A guest post by Nic Morales. Find part 1 here.
The sun broke through the thick canopy of the ridgeline road like golden pillars. FSR 500 was everything it promised to be and more. My only hesitation was that at 2 pm, I had roughly 5 hours to move another 35-40 miles. Usually, this wouldn’t be much of an issue, but the context of it being day three, having already pedaled 45 miles with 2-3k feet of elevation, was a tad worrying. Add on the fact I had little concept as to what the upcoming terrain would entail in terms of elevation gain and severity of road grade, and I was truly betting it all on myself. My safety net was contiguous cell phone service, my equipment –which I ensured myself would be enough not to freeze to death with– and a hard turnaround at Flag mountain if I hadn’t made enough progress by some arbitrary point in my mind.
An hour or so later and those worries had all but evaporated. With enough snacks in my frame bag, I plodded along the rolling climbs and ripping gravel descents in what was a truly magical experience. With rocks of varying sizes, the terrain demanded attention but asked little of it. An engaging experience that was as enthralling as it was picturesque. Peak after peak came and went as little more than the occasional bird flew by. Steady but involving gravel descents kept me on the edge of my saddle– this is what I’d come here for.
Passing through Pine Glen campground was like something out of a dream. Mid-mountain pass opened into a gorge as a stream calmly passed through the campground. Luckily, I’d had the foresight to buy a lifestraw prior to the start of the trip– a relatively small expense that made refilling a non-issue. As I dipped my pouch into the stream and gazed up at the blooming early spring colors, I thought about the sign I’d read atop Cheaha.
Apparently, the Appalachians were once taller than even Mt. Everest, with millions of years of rain and natural erosion degrading the nutrient-rich rock and providing the valleys below with fertile soil. A history that goes a long way to explaining the ceaseless green I’ve come to love about the region. Even in the worst of times, when you imagine the grass to be a heck of a lot greener elsewhere, there are few places on planet earth like the American southeast. The sheer amount of green assaults the eyes. It’s everywhere. You can’t escape.
Still in the woods, the final tracts started to really crank up. I had consumed countless almond butter nature valley creme sandwiches, granola bars, bottles of water, gummies of varying flavors, moon pies, and bags of assorted nuts. I had exhausted my supply, thinking I was at the very end of my journey. Alas, I was not. Thoughts of doubt start to creep in during these moments, but you have to do everything in your power not to let them in.
Eventually, signs of life appeared with greater frequency. A horse park. A diversion to the highway. The distant sounds of civilization. After crossing a paved road, I came to a typically southern pass, complete with a flowing stream and one or two side-road fishermen. Passing their truck some twenty minutes prior, a grandfather and his kin passed me up the grueling climb, rolled down the window, and jokingly said, ‘this ain’t much work for me!’ A kind reminder of the southern comfort I’d grown up with. One ripping descent later, and I thought– this had to be it. Of course, rounding the corner yielded the steepest grade of the day, laid with rocks that might unsettle a land cruiser. Off the bike I went, walking it up with some haste.
Your ego goes out the window, at least as a flatlander, after about 5k feet of elevation. Rapidly approaching seven, I was more than happy to take the safe way up what proved to be the final climb. Atop the perch was the beginning of the end. A paved road back to Piedmont. What needed to be sorted next was accommodation, but before that, I had the opportunity to look back at my accomplishment. From the trail, you can clearly see Dugger mountain, a humble peak that sapped my energy on those final grueling climbs. I’d done it. A Florida flatlander had gone roughly 72 miles and climbed seven thousand feet of elevation on a bike that weighed upwards of 45 pounds. I’d bet on myself and hit the jackpot. Elation. Relief. Accomplish. That’s what this was about. I took the view in a gulped the crisp air– a champagne of sorts for someone who was abstaining from any vices this year. Nothing better.
Day 4– Piedmont to Atlanta
Once on the trail, I searched for a field to lay my head. Piedmont is a town as much as a few streetlights and a highway diversion are, so I figured it wouldn't be much of an issue if I was gone before anyone knew I was there. On my way in, I passed the kindly old man that had warned me of the folk of Anniston. Happy to see a familiar face, I stopped and chatted, as he seemed as eager as I was to catch up with the lonely traveler he'd met just a few days before. Amid recounting my trip, he offered up his backyard as a spot to set up shop. I happily obliged and bought him dinner at the roadside diner as a thank you.
After scarfing down a metric pound of tater tots, green beans, and collards, I unpacked my bags. Gerry, the gentle soul in question, came out to keep me company and soon decided that it was too cold for me to be outside. His outdoor shed featured a makeshift cot, something I was more than willing to take up instead of the cold ground. He only requested that I not post his whereabouts on the 'Facebooks'– a request I'll happily oblige. Getting an early start, I split a Jack's breakfast platter with my host. As we sat in the booth, Jack's– a fast food chain I hadn't ever heard of– appeared the place to be in the town of Piedmont.
I observed the morning rush with contrasting emotions. On the one hand, this was objectively one of the least nutritious meals I'd ever eaten. It was all processed carbs, fats, and sugars. A reality I'd be dealing with for the next few hours. On the other, I was bolstered by the sense of community in the sterile environment. Next to us was a round table of gentlemen that varied in age by what had to be 40 years or more. By all accounts, it was the proverbial council of elders. Their conversation shifted from the price of farming materials to local dramas— the whole gamut.
It's encouraging to see that in a time where we lack a sense of community, places like the little town of Piedmont remain as close as ever. Despite their circumstances, the folks of this little blip come together as they always have. Irrespective of how difficult it was to stomach my breakfast, togetherness was a beautiful thing to witness.
Before long, I said my goodbyes to Gerry and returned to the trail. The day was set to be quite long if I was to make it back to the big city, so I got on with it before I could find an excuse not to. The combination of morning cold and dour breakfast made the first hour or so a slow burn. Stopping too often to grab snacks and de-layer didn't help, but eventually, I was flying. I'd put on a new chain the night before to try and supercharge the efforts– a measure that my tired legs were surely appreciating.
Forty-five miles ticked over before lunch, but I remember feeling the pressure. I needed to up the pace if I was going to make the final peak of the day. Call me crazy, but this is what I love about this style of cycling. Perhaps it's a bit rich coming from a guy that planned a bikepacking trip without doing much in the way of actual camping, but, at least for me, the point of bikepacking is the first bit of that word. I love a mile-heavy trip. Somewhere between 60-90 mile daily averages mean you spend most of the time in the saddle. You cover a ton of ground, see a lot, and probably eat a fair bit of the local cuisine. I can respect anyone's desire to amble about however they want, but getting the most out of the limited free time we all seem to constantly be losing means mileage. Moreover, giving yourself something to strive towards that requires a certain amount of effort I find to be particularly fun. You can't sprint through a 100-mile day– you have to intentionally move along at a pace that demands effort but doesn't cook you.
Eventually, I came to the end of the Silver Comet and its connector. Given my experience getting out of the city on my way to Alabama, I tried to find a safer route back in. What a mistake that would be. The decision to do a bit of sidewalk surfing eventually came due to some of the worst, car-laden infrastructure. Catching a corner of what looked to be an exploded section of sidewalk, sealant sprayed sky-high. I controlled the bike to a stop and assessed the damage.
It's incredible that a bike can withstand over a hundred miles of ripping gravel descents with rocks the size of children but have issues within thirty minutes of urban landscapes. With the cut coming through the thickest portion of the tire, I babied the bubbling sealant and gently pumped until I had a pressure I felt comfortable with. Finding some bike-specific trail, I took a deeper look, and thankfully, all seemed to be okay. I made my way back to where I'd parked my car and quickly unloaded some of my baggage, still intent on making the final peak after 102 miles.
As I pedaled up Stone Mountain trail, I thought about everything I'd been through. It was later in the day than I wanted it to be, and cycling through a city I was unfamiliar with felt dicey. What propelled me were the expectations I'd set for myself. Initially, this trip was supposed to be a fair bit bigger. Using bikepacking.com's Alabama Skyway route, I was supposed to reach the southern terminus of the Pinhoti trail. The total estimation was something along the lines of 430 miles with nearly double the elevation I'd end up with. What kept me from doing so was a mix of the freezing weather, some incoming rain, and a certain amount of fear in departing trails. Much of that made me feel fraudulent, but as I continued, the sun drawing ever closer to the earth, I thought back to the purpose of the trip.
I was intent on displaying the beauty of the South to show people my version of it– one I consider to be more authentic. Though I am often reminded of the wickedness that hides here, there's so much more than the history that unfortunately defines it. In an effort to separate that which cannot be made distinct, I foolishly thought picturesque views of places I'd seen in my highest and lowest moments would turn people on to the perspective I believe can guide a better South.
My failure to stick to the original plan showed me what truly makes this place special. The kindness I'd experienced from people I didn't know and will likely never see again is what makes the South so unique. Because the physical and cultural environments are what they are, community tends to root itself more strongly here. Though I only have anecdotal experiences of what the West is like, what I understand is the ubiquity and access to things we all desire can make it easier to isolate. To focus on yourself or what you already know. In a time when modern affectations ameliorate a sense of catered isolation, that can be difficult to parse. You have to fight for what you love here. You have to grab it with both hands and hold on tight because it often feels like the very environment is trying to take it away from you.
From a narrative perspective, it'd be easy to say something like, 'cycling in the South might not be the kind of riding everyone will love, but it's filled with the kind of folk anyone can,' but that would be a lie. The truth is a lot more complicated. First off, the riding on this trip was nothing short of spectacular. Anyone who has the chance to ride FSR500 and the Skyway trail should. Secondly, the best moments were in equal parts on and off the bike. But, I say that as a person of privilege. People don't question me being alone or find my presence unwarranted in most areas.
To wholly endorse even passing through these places would be to advocate for an experience I can never have, but the reason for my passion with regard to both the South and cycling is because I think they're a match made in heaven. I've seen how certain aspects of how we live today have robbed these areas of resources, and I see how parts of this country have been given new life through the investment and attention the cycling community can deliver. I think of Emporia, Kansas, Leadville, Colorado, or any success story, hoping it could one day do the same for the places and people here. In what is likely an entirely delusional fantasy, that's what I am looking to catalyze for the South.
With my perspective realigned, I turned around with twenty-some miles remaining. I'd summit Stone Mountain another day. Though physical challenges set the scene, the focus wasn't on my ability to hit some distance-oriented goal. It had already been accomplished. I'd seen the South I knew was there, and I was ready to share it. I can only hope those listening, watching, and reading along are ready to see it.