By Judy Steffes Special to Published Sep 18, 2006 at 4:42 PM
SOMEWHERE IN THE VIRGINIA HILLS, Sept. 15 -- This has now officially become the bicycling/hitchhiking tour. It's a clunky way to travel, but somehow I think it'll catch on.

Unsafe roads and way too many steep hills along with my ignorance about the area have prompted my decision to create a Plan B.

I left Abingdon, Va., today with every intention of making it across the state line to Kentucky. However, during breakfast at the Chicken Little Diner I started listening to the locals. "Bad roads" and "Not enough room for you and the trucks." Attempting to add a little levity to the issue at hand, I asked one of the truckers what the ‘handle’ was for bicyclists on the road. "Vehicles" he said blandly. "Vehicles?" I repeated. "NO, VICTIMS" he said, enunciating so as to wipe clean his southern accent.

Not long into the ride, Hwy. 19 from Abingdon to Hansonville proved to be just what the locals said: not enough room for the semis and me, and the semis weren't moving.

Pausing at a gas station to rest my nerves I met Mike. A former sheriff's deputy in Wise County, he was now retired. "Injured on the job fighting with an 18-year-old drunk," said Mike, who had a bald head and the build of a WWF wrestler. Mike owned a couple acres and a few horses in the mountains. He took me past our initial destination of Coeburn and dropped me off at the Food City in Wise.

That's where I met Drew and Peggy. Drew was in a one-piece blue and orange jumpsuit and I asked him for directions. He told me to 'Hole tight, I'll take ya dare.'

We threw my rig in the back of his pickup, nestled between the gas cans and weedeaters. "We'll take yuse as far as Pound, then I's got to get back and mow."

I jumped into the front cab next to Peggy. She helped Drew with the mowin'. The two were a younger couple, not married. If I were to profile Drew, I probably would have been wary getting in the vehicle alone. He had a harder edge, tattoos up and down his arms, and talked about working in the coalmines. "Make about $25 to $30 an hour," he said, adding that huge fans worked to push most of the bad gasses out.

We became a very close threesome within the next ten miles. Mostly because Drew tried driving at the speed of light and every turn had gravity pulling us to one side of the vehicle or the other.

Drew and Peggy also took me a bit further then Pound. "We'll getcha up this last hill and then you'll be able to just drift into Kentucky," said Drew. "Yeah, drift," echoed Peggy.

Drew poured me out of his pickup at the top of a hill and I drifted a bit, climbed a couple more hills and then stopped for a rest at a gas station outside Jenkins. During my break, I saw an old lady trying to lift the hood of her vehicle. She seemed to know what she was doing, but after unlatching the hood she didn't have the strength to push it up. "What do we have going on here?" I asked raising the hood and clipping the brace in place.

"That's my mess over there," said the woman pointing to a pool of water by the pump. "Need some water for my radiator." Viola was 83 years old. She had a little egg from breakfast in the corner of her mouth. She also had a snack packed for later that day, on the front of her shirt.

"Do you like this area?" she asked pleasantly. "Very hilly," I started to say and Viola cut me off. "Oh the trees are so pretty and when it snows it's just gorgeous."

Viola had white hair and light blue polyester pants and white tennis shoes that looked like they had been thrown in the "warsh" a couple times. Viola turned and doppled into the service station as I went to the radio station house next door. According to Dee, who was smoking outside, the radio station had been in the gas station building years ago and then moved next door when the gas station moved in.

We talked about format and sales, satellite and how they had The Jones Network with two minutes of news at the top of the hour. After about a ten minute break it was time to get back on the road.

Pulling up the driveway onto the highway, I ran into Viola again. She was walking. "Hey Viola, where are you going?" I asked and she reacted surprised, like this was the first time we had met. "I'm crossing the road to make a phone call," she said. "Didn't they have a phone back at the gas station?" I said and Viola waved me off like it was a feud between the Hatfields and McCoys and she wasn't about to use THEIR phone.

"I have a phone you can use," I said. "YOU have a phone," she said almost laughing. It was like she secretly knew I was a cell phone virgin and she was giving me the raspberries. "I don't think you should be on this road," I said, a passing semi drowning out my words. Viola didn't react, she just kept on moving. "I'll walk with you," I said...

Within the first 10 feet on the highway there was a WIDE LOAD parked at the side of the road. The ditch was too deep on one side so Viola continued walking with confidence on the speedy highway side.

I felt it was just like the television show "Survivor" and our mission was to get the old lady across the road. We were a team, edging alongside the wide load. Me, saddled with my bike and 70 pounds of gear, and Viola armed with determination and constant confusion. "We'd better hurry," I said keeping an eye out for traffic. Viola turned and looked at me, like it was the first time she saw me. She also felt she was holding up the line so she turned and graciously waved me ahead.

"That's OK," I said. "I'll follow you." And that's when Viola felt it was time for a hug. "Oh, you're so nice," she said pulling me close and unintentionally sharing her snack.

Pushing forward, I suggested we cross to the median. I tried to rush but Viola kept to her "I've got nothing on my schedule" pace. We reached the median and I suggested Viola take my hand as we cross to the other side. She looked at me with a hint of stubbornness. "I can," she began and stuttered as she stumbled off the curb. "I can do it myself."

Viola continued to test my survival skills and patience. I finally managed to flag down one of the truckers crossing the highway back to his wide load. "Come help this lady," I yelled, trying to sound like I was the boss of him. He moved one step slower than Viola but finally the two got across the road and I headed for the state line.
Judy Steffes Special to

Judy is a Milwaukee native who is ever exploring the country. Her favorite mode of travel is her 21-speed, blue Centurion bicycle, which she bought after high school. Judy has worked in the local media for the past 20 years. "I need to do something to support my biking habit."

Judy has an extensive history in radio news, having worked at WISN, WUWM, WTMJ, WKTY in La Crosse and WBKV in West Bend. A strong interest in sports also had Judy reporting for ESPN Radio covering the Packers, Buck, Brewers and Badgers. "One of my first Brewer games at County Stadium the security guy yelled as I walked into the locker room ‘LADY IN THE LOCKER ROOM.’ Now it’s so commonplace. But that story makes me sound really old."

Judy is currently working at WISN-TV in Milwaukee. She is a freelance writer and her pieces have been seen in The Small Business Times and The Business Journal. Her travel journal has appeared in Minnesota Trails Magazine, The Statesman and the West Bend Daily News, to name a few.

Aside from biking, running and being active in her community, Judy is known as someone who is "very, very thrifty." "I get candles for Christmas. My friends call them my space heaters because I normally keep the heat in my house at 40 degrees during the winter. It’s not that I can’t afford to turn up the thermostat, I just hate paying for heat."

Judy said her "conservative attitude" plays a part in her bike tours ... not needing to pay for gas and frequently spending nights camping inside churches. "First of all, it makes me feel safe since I’m traveling alone and second all you’re doing is sleeping, so why pay for that. It’s no wonder I can’t ever get someone to travel with me."

Judy grew up in Whitefish Bay and graduated from Dominican High School and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Judy is the second oldest among seven siblings and spends a lot of her time working as a "park tester" along with her eight nieces and nephews.