by Russ Fitzgerald
It was the last Tuesday of daylight savings time when I met some fellow Greenwood Cycling Club members for a fall evening ride. Although I'd led all-surface rides before, it had taken the early dusk to entice some of my associates onto the fire roads. The darkness tends to slows down what little motor traffic there is out in the back of beyond.
Everyone gathered at the staging point had a mountain bike. Everyone except me, that is. I had my Mercian fixed-gear, with the wheel flipped around to the 19t cog. I'd read that the 63" gear had been Wayfarer's choice for his rides in the inter-war years, and I wished once again I could find a collection of his writings. I had fenders. I had my capacious Carradice Nelson strapped to the back of my Brooks B17. I felt like I was ready to ride with that guy from the old Roger St. Pierre "Book of the Bicycle", the one shown taking part in an old CTC tourist trial. There was a photo of the same rider crossing a creek in my ancient Guinness Guide to Cycling. I idly wondered what his name was and whether he was still alive and riding.
We waved goodbye to the mountain bikers as they took off down the singletrack with their suspension forks and Camelbacks. Our route was down 505, a Forest Service fire road with a surprising number of houses built up along the way. The road was gray and dusty, with gravel long pounded down by hunter's pickup trucks. It hadn't been maintained in a while, which was all to the good--no fresh gravel to skid around in.
I was a bit nervous about the long, steep descent down to the old stagecoach road. I needn't have been. The Mercian ran smoothly over the dusty hardpacked dirt, with no skidding or squirreliness. After crossing a railroad track, we turned left and admired the historical marker, indicating that this was once part of the route that led from Abbeville, site of the first mass meeting in favor of secession, to Charleston.
It was still light, so we turned in the other direction, following the road over surprisingly level terrain towards Abbeville. We crossed a wooden bridge after bumping over what felt like cobblestones. If you ever ride that way, be sure to go down the center of the bridge--at the sides, where a pickup truck's wheels would go, there are massive planks that raise the surface several inches above the bridge proper. We passed a long-abandoned water treatment facility, then climbed past some small farmhouses and reached pavement. I recognised the road as the one leads up to Cedar Springs Road and via a long hill to the brick-paved square in Abbeville. No time for that tonight, though--back the way we came, the big purple bike soaking up road shock as I pulled away from my companions on the climbs, then dropped back as they caught me on the descents.
I turned left off the stagecoach road for the climb back. It was steeper than I had thought. I spun the 63" madly for a bit, then settled back into the saddle for a long slow slog. Eventually I lifted out of the saddle and started to honk. I knew the older British authorities all agreed that this was an ungentlemanly thing to do, but hey, the hill was steep. The road felt less secure under my wheels, but I kept reminding myself that everyone who won the Tour before I was born raced on roads like this. And then I reached the top.
I would have waited for my companions, but I was possessed by the need to see how fast I could push the bike on this surface. The knowledge that my wife was back home making vegetable soup gave me added speed. I hammered, or at least got as close to hammering as I could manage. The bike felt solid under me now, whether climbing or descending, and I was packed up and ready to go home by the time my associates arrived.
I wanted to ride these roads again with more time, when darkness wasn't falling and I could work them into a long loop over the old roads that are largely forgotten. I wanted to ride over roads that were old when bicycles were new. Riding a bike always reminds me how much there is to see and how many places there are to ride here. How did I ever think I hated this place?
A Sunday afternoon in late October, or maybe early November. Whichever it was, I was in no mood for the usual club Sunday hammerfest, so I filled my bottles, grabbed a map and headed out for a long solo ride on my fix. I went through downtown Greenwood along what was for years billed as the world's widest Main Street, passing the spot where Marshall Foch spoke back in the 20s, before making the turn near the railroad museum onto the rail-trail and its many opportunities for dodging broken bottles. Down Florida Avenue, past the shuttered textile mill, and over the bypass by the cola bottling plant. By now I was finally getting patches of rural South Carolina as I went.
I made my way to Briarwood Road and wondered again how I had missed cycling along it in the past. Briarwood should, by any rights, be a secret cyclist's thoroughfare. Go left at the next to last intersection and you come out where White Hall used to be, and eventually hit the fabled Rock House Road and the legendary ruin for which it's named. Go right and you come to Promised Land, settled by freedmen after the collapse of the Confederacy.
This day, though, my way lay straight on to Verdery.
You pop up on Highway 10 and see two old buildings. On the left is the older one, once a post office, and likely dating from the time when George Washington was still breathing air. On the right is a newer house, probably built with the profits from the old trading post. There's the solemn historical marker by the road. I took in all the elegant shabby gentility I could manage. Being a native Southerner, I was raised on the stuff. Satiated at last, I set out for Cedar Springs Road.
Cedar Springs Road is old. Where Greenwood and Abbeville counties meet, Millway runs into it at the old Rock Church, which has been around for eons. Across the road is an enormous octagonal house built shortly before The War started (in the South, there is only one War). Normally, when I pass it, I look to see how the restoration is going.
Not today, though. My appetite whetted for dirt, I wanted the far end of Route 505, the Appian Way of Abbeville County's glorious fire roads. I almost missed it, and had to turn around and ride back. I paused long enough to flip my rear wheel over from 17 to the 19t. I checked the time. I had roughly three hours of daylight. Onward, I thought, and mounted up, finding the left pedal and cinching the strap.
I rode past a small farmhouse with outbuildings and into the piney woods along the usual hardpacked red clay and gravel mix. Suddenly, a little landing strip appeared on my left, an ancient Cessna, still staring skyward, rusted into place in the tall weeds. The plane sparked memories of the infamous dope plane that crashed in neighboring McCormick County years ago, yielding a couple of 18-wheelers' worth of pot. The authorities decided to burn the stuff, but with little appraent success--for weeks afterwards, people kept turning up at parties with kerosene-scented marijuana.
My thoughts went back to the road. It was simply beautiful out there at the end of 505. Does one tell the world about these perfect little places to ride, or does one keep them a secret? I suppose the former is safe enough, especially when it's too rocky a road for the weekend warriors, and too tame for those who take broken bones and blood as a matter of routine on their double-boingers. I stopped to take pictures with the last of the leftover disposable cameras from my wedding reception. Looking back one last time, I kept thinking of the photographs in my cherished 1935 copy of Harold Moore's 'The Complete Cyclist'. I wondered what Frank Patterson could have done with this road.
The hills started soon after. When I checked the map, it never dawned on me that 505's other name, Curltail Road, referred to the local creek. I got to cross it a couple of times...
Strangely enough, the climbs weren't too bad. It helped that every bit of energy I was expending was going to turning the rear wheel, rather than being wasted on some spring-loaded contraption. It also helped that I was riding at my own pace, and that my only goal in getting to the top was to go down the other side.
Near the end of a long descent, I came to a historical marker. The road was laid out originally by people who helped design the Washington Monument, which is pretty cool for a largely forgotten dirt road in South Carolina. At the fork where 505 left its aged parent to climb up to Beulah Church, I turned with it. Now I was heading for the bridge over Long Cane Creek and the road to Abbeville.
The road flattens out, parallel to Long Cane for a while. I know the entrance to the bridge isn't really cobblestone, but it might as well be. That day, I bumped to a halt there as I watched the first motor vehicle of that day's journey approach me over the bridge. It was a beat-up blue pickup truck. The couple inside waved to me, and I waved back. (It always pays to be polite around here.) It wasn't easy to get rolling again. Try starting a fix on broken-up cobbles if you want to experience it. I crossed the dark and murky water and headed up the hill.
A few moments later, I had reached the end of my little world. I still had the map, but nothing was as clear as I had hoped. The road became bumpy tar and gravel, and I spun along for a couple of miles, constantly looking to the right for my next turn. I was wondering just how lost I was when I saw a green truck turn down the path I sought.
This one wasn't really a fire road. It was more of a farm track. The surface was all right, but not the same as what I'd been riding. I emerged from the woods into an area that had been cleared for grazing. The horses watched me go by, more puzzled than frightened.
It seems that fire roads and dirt roads around here shift--that's the only explanation I can give. Disused roads get closed up as the years pass, something I had already experienced in a jaunt out to Promised Land. I had planned on going straight, but that wasn't an option, as the road was private. I turned left, wondering where I would come out. Another couple of miles found me rolling up to Highway 72, where a street sign indicated I was on Stephenson Road.
Ah. I knew this one. I crossed 72 and faced a personal nemesis. There's a long fast descent along the old Abbeville road, followed by a bridge. All well and good, but then there's a long slow slogging climb up to Beulah Baptist Church, followed by the well-worn route home by way of the Old Abbeville Highway.
I groaned. I sweated. I got up the hill, grateful I didn't have to climb it the other way. A quick 100 yards of the four-laned highway, and I was on a road I'd ridden a gazillion times.
I checked the time and decided I'd better call home and announce that I would be late. Another couple of miles and I decided I wanted the Cliff bar I had buried in my saddlebag. I stopped at the intersection with Clem Road and took pictures of the Mercian leaning against the fence with goats running up to nuzzle the pedals from behind.
The pictures, alas, didn't come out. I suppose I'll just have to ride out there and try again.
The three of us met at Beulah Baptist Church, halfway to Abbeville on four-laned Highway 72 as darkness was well and truly falling. Donnis and John L. had done this ride before, using mountain bikes with rechargeable battery lights. I'd done the ride before, too, but in daylight. It seemed like a good idea to see how well Shimano's Nexus dynohub would work on a dirt road.
As it turned out, quite well. The Lumotec lamp in its neat bracket on the fork blade gave me plenty of candlepower, casting bumps and ruts into sharp relief. I gave the bike its head on the first few descents, saving my back pressure pedaling for the long descent to the bottom land.
The turn at the base of the hill always comes sooner than I think it should. I keep expecting it to flatten out, and it never does. Over some ruts that cast looming shadows in the beam of my lamp, we rolled along the bottom land that flanks Long Cane Creek. Long before the bridge, we had the now familiar cobblestones to contend with.
I crossed last, looking to both sides at the murky water below. The edges of the water gleamed like the polished edge of a blade in the moonlight. I started laughing as the idea hit.
When we stopped at the abandoned building, I said, "I dare you to ride across the bridge without lights. That's our quien es mas macho test for the night."
"Sounds like a trip to Self Memorial Hospital to me," John said.
"I can just see us explaining it," Donnis said. "Well, we were riding on a Forest Service road at night without lights. We had lights, but we had decided not to use them..."
"Aw, come on," I said. "Look at the moon. And you can see the bridge and the road just fine."
It was true. The road was a silvery line through the trees, dappled in shadows along one edge, but still amazingly clear and easy to see with the headlamps switched off.
"All right," John said. "We'll do it on the way back."
"You two are crazy," Donnis said.
"Hey, I'm riding a fixed-gear road bike in the woods at night. What do you expect?" I said.
We went on to where the pavement starts, rolling past a couple of homes each lit with their own personal security lamp mounted high on a pole. At the turnaround, I said, "Let's stop at the same place we stopped and switch our lights off so our eyes can adjust."
"Sounds like a good idea to me," John said.
When we got back to the old pumping station, though, I didn't want to stop. I slowed down, flicked off the Lumotec, and kept rolling. The moonlight cast a silver-gray light, picking out the lines between the boards. It was so quiet. I could hear each board under my tires, and then I started laughing with the sheer delight of getting ever closer to a pure, elemental experience. I reached the cobbles on the other end and pulled off the road, turning to watch my friends cross.
Just as they drew up, I spotted headlights approaching from the other direction. "Car up," I called. John and Donnis flicked on their lights, and we cleared the narrow road to let a pickup truck with a camper pass us, on its way to the bridge.
I set off with my lamp off. John said, "Yeah, I think so," and switched off his headlight.
Donnis, mother of a college-age son and an adolescent daughter, had trouble with her light. "It doesn't want to switch off," she said. Then she pressed the button hard enough to darken the lamp. We passed like wheeled wraiths down the silvery road.
We had switched the lights back on by the time we came to the fork in the road. "Go on ahead and do your stuff, Russ," John said, so I stood on the bike and climbed while they shifted down to lower and lower gears. Not for me, though, as I spun the 63" gear, turning and being turned by inertia and desire for the summit. They fell further and further back, until I had only my headlamp and the almost-full moon to light my way.
Up the long hill I went, sometimes standing and feeling the back end of the bike skate beneath and behind me, sometimes sitting with the bars held close to the stem and slowly chugging along. Seated was better, the light more stable in front of me, but it was too slow, and I stood again for a while. It's steeper in the middle, that hill, like some academician's bell curve come alive on a wooded hillside in Abbeville County.
There was the clearing to my left, and suddenly the world stopped tilting upward. I slowed and the headlight flickered and went out as my foot came down. I stood and waited for the two points of light that were my friends. The plan to wait for them went by the wayside, though. By the time they were 100 yards away, I was up and in the saddle again.
This is the stretch of this road that I love best, and I do not know why. No matter how many miles I have ridden, no matter what time of day or night it is, when I hit this place a surge of energy comes over me, and I storm the small climbs and fly down the descents with exultant abandon. And somehow, I never can stay with other cyclists here--it is a bolt of solo madness that takes me through the curves and over the bumps and gravel and hardpack.
Something bounded off into the woods somewhere to my left, and I wondered what I'd disturbed. I looked up and the moon was a ghostly galleon and all that directly above the now-shimmering road, and I wondered if I would be shot down like a dog in the highway with a bunch of lace at my throat. Quartz veins glinted in the gravel beneath me, and I rode on diamonds, I rode on marble, I rode on a beaded carpet like some highwayman of old.
I saw a file of lights coming down the road towards me, most of them stacked. I got closer and recognised the mountain bikers, out in force, taking the fire road to the next trail. The stacked lights were mounted on handlebars and helmets, growing brighter and further apart from each other as they closed the gap between us. As I drew nearer, they wheeled like so much cavalry off the road and onto the trail. We shouted greetings, and they were gone. I glanced over my shoulder at them as they went, like so many will o' the wisps among the trees.
I remembered my mother wondering out loud whether time can run consecutively and concurrently. Might people from different eras pass through each others' shadows, occasionally glimpsing each other, and putting what they saw down to the supernatural? If so, unseen but still present, some poor traveler from 1803 was seeing dim phantoms glowing in the woods that night. One more treasure to add to the store of South Carolina ghost stories.