Serendipity on the TVA: 550 Miles and a Roll of Superia X-tra 400 Film

I like to shoot the first frame on a roll of film no matter how carefully I load the roll I always end up getting something kinda strange and wonderful out of that first exposure – an effect yielded by the film’s interaction with light coming from two separate moments in time and space – the exposure of the film through the camera’s shutter, but also the light leaked onto the frame during the loading of the roll. One of my favorite photos ever is of my 17-year-old beagle/spaniel mix, Bucky, where he looks like he’s peeking out from behind a cascading sheet of liquid sun. The first exposure on this roll is of my friend, podcast co-host, and riding partner, Sarah rifling through overstuffed bikepacking bags outside of a country store in Damascus, Virginia about 15 miles into our 550-mile bikepacking trip through the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia. The image of her trying to squeeze a snack bar into a nonexistent empty space in the top tube bag is itself neatly constrained into the 2/3rds of the frame not devoured by light exposure obtained while the roll was being loaded.

Packing for this trip proved to be a bit of a challenge for both of us. For Sarah, it was on account of a size XS frameset with no fork mounts. Fair. For me, on a size XL dropbar 29er, frame space was not an issue. Unfamiliarity was. I’d put an order in for a Kona Sutra ULTD frameset back in June 2020 at my favorite hometown bike shop, Mock Orange Bikes and on account of global supply chain issues, it had arrived at the shop mere weeks before our departure date. I’d been hoarding parts for 10 months in anticipation for the build, so I was ready to go there. MY biggest problem was where to put my camera. The ULTD’s fork was too wide for my SomaFab rack and DIY half basket combo to fit (seen here) and my tried and true soft bags set up was going to make storing a large and heavy film SLR in a place that was both safe and dry but also easy enough to access for on the fly shooting a challenge. Why not bring my light and compact Olympus OM-D I could stash in a stem bag? well…

The existence of this photo set, taken in late May 2021 during a bike tour trip from Abingdon in the southwest corner of Virginia to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, has its genesis in a long unopened box in my grandfather’s closet. I obtained my first 35mm SLR from the top shelf of my grandfather’s, Tootles’, basement office’s closet. I had always known him to be an avid photographer and while outnumbered by the framed landscapes, flowers, and birds rendered in vibrant watercolors by my grandmother’s hand the walls of their house (and mine) featured a number of his printed photographs.

Though it had been a number of years since his passing, the whereabouts of his camera and an extensive collection of lenses (nearly a dozen of them, all prime lenses, everyone) was a mystery to me. I was very sick and stuck in another country when he left this earth. I left home and he was there, I returned and he was gone. By the time I had the chance to visit their house his belongings and personal effects had been boxed up and passed on or donated. Except for the closet in the basement, where I found a cardboard box with a pristine Konica Minolta SR-T 101 and 8 or 9 Rokkor lenses.

I love that camera. Sure, it’s pretty heavy, not particularly feature-rich, and by no means a collectible but I’ve never handled a camera that had such a satisfying feeling and sounding mechanical shutter. I love shooting with it, and anyway – it’s a valuable connection to the past for me. I have entire family photo albums, prints hanging on walls, and framed portraits of my parents captured with this very device. But the longer I’ve owned it and shot with it the more paranoid I’ve gotten about damaging it. I practically live outside and am constantly getting dirty and dusted up. The SR-T 101 is known as a tough and hardy camera, but this one is a cherished heirloom and I found myself passing it over and grabbing my DSLR more and more while leaving it safe at home. So I did what any totally unreasonable gear hoarder with a basement full of mountain bikes, tents, bags, camp stoves, wheelsets, and spare tires would do: I bought another one.

Oh no. The Radavist asked me to write about this trip. I’m almost 600 words into this and not only have I not talked about the trip but I’ve told a story about a camera I didn’t even use for this trip.

The thing is: I don’t normally take film and heavy metal bodied SLR cameras on the bike and especially not on bike trips, it really goes against the mantra of “pack light move fast” especially on a trip with this much climbing. However, when we decided to do this trip I was sitting on a brand new (to me) Minolta SR-T 201 that I had JUST purchased for the EXPRESSED purpose of being able to bring my favorite-shooting film camera on dirty, rugged adventures (like this one) without destroying a family heirloom. I couldn’t not bring it, I had to! What would have been the point of dropping pandemic film camera boom money on it if I didn’t (oh you think it’s just a bike boom?) I was committed to the idea I was going to lug this hunk of metal on a giant bikepacking trip. My riding partner, Sarah, was a bit concerned I was organizing my pack list around an archaic analogy camera and a bag of film.

I ended up picking up some Outershell pico panniers and they were a godsend. Light like a reckless system but with an easy top opening and rigid enough to store and access my camera easily. Waterproof too. I carried my camera on my person, mostly, using a (matching, camo is my favorite color) Outershell camera strap. I was able to easily drop the camera into a bag when it got really hot, really climby or threatened rain. Recounting experience with rain and storms on this route, we got REALLY lucky. We managed to barely dodge a couple of pretty severe storms. We made a closed, but unlocked post office right before one front, climbed up and over the cloud cover at Douthat SP right before another, and made the big picnic shelter at Stokesville Lodge minutes before a storm so severe my parents called me from North Carolina to see if I was ok. Wild luck that never really ran out on us.

On what should have been our penultimate night out, some friends drove their minivan up from Wardensville, WV to meet us on route and do a cookout at the campsite. This was, in itself, a pretty amazing thing to do, but it became a real lifesaver when the clouds opened up and the temperature dropped 40 degrees. They ended up rescuing us off the mountain and we overnighted in their newly purchased, half-finished house. To make it 8 days into a ride this big and dumb before it really started to feel big and dumb feels like a pure fortune. We had planned this thing hoping it would be kind of a ridiculous experience, and it was at this point it felt like we were getting what we asked for.

The plan to do the trip itself was born out of a package of 800 unbleached #2 coffee filters. A friend of a friend, whose path I had crossed a couple of times through DC bike events had ordered what she thought was going to be a single package of coffee filters and had instead received 8 packages of 100 coffee filters. It being a pandemic, she put a call-out on Instagram for folks to come get free coffee filters from her if we needed them.  I did just that, and we got to chatting about how we were planning to fill the void of canceled group rides and races during the next couple months of the pandemic (it was March 2020, so you know, a couple of months…) and found that we shared a similar goal: ride our bike as much as we can for as long as we can and just see what happens.

What happened was 16 months, and counting, of pushing ourselves to do the biggest dumbest rides we could muster. A 100k, then a century, then a 200k, then a 300k. We rode mostly gravel and some singletrack. There were hike-a-bikes and river crossings and mechanicals and garbage gas station food runs. We went (literally) out of our way to find the best bridges. We joked about how it would be funny to do a podcast about nothing but people’s big dumb rides. As the pandemic dragged on that joke became an actual podcast called… “The Big Dumb Ride.” Having lived and raced in DC for years, we had a ready community of folks and their wild stories to tap into and ended up recording and publishing 11 different stories from our network of adventurers during 2021. Things were escalating. Our friends and our friends’ friends were always asking us if we had any big dumb rides planned. The truth is we didn’t. We had already done a 300k. We knew we needed to go bigger. Let’s do 500 miles. We’re but mere mortals – total amateurs with desk jobs – we couldn’t do it in one go. What were we going to do? We were going to go bikepacking.

I’d been eyeing the Trans-Virginia bike route for some time. Living in DC, where the route can begin or end, sure does make it convenient – as convenient as a 550 miles, mostly offroad, very hilly bike route through some of Virginia’s most remote wilderness can be, anyway. The proximity of the route was a real bonus, but it had one other thing going for it: it looked hard. I’d spent the colder months recording podcast episodes over zoom, talking and talking about seriously difficult feats and I was hungry for something truly challenging. We wanted an adventure, something that would feel wild.

The route delivered. There were giant climbs. There were rocky, loose descents. We got chased by dogs. We got sun hammered in the valleys and rained on atop the ridges. We passed by a house whose resident was hanging no fewer than 10 severed deer heads from a meat rack in the front yard (I’m from Appalachia – I know hunting trophies when I see them, no this was a collection of decapitated heads, eyes in, tongues hanging out, flies a buzzin. Weird shit.) We got all the adventure and physical challenges we asked for and it was beautiful. The route was beautiful, the challenge was beautiful. I’m so grateful things fell into place just the way they did.

About that first exposure on this roll. We were just getting started on the route, running an “interpretive” version of it from south to north using a mix of the traditional TVA 550 route and the “chiller” Valley 520 route. There is a grand depart on the TVA, and while people do race it, we had started out the evening before the race depart, from a town 15 miles off route, going the opposite direction. This decision was born largely out of rental car availability, picking up in DC and dropping off in Abingdon was an option, no other itineraries were. I heard tales of people driving U-haul trucks home from the race.

I think before the pandemic either one of us might have struggled with the manner in which we completed this route. We both race, and I’ve done a little bit of bike pack racing before. It’s a mentality that lends itself to limitation during an experience like this. This is the route. This is the start time. This is the mileage. This is the target finish time. Having a year and a half off from races had allowed us to let go of those types of goals. We made routing decisions as we went and stopped when and where we wanted to. Even knowing a race was happening (and being reminded of the fact every few hours by racers passing us going the other way) we never felt like we had to be on any schedule but our own. It gave me an opportunity to immerse myself in the smells, sounds, and views; and connect with the land through which we were riding in a way I feel I wouldn’t be able to if I was heading down chasing a finish time. It also meant I got to stop and take pictures.

Looking back at this photoset puts me back in a special time and place. I can even remember the way the air smelled when I snapped a couple of these. I’m grateful to have these and the memories they trigger and I am also grateful to be able to share them.

Good things, given I decided to carry this heavy camera around for 550 miles.