Day 18: 1,246 Miles. No Sleep Til Steel City.

Waking up, I realize something. This is not the lean-to the signage directed us to. It’s a covered bandstand. Pretty much the same effect of getting us out of the downpour, but the actual lean-tos (theres 4 of them!) are 1/4 mile up – away from the highway and the train and the truck stop which woke me up at 2am and kept me up all night. I’m grateful we found anywhere at all to get out of the rain for the night, but wish there was more specific signage for bicyclists caught in storms. Aside from my sleeping bag and spare clothes, everything is thoroughly soaked. It put dry socks into wet sneakers. Wet shorts over dry cycling shorts. Makes it slightly chilly at 7am. That and no sleep make getting moving difficult this morning. I drink extra coffee and say hello to local passers by, who are probably wondering why in the fuck these two crazy guys slept on their bandstand.

The woman care taking the garden mentions the same desire for specific signage as I talk her ear off while she prunes and cares for the beautiful greenery in Connellsville. The entire section of trail through this town is managed by a large group of volunteers. Most of the other sections are the same. They see the benefit those traveling on it bring to their local economies.

It’s getting hot again and the trail has leveled out a bit so it’s no longer a easy cruise along. We’re straddling the Youghiogheny River, which is apparently only one of four rivers in the world that flows south to north. I haven’t fact checked that, but it definitely is flowing in the direction we’re riding, which is generally northbound. Little towns come and go, we don’t stop because there’s not much there.

West Newton is the breakfast goal. Until, in the middle of nowhere, we find a trail side refrigerator. Then a patio table and chair and a little outdoor cooking area. This is all next to someone’s house and their small farm. Then the owner walks up and confirms to Daniel that he can provide us an egg and cheese sandwich. We sit. Soon a dozen other bicyclists have joined us at what he tells us is known as “the refrigerator on the trail”. I’m blown away on two fronts: #1 this guy is seizing the opportunity being on this trail brings. There’s nothing else around, not even much of a road for vehicles. So this is his business model. He’s adapted and found a way. It’s impressive. It reminds me of the lack of innovative adaptation occurring elsewhere. Second – and much importantly – this is the epitome of farm to table. The man cooking our food tells us that those are his eggs from his chicken from this morning. Alongside the sammich is a sliced cucumber and scallion he “picked 5 minutes ago”. Upon our compliment on the cukes, he carves up a kohlrabi, harvested moments early, and delivers a slice on each of our plates. He points at the corn and lets us know how delicious it will be in about two weeks. Amazing guy, amazing food, and amazing experience to say the least. So good I forget to take a picture, so I steal one from the internets.

As I close in on the end of the tour, I’ve gotta make some decisions. I’m 260 or so miles out and have to be back to work in 2 days. Goddamn real world. I’m not gonna make it at this pace and I can’t pedal 200 miles tomorrow. I come up with the genius plan to take the Amtrak from Pittsburgh to Erie PA, which would leave me with only 90 wonderful miles along Lake Erie tomorrow. It’s a beautiful section I enjoyed riding last year and I’d love to finish up the same way this tour. The train leaves at midnight, stops in Cleveland and arrives into Erie at 7am. That is perfect. Ride. Sleep on the train. Ride. I call Amtrak to make sure it’s the train that I can roll my bicycle on. Shit. All good to Cleveland, but the bike rack car from Cleveland to Erie is all booked up. Fuck. From others I’ve spoken with, this is a common occurrence. Amtrak if you’re reading this, install more bike rack cars!

So that plan, as awesome as it was, is now shot. I try to figure out another way. A way to pedal it out. Some way somehow. But there’s nothing. I resign myself that Pittsburgh will have to be the final destination and it’s gonna be a car ride home from there. Not my preferred ending, but then again this GAP Trail is so enjoyable that going back to hills and motorized vehicular traffic would suck right now. I can live with this.

So now that we’ve only got 60 miles left, the tour kicks into a different gear. We hit West Newton. Theres an amazing bike shop with bar above it. We have a beer. The next town up, we have a beer. And the next town up as well. It’s become a pub crawl sort of finale. We’re stopping anywhere we can. Visitors centers. Little historical fact boards. I buy a pin. I buy a top tube bag. We are now tourists. We find a strange waterfall where the water is crystal clear and cold, falling down alongside some red rocks. It reminds of the rock out in Utah or Arizona. We cool our faces off in it. Then we read the fact board. Woops. It’s iron and acid from an underground mine that has turned it all red. Toxic for the environment. Oh well. I think we’ll live until we die.

Daniel has secured a hotel in downtown Pittsburgh, which coincidentally had to fight the US government to spell it that way when the feds told every Burgh in the nation to drop the h. But Pittsburgh PA didn’t wanna be Pittsburg PA. True story. I’m exhausted from lack of sleep. But with a solid amount of beer calories behind me and a shower and comfy bed ahead of me, I put pedal to pavement (the trail is actually mostly crushed stone) and motor into the Steel City. Lots of bridges. Lots of industry. I like Pittsburgh.

Entry back into the normal world is always rough, but our landing is even more abrupt. The hotel is a ghost town. Their bar and pool and everything is closed. Pittsburgh has had to close back down after reopening too soon. So stores are closed. A few restaurants are open for take out only. Museums are closed. I can’t be much of a tourist. It’s disturbing. I’m reminded how I can’t travel anywhere anymore. No overseas flights. No family reunion in Montana. No weekends in Toronto or Montreal. My entire lifestyle and sanity revolves around travel. But the luxury of the hotel room is enough to curb my agitation for now. And who knows, maybe I’ll do a second bike tour in The fall or winter. Southern Tier anyone?

FH has gone full Hollywood by the end
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Day 17: 1,185 Miles. Mother Nature but No Tortilla.

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth” ~Thoreau

It’s a bit of a late morning on account of the excessive moisture on my rain fly, a deluging dose of coffee and a double deuce dropping. We’ve got full batteries and clean laundry (except I forgot to wash my gloves, which smell like season long unwashed hockey gear at this point). We’ve got about more 10 miles of the previously mentioned steady incline up to the eastern continental divide. At 2,392 feet, it separates the Chesapeake and Gulf of Mexico watersheds. Before that, we slide through a couple more tunnels, my favorite being named “Big Savage Tunnel”. As predicted, both are dimly lit so they are not nearly the challenge Paw Paw was. I yell and hoot and holler my way through it, enjoying the echoes and reverberations. We cross the Mason-Dixon Line for the second time and enter back into Pennsylvania. Oh that Calvert vs Penn dispute shit. History lessons later, or right now on Wikipedia if you’re into it.

Over the top and downward! Ladies and gentleman, we’ve reached our cruising speed of 15 mph on what is now a steady and continuous 1.5% grade decline. What a difference! The captain turns off the shirt and helmet sign and thus I remove both to fully enjoy the breeze. We stop off for eggs at a diner in Meyersdale PA. It’s classic rural America right here and I soak it up. Despite my arrival full of loud music and extensive bare skin art, the cute little old ladies sitting out front chat me right up. They thank us for stopping through and let us know all about Meyersdale. We talk about how much the GAP trail has done for this town. I tell them how I’d love to see the trail continue from Pittsburgh to Buffalo, but so many people in small towns don’t understand what they do. Bicycles tourism accounts for billions of dollars in Europe. It can be the same here too, if the idiots in charge would just get their fat asses out of the car once in a while and understand how wonderful two-wheeled travel can be.

I enjoy what is the best breakfast of the tour so far. It’s literally a trip back in time. 3/4 of the folks that walk in are clearly regulars, because the woman on the grill knows them by name and knows what they want to eat. No one is wearing a mask. Nor hairnets. Not even gloves. It takes a moment for me to compute. But then I’m like fuck it. I’ve forgotten all the stress back in the real world. I don’t know what’s on the news. I don’t know the latest dumb thing Trump has said or the latest pieces of excessive regulation Cuomo has signed into law. Honestly, with how many of the water sources have been locked out on this tour, I’m more worried about surviving coronavirus and dying of dehydration.

The downhill descent continues through even smaller little towns. I’m in my drop downs and it’s a steady 18 mph through Rockwood and into Confluence. It’s named that because three rivers converge there. So it’s sort of a tiny Pittsburgh I guess. I hit three different stores in town looking for tortilla. Maybe it’s because we’re now in the Gulf of Mexico watershed and tacos are on my mind. Maybe it’s because they pack so well and we devoured what we had last night. Despite impressively vast bread options at all three stores, none are rocking the south of the border variety. We take a small break at a cafe instead and study the map. Daniel and I really wanna check out Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. It’s mega badass. It’s 4 miles off the trail near Ohiopyle (I friggin love that word for some reason) – our next town along the way. The problem is that they close at 5pm today and the one day a week they are closed all day is – of course – tomorrow. Fucker. Can’t make it happen this trip, which is why I didn’t take this photo of it below. But we all still get to see it anymore:

We also decide we want to push further to a hiker/biker campsite beyond Ohiopyle, but still stop in the small touristy town to chill. We’ve got 4+ hours of daylight and only 18 more miles to go. So let’s hang out and be tourists and less bicyclists for a bit. I hit the two more grocery stores In Ohiopyle. Lots of white, wheat and rye. Pita, rolls, bagels, English muffins…

But no tortilla.

What in the actual fuck is going on. I wanna call Salma Hayek and let her know her nation’s staple is being vastly underrepresented in rural PA but then I realize that I don’t have her number because I don’t know her because I’m not the luckiest motherfucker on earth. AND Also – if we’re all being honest here – she probably wouldn’t give a shit. We resign ourself to beers at a cafe with with socially distanced patio-only seating. Beer is kinda like bread. Or kinda like salad, depending on how you look at it. We can only order at a quarter off 5 foot section of the bar and have to take the beer outside. The sign says wear masks but I can see everyone’s nose, including the bartender’s – a gorgeous bronze skinned gal with blue and purple highlighted hair. Turns out that last year she did some contract work on computer circuitry at the solar panel farm built in my home of Lackawanna NY. I wanna think that’s why she looks familiar but really I don’t care… I’m just looking for a cold refreshing beer. She’s the only one working and now there’s like ten people jammed into the doorway waiting to be serviced. Like 6 inches of personal space. It’s now taking absurdly long actually. Clearly whatever covid reopening phase this is, it’s not going smoothly around here.

We get a couple Bells two hearted ales (each) and are basically people watching while our phones charges on the outdoor island. After a brief encounter with an adorable 15 month pit puppy, I sit back and analyze the whole scene. Ohiopyle is a funky little 5 block town situated along the river and the outdoor lifestyle economy based around it. Kayaks. Boats. Bikes. Food. Fun. Each in their completely own different manner, all of locals are a little strange, but in an intriguing underbelly kinda way. I feel a bit like I’m in back on the pacific coast of Costa Rica for my 40th and everyone’s there’s for some surfing or yoga or juicing retreat. But this is America, Donald Goines. Don’t catch you slippin now. The small businesses here are struggling to find a way to stay afloat during this confusion of a conundrum of a clusterfuck. That one employee, as cute as she is, struggles to keep up. There are three or four other points of sale, both indoor and out, shut down. Limited capacities. Inept sanitization efforts. Tons of wasted space. Overhead generally unchanged, except of course for laying off employees. How does the average entrepreneur, who – through a ton of work and a little luck has conjured the tiniest shred of success with the smallest of margins – adapt quickly enough to stay afloat?? Most don’t have business degrees or financial connections. Plus the government isn’t exactly handling this any better than your average, run of the mill corporate bail-out-athon. More than a just health crisis, corona feels likes an entirely existential crisis for Ohiopyle and countless other small towns.

A couple wants to sit at the table next to ours. But no one has bussed it in the 20 minutes since the previous patrons left. Cups and cans and napkins are strewn all over the table. The couple takes a smaller side seat with very little view to the street. This is America. Look what I’m whippin’ now. In my view, our nation is fast becoming what I’ve been calling Fourth World since George W. It’s where all the First World infrastructure we’ve built crumbles at our feet due to lack of usage and no one even notices or gives two shits. Think Talking Heads’ “Nothing But Flowers”. Now that the Fourth World is upon us, it’s rather obvious to me that this shit has been brewing since Ronald Wilson Reagan (aka Ronald Ray Gun if you’re Gil Scott-Heron and aka 6.6.6. if you’re Killer Mike). Trickle down economics my ass – the gap between rich and poor swells toward Eloi vs Morlock levels. Everyone fell for that shitty actors crap in the 80s and now we’ve somehow found a bigger camera addicted clown to run the monkey show. Or is he a monkey running a clown show? They’re all crooks, left, right and center.

Back at the unbussed table, a breeze slides through and clears everything off the aforementioned unbussed table just in time for another customer to take a seat. I think to myself, at least Mother Nature is doing her part. I could sit there and spout deep thoughts over cold beer all day, but #1) I don’t really want to stay here to see the underbelly, #2) just two beers have me feeling a little buzzy and #3) we’ve got almost 20 miles to go. I need to fill my water so I walk back into the overpacked bar area. Still packed. Homegirl is still hustling to no avail. I’m tired of the bullshit, and so – shirtless but with a mask – I cut the line and use the word darlin to get her stop making margaritas or piña coladas or whatever and fill my bottles. We share a smile which cheers me out of my morbid analysis as Daniel and I saddle up to head downhill out of town at 17 mph.

Five out of eighteen miles in and the skies open up. Well I didn’t see that coming. Downpour. Then thunder. Then lightning. Tons of it all around us. Right on top of us. Not nearby, but where we are. We are rural AF, there’s no shelter or structures anywhere. I pick up the pace. We cross giant trestle bridges while lightning flashes overhead. I’m not a scientist but I don’t think all that metal is good for not conducting electricity. It’s storming hard. We keep riding. There’s nowhere to stop for cover. Nothing in between these two small towns. Finally, after 12 out of the last 18 miles in constant downpour, we drag our soaked asses into town and look for the hiker biker camp. Oh shit! It has a lean-to. The lean-to has water and electricity. Total score. Out of the rain. Dry off. Make dinner. Turns out Mother Nature not only bussed the table in Ohiopyle, but she washed my gloves. Is this what the kids call au naturel. No I think that’s something else. Whatever. I’m back in my happy place. I climb in the castle under the shelter and pass out, wishing I had some tortilla.

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Day 16: 1,107 Miles. Slippin’ in the Darkness

“M to A to S to K. Wear the mask on your face just to make the next day.” The Fugees apparently predicted all this craziness back in 1995. You pretty much need a mask to go inside anywhere anymore, though the wording of the signs and the adherence to the rules has changed from region to region. But one thing I’m grateful for is that I don’t have to worry about others smelling me. I’m sure they are unknowingly grateful too, because I stink. No amount of washing or showering or laundry can fix this sort of funk. So the mask is my friend and yours, embrace not smelling my stank.

When a man moves away from nature, his heart becomes hard. ~Lakota Proverb

After our morning coffee we are fresh and ready to rock this funky joint. Out of water, we hit the nearest pump for some iodine infused well water. Given actual options, it might not be the best choice, but it’s better than dehydration. We’re first on the trail this morning and it’s a spiderwebs-all-up-in-your-face experience for a good hour. Daniel gets genuinely pissed off about it – accusing the spiders of being free loaders and trying to get a ride to Pittsburgh without paying. When we stop I spend a good five minutes getting them off my face and off my gear. I’m sure some are still with me, having crawled into my saddlebags (or panniers if you wanna be a dick about it, scientist.)

Theres very little bicycle or hiker traffic this deep, so we cruise two wide for quite a bit and start chatting about our different bikes. Turns out both Daniel and I are the proud owners of seven functioning bicycles. And we seem to both actually ride all seven. Optimal number if you ask me, though bike nerds will profess that n+1 (where n = however many bikes one currently has) is the appropriate amount. Sounds elitist AF honestly. Deep down, I suspect these are the same folks that correct me about using panniers vs saddlebags.

I’m feeling alright so far but only moving around 10mph on this continued steady incline. In a day or two we will hit the eastern continental divide at 2,392 feet up so I expect the incline to continue. Daniel is moving more briskly so we separate a bit and I get into a bit of quiet reflection mode. My thoughts begin with myself, then of family loved ones. Then coworkers and colleagues. Finally, my thoughts are aligned with humanity as a whole. I’ve hit this point on a tour where I’m my frequency is vibrating in tune with all of the natural world before. It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling that i can’t explain, but it’s abruptly interrupted by the Paw Paw tunnel.

What is this Paw Paw tunnel you ask? It’s 3/4 of a mile long tunnel cut through a mountain built for a canal. Let that soak in for a moment. It is amazing to me. They went to such lengths for a canal that wasn’t in use for very long. Add on that it’s sole current purpose is to facilitate bicyclist and pedestrian traffic and the amaze balls factor increases exponentially. It’s basically a two foot wide, 10 minute ride in almost complete pitch darkness. I don’t have much in the way of front lighting, plus the path surface is highly irregular – so much so that one of the first dips sends me to the left; bouncing off the tunnel wall and almost falling into the canal over the three foot fence to the right. Absolutely wildly exhilarating. Needless to say it is a life experience I have never had before – and that’s a rare find that I love collecting. I capture some on the gopro but the battery is dead before we see the literal light at the end of the tunnel. There’s a few more tunnels ahead, but a DC-bound cross country tourist we encounter a mile afterward lets us know they are all at dimly lit. This one seems to be the one that I will not soon forget.

We roll into Cumberland MD hungry and hot as hell. We want an oasis cafe. Finally one is open. I indulge in two fantastic coffees. Two fantastic over easy eggs. Two fantastic trips of bacon. Two fantastic pieces of sourdough bread. Basically everything was straight Lynn Collins… you better Think. Or if you’re a new jack, it’s straight Rob Base. Do the math. Regardless, Cumberland marks the union between the 184.5 mile C&O and the 150 mile hello Great Allegheny Passage Rail Trail. We hit the grocery store for tortilla and trail mix and begin our journey up the GAP.

It’s literally a steady 1.5% grade uphill for 15 miles straight to our anticipated campsite in Frostburg. Its actually open for tent camping! It’s still hot as hell and there would appear to be no chance of frost in this burg. We take breaks every 5 or 6 miles. I feel like I have a flat tire and this will end up being our shortest day yet, but the steady incline in both altitude and temperature suggests it’s right up there in difficulty.

I’d been hearing thunder in the mountains and our arrival into Frostburg ushers in some rain. I get my tent up before it gets heavy. The campsite is also a hostel, so there’s showers, laundry and a covered patio. I check the first two off my list and hit the covered patio to male some campground dinner. The rain picks up and it’s coming down quite heavily now. This couldn’t be a more perfect spot to enjoy the evening. Daniel and I chat and eat dinner under cover from the rain. The woman working here is from Dallas, so she delivers some playful jabs about NFL football. Everything is bigger in Texas, including her ego. It’s all good fun, so I return the volley with some good awkwardly direct talk and of course I show my ass. It’s the ultimate show stopper and I know it. She doesn’t give me anymore Superb Owl grief after that, but I suspect she enjoyed the showing.

The rain lets up. A rainbow comes out. I stop building an ark to ride my bike onto and enjoy wonderful evening around a fire with 4 other cyclists, sharing stories and jokes. Also, teachable (yet possibly trivial) moments abound, yo: I explain the difference between a fire truck and a fire engine. Someone explains the difference between a cemetery and a graveyard. Daniel complains about overzealous roadies vs what he calls “gravel grinders”. It’s the coolest, least humid night on tour yet and I retreat to the castle, eager to finally sleeping without sweating my nuts off…

FH is over his hipster phase on and to a career in IT.
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