ABINGDON, Va. — Gary Greer watched this week’s relentless rain with some lament, saying few if any bicyclists were headed to Damascus to take a ride on the Virginia Creeper Trail.
But, at least there was hope. A break in the clouds. The greenlight. All of the above should now be found simply because the famous Virginia Creeper Trail is open again following five weeks of being gated due to concerns over the coronavirus.
Make that five important weeks: the start of the bike-shuttling spring tourism season, said Greer, the owner of Creeper Trail Bike Rental & Shuttle in Damascus.
“The rug was pulled out from under us, and it was really scary for all of us,” Greer said.
“Most of the bike shops make their money in summertime. Then, in the spring, that business slowly comes back, and you work your way back into a full season.”
Greer, 59, operates two of about a dozen shuttles on the Virginia Creeper Trail plus a bike shop in Damascus next to the Pizza Plus facing Food City.
But he’s kept that bike shop shuttered for the spring simply because the COVID-19 pandemic has let the air out of the tires on the trail.
Greer recalls when he heard the trail had reopened last week. “And I think it was a good call to open it back up when they did” he said. “I think people were ready to get back out and get some sunshine and some fresh air.”
Spanning 34 miles from Abingdon to the North Carolina border at Ashe County, the Virginia Creeper Trail attracts as many as 250,000 visitors a year to its path in the towns of Abingdon and Damascus plus the especially scenic stretch in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.
The Virginia Creeper Trail Conservancy acts as an overseer along the trail, working with the towns of Abingdon in Damascus plus the U.S. Forest Service in the national recreation area to facilitate trail operation, safety and maintenance
COVID-19 has put more than a proverbial nail in the tire of the Virginia Creeper Trail. Concern over the deadly virus has also canceled events along the line, like Trail Days in Damascus and the Creeper Trail Festival in Abingdon.
Also in Abingdon, the Thursday Night Jams concert series was halted, and that subsequently took out a major fundraiser for the Virginia Creeper Trail Conservancy, said Lisa Kestner Quigley, the executive director of the Virginia Creeper Trail Conservancy.
But, Quigley said, at least the trail is open.
“Our main objection was to open the actual trail,” Quigley said. “And we will phase in over time, as we judge it to be safe and prudent, the other facility openings such as the picnic shelters, the restrooms and possibly some of the stations, like Alvarado.”
For now, Quigley said, the trail’s three stations — Green Cove, Alvarado and Whitetop — are closed.
Under normal circumstances, strangers from towns near and far gather at a shuttle service and squeeze into a van, largely in Damascus, where most shuttle services are located.
The big attraction on “The Creeper” is the downhill ride from Whitetop Station to the tiny town of Damascus — a steadily-descending journey of 17 miles, crossing large trestles, mostly in the national forest, beside rock cuts and above rocky creeks.
Until 1977, this was the path of the Abingdon Branch of the Norfolk and Western Railway; that abandoned railroad was converted into a trail in the 1980s.
Like Greer, shuttle owner Michael Wright, 51, has praised the prospect of being back in business in time for Memorial Day weekend.
In Damascus, Wright operates Sundog Outfitter, which has now been open for a week.
Sundog enjoyed brisk business last weekend, Wright said. “And I believe everybody was just ready to be out of the house.”
Yet Wright has not reopened Adventure Damascus, his bicycle shop near the center of town.
He has also delayed the opening of Abingdon Adventures, which is located in the 1909 passenger railway station on Depot Square in Abingdon, just off the Virginia Creeper Trail Extension, which is now known as Abingdon’s Urban Pathway,
Currently, Wright has set an opening date tentatively for mid-June at the Abingdon shop — several weeks behind schedule, he said.
“We had planned on opening and being in place in March and was planning a grand opening on April 1, and then all of that just kind of changed.”
In between rain showers Thursday morning, retired couple Mike and Susan Brown, both 58, strolled the Abingdon portion of the trail with their dog Petey, rekindling their normal, three-mile ritual walk, now that the trail was open again.
“It’s great exercise, and it gets the dog out,” said Mike Brown, a retired engineer. “And we have a normal pattern.”
Yet, when the trail was closed, this couple improvised by walking around town, following Valley and Park streets.
“We also discovered that we liked walking in town, too,” said Susan Brown, a retired teacher. “We just were never forced to find an alternative.”
The Browns practice social distancing while on the trail.
That’s important, said Quigley.
“We’re just continuing to remind folks that the most important guidelines are using the six-foot distance and to have no large gatherings over 10 on the trail,” Quigley said.
“People should also avoid touching smooth surfaces like direction signs or kiosks or historic markers.”
About 16 miles east of Abingdon along the Virginia Creeper Trail, Damascus remains heavily dependent on tourism traffic during the summer months.
“In order to make it through the winter, a bike shop has to make their money in the summer,” Greer said. “And we’ve already lost spring, pretty much. Memorial Day weekend kind of kicks off summer for most people, and that’s true for bike shops as well.”
Yet new rules are in place, due to concerns over the coronavirus.
“We don’t allow anybody on the shuttle without a face mask,” Greer said. “And that’s for the safety of the driver and the shuttle riders and the community. And we don’t put people on the van if they’re not together.”
After each ride, Greer said shuttles are sanitized.
“It’s just a different world now — until people are not getting sick anymore,” Greer said.
Shuttle drivers are also limiting how many people can be transported on vans that follow the snake-shaped U.S. Highway 58 from Damascus to Whitetop Station.
Shuttle drivers, in turn, wear a mask as they make the journey.
“We’ve got to be careful and take precautions as much as we can,” Greer said. “Of course, we’re hoping and praying that the reopening goes smoothly.”
Yet, Greer said, these new regulations have prompted some older drivers to decline wanting to work, fearing they could get sick.
Uniquely, Greer also runs a shuttle service at Whitetop, just over the Washington County border in Grayson County. There, he says he picks up lots of tourists coming to see Whitetop Mountain or visit nearby Grayson Highlands State Park in the high altitude area known as “Virginia’s Rooftop.”
Greer is optimistic now that the trail is open again for summertime business, but he does remain concerned over health officials forecasting a second wave of the coronavirus hitting the United States this fall.
Specifically, that has Greer worried about the “money month” of October, when shuttle services are particularly busy with visitors wanting to see leaves change color.
But, backpedal for now.
Why, there’s a big weekend coming up.
“And all the shuttles are coming back,’” Greer said. “Everybody I’ve talked to is going to be ready for Memorial Day weekend.
firstname.lastname@example.org | 276-791-0709 | @BHC_Tennis
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.