Tuesday, September 4, 2018


Right at a month ago I managed to get up to Tsali for the weekend. I struggled to remember the last time I was up there, but it seemed to me, and to everyone else I talked to about it, that it was for a SERC race back when they were still having those... Wait, it appears that they're STILL having those. Awesome. Anyway, it was 10+ years ago, at least. At the time, the USFS was fighting a pine beetle infestation and was looking at losing the whole forest on that peninsula. I fared better than the forest, finishing either 6th or 4th in the race. I don't remember which, I just remember that it was a very difficult race, I felt terrible, I got passed a lot, and I was surprised how well I finished.

But, Tsali has greater significance to me than being the place I did OK in a SERC race at once. When my brother John, Kirk, Brooke, and I lived in Louisiana, we used to drive up to Tsali during Mardi Gras to escape the crowds. My buddy Jamie Satawa joined us once, and so did another buddy of ours, Jason Evangelista. It was a bit of a pilgrimage at the time, as we were new to mountain biking, Tsali was considered epic, and we tended to have a great time traveling and camping as much as riding.

Even after moving to Georgia/Alabama, John, Kirk, Brooke, and I would still camp and ride at Tsali periodically, and bring whatever friends we had on hand with us as well. Brooke, in particular, met a great gang of folks when she was in med school at Auburn, and we all rode together quite a bit. Kids, work, and general adulting cut the Tsali trips back and back over the years, but this past weekend, we were back at it!

Well, me, Brooke, and her Auburn crew were, at least.

She rented a cabin across the street, and a bit down the road from the trail system, with a spectacular view...

Fontana View

...and fine accommodations. I headed up mid-Friday-afternoon to meet her.

The drive up was fantastic. The sky was beautiful. I was a little worried about rain, because it had stormed some amount each day leading up to that weekend, but it barely drizzled on the way up, and only for a few minutes.

I stopped at the BP station at the north end of the Nantahala Gorge, which happened to still be open, hoping to score something breakfast-like for the next morning. Turned out they had pancake mix, syrup, and even eggs! Fantastic! The girl behind the counter was helpful and friendly, and had a thick braid of the reddest hair I'd ever seen. She was unconventionally beautiful. So much so that I wanted her to know it, but couldn't think of a way to tell her without seeming like a creepy old dude.

The next day, Joe, Ron, and Ron's son Jackson met us, and we caravaned over to Tsali Cycles in Bryson City so Brooke could get a new back tire.

There was once a bike shop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, but Brooke discovered that morning that they'd pulled up stumps a few years back. Now, Tsali Cycles is the main game in town. And, it's not only a bike shop, but also a tap room. If you enjoy the adult beverages, then you can enjoy a local craft beers while they're wrenching on your bike. I didn't need any work done, but I did get a Tsali sticker, which now adorns the fairing on my roof rack.

They have a cool toilet too.

Tsali Cycles Bathroom

I love it. Someone spent some time getting that to work.

We proceeded forthwith to the Tsali lot, geared up, and hit the Thompson/Mouse Loop directly.

The Crew

After a few miles, Ron started suffering a bit. He used to ride 24's way back, but hasn't been on the bike much of late. Joe was doing fine. It was hard to tell how Brooke was doing because she hung back with Ron.

We rode out to the Mouse Branch Overlook, which has grown up a bit and isn't too overlooky these days.

Mouse Branch Overlook

Upon attempting to unclip, Jackson lost the entire bottom of his shoe!

Jacksons Broken Shoe


That's a new one.

Apparently it was ready to go. I had some duct tape and an Ace Bandage on me, brought them to bear on the problem, and managed something that would at least get him out of the woods.

Jacksons Fixed Shoe

We all posed for a couple of photos. Brooke was a little uncoordinated in the first one.

Brook Tripping The Gang at the Mouse Branch Overlook Me and the Gang at the Mouse Branch Overlook

And then we took off again.

When we got back to the main Mouse Branch Trail, Ron and Jackson headed back to the car. Me and Brooke and Joe rode the rest of Mouse...

Brooke and Joe on the Thompson Trail

...and me and Joe rode Thompson.

It started raining about half way around Thompson and before long I came upon a family with 2 kids who were struggling with how wet it had become.

"It's an adventure now, eh?"

"Yeah, I was just saying that to my wife..."

The rain ended abruptly and the trail was dry within 20 minutes.

I took full advantage of the Bike Wash when I got back to the lot.

Bike Wash

I hosed myself down too.

Thompson and Mouse were exactly how I remembered them. They were exactly as they had been 20 years ago. I don't know if trail builders at the time knew what they were doing, were experimenting, or just happened to luck out, but they got it right. The trail is 90% three-foot-wide, outsloped, bench-cut singletrack, with grade reversals, and it has definitely stood the test of time.

Post-ride we headed over to the NOC. They don't have a bike shop any more, but they do have a great restaurant.

There are some fantastic views of the Nantahala River too.


While we were eating, we watched an Olympic kayaker working the course there, over and over. It looked exhausting, but she ran it over and over, the entire time we were there.

That night we played some pool, ate some hot dogs, hung out, talked about old times, and strummed the acoustic guitar that Brooke had brought with her. I still kind-of play. Joe used to play, but apparently cut one of his fingers off with a band saw (!) and when they reattached it (!!!) he had to switch to bass. He can still play, just not quite as well as he could before.

The next day Joe and Brooke both had to get on the road. Brooke lives in Maryland and it's a bit of a hike back. Joe lives in Tennessee, but had to be home by some certain time for something that I don't remember now.

I had all day, so I hit the Right and Left Loops by myself.

Right Loop.

Right Loop

Stunning Right Loop Overlook.

Right Loop Overlook Panorama

And, Left Loop.

Left Loop

There was this one spot on the Left Loop that was always tricky... The trail is notched into the hillside, and the hillside is mainly decomposed granite. But, in one spot, it was always just a sideways slab of granite, and unless you carried enough speed, you risked slipping down it and over the edge, into the lake. If the lake was high, that was like a 5 foot drop. If it was low, it was like 20 feet. As I rode up on the spot, I recognized it, but the lake was very high, and also, it looked like it had been dug way into the backslope a very long time ago. I guess I wasn't the only one who was worried about it.

I tried to find the old chimney too. Waaay back, there was a stone chimney, standing out in the open. It was right along the trail. You couldn't miss it. At one point, I had a photo of all of us standing in front of it. Since then, the woods has grown down into the draw, and obscured the chimney completely. I never saw it, even though I knew where it ought to be, and was looking for it. Later I found a recent photo of it online, completely surrounded by trees. I'll have to go back and look for it again.

Woohoo, Tsali!

I got a goodish shot of the Fontana Overlook on the way out. Or the lot at least. Not sure why it didn't occur to me to get a better shot of the view. I guess maybe it seemed like I could see the view OK from the lot?

Fontana Overlook Panorama

After that, I made tracks for the house.

The drive home was almost uneventful. I tried to eat at a Mexican Restaurant in Andrews, but it was inundated with the after-church crowd. I ended up at the Pink Pig in Blue Ridge. I've seen the sign for 18 years, but it was never the right time of day to stop by. Finally, it was, that day, and I enjoyed it immensely.

What a good time! Great riding. Great folks.

Joe's planning a backpacking trip in the Smokies, in November. I think it's in November. It's on my list. It'll be really great if I get to see those guys more often.

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