Like kids on a snow day, we cruised down the remaining 17 miles to camp in glee. The miles came fast and easy, the pavement turned to gravel. We cruised through thick stands of red spruce, alongside surging rivers and streams, between lush understories layered in every shade of green imaginable.
We perused the Cranberry Glades Boardwalk, stopping to admire the pitcher plants and hawks. We filled our water from springs and harvested ramps from the forests. The forecast had called for a 40 percent chance of rain (which in early May in West Virginia, most likely means 100 percent), but the sun never stopped shining. The day was glorious.
Just a few miles from Tumbling Rock Shelter, our camp for the evening, we passed by a pair of local anglers on bikes. Clearly, they were using their rides out of convenience more than anything. Poles stuck out haphazardly, crammed into the empty spaces between wet boots, bulky Coleman sleeping bags, full-size grills, lawn chairs, and canvas tents, all of which was ever-so-precariously dangling from their rusted bikes.I looked down at my handlebars to the two dry bags bulging under my NRS cam straps. Suddenly my makeshift bikepacking bags didn’t seem so bush-league anymore.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a TV in there,” Greg whispered as we rode on.
The five of us were a motley crew at best. Greg, 45, and Eric, 64, looked the most competent, Greg sporting a Specialized single speed and Eric on a Salsa Warbird, both decked out in the latest bikepacking bags. Adam and Matt sported paniers, while I settled on lugging everything I couldn’t squeeze into my drybags on my back. The weight of my camera gear was starting to rub my lower spine raw.
Eric knew my pain. Sometime in the late ‘60s, Eric, then 16, had set out on his first “bikepacking” trip from Hollywood, Fla., to Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Armed with little more than a heavy backpack and a couple bucks, he made it work, cruising 75 miles through quiet backroads and never-ending sand dunes. He was hooked. A decade later, he rode 1,000 miles from central Florida to Tennessee, self-supported on his bike. Comparatively, this 60-mile jaunt around his West Virginia backyard was like child’s play.
By 2 p.m., we arrived at camp. Thunder rumbled in the distance. We hustled to collect firewood before the inevitable storm came. Adam and I opted for a grove of hemlock trees to hammock under while the rest of the crew posted up in the shelter. The Cranberry River coursed along the banks, heavy but clear from recent rain. I peeled back my socks to soak my feet in its crystal cold flow. Eric moseyed a little upstream, shedding clothes as he went.
“Hope you don’t mind if I strip down for a dip,” he said, more as a courtesy warning than anything.
The evening passed slowly, simply. We made dinner, stared at the fire, listened to the rain dribble down the shelter’s tin roof. Eric pulled a bag of red wine from his pack. We filled my dinner bowl to the brim, passing it around like a ceremonial chalice, laughing and sharing stories. It was the first time any of us had met, with the exception of Adam, Matt, and I. Between the hard-earned miles, the childish bliss of camping under the night sky, and maybe a little bit of heady wine, we hardly felt like strangers.