June Curry, slowed by a stroke, her broken arm in a cast, shuffles to the back door of her mountain home at dusk and opens it to greet a sweaty out-of-breath stranger. "Do you want to stay here?" she asks sweetly.
At age 84, she doesn't much like cooking and never really has. And she hasn't been on a bicycle since she tried one on the daunting hills as a kid.
To thousands of bicyclists from across America and dozens of countries, she's the Cookie Lady. A legend of the Blue Ridge Mountains little known outside cycling circles, she offers sustenance, shelter, cheer and cookies to people crossing the United States on a back roads route known as the TransAmerica Trail.
A steep incline about halfway up Afton Mountain brings them to her brick house, a handmade "Cookie Lady" sign out front and an invitation to come around back and visit. The tiny cabin where she was born sits in the yard, transformed into the Bike House, stuffed with mementos and postcards left by cyclists passing through or sent from the end of their journey.
"Most all the bikers write," she said. "They are the most appreciative people."
Her eyes light up relating their tales from the road, from places she has never seen. "They go through farm country, coal country, lumber country," she said.
Curry speaks with authority of the route, which runs more than 4,200 miles from Astoria, Ore., to Yorktown, Va., but she doesn't remember a getaway of her own since her dad took her in their Model T to nearby fishing holes when she was a girl.
In 1976, as the nation celebrated its 200th birthday, a group called Bikecentennial plotted the cross-country route, and about 1,800 riders took it that year. The quiet, twisty road out front suddenly bore thirsty, tired people on bicycles packed like mules.
"We put out a water hose for them," Curry said. Then came the cookies, usually chocolate chip from the oven. When her uncle died the next year, the cabin he'd been living in was turned over to cyclists at no charge.
Bikecentennial grew into the 45,000-member Adventure Cycling Association, which supports rides along the TransAmerica and other transcontinental and long-distance routes.
"There are hundreds of people who open their homes and heart to bicyclists," Jim Sayer, the executive director, said from the association's headquarters in Missoula, Mont. "But there's no question she sets the standard."
Curry quit working in 1965 to support her ill mother. She lives alone on $292 a month from the government, has no car and depends on friends to bring her down the mountain to see the doctor.
After a stroke in February she spent two weeks in a hospital. In April, she slipped on her brick path and broke her right arm. Local bicyclists, Adventure Cycling and her extended family of sojourners pitched in on a medical fund and helped pay for someone to come by five days a week to tend the Bike House and get her groceries.
They spread the word "on the e-mail or whatever they call it," she said.
In a letter to her friends, she wrote, "I just couldn't bear the thought of not being a part of biking this year."
For years she wanted nothing for an overnight stay; now she keeps a jar in the Bike House for whatever donation her guests want to make. Unable to bake, with her left arm weak and her right arm healing, she now offers store-bought cookies.
"Nerves are bad, and I have high blood pressure," she said. "I've been real tied down."
Then her water supply dried up for a time; a piece of shale had plugged her well. "I hope nothing else breaks, including my bones," she said. "I've had enough breakage for one year."
This year, more than 100 cyclists have stopped by, most of the spring travelers heading east to west. Afton Mountain, at 1,900 feet, is their first big climb. A respite at her halfway house is hard to pass up.
Those who find the climb overwhelming flag a truck to hitch a ride up the mountain. "They're sorry they did," she said. "They figured they're not doing it exactly fair."
Sayer says a lot of people who set out to bike across the country are down on the state of the world and the country. The ride transforms them, he said, not only because of vistas rarely seen, but because of encounters with "trail angels" like the Cookie Lady.
Says the Cookie Lady: "I don't know how I got into this. I don't like to cook."
She asked her pastor, who made it all sound simple. "He said the Lord put me here to help all the people going by."
For more information about Adventure Cycling Association, go to www.adventurecycling.com.