Monday, May 6, 2024

Pre-PMBAR in North Carolina

I love mountains. It's probably one of the most cliche things you can say, and I think every-other Subaru you see at a Starbucks has a bumper-sticker saying something similar. But still, I do. The Appalachian Mountains - which I'm fortunate to live relatively close to right now - are super rad. You've got the ridge-and-valley region in Pennsylvania characterized by huge synclines and anticlines, you've got the Blue Ridge region further to the south, and well, you get the point: there's a lot of variety. I'm no geologist, and I didn't stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I really enjoy studying geology in my free time. It makes me a lot more appreciate of all the mountains I ride my bike in.

North Carolina has the tallest mountains on the east coast, and unlike central Pennsylvania, the mountains near Asheville have defined peaks - more similar to out west - as opposed to the ridges and valleys near State College. 

I drove to Asheville Monday morning - leaving home at 5am - and I did my first ride in Pisgah Bent Creek in the afternoon. Compared to the Pisgah trails near Brevard, Bent Creek is super easy. It isn't very technical and the climbs are pretty mellow; I cleaned everything on my 32x19 gearing. Of course, it's still super fun and my driving-weary legs liked it a lot. I don't have a total mental picture of the Asheville-area yet, but if Asheville is in a big valley of sorts, then Bent Creek is sort of like the foothills before getting to the real tall mountains.

That night, I camped along a dirt road in the Pisgah Grandfather District. In the morning, I was awoken by truck headlights right next to me, and I had a moment of panic thinking it was a park ranger and perhaps I was camping illegally. To the best of my knowledge, I was totally legal where I was, but I still didn't want to have a 5:45am conversation with a park ranger. Luckily, it was just a hunter, and he ventured off into the woods.

My ride on Tuesday took me to the summit of Mt. Mitchell - over 6,600 feet elevation - the highest point east of the Mississippi River. I began with a meandering paved downhill on Old US 70, a closed road descending into Old Fort from near Black Mountain. Then, it was up Curtis Creek Road, an almost-three-thousand foot gravel climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

When I started up Curtis Creek, the sky was cloudy but the sun was still periodically shining. As I near the top, the clouds got progressively darker and I knew rain was on the way. This was not a surprise - I knew it was going to bet wet - but I was still holding it out hope the rain might miss me.

Alas, just as I reached the Blue Ridge Parkway, the rain started. It was about 50 degrees, so I briefly stopped to put my rain jacket on. I continued climbing up the parkway, and despite clouds, the views were still great. The rain got heavier - and then lighter again - as I made my way toward Mt. Mitchell.

After a short downhill, I turned off the parkway and onto the road to the summit of Mt. Mitchell. It was still raining, and as I got higher, it got colder and windier. By the time I reached the summit, the wind was quite strong and the temperature, according to my Garmin, was now only 46 degrees.

The summit of Mt. Mitchell was a in a cloud - literally - so rather than a rain, it was more of a dense mist. I was now inside the cloud that was producing the rain lower down. It was also windy, and I was cold and wet, so I took some pictures, had a honey bun, and then started back down. The downhill was the coldest part, and I was hoping I wouldn't freeze.

The temperatures rose as I descended, and when I got back down to the parkway, it was once again about 50 degrees and less windy.

The next part of my ride was down "Old Mitchell Toll Road". Originally a railway, it was converted into a toll road in the early 1900s and served as tourist access to Mt. Mitchell. When new roads were built, it was decommissioned in the 1960s and has deteriorated ever since. As you can see, it's now more of a rocky trail than it is a road. 

With 50mm tires on my gravel bike, it was slow going. I picked my way down the mountain, venturing in and out of clouds, and after what my hands and wrists thought was forever, I made it to pavement. It was an adventure, the good kind, but I think next time I'll use a mountain bike for Old Toll Road.

That night, I was generously offered dinner and a place to stay by John and Candy D. in Asheville. I know them from Pittsburgh, and it was a perfect place to stay for the night. We talked about bikes, Asheville, and glorious nature of the mountains surrounding the town.

The next day, I drove toward Brevard to do a proper mountain bike ride in Pisgah. Starting from the Turkeypen trailhead, I took South Mills Trail to Cantrell Creek, ventured over to Buckhorn Gap, and then worked my way back to Squirrel Gap. Along the way, I did a new-to-me forest road: Funneltop Road. It was a beautiful doubletrack path that led into Horse Cove Trail, a sweet downhill that leads directly to the middle of Squirrel Gap.

Squirrel Gap is easily one of my favorite trails in Pisgah. It's a beautiful blend of rocks and roots, and it's almost entirely rideable. It's one of those trails that you really get into a groove on. From Squirrel Gap, I took Mullinax Trail back down to the Turkeypen trailhead. Mullinax is another awesome trail, and the deep ruts keep you on your toes.

That night, Wednesday, I camped at Davidson River Campground, the same place I would be camping with Rob, Montana, and Colleen for the PMBAR weekend. It's a really nice campsite, and I had a leisurely evening of playing guitar, cooking some dinner on my mini-stove, and re-organizing my car. Montana would be happy to know I consumed about a pound of my ham for dinner, in addition to some baked beans and mashed potatoes.

The next morning, I set off early for a gravel ride in order to get back to the campground before the other Yinzers arrived. I started by climbing up Avery Creek Road, which is gravel, all the way to US 276, and then I continued up US 276 to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Even though US 276 is pavement, it's a beautiful road. Switchbacks, a steady grade, and fantastic scenery combine for pure enjoyment.

After reaching the parkway, I headed south and kept climbing. I eventually reached the high-point for the ride - over 5,500 feet - before descending one of the best pavement descents I've ever done. I averaged over 36mph for 6+ miles of perfect switchbacks, which Strava tells me is the fastest I've ever ridden 10 kilometers, beating out a long pavement descent in New Mexico I did on the Great Divide back in 2022.

At the bottom of the pavement descent I made a turn onto Courthouse Creek Road, a gravel road that led into even more mysterious regions of the Pisgah for me. The road started off gravel, eventually turned into doubletrack, and then transformed into a rocky, singletrack-like trail that required all of my attention to climb on drop bars. It was a long climb, almost 2,000 feet, and as it got rougher and rougher, I was hoping it wasn't going to completely disappear and leave me scrambling to find a way out of there. Luckily, the road continued over the top, and Chris J. later told me I was near the top of Farlow Gap, and remote and challenging mountain bike trail. He said the "road" I climbed is rarely ridden by drop-bar bikes.

The downhill started off rocky, but thankfully, it got smoother and smoother as I descended. Eventually, I popped out on Davidson River Road and got a perfect view of Looking Glass Rock. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, Looking Glass Rock is a huge exposed-rock mountain in the Pisgah Forest and is extremely fascinating. I was reading about the geology of the area, and there was a whole paper talking about how Looking Glass Rock formed. Apparently, hundreds of millions of years ago, there was a huge underground void that got filled with magma - quite literally liquid rock. The huge void was in the shape of what is now Looking Glass Rock, and as the magma cooled, it hardened into a rock. Still, it was buried deep underground. 

As the Appalachian Mountains formed, that rock got exposed through uplifts and erosion, and what we see now as Looking Glass Rock is the hardened magma that once filled a massive underground void. I imagine it like pouring liquid chocolate into a mold, and when you peel away the mold itself - in this case, the dirt and surrounding rocks that were eroded away - what you have left is the chocolate in the shape of the mold, i.e. Looking Glass Rock. Geology is fascinating, and I guess my General Sciences B.S. from Penn State does give me a bit of foundation to learn about it. I even took 400-level geology in college, though that doesn't qualify me as any more than an interested observer.

Anyways, when I got back from the ride, I checked in to the new campsite where Rob, Montana, and Colleen would meet me, and I got my stuff set up as I waited for them to arrive. The rest of the story will be in part deuce.

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