I got there late, driving into the forest under a cloud of stress and sleep deprivation after a difficult week at work. It was dark around the campfire and I couldn't even see the faces of the people I was introducing myself to. I knew almost no one there-- I'm definitely not in the Pisgah in-crowd. (Thanks to Robb for knowing me enough to realize it was right down my alley.)
The sky was full of stars and I sacked out without putting up my tent. But residual work stress combined with worry about what was to come, and although I laid down early I didn't get much sleep. I finally drifted off around 1:30, then was awoken by my alarm at 4:15. Holy shit.
By a couple minutes after 5 I was on my bike and pedaling up Clawhammer in the dark with the others. Caffeine addiction is a fairly serious monkey on my back and I had definitely not addressed it well enough for this ride. No morning coffee and one long-forgotten Red Bull unearthed from the trunk of the car was all I had to counteract a week of poor sleep. Onto Black Mountain, where the first red rays of dawn became visible as we pushed our bikes up the grades to the overlook. Clay was taking a breather up there, and he joined me for the descent to the intersection with Turkeypen.
By now the trees are bare in Pisgah, everything but the rhododendrons. Without their thick cover of leaves, the bones of the mountains are all visible. As clear as on the topo-- curve of the trail against the slope, orientation of the ridgeline, vistas across the the valleys. And the dawn was laid out completely, black to purple to vivid red, to tangerine yellow. A thick white fog loitered on the valley floor, hiding any evidence of human settlement.
Dawn on Black Mountain, sunrise on Turkeypen, fog puddled in the valley. Photos by Robb who is always good about documenting his ride.
The sun lifted above the horizon. The sky, the air, the bare trees, the rafts of leaves covering the trail, everything brightened. Headlamp off, sunglasses on. Down South Mills River, up the old logging grade of Mullinax. Halfway up Mullinax a bottle cage was loosening and I stopped to fix it. I'd been riding near a few other people, but when I stopped they all passed me here, that was the last I'd see of anyone until the end of the day. Up Mullinax and onto Squirrel Gap.
I think of Squirrel Gap as one of the nicest trails in Pisgah, but this day it was pretty dreadful. In a long ride the dark-night-of-the-soul moment almost always comes, but has rarely come so early. Delays happened. A flat. A loose cleat on one shoe. Another flat. Some truly horrible sloppy riding on the technical sections. Some standing around in the woods feeling sorry for myself. Re-re-tightening the bolt on the bottle cage. Backtracking to get the multitool I'd just left on a rock. A deep longing for several large cups of coffee. A crash, then another crash. Some consideration of quitting. Some consideration of lying down on the side of the trail for a nap. A realization of just how addicted I am to caffeine. I was fixated on just getting to the end of Squirrel Gap, thinking things would have to improve once I crossed the bridge at the end of the trail.
Intersecting again with South Mills for the up and over, then to Pinkbeds which I had never ridden before. I overshot the trailhead, rode back and forth looking for it, then apparently took the longer side of the loop instead of the shorter side. Idiotic bridges and winding detours in low marshy ground did not add up to a fun trail on a bike. And I was more and more impatient with Pinkbeds' stupidity, still mad at myself about Squirrel Gap, and starting to realize just how all this delay was adding up. Finally I made it to the Pinkbeds parking lot where a vicious tiny dog barked at me relentlessly while I filled my water bottles at the spigot. I had no idea Clay had set up a checkpoint sign-in for us hidden in the picnic shelter there, I still can't figure out why I never heard anything about the checkpoints.
Up the switchbacks of 276 to the Parkway. I was still feeling pretty low, I felt pretty good physically and the caffeine jones had died down but I knew my pace so far had been abysmal. Grinding up the climb my chain was dry and protesting and I had many many miles yet to go. On some level I already knew I wouldn't be finishing but didn't want to take the obvious step of bailing. An SUV with out-of-state plates, tourists, slowed down and one hung out the passenger window taking photos of my gruesome self. I gave her the finger.
The parkway views were beautiful as always and I finally started enjoying the ride again. I had never gone down the section of Big Creek from the parkway to the junction with Sassafras. Beautiful steep switchbacks descending through rhododendrons, just really perfect fun. The river was flowing deep on lower Big Creek and with each bike-shouldering crossing I was glad the day was warm. I kept moving. Fletcher, Spencer, on to Trace. I stopped for a breather up on Trace and somehow left behind the ziploc bag containing most of my food. By the time I realized I'd forgotten it, I was all the way down Trace and was not going back up for it. It was late in the day and I knew I was quitting anyway, maybe Laurel-Pilot then bail. I would be riding the rock gardens of Pilot by headlamp but started up Laurel to see how I felt. I was exhausted and had no food left. Sunset came, and I stopped to rest in the clearing where an unmarked trail to the left descends to Slate. I considered taking it, as the fastest bailout route back to the gravel, but the idea of an untested trail in the dark (and without all my wits about me) seemed like a recipe for lost-in-the-woods. Pushing up to the top of Laurel seemed silly too, once I'd decided to bail. I took the third option, turned around and descended Laurel back to 1206.
I started the gravel grind back to the camp. After a while I stopped to put on more clothes and Cissy caught me from behind, she'd come down Pilot and was still feeling good. We rode together back to the Pinkbeds picnic area, where she mentioned the checkpoint sign-in. Whoops. I signed the sheets for both the first and second visits. She kept on with the route while I turned left to get back to the camp. 477 had never seemed longer and its initial climby bit had never seemed climbier but eventually I saw the giant fire surrounded with people.
Pisgah 99 map and elevation from Clay. 99.9 miles. 26,000 feet of climbing.
So. Was it possible? Only Brad Kee finished, taking almost 22 hours. Could I have finished? It would have taken longer than 24 hours at my pace. Even if I hadn't lost most of my food on Trace I don't think I had brought 24 hours of food much less 24 hours of resolve. Was it fun? ...was it? The route was perfect. The mind was willing. The weather was great. But I made a lot of problems for myself from not being well prepared. Stressed from work, not enough sleep, no caffeine, forgotten ipod, rib still a little hurty, Swank 65 the week before, not enough forethought overall. In the end perhaps the most difficult day I've ever had on the bike. But that sunrise while carving down Black Mountain, and shredding upper Big Creek for the first time, balance out my day's abundant misery.
Someone pointed out that the route covered in one day what-- for most people-- would be a month's worth of Pisgah. What happens if you ride the greatest trails in the Southeast one after another after another? Like eating an entire cake in one sitting, delicious piece by piece but daunting all together. Thanks to Clay for putting it together, to Robb for cluing me in, and to the rest of the instigators, collaborators, participants, and those who egged us on. There might be a next time.