“Y’all look like serious cyclists,” said a man from a slowly rolling SUV, his light Georgia drawl clear in the chill morning air. The three of us — Brent, Ryan, and myself — are huddled together in one of Hiawassee’s finest gas stations. We are triple-dressed in every spare layer we packed and locked in a losing battle with the January cold.
Our roadside heckler has interrupted an hourly reverie of blowing on our fingers and trying to shake feeling back into our toes. We make quick, surreptitious eye contact before asking back, “You don’t happen to have a bike pump in the back, do you?”
From Pilfered Coors to Baby Clothes
The fact was, we were not serious cyclists. We had the cycling bags, the Pearl Izumi kit, and the dedication to be on a multiday bikepacking trip in January — but serious, we were not.
Currently, the three of us were on our second round of pocket change into a gas station air pump with the hope of fixing a flat tire once and for all. Our Presta valve adapter was uncooperative with this particular pump head. We had spent about $3 in digital quarters and 20 minutes we didn’t have to spare with the day’s late start. And miles and miles before we slept.
The three of us met in college. Brent and Ryan played hockey together, our Michigan alma mater’s Division 3 club status belying both of their athleticism. Brent and I were in concentric drinking circles, mostly meeting in the back rooms of house parties around pilfered cans of Coors. But the three of us really got to know each other through our then girlfriends, now wives.
Those three fast friends forced us into the kind of couple-adjacent friendship that seldom turns out successfully. There’s always an exception that proves the rule. And in the intervening years, I became increasingly familiar with Brent’s humor and optimism and Ryan’s tenacity and thoughtfulness.
Brent was an enthusiastic attendant when I threw birthday beer miles, outdoor New Year’s Eve parties, and weekend wilderness getaways. When my wife and I moved to Flagstaff, we ran into Ryan and Alicia on our first night wandering downtown. They had recently moved to Phoenix after a year spent traveling and living out of a converted ambulance. And they were very recently pregnant.
That turned out to be the first domino to fall — Bekah and I had our son, and Brent and Lauren had their daughter in cascading effect after. Having kids without community is a lonely road, and the six of us, plus the little ones, proved a helpful backdrop through those early months and years.
The Body Yearns
The variables stacked against you in any trip — time, sleep, comfort, cold — all seem exponentially larger with kids in tow. Long camping trips are replaced by afternoons with a jogging stroller. And multiday backpacking gets traded for one night of car camping if you’re lucky.
There’s nothing wrong with this, and it’s not the only option. Kids adapt incredibly well to whatever situation you enter, indoors or outdoors. As evidenced by the Instagram influencer claiming their 3-year-old twins accidentally went on a 17-mile mountain bike ride. But for the average parent, the intensity of trips tends to ratchet down. It’s a change that lasts only a few seasons of having little ones and comes with many blessings and experiences.
But every once in a while, the body yearns to do something intensely challenging and unrelated to being a parent. Something away from the reverse-siren song of Cocomelon. As a group, we devised an elegant solution, trading yearly guys’ and girls’ trips. This reciprocity allowed us to avoid the common feeling of parental guilt that usually accompanies leaving childcare to your spouse while disappearing out of cell range to do something fun and drink a little beer.
The arrangement provided community, sanity, and renewed perspective whenever the traveling parties returned. And this winter, the guys were up.
Georgia on Our Minds
We had both a logistical as well as a geographic problem. Because Brent is a teacher, we only had a long weekend plus a personal day to pull a trip off in mid-January. This was not an ideal weather window for Michigan and New Jersey, our respective current homes.
We tossed around a few ideas (I still lament that the weekend at a dude ranch went out the window) and eventually got excited about putting some miles on gravel bikes and days under the sun. Next came the gambit of triangulation and weather trends, finding the optimal combination of warm weather and interesting terrain.
We landed on Georgia — far enough away to pretend the weather would be warm enough. And with the helpful aid of the recently published Trans North Georgia bikepacking route, we found a trail we could put some miles on. Conveniently, a family friend’s cabin was 3 miles off the said path, offering a place to set up basecamp and a way to shuttle our car.
Initially, we planned on starting on the Eastern Georgia/North Carolina border and tackling miles zero to 120 of the route. We would be strapped down with all the necessary winter camping and gravel biking accouterments. Further research into weather trends, flight times, and elevation charts began to shrink our ambition.
So, we opted to shelter inside cheap motels in off-season Appalachian Trail tourist towns rather than risk precious kid-free evenings in the frozen sleeplessness of Georgia’s wild winter weather swings. And instead of starting on mile zero, we’d drop the car at a Methodist church around 27 miles into the route. This would provide more security than the roadside ditch mentioned in the bikepacking guide as a possible shuttle pull-off.
With the logistics covered, all that was left was to figure out how to get Brent a gravel bike.
The following months were a flurry of group texts, packing spreadsheets, borrowed gear (including a kind friend lending Brent a bike), and “just one more” trips to REI. Soon enough, Ryan and I found ourselves in actual flurries on our drive from Michigan to Georgia, shuttling a car full of gear and three gravel bikes with an intervening stop at the Knoxville airport to pick up Brent after his flight from New Jersey. Then onto our friend’s cabin, nestled up a steep mountain road to prepare for the next day’s start.
We decided to take a blizzard the night before as a harbinger of good luck instead of bad. After all, would you rather bike through a snowstorm or go the day after? We packed and caught up late into the night, taking off parts of our bikes that we probably should have left on. And spending the remaining hours watching YouTube repair tutorials and getting rookie amounts of grease on every surface.
The next day we loaded up the car and drove to the small town of Dillard, tires crunching on icy mountain roads and grease still under our fingernails. We found the Methodist church with a parking lot conveniently hidden from the main road and gambled that if you couldn’t ditch your car in a church parking lot, where could you?
With the wind howling at us despite our protected alcove, we strapped our gear to our bikes, snapped some cold and unfortunately crooked photos, and started pedaling.
We each hit different moments of deep regret that first day. Ryan’s was probably the second time his chain dropped, jamming between his wheel and hub. Or how we managed to lose the end-cap to his thru-axle in the iced-over leaves alongside the road, contemplated ending the trip right then and there, and then found it 15 minutes later in a moment of shared ecstasy.
Mine came when a tree blocked the forest service road (read: unmaintained path), and when going to unclip, my shoe spun and locked into place. A bolt had somehow dropped out of the faithful mountain bike shoes, their first betrayal in nearly a decade of use. My oh-so-brilliant shoe covers meant getting off the bike was now a group affair.
We didn’t know about Brent’s breaking point until the drive back to the airport, when he cheerfully said that after the first day, he would have been happy to never bike again, his long suffering hidden by his habit of running ultramarathons and general Canadianess. And these breaking points turned out to be more like breaking cycles, coming back like the spokes on the wheel.
Flat tires in sub-freezing winds, soaked through the toes from river crossings, Jeep tracks filled with ice, and small boulder fields unrideable due both to grade and terrain. Endless hike-a-bike. Endless mechanicals. Rinse, wash, repeat.
It was, to borrow the English football fan term, unlucky, again and again. But there’s something special about compounding small-scale disasters. When enough stack upon each other, they have the potential to turn an overwhelming urge to throw in the towel. Or, conversely, they become farcical.
Sure, one flat tire where you can’t remember which tire lever goes where can quickly bog down into pinched fingers, cussing, and escalating frustration. But after four, it happens again. It’s like waiting for the joke to come back around after it’s been played out. Enough minor inconvenience multiplied exponentially becomes a good time through the alchemy of friendship and perspective. And ultimately, that’s the reason for a trip like this.
We were creating space in our lives to experience chosen inconvenience. It differed from the daily inconveniences of sleep training, diaper changes, and toddler timeouts. It was also a chosen path, but one with more immediate consequences and more significant ramifications than a few days getting cold and getting our asses handed to us by the Appalachians. Which we deeply underestimated despite knowing that we shouldn’t.
Red Clay and Friendly Faces
The river crossings were cold but enlivening. The 4×4 tracks drew awed looks from folks safely cocooned in climate-controlled cabs. We caught miles of unbroken pavement, granting us a hiatus from the quicksand-like effect of Georgia’s red mud.
A friendly mountain dog joining us for two exhilarating downhill miles, and we were met with extreme kindness from everyone we encountered — from our gas station interrupter letting us know how many miles he tries to cycle each week, to an off-roader offering us water, to friendly honks and plenty of space on narrow country roads.
In Billy Crystal’s 1991 hit City Slickers, three friends with a penchant for yearly compounding adventures sign up for a cattle drive. They’re in over their heads from the beginning, but they’re together in being over their heads. One morning around the cookfire, the talk turns to baseball and why some people are obsessed with talking about it. The answer? Baseball is universal; it provides an underpinning language of comfort, allowing a familiar entry point into a larger conversation.
For some, it’s baseball. For some, it could be fishing; for others, julienning carrots. The point is we all have these subjects we can talk about when there’s nothing to discuss. When we’re striving for connection, but maybe don’t have our own language.
So, we borrow a familiar vocabulary, which helps us get started. Like the idea Ada Limon’s poem Sports tees up: These universal languages help us feel like we’re on the same team.
I don’t ever talk about baseball, but I often talk about biking, though not about stats or pros. For me, cycling itself might be a more apt analogy — the act of movement and a common goal unlocking some universal language to talk about life. There’s something about hard miles on the trail that break down bravado, the big climbs and flat tires wearing through a patina of studied toughness. It’s hard to pretend you don’t feel earnestly after cussing out your bike for a series of unhinged and unrelated accidents.
After struggling through one too many instances of inadequate tire sizes and unrelenting hike-a-bikes, we found ourselves lost. The service road we followed down from our midday hiking break (a well-intentioned but poorly planned attempt to see above the trees rather than through them) had dead-ended into a pile of beer cans and a blanket of pine trees.
The Garmin told us to turn onto something literally called Abandoned Forest Service Road 79 — an ominous name if there was any — and the road clearly didn’t exist. Some bushwhacking and beer-can-trail following brought us to a high-bermed mountain of leaves and what looked to be a wandering game trail, which lacked any other options. So we decided to follow.
This game trail was 6 miles of bone-rattling and adrenaline-spiking singletrack, barring the occasional dismount for downed trees, boulder fields, and pinched tubes. Whooping, hollering, and unsure of what was around each bend, we cornered, and bunny hopped with packs rattling until the singletrack expanded to a non-abandoned forest road and then onto pristine pavement. Then it was downhill all the way into the inexplicably Bavarian-themed village of Helen.
The End of the Gravel, for Now
We called it a trip among the Hofbräuhauses and miniature, theme-park tourist trains that ran through the main street. Liter steins were calling, Brent’s wife and daughter had food poisoning back home, and our deadline for plane flights the next day was tight — leaving no room for our frequent mechanicals and undertrained leg muscles. No choice now but to call in our shuttle car and nurse our sore, well, everything.
The next morning, we awoke tired, dehydrated, a little hungover, on a quest for a big Southern-style breakfast, and eager to start our drive through mountain passes and hairpin backroads. Only one question remained: When do we do it next?