Finishing Georgia

With 159 counties, Georgia has about 30 counties more than Alabama and Florida combined. In fact, it’s second only to Texas for the most counties in the entire US. This explains why instead of being the second or third state I finished, it ended up being the fourth state despite being the state I ride in the most (behind Alabama). It makes sense, though, because the southeastern parts of Georgia are farther away than almost the entire eastern half of Mississippi and much of the panhandle of Florida – the two states (besides Alabama) that I finished first.

State map of Georgia filled in county-by-county showing all my rides entering Georgia’s rather large bounding box with the three rides from this blog shown in red. The first ride was the large 371 mile one farthest south. The second ride was the 65 mile loop just to the north. And the third ride was only a mile long shown as a tiny dot at the Hancock / Washington border to the northwest of the second ride.

With the start of classes only a few days away, and department meetings during the week, I did not have much time to squeeze this in. In fact, in a perfect world, I would have waited to ride through the remaining 22 counties I was missing in eastern and southeastern Georgia on the way to our Savannah summer vacation spot over the next few years. But, it’s not a perfect world. The hostility I face on the bike is increasing every day. The number of people driving cars is increasing every day. People drive faster and faster as the police’s ability to enforce traffic laws is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of traffic and the “will of the people” demanding higher speeds. You can see where all these paths are heading. There is no guarantee about tomorrow. And to be this close to finishing Georgia, I didn’t want to leave it to chance.

Back to the ride itself, I headed home after an afternoon meeting on Wednesday and went to bed by about 5pm with the goal of leaving the house by about 8pm to try to start riding by 2am (5 hour drive plus timezone change). It was in the low 40s when I pulled off the interstate crossed over to an empty right next to an onramp where a couple trucks were parked. I opted for the edge of the lot (instead of the on-ramp) after double checking to make sure I wasn’t blocking any entrances to a field or farm behind the lot. I got everything ready and headed out dressed for 40 degree weather.

Of course, the actual temperature plummeted down to the mid to lower 30s for the next 100 miles, so I was cold. I stopped about 65 miles in at the first gas station I saw mainly to warm up and drink some coffee as I still had plenty of gatorade left not drinking much in the cold. This helped a lot, but it did push me a little bit farther back into morning rush hour and school traffic heading into the town of Hazelhurst around 630am. Thankfully, there was a small strip of rideable shoulder just to the right of the rumble strip on the 65mph speed limit highway.

The shoulder disappeared completely once I hit the city limits, but I only had a mile or two to ride before I turned left off the busy highway onto a beautiful rolling rural road that still had a decent amount of cars but was much quieter than the busy highway. I watched the sunrise happen in front of me through here, but thankfully there were no close calls with cars … plus, the road I was on changed direction frequently enough that it was unlikely the sun would be directly in front of me during the entire time I was within sight of an approaching car.

Plus, I turned off the nice road and hit a series of excellent super fast dirt roads with traffic dropping immediately to zero. After an unexpectedly long stretch of this, I hit another state highway before turning onto the trickiest of all the dirt roads to ride. It started out soft, but still fast – with an abandoned firetower still standing but with no cab at the top! It was also missing the bottom row of steps – so being pressed for time, I decided not to shimmy up the one rail that was still connected. I think if it had been both rails, I may have done it since you can go up that almost as fast as steps (see the Horseblock fire tower on the Cheaha Challenge route). So I continued on my way down the increasingly narrower and sandier dirt road. Eventually, it turned to double-track that turned quite muddy for a short stretch through a forest before opening up again into the longest stretch of “sugar sand” for the entire ride. This section lasted about 2 miles and involved very careful pedaling while fishtailing the entire way. It was important not to lose my momentum completely b/c I wasn’t sure how feasible it would be to get started again. Plus, I definitely didn’t want to get sand all in my shoes and cleats.

I made it all the way back up to US Highway 301, which I then preceded to ride south on for the next 35 miles down through Jesup. This was a busy road, but good shoulder. It got really busy by the time I made it to Jesup around lunch time. Thankfully it had also expanded to 4 lanes with a bike lane! So despite all the traffic, it was fun to ride through Jesup.

About 10-15 miles past Jesup, I turned northwest on GA-32 to head back up towards some counties I still needed to hit. This was the road that I had parked on, so it was tempting even at this point to think about just heading straight back and chopping 100 miles off the ride. I knew that would mean missing some counties, but I was getting tired 165 miles into the ride and had already started doing some ETA calculations that were in the 3:30-4AM range (it ended up being past 5AM!). Plus, the section of Highway 301 after Jesup had been stressful for about 10-15 miles with a small shoulder and fast cars and trucks.

GA-32 turned out to be a decently quiet highway, though. And so I started enjoying the ride again a lot and scratched that idea fairly quickly. I was on this highway for almost 30 miles before finally hitting the county border … after which I almost immediately turned left onto a bunch of dirt roads heading southwest again trying to beeline through the corner of a few counties towards Valdosta. This was probably my favorite part of the whole ride, despite eventually ending up at a flooded river that I had accidentally charted myself across at a spot where there was no bridge. I gave it a second or two of thought since the whole area was so heavily treed that I wondered how deep the water actually was. But it was moving fast, and I couldn’t see any road/path at all on the other side. So at the risk of failing to make it across or making it but then not even finding a road at all and having to bushwhack for a long ways cold and very wet, I turned around and started to scour the maps for a place I could cross the river with a bridge. Including the out/back section to the dead end at the river, the detour ended up being 14 miles long.

So when I finally made it back onto the route and all the way up to Pearson after sunset as it also started to rain, I thought about heading straight again and forgoing the Valdosta county altogether, which would have saves me at least 50 miles of riding. What helped me stick to the plan, though, was I could see in the fading post-sunset light that it was clearer down south and that I could ride out of the rain … which is exactly what I did.

I was tired and very sleepy by this point having ridden almost 20 hours after driving 5 hours after sleeping for only 2 hours in the afternoon the day before. So I started to slow down quite a bit and ended up stopping at more gas stations than I would have liked. But I was making progress despite the nasty headwind I had been fighting for many, many miles that day. What I didn’t realize is that the relaxing in the headwind that I had been feeling since Pearson was actually a bit of a cross tailwind that would turn into a nasty strong headwind with the arrival of the front bringing the rain … the cold rain.

It started to rain hard as I made my way back north into a very strong headwind. I had a headwind for roughly 75% of this entire ride with the big shift in wind direction coming with the arrival of the rain. Thankfully there were a few unexpected gas stations still open nearing midnight, plus I found shelter at one of the closed ones for a particularly strong outburst of rain. As it turns out, that outburst was the last of the heavy rain, and it was either misting or lightly raining for many miles with stars even showing by the end of the ride, exhausted at about 5am back at the car … 371 miles, 27 hours after I had started.

I had debated about driving to where I was going to start the next ride thinking I’d be wide awake from the summit fever. I was most definitely not wide awake and had no problem at all crawling into the back of my car and sleeping for the next 3 hours.

One ride down, two more rides (and 5 more counties) to go!

I had originally planned a second 200 mile ride to hit the remaining 5 counties. But wet, cold, and exhausted, I plotted out a 65 mile loop that would knock three of the counties off the list (separated by two counties I had already ridden in). I knew that this would be relatively easy to complete as opposed to pulling off a 200 miler less than five hours after finishing a 371 mile hard ride.

This would mean that I would be two counties short, though. But those counties were adjacent to each other and more or less on my drive back home. So all I would have to do would be to drive to the border, park the car with the flashers on, and ride a short distance on either side of the border to make sure my GIS software would pick up these counties. I absolutely do not like doing this, and I will be sure to make up those two counties on my next ride to (or from) Savannah. Still, I didn’t feel too bad about doing that, either, because they were supposed to have already been crossed off the list on a 300 mile ride I had to cut short a couple months earlier.

As I had driven north to start the 65 mile ride, the terrain was quite a bit hillier, which I enjoyed and helped with the saddle sores I was fighting off from having ridden in flat terrain for many hours including a good 25 miles total in the rain near the end. The ride was uneventful other than being windy and cold. I was so happy to finish the ride, though, knowing that only one short ride was left.

And that ride happened about an hour after I finished as I drove even farther north (stopping at the county border south of Sparta, Georgia). Upon finishing, I just had a 4 hour drive left to get home, making it home fairly early in the evening Friday night … almost exactly 48 hours after I had left on Wednesday, having now ridden in all the counties in Georgia plus a southeastern Georgia adventure I will never forget.

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