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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