Thursday, April 27, 2017

Radical Sabbatical travels south part 1

I've been a bit delayed in getting a blog post up after arriving home last weekend. Life seems to be busier now that we're not working than ever before, but in a good way. We arrived back in Grand Rapids late Saturday night and promptly conked out for a good nights slumber in our own bed. Our first two week plus adventure was a great success, and i think we'd both agree that it was even better than we could have imagined. A large part of this is due to the great friends, old and new, that spent times with us along the way. From simple gestures such as paying for a beer or Gelato to feeding us and housing us for multiple days, all i can say is thank you! Our hearts are full from both adventures, good company and kindness.

Big Woods Brewing

First stop off at Brown County saw us meeting up with a Grand Rapids crew to ride some of the excellent trails and gravel that Nashville, IN have to offer. We rolled into town late Thursday and the only joint that was open was the Pine Room Tavern. As we strolled through the doors we were pleasantly greeted with live Bluegrass music, laughter and Three Floyds beer on tap. We knew right then we were on the right track. Eric Chase and Jay Morrison rolled into town a few hours after us and graciously let us occupy the floor space in their hotel room. The next days were filled with great riding, warm weather, delicious food and some fine conversation. The Big Woods Brewing company has some excellent food and i'd highly recommend the chicken wings and loaded nachos (these were a crowd favorite with our crew). We were joined by Tyler Keuning and Talon Tramper part way through our stay. As the weekend wound down our compatriots traveled back northward and we meandered into Brown County State Park to camp for the evening. Brown County State Park is only a little over 5 hours from Grand Rapids and thus make it a perfect long weekend getaway to camp, bike, hike and enjoy some craft beers.

Hesitation Point

Chillin out relaxin

The climb up to Hesitation Point
I'm lovin' it
Gravel train

I'll admit it was a bit strange at first with everyone heading home to be traveling further south and not back to a desk. Somehow we managed to get over that though. During some internet sleuthing i came across the town of Hot Springs right by the border or Tennessee and North Carolina, and from my brief research it sounded like a cool spot to check out. We made our way through Kentucky, into Tennessee and turned off Interstate 40 onto Highway 25. The drive along the French Broad river on Highway 25 was fantastic with the river wandering through rapids on your right hand side and the Appalachian Mountains surrounding you. Our goal was to find a nice campsite for the evening at little to no cost if possible. Just past the junction of 107 and Hwy 25 is a gravel road called Weavers Bend and it takes you along the river and into the Cherokee National Forest. We elected to take a chance and piloted the Transit over hill and dale to a cool bridge over a waterfall and shortly thereafter a campsite that was stocked with cut wood! Of course, the first site is never quite good enough so we kept venturing along the gravel path and located several other such campsite within a stones throw of the river. As dusk settled we chose a nice clean site with fresh cut pine and made home for the evening. While we were exploring we located the Paint Mountain trail and some other off shoots that allowed mountain bikes. Naturally the next day we geared up and began pedal down the road to the trail head. The climb up to Paint Mountain is scenic but quite steep and climbs over 1,000 feet in just a few miles. We were met with sweeping vistas and the sight of a locomotive winding it's way on a trestle in the valley below. The bench cut trail was certainly not for the faint of heart, but safe nonetheless. If you find yourself heading towards Asheville this is a great spot to spend a day and a night exploring before hitting the city!
Last night camping at Brown County State Park
Weavers Bend - Cherokee National Forest
Campsite on the French Broad River
Paint Mountain Trail

Looking to get some more miles and exploring by bike in, i asked Jenny if she wouldn't mind driving to Hot Springs with the van while i took the long way up and over the mountains through some convoluted path and naturally she obliged. Just south of Paint Mountain were several other peaks of interest with gravel roads and some Appalachian Trail crossings. I came up with what i figured would be a good route and ventured off on the Spearfish to see what kind of trouble i could find. Following the river back along 25 i turned south on 107 and after several winding paved miles found myself at the foot of Round Mountain looking upward at a serpentine gravel climb. I plodded along, taking in the views and exchanging surprise with a Black Snake in the road. Many miles into the trip i located the Round Mountain National Forest campground but found it to be closed until Memorial Day as with many locations of interest so i pushed on up the climb. As i neared Max Patch i noticed that time was not on my side and elected to turn around just short to make it back to Hot Springs before dark. This is where my adventure began. Being myself i decided to take some random forest road that was heading generally downhill as opposed to the known route. According to my somewhat reliable Garmin map it interested the road i was looking for (Wolf Creek road). After descending for some time and watching the map i realized that said road was diverging from my goal route and after some assessment found an ATV trail that headed towards Wolf Creek road and crossed with the Appalachian Trail. Bombing down the ATV trail was awesome and i quickly found myself on a proper gravel road much to my relief. Once again i was on the route, making good time and enjoying the fruits of my ascent. Quickly this all came to an end when i hit a logged out clearing where the road disappeared. Let's take a look at the Garmin, hmm, looks like Wolf Creek road should be just on the other side of this creek, let's wade across. Wolf Creek road wasn't exactly what i would consider a road, but certainly a two wheeled vehicle could pass carefully. Down i went, further and further into the green abyss. Relief swept over me once again as i found an actual signed road and a forest service sign declaring that Wolf Creek Falls were just a half mile ahead. With more pep in my pedals i pushed to the scenic spot, ah yes, waterfalls and a real road. Again, the road promptly ended, but out of the corner of my eye i noticed a huge line of stacked boulders, a tell tale sign of blocking off a road to vehicles. Up goes the bike on my shoulders and gingerly i began hiking up an over the rocks, through no less than a dozen bulldozer trenches and finally find what seems to be "Wolf Creek Road" (maybe 40 years ago....). The path was been overgrown with Rhododendron to the point of narrowly passable on bike or foot, and naming it after a creek was apt indeed as i found myself wading across it many, many times. I couldn't help but wonder who would ever find me it i met my demise be it by bear, snake or bike crash. Not to worry, i'll just take it slow until i find another snake and take off like the hole-shot at Iceman. Somewhere deep within the bowels of Wolf Creek i located a forlorn campground now abandoned and left to the wild, that's neat. What was only an hour or more felt like days and finally, after one more waist deep wade i found myself at a proper trail head and road. Of course i wasn't scared, ha, why would i have been, i knew this was here all along....
Gravel road up to Round Mountain
Narrow winding gravel up high
Logging clear cut, middle of nowhere
Wolf Creek "road"
The road is in there somewhere....
Whew, wasn't even worried....

Arriving in Hot Springs was a relief to be sure, and i was glad to not have been too late past my expected arrival. Hot Springs, NC is an Appalachian Trail town which became quickly obvious with the vagabonds wandering town, and naturally we felt right at home. In need of a shower we forked out some dough to camp the the Hot Springs Campground and found the accommodations to be quite nice, however if you'd like to have a campfire i recommend taking out a loan for firewood. Freshly showered we ventured into town to the Spring creek Tavern and Inn. The food hit the spot, but was nothing to go on about. The beer was cold and we enjoyed listening to thru and section hikers reliving wild memories from the AT. If you're into hiking, fly fishing, biking or just enjoying a quaint mountain town i highly recommend a stop off in Hot Springs.
Well earned

With the weekend approaching, and the goal of meeting up with Allen Wheeler from Grand Rapids in Asheville we set forth further south into the mountains to find a new spot to camp closer to our destination. More Googling led us to find a little campground in the "town" of Meadow Fork aptly named the Meadow Fork Campground. To be sure it wasn't closed i dialed them up on my cellular device while still in Hot Springs and was greeted on the other end by a most distinct Vietnamese southern drawl of the proprietor Miss Ann and were assured that we could find respite at her establishment. The drive along 209 south out of Hot Springs is simply beautiful along a winding paved road and i couldn't help but think how wonderful it would be ripping down on a road bike. One quick turn off 209 onto 1175 found us rolling into Meadow Fork and pulling into the campground and small country store. Being the city folk we are we had approximately $3.89 between the two of us and were poorly prepared to pay with anything other than a plastic card. Thankfully there was an ATM "just over the hill" in the town of Trust. Several wrong turns later, a single scoop in a sugar cone and a hefty fee later we were back cash in hand. By Michigan standards it might as well be August, but down south folks were just getting ready for the tourist season so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. The campground was small but pretty, and the bath house had all the water pressure and warmth we needed. Miss Ann even let us occupy the small outdoor pavilion where we spent our evening cooking on the Coleman, having a tasty beer and watching the stars. All was well until i decided to sharpen a cooking stick for roast sausages over the fire and promptly attempt to remove the end of my thumb with a dull multi-tool blade. Thankfully i packed zero medical supplies (added to the list for the next journey) so we made do with Taco Bell napkins and electrical tape.
The roads were just ok
Hiking up Max Patch
Gratuitous sponsor plug
Our setup at Meadow Fork Campground

While in Meadow Fork we managed to explore Max Patch which is a bald peak on the AT with amazing 360 degree views and partake in a leisurely paced road ride through the valley. While not a quick stop off the highway it's a cool spot to launch some fun hiking and riding expeditions from far away from the bustle of most tourists, After a short stay we ventured onward to Asheville to meet up with Allen for the weekend. We knew right away we would like Asheville as we passed numerous road cyclists on the back roads descending into the city, and of course from its notoriety as a town for folks who like to ride. Short on groceries we stopped off at an Ingles supermarket to imbibe Starbucks coffee and re-stock. I had briefly message with an old road racing friend Jay Dore before our trip down but hadn't made any firm plans so i sent him a note to let him know we were in town. Jay responded quickly letting us know that even though he was busy working we were welcome to say at his place and set us up with instructions and an address. Fully stocked we drove into Asheville proper passing many interesting spots along the way, and i was excited to see that Jay lives just a few miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway which is a major thoroughfare for cyclists and motor-tourists. We made ourselves at home at Jay's house, hanging a hammock in the back yard, exploiting the Wifi, and commandeering the bike stand in the garage to do some much needed bike maintenance. It was good to see Jay when he arrived home from work as we hadn't crossed paths in a few years with me not racing road anymore and he relocating to Asheville for PA school. After some good conversation and catching up we kitted ourselves in full roadie mode to hit the Parkway for an evening ride. The BRP is an exceptional route for road cyclists to enjoy the high country in North Carolina on well maintained tarmac. The evening found the three of us back in town at the Mellow Mushroom enjoying good food and cold beverages. Allen was due to arrive early the next day, and with his arrival we had scheduled an ascent of Mt. Mitchell which is the highest point east of the Mississippi.
Taking over Jay's backyard
Rolling with BamBam on the BRP
Jenny getting it done

Allen arrive early that next morning after driving through the night from home to North Carolina. Being a night shift guy i suppose he's used to strange hours, but nonetheless i was impressed by his will to drive 11 hours then saddle up on a bike to ride 94 miles and 10,000 plus feet of elevation. Jenny elected to ride a shorter loop, joining us for the first portion of the ride up Elk Mountain then returning via the BRP. Jay equipped us with some good local route knowledge to take us through the Biltmore Forest to the base of Elk Mountain. The tight twisty ascent is certainly one way to warm the legs up for the endurance feat that is riding to the top of Mitchell. Turning off from Elk Mountain and onto the BRP is a pleasant change in grade from 7-9 percent down to 3-5 for the most part. We plodded our way up the mountains and into higher vistas at our own respective pace reconvening at times for a snack and to check in. We stopped off at the Visitors center 10 miles from the turn onto 128 which takes you to the top of Mt Mitchell. It was a good thing we stopped as we found out that the concessions atop the summit were not yet open and that they had just opened the day before. It would have been a sad day indeed to arrive at the top out of water with no way to re-hydrate! Not wanting to waste time we pushed forward to the summit and spent some time enjoying the clear skies and views. It's definitely not the easiest ride, but the rewards were tenfold. The descent from the top is blazing with speeds approaching 50 mph, but once you're on the BRP it's more relaxed with a few inclines to tackle before getting back to the city. Arriving back at Jay's house we were happy to see that his wife Kari had arrived and thus more conversation and good times were to be had. Our evening was spent having tacos and re-locating to Kari's Parent's house for room for the three of us visitors.
BRP selfie
Getting closer...
Great success!
Jenny recovering with Survivor and snacks

The next day all five of us met up around noon for an excellent 74 mile route through some small towns, up 215 to the BRP and back to home. Jay dragged us all along for the first portion of the ride, sharing local knowledge of the towns, routes and Strava segments. The big climb up 215 to the BRP from Lake Logan is no joke, and Jay prepped me with knowledge of the 8 plus mile climb and what to expect. With some halfway decent legs i gave it what i had to see where i stacked up against the likes of Brent Brookwalter and John Murphy. Naturally i'm not that fast but was pleased with what i was able to put down. Reconvening on the junction of 215 and the BRP we began our trip back towards home with a stop off at Devil's Courthouse and Mt Pisgah. Check my strava for this ride as it's an awesome route and i highly recommend it for anyone looking to do some road cycling in that area! Taking hospitality up a notch, Jay and Kari had us all over for margaritas by the fire in their backyard along with some great conversation and stories. Kari's parents had plenty of hospitality of their own to dole out, and kindly hosted us for Easter Sunday dinner with their friends. Jenny and I were continually in awe by the kindness that everyone showed us along the trip, but weren't all that surprised based on the kind of folks we know. The first week of the trip was one to write home about, but instead i'm writing about it on this blog.
Refueling pit stop
Devil's Courthouse
Evening fire and stories

Part two will follow shortly as i'm busy preparing for the Trans Iowa V13...

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