The idea was to plan a scenic, lightly trafficked route from Atlanta to Birmingham through the Talladega National Forest and ride it over a weekend. We wanted to use forest service roads, rail trails and singletrack wherever possible, but we learned later that even the best-planned routes sometimes require deviation. When we found out back in 2013 that Amtrak was planning walk-up bike service on their Crescent line, it got us excited about a future of new bikepacking possibilities. This meant we could leave by bike from our front door, ride to our destination without retracing our steps, buy a ticket and throw the bikes on the train for the trip back. Oh, and drink our faces off all the way back home. It took two years longer than promised for the racks to materialize in Amtrak’s baggage cars, but in 2016 they finally arrived. First stop, Birmingham!
Sean had a general idea of how to get there, but wanted to keep the route as wooded and remote as possible, with the highway miles kept to a minimum. He started by taking us westward out of the city towards the Silver Comet Trail, an ever-expanding greenway stretching from suburban Cobb County across the border into Alabama. In the hopefully-not-too-distant future, the Comet will extend all the way to the Gulf Coast by following some of the Pinhoti Trail through the Talladega National Forest. After crossing into Alabama on the Comet, the route turned south through the forest along fire roads and doubletrack before heading west toward Birmingham along country roads.
In theory this is a route that could be ridden in a weekend, but we wanted to party pace it – and also film it. Our pal Jay Ritchey (of Jay Bird Films) expressed interest in tagging along to test out a new gimbal setup for his camera, so of course we jumped at the chance to become movie stars. Before long the ride had transformed into a Friday through Monday venture – which was fine, as it gave us more time to fuck off.
Early on a balmy October morning, we rolled out of Atlanta from my house…and immediately stopped at everyone else’s house because we had each forgot something. NOW, game on! We filmed a grand depart on the outskirts of downtown, rolling past the city skyline, and made our way to the Silver Comet. After a good 80 or so miles of flat, fast, straight ahead rail trail, we were all too familiar by the end of day one with the Comet’s only flaw: monotony. About halfway to Alabama, one of the Toecutters crew, Donald (who didn’t forget anything, and never does) had to retreat back to Atlanta on account of prior engagements, but said he would meet us that night at camp with some ice cold beers. We passed the time thinking of what the second day’s climbs would look like as we pedaled on through dusk, until we had made it to our first camp.
The first campsite was at Chief Ladiga Campground, just over the Georgia-Alabama border. It was dark enough when we finally arrived that we had no idea what lay beyond the camp, save for the looming shadows of Duggar Mountain through the darkness. After picking out a spot far enough away from a rowdy Cub Scout group near the stream, we settled in, making camp and waiting on Donald to show up. He arrived as promised with a cooler of beers, and we sat in the dark talking for a couple hours, planning the next day and potential shots Jay might set up for filming. After downing the beers, we decided to get to bed early and bid Donald a fond farewell.
After having some breakfast, chased down with Sean’s world class cowboy #coffeeoutside, we got some foggy shots riding out of the campground. If the mountains were shadows the night before, they were now daunting obstacles dominating our view. We moved on into Talladega National Forest, which was just a quick hop from last night’s camp. The weather was perfect once the fog burned off, and we could see our destination clearly: the top of Duggar Mountain Alabama’s second tallest peak). The initial climb into the forest was an incredibly steep gravel ascent and we almost immediately bailed on riding it and started walking. We hadn’t developed our mountain legs just yet and were unprepared. Exasperated at the top of the first climb we knew we had some work ahead of us on this trip, and continued on moving much slower than anticipated.
As we made our way deeper into the forest along gravel roads, we noticed that every last creek and stream was dried up. A Smokey the Bear sign warning of high fire danger, confirming our fears that Alabama’s drought was more serious than we had first thought. We stopped at a ranger station to fill up on water and reassess our options. When planning our initial route through the forest, we had assumed that we’d be able to filter water from creeks and streams for those two days, particularly in the more remote southern half of Talladega. The idea was to fill up throughout the day and call an audible on where we’d stop to camp based on timing and water sources. Without any clean water on the map and with nothing to filter, we needed to reconsider.
After hunting down some cell coverage, we revised our plan. Trading some of the more circuitous gravel roads for steep but direct pavement, we headed straight over the next three peaks to a state park atop Cheaha Mountain – the highest point in Alabama.
We found ourselves gasping, suffering, up these climbs. Fully loaded, these very steep roads which were marked by incredibly fast, short descents plummeting to the base of the next ridge. Each peak gave way to an incredible view of the setting sun. As a long day eventually turned to dusk, then darkness, we flipped our lights and pushed the last few miles into Cheaha State Park. Skeptical that a state park would sell beer, we had loaded up earlier at the only gas station we’d seen. Surprisingly we were greeted at the top of the peak by a fully-stocked country store with perhaps more ice cold beers than souvenirs. Shame we had lugged a dozen or more warm ones around all that late afternoon.