Philadelphia to Alexandria to Elkins

I arrived in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon. Phillip had kindly offered me a place to stay. I was in for a treat. Phillip’s Jamaican hospitality was quite spectacular. He cooked, cooked and cooked some more. I was treated to great food, an education on baseball, and hearty conversation.

Sunday afternoon I had assembled a motorcycle gang. I’d invited a few locals to ride. Vicky took my passenger spot and Vasily brought Danni on his bike. Our gang of two motorcycles and four people was born!

We drove around the art gallery that Rocky famously runs up the steps to reach. We parked our bikes at the top of the steps soaked up the view. All the while the words to Bruce Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia were running through my head. Glorious! πŸ™‚

From Philadelphia I cruised southwards to Alexandria to visit Margaret. Alexandria is a suburb of Washington DC. The District of Columbia itself is quite small, so the surrounding towns in Baltimore and Virginia are effectively suburbs of DC, albeit across state borders.

Margaret invited me to Alexandria about a year ago. I made a point to stop through on my trip south. I’m really glad I did. Margaret and Brett were wonderful hosts, I’m very grateful to them and their family, I had a wonderful time. Margaret is an incredible cook, I ate more homemade cookies and chocolate cake than I can remember. I perpetually stuffed myself with great food while I was visiting.

On Friday night I had my first Bhangra experience in Washington DC. Wow. I don’t think my words could possibly do justice to this traditional north Indian dance. Instead I’ll share this video I found on YouTube. Picture the upstairs room of a bar packed with maybe 100 people dancing something like this, with a little less somersaulting.

After 4 nights of creature comfort, family home cooking and general relaxation, I left Alexandria and began the 900 mile ride west to St Louis, Missouri. My friend Andrew Chant said I simply had to visit West Virginia. He’d looked at Google Earth and was blown away by extent of the forest. So off into West Virginia I went.

Just before I closed my laptop in Alexandria, I got an message from Kristina inviting me to stay in Elkins. I had sent a few messages asking for places to stay in Elkins and Charleston. Kristina was the first person to accept and she got back to me in perfect time. I set off with Elkins in mind.

Just before leaving New York, I had ordered a few things for the bike. My chain was making some seriously painful sounds, so one of the things I ordered was a new chain and sprockets. JD recommended I replace the chain as soon as possible. He didn’t think the chain would make it the 1’100 miles to St Louis. I was optimistic. He was right! πŸ™‚

The chain was delivered to Alexandria so I set off with a replacement chain and sprockets in my luggage. Some 120 miles into the day I turned off the main highway onto the old road. The old road had looked smaller, more winding and potentially more interesting on the map. A mile or two off the highway, there was a loud grinding noise. I dumped the clutch, braked hard and pulled over. I looked down to see the chain dragging on the ground.

The chain was intact, but no longer riding on the rear sprocket. Ok, I thought, I can fix this. I have all the tools to tighten the chain, no big deal. After a bit of wrestling to get the bike on the side stand, then the centre stand, I got the tools out and tightened the chain. It was super loose, so I figured that had caused the derailment. After 20 minutes or so, I was back on the road, we were off.

Not so fast. About 2 miles further, I heard a much louder, much gnarlier grinding noise. I dropped the clutch, but the noise kept up. I slammed the brakes hard and stopped on a gentle hill. This time the chain was caught between the sprocket and the wheel. Not good. After some wrestling I worked the chain free.

Then I got the chain back on and tightened it even more. I started off slowly. I’d heard some unhealthy noises from the chain in New York. Now with the chain so tight the same noise was back. I was about 80 miles from my target for the night, it was almost 3pm, and I had no more than 3 hours of daylight left. The bike sounded really bad above 30 mph, so I spent the best part of 3 hours enjoying the scenery at a very leisurely pace.

I was riding through pretty hilly country. I took it easy on the uphills so as not to stress the chain. On the downhills I put the bike into neutral, turned the engine off, and let gravity do the work. There were points where I reached nearly 50 mph on the downhills.

Just a little after dark, around 6pm, I rolled into Elkins. We had made it. The chain was intact, still attached, and the bike kept moving forwards, albeit slowly. Happy days.

My t-mobile cell phone has no service in Elkins. I’d asked Kristina for her phone number so I could call when I got into town. I wasn’t sure when or if I’d be stopping. Expecting my cell phone to work was a flaw in my plan. No worries, I found a payphone and the $1 for a 3 minute call wasn’t too extortionate. A few minutes later I arrived the house, just in time to meet the housemates, most of whom were in the kitchen cooking dinner. Score. πŸ™‚

West Virginia and Elkins have been interesting. Fairly typical of rural USA I think. I’m reminded of visits to Saranac Lake in upstate New York, or Cherryfield, Maine, the blueberry capital of the USA.

There seems to be a mix of people born here and people moved here. The incomers have chosen to come to this place for a reason. Usually people move to places like this for the natural setting, the rural country life and in some measure, I think, to change the world. It takes a special type of person to choose to live in a redneck rural town like this.

I haven’t delved very deeply into the culture here, but I expect I’d find the same uneducated ignorance I’ve seen in other rural north American settings. Those words sound harsher than I mean them to be. I mean uneducated and ignorant in the factual sense, limited access to education and lacking in knowledge.

As I write this, my fives hosts in Elkins are sitting in their living room playing traditional, local Appalachian music. I’m certainly not sure of this, but my guess is that this type of music is kept alive by a mixture of incomers and fairly small group of “intellectual” locals. It seems like a first-world-wide phenomenon. Local culture is given up by the majority of locals while a group of well meaning incomers struggles to keep it alive.

Personally, I feel grateful to be sitting in a house of five musicians listening to them play in their living room. There’s something I like about folk music. Particularly when it’s played live.

Tomorrow I’ll continue eastwards saying farewell to Elkins and passing from West Virginia into Kentucky. I’ve put a few requests out for places to stay in Lexington, I’m waiting to hear. Either way, I have camping gear. It’s pretty damn cold to be camping, but I’m confident I’ll survive. πŸ™‚

I’ll sign off with a few pictures from this leg of the trip.

Note: I’m working on the gallery. I’m hoping to launch some improvements soon and make it easier for me to upload images. In the meantime, apologies for any hassles browsing the photos.

One thought on “Philadelphia to Alexandria to Elkins”

  1. Awesome chat young padawan! Sounds like an adventure. That part of America must be pretty interesting…some unusual characters I suspect!

    Photos are quite large…perhaps cutting the size of the full-size ones would be helpful for some low-bandwidth readers.


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