Chronicles of the Gravel Star

The Vista 300: Small Patch, HUGE CLIMBS

   A Shot of the Hiwassee River

A Shot of the Hiwassee River

There has been a buzz of social media chatter over a new beast in the southeast that needed slaying. It was described to me as being harder than the TNGA, and some went even far enough to call it a good old kick in the teeth. Considering the fact that my Tour Divide attempt is 4 weeks and few days away, I wanted to provide myself with a mountain challenge. After 8.5 hours of endurance driving from Deland FL I found my way to a beautiful historic town called Reliance, home of Route Creator Kim Jordan Murrell's Vista 300 and Mountain 420. I had been waiting for my Gimbal and Action Camera to arrive in order to document this trip so I didn't leave Deland until about 7PM which set me up for an arrival time of 3:30AM. Leaving Florida the roads began to slowly grow into rolling hills, and the street lights became a rare sight. Hours of diligent driving and Military Grade Caffeine gum, I cross the TN state line. The Menotinous highway I had been on for a while led me to a steep winding mountain road which felt like the equivalent of riding single track at night. These small lanes (originally designed for horses and Model T's were not match for my massive F150. The Ink black darkness of the night was broken by a stunning sight, a Historic Texaco that was back lit like an opera house. I had only seen one other Historic Texaco like this in the ghost town of Kerr City FL (Ocala National Forest). I had reservations to stay at the Hiwassee Whitewater Company which is the HQ for this event and marks the start and finish. I threw down my sleeping bag, wrapped up my sweater into a pillow, and closed my eyes for some much needed rest. What would come next is the greatest challenge I've faced thus far. 

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   Historic Texaco (still in service) Reliance TN

Historic Texaco (still in service) Reliance TN

 

Sunshine filled the bunkhouse and it was now 7AM, rubbing my eyes I walk outside and my breath is taken away by the first of many Vistas I would see. The Hiwassee River Company sits on a gorgeous piece of property and backs up onto the Hiwassee river which is the states top 1% of cleanest Water. The owners (Brian and Michelle) are a really kind group of folks that will show you the meaning of Southern Hospitality. Mountains filled this landscape as far as the eye could see and I was in awe of its majesty. White Water Rafting is a HUGE industry out here, and outposts dominate the river throughout the area. Dustin Welch, A seasoned white water veteran and river guide took me on an Epic class 3/4 whitewater rafting trip down the river. My adrenaline was pumping so hard that my ears were ringing but I had full confidence in my guide and was able to take in all of the incredible scenery. The rush of cascading water and the lush landscape surrounding it made for a truly mystic experience. We were waiting for our third rider, Jonathan Hicks who arrived later that evening. None of us had really studied the route but we did know we were in for some pretty violent climbs for the first 198 miles of the course. The best advice anyone gave me was "Once you hit Ducktown you're good!"

 

My First time whitewater rafting


5:30 AM my alarm goes off and I earn the nickname "Dad" for the rest of the trip since it was my job to wake everyone up and be bossy. We all begin to get ready, my palms are sweaty and heart is beginning to beat a little quicker knowing that we are about to head into the belly of the beast. The three of us had pretty different set ups. Dustin was on his fixed 28X20 gear, I was on my 11 speed with a 32 tooth chainring and Jonathan was on a 12 speed. The simple specs are as follows:

Gravel Star

2017 Salsa Woodsmoke 

2.8 front and back Rocket Rons LS

32 X 11 Di2 XT DriveTrain

Shimano XT 4 Piston Brakes (New Tech) 

Salsa Cage and Bracket kit (New Tech)

Pike Front fork 

   Salsa Woodsmoke 2017

Salsa Woodsmoke 2017


 

Dustin "Dballz" Welch

Specialized Chizel Full Rigid Single Speed

2.1 Fast Track Grid Front tire

2.3 ground control Grid

Specialized Chizel Carbon Fork

Surely Singular Chain Tensioner

28 X 20 Retro

   Specialized Chizel Full Rigid Single Speed

Specialized Chizel Full Rigid Single Speed


 

Jonathan Hicks

Trek Pro Caliber 9.8

Blackburn Cages

Knox Carbon Wheelset

Niner Rigid Carbon fork (Excellent travel and very responsive)

I9 Back Country rear wheel

3.0 Bontager Chupacabra 29+ x 3.0 front and back tire

   Trek Pro Caliber 9.8

Trek Pro Caliber 9.8


Reliance to Tellico Beach

 

Our Journey begins in Reliance TN, the mist filled mountains of southeastern Tenessee stand before me and dwarf the landscape. The crystal clear waters of the Hiwassee River pass under our feet as we traverse the bridge to Teleco Reliance road.  With a river flowing on wide side of us and rocks petruding from the mountain walls the views are stunning. Pavement turned to gravel as we made we started our way down spring creek road. We would tackle our first and largest water crossing (that ended up being way more mild than what the grand depart riders expereienced) .The climbs had started and we were slowly making our way up our first summit. Our first vista was about to present itself to us and its name was Coffee Branch. The rolling roads leading up the steep mountain passes would tease us with glimpses of open vistas. Everything was so green, spring was in full effect here, the air was crisp and the morning mist would begin to subside by noon. Temperature ranges were quite surprising. Scorching days with a high UV index would give way to cold wet nights. It was pretty easy to find comfort wearing my camp shirt and base layer. We ended up camping at Tellico Beach which marked the beginning of torturous no see ums. We called these lowlands "Noseeumlend" and boy I was happy I brought my ZPacks Hexamid Solo with mosquito netting. The river and babbling creeks were a great way to end the evening at Tellico Beach.

 


 

Indian Boundary to Green Cove

This part of the route was mostly gravel up hill with some pretty steep ascents. I had been averaging about 3mph up some of the climbs. The surrounding forest seemed very old but I was surprised to learn that most of the area was once completely logged, and what I was seeing was about 100 years of growth. The debris left behind from all of the deforestation gave way to a massive fire that wiped out the area. These were some of the tallest trees I had ever seen. The gravel crunched under my massive 2.8 inch monster truck tires, what a satisfying sound. Water filtration was key on this route. I used my MSR Trail shot but learned that the Sawyer was far more time efficient. The trail shot is still a great piece of gear, it can directly connect to your bladder and fill it with ease. The heat was sweltering, and the thick canopy was the only thing keeping me cool. Jake Best would be our first and much needed water stop. This canopy was so thick that it disrupted signal to my tracker several times, this happened to me on TNGA as well. GLONAS (russian satellite that orbits lower for a better signal) is a necessity out here if you are going to be in dense tree cover. As I stared out in marvel at the woods I thought I had seen two children playing, both of which looked like they were wearing vintage clothing. When I looked again they were gone. This event would set the scene for a really strange night as we camped at the edge of the Indian Boundary. There have been many tales of strange phenomenon in this particular part of the mountain. We set up camp, resurrected a fire and prepared to bed down for the night. At 4:00AM I wake up to blood curdling screams from Dustin as he yelled "get it off of me! get it off of me!" Jonathans yelling would be soon to follow a few seconds after. As I unzipped my tent I saw nothing, however the three of us swore we saw something run off into the woods. The rest of the night would prove to be sleepless. The sunshine couldn't come any sooner, I was surprised to fine a beautiful creek flowing not too far from our camp where I promptly restocked and broke down camp. We had run out of gas and it had only been day 2. We would soon be pounded by a massive rainstorm that was as cold as ice as we made way for Green Cove a white squall was at our backs. The storm was literally chasing me down the gravel decent, if I slowed I was blinded by the rain, so I was in full on downhill mode. Jonathan put all of our wet clothes in the bathroom with a space heater and everything was bone dry in the morning. The staff here was very friendly and the store proved to be an excellent restock.


 

Bald River Road to Holly Flats

Cherohala Skyway was absolutely breath taking! It was the most punishing piece of pavement I have rode to date, but every single challenge proves a substantial reward on this route. Harley Davidsons chased us up the mountain as we made our way to the Vista up on the skyway. We eventually made it to the crown jewel of the route... Buck Bald. From here you can see the entire course, and another interesting fact I would like to point out is that at all time you are no more than 20 miles from the start. This makes for an excellent response time in the event of an extraction or DNF. There was a a concrete park bench and fire ring on the top of a well manicured Buck Bald and the view was otherworldly. We were reminded that we couldn't stay too long when a barrage of sweat bees tore into our skin. We quickly made it down the rough Ascent that we had taken up and picked up speed as we made out left towards Ducktown. We would set up camp at Boyds gap which was a stunning view in the morning. The night was cold, at least for my Florida swamp blood, my hoody and down sleeping bag kept me comfortable through the chilly night. 


 

Brush Creek to Kips River Outpost

Boyd Gap had been an excellent place to stop and rest. The morning was warm and filled with sunshine as we approached Brush Creek. Everyone was in excellent spirits and I decided to lead the group into the flowy pump track like single track. I wasn't even a mile in when I came down hard on a concrete sewer grate that snuck up on me. CRACK went the rear carbon wheel, the kind of sound you hear if you stepped on a wicker basket. I had known that that moment that the wheel was toast. Lucky for me my fellow riders waited with me while my spare wheel was delivered by my friend Eddie. Since we all left together and no riders contested my help, I was still able to participate and be scored in my ITT! It appeared things were going great once again when I realized that I hadn't seen Jonathan or Dustin in a while. My Garmin Inreach Chirped and I look down to see "Dustin bent his wheel." I hurried back to the spot I last saw them when Dustin and I almost waffle stomped each other around a blind corner. He was able to bend back his carbon rim and throw a tube in within 8 minutes and got the wheel rolling. My carbon wheel on the other hand was compromised and had to be changed out. My first attempt at installing the cassette didn't fit, come to find out that I just didn't torque it down enough to the hub. As we left Brush creek we made our way to a much needed swim at Old Copper Road at the the Whitewater Center. We also got the opportunity to ride the Tanasi trail which consisted of three main trails: Bear Paw, Chestnut, and Thunder Rock Express. The end of Tanasi Trails led us to a steep gravel climb on FSR 45 which would eventually bring us to an extraordinary trail called Sylco. This trail was breathtaking and the woods around it were very lush and dense. A thin line marked the buff single track her. These are Kim's stomping grounds, and what she calls her "Backyard Trail." There was plenty of hike a bike for me here but my compadres shredded it. Night Fall drew in slowly and we found our selves at Kips Whitewater River Outpost. He was kind enough to let me and Jonathan camp on his property while Dustin rode on through the evening. In the morning I awoke to find that I had camped right next to a Mercedes Unimog, a very neat ATV that can climb pretty much ANYTHING.


 

Kim's Outpost (Needle Eye) to Reliance Finish

Well rested, Jonathan and I made our way for the Needles eye, Kims outpost and neutral ground on the route which was nestled in Mennonite Country. The Mennonites were a fascinating group of individuals, and I envied the simplicity of their lives. This community is perfectly content living the old life, free of Cell phones, Drama and Kardashian nonsense. Every man woman and child had a smile on their face as they gave us a friendly wave and nod. It was close to noon when Jonathan and I rolled up on Dustin lounging out at the outpost. The sun was relentless and this was the best way to beat the heat for the day. We charged our devices, rested, and recapped on the trip. Chilhowee loomed in the distance reminding us that there was one more massive climb before the gratifying finish. The outpost itself was beautiful and simple, a wrap around porch, two cots, a fridge and plenty of outlets made for an excellent home base. A little garden adorned the yard and the firewood was plentiful. I spent the night on the porch watching the stars until my eyelids felt too heavy to lift. Tomorrow would be my ride to the finish. The climbs on the following day would prove to be the hardest. Kimsey Mountain was an endless climb, so steep at some points that I found myself hiking. Dustin had lost an expensive pair of glasses and a cycling computer and decided to call it near the top of the mountain. This rockstar rider kept in front of me on his Single Speed while I struggled to keep up on my 11 speed, it was with heavy heart that we parted ways this close to the finish. Jonathan and I continued up the mountain when I heard him yell "Nick! I think Im really hurt!" I turn around to see him covered in blood, to the point where I thought he was hit by a car. He was bleeding profusley and looked like he was in slight shock, a fast fall on gravel was the culprit. I patched him up and he bled through the bandages within the first hour. It was at this point I recommend that he go to a hospital and we coordinated with Kim to have him extracted. Jonathan went on to finish his Vista 300 after spending 8 hours in the ER with Kim until 5:30AM. With my second riding partner gone I felt reluctant to ride into the night but I had no choice, I had to get this thing done. My climb up Kimsey mountain led me to my favorite stretch of single track I have rode to date, The Smith Mountain trail. After hiking up a massive hill I began a super speedy decent down buff single track. This was the kind of grade that made letting off the brakes feel like a motorcycle throttle. My eyes watered as I had a smile from ear to hear. The forest was silent, no wind, no rustling of leaves, and strangley enough... no crickets. The one thing there was an abundance of were owls (which proved to be the spirit animal of this trip) In the darkness I could see the suspension bridge which would mark my home stretch to pavement. The suspension bridge creaked as I rode across and water rushed below me. The SingleTrack gave way to an extremely fast downhill gravel decent that transferred over to speedy pavement where I reached a max speed of 42mph on a 300 pound bike. Rolling into Flip Flops around Midnight I was greeted by Brian with a camera where he took my finishing shot. I always expect to have a crowd of people and confetti at the finish but it never seems to happen that way, seeing Brian there however was such a morale boost and more than I could ask for. Alas I had conquered the mountains of southeast Tenessee and would mark the biggest challenge I have taken in bike packing yet. 


 

Lost and Broken Gear

I had to write up this section because it was ridiculous how much went wrong in the week we were out there. Im not complaining, this is what brings the spice of life to bike packing, the unpredictable is what writes the adventure.

3 Pairs of Tifosi Glasses

2 K-lite Switch Failures

1 Lyzene Computer

1 Garmin Etrex (Which was later recovered by Derrick)

2 pairs of sandals

Salsa front bag damaged and ripped at the seems

Ortleib bag zipper failure

1 broken Whisky Carbon Wheel

1 Damaged Aluminum Wheel

1 Evo SS Gimbal Chest mount

1 Garmin Virb Ultra 30

1 Sawyer Water Filter bag leak

1 Fabric DRL

1 Edge 520 Malfunction


The most Challenging Part of the Course From our Perspective

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Jonathan's hardest night would have been night 4. Lack of nutrition and hydration coupled with endless climbs made for a pretty dark place in his mind. 

Dustin's biggest struggle was standing for 75% of the trip to get his Single Speed up the climbs

My Biggest challenge was the climb to buck bald. I was bonking at this point and the sun wasn't helping. The climb looks so short on the map but it just takes a while to get to the top. The single track especially Sylco was tough for me, lots of climbing and on a 32T chainring there was a bit of walking for me. 


Perks of the Course and What you should know going into this...

Overall The Vista 300 was life changing for me. Not only was it a challenge, but it presented me with a whole new landscape that I had never seen before. This route is extremely scenic with plenty of clean water flowing around you pretty much the whole way. There wasn't one time that we caught a dry spell, just make sure you pack a filter, preferably a sawyer squeeze filter. Food is very hard to come across, so I brought 5 Days worth of meals on the bike and went through all of them. I used the gas stations as supplemental food but did not fully rely on them. Every Climb that we did was rewarded with an incredible vista, and the landscape itself was dotted with beautiful old historic structures and barns. White Water Rafting is a must here! I would recommend either getting here early or staying later after the trip to try out this amazing sport. Swimming in the rivers brought us back to life and washed away the bad energy that was following us around. I feel like this was harder than TNGA and I highly reccomened this to anyone who is planning on doing Tour Divide. My Hat goes off to Kim Jordan Murrell for all of her hard work and dedication to this route, I will certainly be back next year to do the Mountain 420 route!

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The 2018 Florida Divide Alabama to Key West


First things first... Lets Talk Gear

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I have been known to pack more than I need, not so much in fears but comfort. This journey would prove to be very different. I can honestly say I used every single thing on this table with the exception of my Bear Grylls knife (yes you can roll your eyes now).

 Food was the main focus on this trip and I started with about 4 days of it along with Cliff energy blocks for supplemental nutrients. I knew that in the panhandle the first 3 days would prove to be pretty sparse. These Mountain House meals use quite a bit of water, but that was one of the resources that was readily available on the first few segments. Cheesecake bites for the win!

Shelter Consisted of the ZPacks Hexamid Solo which is truly an incredible piece of gear. Weighing in at 15oz (not including stakes and collapsable tent pole) it was a no brainer. Cuben Fiber has revolutionized the UL hiking/biking community and has been crowned one of the new wonder materials. It doesn't get funky when wet, packs down incredible small, and is ultra light and tear resistant. A collapsable carbon fiber tent pole along with eight carbon fiber stakes makes for feather light structural support system. On future journeys I will be swapping out the carbon stakes for Titanium sonic stakes that can be hammered into hard ground. Carbon is extremely strong in certain directions and will snap like a twig if tweaked the wrong way. 

Emergency Beacons and GPS Units Are essential for all of my bike packing trips, and on long distance trips I always bring a back up PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). As a secondary GPS/2 Way satelite Messenger/SOS beacon The GARMIN Inreach Explorer + is the way to go. This piece of equipment is exceptional and probably my most prized piece of gear in my arsenal. Yes they do get you on a monthly plan but for me, its totally worth knowing I have a way to contact my wife or seporated members of my party. It saved my ass on the TNGA when I was lost, and also got me extracted to Mulberry Gap when I completely destroyed my bike. As far as a bike GPS goes The GARMIN edge 1030 was my computer of choice, and unfortunately I cant say that with much confidence. For the whole first half of the trip I had nothing but problems with this device. It would freeze for 45 minutes, reboot and then freeze again, almost as if it were running off of Windows Vista. I had everything updated, I think the biggest issue was lack of RAM on the device. I lost much of my ride and wasted a lot of time getting this thing up and running. Since I've been back I added an SD card in the back part of the unit and everything seems to be working smoothly. 

Cook Kit consisted of an Jet Boil Mighty Mo burner, Jet Boil Fuel, Topeak Titanium Cup, Titanium spork. All of these were wrapped in a buff and stored in my cup. The Mighty Mo burner flat out sucked, and will not be joining me again on future adventures. The built in self ignitor died on day three, and by day 7 the entire stove rattled to pieces. Needless to say I was pretty pissed but had made it out of the crucial portion of my trip where I really relied on it. MSR pocket rocket it will be from now on.

Water Purification consisted of and MSR Hotshot (which absolutely ROCKED!!). Water Tablets dont weigh much and I always bring them with me for emergencies but they didn't get used once.

Medical I used an Ultra Light Medical kit 5 that I found on amazon. I then pieced together my own kit adding hemostatic agents and a small snake bite kit. Its not watertight so I recommend ziplock bags (as I do to all of my gear). One travel size Aleve, one travel size Tylenol.

Electronics and Tools are a necessity on any trip, especially if you are running a Di2 system that has to be charged half way through your tour. I carry 3 Micro USB cables along with 2 Lightning Cables, an Extra Di2 Wire, Di2 Charger, and a Ravpower 26800mAh cache battery that also doubles as a nuclear reactor. For everything else I use my generator hub to charge smaller devices like taillights and GPS units. I use the Cache battery to top everything else off, and to provide me with some piece of mind. As far as my tools go: 11 Speed multi tool, 2 bottles of Stans 2oz, valve tool, spare valve, dollar, superglue, 10 Zipties (5 small, 5 large), Skeletool Pliers, Duct-tape, 2 tire levers, cleat, boot up tape, tube repair kit, and a tire dynaplug repair kit.  

Dynamo & Lights My favorite gadgetry of bike packing is the miracle of Dynamo Technology. I run a SON Hub, which is manufactured in a small workshop in Germany. The K-lite is and ESSENTIAL piece of equipment that allows me to have an endless source of light and power to charge my electronics. Sinewave makes an excellent USB charging system that plugs into the K-lite Bikepacker Pro kit. For a rear tail light I run a Garmin Varia rear view radar which I believe is an extremely crucial piece of safety gear for ever single bike trip. In order to produce enough energy to run the light and charge electronics you must maintain 8mph+. In places like Aucilla and Ecofina where there was plenty of hike a bike, this option wasn't very feasible for me, so In order to compensate for this dilemma I attached a Volt1600 headlight to my aero bars.

Clothing included 1 kit (it gets pretty gross sometimes), My Signature blue Gravel Star Patagonia R1 jacket, Patagonia Houdini Rain Shell, Synthetic base layer thermal, and of course a camp outfit consisting of a bathing suit and Salsa Cycles T-shirt. Fondo Sleeves and my Buff were crucial for keeping me out of the heat and acting as a HEPA filter for when dump trucks blew down the gravel roads. 

The Bags The thing that makes toting all of this gear around possible. For the Frame Bag I ran a Bedrock Bags custom frame bag, The Saddle bag is a Revelate Pika Large (You have to get the large its like an anaconda for gear), Sweet Roll Large, My mini Revelate dry bag in the front that doubles as a European Shoulder Bag, and a Salsa Gastank bag. However Ive said it once and Ill say it again, The RS Tech Whistle Blower bags stay on the bike... another essential piece of gear for my kit.

The Wheels and Tires At the discression of my local bike shop.. JC's Bikes and Boards, I went with 27.5x2.8 with the Carbon Whisky #9 wheel set. These were paired with the Ultra light LS Rocket Rons and allowed my monster truck tires run efficiently on the road.  Couldn't have made a better purchase and I truly feel a faster rolling difference. In addition to the lighter payload, the Carbon stayed so rigid that after 1600 miles of being bashed around, my wheels were perfectly in true. Mind you I weighed 205 before this trip with an additional 70 pounds of gear. 

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The Salsa Woodsmoke, my "I mean business bike"


   Gravel Star at the grand depart of the FL Divide 2018 in Open Pond Alabama

Gravel Star at the grand depart of the FL Divide 2018 in Open Pond Alabama

After staying the night in Andalusia Alabama, my Wife and Family began to make our Trek to the start line at Open Pond Alabama. Everything is running smoothly until we all lost cell service and navigation 20 minutes from my destination with less than 15 minutes to spare before the official grand depart. I turn on my garmin Edge 1030 and begin to navigate myself to the start. Wandering around Open Pond TH searching for the start was actually a very serene experience. The park itself was absolutely gorgeous and there were people out on the lake casting away and taking in the beautiful light dewey morning weather. Clear skies and a light cool breeze  set the stage for what would be the most extraordinary journey I have taken to date. To my relief I see my fellow friend and rider Charles Watkins, who spent a good portion of the morning looking for the start as well. Soon after the only other rider to join us was Patrick Thomsen (Creator of the Green Swamp Thing and the Patrick Cup). The three of us pose together and take our mandatory grand depart photo and then begin to head into the vast Alabama Wilderness. Blue Blazes greet us as we begin to traverse towards the Northern Terminus of the Florida Trail. 

   As the Trail Guide Journal of the Single Track Samurai States: "To my surprise I found Blue Blazes"

As the Trail Guide Journal of the Single Track Samurai States: "To my surprise I found Blue Blazes"


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Blackwater Creek

The Start of 1000 bridges

We begin our gradual accent onto the pine needle single track leading us through the tall pine forests of northern Alabama. The sun began to creep through the canopy and just 10 minutes in we were all shedding layers. The pine single track eventually converted over to an incredible gravel road which eventually snaked its way into a  red clay road that resembled the surface of Mars. Blue blazes continue to meander about until we begin to see the evidence of our first wooden bridges, signaling that we were crossing into the realm of Blackwater. The fellowship at this point was still in tact and looking promising for the moment. As we began to cross these bridges the topo around us began to grow swampier by the minute until we reached several creeks with crystal clear water. Little purple flowers lined the narrow river banks that we decided to filter our first batch of water from. Charlie as my witness, this was the best water i've ever tasted in my life! Cold crisp pure plastic free water that brought us back to life as we neared the end of our first segment. As we continued to cross these bridges I hear a massive crunch behind me as Patrick's Derailleur smashes down on one of the slippery bridges. The three of us assess the damage and Patrick is the first to confirm what we all thought "Man this doesn't look to good." Miraculously he manages to pry the cracked carbon derailleur back in place and presses on, leaving us in the dust on a broken component. He knew he had to get to a shop ASAP, leave it to adventure biker code, what can go wrong will go wrong. As day one began to draw to close, Charlie and I took refuge at Alligator Creek where we had unlimited clean water and tons of seasoned firewood. It proved to be a cool evening, coyotes stalked our camp all night and the moon shined brightly through the cloud cover. Our Next stop would be Eglins Airforce Base.

 
 

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Eglins Airforce Base

Whatever you do, DONT TOUCH!

Prior to this trip a mandatory document that I had to obtain was my Isportsman Permit to enter Eglins Airforce Base. Part of the permitting process required me to watch a video about all of the unexploded ordinances (Flares, missiles, cluster bombs) out there, and to "Not Touch." Here you are a the mercy of the ever-changing bombing drills that assault the landscape all around you. Even though there is a map with projected bombing exercises and drills, it is subject to change at ANY time. This place is so unique, massive river eroded canyons make for a MOAB like experience in Florida. We arrive, and  are greeted by a nice little segment of sandy hike a bike. At this point we have been following Patricks tracks (which served as our motivation and kept us going). As we follow our pink line on the GPS to our next turn we are halted by a streamer of red tape and an armed ranger waiting to see if we cross it. No biggie, plenty of reroutes right? Well it turns out the whole road was shut down for miles while fighter jets scrambled over our heads. We eventually had to follow a straight line out of the park and made a wrong turn onto a paved road lined with forest. In the distance I saw what looked like the truck from jeepers creepers about 100ft in from the tree line. When Charlie and I investigated we found and incredible Army Bridging vehicle that was heavily damaged and left in its final grave in the woods. 

 
 

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Sweet Spot creek

The river of Gold

After making it through Eglins and taking a sigh of relief, we make our way to this incredible watering hole appropriately named Sweet Spot Creek. We used the abundance of water to cook lunch, restock, and simply cool off. The tree cover here was perfect and it was a great way to escape the heat. Our Target camp for the night was Pine log, and this was the restock that was going to eventually carry us there. The water here was ice cold and tasted great as well. As we continued along the FT we crossed an incredible open prairie that was covered in what looked like lavender. The beauty of this segment is so hard to put into words, we just stood there in amazement for about ten minutes and let our brains process what we were looking at. This was one of the many wonders of the panhandle for me. I found out that my Profile Design Aero Bars were also engineered to carry a pizza and two liter coke to camp. The greasy pizza box ignited an old fire that dried us out and kept the bugs away. Long after the fire burned out the hearth stayed super warm, and made for an excellent spot to dry clothes from the light rain storm we hit on the way in.

 
 

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Ecofina

An ocean of tree fell

As we continued west through lush forest with numerous waterfalls and crystal clear water, we come across what looked like a scene from ferngully. A massive logging operation was in progress and even though the trail guid provided us with a re route, the three of us decided to over look that and go swimming through and endless sea of tree fell. With no blazes or reference point we were strictly relying on the pink line to guide us where we needed to go. It had been several days since we had seen Patrick and we began to wonder whether the derailleur issue was resolved and wondered how far ahead the Jedi might be. This place looked like a legitimate rattlesnake haven and every crunch under my feet made me wonder if one would latch on to my ankle. T-mobile LTE was something that had been non existent for several days now and I had just stumbled upon one bar. Dark Sky took a minute to load but once it did I just saw a massive orange and red storm cell slowly creeping up on us. The mission was get to Camel Lake as fast as possible where we would find shelter, showers, power. It was at this point that Charlie and I committed to riding until 4am, a decision the proved to be rewarding when we rolled up on Patrick at Camel Lake. Sheets of rain began to below down on our pavillion as we just set up on tables and passed out. I experienced my first Ultra Hallucination along the way where I saw a man wearing a blue sweater with a reflective triangle on the chest. Perhaps the Gravel Star had mastered time travel and came back to witness my struggle through the darkness?

 
 

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Tallahassee

Hospitality at its Finest

Ecofina had been a bit rough on the bikes, logs and Di2 don't mix to well and Charlie had sliced his rear tire. Higher Ground Bicycle CO in Tallahassee was our only go to, the only problem was our ETA there was 15 minutes after they closed. It was in this moment I called in desperation and these kind souls opened the doors to us for an extra hour and a half and got everything on our bikes squared away. Judy and Warren took their time to recalibrate my derailleur, rewire my Di2 switch so I can have a satellite shifter on my aero bars, and happened to have Charlie's tire in stock which no one usually carries. All in all they went completely above and beyond and if it wasn't for this shop, it could have really put a damper on our ride. After sticking my Single Track Samurai sticker that I'd been carrying around since CFITT we made our way over to Matt (The Creator of the Tally Tango) and Michelle Bull's house. Let me just start off by saying these folks are some of the kindest souls i've ever met. They opened their home to us and allowed to to wash clothes, charge up, and gave us a bed to sleep in. Zander (their pup) inspected all of my bags and made sure everything was tip top shape before I took off. Tally is home to some really awesome people and we were both extremely grateful for the hospitality we received while we were up there, I've got a lot of love for you guys! Fully recharged we continued on our journey and made our way under some of the largest and most majestic oaks I have ever seen. The Munson trails never disappoint, and they are a blast to ride at night. The trees were truly massive and the single track everywhere was in impeccable shape. 

 
 

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St. Marks

Into the Shimmer we go

On the way to St. Marks the Fellowship was reunited when the three of us stopped at Outzs Too for some Apalachicola Oysters (bucket list item in my book) and some brewskis. Ironically enough, my first cue sheet ended at Outzs which landed us in Dorthy's Hall of fame. Awesome food and really friendly service this stop is a must if you are in the area! I Fell in love with St. Marks when I rode the Tally Tango. Last time I went through here there was a hurricane hugging the gulf and storm surge flooded a portion of the trail for about a mile of waist deep alligator trekking water, this time everything was bone dry. Its amazing to see how much this playing field changes in such a short period of time. Recently I became ever more obsessed with St. Marks since i've seen the Sci-fi thriller Annihilation, which was inspired by the through hike of this trail. The beauty of this park is beyond words, massive expanses of beautiful sawgrass dotted with little islands of palm trees. The wooden bridge of this park is iconic and is a great spot to chill out and take it all in. Shade was pretty sparse but eye candy was everywhere. Sand Spurs are you biggest hazard out here, but as long as you are tubeless you should be fine. 

 
 

Aucilla

Whatever you do, dont fall in

Aucilla, This place is truly a wonder all in its own. Its where Florida's Aquifier gets recharged and is also home to the only rapids in the state. This segment was riddled with caves and massive sinks that were surrounded by slick rock walls, one wrong move and your spending the night swimming. The fellowship was still in tact at this point and the three of us decided to tackle this monster at night. This for me was the most technical segment on the whole course, plenty of hazards like holes in the ground with no apparent bottom, and single track that meandered around the rim of these massive sinks. At night everything begins to look the same and if you make that left instead of a right... your ass is going for a pretty unpleasant swim. There was plenty of hike a bike here, we started in the early evening and by the time we finished it was pitch dark. My Volt 1600 lit the forest on fire as I hiked up and around massive rocks and tree feel. All I can think was holy shit if I fall in this pool i'm so screwed, there is just no way out. The magnitude of these caverns and sinks cant be justified in the pictures, they were just incredibly massive.

 

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White Springs 

Florida's First Tourist Attraction

As we left the Amazon like wilderness of Aucilla behind us, it was as if we had set food into a time machine as we crept our way back to civilization. White Springs is a town frozen in time. There is history pretty much everywhere you look, however there is one anomaly here that stands our more than the rest. White springs, which was once a sacred Native American healing ground, was bought up and turned into Florida's first tourist attraction. Stories of its medicinal properties existed since before the settlers discovered it. Today it stands nearly empty, slicked with highway runoff and filled with garbage. This dilapidated site filled me with sadness. We went through a local history park of which I don't know much about and came across a very interesting single track that bordered giant granite pylons in the brush. It looked as if they deconstructed the acropolis and tossed it in the woods. After we grabbed lunch at Fat Bellies (which was excellent and right next door to a laundromat) we began to make our way out of town as the rain followed closely. As we traversed and old Iron bridge that crossed the Suwannee River. We followed a very buff segment of FT that snaked around the river. The sights here were incredible, we are talking 40 sheer drop into the river if you took a biff. Then the rains came, ground shaking thunderstorms that sent mud rivers coming down all of our climbs. At one point I stopped to rest my leg on a stump and the whole damn thing rotted through up to my thigh and almost popped my knee. This area was very, very old with massive trees and abundant amounts of saw palmetto, I just remember everything being so crisp and green. Tallahassee must mean "the old fields" for a reason. Not too long after this point is when the bottom bracket nightmare begins...

 
 

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Gainseville

Sometimes the trail turns into a river, follow the river

Naturally after a torrential downpour your going to get a bit of ground water, in Gainesville... I rode through straight up rivers! At this point in time my solo journey had begun. Fatigue began to set in and when it came towards the end of the Panhandle GPX file and when I switched over to the Fargo File, I began to start following it up north, approximately 16 miles off course (8 out 8 back). At this point I texted Patrick and Charlie and told them to keep on, the last thing I wanted to be was a burden on everyone, so thus began my solo journey. The entire segment from start to finish had water and numerous crossings. Olustee was a beautiful segment, full of lush greenery and mini rivers cutting across the trail every ten feet or so. At one point you traverse and old railroad trestle thats overgrown in flowery vines. I came across a gorgeous water Moccasin on this route who didn't seem to be to perturbed by me. In San Felasco the water got pretty deep. The trail "Soggy Bottoms" was practically a massive cypress swamp that got chest deep at certain points. The most direct route to bypass this was no better, I found myself almost waist deep for a pretty good stretch of flooded road. I have to say it was actually pretty refreshing to start the day off like that. Charles and Patrick went through that segment at night, my hat goes off to them because it was challenging for me in the daytime. Tour De Gainesville trails were to hardest for me mentally, and I was once again pretty fatigued and the trail turned into a shallow river covered in pine needles. following the line was the only way out and now, I was fighting to get out of this segment before the sunset. I one point I almost twisted my ankle on a mossy log that was hovering under the pine needles. Conquering this segment felt incredible, it was the hardest one for me both mentally and physically. The storms really built a stage for a bike swim. Eventually things dried up, Hawthorne trail was cake segment of super speedy and flowy bike trail. I thought for sure I was going to catch my squad but apparently things didn't work out and I called it a night at Lochloosa Fish Camp (5 miles off route). The next segment would bring me the closest I would get to my home. 

 
 

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Central Florida

The Closest to home I'm going to get

The massive Barge Canal Bridge looms in the distance, I take a sigh of relief and finally say to myself, this is the end of the water. I had been on the road now for almost 15 days. My bottom bracket was beginning to show signs that I was living on borrowed time. I climb up the bridge and begin my very quick decent down and make my left to begin my loop under the massive monolith. Its incredible in this part of the Ocala National forest its basically a desert, powdery tan colored sand and snake tracks dot the road and set the scene for what will be my most favorite segment on the route. The sun was hot, and the sand was just bouncing the heat right back up into my face. The beauty of this forest helped me keep it all together, after all this is a very special place for me. My first bike packing trip took place right by Farles Prarie, where my wife and stepdad huddled around my "ultralight" Biolite camp stove. Humble roots were set here and It will always be the place that I found my love of adventure cycling. Like Karlos says "you can come here and see all of the ecosystems at once." Paisley was in its last stages of a controlled burn, The smoldering popping trees looking like fireworks as the sunset. My biggest motivation at this point was to reach one of the most iconic curiosities on the route.... The 88 Store. The 88 Store is a miracle in the middle of the forest, beer, food, restock, Suds' n Bud's and of course the Incredible restaurant connected to the building that was serving Lasagna made from scratch. The owners are incredibly friendly and the patrons are always entertaining to interact with. A group of fisherman were exchanging some the most amusing tales of being out on the St. Johns river. One man had one hell of a hatred for his brother, who cost him a trophy fish. I heard him say "I wouldn't piss in that son of a bitch's mouth if his guts were on fire!" Not too long after a man attempting to back in a pontoon boat took out the telephone poll by the gas pumps. I winced, waiting for an explosion... and then finished my beer and took off before the real festivities began. Next stop would be the continuation of the feared Ghost Trail, punishing when missed, incredible when properly navigated. It will take you through what is (a lake bed in the wet season) in the middle of the forest, lush greens capes and carnivorous plants inhabit an oasis in the desert. Now I don't know if it was the beers or fatigue, but something big followed me on the segment leading up to Juniper Prairie and stayed a good 60ft back. I began to yell and scream every obscenity I could think of and it finally stopped before the main fire-road that took me out to the highway. Juniper Prairie TH was only a mile or two down the highway but there closed at this point. As I roll in I see the rangers locking up the office, now flashlights are on me. I was able to talk my way into staying at the camp that night and they were extremely nice about it. The route will always provide. My target at this point was to reach Shark Tooth Spring which was slightly off route near the Florida trail. The water here comes right out of the rock, and if you sift your hards in the spring you will find fossils and shark teeth. It was here I restocked, bathed, and beat the heat. I had just missed John Moorehouse by a few minutes for my interview. 

 
 

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Lake Mary to Kissimmee Prairie 

A storms a coming

With my bottom bracket on the fritz and a monster storm at my back, I decided to take refuge in Lake Mary and track down a local bikeshop that might possibly have the parts I need to get rolling again. Dave's Cycle World was the only place in town open so I rode over to see what they could do about my grinding BB. As the technician removed the BB, a considerable amount of water flowed out and then out came some crapped up bearings. The shop had no BB in stock and only one bearing, considering that both of mine were toast at this point... I took a chance with the one. John Moorehouse met me at the shop and gave me an in depth interview of my experiences on the route. I'm currently down a day and a half at this point as I duck out the red solar flare thats coming towards me on the radar. Patrick and Charlie made the right moves and stayed just in front of the storm. It was as this point I realized, we won't be seeing each other again on this route. These Zero Days gave me a good chance to carb up, ice my knees, and get some much needed RR before heading back on the the Cross Seminole trail and absolutely gorgeous FT connectors that would eventually bring me to the cattle town of Oviedo and Christmas Florida. It was here that I contacted Infinity Bike Shop In Melbourne and had my bottom bracket express overnighted and began to make my way off route to East Melbourne. So here I am with my hands tied once again, another day lost as I await parts to complete my journey. The Next day Geoff calls to inform me that my parts have arrived. I wolf down my pad thai and cross over the bridge to make my way to the shop. This shop was excellent and got me running very quickly. The bike shifted so clean as I hit the pavement setting course for Three Forks WMA. Then it happens, THACK THACK THACK THACK, my whoopee cushion grade sidewall picked up a massive drywall screw, and my tire had begun to piss Stan's everywhere. In goes the tire plug and the calamity ceases for the moment. For the remainder of the trip this plug would leak slowly and drive me insane. I pull into three forks, early in the AM, what a surreal morning. The sun was coming up slowly in the distance and the the fog gently rolled away from the endless fields of wetlands, this park is OUTSTANDING!  It would be beautiful gravel and limestone roads from here on out for a while. Massive alligators sunned themselves all along the levy banks while giant blue Herons hunted for their morning catch. It was an inherent concern that I was approaching Kissimmee Prairie after this massive storm front rolled through. There was a guarantee of flooding, this entire segment was marked as swamp on my topo, but to my surprise just as quick as the route showed me its teeth, I was rewarded with a dry passage. River Ranch was an incredible stop for a restock. They have a post office, starbucks, subway, Bisons, buffaloes and longhorns all in the same property. Here was my last restock before continuing to Kissimmee Prarie, which looked like it was straight out of Africa. There would occasionally be tiny ponds along the route, each one guarded by a dinosaur that would hop in as I went by. The sun was so hot, no shade, no water, just gravel and scrub palmetto as far as the eye could see. I couldn't tell if the cattle were looking at me with disgust or amazement. That night I arrived to find a dry 7 mile Slough. I met the ranger and she allowed me to camp after hours. I set up camp and was careful to not give off any ambient light. The entire camp site was booked but no lights were on. The stars gleamed like i've never seen them before and the Milky way presented itself in all of its wonder at 3AM. It was almost as if the stars were being projected onto the sky. In the morning I awoke to find that raccoons had unzipped my frame bag and stole several cliff bars and Cliff cubes, they must have had a rude case of the shits after that little heist. I took in the beauty of the sunrise and took one last glance at one of the most incredible sights i've ever seen in Florida. My water filter was no longer safe to use as I slowly made my way to the Devils Garden.

 
 
 

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The Devil's Garden

Where shade is non existent

Every so often you hear about this "Green Death" Algae that kills everything it touches. That monster was born out of the sugarcane industry and is the reason I stopped filtering water right before Lake Okechobee. Fertilizer and pesticides poison the water and animals out here, and once that toxic algae hits those chemicals, blooms explode and take over waterways. With the single track behind me and nothing but long levy roads ahead, the route began to show me a new kind of brutality.... heat and wind. Being surrounded by sugar cane all you can smell is the Iodine from the chemicals being used on the crops, and that coupled with the heat can be very trying on the senses. My buff and rondo sleeves proved to be crucial at this moment in time. I set out with 3 bike bottles, 3 bottles of water in my pockets, and a 2.5 liter camel back that was starting to become the monkey on my back.  I ran out of water completely about 3/4 of the way through the segment. When I say NO SHADE, I mean there wasn't even a shadow cast by the street signs. Local Area temps soared to 100 degrees according to my external GARMIN sensor linked to my watch. I made my way to Clewiston and stayed at the Creepy Clewiston Inn. Apparently this place is crazy haunted and even though I didn't see ghosts, It did creep me out. No one stays open past 8:30 PM out there so I resorted to an authentic Italian dinner at Dominos. The bike seemed to be in tip top shape with the exception of the plug that that was still leaking. A little superglue seemed to hold it together for another 24 hours. My next stop would take me to the wildest part of Florida, the river of grass.

 

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The Everglades

Sleeping with the Big Cats

Big Cypress is about as wild as you can get in Florida, on the FL Divide you literally traverse through the heart of the Florida everglades. From this point forward its all levee riding and road to the finish. Sunniland Marks the beginning of panther country which ranges from the souther most everglades all the way up to the Ocala National Forest. Though there has never been a recorded panther attack, there was something a bit unnerving about locking myself into the panther preserve shortly before sundown. This fence is here for their safety, we both share a common predator.. the automobile. Knowing I wouldn't make it to monument lake camp ground I had decided to get to the first primitive camp I could find which was about a mile or two in. I didn't know if the bear bell would be effective out here, or if I would just sound like a giant cat toy, so I tried to keep the commotion to a minimum. Fire keeps the boogey man away and right after my shelter went up I had and abundance of firewood to burn. The stars were exceptional from this location as well. The sun was my most dangerous foe and I decided to get up at 3am and hit the road again before the convection oven was turned on. Alligators were everywhere, for sure the largest I had ever seen. In the small canals running parallel to the roads they lived in limestone caverns where they thundered into as I rolled by. Its incredible to see how wild these parts of Florida still are, as I continue riding I see a 10ft alligator road killed on the bike lane, something you don't see everyday. As I hit the levee my tubeless completely fails and I have to do the inevitable.. throw in a tube and hope for the best.

 
 

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Key Largo to Finish

Please don't pop again

I made my push from Big Cypress to Key largo for a 138 mile day. everything is going great until tube number one pops in a construction zone in key largo. Moments before this I almost traded paint with an F150 that blew by, things weren't looking to good and the course was once again snarling at me. Flustered and exhausted I throw my last tube in and head to the nearest restaurant I can get to. I rolled into the first bar I could find and they were kind enough to re open their kitchen and comp my beers. Next step was to find lodging, and for some reason this weekend, it was non existent. I fumbled around until 12:30AM until I walked into the Tom Thumb and offered the cashier $100 to sleep in her (or a friend's) yard, she looked at me and smiled and said "Baby you go on back and get some sleep." Blown away by her kindness I run to the back and find an 8x8 patch of grass that my tent stakes sank into. I tied my guy lines to my bike and slept for 4 hours. In the morning I decided I was going to go for it on one tube. My documenting fell off towards the end, I spent the entire keys segment staring at the ground and avoiding nails, fishhooks, and glass. My legs were firing at full capacity by the time I hit the Seven Mile bridge and I blew threw the islands one by one. When I reached long pine key I threw out my camel back, I just couldn't take it anymore. It felt like I carried a child on my back for 1600 miles. From this point forward I pressed on and finished in the afternoon with my beautiful wife waiting for me at the finish. I had completed the longest one state route in the country, crossed over 1000 bridges, and broke my record for consecutive longest distance, and became the 6th finisher of the Florida Divide AL to Key West. 1500 miles were officially scored, 114 miles of wrong turns, reroutes, and tom foolery made my 1614 finish.

 
 

 
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Aknowledgments 

First and foremost, I would like to thank the route creator Karlos Rodriguez Bernart for putting together this life changing experience. I've lived in Florida my entire life and had no idea what wonders it had to offer. Karlos has selflessly taught me everything I know and without him I wouldn't be able accomplish and undertaking like this so soon. All of the Single Track Samurai Routes have been the basis of my training. The Team at JC's Bikes and Boards has always treated me like family and put me on the right gear. They have spent a tremendous amount of time answering my questions and being generous with knowledge. 

All of my friends and family who met me on the route, I'm forever grateful and humbled that you all took the time to come out and visit me when I least expected it. What a morale boost it is to see you all when your use to not seeing anyone. Ive got a lot of love for you all!