Like a carefree butterfly soaring on summer breezes, my career in journalism has taken me on a magical journey across this wonderful land — each stop along the way carving a unique epoch in my timeline.
When I landed outside Knoxville, Tennessee for a stint in corporate communications I enjoyed a fun 12-mile commute to work from my rural haven in Strawberry Plains.
My local flabbergasted co-workers warned me of the dangers that lurk on the backroads along this edge of Appalachia, calling out the NASCAR wannabes in particular.
After a few months rolling all around the region, I could only laugh. Back on the ridges and in the hollers I found the local traffic as accommodating as any place I’ve ridden.
We spent five years in East Tennessee even though my job was short-lived. As soon as 9/11 happened and the economy turned, they axed my position. I became Mr. Mom.
I spent weekdays with my daughters while Debbie worked. I got Sundays to myself. It took three years before I headed east into the Smokies, primarily because all the riding around my immediate area was prime.
After some research I stumbled on Paint Creek, Tennessee. An interesting adventure, to say the least. My first taste of hobo-ism.
I drove out to Paint Creek sliding through one small town after another, and swear to this day I saw Mark and Digger sittin’ on a bench in the middle of Newport whittling away.
Speaking of Moonshiners, well, I hit a number of mountain bike trails back then that were barely used. I’d be clearing brush not to mention endless spider webs in the middle of nowhere when I’d stumble across a bunch of big blue water barrels under a tarp.
Only years later, thanks to that entertaining TV show, did I finally realize what I was seeing — and understand the actual danger I probably subjected myself to.
But I digress.
Once again, directions on the Internet back in those days were only so-so. Actually, these were pretty good once you got onto the route. But getting there was my downfall. I don’t understand why people don’t point out obvious possible mixups. It would save me a lot of time.
But then again, it wouldn’t be a typical Raz Adventure. I think I must do this to myself on purpose.
I pedaled up a gravel road 2 miles to the summit of Lone Gap. Then 3 miles down to Paint Creek. What I found was that I was at Paint Rock, 5 miles up a fire road from Paint Creek Campground. In the end, it was the perfect place to be.
I headed up fire road 41 for the Paint Creek Campground. The note on the Website said that this is an easy 5.5-mile ride along the creek. Of course, I was going backward on it. A half-mile in, the road was closed. To vehicular traffic, I surmised, not mountain bikers.
About a mile in, I hit a couple of houses. Of course, that meant a couple of dogs. One in particular that was damn fast and didn’t give up too quickly. That was about a half-mile interval all-out. Once I experienced that, the idea of coming back this way was out of the question.
The road was pretty much devastated from a storm. The creek washed away much of the road, in some places, down to a scant 3-5 foot section that you navigate carefully. There were old picnic areas that were destroyed, or just abandoned now that access was limited.
Then I saw the major problem. It was a steel bridge frame, crumpled in the middle of the creek bed. As if The Incredible Hulk picked it up, twisted and smashed it, and left it for dead. A mile up the road was its former home.
So I stood there, looking across a 50-foot expanse. The water was about 20-feet down. Not deep, not too fast, but there was a big deep section. The other side was pretty much a rock face up 8-10 feet to the base of the new bridge foundation they were building.
What the hell? I didn’t have any desire to race that dog again. Besides, this was outback adventure at its best. I hiked the stream. At one point, it was knee deep. Very cold. I had to stand in about 8-10 inches of water, on rocks, trying to get my bike up onto what part of the rock wall I could reach.
This was the first time I dreaded my 35-pound behemoth Jamis Dakar. Ah, a light bike would be nice. I managed to get it up on the slope, climbed up, and pulled it up the rest of the way. Looking back at what I just traversed, man, I was impressed. About 15 minutes later, on the redone road, I hit the campground. One hour in the books.
From the campground the route goes up to Hurricane Gap. It’s five miles. The first mile is brutally steep.
At Hurricane Gap you have a couple of options. The best is to head straight up another 1.9 miles to Rich Mountain fire tower. Now this is really steep. But I went for it. 20 minutes of hard climbing for a total of 80 minutes of torture. It was worth it. A grand view of the Smokies.
Back at Hurricane Gap, if you head right, you can take fire road 422 that eventually turns into some really rutty (read that actual trail-like) road back down toward the campground for a big loop. If you turn left, you head back down to the highway, just 2.9 miles from Hot Springs, a neat little mountain town. I headed to the only restaurant that looked worth it. Sat down. A long wait ensued.
I had only been out about 3.5 hours, so I wasn’t wasted. I knew I needed something before I headed back, although it was only 5 miles along the river. Still, I only had a small loaf of homemade zucchini bread for breakfast, and that was 5 hours ago.
I could tell the couple next to me wasn’t happy. When a woman finally brought me a menu they asked her, “Could you PLEEEEEASE tell our waiter to come by?”
I looked at their table. They had two big slices of pizza left, nothing left in the water pitcher, and empty glasses. I laughed out loud.
Yep, I struck up a conversation. “They pretty slow here?”
“The worst,” they said. “We’ve been here about an hour and a half.”
“Hmmm,” I said, “Are you going to box up that pizza?”
“Hey, I’ll give you a dollar for those slices.”
A dollar was the only cash I had.
“Here, take ’em” the woman said, “We’re just going to throw them away.”
Hobo Raz. I packed up, grabbed a slice, and jumped on my bike. I could see people all around the patio, pointing and explaining what they just witnessed, the beggar getting some food, and high-tailing it.
They were all wishing they had such a fun place to go, but, even more so, yearned for the waiter to return and release them from their prison sentence.
Me? I was fueled and back on the road.
Time to ride.