Adventure: (noun) an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.
A few weeks ago, I signed up for the Rabun, Georgia Trail Half Marathon on a whim. Actually, I saw the race listing and then inexplicably went back to the site five more times before finally hitting “Register.” I literally took the last spot available. It sounded pretty tough– 6,000 ft. of elevation change, the second highest peak in Georgia, gnarly single track, remote location. And that’s why I chose it, either consciously or sub-consciously.
For well over a year, I’ve had a solo camping trip on my bucket list. I’ve camped for years, and I love it, but I’ve always been with Rob or a group of friends. And while I don’t feel like they’ve “taken care of me” on those trips, I had a desire to know that I could go it alone if I needed (or wanted) to.
My first plan had been to simply pack up and spend a night or two at Stone Mountain in a familiar area but still on my own. But then I saw this race, and it was like killing two birds with one stone– an overnight trip on my own and a tough trail race.
The race director’s instructions led me to believe that while the race would be in a remote area off forest roads, there would be other runners camping along the way, and I took some comfort in that. I would be on my own but not totally. And it would be great to hang out with other runners the night before. I envisioned s’mores and fun stories around the campfire.
Because I don’t entirely trust the reliability of the bus and because it sounded like the forest roads might require a vehicle with fairly high clearance, I opted to take the Jeep. I didn’t pack a tent. I figured I’d just put the seat down in the back, blow up my backpacking air mattress and throw out my sleeping bag. Being locked in the Jeep seemed a little safer than a tent anyway.
And then I took off to the wilds of north Georgia.
The venue was surprisingly close to the NC border, which I hadn’t expected, but the asphalt quickly turned to rutted-out dirt and gravel. I drove for miles on forest roads, exploring the area, checking out the parts of the course (along with turns onto marked trails), and scoping out the camping scene.
The camping scene, as it were, was not exactly what I had been hoping for. First, where were all the other runners? These people with whom I would hang out around the campfire? I saw no one.
But I had arrived early– to get the best spot– so I remained undaunted. I chose a spot and got out to look around. Empty beer bottles and cans littered the site. A make-shift toilet (a couple of two-by-fours and a plastic toilet seat) sat at the corner of the lot. And then there was the huge pile of bear scat. And claw marks on a tree. Yep. I was out.
I drove on further and found another spot that, while far off the beaten path with tree branches across my windshield, looked promising. I got out and assessed the situation. Despite having driven quite a bit further down the road, it was directly across the creek from the other spot. Crap.
I unloaded some stuff, sat down and tried to relax. It just wasn’t happening. At first, I told myself, “You’re just letting fear get the best of you. Relax.” But I couldn’t. It just didn’t feel right. I loaded back up.
I drove back up the mountain until I had a cell signal again (yeah, there was that too) and called Rob. “I don’t see anybody else,” I said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I may drive back to town. Or not.”
“Um, OK,” he said. “Well, just follow your gut feelings.”
I went back down a different forest road. I did see a couple of other people camping, but they were definitely not runners. And time was growing short. So I drove back toward town.
I stopped at a cafe that was nearly empty and asked for directions to a campground. After warning me about the local “bear problem,” she sent me on my way to a large RV camp I’d seen on the way in. It wasn’t exactly what I had hoped for, but it would do. “There’s another little one before you get there, but I can’t remember the name of it,” she said.
I drove away and saw the sign. The name was Beaver Valley Campground. I slowed down and, following my gut, turned in the long gravel drive. There were several very neat and well-cared for RVs around a pond. A man was working outside. I asked him if I could camp for the night. He told me to pull in wherever I would like. And just like that, I had found my spot.
Before long, I was introduced to other residents. John and Deb, along with Mattie, their sweet basset hound, were the first to greet me. They invited me to supper, and Deb drove to town to pick up pizzas. I sat by the pond and watched the frogs and called Rob to tell him I had found a place for the night. When Deb returned, she called me to supper. Marcy, another resident, brought cake for dessert, and eventually Nelson and his dog, Sissy, came to sit and visit for a while on the porch. We talked until well after dark, and by the time I was ready for bed, I’d had a really good supper, interesting conversation and a new book that Deb passed on to me. (This is something she likes to do– go to used book sales and buy multiple copies of books she’s enjoyed so that she can pass them on to people she meets. I think this is one of the nicest ideas I’ve heard in a long time.)
I slept very well in my Jeep, and when the alarm went off at 5:15, I rose in the dark to make coffee and get dressed for the race. As I sat in the growing light, listening again to the frogs and critters and sipping my coffee, I was reminded that there are some really good people in the world. That’s something that is often easy to forget. We hear so much about the crazy, evil people in the world that it’s really easy to slip into thinking everyone is like that, that no one can be trusted, and while I think it pays to be aware, it’s also important to know that there are some cool people out there who are good and generous and kind. People who will share their supper with a stranger and pass on good books just because. And I think there are more of those than we think. It also reminded me that I want to be one of those people myself. In a world that often makes me want to retreat, it’s good for me to remember the importance of an open and giving heart.
So before the sun had even gotten all the way up, I drove away and headed back up the mountain and back down the forest road to the race.
The race was pretty spectacular– a little bit of forest road but mostly crazy single track, a monstrous climb, a fire tower at the top of Georgia’s second highest peak, views of three states, beautiful waterfalls, and a descent that went STRAIGHT DOWN the mountain and shredded my quads (and toenails).
I won’t lie– I was worried about whether I could even do this race. I’ve very slowly been working my way back into some semblance of racing shape, but I didn’t know if I was ready. Surprisingly, I felt pretty good the whole way. I had to stop to rest a couple of times on the downhill, but overall, I felt strong. Out of 27 women, I was 10th and the 3rd Masters for women (2nd in the 40-44 age group), so I was pretty pleased– partly because most people who show up to races like this are no slouches.
At the end of the race, I met a guy and his wife who had camped near the start the night before. He said that he had been surprised by the fact that only one other person had camped, and then he said, “It was kind of creepy down here when the sun went down.” Shoot, it was creepy before the sun went down, I thought. I had made it to exactly where I needed to be.
All in all, it was a bucket list success. It was unusual, for sure, exciting, and potentially hazardous (in more ways than one). It was an adventure.
Thanks again, John and Deb, for the kindness. It won’t be forgotten.