M– and I woke around 7. He had a tight deadline to be done within a week, so his plan was to get up and out early and put in some serious mileage. I figured I’d join him for awhile, and was focused on not holding him back.
We’d both been traveling from the west coast (he started in Seattle) by ourselves for weeks, and I think were both sensitive to the fact that we had our own set and delicate routines, and both of us were careful not to upset the other’s routine.
He wanted to be on the road by 7:30, but between talking to our host and alternately fussing with our gear, we weren’t on the road until 9:30. I overemphasized to M– that he shouldn’t slow down for me. He was carrying likely 20 pounds less gear than I, which meant the second the road went uphill, I was operating at a serious handicap.
With someone to talk to, the miles passed quickly. On the first hill, I kept pace with M–. On the second, he left me on the last stretch. I pushed to catch up with him on the downhill, but the Appalachian mountain roads are wickedly steeped and devlishly curved.
I’d talked to a gas station attendant as I came into the mountains, and he asked why everyone riding east to west always rolled into his town all beat to hell. I guessed it was the hills, and my experience was right. Coming down on a loaded bike was a challenge.
I pushed to catch up with M–, but around one hairpin, I found myself heading over the yellow line into the opposing lane, there was no traffic, but I decided as much as I wanted a conversation, it wasn’t worth flying off one of these roads or getting intimate with someone’s bumper.
At the bottom, M– was pedalling slowly. I urged him for the umpteenth time not to let me hold him back. I felt like the injured soldier in some cheap war movie in which all the soldiers inexplicably wear flourescent spandex–“go on without me” I begged, “I’ll be alright.”
He rode with me awhile longer, but then the third climb hit–two miles up at 8-to-10 percent grade. Slowly he pulled away, until I finally lost him around a curve. It was a very zen way for our ride time together to end, almost as fluky as how we’d ended up riding together. That was my only thought, so little oxygen was going to my head.
The hill down that road was narrow, one and a half lanes at best, and so precariously placed it was like the asphalt itself was barely hanging on to the cliff face. I wasn’t catching him again and kept it slow.
I crossed the Virginia border, and though it was late in the day, and the climbs had left me somewhat draggy, I wanted to make up for the blown day yesterday and kept going. In Haysi, Virginia, just over the border, was the “Hill Top Inn.”
From the campsite I skipped on, three nasty climbs rose upp to whip whatever energy I had left. I road into Haysi exhausted, and stopped in at the convenience store to grab some food and get a recommendation for any other motels in town.
“Is there a motel other than the HIlltop in town?”
“Bless your heart. That’s it, though I wouldn’t stay there.”
“Out of a horror movie?”
“Yeah–you should stay in the state park.”
“Oh, I just came from that way” I figured the teenage girl behind the counter was just exaggerating about the state of the motel. “How do I get to the Hilltop?”
“It’s far–15 minutes up the mountain…by car.”
The Hilltop Inn, was not, as my map promised, on route, nor was it, as the map described “on the big hill just outside of town.” It was three miles up the mountain. Not the hill. The mountain.
Finally it appeared, a squat, low building that was also a VFW post. The parking lot was near full. This was clearly the sort of motel that people lived in, or were placed in by their halfway program.
I walked over to the office and knocked on the door. A skinny veteran with no teeth and a staggering lurch kept starting to catch my attention and then nervously looking away when I made eye contact. Finally he worked up the courage, talking in a fast mumble:
I thanked him, and steeling myself to at best get laughed at, at worst get kicked out, I walked in.
Through the smoke, several two tables of aging veterans and their wives looked up at me, guessing by my uniform that I probably wasn’t a soldier.
“You lookin’ for a room?”
“She’ll be back in about 15 minutes,” said one guy with a scraggly beard, “where you coming from?”
“Well, I started over in Kentucky today, but I’m coming from LA overall.”
“LA? Holy hell. Judy? JUDY! Get this man a beer.”
“An old woman with short hair and one good eye got up, cigarrette dangling from her mouth and shuffled over to the bar.
I went to meet her, not wanting her to have to walk all over.
Cold beer in hand, I thanked the man, and sat down.
Two women came in, both in their fifties, one wearing no make-up, the other wearing enough for the two of them. They were followed by a burly man with a long pointed chin beard.
After making the rounds, the no-make-uped one noticed me sitting and came over.
“I’m Wrenda. Who are you?”
“I’m Adam–just biking through. Going to stay the night.”
“Ah, I passed you up the hill. Was wondering who that cute boy was.”
I laughed, changing the subject, “what do you do?”
“Honey, no one around here has jobs.”
“I used to work as as a water safety analsy at nuclear sites” this story led to a long rant that swung through nuclear sites, the FBI, and her fight with her brother over the family farm. I smiled, laughed.
“So you staying here tonight?”
“That’s the plan.”
“YOu shouldn’t stay here. Come stay with me, I’m a good judge of character. You seem sweet.”
I hestitated, but then the make-up lady, Nancy, came over and introduced me to her husband.
“Oh, you should! Y’all can come over to my house for dinner.”
The woman seemed nice enough, and the nice thing about being male, is that I feel safe enough to accept invitations from strange women without much fear.
“You can put your bike in my truck.”
At this point, Judy–JUDY!–came over, letting me know that I could go over to get my room now.
“C’mon,” said Wrenda, “save yourself some money. Stay with me.”
“Alright–thanks. That’s real nice of you.
We rode a few miles down the road, then turned down a dirt road to her home–an older airstream trailer in the middle of a field. It was awesome, and I’d never seen the inside of one of them. I changed quickly, and we headed over to Nancy and Louie’s.
Nancy was outside, a joint in her mouth, trying to get the fire started. Louie came out and gave me a tour of his vintage car collection. He started working in Detroit at 14, and got through eleventh grade before leaving to work fulltime at Chrysler, where he worked for 34 years. He was fascinating to listen to, had interesting and thoughtful politics, and a couple good stories, including the time he spent two weeks in a southern jail when he was 16.
When we came back out, Nancy had the fire going and was working on a fresh joint. “Y’all sit down–you can sit next to Wrenda, Adam. She’ll take good care of you.”
“Nancy!” Wrenda said, scandalized. I smiled uncomfortably.
The jokes didn’t stop there, nor did the joints, which I declined. Wrenda was getting friendlier and less scandalized with each reference to the fact that I was sleeping at her place that night, and I figured it would help to keep my wits about me.
I had a few beers, and relaxed about drinking: Wrenda had the peculiar quality of getting less attractive the less sober I got, which sounds nasty of me, but it is really a good thing. Think about it, if someone was still drunk enough at the end of the night to put in the effort to go to bed with her, it certainly cut down on the awkward morning and meant that waking up next to her was a good, not unpleasant, surprise.
I drank my third slowly. If I needed to get back on the bike that night, I wanted to do it sober.
After eating, with Nancy and Louie insisting I eat more than my share, it was time to head back to the trailer. It was past midnight, and Nancy was getting drowsy from all the joints.
When we were back, Wrenda fixed herself a margarita.
“I’m a good bartender. Want one?”
“Sure,” I said. It was not good. It was premixed, so her bartending skills apparently were graded only on her ability to place liquid in a glass.
“You’re so pretty.”
‘”You are, I bet you take advantage of women with it.”
“No, Thanks, but you’re overeestimating my powers.”
“No, I’m not, I bet you know how to play it.”
“SO when do you think your going to sue your brother for the farm?”
It went on like this, with me playing oblivious and changing the subject to the few things I knew about her. Finally we went to bed. Separately.
She disappeared into the end of the trailer, and I lay down on the couch.
“You do take advantage of girls, don’t you.”
“Ha, not usually.” This conversation was tedious. “Goodnight.”
Just as I was getting into a deep sleep, I heard her again, this time close buy, she was fixing the heat.
“Is it too warm?”
“No, it’s fine.” Something was odd about her silhouette in the dark, and I just turned my head and went back to sleep.
I woke around dawn, and started getting my stuff together, getting back on the road.
“You still here?”
I paused, debating about being able to sneak out.
“Yep, just packing up, sorry to wake you.”
Just as I was leaving, I went back to thank her, she was lying in bed, covered in her sheets, but clearly nude.
“Hey, Wrenda, I really appreciate the place to crash.”
“I’ll send you a thank you post card when I get to New York, let you know how the trip’s going.”
Gone was the friendly woman who’d invited me along.
I rode up to the main ridge road, mist still draining, it finally clicked in my head: If she was naked in bed, that meant she’d gone to bed naked. That’s what was off about her silhouette. She’d been standing buck naked a few feet from my the sofa, trying her best to raise my interest.
I shuddered, and not from the cold.