Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Celebrating the Dirty Dozen on the Palisade Plunge

I know, I know. We've been on the road for months in our new van and not a peep. So why the silence? No good reason other than being in places for short amounts of time leaves me limited days to explore and not be on a computer. Then time adds up and here we are. So, my dear diary, I owe you a pretty big entry on our 2021 trip in the Great Wide Open.

But for now, as I gaze out of the window of our 6th rental of the trip, staring at the Book Cliffs on the eastern edge of Fruita, Colorado, I will retell the tale of our 12-year wedding anniversary, riding the newly minted Palisade Plunge, a 32 mile traverse starting at 10,700 feet atop the Grand Mesa, eventually ending at the Colorado River.

We traveled up to Colorado along the famed Million Dollar Mile, after a stay in Santa Fe. We found dispersed camping for a night just north of Durango up some remote 4x4 road to a lake the fly fishing guy told us about.  

It was only a few weeks prior that Ryan's office changed the dates they were going to allow employers to return. We thought about it for all of a minute before we decided to extend our GWO'21 road trip. Since I was injured at this time last year and didn't get to ride the western slope with our friends, and an announcement on the socials that shuttles were still running up to the newly opened Palisade Plunge, the plan started to fall into place for where to go next. Plus, it seemed a fitting place to celebrate the 12th anniversary of taking the actual plunge into married life! Ryan also reminded me that on our honeymoon we rode a trail in California called the Cannell Plunge!

We overnighted in a local state park only about 10 minutes from the shuttle pick up point. We enjoyed a fire followed by a rare full night's sleep. We were up early and things were going good until I managed to spill almost an entire bowl of the last of our dried oats all over the van! Shit! We rationed the remaining two packets between us and shared the last apple as well. I added a Lara bar to make up for the lost calories that were on the floor of the van and I was good to go. We packed up and followed two other vehicles packed with bikes to the pick up point (which was also where we would finish). I could tell Ryan was getting excited by how fast he was driving to keep up with the others--just like on the trail. ;0 

After a quick load of the bikes, ten riders were headed up the Grand Mesa, a solid hour shuttle. We were dropped off "at the top" which is to say, at mile 0. As we found out later, the hard way, there were better places to get dropped. I was excited but also a bit nervous. Reviews online are mixed which told me that it was going to be a challenge. Last year we happen to have met one of the Plunge's builders, who did some of the major rock work, at his house we rented in Salida. He told us of the team that had to dangle from ropes to cut the trail into the side of the cliff, where riders descend off the mesa. Well, shit, that only made me want to actually see it more! So, yes, we knew all about the extreme exposure, the technical nature of the trail, and the remoteness. But for us, that's the attraction. We can ride alpine single track all day but to ride remote back country on the edge of a cliff, well that's something unique and worth seeing what there was to see!

Ok, back to the ride. The husboy and I were the last to leave the parking lot (my choice) and we had the single track to ourselves. It was frozen and there was plenty of frost on the vegetation. Then we hit sunlight and the once frozen trail became a loose slur of black mud. To our relief, it wasn't collecting on the tires, but it sure was spraying on everything else. We heard from a friend that the top of the mesa was a boring XC trail through flat terrain and was a waist of time but we wanted to do the whole thing. We're not vertical junkies. We're adventure xc riders with a tick for exploring new areas. But this time, we should have taken our friend's advice. 

As the morning wore on, the mud began to get sticky and about 6 miles in, I had to get off my bike and start scraping it off the tires with my shoe, as there wasn't a tree in site that could offer up a stick for such things. I might have gotten another mile up the trail before I had to do it again. Ryan's bike was holding up but my front mud flap was creating a narrow tunnel and the mud was packing on the edges, creating a tire that looked like I was on a fatbike. The back tire was fine and my chain looked like I had just lubed it, so I was optimistic, but I knew we had to get the hell off that mesa because it was just going to get worse. And it did. We caught other riders with bikes upside down or they were bent over trying to clear the mud. It was a shit show and I was questioning why we were being allowed up there in those conditions knowing that the hardest part was yet to come? Someone was going to get an earful! 

The first dozen miles cut across the Mesa and so did a very clean paved road. On that paved road, were other drop off points that could have been very easily used instead of mile zero. I made the comment after crossing said road when coming upon Ryan and a group who were waiting for others behind us that were also having problems. We found sticks and tried to get as much mud off as possible. I carried the stick with me the rest of the way across the mesa and finally, we made it to Shirt Tail trail head, which was where we should have started. But our shuttle service didn't indicate any issues by starting at the top, instead saying there may be some mud, but we'd be fine. Insert eye roll here.

A large group of riders descended before us and they were soon off their bikes as the trail was slick and rocky. This wasn't an issue for us so we kindly got by some of them before we hit another group stacked up. It took me a second to realize what was happening because we were in tree line but once out of the trees, I saw it all. The view of the Grand Valley and all of its pastel glory. THIS was why we came up here: to peer over the edge of the world onto a scene that is THE Great Wide Open. At that moment, we were explorers, in awe of not only the sights before us but also of the challenge that lay ahead: 6000 feet of relief (You'll notice I didn't say descent. There was about 2000' of climbing in order to get down)!

That challenge started at that moment, as there were 4-5 very tight and steep switchbacks right at our feet, dubbed Otto's Wall, named after the pioneer builder of the Colorado National Monument, John Otto. Some guys rode the few seconds in between each but it wasn't worth it to me. I felt pretty rushed through that section, as everyone seemed amped to get on with riding and less walking. The trail continued down, in tree line, and the switchbacks weren't nearly as steep but were pretty slick. I walked most of them along with a few other dudes. From then on, for about 3 miles through the Kannah Creek drainage, was classic alpine single track, with roots, rocks, creek crossings and all the fall colors to boot. I was happily surprised by this, having thought that we'd be in high desert terrain the whole time. But that was coming soon enough. We managed to pass quite a few riders in this section.
I think folks were already gassed from the mud up top. Our bikes were making all kinds of noise so we had to take care not to stress our chains too much. They were dry as the desert floor and made no bones about it telling us for the rest of the ride! 

By mile 15, we crossed Land's End road for the final time, and if one was to bail, this would be the last chance. It also is the last drop point if one were to skip the stuff higher up, but for those reading this, Otto's Wall, for just the view alone, is worth the effort.

At this point we entered the Whitewater Basin and the beginning of classic Western Rim terrain: sandy high desert with rock step ups and roll downs and sections thick with scrub bushes (think Hazzard above Porcupine Rim) and pinon pine. Some of the switchbacks I had to slide down but I wasn't in any real danger. Open meadows celebrated the changing of the seasons and rock falls from the Whitewater Creek made it challenging. This was the last water we'd see until the Colorado River at the bottom. 

This section of the Plunge was the belly of the beast. From here until about mile 27, we were riding at our most heightened, aware of the drop to our left but not looking down at it. We took breaks at obvious view points and many times I got off the bike to gather myself, rest, walk and make sure I was eating. 

The temps were perfect, the wind calm and the sights were majestic. I could tell Ryan was eager to keep moving while I, though equally as eager, wanted to try to savor it all. Alas, he'd go for a bit and wait for me and then disappear again. Sometimes those were at prime photo spots so we would take a few moments to take it all in and thank our lucky stars that we were able to do what we were doing. 

But even the most happy go lucky find their limits. Fatigue was starting to set in and it seemed the valley floor was nowhere nearer than it was at the last turn. Around miles 22-27 was a slick rock playground, marked by white stripes painted on the surface. I was thankful that it meandered predominately away from any cliff edge, as this type of terrain, with its deep bowls and quick edges, can suddenly take you to places you don't want to be.

Once through the slick rock, the terrain returned to classic, rocky desert riding. With about 5 miles to go, we were still thousands of feet from the bottom and the tech kept coming. When you get tired small things can start to piss you off, like having to dismount (again) or the sound of your dry ass chain. I'm not above this type of behavior. We were approaching the sixth hour by this time, on a trail that we probably should have been able to finish in five. Every turn I'm hoping was the last. 

Riders that had been behind us start catching up and passing us. Some were out of water and had been for some time. I saw their mud crusted back sides, dried from hours in the sun. Few words were exchanged, as the focus had shifted from thrilling adventure to down right let's get the fuck down!

At no other point did this crystalize for me than after entering a wash and Ryan said, "Look, I can see a building". I thought thank the Lord, we're done. Oh, but no. There were at least two maybe three super steep roll downs or in my case walk downs. I had plenty of water and food but my mental stores were low and my aches and pains were getting louder (but not as loud as my god damn chain)! 

Finally, I saw a fence and then a road and then a parking lot and then our van and it was only then that I knew we were actually done and quite literally dusted. Our bikes were equally as trashed, as the mud from the mesa had dried to cement. Every seal and bushing was covered and it was going to take a trip to a car wash to get it off. 
But, before that, it was a time for high fives and gratitude; not only for what we just accomplished but also for the dozen years of fun and adventure. And even though they are behind us, we willfully carry their joyful memories with us.

From mud mustaches and unibrows, to dirt clods in butt cracks, the Palisade Plunge delivered on all expectations from the most terifying to the most thrilling. And as we do in life, tackling all of its challenges together, checking off this massive bucket list ride was the perfect way to celebrate our adventurous marital plunge. 

The last sentence in the paragraph on the Palisade Plunge website, if read in the context of our life together, sums us up pretty succinctly:
Be sure to bring plenty of food and water and appropriate clothing and bike repair supplies.

Happy 12th anniversary R&R! Ten three, you and me!

Monday, March 15, 2021

Shredding at the Swamp: Graham Swamp 360

The last race we did was in the fall of 2019! So hard to believe it's been that long since we pinned on a number. After racing for over two decades season after season, it's been weird not having racing in our daily lives. So, when it seemed people were ready to get back into throwing elbows, (don't think it ever really stopped down here in Florida) I started looking for an event that would have less of the serious competitor vibe that is pretty rampant in the XC world down here. The Graham Swamp 360 is considered an endurance event with a 3 and 6 hour option. Not really wanting to ride 3 hours straight as we haven't even been riding more than 2 hours at a time, the coed team category seemed align perfectly with our non-training lifestyle. Author's note: I'd be lying if I didn't mention that I've been doing intervals since the first week of February, however, that was before I read about the 360 event and it was more of a way to spice up my forever flat rides.

Anywhoo, we heard through the Florida NICA league director that Graham Swamp was a pretty technical course for Florida. We've heard this phrase before and people below sea level have a different interpretation of technical. But we thought it was worth a look so we drove across to the east side of the state to check out the trail in late February and we're so glad we did. Not only is it technical but it's like fun technical, as in keep your speed up technical. As in get some air technical. As in rooty, droppy, jumpy, sandy technical. I took my Pivot Trail 429 (aka Miss Pivvy - hey, she's big boned) on the recon and even though I could have done it on the Super Fly, the extra suspension was going to help keep things comfy and chill. Plus we replaced the Maxxis tires and put on some used Bontrager XR3s to get her a bit lighter and rolling better in the sand. 

As we do, we drove across the state the night before the race. Ryan had to work til 5 o'clock and after getting some burritos to go, we headed north. As we passed Orlando and started east, the traffic was absolutely bonkers congested. What was to be a 3.5 hour drive turned into more like 5. Holy crap. Bumper to bumper and it was just congestion. No accidents that we could see. Thank God for long form pod casts! And I hate Disney even more!

We pulled into the hotel and the lot was completely full of motorcycles of all kinds. And trucks with trailers. It was bike week in Daytona! Luckily, the loud mufflers quieted down but I slept like shit (as usual) even though I wasn't nervous about the race. What we were nervous about was parking at the race. It wasn't ideal and we wanted to get a good spot. We were only 10 minutes away and since we were up, fed, and full of coffee, we headed to the venue. Two hours before a race is pretty typical arrival time for us but it seemed folks don't arrive that soon down here. I think we were there before most of the volunteers! Needless to say we got rock star parking and the shadiest spot for our staging area. 

Soon riders began to arrive and a woman I've met who leads many of the women's rides and events down here set up next to us along with her friends, so we had a fun group to hang out with all during the race. Party Pace!!! We were all about it.

It was time to head to the start line. Ryan was going first. Because of how the event was set up, they had very limited space to start, and the course went immediately downhill. So, they did a Le Mans start. However, there was a twist. They told everyone where to line up and then threw out potato sacks. That's right! A gunny sack race to the start line was an awesome way to spread out the pack. It was fun to watch but I was glad it was them and not me! Ryan was early to his bike and made it out clean. 


The riders would pass the start line once more before heading onto the rest of the course and Ryan was right up there with a mix of single riders and team riders. We assumed our laps would be 40-45 minutes so I went back to our staging area and hopped on the bike to do a few spin up intervals to get the heart rate up and make sure all the gears were working. Then I waited (and visited the port-o-pot about five times). Right on schedule Ryan came by our staging area within about 35 minutes. That was my signal to get up to the transition area. Once there, I saw him a couple times through the trees and along with maybe 4-5 other riders, I got myself to the front so we could easily exchange our ankle bands. Then I was off! 

It was our goal to have fun. I raced in baggies and my R&R tech tee to remind me of our goal. I wore a camel back but only carried enough fluid for each lap and I could barely tell it was there. The course was technical and there weren't many places to drink. It was also tight and punchy and tested our skills with sections that had rooty climbs that forced riders to navigate between trees; there were drops with large roots across the middle of them and high speed jumps with flat landings. One section took us through a labyrinth of roots 6 inches tall, one after another, as if a giant octopus was trying to emerge from the sand. The best way to get through them was just keep unweighting the front wheel, which left just enough time to take a breath before stomping a 2ft step up. One power climb was "rewarded" with a tall root to navigate around before bombing down a waterfall of drops that included more roots or deep sand. Only a few sections were flat enough to take a breather so mostly I was on the gas, which was just what we needed after over a year of vacation paced riding. 

There weren't many women but the ones who were there were good riders, as the course demanded a bit of skill. One of them had on a leaders jersey from the Florida State Series and I found myself around her a few times. The first time she caught me but the next two times I held her off. The second time she was right on my wheel for the last 1/4 mile and I did everything I could to stay on the gas and keep a good pace so she wouldn't need to ask to pass. After we came in to the transition area, we were both like hell yeah, that was fun. The next time she was behind me it was our last lap. I was feeling the effects of a Red Bull high and had fun pushing hard so as to not let her catch me. 

Our final lap count was eight total and the winning team I think got in 9 laps. It was fun to get called to the podium although at first we thought there was a mistake with the timing b/c the team with the State Champ on it was called up to 2nd place even though the results had us beating their time by several minutes. We were like, what evs but then they announced "masters co-ed" and called us up. I laughed to myself as I'm sure Ryan didn't really dig being on a masters team. Hehe. 

The after party was sweet. They fed us pizza and tapped beer and gave out really cool finisher medals made from wood. They had a massage vendor on site and a recovery tent where riders could don recovery legs, those blow up pressurized leg wraps. The podium winners received cash and the trophies were hand cut by the trail crew from fallen trees. I thought using the trail work truck as a podium was a nice touch. They called out props to the trail bosses and really made sure those that made the event happen were given all the love. It kinda felt like we had crashed a local bike party that had a race attached to it. 

All said, it was great to be among bike folk again. The track was really unique and fun and maybe, just maybe, fun enough to sit in traffic and head back there next year.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

A Thanksgiving Appetizer Served up Southern Appalachian Style - Part 1: Pisgah

As Covid-19 rages at near or above peak levels back home in Nebraska (and many other places) the option to head back to the Heartland for the holidays is one that changes along with the headlines. And as it would turn out, with our families all staying in their own bubbles and a couple brothers quarantining, the decision not to return was obvious. So the husboy and I got out our bike bucket list and started making a plan. Neither of us had been to the famed Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina, home to old-school fall line trails that are criss-crossed with even more infamous roots. Also on the bucket list for many years had been Mulberry Gap Adventure Basecamp, nestled in the hill country of Northern Georgia, some two hours north of Atlanta, with a reputation for riders coming for the trails and staying for the food. 

As it has been for most outdoor spaces, where camping is still a way to social distance, finding a payed spot online proved challenging. After reading that there are indeed free camping spots along dirt roads, but only as long as you don't mind your shit getting stolen, we kept researching for a payed spot. Government sites are evil for this activity and I'm never really sure that the booking info gets to the camp host. I found one place just a mile outside of Brevard (Pisgah mtb culture ground zero) that had 4 nights in a row starting the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Then to my surprise, Mulberry Gap had a couple spots open over Thanksgiving weekend, AND we could buy a couple of Thanksgiving dinner reservations. The plan was set. Now I just needed the proper bike.

Back up a few months. In late August we sold my TREK Remedy 27.5 and were excited to buy a trail/fun/travel bike from a shop in Nebraska, with the hopes for delivery while we were in Colorado, escaping three rainy months in Florida. All was going as planned but we started to get the run around on the frame delivery to the point where the shop wasn't even answering our phone calls. It wasn't a huge deal because I was injured for all of the month of October while in Salida. One day we went into the local shop, Absolute Bikes, for something and they had a small Pivot Trail 429 on the floor. For giggles (and to see if I could use my injured hand), I took it for a spin up the road. Hard to determine its magic qualities on cement, but it fit me. So Ryan did some thinking, some math and some measuring and after a call with the shop to confirm that we could order a frame, and have it delivered most likely before we left town, we fired the money cannon. We cancelled the first frame order once we got the new frame and will never do business with the shop back in Nebraska again. Certainly it was a surprisingly unprofessional and frankly disappointing experience.

After getting all of our pre-paid parts sent to us from Nebraska (well, most of them) Ryan had less than two weeks to build a bike and a wheel set that would get no actual dirt time until we arrived in North Carolina. We luckily found some cheap 180 break roters in town, some shifter cable and I ordered a stem to match the wheel nipples. It passed the driveway test once Ryan figured out why the tubeless tires wouldn't stay inflated. Then I spent about 10 hours putting on frame protection film. Yes, I should have bought it sooner and put it on before Ryan built it but life is messy and we were on a timeline. This will come to be an important point later.

Anywhoo, here it is. The newest bike in the quiver, and it's not a TREK for the first time in like 18 years. It's a style-of-the-minute bike known as "down country", meaning it's not quite an XC bike and not quite an enduro bike, but some frankenbike in between, with 130mm up front and 120 in back. Kind of an all rounder bike, which is exactly what we were wanting. And the color. Oh, hell yeah! A bold blue to compliment my power blue Super Fly (which I'll never part with). We opted for the MRP fork for time constraints and also the many ways to dial it in to my riding style. I spent two months over-riding the Super Fly on rowdy XC and enduro lines and was ready for a proper bike to point down. 

We packed up the 4Runner and went at this old school. By that I mean a tent and all the gear, including a couple fishing rods. Though we know it's all about the trout where we were heading, we only had spinners thinking we'd find somewhere to throw a rod.

We drove about 8 hours on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, staying the night in a hotel in Greenville SC, not even an hour from our first trail head in Dupont State Rec Area. Our night's sleep was interrupted by not one but two fire alarms, where we had to leave the hotel and stand outside. Only a few minutes after getting back into bed after the first exit, we got a call from the front desk asking all guests to go back outside. We thought twice about it but went anyway and so glad we did! Upon returning the second time, we noticed all the room doors were left open and if we'd stayed we would have been that couple, still in bed, while our room was checked by uniformed firemen. Awkward!

Our groggy morning came too soon but we were more than happy to get out of that hotel. The air was crisp and it smelled like fall, which added to our excitement. If there's something we miss living in Florida is the change in weather. So this year, thanks to Covid, we'd not only not miss fall, we'd experience it twice; once in Colorado and again on this trip. (It's the little things).

We arrived in Dupont to a very full parking lot. Ah, our people! It was so exciting to see all the folks hanging out outside their vehicle, bikes in tow, smiling and enjoying the day outside. The area we rode in was mostly machine cut flow trail, all pretty wide and multi-use (we saw a few folks on horses). There wasn't much in terms of technical riding but it was a good way for me to get familiar with the Pivot and get my cockpit set up and suspension dialed in. We managed to find some of the least ridden trails and came across an old car, long forgotten. It was a great spot to take a break. The views at the top of the trail were awesome. Had we been in peak leaf season, this spot would have provided a cornucopia of color, so we had to leave it up to our imaginations but still appreciated the folds of the land and the sheer amount of forest we had the privilege to be in at the moment. It was a good start to a week of presumed harder shredding to come.

From Dupont, we headed north to Brevard, North Carolina, home to all things outdoors, including mountain biking, which makes sense due to its proximity to the entrance of the Pisgah National Forest. Several travel websites claim between 200-300 miles of dirt trail lay beneath the canopy of hardwoods. The love of the trees is evident immediately. According to "Once property of George W. Vanderbilt, and considered the birthplace to modern forestry in America, Pisgah is home to old-growth forests and the highest mountain peaks east of the Mississippi". Parts of Pisgah are also considered rain forest due to amount of rain they can get, sometimes up to 70"-90" per year. This fact contributes directly to amount of waterfalls in the forest and needless to say, some wet rides. (Or as we like to say, two sock rides).

We arrived at our campsite mid afternoon. It wasn't anything special but it would do just fine. It was a popular RV and tent camping area but because it was off season, only a small section of spots were open. We set up camp in our new tent (larger, taller and with vestibules) and settled in for the day. We stopped by one of the local shops for coveted local intel and of course coffee. As the guy gave us his opinion of what was good and why (naming trails we've never seen as if we had) one thing did stick with me. He said, "Our tech is another trail system's erosion." In other words, you better get used to exposed roots, chunder and fall line trenches. What we didn't realize was Pisgah riding involves gravel connectors. With so much hilly typography, you have to get to the top somehow and if it's not by shuttle then it's by grinding gravel. And we found that out the hard way. But before we could put tire to dirt, we went into town after dinner to get some booze. We didn't bring any knowing we'd shop locally (we were in the Appalachians after all) but it was also Sunday and well, we were also in the Bible Belt. So we found a secular haunt that boasted cocktails and outdoor seating. Our off-grid adventure suddenly went on-grid. But what we found in the process of driving to the little pub was that downtown Brevard has the cuteness of another time gone by, with a few square blocks of shops and restaurants, all lit up for the holidays. With our cold weather gear on and the lights a twinklin', we felt nostalgic for home.

Monday morning couldn't have come soon enough, and not only because of anticipation to shred the gnar. A crazy wind storm had blown in over night and chilled us to the bone. Temps were only in the 40s but we could not keep the wind from coming in under the rain shell through our 3-season screened walls. And it was loud! I left my ear plugs in the truck and was too lazy to go get them so we tossed and turned as the night whistled its way to sunrise and our first day riding a bucket list track.

Using the map Ryan bought at the bike shop (he loves maps) together with his GPS, he designed a ride that would be around 3 hours, which was great because I hadn't been on the bike much since returning to Florida a few weeks prior plus not riding at all in October due to my hand injury. All be it to say, I was a bit behind the eight ball in fitness and being on a brand new bike, I didn't need a Ryan Epic on day one. But that's exactly what I got.

We were able to ride right from camp which was a total bonus after all the driving to get there. A few minutes on the main road through the forest lead us to a gravel road that would take us to the first big climb, and ultimately to the fun stuff. On the way, we spotted a trail head marker and Ryan looked at it on Trail Forks and determined that it seemed "doable" from its profile. It appeared to be less up and down and more contour riding so up we went. All was well for about the first 1.5 miles. I was stoked on the Pivot's ability to ride right over the roots and with the shorter rear triangle, I felt I could hoist myself up and over the rooty step ups more easily. The trail had us climbing at first gently, then a few power climbs that would mellow out. Then we hit a spot that was straight up so we shouldered bikes or pushed them until we could ride again. Well, this happened about ten more times and by the time we got to the next trail head (which originally we were to get there by the gravel road), and after seeing riders coming at us, we knew this was NOT the way to get to the original trail head. Perplexed, Ryan thought maybe he looked at the wrong trail profile. So he showed me what he looked at and I was like, no way. Where are all the red lines that indicate steepness? I told him to compare it to mtb project app and sure enough, all the red lines we had just hiked up appeared clear as day. We went back to the Trail Forks app and I said this is a very zoomed out view. Scroll down the page. Once he did that, the true profile with all the dark red lines appeared. We indeed had just hiked up the worst hike a bike and we still had a lot more which would only get steeper. (Later, confessions to other riders about our oopsy-daisy resulted in "Oh Shit!"). 

We shouldered on. Literally. At one point or maybe two, Ryan had to take my bike so I could climb up water bar drops that were as high as my shoulders. Couple that with sheer drops on either side of the trail and it was enough to give me the shivers and Ryan the stink eye. He's usually pretty spot on with his route-finding but when he isn't, it can result in a death march. Yes, I'm being dramatic. He gave me the option to head back down the gravel but I was like hell no. I didn't walk up all of that trail just to ride gravel DOWN. So we kept going. After about two hours since we left camp, we finally made it to the top, where four trails converged. There was no easy way to get there, per some locals and since we had burned a lot of calories and patience, we opted to take a different track down instead of continuing up. 
The trail was called Avery and it was everything Pisgah. Rough, rowdy and loose. And on top of it all were the fallen leaves. You wouldn't know if you were running over a rock or a raccoon. But I think I did OK. The new bike was in its element, even if I wasn't yet. We had a couple of creek crossings along the way, including at the bottom of the run, where we had to tip-toe our way across make-shift bridges made by others, using down tree trunks with 2x4 for railings. All in the name of fun! But honestly if we had an easier way to get back up to the start of Avery, I would have gone again. Instead, we rode back to camp and got out of our wet gear and made some food and coffee. We went into town to get booze and firewood so we could cap off the night with proper libations and much needed heat. The night would turn pretty cold and after the previous night's wind forcing the issue, Ryan bought another blanket! But since we had a day of riding behind us, and a couple of fingers of whisky in us, sleep came a bit easier until it started to rain. But, that's camping life!

Tuesday was to be a planned epic around Black Mountain, a very popular trail in that area. We knew there would be hiking but not as much as the day before. We started up a contour gravel road that was gradual and easy riding. It was blocked off by vehicle traffic so we didn't have to worry about the blind corners. The forest was in hibernation for the most part but a few trees still had some leaves and color. At the top of the gravel we took a rest stop and another rider was doing the same. We'd see him again at the false top out. The start of the single track was gnarly. All roots for the most part so you just had to get used to it. The trail switch backed many times and started to become rocky. At one point, I had to give my bike to Ryan so I could climb up some slick rock slabs. We met the other rider at the top and shared some intel about the area. He was pretty new to riding here but said this was a popular trail to ride down. We continued on the hunt for the top out and it came with some sketchy narrow track that seemed impossible to hike let alone ride, but once we pointed the bikes down, it was game on. I pulled up my knee pads, said a prayer and let off the breaks (sorta). It was all fall line trench riding once again, only this time, add in the three to four foot water bar drops. I had to tell myself I had the rig to handle it and just send it. All my alarm bells were firing. This was about as rowdy as we've done in the Rockies and add in the trail hidden by leaves. I had to stop a few times to give my back leg some relief (time to start doing some wall sits). After one of these stops, as I'm ready to drop in, the front tire, unbeknownst to me, was behind a root and as I stood up to go, I didn't and fell over. And it couldn't have been on a completely flat ground. No, it had to be right where there was a tall enough rock to scrape MY BRAND NEW BIKE ABOVE THE FRAME PROTECTION WRAPPER!!! I was beyond pissed. Livid! So that's how I rode for the next mile, just crushing the trail with my rage at such a dumb thing to happen. Well, it's my bike now. For fuck sake. Anyway, the trail finally mellowed out from droppy to more flowy and we popped out where we could make a choice to ride up and descend a mellow flow trail or take the gravel. Up we went but not far and it was all rideable. We swooped down a pretty established trail and out onto the paved road that lead us back to camp. I can see why it's such a popular route. Upper Black Mountain is a bitch to get to and is extremely rough, natural terrain down. Lower Black is more typical trail riding that still had a lot of tech but with more contour and less drops. Super fun day all told! Back at camp we made up some pasta with pesto, canned chicken, canned tomatoes and basil. We got in our meal before the rain came and it drizzled off and on for much of the night. We drove into town and hit up The Hub, the shop of all Pisgah bike knowledge and other outdoor exploits. It also served beer and had fire pits outside. As we were there to get out of the rain we didn't partake in the latter but it was a very cool shop with so many shiny things! By the time we left, the rain had subsided long enough to have a campfire before bed so we could warm up. That night wasn't as cold as we slept the best yet.

Wednesday morning was a wash for riding. A misty rain, the kind that gets into your bones, engulfed the forest. So we decided we'd take a drive to see what we could see. Well, that was a bust too because the "smokey" fog that sits in the valleys blocked views of any kind. We drove the Blue Ridge Parkway to Asheville (another popular mountain biking hub) and found a couple really cool water falls along the way. At one of these stops is where we learned how many waterfalls there actually are in the area, helping it earn the moniker "Land of Waterfalls". Anyway, we white knuckled it to Asheville and stopped at a hip diner in the "arts district" for brunch before taking a stroll around a public garden (which duh, it's winter and everything is dead). Then we decided we'd find us a bait shop and a place to put in a rod. We ended up at Bent Creek Experimental Forest, a popular park where we saw many people on bikes. Unfortunately, Ryan didn't have any of his gear with him so we didn't ride but that was ok. We didn't land any fish either in the little lake so we left the park and hit a large river outside of town. Again, not even a bite! We took our worms and our fishy dreams and went back to Brevard. The fog hadn't lifted and our drive back was pretty much the same as it was that morning. With the rain still falling back at camp, we made our way to the downtown to see if anything was open. It was the night before Thanksgiving and only a few restaurants and pubs showed signs of life. We decided to step into a Mexican restaurant and fill our guts with chips, guac and all things taco. Unfortunately, they didn't serve margaritas but that only created more room for chips. We didn't want to have to go back out in the rain so we lingered a bit. Before we drove out of town to camp, we stopped at the same liquor store to purchase more whiskey for the second leg of the trip. (Though North Georgia is as backwoods as they come, we'd be traveling on Thanksgiving and nothing would be open in the small towns so we had be prepared!)

No matter how you frame it, Brevard, Pisgah, South East riding– it all lived up to the hype we've only read about through the years. All the rowdiness is indeed true with all the attributes of pay to play fun times. I can only name a few friends of ours that would put themselves through the pain to get to the good stuff up high. We only rode two days so we don't have a lot of context as to how much this applies to the rest of the trails. They were much hillier, with higher elevation than we had in our minds. I think we topped at 4500-5000 ft. on Black Mountain. That's enough to help us forget the slog to get to the top and have a shit eating grin at the bottom. A friend once said, "If you're not hiking, you're not biking". Though that's one way to look at it, the sentiment seems to apply to riding Pisgah. All I can say is bring maybe your hiking shoes.

Next up: Part 2 - Mulberry Gap, Ellijay Georgia