I kinda knew I was in for it when I set up my great southeastern mountain bike road trip. I say “kinda” because I had lived and ridden in Virginia from 2008 to 2010 and as a child, I lived for a year in coastal North Carolina in the ’70s. Funny thing though; the further you get from something the more the memories, especially the less pleasant ones, fade. You just wander out onto the trails just expecting to have a jolly good time having remembered nothing but the joy, selective memory having filtered out the struggles. And then, when you return, it smacks you right in the face and says “How could you forget?”
Yep. That’s what happened when I ventured back into the lower right side of my map of the good ol’ U S of A. So, here’s what I learned, or more accurately relearned, about riding in the Southeast.
1. It’s really wet here: It rains a lot!
Coming from the lee side of the Rockies in the dry mountain west, I’m relatively unencumbered by rain. It rains seldom, and in my neck of the woods, most trails drain faster than rain can fall. The rain actually makes most of my trails better. But not out east!
Rain is a regular occurrence, and when it falls, the ground just soaks it up and hoards it like Scrooge McDuck does with his money. I actually got lucky with this one though. I was able to navigate my way around or between the relatively massive waves of airborne water, though it did require some flexibility in travel plans and a willingness to change routes and let go of my dream to ride this or that particular bucket-list trail.
2. It’s really wet here part II: Seepage
In Colorado, we have an occasional creek crossing. Some streams are permanent but usually small. Some are seasonal, appearing only in the spring and early summer when the snow in the high country is melting. Others only appear during or shortly after a big rain. Between creeks or drainages, the trails are nice and dry. Not in the southeast!
Even at the midpoint between far-flung water sources, a trail may turn into a tire sucking bog. Water just seems to seep out of the ground in the most unexpected places. One second, you’re cruising along having a nice spin, and the next, you’re desperately trying to extricate yourself from a puddle of black glop. I’m lazy and would rather ride than do bike maintenance. At home, I don’t need to do anything but add a little lube for weeks at a time. Down south, it seems like washing your bike and cleaning out the drivetrain could be a daily requirement.
3. The South is a good place to get back to your roots
No, I’m not talking about going on some genealogy search to see if you are really descended from some Civil War general. I’m talking about tree roots. Lots of them. Out west, the trees are more spaced out, so there’s not nearly as many of them. In a drier environment, trees run their roots deep to help ensure water during the tough times. In the southeast, even the skinny trees are bigger than the spaces between them. With all that rain, they can keep their roots close to the surface. As a trail wears in, it can become a nonstop root rumble.
I usually love technical features, but there’s fun technical and there’s annoying technical. Root gardens often fall into the latter category for me. God help you when those roots get wet, which they are nearly every morning from overnight dew.
4. Lots of creepy, crawly things
In the southeast there are bugs, spiders, and snakes of many varieties. Talk about biodiversity. I forgot how much bugs like water and moist, hot, humid places. We have some bugs in Colorado, but nothing like this. Not this variety, not this many, and certainly not this aggressive. I got stung. I got bit. And not little bumps like the occasional mosquito, but big welts, or craters that reminded me of when the chiggers would get my mom in North Carolina. I don’t know if that’s what it was, because I didn’t feel it when it happened. I just saw the hideous aftermath.
I do know that a few of my bites were from ticks because I had to pull the impacted little buggers off me one night. I don’t know how long they’d been on there or on which ride I’d picked them up, but they were quite embedded and engorged. Nasty little hitchhikers. Two days after the trip, I picked up a little touch of the flu. Normally I’d just ride it out at home, but this time I beat feat to the doc to make sure I hadn’t picked up lyme disease or some other nasty tick-borne malady.
There are quite a variety of snakes as well, from sleek black ones, to colorful striped ones, and they are fast. This was okay with me as they were really trying to clear the trail as soon as they saw me, unlike our western rattlesnakes that coil up on the trail and demand you go around. Southeastern snakes are much more into multi-user trail etiquette and sharing, which is really nice.
5. Things are really compact
There are no wide open spaces in the Southeast. Out west, you can ride for 20 miles in one continuous direction without hitting any roads. In the southeast, you can ride 20 miles, but you’ll double back on yourself so many times it’ll make you dizzy. I swear, a southeasterner can pack 50 miles of trail into less space than it takes to build a Wal-Mart. Which isn’t to say you never get away from the roads. Those super dense trees will have you thinking you’re miles deep in the wilderness in no time, and the constant turning will have you so disoriented, you’d never know you’re within the length of a football field of the nearest road.
6. Great scenery is defined differently
Full disclosure: I’m heavily biased in favor of western scenery. I love the million-mile views you can only get in those wide open spaces. In the southeast, those super-dense trees rarely open up enough to see the bark within inches of your face. Once you set aside preconceptions and expectations, the southeastern woods become beautiful. They’re so lush, so thick, and so green. When a view does open up, it’s an endless sea of lush, gorgeous, green, and while it’s all so green, it’s not purely monochromatic. The various shades of green form a wonderful combination of blending and contrast. To stop and be truly at one with the scene, to stop and soak it all in is to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by a special kind of beauty that can’t be found anywhere out west.
7. There are some who like to take it slow
There are lots of turtles. I’ve never seen so many turtles. There are occasional tortoises in the desert, but again, the wetter environment gives rise to a great variety and quantity of turtles, and they’re prettier than the dry western tortoises. I saw turtles on almost every trail from Arkansas to the Carolinas. They’re sweet little amphibians. I would have liked to take one home with me, but alas, they are shy and didn’t seem altogether comfortable with me.
8. The rocks are different
While it seems obvious that the trees would be different from east to west, it’s less so that the rocks themselves would be. After all, they’re just rocks, right? But they are different, and since they make up part of the riding surface, they actually have more influence on the riding experience than the trees.
The rocks tend to be more square and blockier. When a trail turns eastern rocky, while the features may not be as big as the rocks on Amasa Back, they can actually be far more demanding. They are so jumbled, not rounded, not smooth, and all laid together at the oddest, most inconvenient angles. Western skills developed to hit big rollers and huck ledges are worthless here. Better to have trials skills, an ability to maneuver tight places, and an ability to not get frustrated by the low speed and constant on-your-toes posture required just to stay upright. A rider used to fast and flowy trails could easily curse this place. I found it to be just a different kind of adventure. That said, my impression is that a skilled southeastern rider could translate out west easier than a skilled western rider could translate to the southeast.
9. It’s really wet here part III: Humidity
Drip, drip, drip. It never stops. The humidity was the one thing that singlehandedly derailed rides for me. I’ve never done well in humidity, and it seems to have gotten worse as the years have gone by. Within a few pedal strokes, my forehead would resemble Niagara Falls. Even when it wasn’t hot, the humidity would have every pore of my body spraying like a sprinkler system. No matter what kind of headgear I wore, I would get no more than a quarter mile from the trailhead before I couldn’t see for all the salt stinging my eyes. I was able to overcome each and every obstacle to have a great ride, except the humidity.
10. Lastly, southern riders are tough
Heat, humidity, bugs, snakes, tight, narrow trails, chunky unforgiving rocks at all the most inconvenient angles. One does not face all these obstacles and have a good enough time to go back and do it all again if one is in need of cushy creature comforts or groomed flow trails. Out in the southeast, you make your own flow and you expect little in the way of anything facilitating your fun. Things can be beautiful, but also brutal, demanding but also rewarding, and you will have to earn it. You will learn and grow, or you will quit. I fully understand one thing now; how riders can come from a place with little altitude, a fraction of the vertical of the Rockies, and no reputation for big mountain features, and positively slay some of our trails despite it being a whole different world. I have the utmost respect for my biking brethren from Dixie.