Friday, June 26, 2009

All Good Things...

BRP Trip – 5/23/09 - Day Nine

Why is it so hard to write up the last day of this phenomenal trip? No more procrastinating, let’s get to it.

The “&B” part of our accommodations was a superb breakfast and delicious coffee – and very little time to linger with our fellow guests, a couple from Germany. Dennis, our host, is originally from the UK, well traveled and multilingual, and he easily switched between English and German as we all attempted to have one conversation. Once again I felt my inadequacy in knowing only one language. Jim and I decided that our next joint venture will be to learn German.

The weather was unbelievably wonderful yet again, just the right cool temps – has this ever happened before, so many perfect days in a row? We met the Charlotte crew back at Courthouse Valley Overlook and Jim “officially” called out Lance Armstrong to a cycling challenge. (Lance did not respond.) So the road warriors departed and I quickly passed them on the way to my final day’s adventures.

 In researching today’s options I wanted to conquer two more SB6K peaks (not that I’m officially working on that challenge) – Richland Balsam Mountain and Waterrock Knob. Both have short trails to their summits from parking areas, but I needed to meet that little five-mile minimum requirement. After reading up, looking at the SB6K site, poring over maps and consulting my SB6K guru (Jeff), I decided it wasn’t wise to attempt these hikes alone. Still, I could hike the short trails and enjoy the summit views and then be on familiar ground when (if?) I choose to come back for the real deals.

The 1.4-mile loop trail up to Richland Balsam is self-guided – the guide sheets are in a box at the trailhead. They are laminated but nevertheless were rather waterlogged so I went without. (You can get a dry copy at the Waterrockk Knob Visitor Center if you pass by there first.) This trail’s claim to fame is that it is the highest elevation reached by a Parkway trail. I climbed a soft needle carpet trail up through the fir forest, noting that even here the balsams are dying. A chill in the air convinced me to put long sleeves on. This is the only flower I bothered to photograph so that I could identify it later. From what I can tell, it’s a bush honeysuckle. If anyone begs to differ, I’d love to hear other guesses. Around a bend I was startled to see two young women with a big cone-shaped device. Upon inquiring politely, “What the heck is that thing?” they told me they were recording bird calls. Gee, I hope I didn’t mess it up…

The summit has no view except of the dense balsam forest, but it was a peaceful spot to pause and listen to the wind’s distinctive whoosh. As I continued around the loop, the sounds were replaced by the noise of motorcycles and voices as I passed directly over the Parkway and the Richland Balsam Overlook, the highest point on the entire BRP and a necessary photo op for everyone on earth.

Back to the car and a few miles down the Parkway, the views just kept getting better. My next stop was at the Waterrock Knob VC (Open! Of course it was now Memorial Day weekend so everything was open.) Interesting, though, there are only composting toilets and no running water here, and the VC sells bottled water. The staff person told me that budget cuts made it too expensive to pump the water up that far. Don’t you love this guy at the Waterrock Knob sign? I waited a little bit for him to move, but he was quite comfortable, so I tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he minded if I took a picture of the sign he was leaning on (sarcasm too subtle). He said go right ahead – so I did.

Waterrock Knob Trail is 1.2 miles roundtrip, is heavily traveled and well worth the trip. Be prepared to meet lots of people and try not to shake your head at the lack of preparedness of most of them. I’m sure I looked like an overzealous show-off with my boots, pack and trekking poles. At the summit there is a nice bench and then many side trails to get a better view of the ribbon of Parkway far below and the universe of mountains beyond. I especially love this photo - the young spring leaves mimic autumn colors. I perched on a rock outcropping, had a snack, and just enjoyed my good fortune to be alive and healthy that day.

As I was heading down, I met two older couples and they asked about my trekking poles. From there the conversation meandered and I learned that they were from Knoxville and they have even been through the Great Smoky Mountains a couple of times. It is difficult to comprehend living so close to the Park and not having it be a major part of one’s recreational life – what if I lived at the coast and never went to the beach? I told them a little bit about my Smokies hiking and they concluded that maybe they should go check out the Park, maybe even take a walk there. Yay, four more converts!

So ended my last hike on the BRP adventure. I still had some miles to drive to wait for the cyclists at Milepost 469. As I crossed Soco Gap I felt a shiver of familiarity. How many times had I driven this road last summer and fall? I especially enjoyed driving home from the Smokies this way, bypassing Cherokee and continuing the peaceful feeling just a little bit longer. Today I felt like I was going home. The only flaw was evidence of the fire that had raged here a few weeks earlier, but even that seemed to be quickly healing. Soon after the burned section I had to stop to see the mountain laurel blooming like crazy.

 What is the first thing I did when the Parkway ended? Why, I drove directly through Cherokee and to my favorite coffee shop, Tribal Grounds, where my café mocha was served to me with a lovely flare. This was a ritual I had looked forward to for weeks. What I had not figured on was the holiday weekend crowds, since I was used to driving through in the dead of winter with nothing to impede my progress but the breeze. After my coffee I joined the parade back to the Park and Occonaluftee VC – also quite crowded with part of the parking lot closed for construction. What to do? I had an hour or two and wanted to quietly reflect.

I drove a few miles on Newfound Gap Road, past Mingus Mill (lots more cars) and eventually stopped at a small pull-off beside the river. I walked down to the banks, took a seat, and watched the water flow for about half an hour. Peace at last! Why, hello, Mr. Ranger, how are you? No, I’m not fishing, just reflecting, you see. Keep up the good work doing your rangering.

I stationed my car at the “Entering the Blue Ridge Parkway” sign and walked back to sit on the bridge by Milepost 469. I waved to cars coming and going, the official greeter of the Smokies. Ellen soon arrived, a few minutes ahead of the cyclists, and the papparazzi (me) were ready for Jim’s big finish. He was going so fast, I am amazed that I got the shot. My heart was filled with pride and joy for him – Jim is a good man, a good husband, a good father, a good friend, and he works very hard for everyone else. I could not have accomplished my Smokies quest without his unlimited support. It was wonderful to see him fulfill a dream just for himself.

Jim’s friends came rolling in a couple of minutes behind him, all exhilarated at the final downhill plunge. There were many more photos, including the traditional victory pose with bicycles hoisted overhead.

And here’s Jim in a bookend photo to the one taken on the first day of his big adventure. Nine days is a long time for a bike trip – why did it suddenly seem so short? And behind the nine days was more than six months of planning, scheming, map studying, not to mention training, training, training. A full-time obsession was now ended. I knew a little bit of letdown would follow in the first few days after we got home, so I had planned for one more night’s stay at our B&B in Waynesville and dinner with the Bernsteins, whom we could regale with tales of our trip. And what luck – Waynesville was having a block party! Jim did not believe my insistence that it was in his honor.

 So Jim and Sharon have both indulged their midlife crises – we highly recommend it to everyone! Hey, don’t wait for midlife! Now that we have tasted the sweetness of accomplishment and the freedom of the trail/road, we are looking forward to whatever is next. The wheels are already turning (pun intended) about the next adventure!  

"We don't stop hiking because we grow old, we grow old because we stop hiking." ~Finis Mitchell 

Jim’s Day Nine 

Where did the time go?? I felt like I was at Rock Fish Gap yesterday. Jim’sBig Adventure ends today but what a finish it would be. From Beech Gap to Cherokee the elevation profile for the BRP looks like a rollercoaster: a slight climb to Richland Balsam, down to Balsam Gap, up to Waterrock Knob, down to Soco Gap, up to Balsam Mountain and down to Cherokee. My feelings about this section had changed drastically from when I first started thinking about a full BRP trip. Then I thought it would be beautiful but probably exhausting. Now I thought it would be beautiful and a fun challenge. 

SS and I met Beth, Don, Tom and Ellen right on time at 8:30 AM on the BRP. The weather was a little overcast and probably somewhere in the low 60s. After the usual air pumping, spandex snapping and photo taking we were on the road. I had now logged well over 400 miles. I was pleasantly surprised that my rear end was still in good shape. People think that the saddles on road bikes are very uncomfortable because they are so small. This is not true. You want to eliminate any rubbing between your body and the saddle but also support your rear. The key is to put the support only where you need it (and get a good pair of cycling shorts). Anything extra will create a rub. The actual contact points are not that big thus the saddle can be fairly narrow. You might have to try a few before finding the right fit. The Selle Italia SLC saddle I have fits my posterior great. With all that said I did come across one rough butt on the ride today. (Take a look at the picture.) 

After giggling like school kids at the Rough Butt Overlook we made our way to Richland Balsam, the highest point on the BRP at elev 6053 ft. The view was good but a little hazy. I had ridden here once before on a very clear day and the view took my breath away (along with the climb from Balsam Gap). A classic BRP trip picture is in front of this sign. A group of vets riding motorcycles took this picture for us and we returned the favor. Afterwards we all realized that we thanked them for the picture but not for their service and sacrifice. This was doubly disturbing as it was Memorial Day weekend. For all you veterans reading, please accept our apology and let me say “Thank You.” You do not get nearly enough credit or respect. 

From here we started on our first big descent of the day, about 12 miles and 2500 ft to Balsam Gap. We did not really ride together downhill as we all were hitting different terminal velocities. I slammed on the brakes once in a while to snap a good picture. There is a particular spot on this descent that I like where the road curves around a large cove and you have a large view to your right and you see the BRP curving around the mountain in front of you. I purchased a beautiful fall photo of this scene a few years ago. I meant to get a similar picture but I sped right through that spot before I realized where I was. 

We all regrouped at Balsam Gap and started the climb up to Waterrock Knob. It was getting warmer. On the way up we met Ellen at an overlook and stopped for lunch. I had bought a sub at Subway last night and pulled it from my handle bar bag. SS can attest that my favorite lunch for hiking is a Subway sub. All the other folks had Subway today also except Don and he openly wished he had the same. Maybe I can get them to sponsor a Subway Cycling Team?? From where we ate there was a waterfall that you could see and hear way in the distance. Unfortunately I don’t have a good picture. 
   Now it was up to Waterrock Knob. On the way up Beth snapped this picture which is one of the few of me actually riding as well as this one at the summit. The summit picture is interesting in that you can see the BRP in the background and the spring colors are still emerging. 

Okay, now time for another descent. We took off for Soco Gap. Again we went at different speeds. This time I did not stop for pictures. I got to Soco Gap first and Don arrived shortly after. We were talking while waiting for Beth and Tom. A minute went by, then another, then another. Both Don and I were concerned that somebody had a fall which would be serious at these speeds. Beth and Tom soon popped into view though. Beth’s hands had cramped up from squeezing the brakes to control her speed and she took a brief stop. 

It was now the last climb (or so I thought) up to the peak of Balsam Mountain. We regrouped at the summit. I had a goal on this trip of reaching 50 mph since I am 50 years old. No stopping for pictures, just tuck and go, 15 miles or so of pure downhill to finish the ride. I did have one small surprise when we hit a brief section of uphill. It is never all downhill on the BRP, I guess. Other than that and slowing for a few tunnels it was a screamer into Cherokee. I got into a tuck and stayed there most of the way. I was tailing a minivan and kept up with it all the way down. It pulled ahead in the long straightaways and I closed the gap on the curves. This sign does make you think about what you are doing though. Part of the descent was through a section that recently experienced a fire. You could smell it before you saw it. 

Descents might not be quite as demanding as climbs but they still are tiring in a different way. By the time I got to mile marker 469 my back and arms were pretty bushed. I shouted out the miles to go as I sped past the last 5 mile markers. Unless I wrecked I was going to make it. SS was waiting for me at the finish as I sped past and she snapped a photo. What a rush! As I stopped a few hundred feet beyond the 469 marker a car pulled beside me. The driver rolled down window and said he had been behind me for the last 8 miles or so and enjoyed watching my descent. To be honest, I did not hit 50 mph. I made it to 43.4 mph. I should have taken off my wind vest and the handle bar bag. Too much drag. 

Beth, Don and Tom followed. SS had champagne ready and we toasted our accomplishment. Jeez, it felt good, but again I was not wanting it to be over. SS has always had a saying that you should leave a party at its peak and I guess that applies to bike trips.

After saying our goodbyes, SS and I headed off to Waynesville. We met Danny and Lenny (as readers of this blog I am sure you know who they are) for dinner. They are great people and very interesting to talk with. I will always be grateful for the help and encouragement they provided SS on her Smokies Challenge. We then went back to Waynesville where a street festival was happening downtown. I love street festivals, so this was a great ending. We listened to some bluegrass, did some people-watching and I celebrated with a humongous piece of coconut cake. Well, this is a long post. I want to share a few last thoughts but I will save them for another day. 

Stats for the day: 

Mile marker start: 423.3 
Mile marker finish: 469.1 
Total day miles: 48.1 
Day climbing: Still need to get this 
Avg speed: 12.9 mph 
Max speed: 43.4 mph  

“It’s not about the bike” ~Lance Armstrong


Anne Cowan said...

I have really enjoyed reading about your trip on the BRP, Jim, and your hiking, SS. Ben really enjoyed meeting you while he was doing his "retirement" trip. We just returned from Bike Virginia, and it was a blast. We saw Jack almost every day, but we seemed to be on an earlier morning start schedule and did not see him much.

Congratulations on finishing a great ride. I hope to do it sometime in the future, too, though maybe not self supported! We shall see!

Old Dan said...

Congratulations Jim on a great accomplishment! Excellent journaling too, I really enjoyed it. -Dan