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 exploreasheville.com "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

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Let Love Drive: A Road Trip with my Dad - A Homecoming

Itinerary: Cody WY - Sheridan - Devil's Tower - Bad Lands of South Dakota
Miles: 456

In June despite a pandemic and social unrest, my 85 year old dad and I went on a 5000 mile drive through the mountain west, in his Buick, to visit his sisters in Texas and Montana.

After leaving Cody, WY, the plan was to continue east, taking the scenic route to the Bad Lands of South Dakota. Dad had never seen them and neither had I. I know, I know. How is that possible given the many trips to Spearfish every Labor Day weekend? Well, I don't have a good reason other than we had other priorities on those trips but this time would be different.

The route we chose took us through the small hamlet of Sheridan WY, home to famous rodeos and also home to my good friend and former colleague Jenae Neeson. Naester, as she's known by those of us back in Omaha, is a woman of the mountains and always has great tales of adventures in the higher altitudes. It's always a pleasure to see her and a stop would be perfect timing for a coffee refill. But before we arrived, we drove through some of the most stunning scenery I've seen in that part of Wyoming. Now it's tough to beat Yellowstone and the Tetons but on this side of the state, where the Big Horns rule, there are amazing views to be had. One of those was the eye popping drive through Shell Canyon. Even though it was drizzling, driving between sheer cliff walls and a rushing river was worth every minute. Until it wasn't. On the back side, after we went over a pass, fog had yet to lift out of the canyon, making driving practically impossible. We wight-knuckled it for about 30 minutes as we crawled at 10 MPH down the mountain. The only thing keeping me on the path were the yellow lines on either side of the road. My biggest fear was not seeing a car in front of me until it was too late or someone coming on us from behind. We couldn't see for maybe 10-15 feet in front of us. I turned on my hazards and hoped for the best. We had no idea if we were next to a wall or next to a cliff, the fog was that thick. But Able Mable got us down without issue. When we could finally see blue sky and the road in front of us, even Dad said he was pretty nervous and didn't want to have to do that ever again! After a drive like that, I didn't need a coffee, I needed a shot! 

We arrived in Sheridan where we met Jenae at a small cafe. I walked in but didn't see her so we got a table. By the time I returned from the bathroom, she was walking by Dad who was spying the ice cream options. We exchanged big hugs, which I'm sure was terrifying to those in the cafe, but one can't be in Jenae's presence without a proper greeting. We sat for an hour or more and got her caught up on our shenanigans over the past week. Dad, being on vacation, ended up getting both an ice cream and coffee (it was only around 10 in the morning, after all) and chimed in a few times between bites. The time came too soon that we had to be getting back on the road. We said so long (it's never good bye) and headed off to Devil's Tower.

Dad took over the controls of Mable and we flew through the foothills of the Big Horns, home to ranch land and wide open sky. I'd never been to Devil's Tower and have always wanted to see the mammoth rock in the middle of nowhere. And as we drove I kept looking and looking but it wasn't until we were practically there that we saw it, which seems impossible. It literally juts out of the ground, completely out of place among the rolling hills.

We drove down to the entrance to the park but didn't feel the need to get any closer. It was good enough to see it from the point we were at. We stopped for a quick potty break and since it was so hot and full of tourists, we turned around and headed back the way we came, only this time I got back behind the wheel. Too much steep terrain for Dad which was fine. We hopped on 90 and drove east towards the Black Hills. On the way, we went by Spearfish SD, which is right on the boarder of Wyoming, where I've raced every year since 2006 in the Dakota Five-0. From the interstate, you can see the race route that took us out of town and up into the hills. It was up in the air at that time if the race was still going to happen. Ryan and I had signed up for it in April, not knowing the pandemic would literally crush any large gatherings for the rest of the summer. 

Our next drive by would take us through Sturgis and Deadwood. Both towns were full of tourists, and barely anyone with masks. Dad talked of the few times he attended the Sturgis Rally (which was scheduled to still happen, regardless). He went once by car and another by motorcycle. He even camped one year. Hard to believe considering how feeble he is now. He recalled enjoying seeing all the different types of motorcycles (he had a Honda Gold Wing at the time) but didn't care for all the T&A and fowl language. Dad has spent a solid percentage of his life in pubs, bars and seedy pool halls and yet he really has a low tolerance for fowl language, especially from women. 

Before heading to the Bad Lands, I took a look at Google Maps to see if there was a more scenic route instead of taking 90 into Wall. Good thing I did because the more scenic route was closed due to Covid. The road into the western entrance went through Indian territory and to keep the virus out of those communities, they had closed access. Good for them! So it was back onto I-90 and to the town of Wall. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived but I was able to get us the last two single rooms in a small motel. We unloaded our bags and decided to head into the Badlands NP to see what there was to see. 

Immediately after entering, a large mountain goat was standing in the middle of the road. And to Dad's giggling joy, an adult buffalo was not too far off. Que the music: "Oh, give me a home, where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play." Like, literally, that song was playing out before our eyes. But apposed to the next lyrics, the skies were a bit cloudy which played to our advantage. Not many people and it made for some pretty spectacular photos. 

We stopped at the first pull out that had a long flight of steps down to another level. The sun was cooking us so Dad stayed in the car while I played tourist. As we drove along, the people became fewer and fewer and the colors better and better. Like in Cody, driving back from the Sunlight Bridge, Dad started getting into the excitement of seeing some pretty strange terrain and would look up from his book and tell me to take a photo of a certain area. He never got out of the car but that was fine. I on the other hand was like a kid in a candy store, pointing my phone in all directions. On our way back towards the entrance, the storms in the distance were in full view and was just marvelous to watch the clouds and curtains of rain float across the horizon.

Then, just as we were about to exit, I spotted a group of mountain goats, looking to be settling in for the night. We drove up a gravel road and pulled over to admire the grazing animals. Then to our surprise, a baby goat popped up over the cliff edge and it was all I could do to stay in the car. The timing was perfect and not another car in sight. We saw a few more buffalo as we left the park and thought maybe we'd return in the morning. 

By the time we got back to the motel, we were starving. I found what looked to be a modern looking bar and grill that was open to the public. There were barely any cars out front, which boded well for social distancing. We both ordered BLTs and a couple of drinks, and proceeded to toast the end of our trip, save for the drive home. Dad's a talker and will weave a tale til kingdom come so I figured at the very least I'd given him some new material to draw upon. We both agreed this was a very fun adventure, thinking maybe we should go somewhere new next year. He even offered up his surprise at how smoothly it went and how much he enjoyed being able to see new things and not be on some kind of agenda to get somewhere. It's interesting to me how I'm one who yearns to take the roads less traveled; who dreams of adventures to come, while Dad has never been one to take a real vacation. And maybe it's because he already lives a life of leisure on a river that provides all the necessary room for an aging fisherman to wander and wonder about mysteries of life. I'll never really know. But what I do know is this: I am the lucky one. Life gave me a gift, despite all the signals to the contrary, to have this extraordinary experience with my dad. I heard stories never told to me, met relatives who welcomed me and was given a chance to see my Dad in a different way, from a different time. All of these things only strengthened our bond, making us even better friends. And even though we have some things in common like a love for the outdoors, Dr. Pepper and Clint Eastwood westerns, this trip has given us a shared experience that we will be able to talk about and relive together many times over.

Truth be told, I was skeptical of this whole venture at first. With so many on the fly logistics, Dad's stubbornness about certain things, (and my short temper surrounding those things), plus the uncertainty in the world, I worried that it would be fraught with roadblocks. But what I learned and what came to fruition was that if you let love drive, and if I may paraphrase Henry Miller, the destination becomes not actually a place, but a new way of looking at things.

11 states in 13 days
6 mountain passes
4829 miles

Thank you, Dad, for trusting my driving, my motel choice (aside from the roach motel) and believing that the best views are the ones yet to come. I love you.