Riding in the Smoking Section
by Ainsley Wiles
A lot can happen in a year. Details become fuzzy and things change. I sit here at my computer, in my warm home alone and iced in. I think of things done and gone, but I won't talk about them here. What I will talk about is a ride I did back in March last year.
It's March 9th, and the days are getting longer and warmer. I want to ride the trails on my old Schwinn fixie conversion. As I drive down the forestry roads towards the trailhead, something seems odd. There's a lot of smoke in the air. Then I notice scorched forest floor either side of the road, and 'hot spots' -- small dying fires left among the ashes.
What I'm seeing is not a wild fire, but a prescribed burn done by the Forestry Commission. Fire can be a good thing. Do it right and you keep the forest healthy. I know this because I've done it, but that too is another story for another time. I parked at the Rock, where we had been meeting for our Tuesday and Thursday night rides. I unloaded the bike and took a few snapshots. The photo will look familiar if you've read Russ Fitzgerald's 'Three Rides'. A fixie had been here before, but not on these trails. I'm the first and I like it that way.
The forest floor is black with ash and soot, but the trail is untouched. The compacted leaf litter didn't catch, so the trail stands out like Dorothy's Yellow Brick Road. I start whistling a tune once sung by munchkins. I check the air -- just enough to avoid pinch flats, but slack enough to soak up some of the bumps. The first part of the trail is fairly technical and I'm not a true mountain biker, so I take it slow and easy. The climbs aren't too bad, but I find the 65" gear just a little too steep.
The descents are tricky, too. The frame is a little short for me. Even when I slide as far back in the saddle as I can, I still feel as though I'm about to go over the bars.
I navigate the roots and rocks and slippery spots left over from the winter rains. I ride by the old sign that says 'From The Plow To The Pines' and ride on. I think it would make a good pic, but maybe next time. More roots and rocks and then I'm at the T. Decision time. I could turn right towards the old steel bridge known locally as Gratin's Bridge, named for the time a local mountain biker tried to ride the narrow steel footway and found himself swimming in Long Cane Creek. Or I could take a left towards Fell Hunt Camp where the trail is not so technical.
I choose left. Almost immediately, I hit the rock garden. I'm glad of the semi-slacks, as my teeth are being rattled from my head. Soon the trail runs near the forestry road and an object catches my eye. I stop to take a closer look; it looks just like a ping pong ball. In fact, it's an ignition device. It was filled with something inflammable and tossed from a truck on the nearby road.
Hereabouts there are lots of hot spots and smoke from every direction. The smoke is not too bad, it doesn't hamper the ride, but does create a surreal atmosphere. I find the undulating terrain challenging, and get a few pedal strikes just to keep things interesting. I'm glad I'm not going clipless. I can move my feet on the pedals, absorbing some of the shock of a strike, and keeping me from going down. The toeclips and straps keep my feet where they need to be, but I have brakes front and back, so no worries.
On a smooth flat section I dismount to cross a log cyclocross style and meet Ashby coming the other way. He warns me of horse traffic from the weekend. The trail is a mess in places. I thank him for the information and we ride in our separate directions. Horses really are a problem. I don't mind them using the trail, though I do wish they wouldn't crap in the middle of it. But riders keep taking their horses out in the wet and ruining the trail surface.
Soon things get more technical and I'm fighting for control. I skip-skid on the downhills to bleed off some speed and am surprised at how well the cheap road tires maintain traction. The trail starts to get muddy and I begin to see evidence of horses. The surface is all churned up. In the wet spots, the Carolina clay is the consistency of chocolate pudding. Where it has dried, the result is what some call Redneck Pave. I stop where the trail dumps me out on the forestry road and Memorial Bridge.
I sip water from my hydro pack and munch on a granola bar. Should I go further or turn around? I have time, so I set off for the next section. The climb up from the road is work, but then things got better. Then it's back on the Redneck Pave and I'm in danger of chipping a tooth. On one descent I hit a low spot and my front wheel sunk halfway up to the hub, stopping me dead. Luckily for me I was going slow. The trail looked bad further up, so I decided to call it quits.
The trip back is as interesting as the trip out and I'm starting to run out of light. In the quiet of dusk I can hear the popping and hissing of the small fires as I ride past. The hot spots are much more noticeable in the low light, and I stop to get a photo. It's eerie to watch the sun set amid smoke and fire.
I make it back to the car with just enough light to mount my bike. I change into my street clothes in the car and drive to the monthly bike club meeting. The ride was fun, I'll have to do that again soon.
A week later, I get off work a little early and take off for the trail. What a difference a week makes! Fresh green shoots are poking up from the ashes. I ready the Schwinn and take off. I feel more confident than last time and I ride just a little bit faster. I dodge what roots I can and bounce over the ones I can't.
It's a steady climb up to the T and I'm there before I know it. This time I go right. This trail is more technical. A fallen tree makes me dismount, and I see smoke from a hot spot, still burning after a week. No worries, it can't spread.
I hit the section of the quick rollers, or what some call whoop de dos. I just manage to miss an exposed root. As I come up to the the next, I see a rider I don't recognise approaching. Department store bike, jeans and a flannel shirt, no helmet... looks like he should have an axe or chainsaw in his hand. But then, who am I to judge? I'm on a lugged steel road bike...
He pulls over and stops to let me pass. I spin down and then up again, trying not to slip on the loose gravel. We exchange simple pleasantries before going our separate ways. I hit more gravel and find that it's best just to pedal though it. With a fixed gear, that's no problem. The trail soon becomes more technical and I take a few pedal strikes on roots and rocks, but manage to stay up.
The roots here are harder to avoid. It's almost like they try to reach out and grab your rear wheel. Spooky. Pretty soon I come to a sign that marks the largest shag bark hickory in the state and the second largest in the world. I stop for a quick photo and notice some small flowers around the sign. They're just a few inches in height with two layers of petals, the inner yellow and outer pink. At first I think they must be some rare type of orchid. Then I start noticing them everywhere. Later, my former botany instructor will tell me that the flowers are trout lilies. They only bloom for a few days, so usually no-one sees them.
After admiring the flowers and the ancient hickory, a sapling when the first settlers arrived, I mount up and ride on. I negotiate a sharp hairpin and then stand on the pedals, wishing I had something a little bigger than my 16t cog. I lose traction a couple of times and shift my weight back.
The trail tops the ridge and follows it for a while. I look down into a swampy place where the fire didn't reach. Everything is so green and I can hear the drone of insects and frogs. Spring is almost upon us.
I stop to sip from my hydro pack and soon get the whine of a mosquito in my ear. Time to move on. The trail drops into a pine plantation, weaving between the old trees. Soon there's a bridge over a wet spot, then more climbing. Out of the saddle climbing is a pain when there are roots to dodge.
I reach the top and check the time. I can make it home on schedule if I turn around now, but Gratin's Bridge isn't too far away. I go just a little farther. The trail turns down and becomes tricky with roots and washed out places. Somehow I manage to make it though and slog though the sand at the bottom. I stop at the bridge. It's while I'm taking photos that I notice the plaque. That bridge has been there for a long time.
I eat a granola bar and wash it down with water from my pack. I'm going to be late. I climb out of the creek basin and negotiate the roots and washouts. When I reach the top I call home. I'm going to be late, but it was worth it.