This summer we had originally planned a trip far afield…but then COVID-19 changed the world and changed our plans. So we decided to stay closer in order to have more distance, and the Grayson Highlands of Virginia and the mountains of western North Carolina seemed to fit the bill. Both areas are just a short drive away and offered a lot of adventure opportunities…oh, and a chance to do a little cooking, too.
I suppose there’s no such thing as 100% safe travel during COVID–but we tried to manage things down to what we thought was a risk worth taking. Our adventures were socially distant and pretty self-contained, and we followed all of the rules.
With so much uncertainty, it’s ironic that the great outdoors is what’s certain right now. Getting away from the crowds is trickier, but still do-able. And the backcountry feels comfortable and familiar to us, even when we are in a new place.
We got our trip rolling on the Virginia Creeper Trail near the town of Damascus, after a recommendation from my friend KB. The Creeper is a rails-to-trails bike route that drops from 3500 feet of elevation to 1900 feet over 17 miles. The physics of downhill reward heavier riders, so this was the perfect ride for me! We shuttled with Blue Blaze Bike and Shuttle, and they were great folks to work with.
The Creeper trail goes through beautiful farmland and then passes through a tight gorge along the clear waters of Whitetop Laurel Creek. It’s a real gem, one of the nicest rides in the state.
After enjoying the Creeper, we headed further south to western North Carolina to a nice rental cabin overlooking Nantahala Lake. The cabin was super-clean, and we brought along a few things to make it a little cleaner still. We also brought all of our own food–meticulously planning right down to the amount of mustard for lunches. That enabled us to avoid indoor public places on our trip (the food planning, not the mustard).
The pandemic has certainly changed how we experience local culture and how (or if, or when) we shop. But it has changed very little in how we eat (I told Souzz I was preparing for future downhill bike rides).
Over the next few days, we biked in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock National Forest, packrafted the Nantahala River, and took a hike out to Wayah Bald.
On the way homeward, we stopped back through the Grayson Highlands and took a beautiful hike out to Whitetop Mountain (after waiting out a pretty good rain while sitting in the car; even goretex-clad adventurers have their limits).
Much of the trail to Whitetop was above treeline and through a pasture (with clueless cows that were standing way too close to each other). The views were spectacular, seemingly even more so after a rain. The highlands are a part of Virginia that we didn’t know much about, but we will definitely be back.
As we waited out the rain, we thought about what feels like a new perspective–one of this year’s gifts. In the meantime, we will keep seeking adventure, ideally in places where we can see the storm clouds coming.
The pandemic has changed things for all of us, in big and small ways, and it’s not exactly a hardship to adjust vacation plans (especially with so many others dealing with serious stuff). Borrowing from a Buddhist saying that is a favorite of my brother’s, this is not the adventure that we wanted, but it’s the one that we’ve got. And the freedom comes from what we do with it.