It was dawn when I got back from the first stage, and I got the next stage card from Anet. I was feeling pretty good and had no need to stop. This stage had one mandatory checkpoint and five other possible checkpoints, and you couldn't finish the stage without at least four checkpoints total. The mandatory checkpoint was the old chimney at the intersection of Cantrell and South Mills which takes a pretty long time to get to no matter which route you take. The five other possible checkpoints were Club Gap; the hanging bridge at the intersection of Squirrel Gap and South Mills; the Turkeypen trailhead parking area; the intersection of Bradley Creek and Laurel Creek trails; and the Slate Rock overlook.
I dropped my lights, lubed the chain and was back on the bike pretty quick. In the first stage I'd been eating nothing but candy and not really in the mood for anything saltier or more mealy. On looking through the food supply at my car I realized that I didn't have enough candy to last me much longer and the idea of eating a Clif bar or bagel was kind of grossing me out. In the interest of keeping the calorie intake steady I decided I better start my stage by hitting the candy machines at the Fish Hatchery by going Davidson River-475-475B. I didn't think this was too much of a detour from the Cove Creek-225-475B route that was the fastest way to start the stage. Later Clay told me that in fact my way was two-point-something miles longer than taking Cove, but I can't really regret the decision since Pepsi, peanut M&Ms, and Starburst (I bought all the Starburst in the machine) kept me going all day.
Club Gap checkpoint photo. Realizing that Club Gap is pretty steep and I am at the bottom.
I had only gone down Club Gap before and hadn't really realized what a hassle it was on the uphill. Pretty steep and not too pleasant, but at least it's short. I was happy to get to the four-way intersection and took the turn towards the back side of Black Mountain trail. There was really a stunning amount of downed trees in the forest up there and it looked completely transformed. Luckily some very hard working people had done an amazing job of moving and/or cutting all the debris so the ride was smooth. Down Buckhorn, down the end of South Mills to the bridge at the junction of South Mills and Squirrel Gap.
I crossed over to find Shawn and his buddy Ryan standing around debating the big question. Get to the mandatory checkpoint by taking Squirrel Gap-Cantrell or by taking South Mills River? Shawn was just 8 weeks out from a broken leg and looking for the path of least resistance. I let them know that as of the previous Saturday there was a lot of deadfall on that end of Squirrel and that it would be a giant pain in the ass to get around it all. I was definitely taking South Mills River, and Shawn and Ryan decided to do so too.
Forgot the self-portrait on this one. But note the deepness and swiftness of South Mills River in this photo. This information will be important later in the story. Mood: forgetful.
The top part of South Mills River trail has bunch of of crossings and the river is pretty wide all the way along. Spring rains and snowmelt meant the river was icy cold, and running deep and fast. Each crossing meant wading through a pretty strong current, at least waist deep and ten yards across. It was a nice warm day and the water was refreshing my tired legs. Like a couple other river trails in Pisgah the best way to deal is just perceive the river as a feature of the trail, not an interruption of the trail. The river IS the trail. Anyway Shawn seemed to be having a hard time letting the river be the trail and kept mentioning how he'd made the wrong choice and should have gone on Squirrel Gap. I tried to point out that right now Squirrel Gap meant being poked by sticks 3,000 times while South Mills meant getting wet. Neither one of them was a great Pisgah experience, but I would rather be wet than be poked in the eye.
Pretty soon after my attempt at explaining the Tao of trail and river, I lost my footing in the strong current and fell in the river for the first time. It was shocking cold and inspired a few seconds of involuntary hyperventilating. Then on the next crossing I was thinking about how I fell in on the last crossing and I fell in again. THEN, on the next crossing I fell in AGAIN, this time submerged up to my neck. Neither Shawn or Ryan had fallen in at all and I must have just been spacing out or something. Anyway I finally got better focused on the task at hand and held off my falling-in-South-Mills streak to three. Eventually we made it to the old chimney.
Now the delicious mindfuck of this race becomes apparent. You make a quick decision to take one trail over another, and then live with the consequences for an hour or two (or more) on that trail. Tempting to get despondent, imagining everyone else slipping past you via some easier route. As we regrouped for a minute there was some speculation about whether getting to the chimney via South Mills had taken much longer than Squirrel-Cantrell would have. I think Shawn was still pissed about all the river crossings and was pretty adamant that he should have gone the other way. I was pretty sure the other way would have sucked much more.Cantrell Chimney. Mood: je ne regrette rien!
Besides, once you're that far into the shit the best answer-- the only answer, really-- is just to keep wading through it. Collapse is out of the question anyway. As Hunter S said, it's a fine line between control and disaster. Buy the ticket, take the ride, and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion.
Shawn and Ryan were still discussing options and possible route changes like going up Cantrell. Beers were being opened. I wanted to keep going and was not interested in sitting around. I wished them luck and told them I was taking off and they should catch up to me if they kept on South Mills.
After the Cantrell junction South Mills gets wide and becomes a veritable highway, with swanky bridges over every crossing and lots of hiker traffic. I big-ringed it down to the trail's end and jumped on the steep, well-traveled path up to the Turkeypen parking lot. It was mid-day and hot, and after a while I couldn't take it anymore. I got off to push my bike and was so slow I was keeping pace with a solo hiker who was moving delicately up the trail using a cane. My pace was steady with hers but three yards behind her and she kept looking suspiciously around at me. I was too tweaked out to even try to act normal. When I could see the cars in the parking lot I jumped on my bike and rode past her the last few yards up to the end of the trail. The woman stood looking startled as I skidded to a halt and took this photo:
Bradley Creek-Laurel Creek intersection. I felt great but note that I completely forgot to get the name on the trail sign in the photo. Mood: cheerful, yet delusional
I turned onto 5015 which is just a long gravel climb snaking up out of the South Mills valley. Patience, patience, it was slow going but no big deal. 1206 was the same. I was still feeling generally pretty good but blew by the turnoff to grab the sixth checkpoint of the stage at Slate Rock. Screw Slate Rock. I was pretty sure it would be another "poked with 3,000 sticks" trail and I really wanted to see what the next stage would be anyway.
I was still massively thirsty and tried to get some more water at Pink Beds picnic area. Either the water was turned off or my brain was too addled to make the faucet work. I'm leaning toward the latter since my next move after giving up on the water faucet was to overshoot the extremely obvious 5041 turnoff and have to climb back up a stretch of 276 to get to it.
After another stop at the candy machines at the Hatchery (YES I went the long way on the way back too. I stand by my decision because those 3 Pepsis were absolutely delicious) I rolled back into the campground with five checkpoints, done with stage 2.
TO BE CONTINUED! See ya tomorrow.