Edible Nostalgia

This Southerner savors his region one ride—and peanut shack—at a time.

Avery Creek is a bit of a mess when we reach the top of the trail, but in a good way. It’s an old school downhill in the heart of Pisgah National Forest, in the mountainous, western corner of North Carolina. It’s basically an eroded, (mostly) dry creek bed with four-foot-high dirt walls on either side and a series of rock drops, crumbling water bars, and sink holes in the middle. Occasionally, you’ll find a stubborn tree growing in the center of the trail which forces you high onto the dirt walls. And that’s the good line.

It’s a little over three miles of fall line downhill, and a classic example of Civilian Conservation Corps trail building. You find trails like this all over Pisgah, as if the CCC were constantly looking for the steepest, fastest way off the mountain. While the local SORBA chapter is working to re-route some of the least sustainable CCC trails (erosion from these older trails wreaks havoc on the fisheries below), Pisgah is still known for its technical, fall line descents, and Avery Creek might be one of the best “heritage” trails still standing. If all goes well on Avery, it’s three miles of puckering, downhill bliss that makes you remember why you started riding bikes in the first place (hint: it makes you feel like a kid).

I don’t have my first aid kit on me, but I do have a flask of bourbon, which practically makes me a doctor.

But if you endo after one of those rock drops, and hit one of those stubborn trees with your elbow and shoulder, like my buddy Jeremiah did on this occasion, Avery is decidedly less fun to ride. When I reach him, he’s lying face down in the dirt, one foot still clipped into his pedal, his bike resting comfortably on top of his back.

“At least your spine broke your bike’s fall,” I tell him as I pull the Cannondale off of his torso.

His elbow is bleeding, and he has a purple lump emerging from his shin. I don’t have my first aid kit on me, but I do have a flask of bourbon, which practically makes me a doctor. We each take a sip from the flask, assessing the lump which is by now turning black. As the doctor, I prescribe scratching the second leg of the descent and heading straight for some boiled peanuts.

If you’re not familiar with the culinary delicacy that is the “boiled peanut,” let me give you the lowdown: take a bunch of green peanuts and boil them for four to 24 hours in salty water. The result is a soft, glorious mess of a snack usually served from roadside shacks in Styrofoam cups. It’s a quintessentially Southern thing.

Behold: The boiled peanut | Photo: jasonlam / CC BY-SA

Nutritionally speaking, boiled peanuts are basically a super food. I have no scientific proof, but hear me out: According to that dancing TV peanut with the monocle, peanuts have gobs of protein. Also carbs, and all the sodium required to replace that lost through sweat-inducing trails. This is meal supplement territory, and because I’m a total health freak, I make sure boiled peanuts are a part of any long mountain bike adventure, either as a mid-ride boost or post-ride recovery snack. (Remember, I’m a doctor.)

The South has given us many things—bourbon, chicken and biscuits, Daisy dukes—but there is no cultural contribution greater than the boiled peanut. It helps to define the region in the same way that cheese curds define Wisconsin or that crab cakes define Maryland. There was a time when you’d find boiled peanut shacks at the intersection of every crossroads below the Mason-Dixon, a ubiquitous part of any road trip.

Even though they started receding from the landscape a couple of decades ago, mountain biking has been my peanut shack lifeline of sorts, largely because of proximity. The deep pockets of the Southern Appalachians which house some of the region’s premiere singletrack are also among the only places you can still find a decent boiled peanut. Pisgah National Forest is so rugged, so removed from the growth in the rest of the South, it acts as a time capsule of sorts—a place where you can still find remnants of a Southern culture rapidly on the decline.

Mountain biking allows me to keep in touch with the Southern customs that are in danger of slipping through our fingers altogether—the stuff worth holding onto tightly.

You can ride past bear hunting shacks and industrial-sized pieces of rusty steel, leftover from when the forest was predominantly used for timber. You’ll hear of hikers and bikers coming across moonshine stills, hidden in a holler. Old timers talk of caves filled with rifles and ammo, stashed by Confederate soldiers at the end of the Civil War. Those ghosts are still in the forests where I ride now.

But what interests me more is how mountain biking allows me to keep in touch with the homey Southern customs that are in danger of slipping through our fingers altogether—the stuff worth holding onto tightly: Passing a jug of ‘shine around the campfire, or ending a ride at a roadside smokehouse, with a plate full of perfectly pulled pork cooked slow, onsite. The trail that drops to the edge of a swimming hole, where a rope swing waits. The route that meanders past back porches where you can find a cold beer, friendly conversation, and “Southern Hospitality” at its finest. The trailhead that’s close enough to a plate of fried chicken and collards that you can smell it cooking.

I think about this as we drive away from the peanut shack on the edge of Pisgah, maybe 10 miles from the bloody patch that Jeremiah left in the center of Avery Creek. The windows are down, and I’m steering with my knees so I can have both hands free to shuck shells. I’m already sticky from the juice that seeps from the shells, and just like on a good bike ride, I feel like a kid again.

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