“You gotta brace yourself for a fall,” Nathan Fluellen, my mountain biking guide, said as we drove along a winding two-lane highway just outside of Atlanta. We were on our way to a trail at the upper part of the Chattahoochee river. Nathan was chasing the perfect mountain biking experience. I was just chasing a fun adventure.
“Brace yourself and be careful,” he said. It’s the kind of thing that could have been a throwaway line, but in hindsight feels prophetic and ominous. Hours later — as I was thrown head first off of my bike while flying down a hill — I’d remember that moment.
I’d been to Atlanta before and know it as a beautiful, thriving, multi-cultural place — but until this trip, the rest of Georgia was a bit of a mystery to me. I wasn’t so sure what I’d find outside of the city center, but I expected to be impressed. After spending most of November and December traveling the country looking for adventures, I’ve discovered that our great nation has a whole lot of beauty to offer.
Heading a few hours outside of the ATL — to where city fades and deep, country woods take over — definitely felt out of my comfort zone. Hopping on a bike and tearing down a trail certainly sounds fun, but it’s not something I spend much time doing at home in Los Angeles. Luckily, I knew I was in good hands. My aforementioned guide, Nathan Fluellen, has been all over the globe and he’s always got a mountain bike with him. In fact, “Wordwide Nate” just recently finished filming a travel show in Africa and sure enough, he found a way to get some pedaling in during the shoot.
As we readied our bikes, Nate explained that he’s constantly seeking what he calls a “back pocket adventure.” That’s the kind of adventure where you don’t need to get on a plane or take a week off of work. It’s an adventure that’s right nearby where you live, one that you keep in your back pocket to do when you have a few spare hours and need to reconnect with nature. Something that’s near your city but feels a world away from your personal set of experiences.
According to Nate, it’s these adventures that “give you a zest for life.”
We headed a couple of hours away to the town of Helen, Georgia. Nate had heard that the woods near Helen, only a short drive from Atlanta, have some of the best biking in the country.
The town of Helen was… weird. But I mean that in the best possible sense. It’s an elaborate, German-themed Alpine village, complete with a Bavarian square smack in the middle of the deep south. It doesn’t just feel like you’ve left Atlanta, it feels like you’ve stepped into an alternate universe. In the 1960’s, in an attempt to lure tourists, Helen traded biscuits and gravy for bratwurst and boots of beer. The result is a town that feels like you’re forever in a vacation wonderland.
Considering that the food in Helen is incredible and the people were impossibly kind, I was down to hang out there for a while. Alas, we weren’t in the area for civilization. After a snack and some light sightseeing, it was time to hit the trails.
I know how to ride a bike, but mountain biking turns the intensity up to 100. After picking out our bikes at Woody’s bike shop, we rode up to a trail head. Being from L.A. where many trails are littered with people, dogs, and a gaggle of tourists trying to catch a glimpse of their favorite celebrity, I expected it to be packed with bikes. But the trail was basically untouched. The isolating thickness and silence of the forest made it feel like a secret spot just for us. Light streamed onto the tightly-packed dirt, that distinct pine smell wafted through the air, and I felt a charge of adrenaline. We were off, and fast.
Whatever my current mountain biking skill is, I’ll say this: Our trail was not easy. It was was packed with rocks, roots, and bumps along the river that could send you flying with little warning. The grade of the inclines was steep. My legs were burning as I powered my way up hills. The handles of the bike whipped back and forth as I careened down. My tires slipped in the mud, and it took everything I had at a few points to stay upright.
It took concentration at first, but after awhile, as we voyaged deeper into the lush woods — brown and green speeding past in a blur — I began to get the hang of it. I let my mind wander. It felt like the city was really far away. Even though I was going fast, catching air at every bump, my stomach leaping and my heart racing, there was a kind of stillness in me. The cool, soft breeze, the sound of the leaves crunching under my wheels, the smell of dirt through the babbling of the river… it became almost a meditative experience.
Big revelation: You can’t check your twitter feed or emails when you’re concentrating on not wiping out. You can’t distract yourself when all you have to listen to is your own rhythmic breathing. Instead, I found myself looking at my surroundings. Really looking. And for the first time in awhile, I was totally present in the moment, and with myself.
It wasn’t too long before I was having a blast. Mountain biking is just a hell of a lot of fun. The thrill of going down the hills, the wildness of it all — just flying, and popping wheelies over obstacles — it makes you feel like a kid again. And not a very responsible one. You feel invincible.
Which is why I found myself flying down this mountain, going a little too fast. And before I knew it, boom. Time was stopping. Or more literally, the bike was stopping, but I was still going, flying over the handlebars and tumbling onto the wet, cold ground. Then time caught up, as my body slammed hard onto the dirt.
I took a quick inventory of my limbs. I was just a bit bruised up. I’m not going to say it didn’t hurt a little, but it was worth the cost of admission for the fun, the scenery, and the company. The bike, on the other hand, was wrecked.
Even with the wrecked (but insured!) bike, I finished the day wondering why I don’t find the time to go biking at home. LA has its fair share of hills, canyons, and mountains. But with everything I do in my day to day, I often make excuses. I begin to believe that I truly have no time. My month of Uproxx GPS adventures has helped me realize that you have to make time. Can’t everyone find a few spare hours if they make it a priority?
We get lost in cities, our day to day becomes monotonous and exhaustively busy. We go, go, go and find ourselves toiling away in wait for one to two weeks of vacation a year. But we don’t need to contain our connection to nature and adventure to large swaths of time. There are all kinds of (as Nate says) “back pocket” adventures right at our fingertips — just an hour or two away, waiting to be discovered. This is a beautiful country, and we have everything. We have forests, beaches, and deserts. We have it all if only you take just a couple of hours to look. Who knows, you might have some fun along the way. Even if you crash. Or, actually, especially if you crash. That’s when you know the adventure has been epic, and the stories you bring back, that much better.