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