This was supposed to be a story about an escape from the cold. "Head south, my friends
," was what I had planned to write as the long weekend at Mulberry Gap approached. The dreaded Polar Vortex had other plans and quickly put an end to my dreams of an extended indian summer. Surely, I reckoned, the mountain town of Ellijay, Georgia, is far enough south for me to avoid the icy grip of this nasty weather pattern. Well, it surely wasn't. But this trip had been a long time coming and I wasn't going to let unseasonably chilly temps dampen my spirit. Or the 13 hour drive.
After a trek that began at 9:00 am and ended sometime after 10:00 pm, I pulled up the steep drive towards the office and dining lodge of the mountain bike getaway and found a note with the keys to my cabin and a map of the property's layout. It was late, dark and cold and I was eager to unload my gear and rest my eyes. I opened the door of the cabin to a warm, clean and well appointed space and felt the stress of the long journey begin to melt away. As I settled in, I rejoiced as I spotted the WiFi router in the cabin. 20 minutes later I was in bed, having just watched Remy burn Whistler for what may have been the 30th time before dozing off while visions of leg thrashing climbs and eye watering descents danced in my head.
It must have taken all of three minutes for any lingering tension from the previous day's travel to melt completely away upon waking in the morning, and this was well before I took my first sip of coffee. Stepping outside I discovered that yes, it was indeed still chilly. But there was a brilliant sun burning through the canopy of tall, old growth trees and a bluebird sky there to greet the day as well. On either side of the cabin rose steep ridges, confirming our place in the highlands of northwest Georgia. Directly in front of the cabin a modest stream trickled down the mountainside, opening up into a small fishpond before resuming its journey downward to join forces with Holly Creek and eventually the Conasauga River near the Tennessee border. This place is stunning. A look down the drive towards the other cabins showed several other riders getting themselves and their things together throughout their various states of wakefulness. Breakfast would follow shortly and would not only present the opportunity to fuel up, but to also meet the people behind Mulberry Gap and to learn more about the history of this corner of the southeast.
Thick, Belgian waffles, sausages, cheddar grits, scrambled eggs, bottomless cups of coffee and more are all a part of the welcoming committee to the riders who are calling this place "home
" for the weekend. Throughout the weekend, breakfasts included french toast, pancakes, fried potatoes, fresh fruit, biscuits, and, of course, bottomless cups of coffee. For most of the year, except when conditions prohibit, the home cooked food served at Mulberry Gap is farm-to-table and as organic as possible. Breakfast is where I would finally have the opportunity to meet the crew as well.
As it turns out, Mulberry Gap is truly a family affair. "All of this was kind of an accident, to be brutally honest with you," said Kate Gates, one of the four full time employees here. "I think Ginni and Diane’s original plan involved a women’s wellness center. That was their first thought. I think that they had a lot of ideas in general, so they just kind of opened it up to anyone who wanted to spend time on the trail system. Over time, mountain bikers just became our clientele."
The aforementioned Ginni and Diane are the mothers of Kate and her husband, Andrew Gates. Together, the couple along with their respective moms have been running Mulberry Gap for close to a decade. The Florida natives purchased what was at the time a family retreat belonging to the Mitchell family of Dalton, GA, and immediately set about the transformative processes. Ginni Taylor, the primary culprit for the amazing food found here, remembers originally searching for a small plot of land for her son and Kate, who were just teenagers at the time, to enjoy the outdoors and rip around on their ATV's. "We were actually looking for a tiny cabin so we could bring the kids up to ride their 4-wheelers. We found this place and fell in love with it."
However, almost immediately after purchasing the property, the market crashed and the two families were left facing an uncertain future with their suddenly fragile investment. Consequently, what was originally planned as a retreat for their own families became the foundation for a unique business model. "We realized that if we were going to buy something this expensive and big, well then we needed to figure out a way to make some money here. We started out just opening it up for people who wanted to spend some time outdoors. We put in a bathhouse and some amenities and gradually it just seemed like the mountain bikers were the ones who spent the most amount of time here. So in year two we made it a 'mountain bike getaway' and we’ve never looked back. Some folks told us not to do it but we just loved the mountain bikers and decided to focus in on their needs."
Over time those needs have turned into the construction and renovation of numerous bathhouses, rustic cabins and the conversion of what was once a horse and mule barn into the beautiful dining lodge the meals are served in. There are a number of other touches as well, from the bike wash and tool stand next to the cabins, to the unfinished hardwood floors in most of the buildings of the property so that no one has to worry when walking around in their mountain bike shoes. Of course, beer and wine is sold in the main office and shuttle services are available seven days a week. In fact, the US Forest Service has finally approved Mulberry Gap's application for guided mountain bike tours of the region, something that Andrew in particular is excited to develop. "I’m basically the only guy here, so anything that involves manual labor, construction, repair and stuff like that I’m responsible for. Whether it’s building a cabin or finishing out this place (dining hall), I pretty much do it all. We did just get approval from the Forest Service to start leading guided rides, so we’re going to start offering multi-day tours in the spring. That is going to be great because it gets me out of doing some of this stuff and allows for me spend more time on my bike."
All four of them credit mountain biking for being the driving force behind this place. "Instead of us going after the market, the market just kind of chose us," Kate notes. "We just kind of built up a family around that. A lot of the people who were here from day one have continued to come back. We’ve seen them get married, have kids and are now bringing their
kids here. Over the past eight years it’s slowly evolved to where it is now. As we see the needs of our guests, we make the necessary changes to our property and the way we do business." Kate acknowledged one rider in particular who has been an integral part of the success they've seen here. "The Pinhoti trails were already here when we got started. Mike Palmeri, the owner of Cartacay Bike Shop, was a big advocate for this place from the start. He saw a lot of potential here. He did a lot of the original Pinhoti trail building 20 years ago."
Mike Palmeri is a big man. When you shake his hand, bring your A-game. The BMX hall-of-famer is one of the most passionate, vocal and genuine guys you could ever hope to meet and as we spent time discussing the trails we were riding and the scene in and around Mulberry Gap, it was clear to me that his primary goal is to create as much access as is humanly possible for mountain bikers. "We’re always fighting to get more trails," Mike says. "Right now, the hikers have access to over 800 miles of trail in the 500,000 acre forest service area. Mountain bikers have about 120. The largest user group is the mountain bikers. So we want some damn trails. We show them our volunteer hours versus all of the other user groups and we’re doing 80% of the work around here." Mike's shop was recently named one of the top 100 bike shops in the country by the National Bicycle Dealers Association and in no small part due to tireless work of Mike and his fellow trail advocates.
"Without the trails, there’s nobody riding and we’re not in business," Mike says. When the dude is talking about his trails, you can't help but be simultaneously captivated and terrified of his passion. "So here’s where I get kind of serious with all of this. The advocates and volunteers who are building these trails work with the land managers - there are 4 different land managers up here - and we work with them all right up to the governor of Georgia. The governor’s office calls our bike shop. They call looking for my wife (newly appointed employee of IMBA) because we just got something written about us in the Mountain Bike Action magazine. So we sent them a copy of the magazine, because Ellijay is considered the mountain bike capital of Georgia. It took me two years to establish that. I had to have letters from different mountain bike clubs from a few different states. There’s 159 counties in the State of Georgia and they had to vote to approve that designation. We went down there and met with the speaker of the house, who happens to be from Ellijay. He lobbied to help us get that designation.
"But, Ellijay is also designated as the Apple Capital of Georgia. Well, we still don’t have a sign on the highway calling us the 'Mountain Bike Capital of Georgia' because the apple farmers don’t want to share a damn sign with us. This has been going on for 6 years. The local commissioners are good old boys and they wouldn’t help us out. Even though we’re bringing a lot of money into the community everyday. The vote came up this past year for the commissioners. Most of these guys are homegrown boys but this year all three of them got knocked out. Their replacements were out of state transplants who came into the bike shop needing votes. I told them, 'You want our vote? Let’s hear your plan.' The previous commissioners never had a plan, they just wanted to take care of themselves and their pals. These guys had a plan of action and they understand that tourism is an industry and it is going to have to be our biggest industry because there’s just nothing else going on here.
'We have trout fishing, hunting, kayaking, hiking and of course, mountain biking. The three new guys got that. So I told them that we’d help them as much as possible and rally the troops, but when they get into office and they have their first big meeting in 2015, I’m going to be there saying to get our damn signs up. Well, they got in and right afterwards they all showed up at the bike shop saying that they were here to help. They want to help with trail maintenance to see what it takes to keep all of this up and to keep bringing people here. So they’ll be at the big trail day we do every March to really have an idea as to what we’re doing." Amen, brother.
|It definitely takes up a lot of our time and has been a huge adjustment. You have to love what you do when you make this kind of sacrifice. - Diane Kepley|
The next few days saw a mix of conditions; from sunny and cold with dry trails to warmer and rainy, with greasy, leaf covered singletrack. All of it was awesome and all of it took work. The hills in and around Mulberry Gap aren't as big as some of the others you'll find in the southern Appalachians, but they're big enough. From the front step of your cabin, you have immediate access to upwards of 80 miles of singletrack, 25 miles of which is the famed Pinhoti Trail. A point-to-point trail often broken down and ridden in sections, the Pinhoti climbs over 4700 feet and descends 7300 feet. While you won't find much in the way of drops, jumps and classically gnarly riding, the remoteness of the region along with the speed of the trails and repercussions of a mistake (see: falling several hundred feet down into ravine around most corners) makes for more than enough fun. Gnarly options do exist on the neighboring Fort Mountain and WIndy Gap trails, with plans to put quite a bit more in over the next 5 years.
Despite the damp and cool conditions, I found myself grinning ear-to-ear when I wasn't grunting my way up an hour long climb. Hell, even then I was pretty stoked. During breaks, we'd discuss a number of topics; from the resurgence of the mountain lion in these parts, to the growing southeast enduro race scene, to even how awesome Sprinter vans are. There was such a relaxed and easy feel with this crew and the effect beguiled the fact that the rides we were partaking in were epic efforts. Several hours up and several hours down the mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forest; and the 10 acre parcel of Mulberry Gap sits squarely in the middle of it all.
The beauty of a place like this and the people who have made it was it is today is that because mountain biking brought them
in; there are no false pretenses when it comes to how they treat their clientele. There is an authenticity and genuine nature that gives this place its charm. There's no bro/bruh/brah talk to be found; just polite people with a great sense of humor and an earnest desire to make you feel at home when you're here. Diane Kepley puts it this way: "We used to travel quite a bit, but now we’re really committed to this. It definitely takes up a lot of our time and has been a huge adjustment. You have to love what you do when you make this kind of sacrifice. One of the cool things is that so many of the folks who come here to visit are already adventurous by nature and they share their stories with us. So we get to live vicariously through them sometimes. It’s hard to explain to people what they’re going to get here, so they just have to come experience it for themselves."
That experience, for me, was eye opening. It was fantastic to witness people who were new to the sport meander down the trails, happy to pull off to the side as you ride by and even cheer when you pop off a small lip right in front of them. Or when you spend some time with three dads who were chomping at the bit to have a few days with their pals to ride some sweet trails and engage in some harmless shenanigans for a few nights. Maybe one of those dads decides to bring a bottle of Zacapa rum and things get a little fuzzy for everyone afterwards. Or maybe you're a young bike shop couple from Richmond, VA here to soak in and share as much stoke as possible for a weekend before heading home to do more of the same. Perhaps you're a sales consultant for a library and you've brought your son and his pal for a weekend of shuttle runs because sure, your kid
loves this stuff, but so do you
. When you are visiting a place that sees itself as a home away from home, the people you're there with become extended family, if only for a few days.
For Kate and the others who do actually call Mulberry Gap home, the family affair goes beyond the four of them. "The sense of community here is awesome," she says. "With the holidays coming up, we have a lot of people who have family that are too far away. So instead of traveling, they just come here. We don’t get to spend Thanksgiving with our full families either, but we do get to spend it with a different kind of family here. It’s great to be your own boss and it can kind of feel like you're hanging out with your best friends every weekend. You might not know everyone, but you build connections here. It’s a community that just can’t be replaced."
When I arrived at Mulberry Gap, I was tired and grumpy. When I left Mulberry Gap, I was refreshed, full and wanted to stay and keep playing. This family has done something pretty spectacular; they took a risk on a beautiful and rugged property in the mountains of northwest Georgia and when the mountain bike community extended its metaphorical hand for a shake, Ginni, Diane, Andrew and Kate went in for a big bear hug instead. Mountain bikers have loved this place from the beginning and as a result, Mulberry Gap has been working tirelessly to make it better for us on a daily basis. These guys certainly aren't getting rich catering to our crowd either; it's rather telling that the thing that keeps this operation moving forward, above all other factors, is the stoke and passion of the riders who pay them a visit. Do yourself a favor and plan a trip to Mulberry Gap. It's about more than just a slice of southern hospitality, some rad trails and being around like-minded folks who are seeking a departure from the norm. It's also about returning the favor. When you do make it down this northwest corner of the Peach State, bring your bike, your stoke, an empty stomach and, if you're feeling generous, a bottle of Zacapa. Bring it all. Just leave the bro/bruh/brah talk behind. You're most certainly not going to be needing it.Click here for some additional photos from the story.Click here for more information about Mulberry Gap.Click here to check out Cartecay Bike Shop.