A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

I don’t remember learning how to ride a bike. What I do remember is waking up on December 25, 1966, to find a Schwinn Fastback Sting-Ray parked next to the

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

I don’t remember learning how to ride a bike. What I do remember is waking up on December 25, 1966, to find a Schwinn Fastback Sting-Ray parked next to the

Life Cycle

I don’t remember learning how to ride a bike. What I do remember is waking up on December 25, 1966, to find a Schwinn Fastback Sting-Ray parked next to the Christmas tree. The bike’s glittering presence stunned and confused my 8-year-old self. What could I possibly have done in the realm of boyhood good deeds to merit a gift of such staggering magnificence?

I quickly abandoned my effort to understand this mystery and drank in the beauty before me. The Stingray was the epitome of ’60s cool. It sported high-rise handlebars, chrome wheels and fenders, a sleek banana seat, and an improbable five-speed stick shift on the top tube, just like a car.

What followed was a script that played out across America in the ’60s: a posse of kids popping wheelies, jumping haphazardly built ramps, and attaching baseball cards to the front forks of our bikes to create a rough approximation of the blat-blat-blat of a Harley’s exhaust as they hit the spokes. We prowled around our neighborhood like a preadolescent version of the Brando-led motorcycle gang in The Wild One, only instead of denim jeans, leather jackets, and steel-toed boots, we wore khaki shorts, candy-striped T-shirts, and Keds.

Whether you’re a child, an avid road cyclist, or someone who’s just looking to get some exercise on a beach cruiser during vacation, it’s hard not to feel just a little bit giddy when you climb onto a bike. Push your foot down on the pedal, and you scoot forward at a speed that’s completely at odds with the trifling effort you’ve just invested. Muscle memory kicks in, and you balance atop the saddle with the poise of a tightrope walker. With a couple more rotations of the pedals, your speed increases and a welcome passenger joins you: momentum. A steady breeze builds. The horizon beckons. And you’re on your way.

In my early 20s, inspired by the cycling movie Breaking Away and the exploits of legendary Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx, I bought a custom road bike and began to go on 30-, 40-, and 50-mile rides. Eventually, though, adulthood beckoned, and my bike was exiled to the basement, where it hung, gracelessly, upside down from the rafters.

Campbell has logged more than 64,000 miles, mostly on local mountain roads, including this ride up to Craggy Pinnacle on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photography courtesy of MIKE JOHNSON

Then, a funny thing happened. In my early 50s, while suffering bouts of work-induced insomnia, I discovered that vigorous exercise was, for me, a key to me getting a good night’s sleep. So I turned to the sport that had served me so well in the past.

When I discovered a community of people who felt the same way about cycling as I did, my life blossomed in ways that I still marvel at. I’ve traversed great distances on my bike, but the most profound journey has been the one that has carried me toward a closer kinship with my fellow man and woman. There is a sublime revery to a group ride with like-minded souls, the synchronization of hearts and legs, and the easy chatter of conversation over the sound of clicking gears and whirring tires.

• • •

On July 22, 2017, I was on a group ride when I rounded a bend at high speed and hit a large patch of sandy gravel. The next thing I remember is my helmeted head bouncing off the pavement. The blow was so stunning that I didn’t even register the cyclist behind me unavoidably riding over my back as I slid across the road and landed face down in a ditch.

Two friends rolled me over. As the fog began to clear and I asked them to help me up, a third rider ran over. George Stevens and I had biked together in group rides for years. He knelt beside me and asked, “Brad, are you hurting anywhere?”

After I told him that my neck felt a little stiff, George put his hand on my chest and said, “You’re not moving.”

As we waited for EMTs to arrive, I grew more impatient and kept insisting to be let up. Exasperated, I finally said to George, “Why won’t you let me get up?” He looked me in the eye and said, “Because I love you.”

Brad and Judy, his wife of 28 years. photograph by Derek Diluzio

In the emergency room, reunited with my wife, Judy, I learned that I had a neck fracture at my C3 and C4 vertebrae. George’s actions that day likely prevented me from becoming paralyzed — or worse.

The neurosurgeon on call was Dr. Jon Silver. Calm, modest, and kind, he quickly laid to rest my worst fears. Most impressive of all, he successfully resisted wringing the very neck he was about to fix when I asked him how long it would be before I could get back on my bike. The surgery lasted almost five hours. Despite the complexity of the fractures, I was walking the hospital halls the next day. Two weeks later, I was riding my stationary bike in the basement. In eight weeks, I was given the OK by Dr. Silver and his team to begin riding my bike outdoors.

• • •

In 2018, thanks to the support of Judy, Campbell also completed a 50-day ride across the U.S. that began at the Pacific Ocean. Photography courtesy of BRAD CAMPBELL

Just over a year after my accident, I dipped the front wheel of my bike in the Atlantic Ocean near Portsmouth, New Hampshire, after having ridden 3,691 miles across the country, starting in Astoria, Oregon. Thanks to the generosity of others, my ride raised $15,000 for the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation center in Atlanta that does miraculous work for people with traumatic brain and spine injuries and other neuromuscular conditions. Judy was right there by my side as I waded into the Atlantic.

I’ve taken to calling the scar on my neck my “scar of gratitude.” I’m especially grateful to George Stevens, to Dr. Silver, to Judy, and to all of my cycling friends. But I am also grateful for the accident itself. Over time, I’ve begun to see my broken neck not as a misfortune but as a profound gift — just like that Schwinn Sting-Ray all those years ago.

My scar is a daily reminder of a powerful truth: We are not promised tomorrow. It’s this truth that got me back on the bike, carried me across the country, and inspires me each day. It’s a funny thing: Even though my accident could have cost me my life, I will always, always, think of my bicycle as a lifeline.

Joy rides across North Carolina: Cyclists of every skill level find plenty of places to pedal

This story was published on Aug 25, 2023

Brad Campbell

In addition to being a regular contributor to Our State, Brad Campbell is a storyteller and a winner of multiple Moth StorySLAM competitions.