Saturday, May 26, 2012

Biking the GAP and C&O

I picked up biking 20 years ago after an accident that stopped my running (which I began in 1978 after drinking beer on the Arkansas River).  Washington, DC is a great place for it with lots of trails of varying distances.  Rock Creek is my favorite.  Several years ago I did the C&O Canal from Cumberland to DC, 180 miles in three days.  Sixty miles in one day is pretty much my limit.  I could go more I guess if my life depended upon it but otherwise not.

When I got back from East Timor and read that the bike trail from Pittsburgh to Cumberland - the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) - was now complete, I decided I'd have to try the whole thing back to DC.  This week I did it.  The trail goes through beautiful countryside and towns still struggling to recover from the loss of industry.  The trails followed the routes used for transport between east and west for almost two hundred years of American expansion, industry, agriculture and commerce.  The grade is train, and biker, friendly and the trail uses former train trestles and tunnels.  The trains still run but the goods come from everywhere but there.  The communities along the way have taken to varying degrees to the bikers.  There are bed & breakfasts along the way (and down-home eating too).  It was rivers, woods and the heartland.  A real adventure.

Here follows my daily record and some photos:

May 20: Nice ride, sunny but not too hot. The first several miles were paved trail and streets. I got lost in McKeesport but used my GAP app map to reorient myself and get back to the right path. On the way, saw a beautiful shiny black snake sunning himself on the asphalt, a jumping chipmunk, trains whistling, lots of chungalolos, people canoeing and floating down the Youghiogheny River and Sunday bikers and hikers. The trail, once it reached the old rail bed, ran next to the river and was easy to bike. Didn't really feel like uphill. My double padded seat worked well but my butt still was sore that last ten miles.

After checking in, went to the corner tavern and had an ice cold Bud (on tap) and watched a bit of the Pirates vs Tigers game. Then next door for a slice of pizza. Just spent the last half hour chatting with the nice lady (from Mt Lebanon) who does most of the work for their B&B while her husband mans the reservation desk. She was ironing.

Connellsville on a Monday evening is not much of a place. Wendy's for dinner tonight.

May 21: This is train country. The rail lines follow the river. Last night in Connellsville, they whistled and trundled on through all night, though not a problem for me. I love trains and the sound of trains. They kept me company most of the way to Myersdale and when I entered town, one followed me right in and passed though the middle of town. Reminds me that America still runs on rails.

On the way today, got rained on a bit but Andy's big purple poncho got me through dry if a bit muddy. (I was able to wash my bike when I got to the B&B.)  The Yough is a beautiful river with lots of rapids as it ascends into the mountains.   Passed through Ohiopyle, where we used to go when we were students at Pitt for the natural water slide and running rapids. Never dreamed I'd bike there.

Today I passed scads of scampering chipmunks, a box turtle, billion year old rock formations, outbursts of flowers, and lots of mountain laurel (not blooming yet).

Today was 56 miles and my butt again hurt the last twenty. Tomorrow will be a shorter but spectacular ride.

May 22: Shorter but nice way to complete the GAP. Had a nice breakfast in Myersdale after a night of getting woken and lulled back to sleep by the passing trains. The whistle woke me, the clickity clack sent me back to slumber.

Today the trail followed the river as it became a stream, a creek and finally a group of trickles lost in the moutains. The rail followed until the mountain got just too big. Then the ancient line that became the trail just punched through Savage Mountain. The trail passed over the Easter Continental Divide and then 3300 feet in the tunnel.

On the way passed by the first deer I saw and through wild roses. All along the way the air was delicious. The wild flowers, the deep green smell of the forest and just good clean mountain air. Today it was also honeysuckle and wild roses.

No rain today and even some sun. Tomorrow may be different.

Right now, nursing my second IPA sitting outside in downtown Cumberland.

May 23: Set off from Cumberland in fog this morning but turned out a good ride. No rain and though the trail was a bit wet in places, it was quite bikeable.  

Leaving Cumberland I saw a beautiful beaver duck into the bush. The air was heavy with honey suckle, quite intoxicating. Saw turtles, rabbits and deer along the trail and at one point a pair of crazy kamikaze squirrels jumped me. (No injuries to anyone.) 

The canal took all shapes, with water and without, and sometimes just became something else.  The C&O stopped functioning in 1924. Was being built 100 years before. The most interesting part of the day was walking my bike through the 3118 foot long Paw Paw tunnel built by 1848 to take the canal through a mountain. It is unlit and completely dark in the middle. There is a guard rail but it was kinda spooky walking when you can't see your feet. 

For the last 10 miles, I took a paved rail trail (WMRT) that runs on the other side of the canal. That was a treat. But not as good as the coconut cream pie at Weavers. One reason bikers take long trips is so they can eat pie!

May 24: The ride today was a bit tough. Started with a flat tire just outside of Hancock.  Had a spare tube so it only took me 15 minutes to get underway again. Then I got a bit lost trying to get from the rail trail back to the canal. But the real thing was that it was longer and wetter today. Lots of puddles I just had to go through. 

But a good ride nevertheless. Spoke to another biker camping his way from DC to Pittsburgh and back. He warned me the trail south of Harpers Ferry was really muddy. Also a local guy walking his dog. We wound up trading stories of how we almost drowned in rivers, while watching the Potomac flow by.

Saw turtles, rabbits, deer and chubby little groundhogs. Also squirrels, one of whom looked liked he wanted to bushwhack me. Instead of running away from the big thing on wheels, he ran in front of me to cut me off. Didn't let him bully me though. I rang my bell and pushed on.

Not much honeysuckle today but something that smelled like musky vanilla. Weather forecast aside, no rain but evening thunder now.

After dinner this evening, spoke with a visiting Austrian family that came to Harpers Ferry because the husband saw a picture of the view of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah and liked it.  Also with a young Mennonite couple from Illinois who once lived in Belize. We talked produce, including why we can't get good tomatoes.

May 25: Back to DC, having gone 330 miles in six days. Left Harpers Ferry after a good night sleep – the trains provided their music again – and a hearty breakfast. Spoke with a couple from Seattle that was doing Cleveland to Washington and told them about the W&OD trail. If the C&O was as muddy today as yesterday, I'd switch over at mile 35 and take the ferry. The trail was even muddier – it rained during the night – and I did cross at Whites Ferry. The “Gen. Jubal Early” is the last of the ferries once used to cross the Potomac. Cost two bucks for bikes. I didn't even bid the C&O farewell.

I needed to go five miles on Rt 15 to Leesburg, Virginia to pick up the trail. Plus, it's paved. Negative, it is hilly. I seemed to be running out of gas by Hearndon (mile 20) but revived after a stop at my favorite bakery. By the time I left the W&OD for the way across the river and up the last hill, I was powering through.

On the way I saw a big fat groundhog, deer and a little toad sitting on the yellow line on the W&OD. One thing I did not mention yet but were with me all the time were the birds. Always singing in the woods. Their colors always striking against the green, especially the cardinals and bluebirds.

BTW, I finally figured out why the squirrels were attacking me. As they saw this big thing bearing down on them – I averaged 10 mph – they didn't think to run off the path into the bush but to escape by running down the path in front of the advancing danger. As I got closer, they turned to the next level of defense which is offense. But I'm smarter than a squirrel so eventually figured this out. I started ringing my bell as soon as I saw them up ahead and then they'd simply scatter into the trees. 


MBishton said...

Wow, Jerry! WayDaGo!

Jess Otto said...

Awesome pictures, as always (funny how the Arkansas River messes with your life like that). But you didn't tell me you brew beer. Now I have to visit again so I can have a beer (unless I read your bio wrong in which case I totally apologize).