What I Did on My Vacation
By Gordon Cherr
Ah, vacation time finally….Hurry up, board those dogs, leave a lot of food and water out for the old cat, enough to last at least 4-5 days…we are outta here! Let’s go! We are heading for Asheville to renew some old acquaintances, and I have a few places to visit and hills to flatten or they to flatten me. But it is gonna be a contest, that’s for sure.
Drive, drive , drive, ugh . . . .through Thomasville, to Moultrie, on to I-285 and Atlanta. Atlanta is a leech on the life of rural north Florida, sucking the water and the spirit out of the Apalachicola. I hate Atlanta, can’t get around it fast enough, the driving is crazier than ever, 6 lanes wide each way through Gwinnett County, hurry, hurry. Pedal to the metal. Finally through to rural Greenville, SC, it is as hot and sticky there as Tallahassee, but Greenville gives way to Saluda. Time to start to relax.
Ah, Saluda, where the mountains seem to jump out at you, suddenly you are driving through them, uphill all the way now. The mountain sides and valleys are so strikingly green this year that it almost hurts your eyes. It is getting near sundown now; the sun can play tricks on you as you skirt the mountains here. One second it looks like rain, then brilliant sunshine, and then you are deep in a cloudy mist and the thunder crashes, a few raindrops here and there, and then back into the sunny evening, as the road twists and turns through the glens and around the hills. Little men playing 9 Pin in the mountains I am told, that is really what the thunder is.
We reach Asheville before dark, just enough time to check into the Best Western, and guess what, enough time for a short run (of course!). It is about 58 degrees tonight and I can handle that just fine. And then a fine sushi dinner with an old friend. Asheville restaurants put Tallahassee’s to shame. Oh, well, time for bed, I gotta sleep because I gotta get up, because I gotta run tomorrow.
It is 51 degrees when I get up at 6 AM, and I know I won’t feel this cool again until next November back home. I’m soon out the door and headed for Sunset Mountain. I run up Central to Liberty, up Liberty to Chestnut, up Chestnut to Baird, and it is all up, up, up. Baird is just a real bear of a hill; a short 250 yard seemingly straight up vertical climb that wastes your legs for the next few miles. But Baird drops you onto Sunset, and Sunset is one sweet road on which to run. It winds and twists like an enormous serpent. To your left you can look out over the trees and the roofs of houses off the side of the mountain, giving you an incredible view of downtown Asheville and most of the entire county. To your right is the dark side of the mountain, heavily vegetated, and today the heavy spring rains are apparent with many rocky streams continually cascading down across the roadway. Birds shriek, hidden in deep cover, you only hear them, sometimes you seem to see a flicker of wings in the shadows. The air is cool and oh so fresh, you breathe deeply to invigorate your lungs. Sunset goes up and up and up for about two miles, winding and sometimes dipping but mostly it is a gut wrenching climb. Somewhere in the back of my mind I seem to hear my quads and calves beginning to question the wisdom of this run, but the introspective side tells them to quiet down, just bear it a little while longer. Come on, we’ve been here before, we can do this.
I pass the intersection of Old Toll Road after about 25 minutes, still climbing, and an even steeper climb brings me to Patton Mountain Road. It is now Decision City…do we attack Patton Mountain and another two mile climb up a gravelly road, 12 miles overall to the finish, or do we wimp out and head down and settle for 7.5? Wimpyness wins out on this day and down the hill I plunge. Pretty soon my toes are straining to stay in my shoes and I know I will be losing a few toenails next week. I am going faster and faster, the downhill is quite steep, but it is my reward for the half hour of climbing to get there. This is the essence of running in Asheville. You bust the climb going up, and work on your turnover and speed on the way down. Except that the downhill portion is a real quad killer too. They are alternately screaming at me now, first the left, then the right, then the left…but there is no slowing down on this decent.
The rising sun is casting impossibly long and ever shifting shadows through the tall pines and oaks and I can see my foggy breath in the cool morning air, and I feel my heart pounding rhythmically in my chest like a trip hammer, working in perfect unison with my lungs. For the moment, I can’t even imagine doing anything else or being anywhere else but right here and now. I am as high as the mountain tops.
I finally reach the public rose gardens on Griffing and take stock of the situation. There are about 2 more miles, one nasty climb, one more big downhill, and then I will be back to the Best Western. My left quad and hammy take the floor for the moment and implore me to exercise some restraint from here to the end. OK, I figure, we will have it out tomorrow on Reynolds Mountain. But I keep this to myself and we try to enjoy the remainder of our little sojourn.
The day has barely begun and Sharri and I head to the Blue Moon. If you ever visit Asheville, this is where you go for the most excellent coffee, scones and fresh bread, and something called a “Mother Earth” roll. The Mother Earth roll is God’s most perfect food, a gift of manna with just the right mixture of ingredients to fuel your entire day. Sort of like a Cinnabon, but with much more body and soul, nuts and raisins and some mysterious sticky stuff which makes the concoction stick to your fingers all day long, to be sucked off at your leisure when you are sure no one is watching.
Then we are off to Mt. Mitchell. Mt. Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, a bit more than 6850′ above sea level. To me it is a holy place. We are driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway and it is just now spring this high up. The roadside rhododendrons are blooming brilliant pink and purple and the native azaleas are electric orange and red and there are perfuse banks of yellow Black Eyed Susan’s, and if you don’t believe in God, then hike the Blue Ridge Mountains in spring (and in autumn for that matter), and you will be a true believer, if only for a short while.
From the parking lot, the climb up to the top of Mt. Mitchell is an easy one. Except for all of the fat kids and parents who are sitting on benches, trying to catch their breath. You can look out in all four directions from here to the most sweeping of vistas. There is wild weather nearly everywhere we look. Dark clouds and rain over there, and wispy clouds and fog blowing upwards through the valleys over there, all well beneath us. But off to the east, the skies are clear and the valleys are a verdant green from this elevation. The Blue Ridge Mountains are older than the Rockies and have a totally different appearance. I have read that they have worn down gradually over the millennia, perhaps from in excess of 30,000 feet. Once higher than Mt. Everest. To me the Blue Ridge are soft and comforting, they seem peaceful and nurturing in their demeanor, although I have seen some fiercely wild storms pass this way too. But looking down at the gentle folds of the green valleys so far below, to me they seem to resemble nothing so much as the graceful sweep of the inner thighs of a beautiful woman (if I can say that here), so sensual, but not sexual. The rush of emotions I feel here is strong, I may never again live in the Blue Ridge Mountains but my heart and soul will remain grateful prisoners, forever.
The next morning is upon me, and so is my long overdue date with Reynolds Mountain. Reynolds Mountain is actually an upscale, ritzy development, with mostly big, expensive, and really very tasteful and beautiful mountainside homes. In contrast to Sunset Mountain with its long uphill pulls of several miles and equally long downhills, Reynolds Mountain is like a never ending roller coaster of short hills. You are constantly going up or down and there are no flats to speak of. But the hills, while usually short, are also rather steep. This one is also a leg eater and there really isn’t any stretch long enough for you to catch your breath before you start up the next hill.
I start at the YMCA on Beaver Dam Road and turn left onto Elk Mountain Scenic Highway. You know that you are definitely in for trouble when the roads all have the word “mountain” in their names somewhere. Or else the streets here have names like “Nepal” or “Alps” or “Tibet”, things which conjure up images of steep snow and cloud shrouded mountain peaks. Somewhere between the first and second mile it strikes me that I missed those reports in the newspapers or in National Geographic about the serious geologic activity here recently, because I don’t recall these hills being so long and steep. My right ankle has begun a not so secretive dialogue with my left hamstring about doing this run on top of doing Sunset the day before, especially in view of training in a tabletop flat Tallahassee, but I prefer to stay out of the loop for now. Then around mile 3 I start to have a heart to heart with God, promising to be a better person and father and husband, and I am trying to cut a deal here with the Lord, if he/she will let me get up the next hill without walking and maybe make my ankle stop hurting, and if nothing else, will you please make that little stupid fat dog who has been running circles around me and yapping at me for the past two miles, go away? You know that you are in worse trouble when you are trying to strike a bargain with God about finishing a lousy 5-6 mile training run, but that is precisely my plight.
Sometimes dissociation works and I suddenly notice that the confederate jasmine is in full bloom here and so is the purple wisteria, and despite the task at hand, I begin to smell the sweet blooms. Why didn’t I notice this all along? As luck would have it, Fido has now entered the range of a nesting mockingbird and the bird has dispatched the dog quite handily. Thank you bird, good-bye, Fido, good riddance. But without the little fat yapping dog as a ready target, the mockingbird now vents its anger at me, and remarkably I find myself making much better time up and down the hills then just a few minutes earlier, as the bird continues to dive bomb my head. Yes, the Lord certainly works in mysterious ways.
All to soon the next day it is time to leave Asheville and return to hot and sweaty Tallahassee. I should run in the morning before we leave, but I can’t get up the energy. Maybe my quads have finally won out, but I promise myself that I will log a few more miles after the 8 hour drive back home. Normally such promises made in the AM are empty gestures, not kept in the PM. Off to the Blue Moon for one more brush with culinary perfection.
Today is Memorial Day. The roads are mostly deserted. Drive, drive, drive…we even get around I-285 without incident. I still hate Atlanta. We reach Moultrie, then Thomasville and finally Tallahassee around sundown. It is still hot and sweaty. And it looks awfully flat.
Perfect for an evening run. I keep that promise.