Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run: Day Five: Last Long Push

Midpoint of Simms Mountain Trail to Snake Creek Gap, 51.8 miles, ~14 ½ h

    Up and at it early again!  Why not?  It was a cool morning, but it was shaping up to be another very hot day and I had another long, epic day planned; the last truly long epic of the journey so it was go time!  The first ten miles or so of today’s route was basically totally flat so this was a good time to go fast.  So run relatively fast I did; probably a bit faster than Josh expected as I missed him at the first couple of road crossings!  I saw him flash by going the opposite way on the highway; obviously expecting me further back on the rail-trail.  At the next road crossing, I built a rock arrow on the road for him to see (there was virtually no other traffic this time of day) and then another a little bit further along when I crossed another road.  It must have worked because by the next crossing there he was snapping pictures as I emerged out of the woods into this incredible open field in the little community of Holland (sorry, no windmills here).  He apologized but I just waved him off, I felt fine and didn’t require any aid anyhow; it was still very cool out, but that sun was coming up quick!  I changed out bottles and kept on going making my way to the High Point Trailhead (the Georgia version, yes I’d also passed through a High Point Trailhead in Alabama on the previous day!).  I was nearing the end of the Simms Mountain Trail and one could tell, it was now a tall grass covered piece of double track trail right next to the road.  The grass was wet with dew and soon so was I; wet shoes again!  Oh well.  The final section of flat ground was on a recently constructed extension linking the High Point Trail head to the Simms Mountain Trail directly.  The old Pinhoti route had you leaving the trail for a short jog along the paved road before the trail head; this new extension bypassed the road and heads right for the trail head.  It was very obvious that this was very recently cut as there were still all kinds of little stumps, branches and vines near the ground trying to trip me up.  It’s definitely passable, but hopefully they’ll back fill the path in with some nice gravel before they’re done.  Otherwise this was a nice new little trail; much better than being on the road!  It was still a bit aggravating, constantly bumping into little stumps or getting near trip-lined in vines so I just decided to take it easy and walk the rest of the way to the trail head; it wasn’t very far now.

    I arrived at the trailhead and, again, no Josh! What’s up with that?  I just sat down on a nearby picnic bench and waited; studying my trail map.  He pulled up not long later; I guess he got worried after not seeing me and decided to drive back and look for me.  I told him about the condition of the new trail and that I just decided to walk it in.  No matter, I refilled my bottle and once again, re-entered the woods.  I was now ascending to Taylor Ridge and entering into the Chattahoochee National Forest.  This is a popular mountain biking destination and I could tell.  The trail surface was very even, wide and largely rock free.  Also, the gradient was much more gentle; even though I was climbing it was a fairly easy, steady, switch backing climb; a totally different character than most of the Alabama Pinhoti trail.  I soon reached the summit and began a nice run along an old 4x4 road towards Jenkins Gap.  There was some good running in here, so I took advantage of it and soon there was Josh waiting at the gap.  I’m still pretty amazed at how he was able to find all the random trail crossings along this route.  I don’t know how he did it?

    The next section was a bit more familiar as I was now running on the high ridgeline above Sloppy Floyd State Park, home of the Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon held every year in May.  As a matter of fact I think the race was coming up very soon!  I stopped to take a photo of me in front of one of the park signs; a little self-documentation, and continued on even as the photo was uploading to Facebook.  Why not?  I’d forgotten how long a ridge run this was; seemed to go on and on until finally I passed by the familiar radio towers and dropped down an steep gravel road to Mac White Gap  (I’ve got another, more hilarious name for this Gap, but I won’t repeat it here), passing by a police cruiser heading up the road along the way.  Josh was there in the shade and I joined him. He told me that DeWayne was well on his way up, that Eric was ending his Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run at the state line and he and the rest of the crew would be then heading our way soon.  Wow what friends I have! Lunatics!

    I crossed the busy Highway 27 and headed back into the woods and up an ancient gravel road, not much more than a double track trail at this point.  Soon later I emerged onto a slightly better old gravel road and saw a trail sign pointing me to the right.  My spidey sense said that couldn’t be right.  I pulled out my map and description and sure enough, I was supposed to go left.  What’s the deal?  The trail sign was broken off at the base and someone had leaned it back up against a tree, pointing the wrong way! Yikes!  I corrected the situation and then headed to the left down the gravel road.  It soon became clear I was going the correct way as I passed by several marked landmarks. Phew!  The sun was really starting to cook me now as this entire stretch would be on this old gravel road, totally exposed to the merciless sun.  I just kept on trucking, running when I could, but more often just hiking as quickly as I could up hill.  Next came the second most shocking moment I had on the trail (the first being that turkey encounter a couple days ago).  I was perhaps a half mile beyond a locked gate which was clearly signed NO HUNTING: VIOLATERS WILL BE PROSECUTED.  When I glanced up to see a poacher (no bright orange vest here!) with his rifle pointed right at me!  My heart began to beat super fast and I mouthed “Oh **it!” to myself but then as quickly as I’d seen that the poacher had swung the rifle back over his shoulder as if nothing fatal had almost happened! Damn!  What could I do?  He was the guy with the gun and I was in the middle of nowhere.  I wasn’t exactly in the position to argue now was I?  Instead I just ran by the guy as fast as my fatigued legs would carry me without a word or glance in his direction.  Wow!  My heartbeat finally came back under control as I began to descend to towards a running stream.  This was a great opportunity to cool off and I took advantage, soaking my shirt and hat.  All too brief, I had to keep going; today was going to be a long day; definitely finishing in headlamps again!  Back uphill and another long walking break in the growing heat of the day.  Finally I arrived at a fork in the road.  Straight ahead the road looked almost non-existent, covered in tall grass and multiple blown down trees.  I consulted my map and description again and sure enough I was to exit to the left though there were no blazes to indicate the turn.  Rooting around a bit I discovered and old Pinhoti trail sign, broken and lying on the ground; useless to me.  Vandalism; a big shame.  I continued on running along yet another sun exposed, ancient 4x4 road that was hardly blazed.  There really wasn’t any other way to go, but it would be nice if there were some more blazes.  That was one thing I didn’t understand, why are there two different colored blazes between Alabama and Georgia?  It’s all the Pinhoti trail so there needs to be consistency.  I’d choose blue as this is an Appalachian trail connector; and blue is so much easier to spot than white in the woods.  I’d often think I was seeing a white blaze when all it was just a trick of the sunlight on the tree bark.  I was going along, lost in my heat baked thoughts when all of a sudden an apparition appeared on the trail ahead of me.  Holy cow, it was DeWayne!  I looked up to see me and I jokingly turned around and started back the way I’d come.  You should have seen the look on his face; I think he honestly thought I was out of my mind!  Ha!  Rich!  Too bad I didn’t spot him earlier or I’d have given him a good scare! Darn!

    We greeted each other and then continued to plod along.  This was beginning to be a long section, but it was better now with some company.  DeWayne and I swapped stories and he took the liberty to snap a few photos.  This was beginning to get fun again!  Soon we were dumped off onto a better looking 4x4 road after I impressed DeWayne by locating a trail marker buried in grass and weeds indicating we were still on trail.  Just up the road was Josh at Hammond Gap.  We didn’t stay long, just downed some more fluids and calories and we were off.  Easier running now on a recently reconstructed gravel road; looks like there had been a major washout sometime recently.  The footing was still very puffy and light like it had just been resurfaced with dirt.  The dirt road quickly turned into pavement and we were once again back into the open sun heading towards the West Armuchee trailhead.  This was a paved road, but very pot holed and beaten up, and nobody around though it looked like there might be some expensive houses out this way judging by some nice looking brick mailboxes and smooth cement driveways going off the road into the woods to the left.  My suspicion gained further credence as we arrived at the bridge over Ruff Creek (this was also the trailhead).  You could tell a lot of work had gone into building this nice bridge and even more work done to terrace the overhanging hillside before it.  A lot of money went into that and the bridge was only a couple years old.  Seemed like fairly high end work for not much going on out this way?  But I digress, it was just something we were discussing at this time that I remember.  With this section complete I was now 235.8 miles in and now, finally, down to double digit miles to go!  Amazing to me that I’d come so far and had less than 100 miles left to go.  I was very excited, so much so that I decided to celebrate by changing my socks, adding ice to my hat and continuing on as soon as I could.  Yeah, it was just a small milestone, I knew I had a lot more work left to do and it was time to get back to business.

    We finally rolled out of West Armuchee and crossed the new bridge over Ruff creek; we could see its ancient predecessor down below; it become clear why that one lane bridge was replaced.  Wow it was old and looked heavily undermined!  Anyhow, we left the road once again and began to ascend Strawberry Mountain.  Most of this early part is kind of a blur now as DeWayne and I were discussing a whole variety of subjects and the time just seemed to pass.  Before we knew it we’d arrived at a small gravel road and parking area where Josh was going to meet us.  Josh wasn’t there and so we decided to keep going as it wasn’t all that much further to the East Armuchee trail head.  We’d just crossed behind the locked swing arm gate leading us up hill on another ancient 4x4 road when Josh came flying up into the parking area in a cloud of dust.  We were already well up the hill and I didn’t want to down climb; no need.  Out of Josh’s vehicle Dink Taylor emerged!  Another surprise!  Dink is a good friend of mine fron early in my ultra running days.  Now owner of the Fleet Feet Huntsville running store, I owe Dink and his wife Suzanne a huge thank you for providing me and Eric and our volunteers with some cool technical shirts to wear for the adventure.  You guys rock! Josh yelled and asked if we needed any aid; we declined and said we’d just see him at the next trailhead which was only a couple miles or so away.  As Dink was still getting ready, DeWayne and I continued away, up the hill and out of sight.  Yep, you guessed it, time to hide and scare Dink when he came by.  DeWayne and I hid well off the trail and waited for Dink to come by.  A short time later Dink ran by and we jumped out and scared him.  I’m not sure if he was startled or not; didn’t seem like a flinched! Darn!  Well we had to try!  This section was a blur as well as they talked about their recent Strolling Jim 40 mile race and I answered some questions about my current epic.  I remember navigation was a bit funny through here as there were a lot of blow downs and tall grass that helped hide some of the almost non-existent white blazes.  Still, we basically just stayed on the same old 4x4 road so you really couldn’t get lost.  Soon we’d cleared most of the difficulty and began running downhill towards the trail head at West Armuchee Creek.  We round a bend in the road and all of a sudden there are a ton of my friends soaking in the creek ahead!  Sweet!  It was really cool to see everybody there!  Eric, Joey, Eric Fritz, Laura were all wading in the fairly deep creek crossing which was actually part of the road!  There were some cement pylons along the bottom of the creek which allowed vehicles to cross safely; at present they made a nice place to sit and cool off.  I took a minute to dunk myself in the creek; chat a bit with my friends and then I was across to the other side of the creek .  I still had a long way to go today and needed to keep pressing.  I thanked everybody for coming out to see me; congratulated on Eric’s valiant effort to make it to the state line on the Pinhoti; completing the Alabama portion of the Pinhoti trail and then we were out of there; now with Eric Fritz in tow along with DeWayne and Dink.  The next short mileage was on a couple different roads leading to the approach to Johns Mountain.  It was odd having three people run with me and several crew vehicles following after running largely by myself for days and with only a single crew vehicle.  Almost surreal; I felt like a rock star!  Well we got to the next crew area before and we paused briefly to say farewell to Dink who had to get back to Huntsville to put out some more fires!  His and Suzanne’s work with Fleet Feet never ends and the runners in the Tennessee Valley are very so much better off because of their efforts!

    It didn’t take too long into the Johns Mountain section to have our first navigational difficulty.  At least we were always prepared since we all had copies of the route map and description; just a small matter of sorting things out.  The real difficulty is in the lack of trail markings or blazing.  We’d come to a “T” intersection and really had the option to go left or right.  No markings.  After consulting the map, we turned to the left and soon confirmed this was the correct route by looking back along the route we’d just come to spot a couple of very old white blazes.  This “looking back” method became a common way to check if we were on route by searching out blazes marking the route going the opposite direction!  Sure enough, just like the description, we found ourselves wading across Armuchee Creek and continuing on the long contour taking us around the northern head of Johns Mountain. I believe we had a fairly easy time finding the rest of the route though I know we’d encountered a few other questionable areas but with three pair of eyes we were able to make short work of any difficulties.  Before long we’d arrived at the next crew location at CR 724.  It is here where there is another discrepancy in the route map and official Pinhoti Trail description. For the Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run, our goal is to follow the official route description (as of May 1st, 2010).  So we take a right o CR 724 and follow the gravel road uphill to Johns Mountain Overlook.  Joey has previously scouted out this route to make sure it is indeed blazed; thank Joey!  Joey leads us up the road along with Fritz and DeWayne.  The route is actually blazed this way as well so it’s pretty obvious to go this way.  I’m so happy the route goes this way because, as we top out there is a wonderful overlook looking towards the west.  From here we can see quite a bit of the route I’d already covered that day plus further to the west we could see Lookout Mountain!  We take a short break here to take some photos and just bask in the late afternoon, low sun.  Marvelous!  Soon we have to move on, but what a spectacular trail section awaits as Joey leads us down the route towards Keown Falls.  Wow!  After a short way on single track we emerge at yet another overlook, this time overlooking the top of Keown Falls.  Some more quick photos and we’re heading down this spectacular switch backing trail that seems as if it was carved into the side of the gorge wall.  A huge amount of work must have gone into constructing this trail; beautiful.  It is starting to get dark, once again, in the woods as we snake down the Keown Falls trail heading for the main parking area.  This last bit of trail is, rock lined and has a smooth gravel bed, probably the best trail surface I’ve seen yet along the entire Pinhoti trail.  But it too comes to an end as we empty out into the parking area.

    We now have just 7 miles and change to go to Snake Creek Gap; today’s mileage goal.  As we have just a short ½ mile jog down the road to the Pilcher’s Pond Trailhead we wait to there to make our last crew stop.  This is a beautiful looking park area, but it all is strangely silent and abandoned.  We’ve got it all to ourselves this evening.  At the trailhead we grab additional gear including headlamps and press on trying to get as far as we can before we lose the daylight.  We quickly arrive at Pilcher’s Pond and here the route sort of disappears.  We make our way counter-clockwise around the pond which seems to be the correct way to go because we pass by an old informational kiosk at a picnic area that is adorned with a turkey blaze.  I remembered that this is a popular mountain biking area and so we follow the obvious mountain bike tracks.  There is a lone fisherman along the far bank of the pond as we once again re-enter the woods and began a fairly comfortable, switch backing ascent of Horn Mountain.  Blazes are far and in between until we arrive at a signed intersection and there is Josh waiting on us.  Apparently there is still some discrepancy between the actual Pinhoti route and something called the Alternative Pinhoti route.  Whatever, we’re just following the route description even though there is still some obvious signage marking a couple different ways.  Josh wanted to make sure we made it to this intersection alright so he’d hiked in along the alternate route.  He seemed relieved to see us; but now the way was much more heavily blazed so it was clear we were on route.  We continued to climb, the single track trail wide and nicely surfaced; well packed in from abundant mountain bike traffic.

    We make short work of the climb up Horn Mountain and soon we’re running along the ridgeline in the growing dusk.  It still is light enough out to run without lights but we’re still tripping over loose rocks along the ridge.  This is a difficult time of day to be running on any sort of technical terrain as it’s dark out, but not really dark enough yet that a light is handy.  We press on and by the time we reach the northern head of the ridge and begin to switch back down the east side of Horn Mountain, it is dark enough to finally cut on our lights.  In the dark, we began a long series of downhill switchbacks toward Snake Creek Gap.  I’m getting pretty tired now; it’s been a very long day and the gap never seems to get any closer!  This last section is very aggravating because we can hear traffic along the highway below us, so we know we’re close, but the trail keeps bending away from the road; taking us deeper in the woods (seemingly).  Finally I have enough and really open the throttle up and start to run basically about as fast as I can down the pitch black trail.  I’ve got my head lamp on, but I’m still kicking rocks (looking back now I realize that it’s probably in this last mile of the day that I re-aggravated my left ankle and set off the tendonitis) and rolling my ankles; but no matter we’re almost there and I can hear our crew yelling for us (they can obviously see our lights bobbing along through the woods).  At last we break into the open and cross Highway 134 to arrive at the Snake Creek Gap parking area.  Wow what a fantastic last push of the day; I’m proud of how well I held up today.  It had been very hot this day and those were some difficult miles to cover.  However this was my last long trail day; the end of my journey was now becoming a reality.  I had mixed feelings; on the one hand I was ecstatic that I was so close now to accomplishing my goal yet on the other hand this awesome experience would soon be over and I’d have to return to my “real life.”  Therein lies the true irony of adventure:  when you’re in the thick of it, you can’t wait for it to be over; when your past it you can’t wait to be back in the middle of it!

    So after checking for ticks (we all had several crawling on us) we said our farewells to DeWayne (he was heading back to Huntsville).  Special thanks to DeWayne for coming out and running some long miles with me.  It was so cool to spend time with you and just chat; it’s been too long!  Soon we’d loaded up and began a fairly long, circuitous route to Dalton (but that’s another long story).  Yes, another long day in the books and now just a relatively short way to go.  I honestly didn’t know whether to be happy or sad?

To be continued…

For more information about the Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run click here.