Seeing the light in Virginia | NevadaAppeal.com

Seeing the light in Virginia

Rick Gunn

Rusty Nesbitt sits in his turn-of-the century Appalachian cabin.

Aug. 18-30, 2005

Jonesville, Bristol, Abingdon, Fancy Gap, Floyd, Charlottesville, Warrenton

Mileage log: 3,400-3,900

Elevation: 200-3,950 feet

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

– Hebrews 13:2

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“Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, even so, cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings. Let your thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world.”

– Buddha

All I wanted Sunday morning was a little privacy.

There, on a secluded bank of Virginia’s Holston River, I thought I’d found some. It had been two days and 150 miles since my last bath. I grabbed my soap and waded in. After a quick shave and a full lathering, I was washing my hair.

That’s when things went desperately wrong. My attention was stolen by the low-rumble of car engines.

I turned my head upstream to see a cavalcade of late-model sedans and minivans, perhaps 15 in all, signal, slow, then pull up to the bank right in front of me. I was horrified. Dust dissipated and a swarm of people poured out – young, old, and all ages between, dressed in their Sunday best. They gathered at the river’s edge and stared out at this curious stranger. I stared back sporting a bubbly-white afro.

Then as if on cue, the crowd transformed into a well-oiled machine.

They gathered in a semi-circle, handed out Bibles and hymn books, and began to pray. An elderly woman sang, accompanied by two men on guitars. Some hugged and others joined hands. I took that as my cue. I rinsed my hair, bolted from the water and mingled among the crowd like a wet cat.

A minister wearing slacks and a crisp white shirt stepped to the forefront. He waded into the river up to his waist, turned to face the crowd and announced: “If y’all are ready, I think we’ll get started.” With that, three young boys shuffled shyly to the front of the crowd. One at a time the boys waded cautiously toward the man.

The minister spoke a few words, embraced the child, then proclaimed: “In the name of Jesus Christ, I baptize thee.” With that, the man gave the child a hearty dunk, pulling him back out of the water with great force. The elders smiled and mothers wept. When the last child approached, something seemed to change.

The minister spoke again. “This is a very special moment for me. I’ve waited nine years for this. This is my son.” His voice cracked and a wave of emotion passed through the crowd like lightning. A tear dropped from the preacher’s eye. For that moment, in the magic light reflected off the river, I wept too.

I hopped on my bike and moved on. Several days later, after pedaling long past dark, I went to sleep and awoke on the edge of an old railroad right-of-way.

Known officially as the Virginia Creeper Trail, this 35-mile stretch of former rail line has since been converted to a rails to trails project. Wanting to get my things packed on my bicycle before the first hikers showed, I was stuffing one of my bags when a hiker approached.

“Morning!” he said. “You travelin’ by bike?”

“Yes sir,” I replied.

“Well keep your eyes out for an older fella. He’s a local legend who rides this trail start to finish every day,” the hiker said.

No more did he speak the words when an elderly man came around the corner. He was tall, and lean riding a titanium mountain bike.

“Why, here he is now,” the hiker said. The hiker spoke again: “This guy’s got you beat, Lawrence. He’s cyclin’ around the world.” The cyclist reached over from his bike and shook my hand.

“The name’s Lawrence Dye, would you like to ride together for a while?” he asked. We rode side by side for nearly an hour. I asked how he got into riding.

“I never was really athletic when I was younger. I only started cycling seven years ago. Now I cycle 400 miles a week.” Lawrence had just earned a large chunk of TV coverage for completing the 100,000-mile mark. He is 76.

I asked what it was about the trail that brought him back day after day. As we rolled around the corner the question seemed to answer itself. In the trees, just above the trail, a spectacular sunburst broke into fractured beams. Lawrence gazed at the light as if it were someone he knew. He smiled, answering: “It’s like visiting an old friend.”

Moments later, I left those two old friends to the pleasure of their own company and pedaled Highway 58 through the heart of Virginia. From the Mouth of Wilson I cycled past Independence, through Galax and up the eastern slopes of the Appalachia. At 10 p.m. this particular evening, after 10 grueling hours of riding, I slogged my first pedal strokes on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Rising early the next day, I loaded my bike with sweet anticipation of the parkway. Perched on an undulating ribbon of ridge-top pavement 2,500 feet above the rest of Virginia, a jaw-dropping view opened and stretched for miles. I cast my eyes over endless ridges covered with pillowy tufts of trees, as they faded from a deep emerald, to charcoal then to a hazy greenish-blue. I was cycling alongside hawks and felt as if I too it was soaring, or somehow floating atop an ethereal green cloud.

Stopping at every lookout, and photographing every leaf, every vista, every tree, I made no progress that day. Nor the next. The third day, I made a pact with myself, 70 miles or bust. But nothing impedes a cyclist’s progress like a double-chocolate chip cookie.

“Would you like one? They’re homemade,” a stranger offered, holding out a gallon-sized bag of cookies.

“Thank you,” I said, trying to hide my fiendish hunger.

“How far are you going?” he asked.

“I’ve come 40, but I need to go 70,” I said.

“That’s too bad,” he said, holding out the cookie bag.

I reached in and grabbed a handful like popcorn. “My wife is cooking homemade chicken pot pie. You’re welcome to stay with us if you like.”

“Really, I must be going,” I said, feeling my resolve about to crumble.

“You can have a bed and a hot shower,” the man said. I reached back into the cookie bag one last time and said, “All right. Why not?”

“I’m Paul Lacoste, and this is my wife, Jean, my son, Crey, and daughter, Alea.” Their three smiles sparkled from the cab of a truck. “My house is right down the road.” We pulled up to an expansive home nestled on 22 acres of prime Appalachian forest.

A pond adorned one side, and an organic farm next door. His home, which was more a work of art, utilized passive solar technology and was positioned strategically to catch the morning sun. Paul, architect and builder, had built it.

The family confided that several years ago Paul was nearly killed in a plane crash. The headline in the paper read, “Lucky to be alive!” Paul seemed changed forever by that event, turning the headline into a way of life – living and giving as if each day were a gift or an incredible stroke of good luck.

I took a small piece of his philosophy, thanked him and said good-bye. “You cannot leave the parkway without staying at Rusty’s,” Paul said before I pedaled away.

“I’m never going to finish the Parkway if I don’t put in some miles,” I thought to myself. Then some time later I came to a small dirt side road with a service gate that read simply, “Rusty.” My curiosity got the better of me. I pulled around the gate, down the steep road to a gauntlet of curious signs. The first few were ominous, almost cautionary. “Private property,” and the like.

Then, as I traveled farther downhill, they became humorous, then downright twisted.

“Grownups allowed if accompanied by children.” one said. “I may be old, but I refuse to grow up!”

Even farther down was a sign for a pay phone. About 25 feet above the sign, nailed out of reach was a dummy phone. Whoever Rusty was, he had a sense of humor.

The driveway terminated in a collection of simple buildings, which included a bunkhouse, covered spring, an old-fashioned outhouse, a barn, a kitchen and more signs. One read, “Don’t ask me where I got the signs.”

I walked into the kitchen and stood in an eerie silence.

“Hello?” I shot out. There was no answer. I looked around the kitchen. There were jars of peanut butter, a clear bread box filled with bread, jelly, snacks, fruit, coffee and sweets. A sign above the sink said, “Help yourself to the food, just don’t be a …” with a picture of a pig. On the walls around the kitchen were thousands of Polaroids pinned to the wall. Each had a head, a name and a date.

Looking through a set of faded photos, it all turned a bit spooky. I called again. “Hello?”…Nothing. I figured Rusty had become a recluse, holed up in one of the buildings and not coming out. So I sat down and cooked dinner.

Just after eating, I heard the roar of a truck coming down the driveway. It came around the corner, parked and a thick, bearded man stepped out. He was wearing a straw hat, suspenders, thick glasses and a warm smile.

“You must be Rusty,” I said nervously, and slipped my hand into his. He looked a bit like Hank Williams Jr.

“I am, I am,” he said. “Welcome! Did you get something to eat?”

“I did,” I said. We ducked into a small wood and stone cabin built just after the turn of the century. I sat across from him and looked around. It was a museum of sorts, an homage to hiking days gone by, stuffed with functioning antique furniture, stoves, oil lamps, tools and cast iron cooking equipment.

“I’m Amish,” he said. “We don’t do Corvettes or swimming pools. I just got my first light bulb last year. To tell you the truth I don’t like it.”

“Yep, around these parts, I’m the last of the first,” he said. I asked him to elaborate.

“Since 1982,” he explained, “I have taken in over 13,000 Appalachian Trail hikers during their 2,174-mile journey. Besides myself, there used to be nine establishments between Georgia and Maine where a hiker could sleep on a bed, take a shower or pick up mail. They were monasteries, Jesuit hostels, church functions, places like that. They’ve all closed now, making me the last of the first.”

He reached for a huge stack of guidebooks and magazines, thumbed to a selected page, then handed it to me. In one form or another Rusty and his Hard Time Hollow appeared in all of them.

“I really didn’t receive much recognition ’til National Geographic did a piece on the AT trail. After that I was flooded with hikers. I feed all of ’em pancakes before they leave. On a good year, I may go through 800 pounds of flour and 30 gallons of syrup.”

Rusty also fed them spiritually, offering guidance, sympathy or an open ear. On any given day he received calls and letters from people around the world, asking advice or just saying hello. I asked him why he did it.

“I love people,” he said, then quoted Hebrews: 13:2: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

He leaned over as if to tell a secret.

“Sometimes I get lonely out here all alone.” I stopped and thought, and answered, “I do too.” We said good night and I went to the bunkhouse. Rusty went to bed.

After breakfast he took my picture and hesitated before pinning it to the wall. “You need a trail name,” he said. “Everyone has a trail name.”

He handed me back the pen. I scribed “Soulcycler” next to my name. He read the name and moved in close.

“Tell me, are you a Christian?” he asked in a whisper.

“Buddhist,” I admitted. “That’s OK,” he said, “at least you have a direction.”

He seemed to accept me just as I was. Here was a man who cared for complete strangers as if they were his own children. In a way, I guess they were. He walked me to the driveway and we said our goodbyes. I remembered a sign that hung in his house stating, “Hugs Welcomed.” He opened his arms wide and we embraced.

As I rode back up the driveway, I took one last look at Rusty. Instinctively I knew I would never see him again. He stood next to a sign, my favorite among the bunch. It was a passage from the Bible that read simply, “Love one another.”

I waved and rode away.

Editor’s note: Rick Gunn, former Nevada Appeal photographer, is on a two-year bicycling journey around the world. He is also raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read his complete journals, go to rickgunnphotography.com