BRAG 2004: June 12 to June 19, Toccoa to Tybee Island, 1,800 riders, 400 miles on two skinny tires.
It's an adventure.
It all started around 2 p.m on June 12 -- a sultry Saturday afternoon -- as Bob and I pulled into the Toccoa Falls College campus and wound our way through the event registration area. We parked on a strip of grass up a hill in a residential neighborhood past the campus and were immediately flagged down by a campus security guard who warned us not to camp on that spot. We promised we wouldn't and strolled back to check-in where we picked up the necessary maps and meal tickets, watched a safety video, and roamed the parking-lot open market.
Five a.m. Sunday morning, day one of the ride, came too soon. Bob and I had stayed 25 minutes south in Lavonia and had to return to Toccoa to begin the ride. When we pulled on campus in the pre-dawn darkness, bikers were already on their way. No one rings a bell to start the ride; each person leaves when ready and rides at a comfortable pace. BRAG does require a flashing light on the back of the bike for riders who begin before dawn, and common sense dictates a slower pace, but many riders choose to leave early to beat the heat -- or for the first half of the week, the rains.
We parked the car and found the two semi-trucks that ferried the luggage from one stop to the next. I walked up the gangplank with my two pieces of luggage weighing 35 pounds and tossed them onto the growing pile of bundles. One piece of my luggage included a full-sized blowup mattress and a battery operated pump, sheets, two linen dishtowels for showers (who really needs more?), and enough clothes for only two days since I'd be back home on Monday night. My second piece of luggage was a beach chair with my pillow stuffed inside the sack.
I was going to ride the first half of the journey alone; Bob opted out of the first three days: "I know my Georgia geography; I know where the coastal plains start. I'll meet you there."
Thus, at approximately 7 a.m., after the repair of a flat tire thankfully before leaving the parking lot, I began my adventure, following the white BRAG markers blazed on the street at every intersection of the route.
Although more than 1,800 riders traveled the same path, I chose to ride alone on Sunday. Part of a journey like this (at least for me) is spiritual -- an outward, physical expression of the joy of living and the gratitude for a healthy body and mind. So it was on Sunday morning, challenged by the long hills, surrounded by abundant, fecund life, synchronized in body, mind, and spirit, that I began my trek singing silent songs of praise to the great Creator.
Every 10 to 15 miles is a rest stop set up at a country church or a venue with a large lawn and a water source. Volunteers man these most welcome oases, filling water coolers, making Powerade, and setting out cookies, peanut butter, crackers, and fruit. Each stop has a row of port-a-potties and an ingenious row of spigots for hand washing.
Saturday, at Elberton when I arrived around 11 a.m., camp life was already in motion. Hundreds of tents were springing up on the campus lawns while the semis, retail trucks, and motor homes filled the parking lots. Inside the gym where indoor campers bunked, the floor was half full of sleeping bags, air mattresses, collapsible chairs, and upturned bikes.
A break from the road
I spread out my flat mattress and pumped it to its luxurious six-inch thickness as my 74-year-old neighbor rolled out a thin camping mat and a sleeping bag. By the end of the afternoon the last riders totally filled the gym floor with equipment, and the sounds of friendly chatter, soft music, and even snores rose from the tangle of bedclothes and bikes.
In the afternoon, bikers gravitate to the shower truck, a semi-tractor trailer containing sixteen shower stalls that hooks up to a fire hydrant on the school campus.
Men and women have a waiting area on opposite ends of the truck and since the ride's population has many more men than women, the men's wait time for the shower was much longer than the women's. A hot shower after fifty-four miles of very hilly terrain is an indescribably delicious experience!
Almost every town in which we stayed provided some kind of entertainment. Elberton, on Sunday, entertained us for an entire afternoon and evening with a motorcycle "beauty contest" -- the proceeds going to the city's Relay for Life effort, a performance of the hilarious musical Smoke on the Mountain (pay per view), and the high-energy Tams from Atlanta.
On Monday night, we camped at Thomson High School where Jesse Morlan and the Band Boosters treated us to real southern hospitality and excellent eats. The Cross Tie Walkers gave 45 minutes of an exciting open-air performance before inclement weather stopped the show. Tuesday night (Waynesboro), a goofy skit, "Moonbase Planetarium," produced by the ride emcee, included intergalactic fireworks. On Thursday night (Metter), riders touted their talents other than bike riding in an all-ages and very funny talent show. Only South Effingham left us to fend for ourselves, and campers quickly settled in with their long abandoned books.
BRAG takes all kinds
BRAG is not a race; it's a ride, and many different kinds of people make the journey. Certainly, many of the riders are sleek and fast, devouring the pavement in a pace line, their bike wheels inches apart, bodies low, feet strumming the pedals in a rapid cadence as the line glides noiselessly by on the left.
Most of the riders, however, are of a slower ilk. I saw a family of three on a triple tandem, the tot on the middle seat. I passed parents herding two or three young riders like ducks protecting ducklings. At least two men completed the 400 miles on roller blades. Steve, my seventy-four year old bunk neighbor from Elberton had ridden 900 miles in Alaska several years ago. Sharon, mother of two, lost 54 pounds since Christmas riding her bike and dieting and decided to celebrate on BRAG. Joe, a smooth-faced, slight, 14-year-old from Tarpon Springs, Florida rode alone, but his mother met him at every rest stop. In fact, many riders had family members who met them at the schools and joined in the camp activities.
Adding to the fold
Bob, my husband, began his BRAG adventure on Thursday, in the flat lands. By that time Sharon and I had started riding together, saving energy and cutting our time. On Friday, we convinced Steve to join us for a foursome, and we spent the last day and a half energizing each other as we headed into the wind toward Tybee Island.
After Bob purchased a blinking red light on Friday, we eased out into the darkness at 5:20 a.m. Saturday morning, hoping to avoid the heat. Crossing the causeway to Tybee Island I felt a huge pang of sadness that the ride was over, that the test of our mettle would become the speed of the lawn mower or the paint color for the basement that the four musketeers would head to three points of the compass, in short, that life would return to normal.
But cheering well-wishers on the sides of the road near the lighthouse dissipated any sad thoughts, and headed on to the finish point. We quickly undertook the first order of business: to find a pathway to the beach, prop our bikes against a white picket fence (that probably had a "No Trespassing" sign on it somewhere), shuck our shoes, and dive into the Atlantic Ocean.
Our end-of-the-road lunch in the shadow of the lighthouse was a fitting symbol to end our trip: these 400 miles merely light the way for the next grand adventure, the next celebration of life.