Ride Report: Magic City Ramble

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.

One thing that I didn’t know about Cheaha is its fame for some sasquatch sightings, which was proudly represented on patches, t-shirts and “Squatch X-ing” signs throughout the gift shop. Sean, knowing my love of the paranormal and absurd, came up and handed me a sasquatch patch he had purchased for me.

I bought some Gatorade while Sean asked the attendant where we could pay for a campsite. “Tammy” let us know that they were fully booked in the whole of the park, including the resort’s rooms. We pleaded, “Listen, we just rode up the 3 tallest peaks in Alabama and it’s incredibly late. If you have a small patch of grass, we don’t need much room. Maybe some dark corner near a dumpster?” She stared blankly, unaffected. “If we throw you a twenty maybe you can you look the other way?” To this, Tammy took offense responded with a firm “No”.

Fucking Tammy. All justice and no mercy.

She told us the next decent campsite was a good seven miles ahead down the mountain…which meant we’d have to backtrack and climb Cheaha again the next morning to get that all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast at the lodge. No way, Tammy.

We certainly don’t encourage or condone any sort of illegal activity (on your part, faithful reader) but we were tired, cold and in need of rest. So we decided on what we’ll call an “extralegal” course of action.

Recalling a parking lot about a quarter mile back down the mountain, we surmised that this must have been the Pinhoti trail head just outside the state park. Figuring we could hike in a little bit and find an inconspicuous spot on National Forest land, we could skirt trouble and make camp outside Tammy’s domain. The inconspicuous bit, at least, didn’t happen. As soon as we started walking our bikes up the trail in the dark, we found that this stretch of the Pinhoti was rocky and steep, and sweeping our headlamps back and forth, quickly gathered that any ground open enough to pitch a tent was on an incline and littered with rough stone. We walked back to the entrance and decided to hobo camp behind the wall at the trail head, hoping to remain invisible to any rangers passing by in the night.

There was a decent chance of rain, so we set up camp first thing before popping open the warm, well-shaken beers we had shoved in our bags and started cooking our packaged noodles for the evening. A couple pulled into the parking lot and were spooked to find us behind the wall as they dashed into the woods, looking completely unprepared for rain and – well – hiking all together for that matter. We concluded that they had set off for a romantic interlude, and never saw them again, so it must have gone OK. We turned in early.

A light rain started late that night and Sean, having decided to roll the dice and leave his rainfly behind, piled into Scott’s tent. I didn’t sleep at all, thinking that I’d be alarmed by a ranger flashing his light through my tent. The morning came, and our camp was covered in a dense fog. Oddly, the lovebirds’ car was still sitting in the parking lot.

We made our way to what turned out to be an unremarkable breakfast – but filling. According to the Internet, you could dine like a king while staring out at the beautiful mountain vista the lodge provided by virtue of being perched on a cliff, but everything was blocked by a fog as thick, grey and dreary as the buffet gravy. We finished up after numerous visits to the buffet and to the restrooms. Our sincere apologies to anyone who had to use those lavatories that day.

Back outside, bad news – one of the arms on my front rack had snapped in half. Visions of steep descents interrupted by a stray rack arm in my spokes, pavement grating the flesh off of my body as I slammed down the mountain road, leaving behind a wake of pearly white teeth. We wrapped some rubber straps around the rack arm and fork blade, some compression straps to hold the thing to the handle bars, and topped if off with a mess of zip ties, graciously provided by a passerby.

It felt like it would hold; it looked like it would hold. I prayed it would hold.

We flew down the mountain along curvy, mostly deserted blacktop, making record time and clocking our speed at upwards of 50 miles per hour. The thrill of the descent overshadowed the terror of my rack “situation”. The rat’s nest of straps and ties held tight.

We made our way across the valley floor toward Birmingham, but realized as we climbed a smaller ridge around 20 miles out that we weren’t going to make it into the city before dark. Not wanting to ride through the dark for a third night, we opted to find a hotel in the area, along with some real food and some ice cold beers. Surprisingly, even in dire need of a hot shower and something resembling a bed, one can still be picky in where he rests his head. Sean vetted several of the local hotels before making the call. He needed an indoor pool. The rest of us couldn’t disagree.

We settled on a newly-built Best Western with a free continental breakfast, a hot tub, and of course Sean’s indoor pool. A pair of contractors were putting the finishing touches on the breakfast bar as we rolled our dusty steeds through the lobby and into our room. We unloaded quickly and headed straight for the Ruby Tuesday’s next door. Then a quick dip in the pool and hot tub, followed by showers, washing what clothes we could in the sink, and finally a good night’s sleep.

Early that morning, we cashed in on the complimentary breakfast. Our room was directly next to the breakfast bar, so along with their free breakfast the guests were treated to a complimentary musical performance: Scott’s hour-long rendition of “Drying Your Clothing with a Hair Dryer”. A classic.

We loaded up and headed out without wasting much time. Scott had set up a coffee date with one an old friend at Birmingham’s Woodlawn Cycle Café. We were only 15 miles out, and looking forward greedily to a nice morning espresso and another meal as soon as we got there. This last leg of the route wound through the Magic City’s industrial side. We cycled past once-bustling old steel mill towns, and long rail lines which spider outwards from downtown. We must have looked confused as we pedaled straight past the café’s all-white facade, as the barista Michael leaned out the door while we circled in the street.

“I know you guys didn’t just ride past the shop without coming in to say hello?”

Laughing, Sean replied, “No way! We were looking for you!”

Inside we were greeted by a stark white, clean interior accented with beautiful subway tile and reused shiplap. Beer taps were gleaming, flowing with local craft beer, and the Marzocco spit out steamy, golden nectar. I’m pretty sure if there’s a Heaven for cyclists, it must look something like this. We were warmly received by the owner and by Michael, who made us feel incredibly welcome, like long lost friends. Our bikes were welcomed inside too, through a garage door along the front wall next to a row of hanging racks.

The staff immediately wanted to know where we had come from and what we had seen along the way. We regaled them with our four-day tale, and before long others who overheard our conversation were introducing themselves and listening in more intently. Michael pulled us some of the best espresso we could recall having, from beans roasted down the street at his family roasting business (Domestique Coffee) before suggesting an IPA and a stout from a Birmingham brewery just around the corner.

Photos were taken as we chowed down on delicious locally-sourced food, and Scott’s friend showed up to chat until it was time to make the train ride home.

We said our goodbyes and finished our ride up past the city line of skyscrapers, passing along the Rotary Trail and under the famous Magic City sign – a fitting arrival. Scott and Sean headed off to a deli to find subs and root beer, while Jay and I went to the Amtrak station to pick up our tickets and check in our bikes. They didn’t have tickets for us! That might have been my fault; I may not have actually pressed the purchase button before leaving Atlanta. Luckily there was still room for us and our bikes, so I bought two more tickets. We carried our bikes up to the platform and heaved them up to an attendant in the baggage car.

We found our seats and were surprised by an incredible amount of legroom, but being honest about our intentions, decided we should just go ahead and make camp in the bar car. Beer after beer, mile after mile, we watched the scenery fly by as the train rolled homeward. We swapped old stories, recapped the ride and laughed the whole way back – before long winding up incredibly drunk. After a while, the conductor stopped by our table to scrutinize the ever-expanding pile of empty beer bottles on the table and laughed aloud.

“You guys know how to ride a train!”

He was right. This is the way to travel.

Five hours later, the train pulled into Atlanta, and out on the platform we unloaded the bikes in the dim light of late evening. We hadn’t had a single flat on the trip until my bike came off the baggage car. The first flat. The only flat. Probably for the best that I had to change it before we rode home – it gave us some extra time to sober up before those last few miles on the bike. Winding home through the city lights, I was reminded of the end of “Stand by Me” as each rider disappeared down a side road, taking off in his own direction.

“Good riding with you guys!”

This was a solid route that stoked our excitement for all the bikepacking possibilities that begin to open up with walk-up bike service on Amtrak. This is a huge step in the right direction for bike-centric travel and touring in the southeast, and one that we’re already planning to use to our advantage for future trips.

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