VMBT Day 8: The New River is too Deep to Ford

Check out Day 7, and all Virginia Mountain Bike Trail related posts here!


Ostensibly, this trip was a bike ride. In reality, it was much more than that. It sounds dumb, cliche, and super hipster, but it was much more an experience. And let me tell you, the previous evening was an experience. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: The kindness of strangers is what really makes trips like this special. I could have done this trip without meeting anyone, without receiving help from anyone and it would have been an amazing trip. However, receiving help and kindness makes the journey easier and much more enjoyable, and turns the fun factor up to 11.

I spent the morning hanging out, talking to the people at the hostel. Eddie, the man that picked me up the previous night, offered to take me to a bike shop to get some new tubes and patches, seeing as how both my tubes had multiple holes in them and I only had one or two patches left. He didn’t even charge me any money for the shuttle. He was so impressed and shocked at my appearance and the trip that I think he wanted to see what I was doing to try and figure me out. At any rate, he took me to an amazing bike shop, Just the Right Gear outside Catawba, who hooked me up big time. The mechanic, Matt, replaced my bottom bracket, adjusted both brakes, checked the alignment on my derailleur hanger and adjusted my shifting, and charged me $50, including the cost of the bottom bracket, two tubes and patches. So, basically did everything for free. It’s amazing what a little conversation gets you, especially when you have an interesting story to tell. A few pics from the morning.

Four Pines Hostel Catawba
Hollywood, bringing Hobo chic to a Nobo thru-hike. He came and rode bikes in DC.
Just the Right Gear
Matt. Seriously great shop. If you’re ever in the area, check them out! Near Catawba, VA.
Just the Right Gear
Getting the Krampus back in fighting shape before the second half.
Four Pines Hostel
Nigel and Derek, brothers biking across country on the Trans Am
Chevy Astro Van
Luckily, I got to take a ride in this beaut. Would have been quite disappointed if I hadn’t.
Chevy Astro
Now THAT is a disAstro Van!

Fully stocked on tubes and patches for the seemingly inevitable flat parade coming my way, I set off around 11 am in the morning. The day started off with more riding on the road, and passed an old Plymouth and stopped to take a picture of it. The owner, a kindly, very old gentleman was confused, but offered to sell it to me. I passed and continued on my way.

1947 Plymouth
1947 Plymouth. It’s for sale. On Newport Rd outside Catawba
Tobacco barn
Tobacco barn
Virginia Mountain Bike Trail
Some serious gravel climbing ahead.
Poverty Creek
Kewl duder. Entering the Poverty Creek Trail system, a well maintained network of singletrack, akin to Schaeffer’s Farm in DC.
Poverty Creek
Poverty Creek
Ah, shit. Forgot my camera

After a good bit of riding on pavement, some steep, loose gravel climbing, and tame trails, I was on more gravel, approaching the New River. The “official” route has you fording the New River. The GPS track I was following crossed the New River on a bridge, but it was a very circuitous route that added around 15-20 miles of pavement riding, not something I wanted to do. I didn’t really know where I was supposed to cross the river, but figured I would make my way to the river’s edge and assess there.

As I made my way towards the river, I started seeing more and more people. Some of them extremely attractive women in tiny bathing suits. I narrowly avoided crashing, and came up to a parking lot, complete with long lines of people waiting for a shuttle bus. I surveyed the scene, I was in the middle of what was essentially party cove. There were throngs of people drinking in line for a bus to some city, folks tubing down the river, complete with a cooler in it’s own tube, and people just sitting in the river drinking. And one weird, bearded, smelly dude on a bike (that’s me, for the record).

Pretty much the scene I rolled in on.

I sat down, not sure what to do. I was feeling pretty tired, so the idea of 20 some odd miles on the road did not sound appealing, but neither did the idea of fording a river in the middle of Party City. Plus, the river is wide, probably close to 200 yards across, so it was quite intimidating. I just sat there, for quite a while, unable to make a decision. The idea of fording this massive river seemed absolutely ridiculous, but on the other hand, it seemed to really fit the motif of the trip. On the other other hand, I felt a little uncomfortable being around all these people, and definitely didn’t want to be “the weird guy” carrying a massive bike across the river. Plus, I would have to carry my 90ish pound bike across a damn river! I was leaning towards just laying down and taking in the scene, but it was getting later in the day, I was hungry, and I knew there was a Sheetz in the next town over (I had marked it on my map before leaving, one of the only markings I made), so a decision had to be made. I saw a guy getting in the water in a kayak, who assured me that “the water is no deeper than your knee at the deepest, and essentially no current.” That sealed it, into the water I went.

Immediately, I felt the eyes on me, boring into my bike. I could feel the attention that I was drawing, and before long, someone yelled out, “Hey man! What are you doing?”

“Well, obviously, I’m going for a bike ride! What are you doing?” I replied, as I was walking through shin deep water of a river, with an absurdly large bike on my shoulders.

“Drinking, want a beer?” came the reply. Not the most opportune time for a drink, so I had to pass. As I continued into the water (probably only 30 feet at this point), people continued to stare and gawk at me, as well as ask me what I was doing. A couple slowly floated by me in inner tubes, staring at me in silence the entire time. Awesome. After about 5 minutes of walking, and only 50 feet or so, someone about my age approached in a kayak.

“Hey man, do you need any help?” he inquired.

“Nah, I’m good, thanks. Although…if you could grab my camera out of my backpack and take a few pictures of me, that would rad!” I replied. It seemed a ridiculous request at such a time, but I was super bummed to not be getting any photos of this, so figured I would strike while the iron was hot.

“Haha, no problem! I actually used to be a kayak photographer, so you’re in luck!”, he said. Perfect.

New River
The couple in the background silently floating past me.

This fording turned out to be quite a bit harder than I’d thought. The river bottom was mostly all rocks, not the silt I had expected, meaning that I had to be careful with every step. I desperately did not want to fall, for numerous reasons. First, all my shit would get totally soaked, and second, EVERYONE partying would see me, and it would surely raise quite a cheer and plenty of heckling. I slowly soldiered on, my kayaker buddy following me, taking pictures, and pointing out shallower, easier ways ahead, which was quite helpful. The guy on the shore was full of shit, by the way. I was soon in water up to the middle of my chest, with a quick current pushing me downstream.

New River
The river is too deep. You lose: dignity, -10 points.

To my right, there was a large rock outcropping, about halfway across the river. There was a large number of people sitting on the rocks, drinking and generally enjoying the day by NOT carrying a heavy ass bike across a freakin’ river. As I approached, people started yelling things at me, and one guy swam over to offer help. I declined, but he stayed with me to help point out the way. It was getting very deep, very rocky, and the current was picking up big time. I was in a little bit of trouble. There was a small bit of rock sticking completely out of the water, where I was able to set the bike down and take a break for the first time in about 30 minutes. I only had a small bit of river left to ford, maybe 50 feet or so. I was very nearly there! However, there was a rather massive problem. The next portion was probably at least neck deep, with a very uneven river bottom, and a super fast current. It was pretty much guaranteed I would fall in if I tried to walk across it.  I stood still, paralyzed yet again by indecision.

So there I was, standing on a very small rock outcropping in the middle of a river, with a long, treacherous fording behind me, and an impossible 50 feet in front. Well….shit. My new friends had to go, leaving me alone, no way forward, and going back was absolutely not an option. I stood there, trying to stay calm, attempting to figure out my next move. I looked around me, and off in the distance, I saw what appeared to be an inflatable row boat. Could this be a potential savior? I tried to play it cool, remaining the coy young lady hoping to get asked to the dance. I briefly made eye contact, then quickly looked away. Didn’t want to come off too desperate. I pretended to be totally occupied and absorbed in…something, occasionally looking towards the boat, pretending to look through the boat. Slowly, it drew nearer. It could have been just the current taking them downstream, but maybe, just maybe, they were coming to rescue me! The game of cat and mouse continued as the boat slowly floated towards me, until, all of a sudden, it was right next to me. There was a middle aged couple on board, fishing, and looking utterly and thoroughly confused.

“How did you get out here?” the man asked. “Well, I walked, but now I’m in a bit of a pickle.” I replied. “Yea, we thought you might need some help. I’ll back up, you lean onto the back platform with your bike and we’ll take you the rest of the way.” Awesome. Super awesome. “Not sure where you’re gonna go when you get to the other side, but we’ll certainly take you there.” That’s when I looked at the opposite shoreline. I had been so focused on making it there that I’d not actually looked to see what it was like. Now I took in the scene in all it’s glory. The immediate shoreline was a boulder field, which led to a steep, overgrown, wooded section to a railroad, which led to Lord knows where. I’ll figure it out when I get there.

Once I finally made it to the other side, the couple wished me good luck and went on their way, and I attempted to climb the hill. It was no easy task, I dragged my bike through thorn and sticker bushes, pushing, grunting and groaning. After a solid ten minutes, I made it. I was standing on a railroad track. Finally safe! The entire ordeal was close to an hour, much longer and more difficult than expected. I checked myself over, body was still in tact, nothing fell off the bike, nothing ruined by the wet. I hopped on the bike to ride off, and my shoe felt odd. I looked down and noticed that the main clip on my shoe was broken! I guess nearly an hour of being submerged was not part of the testing process for the shoe. This would cause a major issue if I didn’t get it fixed, as I could no longer walk in the shoe without it sliding all over the place, and I got no power from the shoe while riding. Whatever, I would deal with it after I figured out where the hell I was, and after I’d eaten some Sheetz. A few pics of the crossing.

New River
It looks like I’m in the middle, but this is probably 40′ into the water.
New River ford
Barely half way
New River
My tripod and self timer are working a treat.

New River

New River
Smiling at the absurdity.
New River railroad
Safely to the other side.
Big Ron
Still freaking out a bit.
Surly Krampus Ops
Back to solid ground. Didn’t drop the bike, my camera and laptop did not get ruined.
Big Ron
Giro Terraduro
Guess the Terraduro isn’t built for massive river fordings. Gonna have to continue the search for the perfect “do it all” shoe.

I started riding next to the railroad tracks, hoping that I could get onto an actual road before too long. I was honestly a little nervous riding next to the tracks and wanted to get off them as soon as I could. After about ten to fifteen minutes, I saw a gravel road off to my right, so I snuck through someone’s backyard (which is honestly not a good idea in rural Virginia) to get to a gravel road, which eventually led to a paved road that I was able to take into town. It led me directly to Sheetz.

Like a siren song, it calls to me.

Finally, Big Ron has come back…to Sheetz!

I got a massive burrito and sat down to eat it, wondering how I was going to fix my shoe, and in search of a map. Because after I left Sheetz, I didn’t have a map, just my GPS, so I would have no idea what sorts of services were available (I found no map). As I sat down, an elderly man got out of a van and walked up to me. I watched him, as he bobbed and weaved his way over to my table. (This link is a good idea of what we were working with). He walked over to me, and asked my name. He introduced himself, “Scott, my name’s Mick. I’m REALLY drunk. Can you believe that?” Why yes, Mick. Yes I can. He then rambled on about keeping fit and tried to get me to come to his house with him, as he claimed to have an entire bike shop and he could “fix me up good.” Tempting, but I declined. I asked to take Mick’s photo, to which he happily agreed. My first picture, his eyes were closed, so I asked to take another, and told him, “Focus on keeping your eyes open, Mick!” He did an exaggerated eye open, something like this. All the while, his old lady was sitting in a van right in front of me, equally as drunk, I assume, animatedly talking to herself. It…didn’t make me feel particularly comfortable. Finally, Mick walked back towards the van, and started to get in the driver seat before taking his spot in the back, and a soberish guy showed up to drive. This was turning into a seriously interesting today.

Sheetz burrito
The burrito!!!
drunk Mick
Mick. Drunk as hell.

There was a bike shop in Radford, just across the bridge (that’s right, I rode a bridge right back over the New River) so I figured I’d try and see if I could get my shoe fixed. I rolled into a shop that looked more like a bike junkyard, and met the man that ran the place, Billy (sadly no picture). Honestly, Billy may have been the most interesting/oddest character I met on this trip, in a way that is very hard to describe. I will try to set the scene and describe the man as best I can (he fixed my shoe for $2, which was awesome, and I ended up talking to him for about an hour).

As I said, the shop was more flea market than shop, with old bikes littering the place, leaning in every possible nook and cranny. It could have been featured on a special episode of “Hoarders”. There were incredibly old bike parts, now obsolete, in packaging, behind a counter that hadn’t seen use in years, and was tucked behind an impenetrable wall of old bikes and parts. None of the bikes were particularly nice, with all manner of Franken-bikes in odd configurations that Billy deemed “cool”, like an old school mountain bike with ape hanger bars and a 3 speed internally geared hub. Billy didn’t appear to use a workbench, rather, he preferred to simply use the floor. When looking for a spare bolt to fix my shoe, he didn’t look in a nicely organized tool chest, nor a counter top, but rather the dingy floor of his work area, which was also the only aisle in the entire place. So essentially, his work place was the only spot in the store clear of major clutter.

Billy was an overweight, good old boy, with an insulin pump on his hip, and glasses that constantly slipped down his nose. He told me about his prowess on the bike, especially on hills, how he can out climb any of the college boys on their fancy bikes. All he needed was his old school, 26″ mountain bike and sneakers, and he would ride anyone into the ground. Call me a hater, but I was skeptical. Billy had a certain disdain for new bike technology, which I can appreciate. He regaled me with tales of people driving halfway across Virginia to buy bikes that he had restored and spoke of the myriad frames worth serious money in the attic and basement of the shop that the owner wouldn’t let him work on, for reasons that I never understood. He was definitely a talker, a weaver of tales of the highest caliber, and he talked my ear off until dusk. Finally, I tore myself away from his aura and set off into the fading light towards the New River Trail State Park. I really wish I had a picture of Billy.

I was under the impression that my destination for the evening was only about 45 minutes away, so I figured if I hustled, I could make it before dark. It turned out to be closer to two hours, and I didn’t roll into town until 10:30 pm. I was so tired, I got a hotel room for cheap. I consider myself to be very experienced at staying in cheap, shitty hotel rooms, and this was by far the shittiest hotel room I’ve ever been in. It was so small, I had to turn sideways to step past the bed, and there was a certain…aroma in the air that was displeasing to the nostrils. I didn’t care, though, I fell asleep nearly immediately.

What you end up with when you ride until 10 pm and crash in the first room you find.
What you end up with when you ride until late and crash in the first room you find.
Shitty and spaciour
Shitty and spacious

I ended the day at 63 miles, in 7 hours of riding. It was an exhausting, roller coaster off a day, chock full of crazy experiences and crazier people, but that is what it’s all about. Thanks for reading. Next time, easy riding in the New River Trail State Park and camping with mules.


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