Last August, my friend James competed in and won the Trans-North Georgia (TNGA), a three-hundred-twenty-mile mountain bike race. As its name suggests, the TNGA begins on the South Carolina side of a bridge over the Chattooga River, crosses the Chattahoochee National Forest and the Cohutta Wilderness, and finishes under a green road sign that reads Welcome to Sweet Home Alabama—Governor Robert Bentley. The start and the finish are different from almost all points in between in that they are flat and paved. Riders spend most of the race climbing and descending nearly ninety thousand feet of double-track dirt and gravel trail. I was the only person to congratulate James upon finishing, because there isn’t any award ceremony. Completing the race is the trophy. When you’re done, you turn off your GPS and go home.
Starting at eight in the morning, James biked for the first twenty-four hours straight: one hundred and sixty-five miles without a break. He slept for an hour next to a barn in the town of Cherry Log and then biked for almost another full day, finishing in forty-seven hours. When I met him at the state line, it was just past dawn, and he was hallucinating. He was convinced that his water bottle was actually a gas tank—that the fluid was for the bike, not him. In the night, he was sure he’d seen bears and snakes crossing his path. But this was his third year doing the race, and he was unfazed by his altered state. “I enjoy it when it’s mild,” he said later about the tricks his eyes play on him. “It’s fun to sit back and see what your mind can come up with.”
No book has imagined the North Georgia terrain James traversed quite as lushly, and as luridly, as James Dickey’s novel Deliverance, which follows a nightmare canoe trip down the fictional Cahulawassee River. (The 1972 movie version was filmed on the Chattooga.) On the ride home, as I took in the scenery, I asked James if he’d seen the movie. He’d been drifting in and out of sleep, but with unopened eyes he smiled and said, “Now squeal, like a pig!” I took that as a yes.
That line comes from Ned Beatty’s notorious male-rape scene, the movie’s most famous and traumatic moment. The novel is arguably Dickey’s best-known work; however, his literary reputation is built on his excellent poetry (his collection Buckdancer’s Choice won the 1966 National Book Award). So it might come as no surprise that the best parts of Deliverance are its descriptive flights. Dickey describes the southern forests, for example, using the same “solid, purposeful English” that critic Joseph Bennett praised in Buckdancer’s Choice: “It was a warm day. Everything was green, and through the green was the subtle gold-coming color that made the green hurt to look at.” Later, Dickey’s language, though still plain and direct, begins to distort reality. When Ed Gentry, the narrator, climbs a sheer cliff in the night to ambush a murderous hillbilly stalker, he suffers a near-hallucination: “I talked to my hands continually, and to every stone I came to, for they were all standing out in my face with beautiful clarity.” Like James during his bike race, Ed enjoys his break with rational perception, savoring the frayed boundary between his interior self and the world. Ed doesn’t merely go native before murdering his would-be hunter, he goes wild.
While James dozed in the passenger seat, I pictured him pushing through Dalton up onto the spine of the Pinhoti Trail during the race’s second night, tripping on exhaustion. He looked content now, and a line from Deliverance came to mind, one of Ed’s first thoughts upon his safe return to civilization: “My hurt was good in the midst of the general unhurt.”