Tit for tat.
I texted Gephrey* over the weekend and asked if he wanted to meet up for a go at Hart’s Orchard. He said he was game, so we set a time to meet at my house, and I went back to the around-the-house chores I needed to get done for the day. Well, there’s a little back story. I woke up early that morning and ran from my house to the base of the hill and back. 4+ miles. Then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’m not sure why I dragged poor ole Djeph into it.
He arrived and we rode up the valley toward uncertainty. I knew the hill. I’d driven it many times over the course of my life, I’d even bombed down it on the Cannonball a couple of times when I was younger and stupider. But I’d never tried to ride up it.
Tom said you lose traction near the top. Wait, Tom tried it? Yep. My nearly 60 year old father-in-law is a beast. He cries pokery, but despite his slow and steady pace, he is the tortoise to many a local hare. He can really throw down the miles.
His account rings true. I once tried to drive up the ridiculously steep gravel road in my uncle’s 1972 Chevy pickup with bald tires. No bueno. At the very top I managed to reach the edge of the blacktop with the front tires, but the back wheels just kept spinning in the gravel. Finally I had to back far down the hill to turn around and retreated. In a truck!
It had rained the night before Jegh and I made our onslaught, so the road base was nice and packed, tacky, and generally just in good biking conditions anyway. I figured it was our best chance to reach the summit in one go.
I led the way, cranking upward toward glory, possibly toward a first ascent of Hart’s Orchard on a bike, and then…my lower back was screaming in agony. Two days of digging around in a tomato bed and heaving furniture and boxes around as we moved back in to our house left my poor lower core unable to cope.
Jhepth continued on. And on. And on. To the top.
Top of Hart's Orchard Hill
I got back on the bike and finished the climb with only one stop. I’d made it at least a third of the way up before putting a foot down. It’s possible I made it halfway. Haven’t gone back to discern my true fraction yet.
We parted ways and I bombed back home while Dhjeff returned over Furnace to his domicile. I was beat. Beat down. Broken. Crushed into oblivion. Not only had I run 4+ miles that morning, but I had pedaled the Ute over Granny Moppet to town to pick up some stuff at the hardware store and returned via Steamshovel Hill Road. Then I attempted Hart’s Orchard at the close of an afternoon of yard work.
My partner in climb had suggested getting together the next morning to ride farther. I said I’d have to speak with the significant and get back to him. After chatting it up Mandy was cool with me MTBing with Schjeph in the morning as her and Casey were going to ride in the afternoon. Jeiff’s scheme—a worthy one—was to explore a small manmade lake near his place. It was surrounded by a mix of oil company land, national forest, and private hillbilly jungle. The crux was that the obvious way in, from the paved county road, had been blocked by some homesteaders and their house trailer. What was supposed to be a county road that went all the way up to the lake was barred by a private gate. We were going to go in the back way.
Bright and early I was ripped from slumber by the cruel alarm. I grumbled something about “why, when my parents asked 7 year old me if I wanted a bike, did I say YES?!” “When my uncle Terry helped me to learn to ride the stupid thing why did I have that awful silly grin on my face?” If only I knew that someday I’d be waking up carrying the burden of a promise to go ride with a Monzter…a mountain biking monster that caused the Energizer bunny to wake up in a cold sweat…if only I knew that, I’d have said: “Nope, don’t want to learn to ride that cussed thing. Get. It. Out. Of. My. Sight.”
I had claimed I was going to ride from my house to meet Chjeffph at his house. That morning I sat on the edge of the bed chanting: “holy swearing cuss!” over and over. Nope, not going to pull it off with this equipment.
I’m driving. Oh, did I say that out loud?
I jammed The One in the back of my car and drove out Furnace to the abode of the devil mountain biker. He had some scheme involving “exploring” around a lake near his house. I had a feeling the whole affair was going to end in a search and rescue operation.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
We followed our noses—though both informed and savvy noses—out Mountain Springs Road into a place where my mental map had a few holes. I had a pretty good image of the USGS topo imprinted on my brain, but those parallel dashed lines across the paper didn’t tell me what lay before us. I’d seen too many cases where what appeared to be a road on the map was nothing more than an over grown bench or a creekbed. Djough and I “biked” up Sterling Road recently proving those dashed lines on the Slade quadrangle wrong.
While we were bombing down the rough blacktop road into the enigmatic jungle that skirts the Powell-Estill County line I saw the brown blur of a marker that indicated a Forest road.
“That’s our road!” I called over the roaring clack of my rear hub.
“Let’s see where this goes; we can always come back,” Joigh countered. I nodded in agreement and slammed down on the ole Crank Brothers Mallets.
The forest opened up and we saw a cabin off to the left overlooking a small valley below the road on the right. There were “No Trespassing” signs around the house, but as the pavement degraded to dirt in an instant the road seemed more welcoming than not. We stopped just a few yards beyond the house and peered down the dirt road into the darkness of the woods.
“We could go back to that other road.” Mjeef offered. I looked ahead, not really thinking about the road we’d passed. The one ahead looked fun. The very beginning of the dirt section was a series of small sandstone ledges. It looked rough, rugged, and just…FUN.
“Nah, let’s check this out,” I replied.
He mentioned the signs.
“Those were back at the house. The road isn’t posted and it looks like it gets a lot of ATV traffic.” I wasn’t necessarily worried about being caught trespassing. I’d been stomping all over those hills and woods my whole life. I was pretty sure I could talk my way out of any mess. Wish that were true…
Anyway, down we went. The road was damp sand and dirt for a while. We had to skirt the larger mudholes but were staying pretty clean for the most part. It had rained the night before and the night before that, so I was expecting a full-on hog wallop before the day was done. I’d not leave disappointed.
The first climb we hit I made it halfway or so, which was farther than Gjaeff, but got hung up on a rock and had to put a foot down. The finish was a two foot high ledge barring access to the apex of the climb. Jeff skirted it and I just walked past the obstacle. The next climb he took the main line which turned out to be mud soup, and I snuck right up the obvious ATV detour and almost made it clean (at least in technique).
The final long climb I hung on for the ride, cranking and cranking until I was free of the pull of gravity. Jeuff struggled with it for some reason, making me feel somewhat redeemed after my poor showing on Hart’s, but it was really one of those low percentage climbs that I made up in fluke mode. It was a road-cum-rocky-creekbed covered in a layer of light-weight black mud. I was plowing through the fluffy stuff on top relying on the “traction” of the smoothed and weathered stones beneath. The mud held the rocks in place, the rocks provided the traction the mud did not, and my legs shut up and let me do my job. Sha-ZAAM!
Zhjeff following where I led
I felt good. Usually I walked where the demon mountain biker bunny hopped and middle-ringed it looking cool and collected. It’s not a competition, but only because Goueff doesn’t do Strava.
At the top we faced a fork in the road. It was only a figurative fork, but there was a literal split in the road. Both ways dropped steeply away from the apex of our last climb. We were looking for the old townsite of Pilot. We’d passed a derelict homestead on the way up and I had a feeling we were getting close, but sitting between the two paths I had my moment of wayfinding doubt.
Not my graffiti
I yanked out the ole cellular phone and let satellites in space tell me where we were. After using the handy compass app to orient myself I made the executive call that the steeper, rockier left fork was the golden path. I was afraid if we went right we’d end up dropping into the Woodward Creek drainage and be funneled miles away from where we wanted to go.
After a nice technical descent we discovered where we were: Pilot. And we both realized at the same time that the right fork was the ATV path we’d teed into the last time we’d pedaled through Pilot. It was satisfying to have (for the most part) followed our noses and found our way.
A short ride around the south half of the Pilot loop brought us out to paved Pilot Road and the last leg of our journey. We stopped to take in some fluids and calories before tackling the final rollers back to the mountain biking monzter’s abode.
I drove back out to civilization with the strong desire to get back real soon to explore even more of that area. We were right about the brown Forest marker. That would have taken us right in to the lake where we’d intended to go.
Our route (www.mapmyride.com)
* Names changed to protect the innocent bystanders.