Our shuttle driver was born and raised in Damascus, Va., the jumping off point for our day's adventure.
His middle-aged mind reminisces about the little town's past as we traverse its mountain holler roads, hauling our mounts for the afternoon on a trailer behind. We are waiting to coast down the Virginia Creeper trail, a former rail line turned scenic nature path. The 16 downhill miles from White Top Station back into Damascus comprise a popular bike route. Some travelers continue down the trail into Abingdon, totaling 33.4 miles.
Although I've long lost any sense of direction on the winding roads and seemingly random turns, the driver exudes the confidence of a native country boy as he navigates the blind curves, spending half the drive engaged in enthusiastic conversation with his passenger. Despite my unobstructed view of the twisting road ahead, I have complete faith in this man's driving abilities.
Upon reaching our destination, the bikes are unloaded and each recipient is wished a good trip. Then, we are left to our own devices. There is only one way down: on two wheels.
Rhododendrons provide a leafy backdrop as our group of five pedals onto the dirt path. It doesn't take long for the individual parties to spread out, some of us taking longer than others to get comfortable on the bicycle, namely my mother who hasn't attempted cycling in years. You may never forget how to ride, but the stakes are a little higher when your exit from the middle of nowhere, Virginia depends on remembering how. After a cautious start, and a stop for pictures at a scenic overlook of rolling hills dotted with Christmas tree farms, we are rolling smoothly.
The trail, not treacherous aside from the occasional large rock or low-reaching branch, is a low-impact pleasure cruise, requiring no more skill than good balance. So, naturally, I find a way to make a ride fit for a toddler dangerous.
Inspired, I finagle the Canon Rebel slung across my body around to the front, one hand on my neck strap, the other on the handlebars. Still cruising, I flip the camera on and raise the viewfinder to my eye, thinking a picture of the riders ahead of me would make a nice shot.
I then turn my attention to my bike itself, priding myself on my "outside the box" thought process. I do not recommend simultaneously peddling a bicycle and focusing your vision through a 1-inch square pointed at the ground beneath you. I nearly ended up in the shallow river that now followed the trail, but some shaky, one-handed maneuvering prevented the fall. I feel like my triumphant effort should have been recorded and sent to National Geographic as an audition tape for the photography department. The handlebars did, in fact, make an interesting picture.
The bike ride continued on without incident, crossing old wooden trestles over the rocky water below and passing old houses I half expected to expel women in long prairie dresses and bonnets. The trail seems to travel through time, not space, as it winds through rural mountain valleys.
Just past the halfway mark, a few hours after setting out, our group pulls into the Creeper Trail Café, home to "world-famous chocolate cake." A chili dog straight from the can tastes much better when it's the only food available for miles, literally.
After moving on from our lunch, the trail starts to level out, and our seats become ever more uncomfortable. The forest and river that border the path are replaced by a highway and the beginnings of Damascus' sprawl. The illusion of 19th century farm life is broken by the colorful signs advertising bike shuttles to White Top.
I can't say the Virginia Creeper Trail is the most adventurous thing I've ever done, nor the most challenging, enlightening or even fun. The ride did, however, remind me of why I love Appalachia.
Hundreds of years of life took place along the railway we followed, and each clearing or crumbling house was a peek into a different time.
We weren't just taking in pretty scenery; we were pedaling through a story.
Emilee Lamb is a sophomore in journalism and electronic media. She aspires to be a journalist and photographer for National Geographic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.