Internal Detours
Saturday, March 25, 2006
  a saturday fixed-gear ride without rain

It just wasn't natural. It was a Saturday, Ainsley and I were both riding fixed-gears, and it wasn't raining. True to form, we got off to a later start than we planned, thanks to a balky front tire and a runaway chainring bolt. We went out via the rail trail to Wisewood and rode over to Scotch Cross and thence to Rock House Road.

We weren't in a hurry. I stopped to take a picture of a blue heron hanging out at a farm pond - no dice, before I could switch the camera on, he spotted me and took off. About a mile later there was another pond with what looked like the same heron. I stopped, admired his profile against the water and switched on the camera. By the time it came on and was in place, he'd taken off.

"I need to stop for a nature break," Ainsley said.

"How about we hold on till we get to the Rock House?" I said. He agreed, and moments later the big grey ruin materialized on our right.

The Rock House is an institution in Greenwood County. According to legend, a man lost his wife and child to a house fire. He decided he would build a house with nothing flammable in its construction. Before it was finished, the story goes, he himself died when a fire consumed the shack he was living in while building the Rock House. Peripheral tales involve coins left on a nearby bridge always disappearing on the return trip, apparitions, and such.

The truth is at least as interesting. According to a 1940 article in a Lander College (now University) publication, a Mr. Tolbert built the place in the 1920s - and never lived in it. It was built as a fire proof warehouse for family antiques. Sometime between then and the late 1950s, it was abandoned, and the legend began to spread through high school and college students visiting the empty structure late at night.

We dismounted to clear the ditch. Ainsley rode in closer while I took a couple of pictures. A minute later I went nearer to the house. I've ridden by the place several times over the last few years, but I hadn't been this close to it since 1991, when a bunch of us who really were in no condition to drive came out late one night. For the first time, I saw where the door lintel read "Tolbert 1922." Ainsley rode out to the road on a trail he spotted from the house. I rode back out the way I came in, then had a stupid moment and thought I could clear the ditch. No dice. The front wheel stopped, and I was poised for a moment, hanging in mid-air. I kicked out of the toeclips about the time I fell. I lay in the ditch for a moment, then got to my feet.

"Damn," I said. "I thought I could make it. Don't suppose you got a picture of that?"

"No," Ainsley said. "The best moment really was right before you got out of the toeclips. You looked like you were about to do a face-plant."

We rode further, making the right turn onto Dendy Bridge, our first dirt road of the day. I stopped and took my windbreaker off, and we sorted out which track line was smoother. A large Malemute came bounding across a yard towards us, but he didn't bark and he stopped at the edge of his yard.

"The last time I rode this way, I saw a couple of deer on the road," I said.

"Well, they're out here," Ainsley said. He was to prove prophetic. A minute later he was telling me about how he'd barely missed a Carolina Anole that had been sunning itself in the road. When I looked confused, he said, "We call those chameleons around here," he said.

We passed Indian Road and emerged on Highway 221, then hooked a right onto Cedar Grove. I've been through Bradley, SC more times than I can ever count, but this was the first time I'd been down this road. A guy wearing a hat and overalls was doing something to a truck engine as we approached. He called out to us, wanting to know where we'd started and where we were going, in a way that suggested he'd had a malt liquor for breakfast. We gave vaguely friendly answers and rode on.

Watson Hill Road is dirt, and initially goes between privately owned tracts before heading into wildlife management land. There had been some clear-cutting on some tracts; on another, stern "no trespassing" signs warned all to stay clear of the funky trailer and hut compound on the left.

The road surface revealed motor vehicles had been down the road since the last rains. Twice, I felt the side of my front tire butt up against muddy crusts that almost brought me down before my wheel broke through. It was just like going off a road, then trying to get back on it and not quite making it. I steered more carefully into the center of the tire tracks.

We hit a long straightaway, and I looked up in time to see a doe bound across the road. I thought about getting a photo of her inevitable companion and started reaching for the pencam on the lanyard around my neck. Too late - the second deer bounded across the road and into the woods.

"I was kind of expecting that," Ainsley said. "When you see one, you can figure a second one will be along. Let's hope that if there's a third one, he doesn't run into us."

We negotiated a steep descent and crossed the bridge. I looked up at the climb ahead and said, "Can you say 'walk?'"

"Well, yeah, I suppose that IS an option," Ainsley said. "Rather not think about it, though."

It was steep. We got up the hill, him standing, me getting down into the drops and slowly turning the 67-in gear. Part of me wanted to get a shot of that fast drop, bridge, climb and turn, but the thought of resuming that climb from midpoint deterred me. Better to keep going.

Soon after, I stopped to take a photo of a tree that was just too cool. Then Ainsley found a dragonfly that had come out and found it too cold to fly. We took photos of him, too, and set him on a branch in the sun, hoping he'd warm up and fly off. He didn't want to let go of Ainsley's hand, no doubt finding human body temperature much more to his liking than that of a cold stick.

At the rocks, we took some more pictures, then left the dirt road for the bumpy macadam of Cedar Spring Road. Sumter Forest Road, the route to Troy, beckoned, but we saved it for another day. Instead, we cut through Promised Land and worked our way back to Greenwood on the now-familiar White Hall and Briarwood Roads.

My cycle computer read 41.2 miles at the end of the ride. We'd taken it easy, and added another batch of dirt roads to our fixed-gear repertoire. And it hadn't rained.
This is the first time that I've heard/read any real history about the Rock House. And its the first time that I've seen it. I was always too chicken to walk to it. After hearing that it was the site of witchcraft parties and a haunt for drug dealers, I was content with the view from the roadside.
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