first we have to choose: up onto the Blue Ridge, or down along the Shenandoah Valley?  We ask everyone from the motel clerk to the tourist bureau if we should try biking up Skyline Drive into the mountains.

“It goes up for a while,” I ask, “and then it gets flat, right?” 

“No,” says the woman on the phone at the Shenandoah Park Service. “It just keeps going up.”

“Surely it can’t go up forever,” I insist.  One hundred five miles of up?

“It pretty much just goes up,” she repeats.

I try again on a different day.  “Is it really, really hard to bike up Skyline Drive?”  Maybe I can get an honest answer this way.

“No, no, no,” laughs the woman on the phone.  Then, reconsidering: “Well, I wouldn’t do it.”

“People do it all the time,” says a man at a local bike store.  Clearly he is not one of those people.

“Up there,” I say, “there will be no strip malls.”  We decide to take the challenge. We load up on protein bars, family size boxes of mac and cheese, instant refried beans.  Going up, we are heavier than ever.

The woman on the phone was telling the truth; every inch of down we lose means another inch we’ll have to struggle up. We breeze down long downhills, only to struggle to regain the height we lost. On a bicycle, up is the only direction that counts.  We stop after four miles at the first lookout over the Shenandoah.  Farms below look as quaint as the Amish paintings for sale back in Pennsylvania.  The forest is damp and clean and quiet. We are drenched in sweat, exhausted, delirious.  Up, yes, up, up, up, up.

After twenty-two miles we collapse at a campground called Matthew’s Arm.  No showers, but we strip and splash cold water from the sinks.  After setting up our tent and preparing to devour our dinner, we notice a visitor at the site; two trees away, a handsome black bear is shaking acorns down on us.  Oh good, I think.  Wildlife.  Run.

Two women approach in a golf cart, the vehicle of choice among campground staff. We approach the cart, turning our backs momentarily on the beast in the tree.

“That’s a black bear,” says one of the women.  Actually, that was not really what I wanted to know.

“Where does the bear sleep?” I ask her, trying to make my question sound casual.

“You’re in his home,” she tells me.  “He weighs two hundred pounds.”

Hey, no problem.  We consider moving to another site, but are too tired to take down the tent and haul our gear any farther. 

A park ranger comes by to take photographs of the bear in our campsite. 

“Is he fast?” asks Michelle. We are trying to seem merely curious.

“Bear can run faster than a horse,” says the ranger, aiming his camera.  “He can climb up a tree faster’n you could fall down.”

Not a pleasant image.  We watch the bear shake down a limbful of leaves.

“Bet you’re wondering how he stays up there,” says the ranger. I was actually wondering if he thought we looked like acorns. “Bear’s got vise-like claws.”

How interesting.  We put our bag of food in the ranger’s car and close up the tent for the night.  With the fly zipped shut, at least we won’t have to see him. During the night, I hear acorns falling on the tent.  A bear in a tree is better than a bear on the ground.  When he’s up there, he doesn’t look as big.

By morning, we’re almost used to him.  As we return from the bathroom, we see him cross our campsite.  Hey, I think, there’s our bear.  As if he’d been following us since Jersey.  We have bigger problems ahead: the rest of Skyline Drive, for example.

We know it is time to leave in the morning when we’ve used everything we own.  Tent? Toothpaste?  Sunscreen?  Used, used, and used.  Time to go.  The morning’s routines are simple: eat, brush, and hope we have one more pair of clean socks.  Then we’re on our way.

At a restaurant meant for tour buses, we meet a couple of through-hikers from the Appalachian Trail.  They left Maine three months ago, and have not taken a shower since.  Michelle and I devour cookies and mix up a fresh batch of Emergen-c.  We are sweaty, but it is fresh sweat, a healthy, vigorous stink.  We are energetic, high-tech in our spandex, sunglasses, and special bike shoes.  Through-hikers are dreamy, slow, all-cotton.  They eat peanut butter out of a jar, saying nothing.  Tourists slink past us, guilty in their cleanliness, their unearned hunger.  We laugh.  Up is hard, oh it is difficult, but worth it.

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