Since we had started planning the trip, we have included Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway on our route. Heading for these two parks is the main reason we backtracked north through Delaware instead of trying to arrange a ride south through the Chesapeake Bay tunnel. So, when we reached Front Royal, it felt like our trip was really just starting.
We stopped at the visitor’s center in town to check on the latest park information, and then headed to a grocery store to (seriously) restock our food supplies. We probably added 20+ pounds of food. While we were packing our bags out front, it started to drizzle. A curious local also warned us that many campsites were closed, which contradicted what we’d been told at the visitor’s center.
However, once we pedaled up to the park entrance, we found out the campground we’d been intending to stay at for the night was not open. Neither was the next one. In fact, most of the campgrounds were closed, like 400 of them. This left us with quite a dilemma–we had nowhere to stay and had made no other arrangements. I was still really wiped out from the previous day’s ride, and didn’t feel I could handle a reroute that involved 30-40 miles of biking on busy roads with fast traffic.
It isn’t true that there was no place at all to stay in the park. We could “backcountry camp” in the park with a permit until we got to the sites that were actually open. So, we started to head to the visitor’s center, which was “only four miles up the road”. However, those 4 miles are only uphill, with a fairly steep grade, and we were tired, and had extra food weight, and it was raining. And once we got up about 3 miles, we were no longer sheltered by the hills, and the wind was terrible. It took us a long time to get to the visitor’s center. It was a mistake to not have eaten lunch first. It was miserable. It was hard. But the views were great, even though it was foggy and these photos do it no justice.
But once we made it to the visitor’s center, we decided to reevaluate. Elizabeth was really cold and unhappy and had worked herself into a bitter mess about it. But when I looked at our ability to continue through the park, I agreed that there were just too many negatives to keep going. The water wasn’t turned on at most of the sites along the road. We didn’t have our water filter, not that there is much water at the top of a ridge. In order to get to the water that we couldn’t filter, we’d have to hike down from the road. But really, we’d have to fill up what we could on the ascent and add even more weight to our bikes. We had no designated campsites to stay at, which meant no bathrooms (not a big deal) and no showers (not a huge deal, but still a bit rough when you are covered in cold sweat and have to get into your sleeping bag for a cold night’s sleep). And though a backcountry permit would have meant that we didn’t need to stay at a campground, it did mean that the areas we were allowed to camp in were not really accessible by bike. This meant that we’d have to haul our gear at least a half mile into the woods, which would have been okay if our gear had straps for carrying, which our bags really don’t. To top it off, there was the possibility of bears and other animals bothering us to get into our food and toiletries. Also, it was supposed to rain for three days.
In the end, our option for staying on our route and in the park was this: pushing our very heavy bikes uphill for miles, then carrying one awkward bag at a time down muddy trails or not on trails at all in order to pitch the tent in the rain and curl an exhausted, cold, wet body into a damp bag and probably not sleep very well. And then do it again the next day, starting with carrying bags and liters of water back up the steep slopes in the rain.
After eating a late lunch on a cold bench, in the end, we coasted back down the mountain into Front Royal and stopped at a cheap motel for the night. We also got a big dinner at the first restaurant we reached.
I know it was the right decision, but I am still disappointed. It was the first day on this trip where we didn’t get where we intended to go. And it may mean that we’ll miss a whole section of biking that maybe should have been one of the highlights of this trip.
Additionally, I find it frustrating that the park is open to motorists, day cyclists (some of whom we met and are very nice), and serious AT through hikers, but at the same time, the park had made what we had planned to do extremely implausible. I understand that public services can’t be tailored to accommodate everyone’s individual pans, but there were campsites already there that we weren’t allowed to use, and water sources that had been configured that weren’t turned on. These same services will be available in one month. The information about the closures was buried so deep on the park’s website that it was not findable, and no one had bothered to tell the visitor’s center. I understand that we are an exceptional pair, especially so early in the year, but it is times like this when it can best click for you that sometimes your ability to do something doesn’t just depend on you, but on decisions your government and municipalities make for you.
It was also frustrating to return to our cheap hotel and see news coverage of how the FAA was getting their funding restored because flights were getting delayed by… hours! What inconvenience! I’d like to see those people bike from Assateague MD to Front Royal VA and push their bikes uphill in the rain for miles before they decide what inconvenience means. While I understand that more people may or may not be affected directly by airline travel as opposed to park closures, I find it interesting that the only ones who are hurt by the park closures are park users (us) and the federal park system itself (which lost the money we would have spent there to a cheap motel and private campground).
The money we have invested in our public infrastructure and public services is worth it, America. And I do think that the trillions of dollars we have spent on overseas wars does show up in moments like this. Or, to put it another way, what does it say that we can pay for drones to terrorize villages in Yemen, but two low-impact cyclists can’t camp in a US national park?
Personally, I think the sequestration, especially coming on top of years of budget cuts and defunding of public services, demonstrates yet another instance of how the budget-cutting agenda would have the country cut its nose off to spite its face. And that move only undermines public faith that the government will do anything worth doing.
No, this hasn’t ruined our trip by any means. But, yes, I did write the White House about this.