An early start saw Stef navigating for the first time. This means that he takes the maps and road book (detailed directions) and leads us as quickly as he can along the route. Ideally he tries not to stop at junctions so that we don't waste time, but if he isn't sure where he is both Jon and I have GPS's and he can call for a Lat/Long and check his position against maps we carry. Stef had been a little reluctant to navigate as he was still getting used to the bike and off road riding, but I didn't think he'd have too much trouble. His previous days riding had been good and in terms of falling off he had shown far greater skill than me! We pulled out of the motel and crossed the state line to fuel up before heading off for the days riding.
Coming out of the fuel stop Stef shot off like a torpedo out of a tube and Jon and I followed as best we could, hoping that the off road sections would be a little 'steadier'. Amazingly, Stef didn't stop to be asked or told. Jon and I stopped just long enough to look at each other in amazement, and rode off after him. After 10 minutes my wrist ached from constantly wrapping my hand around the throttle and trying to open it further, the bike was flying along and had begun to get the floating feeling that comes from riding a dirt bike very fast over loose gravel. The steering becomes strangely light and the bike jitters and kicks from left to right. I clamped the tank firmly between my knees, held the handlebars as straight as I could and tried not to think of the speed I was doing as the rev limiter repeatedly cut in. I wasn't happy. The next junction saw Jon and I laughing, probably to release nervous energy, but not for long, Stef was already a dot on the horizon. It became clear we were going to have to catch him and have words!
As it turned out this was easier said than done. Another ten miles saw us hitting some really hideous mud and often the way the bike was pointing had little to do with the direction it was going. At one point I saw Stef exit the track sideways doing at least 50 mph and plough through some trees and foliage. It appeared he had remembered our advice regarding sand and mud riding (get on the footpegs and open the throttle as far as it will go) as the exhaust note blipped, changed to a howl, and he shot out of the grass crossed up sideways the other way. Both him and his bike looked like they had just undergone a camouflage course.
At the next junction he finally stopped. I pulled up along one side of him and Jon the other. I was covered in Mud from a low speed drop and Jon who had been eating mud from my back tyre for the last ten miles didn't look much better. Stef, apart from the bikes new camouflage look, looked relatively clean and quite unperturbed. I looked at Jon and we both started to laugh, this was ridiculous. Stef need to slow down, a lot! When we suggested this to him he said he thought we were going the same speed we had been riding for the last few days! He had been terrified then and he had been absolutely petrified all morning....this was, he informed us, 'quite normal'.
We slowed considerably and continued along ever wetter tracks and finally mud gave way to water. After walking sections of the flooded road we rode nearly 1/2 mile with water up to the middle of our engine casings. My boots were full of swamp water and mud and we had already had a tough morning when our next 200 yard water crossing loomed into view. A quick wade up to knee level showed that a bike crossing was clearly not going to happen, the water was running really quickly and looking nearer to waste deep in the centre of the stream . A quick map session showed a possible way around to the north and a plan was formulated. We set off back down the road we had just ridden turning north at the end. Within minutes we were on a trail that was only recognisable by riding from deep puddle to deep puddle whilst ducking to tank level to avoid trees, it clearly wasn't a well used track! After 25 minutes of fighting forest and water we arrived pretty exhausted at the trail end. It over looked raw swamp in every direction.
Jon had done an outstanding job of riding his huge KTM adventure 640 this far and wasn't too pleased at the prospect of a return trip, but he swatted some mosquito's, turned his bike around and headed back. I soon lost sight of him as I fought my own way back through the undergrowth and deep pools only stopping when I heard the sound of a horn. I immediately stopped my bike and shouted. I got no reply but assumed that Stef was having problems as he had commented earlier that he was finding this trail particularly hard. I propped my bike against a tree and ran back through the heat and sweat haze to find Stef sideways, as usual, with a huge 4ft rooster tail of watery mud being ejected from his back tyre as he fought with another muddy sump pool. 'Hmmmm.....', I thought, ' nothing wrong here then'.
I walked back to my bike and headed further down the trail in the opposite direction to find a very different story with Jon. He had got tired fighting the trees on his 200+kg KTM and had tried to ride the centre of the trail. At 30-40mph he had tried to lift his front wheel over a short puddle by opening the throttle on his bike. The rear had slipped out and the front ploughed downwards. The 'puddle' turned out be the perfect shape to trap a 21' front wheel and had a vertical back wall. Jon went head over the bars hitting a previously broken collarbone on the screen, wrenching a previously broken wrist on his mirror (subsequently abandoned at the evenings motel), and hitting his balls on the wing mirror. Apparently he had tried to reply to my shout but had been unable at the time!
He looked a little annoyed but OK and we fought on toward lunch in a little railroad side cowboy style town. At the petrol stop I noticed an unhealthy flow of red 'liquid' from his bikes' lower front fork region. Initial worries of brake failure were soon dispelled by a little logical thought. It was clear that Jon had blown both his front fork seals when hitting the back wall of the pool. With fork oil all over his brake pads it seemed obvious that the rest of the trail was out for the day, and a KTM dealership was needed!
A local Honda dealership provided us with the information we needed to order the parts and was quite happy to do the work if we stayed in town overnight. The parts could be courier'd to us in the morning to save to a 140 mile ride over to the KTM dealers in Fayetteville.
Jon asked the shop assistant if she knew where there was a motel with a bar nearby, after all it had been an eventful morning. Her reply wasn't good news.
Jon, 'Yes, a bar...'
Assistant (with accent) 'Ther'll be no bar aroun' here, this here is a dry couny'.
Jon looked at me, I looked at Stef, Stef looked at Jon.
Later that night in Clinton over in the next county we sat down to a Mexican feast (normal sized meals without pie are just not available in the states) and reflected on how close a call we had had. We could have been stuck in a dry county for the night.