Tuesday, October 8, 2019

2019 Bikepacking Summit

A few months back, Justin mentioned that the Bikepacking Summit was going to be at Mulberry Gap this year. He planned on riding over to it from his place in Blue Ridge, then riding back afterwards. Sounded good to me, but then I discovered that the Tally Tango was the same weekend, and I really wanted to ride that. So, I had no plans to attend.

Then real life intervened. The week before, the water line into my house broke, the washing machine at my rent house broke, and one of my VMs got hacked. I had to dig up the yard and wait for the plumber on Thursday, work all day Friday to make up for it, and then Saturday run over to the rent house to let the washing machine delivery guys in. And, then, as it turned out, Sophie's friends had a surprise party planned for another friend of theirs around 5PM Sunday.

No way I could make the Tango. For that matter, no way I could meet up with Justin either. But, I might be able to hang out at the Summit, and just getting away for a weekend would be great. So, Thursday afternoon, last-minute, as usual, I called up Palmer and managed to secure lodging and a pass for the event. Once again. Thank you guys. So much.

Everybody who showed up Thursday had gone out for an overnighter on the Pinhoti. That would have been fun. I didn't see any actual riding on the itinerary, but I threw my bike and gear in the truck, just in case an opportunity presented itself. When I got there Friday night, it was right about dinner time.

Ever show up at a race and then realize you're totally outclassed as you walk through the lot? It was like that! I recognized Lael Wilcox and Logan Watts immediately. I actually recognized Logan from the hand-drawing of his face on bikepacking.com. I'd heard of Lael for a long time, but recently run into a youtube video, so I knew what she looked like. Bunch of other guys I recognized but didn't know where from. Probably from articles about some monumental thing they did on bikepacking.com... Hey look, there's Kris Wheeler, the R2E series producer. And, he's sitting with Audrey Tangye, who recently crushed me by like 2 days or something...

Oh! It's Mike Rasch! Him, I can sort-of relate to. Yeah, he's finished like 3 times as many epic rides as I have, but we're both from South Louisiana, rode the Tour DeLiverance together, and he only beat me by like a day and a half on the TNGA this year. All right.

Mike greeted me with a big, unexpected hug, and it seemed like it might actually be a good weekend. Daniel Jesse (Cohutta Cat guy) was at the table with him. I'd briefly met Daniel once at REI like 10 years ago, and neither of us knew who the other was until later. Brett (mother-f-ing Eastern Divide) Davidson was walking around, but I didn't get to talk to him.

Kate and Andrew and Palmer were there, running the show. Diane! Diane was there! Up from Florida to help out and hang out. Ginny was in the kitchen, so I didn't see her until much later. But I did run into some of her Halloween humor.

The hobknobbing was fun, but I needed to check in, so I ran over to the house to do that, and right when I got back, Lindsay and Neil (organizers, also general bad-asses) found me and gave me a my event pass and cup. I was officially there. And, not a moment too soon.

Dinner!

At dinner, I met a guy from Fort Wayne Indiana who'd finished the Tour Divide in 2017. That was the average accomplishment - couple of Tour Divides and a bunch of other random stuff. There was an older, retired guy there, from Pennsylvania. Seemingly out of shape. His thing was riding rail trails. Thousands upon thousands of miles of them.

After dinner, there was a little meet and greet with the presenters.

Pepper Cook was one of them that I recognized but didn't know her name. Joe Cruz was another. They did 2 truths and a lie, and there were random stories and general banter and it was fun.

That night, I shacked up in the Pond Nook with Rasch, Steven McHone, David Dam (local Maxxis tire rep I think) and another dude who's name I forget (dammit!).

Oh, the stories... and the delivery of said stories, especially by Rasch. So much fun.

I'd gotten the best night of sleep of my life in one of those beds a month back, and it all came back to me when I crawled in that night. I had to get up and pee like 5 times, but other than that, it was wonderful.

Breakfast was at 7AM. I was well rested, and especially looking forward to the fruit for some reason.

Joe gave a presentation about overcoming fear, which ended in a story of them getting accosted in a tribal area of Ethiopia! Then, apparently we were riding. Yes!

We rode up over Holly Creek Gap and up FS90B to the P2 grasstrack lot and gathered around for a Wilderness First-Aid presentation by a Pisgah Sorba guy named Charley. The last time I'd gotten any First-Aid training was in '98 at Houston Marine in New Orleans. A good bit has changed - mainly CPR-related stuff, and A(irway)B(reathing)C(irculation) has been replaced with C(irculation)C(onsciousness)C(ervical Spine) followed by ABC. I managed to get some details later about the CPR changes (30 and 2) and got some questions answered about snake bites. I'd learned a while back to wrap the bitten limb above the bite, but that's been changed. These days, with hemotoxins at least, don't do anything. Just get out, get to a hospital, and even at the hospital, they usually just monitor the progress of the venom and treat as needed. They're apparently not too hasty with the antivenom these days. Very interesting stuff.

Charley also had a cool shirt with "Be Nice, Say Hi" on it with a guy on a bike, a guy on a horse, and a guy hiking all waving hi to each other. The icons and that message is almost exactly what I was talking to Debbie about putting on the CTHA kiosk at the Jake trailhead. Something super simple, that you can't miss and can't easily misinterpret as you ride by. I'm glad I got to see his shirt.

Then it was shred. P2 shred!

Me and Ft. Wayne guy (damn I wish I could remember his name. Kyle seems right, but I'm so bad with names...) seemed to have an especially good time.

Somewhere in there, Karlos showed up! Kim Murrell was set to give a presentation about building a bikepacking community, but had to cancel at the last minute for some family/personal reasons. Somehow, somebody managed to pull Karlos away from running the Tally Tango, to fill in, and Brett had just picked him up from the airport. He was changing his shirt behind the door of the van, and I recognized his voice. "Is there a Naked Indian around here?! It sounds like there's a Naked Indian around here!" And I gave him a big hug while he was still partly naked. He seemed happy, but I could tell that his mind was still in race director mode.

Lunch was almost ready when we got back, and there were more presentations, but I had to eat and run. The washing machine was due at 4:00 at the rent house in Cumming, and that's like 1.5 hours away. I left at 2:15 to give myself a little extra time, and 15 minutes later got a text saying they're 30 minutes out. No freaking way. That's 30 minutes early. I called the guy and convinced him to wait until 3:45, got there at that exact minute, let them in, got everything taken care of, and blazed back.

It's been a while since I drove Hwy 52 between Bull Mountain and Ellijay. Apple-picking and associated farm fun are popular this time of year, and the farm near Kinnard's Corner now grows fields and fields of sunflowers, and appeared to be doing pretty well with the public.

I got back right at the end of Lael's packing presentation. Kate saw me walking around and was like: "Are you leaving?" "No, I had to leave earlier to get a washing machine delivered to my rent house, and I'm just now getting back." Her WT-actual-F look drove home how WT-actual-F my life has been these days.

I forgot to mention that I'd run into and hung out with Shey Lindner the day before. Kari too. She'd come back from running basically an off-road marathon the prior evening, and while she was out running another one that day, Shey had gone and ridden a defunct chunk of the original TNGA route that we removed from the route because we decided it was just too difficult to reasonably expect people to do.

Yes, these are my friends.

They were both back by then though, and I got to hang out with them for a while again.

Dinner was served shortly after, and I got to hang out with Rasch and rail-trail guy some more.

After dinner, Rue gave basically a massive slide show of her and Lael touring the Silk Road Race route, and then Lael racing it. My goodness, Kyrgyzstan. I might have learned something interesting too. Touring third(ish) world countries is pretty amazing for bikepackers, for several reasons. There is the obvious terrain and scenery being very different from what you'll find in the US, and people being very culturally different from any western country. But aside from that, their infrastructures are still dirt. The dirt is maintained, but not on an industrial level like it is here. A good bit of it, while technically a road, is not reliably passable by most vehicles. A bike or horse is more realistic. In fact, in Kyrgyzstan, horsemen roam the countryside, as they would have in the US 100 years ago. It's just a very different perspective, and you can take it in very well on a mountain bike. I guess. I don't know for sure, but that idea really struck me during the presentation, and it hadn't before.

Possum and the Bear Band struck up right after Rue's presentation...

...and I got to hear a bunch of wonderful old-timey songs. I expected them to break into "In the Highways" or "Big Rock Candy Mountain" at any moment. That kind of music. I loved it.

Ft. Wayne guy had mentioned earlier that he was going to do a night ride on P2. I figured he'd be leaving after dinner, and might like some company, so I mentioned it to Rasch and went off looking for him. Never found him though, so me and Rasch, and McHone, and David Dam ended up heading out on our own. Instead of P2 though, we hit P3. Mike and Steven had only ever ridden it one-way, up, during the TNGA.

And! As tends to happen, once again, though Karlos and I were in the same state, in very close proximity, we would not actually ride together! Again! This time, because he had flown up on a moment's notice, and had no bike to ride. We've known each other for like 10 years, ridden each others events many times each, run into each other in each others' states several times on top of that, and yet ridden only one entire ride together. And, that just this past year.

So weird.

We ran into Ft. Wayne guy right as we were headed out. He'd left way earlier, and ridden through the sunset. He'd managed to crash on some gravel somewhere and skin up his back a bit.

Goodness!

On the initial climb, Steven found himself overdressed in long sleeves, and just took his shirt off.

I realized I'd never ridden P3 at night before. Those switchbacks are a lot more difficult at night.

Steven put his shirt back on for the downhill, only to take it partially off again on the next climb, leaving it dangling around his neck with the sleeves flying around.

Back at the cabin, David was like "Oh man, I can't wait to take a shower." And the rest of us were like: "Ehh... Too much work, I'm going to bed." Then when he came back he looked so happy and characterized his shower experience so positively that I felt compelled to get out of bed and take one myself. Apparently Mike and Steven came to the same conclusion while I was in there. Best decision of the day, and so obvious in retrospect!

The sheets felt so good clean. Such comfort. The sleep that night was, again, fantastic.

Next morning, breakfast at 7. More fruit!

Pepper gave a presentation about inclusiveness in bikepacking. The presentation was interesting. She said the discussion usually leads to bagging on men, which she didn't want, but nobody really knew what to say. I tried, realized how I should have put what I was trying to say too late, continued on, and eventually sounded like an ignorant dick. Kari saying something that kind-of helped, but not totally. I left wondering if I'm finally just getting too old to talk to people.

After that, Brett Davidson gave a detailed presentation on the state of the (freaking amazing) Eastern Divide Project and it's singletrack nephew, the Southern Highroads Trail. There were maps and slides, and stuff that I love to geek out on. Karlos talked all about the Florida section and kept going on, with a very positive tone of voice, about alligators, mosquitoes, and extended desert-like conditions... Heh heh, classic. Eventually, I was like: "Dude, you're supposed to be promoting the route!"

I can't imagine my life being organized such that I could ever through-ride either of these, but I can certainly imagine section-riding it, so that's now on my list.

We had a pretty good ride after that - clockwise over Holly Creek Gap again, then about half of us rode out-and-back about 9/10ths of the way to the pavement on CCC Camp Road.

I was pretty happy to have gotten in 3 decent rides, especially given that I was expecting zero.

Lunch was chili. I had seconds. There were apparently people still getting changed from the ride that hadn't had firsts yet, so we needed to wait a bit before getting seconds. Mike informed me of this. His crass reputation is well deserved, but one generally expects such behavior to be driven by deeper anti-social tendencies. This could not be further from the truth with Mike. I watched him all weekend, and I suspect that he's one of the most conscientious guys I've ever met. I would even go as far as to guess that he has a very high degree of empathy, and is able to say ridiculous stuff with a high degree of confidence that it won't offend whom he is speaking to because of this.

I could be wrong, of course, but I call em like I see em.

Karlos was talking later, but I couldn't stay. Sophie had a surprise birthday party to get to, and I had to hit the road.

What a weekend. I felt like less of an interloper on the way out, but not entirely unlike one. The obvious remedy is just more riding, and I can probably do that now. I'll probably be able to do even more starting next year.

It'll be interesting.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Old Cooper Gap Road

Goodness, I don't hike enough any more. Too much TNGA-prep and not enough just walking around. I could feel my back and various leg joints getting softer and softer that whole time too. Fortunately not soft enough to prevent me from doing the ridiculous amount of walking I had to do, but softer than I like. It was even more tragic than that too. I'd bought new shoes a few months back, threw them on the floor of the basement, walked past them a hundred times, and never put them on.

No longer!

Old Cooper Gap Road!

If you climb FS80 a bit, there's an old, unmarked road off to the right. I noticed it the very first time I ever rode up there. Some years later, I rode out on it, only to find lots of downed trees and ripped-out culverts. The road had clearly been decommissioned and abandoned. At the time, I didn't know much about such things. In fact, it was one of the very first side-trails I'd ever explored. I did remember that it led way out to a weird intersection where like 5 other old roadbeds split off of it. I (much) later discovered that two of those were part of the original route of Cooper Gap Road.

Cool!

That was my destination. I wanted to see what the old road was like these days.

So, I drove up, parked, and got distracted immediately. Three troop transports came tearing down from the Gap, a few minutes later I heard a loud explosion near the Ranger camp, and then a commotion of vehicles as well. The Ranger candidates would be involved in maneuvers soon. If I was lucky, I might run into them. But that was only part of the distraction. 10 seconds into the hike, three motorcycles came straight up the slope ahead of me to the left, turned toward me, waved, and rode out onto FS80. Hmm... A trail?

Yep. There was a little spur a few hundred feet up, blocked by a couple of downed trees, and a fall-line trail bypassing them. I explored that little spur 15 year ago. It didn't go far back then, but by the looks of it, it would now.

Yep. These days it becomes a nice little sidehill, and goes and goes...

When it starts to flatten out, there are some interesting signs of former habitation.

An old post of some sort:

Some "organized rocks":

I eventually ended up on Old FS879, which I recognized from having explored it from the other end some 15 years ago as well. There's a bit of a waterfall down there.

Near the road are old bridge piers...

...and there's still even some debris from the bridge itself.

The wooden abutments are still in place too, but they were so covered with rhododendron that it was tough to get a photo.

On the way back up, I noticed even more stuff.

There were three distinct mounds off to the west.

Tailings of some kind, maybe?

At the end of Old 879, there was once a distinct campsite. It's overgrown now, but before the advent of fire rings, 55 gallon drums were apparently common at camp sites, and this one's was still in place.

Woohoo! Detroit homeless fire!

At a point, the trail jumps up onto a little ridge for a bit, and nearby are a couple of fairly deep pits.

Mine shafts? Old bunkers seemed more likely. If so, they were VERY old. But, I think Camp Merrill was founded in the 50's, so that would be plenty of time.

Higher up... It'll be deer and bear season soon.

What seemed like forever later, I finally got back to that original road I was headed out on, and followed it east. There was a small falls-ish thing nearby.

Probably looks more like a waterfall in the winter.

The road was like 20 feet wide, but very flat. I mean, shallow like an old railroad grade. Like a mainline. There was even a good cut that was clearly made to keep it straight and shallow.

The width and lack of stone fills at the creek crossings suggested vehicular traffic, but for a while, the pitch made me suspicious.

There was a ravine up there too, with a rough trail leading up both sides. It looked unnaturally deep and steep.

It struck me as having been mined hydraulically. There's a similar ravine up on Old Jones Creek Road that struck me the same way. I can't find any distinct record of mining in the area though, so who knows?

At length I got to the million-way intersection. It turns out that 6 roads come together there. I took the one that I figured was probably Old Cooper Gap Road.

Immediately I found this weird old metal band.

It looked to me like an old barrel hoop. Appropriate. But it could have been anything.

There were long rock walls along the outside edge.

Another sign that this was an old wagon road. As the road wears in, rocks would get exposed in the steeper sections, and people would move them to the side. This eventually forms a rock wall, which encourages erosion, and exposes more rocks, but also makes the road safer. I've seen this on the Hightower Express, Old East Mountaintown, the Dockery Lake Trail, and lots of other unnamed trails.

The old road got decidedly less overgrown at a point, and then soon after, I hit a private property sign.

Time for some lunch.

Mmmm. Delicious.

So, that was as far up as I could go. Down proved a lot more difficult. To start with, the old road was like 6 feet below grade, and a newer route had formed immediately to the east. Following the original route was super difficult. It was much easier to just walk in the woods beside it. Following the newer route wasn't actually that easy either, as it was much less distinct in some places.

I found an old air filter that I remembered having seen way back when I originally explored the area.

I thought I remembered some tires too, but I didn't find any this time.

Progress was terribly slow, as both the old road and woods to either side were pretty dense with brush. The road forked once too, so I got sidetracked for a while.

There was another old post out there on the fork.

Must have had a sign on it at some point.

At great length, the old road flattened out and joined a modern, well-maintained road. Though unmarked, I figured that was probably the beginning of some private property. I knew there was a farm down there somewhere, from aerial photos, and from driving up the road from the other end years ago. When I got back home, and crunched the gps data, it turns out that there's an oddly-shaped inholding up there, and the land that the road lies on becomes private fairly quickly below the intersection. It's totally unmarked, but who'd be crazy enough to go walking around in there?

Climbing back out was even slower, but I made much better progress when I reached the old roadbed that I'd come in on.

When I got back to my car, my brother and Mark B had apparently ridden by it.

I'm a "Psy" it would seem.

Heh.

They'd ridden a fairly epic lasso route that day, starting at the north end of Noontootla. Whew!

I was pretty satisfied with the day's wanderings. I'm now curious about those 3 other old roadbeds at that intersection, but it'll be deer and bear season soon, so it'll probably be a while before I have a good chance to check them out.

Bull/Jake

We've got a meeting coming up in November to plan future work at Bull/Jake Mountain. In preparation, we have to come up with lists of stuff we'd like to get done out there. To come up with my list, I figured I'd better do a mini-assessment of the system.

I headed out early Sunday morning, stopping by the local Waffle House for some breakfast, and two chicken/bacon sandwiches to go. The ladies working there are always chatty, noticed my bike, asked me what I was up to, and were pretty shocked and amazed at how far I was planning on riding. I'd actually put in relatively few miles since the TNGA, and the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I was up for it myself.

Best not to worry about such things. They tend to work out, I find.

At the lot, there were various other folks gearing up and heading out, but nobody that I knew.

I basically did a big clockwise loop of the system, with a couple of out-and-backs thrown in for good measure: Bull/Jake Connector -> 83 Bypass -> Lot Connector -> Bull Proper -> out-and-back on Upper Lance Creek -> Bear-Hare -> Booger Holler -> out-and-back on the Whoop-de-Do's -> rest of Booger Holler -> Jones Creek Ridge -> Turner Creek -> No Tell -> Black Branch -> Jake Mountain.

Overall, the system is in beautiful shape with some notably bad spots. Sadly, some of the bad spots are close to the lot, so they get a lot of attention. Also though, it makes sense that they're close to the lot, as those trails get the most traffic.

For example:

Glorious Bull/Jake Connector:

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Bad spot:

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Glorious 83 Bypass:

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Bad spot:

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And so on...

There are some particularly beautiful spots out there, both from a trail maintenance and user experience perspective. For example...

Bear-Hare climb above Lance Creek:

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Bear-Hare descent:

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And then, on the other hand, there's the Great Rift:

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And the total absurdity of the Whoop-de-Do's:

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I did, however, give a second look to "the jump" at the top of the Whoop-de-Do's, and it is, in fact, an old Kelly Hump. It was not constructed by the contractors who did the recent work out there. It was always there, as is evident by the double-hump on the outside edge of the old roadbed, and the many years of debris covering it.

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I had one chicken sandwich at the end of the Bear-Hare singletrack.

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It was a little flat, but otherwise delicious.

I had the other on Black Branch, near the creek crossing.

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You know you got your drive-up's worth if you have to stop and eat twice.

So much glorious trail out there! I wish it were reasonable to post all the photos.

I was beat when I got on Jake though, so I didn't hit Moss Branch or Beaver Pond that day. Instead, I came back a week later and picked them up. The ladies at the Waffle House were surprised to see me still alive and eager to find out if I'd be riding the same distance again. Sadly no, but I still got a couple of those chicken sandwiches to go again. This time, minus the bacon. Seriously, Waffle House makes really good chicken sandwiches.

When I got out by Jones Creek, I noticed Mike Reiter's trailer parked off to the side.

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He's been doing work on new singletrack out there that bypasses most of the old roadbed leading to the dam. We have a work party coming up on Oct 12 to do some hand-finishing work out there.

So much more beautiful trail out there...

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So much.

Few bad spots, actually. Basically just the climb up off of the dam and some exposed geotextile at Moss Branch proper.

I ran into Ed Freyer on Jones Creek Ridge. He'd actually run into Debbie and Nancy on Turner Creek. I thought I recognized their trucks in the lot, but they both got new trucks recently, and I wasn't sure. I texted Debbie. She was on No-Tell. Then I ran into them on Beaver Pond and we chatted for like 15 minutes. Some riders came through and didn't quite know what to make of us. They rode yesterday and Debbie's new horse Smoke was tired. He fell asleep while we were talking and took a second to wake back up when she was ready to go.

Ha!

I did like half the miles that day, and only stopped once to eat.

It's funny, looking back at the GPS data... I was out there for 8 hours the first day and 5 the second. But, I probably only rode 25 miles the first day and like 10 the second. So much stopping and starting. It felt epic.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

TNGA 2019

I'd ridden the route in 2010, prior to the first event, and then directed the event for the first three years after that, but I'd never experienced the TNGA the way most riders do. Last Thursday afternoon, the novelty of doing that was almost as exciting as the idea of actually riding.

I drove up to Mulberry Gap that night, and arrived to an empty barn, with Brad McLeod milling around outside. He'd also just arrived. After scouting my options a bit, I set up my tarp near the barn, and got done with that right as Jeff Williams arrived. Cool! He and I shot the breeze for a while. I got down that classical guitar they have hanging on the wall and tried to remember how to play it. "Do you know how to play Simple Man?" It seemed like I'd learned it at some point... Jeff played it on his phone. I figured it out over the course of the first verse and a half. Then it was stuck in my head for the next day.

I got great sleep that night. Three dreams. I don't remember the first or last, but the middle dream involved me driving off of the road in a storm, into the ocean, freezing, drowning, coming back as a ghost, and hanging out with my family for a few hours. It was the weirdest dream ever, and I woke up pretty creeped out by it. Fortunately the next one was better, and I felt a lot less creeped out when I woke up for real the next morning.

Breakfast was delicious and satisfying. Diane was in town, so I got to hug her and catch up. Riders were showing up left and right. There were two guys, up from Florida, both from Lithuania (originally), both named Irmantas. Really cool guys. I ran into a lot of really cool guys that morning, actually. And girls too! Sara Dallman and Audrey Tangye both looked incredibly fit and determined. They struck me as liquid metal cyborgs sent back from the future to destroy each other. I couldn't wait to find out how that went down.

Justin made it to the start, but Glen didn't. Last minute decision, apparently. He just wasn't ready. There were a lot of guys from the surrounding states, and a few from way up north. Mike Rasch was up from New Orleans. But he wasn't the only one from back home. There was a guy named Dakota up from Mandeville too.

I saw the Cohutta Cat that morning. I even gave it some scratches. In addition to the usual menagerie, Brian had a new dog named "Bro" that was really friendly and fun to play with. He wasn't exactly a puppy, but he was still young. When he wasn't running around, he'd go get his chew toy, lie down on your feet and go to town on it.

After lunch, Kate assembled everyone for a quick meeting...

...and then we piled into the vans and headed over to Clayton.

Shotgun!

The drive was long and scenic.

...but all those beautiful mountains kept reminding me that I had to climb them at some point.

We got to the motel before dinner. Me and Jason Shearer were sharing a room on a hall down the middle with a wall at one end. The AC units for the rooms were blasting heat into the hall, and there were box fans everywhere attempting to direct that heat toward the rest of the world. The room was cool and luxurious, but the hall was a furnace. Walking past the end of it was like walking past an open oven.

We all moseyed over to The Universal Joint for dinner, where the staff was just barely able to keep up with us. I think there were 99 riders this year, and almost everyone showed up at the restaurant at the same time. There was an optional riders meeting at a bike shop after dinner, but the shop was about a mile away. I'd have to go back to he room, get my bike, and ride there. No freaking way. I needed sleep. In fact, I was developing a bit of a sinus drip, so I hit the local gas station for some Nyquil on the way back to the room. Bob's Burgers was on, but I almost couldn't stay awake to finish watching it. Jason came in at some point, but I was so crashed out that I barely noticed.

The next morning, we all got up at like 5:30AM. The motel's breakfast wouldn't be ready for another hour, so I hit the Circle-M across the street, and the memories came flooding back. I hit that store on the way out of town so many times when I was up there scouting the route. Sooo many times.

I got to hang out with Jason for a while that morning too. He's such a cool guy! I'm glad I got a chance to actually talk to him that morning because there was just no way the night before.

At 6:30 sharp, we loaded up and headed to the border. Being me, I had to stop and pee about halfway there. Thanks Daryl. It was bad.

The start was actually familiar. The one bit that was a little different was that, being the 10th anniversary of the event, Jeff lined up a lead-out group and we did a neutral start until the top of the first hill. The lead out group included the riders (who were there) with the fastest times (on the current and old course, male and female, single-speed and geared) as well as the youngest rider to finish and youngest to start (16 and 15 respectively). And, then also me, as the creator of the route. It was an assembly of Terminators. I was Sarah Connor.

"Go!"

We rolled up to the top of the first hill. Eddie and I joked about how we've known each other for like 15 years but never actually lined up on one another before. "The Kid" had heard that me and Eddie had tried to find Corpsewood Manor a few weeks back and told us about how creepy it was. He'd apparently been there. You know, standard pre-ride chit-chat.

(...top of the first hill...) "Go!" (for real this time)

Eddie took off. Holeshot wins it.

I steadily fell back for the first few hours, settling into a realistic position, and got to chat with at least half of the field at some point. Eventually, I was riding alone, then, suddenly, Eddie rides up behind me. He'd taken a wrong turn at some point. He's done that every single TNGA so far. Par for the course. Justin caught me while I was fiddling with something, and we stuck together.

So much climbing through Warwoman.

So much.

The Darnell Creek Horse Trail was a welcome change. But, I'd never actually ridden it. Koz had chainsawed it out some years back in exchange for being able to include it in the route and avoid having to hike-a-bike across Ramey Creek on a user-created trail. It's basically Mountaintown, with fewer creek crossings, and with some characteristic horse wear. I doubt anyone has ridden a horse on it in a long time though. The canopy was barely high enough to get through on a bike in a lot of places.

Here's Justin, shredding that singletrack.

We picked up Clint Fowler at the bottom and rode with him for quite a while after that.

There was a mandatory checkpoint at the Black Bear Cabin in Rabun Gap.

Honcho makes sure everyone's tracker is working. Nothing sucks for your family and event staff more than you riding 400 miles with a dead tracker. The ice cream at that place is amazing. I'm going to make sure to ride/hike up that way sometime soon, just so I can go back and get some more. There was an old light-gauge railroad running out of the back of the property too. I was curious what that was all about, but it was not the time to go exploring abandoned railbeds.

Get moving Dave.

We rolled around the back side of the school...

...climbed Patterson Gap...

...and Abe Gap.

Abe Gap, by the way, was gorgeous. Last I'd ridden it, 10 years ago, it was mostly bare dirt, crisscrossed by 8-10 inch ruts. When I said: "I wanted it to be singletrack, and if it couldn't be singletrack, then I wanted it to be pretty, and if it couldn't be pretty, then I wanted it to be hard" that last bit refers to sections like Abe Gap. It avoids several miles of pavement, but it's steep and relentless, and way back when, it was murder. These days, it's still steep and relentless, but it was as much of a pleasure to ride as something steep and relentless can be. The tread was packed gravel, with little grasses growing up through it. Light foliage lined both sides. There's a creek near the end. Historically, it would divert itself and run right down the road. It's now back in its original bed. The water was clear, and there were little fish darting around at the crossing. Gorgeous! I'm seriously thinking about writing a thank-you note to the USFS about it.

I filled up at the settling tank in the Coleman River area. Not making the Florida-mistake any more, I now down as much as I can at each water stop, then fill up.

We took another break at the Tallulah River Campground.

Lots of riders joined us there. Paul Harrison told me: "You know, you're kind of a dick." He meant it as a joke. But I think he realized that he was probably only about 10% joking as he said it. So much climbing. And we weren't done yet.

The run up along the Tallulah is beautiful, but it's tough to get photos of it moving.

At Charlie's Creek...

Chris Gray and family had a table full of trail magic set up for everyone. I don't remember what I ate, but I remember being super happy about it.

Rhonda and her family were there, camped out mid-stream watching the spectacle. I rode across the Tallulah, barely getting my feet wet, and even managed to wave without sketching.

Charlie's Creek road was kind-of fun, but a lot of it is exposed, and it was HOT. We took a break at Blue Ridge Gap before bombing down through Titus and eventually picking up pavement over Dick's Creek Gap. The sun exposure there made any we'd experienced on Charlie's Creek seem like a joke. I was sweating buckets. This had been happening all the day, actually. You'd start climbing, get hot, become thoroughly soaked, get harassed by little bugs, get tired, and get to the top. Then, you'd hit some screaming or technical downhill and get no rest for your legs at all. You might dry out 20-30%, and your gloves might dry out 10% if you make a specific effort to dry them.

I think I might be kind of a dick.

At Moccasin Creek we had a big regroup again.

I got there a 5:09. I'd gotten there at almost the exact same time 10 years ago. I know because both times, the store had just closed when we arrived.

Linda Sledge was there.

She'd started at like 3AM before the rest of the group to get a lot of the climbing done before it got too hot.

We all rested, recovered, ate, drank, and planned our next move. A lot of people push hard to get to Helen on day 1. This is a mistake, and probably half the group pays for it. I told Justin a few weeks ago that 80% of my plan was not worrying about getting to Helen the first day. If I can, great, but I'm not going to force it. That said, at Moccasin, I felt great. I definitely felt like I could climb over Addis Gap, and hit the store up the road on the other side. So, me and Justin resolved to do that and see how we felt at the top.

I think 4 or 5 of us ended up resting together at Addis Gap. Justin was resolved to push on to Helen. He'd gotten a room there, and I could share it with him if I wanted. I felt ok, but I definitely needed recovery and calories if I wanted to push over Tray Mountain. So, I tore down Mill Creek, and hung a right on Hwy 75 towards the store. Justin hung a left and headed straight for Helen.

At the road, Rob Perkins was getting picked up by his dad, whom I'd met earlier that day. He'd been having stomach issues and knew he was out.

The sunset along Hwy 75 was so peaceful, but the lens on my phone was perpetually wet and didn't really capture the moment.

At the store, the guy running it was listening to some strange, repetitive Indian music, and singing along. He was very hospitable though, let me microwave a can of Ravioli, and loaned me a fork. Rob and his dad showed up right as I was sitting down, and we had a great time talking while I feasted.

The Ravioli made me feel like a new man, as Ravioli is wont to do. I discovered this during a Dauset 6-hour that I did with my dad, years and years ago, and it's been reliable ever since.

Yeah, I was going to climb Tray Mountain.

It's a 12 mile climb, but the first few miles flew by. I even passed a lot of riders walking.

At about mile 9, I noticed a grader parked off to the left hand side. "Ohh, that's not good." They usually regrade the road, cover it in loose gravel, and call it a day. If the road is particularly steep, they'll pack the gravel somehow, with a bulldozer, I guess, but I knew from experience that this road wasn't steep enough for that.

Fortunately, thank God, they'd run the grader, but hadn't yet dumped any gravel. This was the less horrible of the two possibilities. Still, I had to decide whether to ride in inch-and-a-half-deep powder, or in one of the soft, damp tire tracks. I walked a lot, but still made it to the top in good time.

The road from Tray Gap to the Hickory Nut is super, super, chunky, but had been closed to vehicles some time since I'd last ridden there, and appeared to have been minimally regraded itself. The deep ruts were gone. There was a ton of gravel down, but the huge exposed boulders were still huge and exposed. Fun to navigate in the dark, for sure.

Approaching the Hickory Nut, I passed a crew of 10 defeated-looking riders posted up in a clearing, waiting on a buddy of theirs, that they thought I was. At the Hickory Nut, I passed a guy who was clearly looking for the trail. "It's this way..."

The Hickory Nut itself was also gorgeous. The width of the trail is traditionally strewn with 6x6x10 inch jagged-edged chunks of rock, and covered in 8-inch tall grass, which completely hides these rocks. There's usually a foot-wide line discernible down the middle, but you better not stray from it. Fairly-recently though, some rhododendron tunnels have formed, and they appear to have choked out a lot of that grass. The rocks are still there, but you can totally see them. There were still some downed trees, but it looked like the local chapter had been up there making them rideable, without completely removing them.

I would say it was a pleasure to ride, but really, it was only as much of a pleasure as tiptoeing down a steep, rock-strewn descent, at midnight, after 90+ miles of climbing all day, in a soaking wet kit, with soaking wet gloves can be. It was a relative pleasure. Lets say that.

I passed Justin 8/10ths of the way down. We regrouped at the bottom and rode in to Helen together. The Huddle House was hopping at 1AM on a Saturday Night. We were lucky to have seats at the bar. One of the cooks was really interested in what we'd been up to and wished us luck. We also got a lot of What-Even-the-Heck looks from some of the patrons. Justin did, still, in fact, have a room. They hadn't sold it out from under him because he got there after midnight. We destroyed the shower. Justin said it looked like someone had been gardening in there after I got out. I washed my kit, and it dried well overnight.

Then, I went to get my phone out of my pack, and it was gone.

It had apparently gone flying out of the pocket on the Hickory Nut. I'd been carrying it around in that pocket for months, on all kinds of terrain, just to be sure that wouldn't happen, and still, it did.

Goodness.

Justin posted about it on the TNGA Bikepackers Facebook group, and almost immediately a guy responded. He'd found it. The pink case made it stand out a mile away. I keep my phone in a pink case for literally, exactly that reason. Ha! Ha! And, he was at the Huddle House next door! My goodness, what luck. Sort-of. I can't receive support from another rider, aside from just riding together, and sharing lodging/campsites. I wasn't sure what the rule for getting your phone back would be. If I was running the event, I'd be like "pfft... whatever" but I didn't know what Honcho would say. So, I ran over to the Huddle House, asked the guy to meet me at the hotel lobby, and gave the lady there my home address so she could mail it home. We all felt good about that. I offered the guy space in our room, but he was going to keep moving. Wish I'd gotten his name...

We slept like the dead, and the next morning, we both felt great. And good thing too, because Hogpen was next. Hogpen is paved, but it's steep, and it's like 7 miles long. And, actually, you start climbing in Robertstown, well before turning onto the Richard B. Russell, so it's really like 9 miles. Nine miles of knobbies on pavement.

As it turns out, the Maxxis Ikons are excellent for this. They have 2 rows of knobs up the middle that contact the pavement with about the same width of rubber as a road tire. Other tires I've ridden in the past have felt like constantly ripping open velcro, but the Ikons just roll.

Nice.

About halfway up the Irmantases were stopped in the shade. Irmantas Lukosiunas was fixing his tire. "How do you like Hogpen?" "Brutal." Agreed.

Kate passed me and waved. She was, no doubt, rescuing folks from Helen. A little after that Mark Baldwin drove by. He'd been driving around all morning giving positive encouragement to the riders. At Hogpen proper, there were magic Cokes, and Pringles, and water. Mark may have been responsible for those. If so, thanks bro! A legitimate roadie pulled through the gap not long after we did. It seemed weird to see someone on the route that wasn't part of the event, but we cheered him on. Hogpen is tough whether you're riding it at mile 0 or 100.

Bombing off the backside sounded like a Mustang coming in for a strafing run. Another feature of the Ikons.

Hatchet Creek was low. A lady and her daughter were playing in Helton Creek, which was high enough to get my feet wet. I remembered the jaunt through there as easy rollers, but it turned out to be a tough climb, and we rolled into Vogel State Park for food, Powerade, and recovery. There were 4 other riders there doing the same thing. Two guys from Tallahassee had gotten bad sleep the night before. They'd pulled into Helen, only to find that their room had been sold out from under them. They'd booked it through some online service. The lady at the hotel: "Oh, I never check that." Seriously!? We'd apparently been very lucky to have gotten a room.

Justin was more tired than I was, but we headed up Wolfpen together. At least 3 different auto clubs passed us, and countless motorcycles. No cyclists. It was a beautiful day, but it was too hot to be riding bicycles. At Wolfpen Gap, I ran into Tallahassee guys again. Tom Kessling also caught up with me there. He and Justin and I rode together for a lot of Duncan Ridge. I hadn't remembered Duncan Ridge climbing off of Wolfpen Gap, but apparently it does. It is possible to get some rest on the long descent off of it though. Not a ton, but more than any other descent so far. Justin fell back, somewhere during the descent, and I caught Tom. We rode together to the Cooper Creek store, and Justin arrived a few minutes later.

At the store, things were buzzing. There was a "Welcome TNGA Riders!" sign out front, and the kitchen was busy. They'd been following people on trackleaders.com too, and knew, by name, exactly who was going to show up next. "Dave!" when I walked in. "Dakota!" when he walked in. The hospitality felt so good. The smiles, friendly voices, and enthusiastic service. I can't overstate the value of all that. I'd been dreaming of Ravioli for the last 15 miles, and they were happy to microwave it for me. They were also cranking out pulled pork sandwiches as fast as humanly possible, and that pork got two thumbs up. I lay on the cold floor for at least 10 minutes, just bathing in the air conditioning.

There must have been 15 riders there at one point. Everyone were figuring out their next move. The heat was taking people out left and right. There was dehydration, of course, and the fact that every effort required twice the calories, and half again however much time you conservatively estimated. But, much worse was spending hours in thoroughly soaked bibs, socks, and gloves. People were getting chafed to death. I joked that it wasn't "a"-ttrition, but rather "b"-ttrition. Where "b" stands for "booty". But it wasn't just bootys, it was feet and palms and that line where your thigh meets your waist. Everywhere. I'd done enough long rides over the past few months to be able to predict and manage that to a sustainable extent. I think some of the Florida riders could too. But, anyone from up north was suffering.

I decided to get to the Iron Bridge, fuel/tank up there, push over to the base of Stanley Gap, sleep there, wake up naturally in the middle of the night, and push over in the dark. Justin thought that sounded like a good idea, but didn't have it in him to keep going. He didn't know exactly what was wrong, but he knew he was in some kind of a hole. It turned out later that he'd gotten too far behind on hydration to catch back up in any reasonable amount of time. I think he said that he didn't pee for a day and a half afterwards. Yikes!

I did exactly what I'd planned. The run along the Toccoa River with the sun going down behind it was spectacular. I cursed myself for losing my camera.

At the (closed) Iron Bridge Cafe, I sat in one of their chairs for a half hour. Up the road at the (still open) Toccoa River Restaurant, I stocked up on chips and Powerade. I usually crave little chocolate donuts on these things. This time, it was chips. I wanted Lays and Doritos and Cheetos and especially Cheez-Its, though I guess those are actually crackers. Whatever. Salt and fake cheese flavor of some kind. The heat was responsible, I guess, but I personally pulled Frito-Lay out of any Q3 slump they may have been having. I also made my first mistake there, but was not aware of it at the time.

At the Long Branch Trailhead there was a gallon of water, a cooler full of bottles of tea, and a cooler with several deli sandwiches in it. The deli sandwiches had spinach on them though, so I left them for someone who would enjoy them more than me. I'd just filled up on Powerade though, and there was plenty of water ahead, so I just took a draught from the gallon before moving on. I made my second mistake there, but was also not yet aware of it.

Feeling good, I threw up my tarp at the base of the Stanley Gap climb and settled in for the next 7 hours or so.

I'd apparently never camped next to anything gravelly before. Somehow, through some process that I could neither determine, nor develop an adequate hypothesis to explain, the gravel makes little shifting noises, all night. Individual pieces of gravel, apparently, shift around, somehow. Is there something there? No. Wait, what about that time? No. For hours. There's also some owl up there that screams like a child before making more owl-type noises. I'd never heard that one before. But none of that was intolerable. In fact, I began to ignore the gravel, and the owl was just neat and interesting. What was intolerable, however, was the constant harassment of bugs. Nothing biting mind you, just gnats and mosquitos buzzing around or landing on you for a second. Light and random, but persistent. How had this never been a problem before? Had I just never camped at this exact time of year? I did manage to sleep for some amount of time, apparently, because at a point, I woke up, noticing that I had. Not long after, Tom rode by and almost went down Flat Creek instead of up Stanley. I think Lucas Kindervater came by after him. I felt adequately refreshed a little while after Lucas came through, got up, packed up, ate, drank, and started climbing.

On a good day, fresh, I can climb "most" of Stanley Gap. Basically, if it gets too chunky, I have to walk, but it's never too steep except this one little bit on Rocky Mountain. Such was not the case that day. I walked at least 30% of the climb. I could basically only ride where the trail was manicured. All the walking packed dirt around my cleats too, and they were difficult to get into and out of the pedals. At one point, I couldn't get my left foot out, started to fall over, grabbed a tree, which slowly bent all the way to the ground under my weight, and then, lying there, still couldn't get my foot out of the pedal without first lying all the way down on the ground and forcing the weight of the bike off of me. It would have been hilarious under different circumstances, but the last thing I needed was to break something. It's one thing to scratch because you're worn out. It's another to have to scratch because you broke something.

About 2/3rds of the way up, some large beast went tearing downhill away from me, manhandling the foliage as only a bear does. I never saw it directly. I was also a little aprehensive about how slowly it ran away - as if it was thinking twice about it.

At the top I was hungry. Earlier, I had believed that I had enough calories packed to get me to Mulberry Gap. After satisfying my hunger, I realized I had well under half of what I probably actually needed. What I should have done at the restaurant, was gotten four of their Cajun Chicken Sandwiches to go. Eaten one there, eaten another one when I woke up, and kept the other two for later. Alternatively, I could have at least taken one of those sandwiches from the Long Branch cooler. Even if I'd just unrolled the meat and eaten the parts that weren't spinached or sauced in some way, it would have been a delicious, hearty meal. Fool! You will pay for your shortsightedness!

But not yet.

I resisted the urge to bomb down off of Rocky Mountain. I'd heard at Cooper Creek that Eddie was out after breaking two spokes on the same descent. I did bomb down Rock Creek Road though, except for stopping to fill up both bottles in Rock Creek Proper. I was definitely in a nutrition hole. I couldn't feel it yet, but I knew that it was there. I also knew that there was a gas station (formerly known as the Rebel's Pantry) somewhere on 515. It seemed like it was to the north, but I wasn't sure. As I approached the highway, I was passed by two cars coming the other way. I tried to flag down both of them, but neither stopped. I think they just thought I was waving to make sure they saw me in the dark. The second guy just turned off his high beams. As luck would have it though, I came upon a couple, just out for a pre-dawn hike, on the road, wearing reflective vests. They also believed that the Rebel's Pantry was to the north, but were unsure of how far. Maybe 4 miles. Ugh. That's 8 miles off-route, round-trip.

It needed to be done though, and when I got to the highway, I headed north. No doubt, 4 relatively easy miles later, I was at the store. The lady behind the counter was half asleep but she took care of me. She couldn't believe all that I purchased though. Three gatorades, a bunch of chips, two sandwiches, and a soda. "You don't need a bag?" I ate and drank as much as I could cram into my system. I felt like I had adequate snacks to get me to MGap too. A guy drove up: "Gettin' it this morning, eh?" "Yep, gettin' it!" He wished me luck when he left too. Some lady drove up to one of the pumps, cranking tunes in her car, sat there for a minute, drove away, drove back up a few minutes later, still cranking, sat there for a minute, then finally got out and went inside. She was wearing a Waffle House uniform. She didn't look too happy on the way in, but looked really happy coming back out. Buddies with the clerk? Bought cigarettes? I couldn't tell. The owner drove up while I was sitting there too. She was also friendly. So many friendly people.

I got back on the route, pushed through Cherry Log, and up Boardtown to Bushy Head Gap Road. Shannon Bearden, a local dirt-track racer, has a shop up there on the corner with a cooler out front that's generally good for soda and snacks. Tom was stopped there, and I pulled in behind him. He and Shannon were having a lively conversation at the time. I craved a Dr. Pepper like I never have before in my life. I only had a $20 on me though, and rather than give me $19.50 in change, he just let me have it. He also told us that up the road a bit, the church's community center was open and to feel free to go in, rest and refuel.

Awesome!

No doubt, there was a TNGA Riders Welcome sign posted at the community center. The lights were on, and the door was open. Me and Tom parked our bikes, took off our shoes, and went on in. The AC was delicious. It also looked like they'd basically set out their entire pantry onto the tables there. There were boxes of chips, trail mix, beef jerky, candy bars, crackers... Everything a person could crave. There were like 5 giant bottles of different kinds of fruit punch. And, there was more in the fridge. And bathrooms. And water. I wanted to cry. The generosity was just overwhelming.

There were historic photos all over the walls too - construction of the chapel, the congregation over the years, with names. There were lots of Stanleys, Waters, and other last names matching local geography. It would have been easy to get sidetracked and spend all kinds of time studying them.

The only thing I couldn't find was a pen. I wanted very badly to write them a thank you note.

We sat on the porch and got good and recovered before climbing over Bushy Head Gap. Bushy Head is super punchy, and ten years ago I had to walk the last bits of it. These days, the really steep part is paved. A welcome improvement.

I hummed along from there to the gravel. I friendly little dog was out there chasing cars, and when I passed by he got very interested in me. "Hey buddy! You like to run! Ok, let's run!" And he followed me for like 3 miles until I finally hit a downhill and pulled away. I realized in there somewhere that I'd never actually ridden that section. Ten years ago we went through Devil's Den and up over Flat Top before changing the route. The current route is theoretically easier, but it's definitely not easy in the absolute sense. With the heat and sun exposure, and cumulative calorie deficit, I pretty much walked into the Cohuttas.

At Dyer Gap, there's a cemetery and an outdoor, open-air chapel. I'd planned to get there, fuel up, rest, and then push hard to MGap. When I got there, the graves were ablaze with color. Someone had, very recently, put flowers on nearly every one of them. I've passed that cemetery dozens of times and never seen it like that. Beautiful! No sooner had I arrived than a guy rode by on a motorcycle, saw me, and spun back. "Uh, oh. Here we go... Just act like everything is business as usual..." Ha! Turned out it was Matthew Liers, a fellow cyclist. He was cruising up and down, saying hi to the riders. It was great talking to him.

(photo by Matthew Liers)

Tom rolled by at some point during our exchange and we all waved to each other. When he headed off to see the Irmantases, I lied down on the pew for a nap. Some indeterminate amount of time later, I snapped awake, sat up, and had no idea, at all, where I was. Looking around, it made no sense. This was my thought process: "I'm wearing bike clothes. How could I be asleep in bike clothes? That's my bike. This looks like Dyer Gap. How in the world am I at Dyer Gap? That's part of the TNGA route. Am I riding the TNGA? Nooo... That's ridiculous! Ha! What a ridiculous idea. (...pause...) Why AM I here though? Wait... I'm off work all week. Oh, God! I AM riding the TNGA! (...horror sets in...) I'm so far from Alabama! I need to go!"

I'd actually figured out why I was there, then dismissed the idea, on grounds of absurdity. Then realized that I was, in fact, doing that absurd thing.

I filled up bottles at Jack's River, had actual fun on South Fork, then got brutalized by more heat and exhaustion up P0, and on the road over to Potatopatch.

I walked a lot of it. My shoes had been basically new at the start. When I started slipping, I checked the soles. 90% of the tread was gone. I think most of it had happened that day.

There was thunder off to my left the whole time, but it never rained. I rode through some wetness, but nothing terrible.

You get no rest down Potatopatch. Nor Bear Creek for that matter. I walked the switchbacks. I took on water at Barnes Creek.

It was getting late in the day. I was in trouble. I needed calories and sleep. I was out of food in my pack. Koz says, of the TNGA, that "anyone who sets their mind to it can do it, but you gotta want it, because it's gonna hurt you." Yeah, it was hurting me. Everything hurt. MGap was an oasis, only two trails away, less than 15 miles. But, dinner was served at 6PM. If I made it in time, I could eat, sleep, eat some more, and be well the next day. If I didn't, the kitchen might be closed, and I'd go to sleep with an empty belly, and the ride would be over.

I burned the house down to get there on time. The tail end of P2 was pure jackhammer slamming. The push over Mulberry Gap proper was the usual hell. But, I made it in time for dinner. 6:15 I think. There was steak, potatoes, fruit, and bread. And, it turns out, the kitchen is basically open 24/7 during the TNGA. They have volunteers covering all shifts. What a relief. In addition to the aforementioned, after dinner hours, I also got a pulled pork burrito.

Tom had gotten there ahead of me, and was leaving right as I sat down to eat. I wished him luck. He would go on to finish.

Jason Shearer had pulled out earlier due to some of that b-ttrition and he was there.

(photo by Diane Kepley)

Wendy was sittng across from him. She and Kate were enjoying some Sutter Home in mini plastic screw-cap bottles. Lucas and the Irmantases arrived a little later. We had a great time talking about the hell we'd been through. I'd had a great first and second day. That third day was the worst I'd yet had on a bike. Even with all the good fortune, it had been physically net-terrible. I understood the problem though. I knew how to solve it. I was doing that. Tomorrow would be better.

Another guy, with these badass mutton chops, who's name I sadly forget now (update: Brent Marshall), came in with bad trenchfoot, or something like it. He was in good hands, but he was suffering. Shaking, just sitting there. He later confessed, that during a really bad time, he threatened out loud, to shoot me in the face when he saw me again. Of course, he was joking, but like Paul earlier, I think he realized, as he said it, that he wasn't ENTIRELY joking. I've been there brother. Heal well.

I also got to meet Brent Nelson and his stepson, who were both volunteering. He finished in 2017. I recognized them from R2E. He was so relatable, and we had so much to talk about. I hope I run into him up there again some time and we have more time to hang out.

I showered, and got put up in the Koi Pond group cabin, and got the best sleep I can ever remember having. I downed a full bottle during the night, and woke up a few times to use the executive restroom. I'd only heard one other guy come in, but all beds were full in the morning. At breakfast, I had 4 eggs, 4 pieces of toast and fruit, and I got a chicken burrito with me.

(photo by Diane Kepley)

My clean and dry kit was lying in a pile on the next table over. I felt strong again. We may have solved the problems I'd gotten myself into. I was so grateful to Ginny for all the food that I gave her a huge hug as soon as she came out of the kitchen.

Let's go!

P3 and P4 were easy. I cleaned all but 2 switchbacks. It was basically a normal day. Screw riding that ridiculous hill on Tatum Lead. I walked most of it. P5 was a breeze. I tanked up on some little feeder of Baker Creek. On the P6 grasstrack, I sat down and ate about half of that burrito. Lucas passed me near the end of that, but I caught him later and we rode out the rest of P6 together. I managed to ride that entire steep kick through the middle. Yes! It was going to be another day like the first and second.

At that point, the only problem I had was an apparent, mild allergy to either the detergent, or something that somebody had in or on their kit in the wash. If I'd shift around oddly, I'd suddenly get all of these intense pinpoint itches all along the edge of my bib straps. It would happen when I'd get start to get really sweaty climbing too. It wasn't actually that bad, but it was something that I had to manage.

At Ramhurst, we stopped at the Sunoco, and ran into the friendliest store owner yet. He knew every customer that came in, other than us, of course, and he was super chatty with all of them. He'd cooked extra sandwiches because he knew that riders would be coming through. He seemed legitimately excited to be able to support us. It was like the Cooper Creek store, but just one guy. I bought a bunch of snacks and gatorade, but I felt bad that I still had half of a burrito left.

We had to wait a bit before pushing to Dalton because an 18 wheeler trailer had tipped over and spilled an ocean of grain across the road ahead of us. A crew was cleaning it up, but it was going to take a few more minutes. No problem. Take your time.

When we were ready to move, it was nearing the hottest part of the day. One of the troopers directing traffic was complaining about it to his buddy. Excellent! We had 15 miles of pavement in direct sun between us and Dalton. Bring it on.

Lucas's GPS had a thermometer, and in Dalton proper it hit 101 at a stoplight. Whooo!

We hit the Racetrack and the Chick-fil-a near I-75. I ate two 8-piece grilled nuggets, then got 4 of them (that is, four packs of 8-piece nuggets) and 2 fries to go. I got them to put them in the bags that they put the sandwiches in. There's not much water past Dalton either, so I kept my gatorade bottle from the Racetrack, and got the clerk at Chick-fil-a to fill it with water. She actually didn't fill it directly, but gave me a cup fill of water that I could pour into it. "Food handling regulations." If she only knew the food-handling regulations that I was about to violate, she might have thought twice about filling my order.

Dug Gap Mountain eats bikes, and I was extremely cautious. On the upside though, I guess I haven't ridden it in a long time, because I remember there being tons of loose rock lying around. Apparently, over the years, this has largely gotten kicked off to either side, or, in some places, stacked up. The vast majority of the rock up there now is cemented in place. You have to thread through it, but it's a lot more predictable.

I'd burned through two and a half bottles before dropping down off of Middle Mountain. It was a risk. Swamp Creek would likely have water, but there was no guarantee. I've seen it bone dry. With all of these pop-up storms, there might be water. But, with all of this heat, there might not. If there wasn't any, I'd have half a bottle to get over Mill Creek Mountain, and I'd be taking the road up to the store in Villanow, if it was still open.

Fortunately, I found a beautiful, dripping spring, about 3/4ths of the way down to Swamp Creek. I had to dig a hole to get my bottle under some drips, but I managed to fill and drink all that I could, then fill all three bottles again. Just up the trail, there was another spring too. I hoped Lucas would find one or the other of them.

Swamp Creek wasn't dry, but you could hardly call it a creek. It was more like Swamp-Series-of-Ponds. But, the water was clear, and there were tons of fish, darting around, at both crossings. So, with treatment, and/or filtering, it was probably good to drink.

Lucas caught me on Mill Creek Mountain, and we rode down together. Near the top, we passed some weird blanket tied to 4 trees, with an old Georgia flag or something behind it. I don't know what it was. It was creepy. I felt good. It was getting dark, but I had plenty of food and water, and with the low temps, I could easily push over Horn Mountain, and maybe even John's Mountain. Then, everything fell apart in the span of about 30 minutes.

First, my GPS batteries showed a low-battery indicator, then died 5 minutes later. WTH? I'd checked it in Dalton, and had 2 out of 4 bars left. It had taken 3 and a half days to wear down 2 bars. I ought to have 3 and a half more days, right? Apparently not. On those grounds though, I hadn't bought more batteries. I hadn't brought any spares either, because of all the opportunities that I knew I'd have to get more. Goodness. I knew the route, all the way to Simms Mountain, but for all I knew, Honcho had done something like run it up the gravel road on John's Mountain, or run it out by the Pilcher Pond, for who-knows-what reason. I hadn't studied it enough to be sure that wasn't the case. Dangit. I'd have to run up to that store in Villanow after all. We even ran into the most amazing trail magic yet as we approached the Snake Creek Gap Trailhead - water, mountain dew, a wide assortment of bars, a full bike toolbox, a floor pump, a helmet with a light on it, and a spare tire! Daryl Fagan, you are a wizard, but the one thing I needed, a pair of AA batteries, was the one thing that was missing. Yes, I checked, the helmet light had AAA's in it. Dangit, still making a trip to the store.

And, then, as we rolled into the lot, a storm blew in out of nowhere. I could still see stars above me, but the thunder was deafening, and high winds were blowing, oddly, in from the northeast. Lucas jumped into the bathroom for some privy bivy, but the storm wasn't yet directly upon us, so I figured I had time to set up my tarp. Ha! Even in the grass, there was so much gravel under the topsoil that it was like trying to hammer a stake into concrete. I grabbed my bike and tried to run back to the little clearing where we'd found all that magic. I had the tarp over my head like a poncho, and two steps into the trek back, the dangly threads blew around and got tangled up in my cassette. One of them got cut. I couldn't find it anywhere, and I had minutes or less before the storm hit. I was already getting pounded by sparse, but big, fat rain.

I ended up getting the tarp set up, with all my gear under it, just in time. The line that was cut was the main line though. The one that pulls against all of the others. I don't know what it's called. It's normally like 4 feet long, but now it was less than one. I had to just hold it out to prevent the tarp from collapsing, while getting hammered by the wind and rain. I was dry though, except for my hand. A few seconds later, it occurred to me that I could tie it to one of my seat rails. My bike was lying down, so I drug it over, positioned it, tied off the guy line, and bam! Success. I did go out later, during a break in the wind, to reset some of the lines, but I didn't get too wet.

The rain picked up again later, but I was dry and comfy. My gear was too. I ate two bags of chicken and a bunch of fries, then settled in for the night. It was actually great while it was raining. No bugs. I slept for a while. Irmantas Lu came through eventually though with lights on and tunes blasting. I woke up, and we talked for a while. He and Irmantas Stiega been riding in the rain, since before Swamp Creek. He had pushed through it. Stiega had bivvied up on the ridge where that creepy blanket thing was. I think Lu went down to the bathroom and stayed there all night. Apparently Lucas was gone by that point. The last thing he told me before he left was something like: "If I don't see you again before the finish, thanks for the route. It was miserably awesome." Stiega came down the mountain later and joined him in the bathroom. His light woke me up, but I was too sleepy to move. They would both go on to finish about 6 hours ahead of me, and Lucas ahead of them.

That night, I heard more crazy noises that I'd never heard in the woods before. The first was a howl. Not a coyote. It could have just been a dog. But it was really loud, and came from up the mountain, just a bit north. The second was that same kind of screaming owl that I'd heard below Stanley Gap. Much later in the night, after the Irmantases came through, I heard two a-hollerin's from well up the ridge, but directly above me. They sounded exactly like Ray Egan's Sasquatch calls. So similar, in fact, that my first thought was that some guys were up on the mountain either screwing around, or legitimately hoping to get a Sasquatch to holler back. The calls sounded so human, that there are basically only two possibilities: 1) There were some guys up there, yelling into the woods for some reason. 2) There are legtimiately Sasquatch living on Mill Creek Mountain. What do you do in this situation? The likelyhood of either possibility is extremely low. The former is MORE likely, but still incredibly UNlikely. My goodness, how do you decide?

I slept a little again after the howling, but only a little. The bugs were back out in full force. I had to do things like make a little pile out of my bag liner over my ear so the mosquitos wouldn't notice it. Yeah, camping in the summer is all about keeping the bugs off. How had I never managed to learn this before now?

The next morning I got up, ate one bag of chicken, and started getting ready. As I was doing so, some guy drove up into the lot, and I came running out of the woods in my bib (with no jersey) and bike shoes, looking crazy, to confirm that there really, was, in fact, a store up the road in Villanow. I was thinking that there was because I'd ridden the Up a Creek Without a Pedal ride years ago, and it seemed like we had a SAG there. He confirmed that, yes, there was a store, and even offered to take me to it, bike and all, but I had to decline. Gotta run what you brung.

And, so I did. The clerk at the store was as friendly as she could be, considering the hideous and confusing spectacle I must have presented. Some guys with a backhoe on a trailer came through, and on their way into the store, looked at me, then looked away quickly, as if they hoped they hadn't drawn my attention, then replied nervously to my "Morning". I'd become that guy on the streetcorner that you hope doesn't say anything to you.

Five mountains to go.

Back on route, I climbed Horn and John's Mountain. I felt better than I had at the beginning of day 3, but not a lot better. Horn was tough. So much loose rock. Lots of walking. I ate the rest of my chicken and fries at the top. The Pilcher Pond area had more climbing than I'd remembered. I saw a roadie on Pocket Road, oblivious to my struggle. John's Mountain was hell. It was warming up. The singletrack climb is always tough. The gravel on the road climb is always loose. I was persistently harassed by bugs. My shoes had gotten to where they always slipped when I walked. I understood Graham's breakdown when I came over the top. The descent wasn't materially better. Frondy vegetation crowded the trail. A lot of it was tall Poison Ivy and Oak. Ha! I'm not allergic. Still though, it was just whip, whip, whip, and it kind-of obscured the trail. Near the end, I heard and felt a minor rockslide up the hillside to my left. I couldn't see anything, but it felt like an earthquake.

At infinite length, I emerged from the John's Mountain Jungle and took the grasstrack down to Dry Creek. I needed water, but Dry Creek was filmy and foamy. Ag runoff. No good. Just up the road a bit, whatever creek Manning Mill is on looked delicious. I filled up three bottles, treated them, and lied down for a half hour nap, waiting for them to be safe to drink. I chugged one, took the other two, and cranked up over Strawberry Mountain.

At the Narrows, I headed off route, one final time. There's a store at the corner of East and West Armuchee Roads, in Subligna. Me and Eddie hit it a few weeks back. They have everything, and I needed everything.

They have this large restaurant-ish area with booths and a big open space in the middle. I asked if I could bring my bike in just to make sure nothing happened to it. Nope. No such luck. The clerk was otherwise very hopitable though. She microwaved a can of ravioli and a can of lasagna for me, and found me a spot to plug in and charge my light. Water is even more scarce past Strawberry Mountain, so I filled all 3 bottles with powerade, and bought a 4th.

Outside, a semi arrived and the guys were unloading crates and boxes of everything imaginable right next to my bike. They're pros, but even pros can drop something, so I moved it as far out of their way as I reasonably could.

Then, some very friendly, buy strikingly unintelligent man came in with his wife and they had this long conversation with the clerk. He struck me as the kind of guy who might start milling around as he's talking to you, take some steps backwards, trip over something, fall into something else, and completely destroy it. Like in some demented slapstick comedy routine. All, completely innocently, of course, but just because he was too unintelligent to have learned not to mill around in such a manner. I have known many such people.

Of course, none of this happened, I was just getting close to done, and keeping my bike safe was wearing on my mind.

As I rode away, that theoretically clumsy guy I mentioned earlier drove past me, gave a friendly honk, and he and his wife both waved at me. I felt terrible for having been suspicious of him earlier. That's the insanity of these things.

Two more mountains! Technically one, actually - Taylor's Ridge. But there are two sections of it, so it feels like two.

I made great time through the Narrows. I barely walked any of the wall up to the ridge. I was actually feeling stronger as the day wore on. At the W, the creek was running, so I pounded all that I could, and filled back up. At Mack White Gap, I took a short break, then headed up that terrible road climb. Amazingly, since Eddie and I had ridden there a few weeks ago, someone had completely regraded the upper section. The ruts were gone. The gravel wasn't even loose. It was as perfect as a ridiculously steep road can be, and I rode almost all of it.

One more mountain.

Shred. That section of the Pinhoti is super fun. Honcho said that it gets more traffic these days, now that people know about it. I had actual fun riding it. Somehow I missed the turn off onto the last bit of singletrack, and had to come back for it, but then I was done.

Zero more mountains.

The next 10 miles or so were rail-trail. The first five were crowded with lezpedeza and blackberry fronds dangling out over the trail. One such frond brushed across my face and gave me a couple of slices across my nose. There was a bridge somewhere in there with two boards missing entirely, lengthwise. I'd been riding with my commuter light to save my helmet lamp battery, but I barely had time to recognize and dodge the cavity. Time for the helmet lamp.

The next 5 miles of rail-trail were clean and clear. Then it was roads into Coosa. I got to another gas station at about 9PM, I think.

The clerk had seen dozens of us come through, and was excited that I was almost done: "Only 30 miles to go!" That's what I'd thought. It sounded like a lot to me though, at the time, and I'd never ridden any of it before. "How long is the race?" "This is day... five. Yeah, five" "Day FIVE?" I ditched the extra Powerade bottles. Two tins of ravioli, some chips, and a coke later, I was moving again.

I rode down Hwy 1 (I think) forever. The surreality really hit me there. I was riding a bike down the shoulder of a 4 lane highway, in the middle of the night. Only one car passed me from behind. Only two or three from the other direction. I did pass a car, parked on the shoulder, with the driver's side door open, and a guy dead asleep on the drivers's side. He didn't notice me come by, and I wasn't about to stop.

More gentle backroads led me into Cave Springs. The route was circuitous through town there, and it led past "The Cave" and the Hearn Inn, which I recognized from the R2E video. There was a black jeep idling in the parking lot with a bike leaning up against it, and various bits of gear hanging off of it, presumably drying. Jeff's jeep? I wasn't sure. Why was it idling? The lights were on in the inn, and a sign next to the door read "Welcome Friends." I'm a friend. I needed water and a bathroom, so I checked the knob. Unlocked. "Hello!? Jeff? Anyone? I'm using the bathroom." Nothing.

So weird.

15 miles to go. I had a picnic at one of the picnic tables nearby - a honey bun, and almost all of the Cheez-Its that I had left. I filled my bottles at The Cave and pushed on.

There was a long stretch of singletrack pretty soon after Cave Springs. The first few miles had that I-just-built-this feel to them. And, it's clear that their contractor understands the need for grade reversals, but damn, the grade reversals were just freaking relentless. Like one every 30 yards. It reminded me of the Brown Wave trail at FATS. It'll be fun when it's worn in, but in that shape, at midnight, at mile 300-something, it was torture. The next two sections were well-worn-in, marbly, decomposed limestone. Incredibly fun, even at mile 300-something. I think there were a couple of miles in there that I didn't pedal at all. The only downside was that I wanted to walk one little bit of it, but the trail was almost too narrow to walk. Three-quarter track, my brother calls it.

Then I hit Esom Hill Road. Two sections of the widest, most compact dirt road I've ever ridden on, and two sections of pavement. Gentle rollers. I was flying.

Pedestrian crossing ahead. The Silver Comet! I was actually going to finish this thing!

Following the route on my GPS for so long had given the ride kind-of an '80's side-scroller video game feel, especially at night when the GPS was back-lit. My bike, the trail, and the world around me were just the game controller. I had to manipulate them to advance my arrow along that line on the screen. I could see the end of the route on the map. For a moment, I got that sense of elation where you know you're going to win the game, even though you're on your last life. That whole thought process cracked me up, and I probably laughed out loud.

As I approached the finish, I wondered if any of my family or friends had been watching Trackleaders. I wouldn't fault anyone if they weren't watching me finish at 2:30 in the morning. My mom often congratulates me or my brothers by saying "Way to go dude!" while making little raised fists, and for whatever reason, her saying that popped into my head. It was way more like hearing it out loud though, than thinking it. I've had that happen a few times before. Most notably I'd hear songs vividly near the end of 6-hour races, and once I heard Johnny Garner's voice tell me that I needed to eat during my first solo TNGA attempt. Delerium and auditory hallucination. I love it!

I could see the arch at the border. The last time I'd been there was 7 or 8 years ago, section-riding the Silver Comet with Iz and Sophie. Sophie had crashed, destroyed her knee, but still wanted to push through because it was the last leg of riding the entire thing. She was going to finish!

I was going to finish!

Done.

The event has grown so much over the years, and every year I'm stunned by how much better it is than my intuitive sense of it. But, at that moment... Middle of the night. Pitch black. Nobody around. It perfectly matched my concept of how a TNGA should end.

Done!!!!

4 days, 18 hours, 30 minutes.

I rode past the arch, parked at the picnic table, and sat there for 30 minutes to let my Spot ping once more, then made my way back to the Esom Hill Trailhead to wait for a pick-up. I had no phone, but I'd talked to Kate back at MGap, and she said they'd be watching the trackers. It could take up to 6 hours to get picked up though, so I started getting comfortable. Two minutes into that, a police officer pulls up.

"Good evening sir. What have we got going on here?"

"I just completed the 2019 Trans North Georgia!"

"..."

"It's a bike race from South Carolina to Alabama, through the North Georgia Mountains."

"On trails? Like on the Pinhoti?"

"Yes! We through-rode the entire Pinhoti, and a lot more...(ramble, ramble, ramble)"

I was elated, exhausted, filthy, and probably smelled really bad.

He checked out my gear. I showed him my tracker, and gps, and bike, and kit... He seemed satisfied that I wasn't lying, wasn't homeless (in a professional capacity at least, there is, of course, the joke that pro endurance cyclists are just amateur homeless), and wasn't threatening. I explained the fiasco with my phone, and how the SOS button on the tracker worked. He warned me that there were rough characters roaming around and I told him about how I'd had to deal with the guys chasing me around the Ocala. He eventually wished me well, and continued his patrol. I saw him drive back by much later, but he didn't stop.

Zzzzz....

The next morning, I'd just woken up when Chris Husdon (one of the Tallahassee guys) and Rob Keener (I think) rode by. A few minutes later, Honcho shows up in his Jeep. Turns out I was supposed to just wait at the finish line. There's a road like 200 yards up that crosses the trail, and they have permission to drive down the trail to pick people up from the finish. Ha! That's not actually spelled out in any of the literature, but apparently waiting at the finish is the intuitive thing to do for everybody but me.

I shuttled back to the finish with Jeff. Kate was waiting there to pick us up. Fortunately not for long, but for long enough to hear rustling in the woods, think it was me, call my name a bunch, get spooked when I didn't respond, text me, text Kathryn, and then eventually discover that I was at the Esom Hill lot, and that the rustling in the woods was some little white dog. I love it. The event is over, but there's still crazy stuff happening.

We took the obligatory finish line photo.

I refused to get back into my kit. I might burn it, actually.

We grabbed some breakfast at Waffle House, then me and Kate jawed away all the way back to MGap, while the other guys passed out in the back. I can only imagine how bad we reeked because I couldn't smell it at the time. Someday, that van is going to be like that Corvette on Mythbusters, that they couldn't sell because they'd let a pig rot in it.

Back at Mulberry, I showered, said my goodbyes and thank-you's, grabbed a couple of new TNGA stickers for my truck, settled up and hit the road. The trip home was uneventful.

I had no mechanicals. Zero. My tires didn't even lose a noticeable amount of air overnight. The closest thing to a mechanical I had was my chamois. The tongue of the padding apparently detached all the way around, and when I'd have to walk, the walking motion would nudge it back and it would get all bunched up and uncomfortable. If I walked any distance, I'd have to dig around in my pants and fix it.

I would like a much lighter-colored kit next time. All black is the wrong color for this heat.

I didn't have any of the physical problems that I'd worried about having. The 34x11/52 was plenty of gear. My left thumb felt perfectly fine the entire time. No neck pain. No back pain. No cramps. Nothing got whacked, sliced, lacerated, or avulsed. No significant saddle sores. My right palm started hurting about halfway through, and I favored that hand for the rest of the ride. I think it was just from shifting with weight on that hand. I'm not sure what to do about that, but it definitely needs to be addressed. Both my feet have lingering numbness too. This happened the first time as well. My cleat position may be off, or it could just be from all the walking with the cleat jamming up into my foot after the rest of the sole was worn away. Something else to figure out.

I need a bug solution too. A net? Bug spray? Citronella? Something. Bugs were the one thing that made camping rough. Otherwise, the tarp, pad, pillow, bag liner, emergency bivvy combo were perfect.

And, say what you want about frame bags over packs. I carried 8 pounds base weight in my pack and could stuff a day's worth of food and two extra bottles in there easily. My bike was 23.5 pounds and the whole setup was as nimble as riding with a camelback. I might want a light colored, or reflective pack though. Again, all black is the wrong color for this heat.

Would I do it again? That's always the question. Not if I have to suffer like I did on day 3 again, or like I did at the beginning of day 5. I had hydration under control, but I let nutrition get away from me, and couldn't sleep well outdoors. Those are problems that I know how to solve though, so... probably. Yeah.

I think I'd like to make another leap in fitness before trying it again. But, either way, I don't plan on letting ten more years go by before my next attempt.