Off Jeb Stuart Highway a rail bed runs through the Virginia highlands. Follow the highway east and you'll eventually end nearly at the lip of the old Civil War hero's grave. Follow the rail bed and you will climb through forests along some of the most gently beautiful whitewater east of the Mississippi, from lowlands where saltworks, gypsum beds, and lumber mills once supplied nearly the whole of the Confederacy to a 500-acre prairie at 5,500 feet surrounded by timber stands and known as Whitetop.
Today it's the rail bed that holds my interest-miles and miles of abandoned track laid by Norfolk & Western in the 19th century up and over Whitetop Mountain. At its peak in the 1920s, Whitetop was the highest community in the East to have passenger train service. It boasted 500 residents, a hotel, a doctor, a dentist, and two stores in addition to the train depot.
But in the way we now define progress, this workhorse of a rail line has been turned into a bicycle trail-leisure for labor. Or perhaps, labor writ large enough to build a country dissolved to labor writ small enough to give sedentary workers and their underexercised offspring an opportunity to grow strong (or believe themselves to be so for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon).
Where the trains once carried timber, ore, apples, cabbages, cattle, and people-"double-headed" with two engines to make the grade and dubbed for its slowness "the Virginia Creeper"-now hundreds of weekend cyclists take to cinder-spread path with bridges that gradually climbs over 3,000 feet in elevation.
But lest you think American ingenuity went the way of the locomotive, it turns out that taking the grade has turned into a matter of choice. Most cyclists don't bike up. Instead, they ride a white shuttle van to Whitetop with their bicycles strapped behind on a tow rack. There they disembark, unleash their two-wheelers, and practically coast down, enjoying the scenery along the way.
Forgive me a little irritability on this point. Unaware of this shortcut, my family and I started at the bottom. Only as the climb wore into our thigh muscles and the white shuttle vans sped past us (when we caught a glimpse of the highway) did we discover that we had chosen the hard way, the rail bed less traveled.
Are Miley Cyrus and I the only Americans who are bothered by this trend? "Always gonna be a uphill battle / Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose. / Ain't about how fast I get there / Ain't about what's waiting on the other side. / It's the climb."
I for my middle-aged part faced "The Climb" with a mixture of frustration and exhilaration. For all the wide rail beds, it was hot, hard work. The youngest among us, with all the water bottles in her backpack, sped ahead and out of sight. At my worst I grumbled for rest stops. As C.S. Lewis' Screwtape might say, the long, dull hours pedaling "are excellent campaigning weather for the devil."
But the uphill pace-slow, steady-gave me unhurried time to go over my forebears, the earliest of whom can be traced to these mountains during the Revolutionary War. And to think about the laborers cutting a rail bed through mountains. And the mountain people (again my progenitors, perhaps yours) carving their way through the wilderness, living in lonely towns with weekly mail, milling the lumber of the Appalachians. Some of them went on to pull the barges of the Mississippi, to drill the wells of the Texas oil patch, and eventually to plant citrus groves near the Pacific.
So much begins at the bottom of a mountain that is missed if one starts at the top. Screwtape again: "The safest road to hell is the gradual one-the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."
When finally we turned to head back downhill, the rains began to pour. But by that time I was thinking of Gen. Jeb Stuart again, who as the war drew to a close, and he drew closer not only to defeat but to his own death just north of these mountains, was known to say: "I'd rather die than be whipped."
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