The Trans America Trail (TAT): 1,500 Mile Update
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Mid trip report and a lovely set of photos by Tom and Sarah Swallow from their first 1,500 miles on the Trans America [off-road] Trail (TAT)…
On August 1st, Sarah and Tom Swallow set out from eastern NC to pioneer the TAT off-road route via bicycle. In our initial report, we gave a brief history of the route and their plan to attempt a cross-country bikepack on mostly dirt and gravel. The Swallows recently made it through the southeast portion of the TAT, and are currently somewhere in the heart of Arkansas. Here’s their report along with a beautiful set of photographs that tell the story of their journey. Words and photos by Tom and Sarah Swallow:
Since our last update, we’ve ridden through the rest of North Carolina and The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, across Tennessee, through Mississippi and into Arkansas. As far as our time is spent, we sleep, eat, and ride as far as we can each day, which is normally somewhere between 60-120 miles (approximately 500 miles per week). Our energy level and the terrain/road conditions dictate speed and distance. We have been refueling with what we can find along the route in gas stations, general stores, and convenience stores. When we stay in a town, we treat ourselves to a local restaurant, which has been a lot of country cooking, and now barbeque. For water, the trail regularly provides a natural spring, river, or convenience store.
The portion of riding between Maggie Valley and Tellico Plains was incredible. There were a lot of creeks to swim in, great campsites, and spectacular gravel and paved roads, with a lot of climbing.
We stayed at The Lodge at Tellico (aka Walt’s Place) where we met our first group of TAT riders, from Australia, on Husqvarna motor bikes. This group was starting their journey from Tellico Plains, but we had seen other TAT riders zooming past at high speeds as early as Eastern North Carolina. It was cool to finally talk to some fellow riders, even though they thought we were nuts.
The portion directly following Tellico Plains took us through Cherokee National Forest which was really nice (a lot of great camping) and primarily gravel for 40 miles. The roads were a bit more rocky in sections than what we had seen and there were quite a few surprisingly deep creek crossings. Just outside the forest we started looking for food and water. We started seeing signs for an Amish food stand a mile off course and decided to explore it. What we found was a secluded Amish community divided by a narrow dirt path grid for visitors to drive slowly through. We stopped at the food stand and bought a dozen peanut butter cookies for only three dollars, and got some long distance cycling advice from the gentleman working the stand, and a lead on where to fill our water bladders.
The farther away from that area we rode, the more pavement we had. All the paved roads since Tellico plains have been drastically less trafficked back roads rather than the busy state routes we were riding in North Carolina.
In Graysville we made the mistake of staying in the Scottish Inn Motel. We should have left as soon as we noticed the first few bugs crawling around and the poor state of the room, but we were tired and didn’t have much of an alternative, since we were in a more congested area. We paid for it the next morning, as we noticed bug bites all over our bodies… We are still trying to repress this memory.
The roads in Tennessee were quiet, narrow, and relatively tame in terms of climbing. We started to experience a lot more dog attacks but, nothing compared to what we would see in Mississippi. We were motivated to get through Tennessee as we were meeting my parents in Collinwood. The farther we rode the more frequent the dirt roads became.
When we first entered Mississippi we were blown away by the buff red dirt and the vast views from the logging roads along many rolling hills. In the middle of a dirt road outside of Ripley we met two other TAT riders examining a water crossing. We compared gear, chatted about the route so far, and continued on our journeys. From Ripley until Helena was probably the most challenging section for us.
Still hungover from having the comfort of company and supplies my parents had brought, we rolled out of Ripley around 11. Lightning struck right as we happened upon the only convenience store of the day. We happily took shelter and resupplied, but after the heavy rain, everything was still very moist, grey, and gloomy. I say gloomy because we were riding through some very poor areas, with a lot of chasing dogs. Once we reached Holly Springs National Forest, it was wild again, and we could unwind for a bit. It was here, in the middle of nowhere, where we heard the humming of a motor bike coming up the road behind us. We pulled off to the side, to let the rider pass, but he actually stopped! This was Jon, a TAT rider from West Virginia who was also a cyclist. He had heard we were out here and had tracked us down. We decided to camp together for the night, sharing information about the route, food, and again equipment. Just for comparison, John had traveled 400 miles that day, we had traveled 60…
The next morning I checked the weather and saw a major storm system working its way toward us. The next 170 miles would be challenging terrain (primarily dirt) with very few services along the route. Over the next two days our goal was to ride as far as possible each day, and reach Helena by Thursday evening. This would require another night of wild camping, two days without a proper shower, and one day of wearing dirty clothes, which defines tough for me. Little did we know that the tough part would be riding the slow, soggy, sandy roads, until we reached one in particular which was all dirt. For roughly four miles we struggled, walked, pushed, shoved, and carried our bikes through thick sticky mud for what felt like an eternity. Once we got off that road, we were exhausted, but the roads went back to the sandy soggy state, which was much better than the alternative. By the time we reached Tilatoba around 4 p.m. we had covered 60 miles in 8 hours. As we rolled through Griffis Truck Stop, we turned the heads of all the patrons as the spectacle of two cyclists whose clothes, skin, shoes, and bikes were completely covered in mud. With another large storm on the way, we decided to bunker down and take advantage of showers, laundry, and the restaurant for a few hours before we got back on the bikes and rolled to the backyard of a church to set camp. It poured all night, but surprisingly we woke up rejuvenated and motivated to reach Helena, a 100 mile ride away. For the first 40 miles, the terrain was similar to what we had been riding for the past few days, then after a couple long stretches of pavement, we entered a new area, a flat area. This area consisted of a grid system of agricultural farm dirt roads that had a lot more gravel on them and were easy to ride.
We crossed the Mississippi river and entered Arkansas. Helena was a cool old port town occupied by the Union Army during the Civil War, and later became a thriving city, known for having a good blues scene, until the rubber industry closed in the area. The town is a little bit of a ghost town now, but it was a welcomed break from seeing so many loud trucks waving rebel flags. The people were friendly and the barbeque and pie was off the hook!
About 15 miles outside of Helena we came across an unofficial, official TAT Rest Stop. When we stopped, I asked the elderly gentleman what this place was, referring to the historic museum like building and the rest stop, and he responded “this is the promised land!” That was enough for me and before we knew it, we were sitting on the porch with Dr. Pepper and cookies as one by one, local TAT aficionados, stopped by to see us and take our picture. They knew we were coming and were very excited that now bicyclists know about the TAT. At this rest stop they have you sign a book with your information and take your picture, then every year they print a little photo book of all the riders and their motor bikes, jeeps, and now bicycles. This was a very welcomed experience as it was the first time we actually felt like we were on a trail, a common journey that people from all over the world take on, at their own pace, and in their own style.
After many flat, straight, and fairly rough miles along freshly graded (or fluffy) farm roads, we are taking our first day off in two weeks, in Beebe. Tomorrow we will wake up and hopefully catch our package of tires and sealant at the post office, do a quick swap of our rear tires, which took a beating on all the paved sections, and get on the road to Ozark National Forest. If all goes well, we will be in Oklahoma by next week. We are hoping for dry conditions in OK.
In addition to the report and photos above, we had the chance to ask Tom and Sarah a few questions about their experience on the route so far:
What’s been your favorite stretch of dirt, so far?
We took River Road down to Tellico Plains from the Cherahala Skyway in North Carolina. The direction we rode was a constant S curve descent for 24 miles on gravel with views of waterfalls the whole way down. Eastern Tennesse was really nice and so was Nothern Missippi, just outside of Counce.
What’s the most difficult moment you’ve had following the route?
The most difficult moment was when we rode through a 4-mile section of deep sticky mud outside of Tilatoba, MS. We had been getting a lot of rain and most of the roads were sandy, soggy, and slow. We were tired after riding all day on that, then came across this mud section that forced us to come to a complete stop. The mud was so sticky, it was stuck to everything, our shoes, tires, bikes, which made everything heavier, but we just kept going.
Have you had any mechanical issues?
Other then the normal issues associated with mud and chains, we have not. Any chance we get, we clean the bikes, lubricate them, and make sure everything is running properly. We have not come across any bike shops along the route, which is a little unnerving, but there should be plenty once we get to Colorado.
Any other scares along the way?
Our biggest scares have been with dogs. A couple days ago, we turned the corner, heard some gun shots, and saw a pit bull running toward us. We normally get the jump, on dogs and can sprint away from them with no problem. That, or dismount our bikes, put our bikes between us and the dog, and that usually sends a strong enough message that we are humans and they back off. Nothing was working with this dog and he was essentially blocking us from riding down the road. In addition, the owners didn’t seem to care, and continued their target practice which made things a little more intense. Tom swung his bike to block the dog, and I took off as fast as I could, then Tom came right after me. We had to sprint for a mile to drop this dog and our hearts were racing.
Anything you wish you’d brought along? Anything you wish you’d left behind?
We traded our extra camera for our Boombotix when my parents visited us in Tennessee. Tom was running out of tunes to sing to me on the road…
So far you’ve been primarily in the south; has the southern hospitality measured up to your expectations?
It depends on the town. Some areas have been the pinnacle of southern hospitality where others are full of big trucks flying confederate flags. Outside of some funny looks, we have gotten along with everybody.
On sections where there have been cars, have the drivers been courteous?
We had a lot of issues with drivers in North Carolina, but none since then.
What have been your staple meals? Any favorite southern delicacies along the way?
Mashed potatoes, beens, cornbread, chicken, fried catfish, turnip greens, and recently barbeque. We eat oatmeal for breakfast! We eat what we can find.
Has the ‘off-road’ title of the TAT lived up to it’s name after 1,500 miles; what’s the percentage of unpaved road surface?
Yes. Since Western Tennnesse the route has been primarily gravel and dirt roads. My guess at a percentage of unpaved roads since that point is 85-90%
It’s been a tremendously hot August; how have you been coping with the heat?
Our first week in North Carolina was very very hot and it definitely slowed us down and made us really tired. Since then, it seems like we have been getting a lot of rain which has been keeping the temperatures at bay. We always stop in the shade.
Is there any particular gear you are using that has impressed, over and above?
We are using the Mr. Fusion rack system in more ways than we ever imagined, to get groceries, pizza, beer, and deliveries from USPS. We are also really enjoying the simplicity of our cooking set up with the Vargo Triad stove, coupled with the Vargo Hexagon wood stove as a wind screen/pot stand.