Fear and loving in Pisgah

By Scoop Skupien

Pisgah. Speaking those six letters, correctly, here in Western North Carolina will always generate a response from mountain bikers – joy, awe, even jealousy. It’s a beautiful place, but a gnarly one.

Before we get there, a quick lesson in pronunciation, so you don’t end up like me when I was researching my move from Chicago to Asheville a few years ago. My first full day here, I circled the town of Brevard while just out of reach, Pisgah’s endless green mountains, rolling like waves in every direction, beckoned me to explore them.

But there I was, stuck in my car, wasting precious time asking locals where the town of Brevard was, which no one could figure out. Problem was, I was pronouncing it with the emphasis on “Brev,” while the correct way is to emphasize “ard.” 

I was a hiker back then. Maybe that was the problem.

Finally, I asked a wonderful, older gentleman who was working outside in the fall sunshine. He took off his cap, looked at me quizzically, and then smiled.

“Son,” he said. “Do you mean Brevard? Cuz you’re smack dab in the middle of it!”

Wherever you go, there you are. Apparently, pronouncing it correctly makes a huge difference. 

Getting there is simple, being there is fun

Next, I needed to figure out how to say Pisgah. Sorry to report, but you pronounce the “s” like a “z.” Say the word fizz and you’re on the right track. Speaking of the right track, all I had to do to reach my destination was drive straight forward two miles.

Pisgah National Forest covers more than 500,000 acres and is where good mountain bikers go to ride when they die. With more than 245 biking trails including mile-high peaks, tons of creek crossings, and a lush forest with rhododendron tunnels that fully engulf you, Pisgah is awe inspiring. I love it.

Even though it scares the crap out of me. 

Three years after my first attempt to find the little Shangri-La that is Pisgah, I’m now a resident of Asheville. More importantly, I’m addicted to mountain biking.

So recently, I took advantage of how close I live to Pisgah. After a 15-minute drive, I parked at Bent Creek Gap, just off the Blue Ridge Highway, on a beautiful, sunny day in the mid-80s. 

I headed down the fire road to the Spencer Ridge trailhead. Now, I could’ve started my loop by heading down Bad Fork – a name that tells you everything you need to know – but it’s a hiking-only trail. It’s a burly two-mile trail with a series of drops that might leave hardtail riders with sore wrists for weeks. …So I’ve heard. 

I would never ride on a trail that is clearly marked as off-limits for bikes. I’m not that type of guy, so I would never do it. Never.

Ever. 

Maybe a few times. But now that I’m riding a sweet ride with full suspension, I don’t have to worry about my wrists or wonder if I’m pushing my bike too hard. Odds are, I’m not. 

But I digress. And I want to make it clear that this blog post in no way signifies that I admit to what I just admitted. Now that we’ve taken care of the legal issues, let’s move on.

Once on the Spencer Gap trail, the single track turns into what is really more half-track. Coupled with the steep drop-off to my left, the narrowness made for some fun times when I hit the seriously rocky sections. Gnarly sections, if you will. 

It’s crazy. Massive tree roots slither through the trail like giant petrified snakes from a science fiction film while the mountain drops off perilously on your left. It’s something you need to experience and enjoy for yourself. 

Once out of there and into a flowy section, I continued carving my way down the heavily forested mountainside until I came to Trace Ridge. 

“You’re going the wrong way,” said some riders taking a snack break. 

I flashed past them without time to look at them or respond and disappeared into the rhodos like a baseball player in the movie Field of Dreams. Except, this isn’t Iowa. Not by a longshot.

Bring your friends!

Last summer I brought my brother-in-law to this area of Pisgah. He promptly flipped his handlebars four times – a move I now call the “Full Ricky.” I thought about that as I hit a section where a rock that looks like a diving board that launches you into a pool filled with dirt and boulders. 

I dismounted, cursed my lack of confidence, and vowed to return and conquer this section. Now that I know how to pronounce everything, there’s nothing to stop me.

Especially now that I’ve made the quantum leap to a full-suspension bike. A bike I love. The bike I want to be buried with, a very long time from now, while wearing my Pisgah riding jersey. 

Until then, I’ll see you out there.