Sunday, September 20, 2009

THE MOUNTAIN, MEMORIES, AND TWO OLD(ER) MEN!

September 17th, is a day that holds special meaning for me as it is the date of my mother’s death due to multiple myeloma - a nasty damn cancer anyway you look at it. It is the day before my parent’s wedding anniversary so my siblings and I have always found some sense of peace that Mom was reunited with our Dad on their anniversary. He died in 1995 due to the results of metastasized colorectal cancer. It is fair to say that my family, as has so many families world wide, has been “slapped upside the head and then stomped on by cancer”. I have no doubt that one reason I ride is to minimize the chances of cancer winning if or when it comes calling on me.

This past Thursday, September 17, 2009, will now hold a slightly different place in my memory. The “Big J” and I, in our ongoing quest to increase our mileage and climbing abilities, took on Water Rock Knob, a 6000’ mountain here in Haywood County, North Carolina. Water Rock Knob lies between Balsam Mountain and Soco Mountain along the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile marker 451.2. If you pass through Balsam Mountain Gap on US 23/74, you descend to Waynesville, NC on the eastern slope or Sylva, NC on the southwestern slope. Passing through Soco Gap takes you to the Cherokee Boundary to the west or Maggie Valley to the east. The Boundary of the Cherokee Indians aligns with the gap on Soco.

Departing my office in Waynesville at 5:15 p.m. and at an elevation of 2649’, “Big J.” and I headed west to begin the first annual trek of the “Joey Massie “Yes, I Can” ride, which had been postponed from Tuesday, September 15th due to rain and nasty, nasty riding conditions. We warmed up along city surface streets before ascending on to the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway at exit 100. From this point, we began ascending to our ultimate goal of reaching Water Rock Knob, which was 13 miles away and an elevation gain of approximate 3000’. There would be no grade less than 2% or more than 8% from this point to the top.

Upon first reaching the “gutter”, that area between the rumble strips and the guard rail along the 4 lane split highway, we were greeted with the beginnings of a late afternoon shower. The day was already cool and damp and had been overcast for hours. We discussed turning back as the clouds seemed to have the valley socked in but, the desire to ride and perhaps some misplaced optimism carried us along. Within a couple of miles of the initial 8 mile ride to the top of Balsam Gap, we ran out of the falling rain and were left only with the wet road spray of passing 18 wheelers and autos as the work day crowd made their way home within their enclosed dry vehicles.

This stretch of road is straight for the most part with only 1 or 2 slight curves to take your view off of the coming climb and the certain knowledge that you’ve still got a mountain to climb to start your climb of your mountain! Taking turns breaking the wind, we reached the access road to the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Balsam Gap. (Note: see link to left. Today’s superhighway runs alongside the rails seen in this image from WCU’s Hunter Library collection. See also More Balsam Gap Info.)  Turning south on the Blue Ridge Parkway toward its southern terminus 18 miles away, we began the 7 mile climb to the gap where the BRP passes Water Rock Knob. The summit of Water Rock Knob is actually slightly higher than the roadbed. From this point, we had steady 6% to 8% grades to spin and mash our way up to reach our eventual goal.

As we made our way up the mountain averaging about 6 mph, we began to climb above the cloud cover and were presented with vistas of Jackson County to our south. Being later in the day, the clouds to the east were white and reflective of the late afternoon sun. We began to catch glimpses of the sun as it appeared to be making its daily run to the horizon. My hope for catching the sunset was not gone completely at this point for watching the sun set over the Boundary from the Water Rock Knob parking area is truly a spiritual adventure when you can catch one of the quiet beautiful times on the mountain.

As the climb began to take its toll on my 56 year old legs, my goal began to be “make it to the next turnout” rather than “make it to the top.” We were also remaining vigilant about the time of day because we didn’t want to be caught on the mountain after dark. “Big J.” kept running our calculations on time and distance and we kept convincing ourselves that we would descend much more rapidly than we were climbing. We calculated average speed, remaining distance to the top, and time for return to my office. We felt confident we had the variables covered and could do it. After all, this WAS the National Joey Massie “Yes, I Can” ride!

Two and one half miles from the top, we could see the gap where the BRP passes the entrance to the Water Rock Knob parking area. We could see the cut on the mountain where the parking area is and, more importantly, we still had light from the setting sun. Despite having maintained sustenance in the form of power bars and Gatorade, muscles were now cramping, my lower back was aching, and my wrists were hurting from supporting my weight from the bottom of the valley. I was beginning to understand the phrase “ride into the pain.”

We had been presented with great views above the cloud banks, had noted the earliest signs of the leaves beginning to put on their colors, and had been blessed with an absolute minimum of passing traffic. Mondays and Tuesdays are great days this time of year to ride the Parkway as most of the visitors have gone home with the start of the school season. It is not at all unlikely that you can drive entire stretches of the BRP and not see another human being.

We had passed the Woodfin Cascades, seen in this link in a winter image, and had enjoyed the views of Yellow Face Mountain (Note: Click HERE for more Yellow Face detail.) “Big J.” and I had declared that no matter how far we made it on this trek up the mountain, we would declare victory. We were now within sight of our goal and, with a final time/distance/ can we do it? calculation, we agreed that we weren’t getting this close to the top and quitting.

We began our final climb to the top with renewed energy and recovered legs. Within about a mile to go to the top, Mother Nature and/or the engineers who build the BRP took pity and a blessed drop in grade occurs. We were riding parallel to the cliff face that supports the Water Rock Knob parking area. We were both almost fully recovered and riding easily toward the gap. Our initial plan, assuming a successful reach of the gap, was to proceed down the western side of Water Rock Knob to Soco and then return home via US 19 through Maggie Valley.  We determined that we were beginning to seriously approach dusk and felt that returning home the way we came was faster and smarter.

As we approached the final curves leading to the gap, we began to be aware of the clouds topping the mountain and sliding as if they were silk down the mountain face toward the road bed – a beautiful sight indeed. Little did we know that this was a foreshadowing of what was to come. We reached the final curve and the signage that announces the parking area. It was covered in cloud. The temperatures had dropped to 61 degrees at the top and we were cooling off rapidly now that the climb was over.

As we donned our windproof jackets and I called my “better half” to let her know that our route plans had changed, the increasing density of clouds made visibility a real challenge. “Big J.”, in his bright yellow jacket, and I, in my High Viz jacket, were difficult to see with a mere 10 yards separating us.We determined we needed to make haste and get back below the cloud cover in order to descend while light remained as we had only one red tail light between us and no headlights. I took second wheel as I had the Planet Bike Superflash taillight on my Fuji CCR3. The front end Planet Bike Beamer3 headlight was safely ensconced in my desk drawer at home.

We started back down to Balsam Gap and, rather than visibility improving, it was actually getting significantly worse. As we had been climbing the mountain, so had the clouds! We were in a “white out” situation and unable to see each other if more than 5 yards separated us. We constantly called out to each other trying to ascertain the other’s location. Of course, we were now descending slower than we had ascended due to the lack of visibility. Our only guidelines became the yellow center line of the highway. At times, the guidelines disappeared only to reappear shortly. Under the best of conditions, the yellow lines are faded as this section of the BRP hasn’t been repaved in what seems like years.

What had been leg fatiguing 7% ascents had now become arm and wrist fatiguing 7% slow speed descents sapping the muscles of my hands as we were in a constant brake and release pattern. We would find short stretches of pavement where the downhill side of the road was dry and the uphill side was wet and that small difference provided some slight improvement in knowing where we were on the road. Still, we had to ride the center line in order to have any guidance at all down the mountain. This, of course, put us as risk of not being seen in time by either upcoming traffic or, more dangerously, traffic in our own lane of travel. We only hoped that traffic in our own lane would be able to pick up the outstanding flash of the Planet Bike taillight.

At one point, “Big J.” and I lost complete touch with each other. He could not hear me calling out to him due to the noise of the wind and his own brakes. I was in a similar state of being. He finally pulled to the left side of the road and waited to determine my location. Just as I heard his voice, I passed him by. Just as we acknowledged each other, squealing brakes were heard behind us. The lone other traveler on the mountain had come upon us, seen my flashing light, and braked too hard on the wet pavement. Fortunately, there was enough room for all and the driver proceeded toward his or her destination. I think we would have accepted a ride down the mountain had it been offered at that point!

We decided that, as I couldn’t see “Big J.” at all but he could follow my taillight, I would take the lead for the remaining trip down the mountain. We had no accurate knowledge of where we were as there were no visible landmarks that could be seen. The occasional turnout would go by on our right but generally it was recognized too late to safely get into for some rest. We continued to call out to each other to be sure we were still in contact. I finally had to let “Big J.” know I was going to get into an overlook to rest my hands because my ability to brake was diminishing. We managed to locate an overlook with enough time for both of us to access it. As we sat resting our arms, the second and what would be the last traveler other than ourselves passed us. I doubt that the driver of the pickup even knew were on the road.

As we descended down the mountain, thoughts of hypothermia began running through my head and I started wondering what might happen if I broadsided a bear or elk. I was pretty sure that they didn’t have a snazzy Planet Bike lighting system on board. The hypothermia was a more likely culprit to cause problems next to our simply running off the road and down a ravine or cliff. We weren’t creating warming energy on this segment of the ride as it was all about braking. I’m certain that our adrenaline levels were high though.

We finally passed an overlook on our left and knew that it was the only one on that side of the mountain and that it was located close to the “bottom”. In short time, we came to the intersection of the access road and the BRP at Balsam Gap. As we approached the Gap itself and the intersection with the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway, we dropped below the cloud cover only to discover that it was DARK! Night had fallen while we were descending the mountain.

Now, you might think we were out of danger at this point. We recognized otherwise because this section of highway is a high traffic area where cyclists are not respected but seen has an impedance to traffic flow even though it is the only recognized bikeway from Haywood to Jackson County in this area. Our good friend “The Wood-man” was seriously injured on this very section of road almost exactly 1 year ago when he was run off the road by a trucker, who objected to his use of the road. “The Wood-man” was pushed into the rumble strips running along the highway and this set up an uncontrollable shimmy in his front end, which led to a disastrous intersection of man, machine, and guard rail.

“Big J.” and I didn’t want to chance the 8 mile descent into Waynesville under these conditions so we began calling friends and relatives we thought we could convince to come get us at the Gap and save us the descent of the remaining mountain. Unfortunately, no one was available to answer their phones and we were left with the decision to try to safely negotiate the return to town.

We crossed over the Expressway during a break in traffic and positioned ourselves in the “gutter.” We traded  positions and “Big J.” took the lead with me and my trusty taillight announcing to travelers we were on the side of the road. There are no street lights on this section of the mountain so we were at the mercy of passing headlights to illuminate any barriers to safe travel in the “gutter.” I heard numerous crunches and felt numerous jolts as we made our way down the mountain. I kept wondering when one us of would flat…

Thankfully, we safely made it to exit 98 on the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway in west Waynesville and were greeted with multiple bright lights as we approached Wal-Mart and surrounding businesses. Our unintentional 4 hour ride had ended safely with us back in town and needing only to return to my office. “Big J.” dropped off near his home and I proceeded to my truck to call my spouse and announce “Honey, I’m baaaack!”  32 miles, 6000’ ft in ascension/descension, 4 bottles of Gatorade, a couple of Power Bars, and one outstanding adventure had come to a close.

With the exception of a lack of lighting, we were pretty well prepared for this unplanned extension of our ride. I’ve ridden the BRP in “white out” conditions before but that was on my Harley with lots of power and lights and in the company of many other motorcyclists. Having no lights and no visibility on a 15 to 17 pound self-propelled machine was an adventure of another sort. I was pleased we “kept our heads about us” in what was a very dangerous situation. Still, I sent out more than one thanks to God for our safe return.

Whether your assessment of this adventure was “that was stupid!” as pronounced by my relieved spouse or “that was crazy!” as assessed by my masseuse the next day, it was an adventure that will hold a special place in memory for me on each upcoming September 17th…

 View Interactive Map on MapMyRide.com

Until later,

- Zeke

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