Sunday, May 18, 2014

2010 C&O towpath/GAP trail tour

2010 Pittsburgh Bike Trip
Tour of the endless driveway”


Tom Snyder and I had planned to do this trip since just after our 2009 C&O Towpath tour. We had worked out a plan to drive a rental car to the Allegheny Airport and ride back over three and half days. As the date came closer, work commitments erased his ability to go. Simultaneously, my uncle David announced that the Fall Luecke family reunion would take place in Pittsburgh. I hatched a plan to ride there.

Mental Preparations

It had been twenty four years since I toured solo and twenty two years since I had used my one person tent.
In the days that lead up to departure, I obsessed more and more about whether I could really stand being alone with myself for three and a half days. My mind tends to race when I am alone, and that time can be a painful rehash of everything that I've done wrong. My solution on my ninety minute commute is to go harder and harder until I can't think straight. That's clearly an untenable solution for a trip that includes riding eight hours a day.

A week before, I started to worry about the distance as well: 300+ miles on a dirt road. My back had really been bothering me, and I began to worry that my body might give out before my mind did.

The Bike

Last year I rode my titanium Litespeed cyclocross bike, but it was unavailable this year. I had lent it to a teammate, Monika Sattler, to use. Although I could have retrieved it, I felt like I should use a “real” touring bike, which meant using the Zeus, Reynolds 531 frame I bought from Andy Jordan in 1988. The bike is a true Frankenstein's monster, assembled from the remains of half a dozen bikes over the past twenty years. The parts ran all the way from the original Sugino Mighty bottom bracket that came with the bike to a new Deore rear derailleur that I bought two weeks before the trip. At the last minute, I had to swap out the headset for the Dura Ace sealed-bearing version I stole from the original Litespeed. I also opted for Speedplay pedals and my old Sidi shoes.

The Gear

I pared the gear down to the absolute minimum I thought I would need for the trip. I didn't even take a spare shirt. I did, however, take nearly 5 lbs of Clif Bars. I would be gassy, but I wouldn't starve.

Day 1 Tuesday October 5

I had arranged to leave my car at Tom's house, to avoid having the NIST SWAT team blow it up or impound it for illegal parking. I pulled up a few minutes late. Tom was already sitting in his driveway, dressed and ready to go in his mismatched Spokes jersey and blue shorts. “I wish I were going with you.” “I wish you were going too.” We didn't have the military precision departure we enjoyed in 2009. But we were still underway at 1:12—only 12 minutes behind schedule.

Twenty four years ago to the day I was already on day four of my eleven-day solo trip in Germany, riding into Frankfurt to visit Jon Brockopp. From the synopsis of my diary for that trip: “I think I was worried about the enormity of the whole ride, doing it solo in the possibly bad weather in a country where I only spoke half the language.” Not much has changed in a quarter century, but at least I speak the language in Western Maryland.

The first hour and a half of day on were on the roads to the Monacacy aqueduct, where I planned to join the C&O towpath. Tom accompanied me until the towpath itself, and then turned back. As he rode back across the aqueduct, I sadly wondered, “What have I gotten myself in to?” Just like last year, the towpath to Brunswick, Md was very muddy. Several times I had to stop and clear the mud out of the fenders with a stick. Progress seemed slower than I remember from our 2009 team time trial to the Huckleberry campsite outside of Harpers Ferry. As planned, I detoured into Shepherdstown to look for food. Back and forth, up and down through Shepherdstown I went until I found the FoodLion. Dinner would be several pre-made subs, and some cookies. I had the presence of mind to grab some flammable AutoTrader newspapers to use for kindling later. Once back on the towpath, I began to really kill it for fear of arriving at the campsite after dark. I planned to camp at Killian's Cave, but it was already occupied, and I thought it prudent to get as far as possible.
Tom turns back. I'm on my own now. 

After arriving at Horseshoe Bend I had just enough time to put up the tent, and blunder through the woods gathering downed limbs before it got dark. I even had time to call Sandra and let her know I had made it. The night was restless, with a cacophony of insect noise, some owls, and a brief spot of rain. But I had exceeded my goal for the day, and drifted off thinking that I would really be able to finish the trip.

Day 2 October 6, 2010

Goal one for day two was to get to the Desert Rose Cafe in Williamsport Md, where I knew I could get a coffee and something to eat. The cafe, and its vivacious owner, is the highpoint of Williamsport, a town whose better days are long ago. After properly caffeinating myself , I began seriously considering riding all the way to Cumberland. To make that goal more achievable, I avoided the mud and skipped the C&O west of Williamsport by taking Md 68 and MD 56 to the eastern end of the Western Maryland rail trail. That excellent detour decision turned forty miles of dirt into forty miles of pavement.

Anyone who has ridden with me for any time knows that I cannot resist the lure of found objects on the road. Over the years I have found several wallets, a phone, about fifty bungy cords, and and what amounts to nearly an entire toolbox worth of tools. In my quest to pare every surplus gram from the touring rig, I had left home with only two tools: a Crank Bros multitool and a 10 mm open-end wrench that I thought I might need to adjust the cantilever brakes. The multitool has a 10-mm wrench on it, but it seemed difficult to use. Imagine my surprise, on Md 68, on a little rise west of Williamsport,when I found another 10 mm open-end wrench on the shoulder of the road. Why did I bring the original one?

The Western Maryland Rail Trail, which begins east of Hancock, is twenty five miles of smooth-as-glass paved trail. Weirdly, for nearly its entire length, you can see the C&O towpath about 100 feet away. Is this really the best use of funds for rail-to-trail conversions? The view is nicer, though. I made great time on the rail trail, but when I dropped back on to the towpath about ten miles from the Paw Paw tunnel, I realized that I still had 50 miles to go.
On the Western Maryland Rail Trail. That's the C&O towpath just past the trees.

The Paw Paw tunnel was as I remembered it from last year: an awesomely cool engineering feature from 160 years ago. And just like last year, I got to go through it totally alone. I stopped for lunch at the western portal to eat the last of the FoodLion subs from the day before. It began to rain. My goal was still Cumberland, but first I needed to refuel. The convenience store in Paw Paw had been a disappointment on last year's trip. If anything, it eclipsed itself in 2010. The only Gatorade as the low-calorie version. I settled for a coke, and a slim jim. If I didn't make it to Cumberland, dinner would be Clif Bars. The woman behind the counter was surly, and the stench from the deep fryer was overpowering. Outside the rain picked up, and then abated. I suited up in all my foul weather gear and headed back to the towpath.

West of Paw Paw the towpath was thick with bike tourists. Sadly, if the subset I saw represents the cycle-touring population, bicycle touring will soon be extinct. Except for one four-member family group, everyone I met was over 60. Then again, I'm nearly 50. One group in particular stood out. Their leader was wearing reflective yellow from head to toe, and called out a warning that I was ahead. Each member down the line repeated it at full volume, though they could not have been going more than 6 mph and were no more than a bike-length apart each.
Eastern portal to the Paw Paw Tunnel

The closer I got to Cumberland the more my back hurt. Even if I had wanted to camp, a spooky homeless guy had already staked out the last campsite on the towpath. The sun even came out as I rolled into Cumberland. I was so excited that I overshot the end of the towpath and started riding on the railroad tracks. Clearly you're supposed to start in Cumberland and not end there.
Approaching the end of the towpath in Cumberland, Md.

But I still needed a place to stay. At the entrance to the towpath I met a father-son combo who had been riding from Washington since Sunday. The son was on the phone to someone in Delaware trying to find a hotel cheaper than the Holiday Inn. While we were discussing bike touring, a woman I had passed on the towpath walked up and told us that the Fairfield Inn offered a good rate. I made my decision immediately and booked a room. I chatted up the father-son duo some more in the portico. They had an almost unbelievable amount of gear (65 lbs for the son), and the father had his saddle tipped down at a 20 degree angle. They typified the people I saw on the trail. By and large they seemed to be people who were making the trip not because they enjoyed bicycle touring, but rather because the Towpath/GAP trail offered some sort of epic adventure.

I got cleaned up, headed out for dinner, called my dad to wish him Happy Birthday. The pedestrian mall in Cumberland looked very well maintained, but hardly anything was open. Dinner was an overcooked chicken breast and wild rice at City Lights. The owner and I chatted about Cumberland, its past and future. As I got up to leave, I noticed that the woman from the towpath was sitting behind me. I introduced myself to Helen and ended up chatting with her for an hour about middle school principals and the future of the Yellow Pages, for whom she sold advertising in Cumberland. The long-term prospects for the Yellow Pages don't look good.
Roughing it at the Fairfield Inn

Day 3 October 7, 2010

Finally, a sunny day. Leaving Cumberland, I could smell coal smoke. My dinner companion Helen says it's from people who still burn coal for heat. The Great Allegheny Passage trail is awesome. The surface is finely crushed stone. You could ride it with a racing bike on 23s. The first twenty five miles from Cumberland are all uphill. At the built-up turn at La Vale, about eight miles into the ride, I stopped for the first of many seat post interventions. This one was to lower the post. After this one, it started slipping constantly.

I made the right decision in Frostburg, where I left the trail and rode up into town for coffee and muffin at the Mountain City Creamery. The girl behind the counter was also surly, but the coffee was good. The complete lack of brakes on the on the Zeus made the descent back to the path a bit unnerving.
The views as I left Cumberland were spectacular, but the tunnels were not as exciting as I hoped they would be. After the Paw Paw Tunnel this year, and the Pennsylvania turnpike tunnels a few years ago, a 100 m tunnel just really isn't that thrilling.

As I rolled up the trail enjoying the solitude, I noticed a guy sitting off to the side. I asked if he had everything he needed, and to my dismay, he jumped up and invited himself to ride along with me. I tried to amp up the pace to see if I could just drop him, but did not succeed. Larry the former Cumberland Scrap dealer turned out to be fairly interesting, and we rapidly reached the Eastern Continental Divide and the Big Savage Tunnel. From the overlook, you could see all the way back to the Narrows outside of Cumberland. We took turns photographing each other, and then Larry the scrap dealer turned to conducting business on the phone, and I rolled on through the Big Savage tunnel.
Eastern portal to the Big Savage Tunnel. Highest point on the ride.

As soon as I came through the tunnel, which is the longest, but is also lit, the sun disappeared and the wind hit me in the face. I see why the ridge is lined with power-generating turbines. I stopped again for another seat post intervention and pleasant chat in Meyersdale, and then rode over the Salisbury aqueduct. Again, objectively it was cool, but not as cool as I had hoped it would be.
Entrance to the Big Savage tunnel.

My lunch in Rockwood, after searching for an open store, was rather disappointing, and the rest of the trail into Confluence was not very memorable.

Camping arrangements at the Youghiogheny Dam Outflow in Confluence were difficult to figure out. Apparently it was closed for the season. I pitched the tent, and headed over to the Lucky Dog Cafe for Sierra Nevadas and a burger. While I sat on the patio, the house dogs, two chihuahuas, sat on my lap.. It's so funny how they tremble when they're excited. The Lucky Dog reminded me of eating in the Gastatte at the campgrounds in Germany: sitting at the bar, drinking beer.

After dinner, I walked around Confluence, since it was still early—it had only been sixty miles. I tried to call Sandra, but even though I could see the mobile tower, I couldn't connect. Interestingly, Gmail worked. The night was cold, but I was comfortable on the pad in the bag.
Commentary from the Germany Trip: “Again the oppressive silence” but day three was the chattiest day for the 2010 trip.

Day 4 October 8, 2010

Day four started the way most of the Germany trip days started: socked in cold and fog: 42 F at 9:00. Just like in Germany, I got all wet and cold taking down the tent. This time, though I had proper cycling gloves, and not leather gardening gloves like in 1986. After packing up, I headed over to Confluence to find some coffee, and kill some time to see if the fog would burn off. I reasoned that trip through Ohiopyle park would be scenic, and it would be advantageous to be able to see more than 30 m.

Amazingly, the Turkeyfoot Valley Historical Society opens at 8:00AM on Fridays. The TVHS is my favorite kind of local historical society: cases of stuff rescued from the attics of the locals. One fascinating exhibit was a display of photographs of the villages that were submerged by the Youghiogheny dam in 1947. Confluence was spared, not because its size, but because it would have cost too much to relocate the railroad. I breakfasted at Sisters Cafe. They make the same coffee as the Silver Diner: insanely hot and devoid of flavor.

The fog refused to lift, so I gave up and rolled out. After all the expectation, Ohiopyle park disappointed. It was just a two-track path through the woods. You could rarely see the river. I should have left earlier; the effect of fog was minimal. I did see a bald eagle gliding down the river.

Meanwhile the seatpost kept sinking. The more it sank, the more my paranoia rose that the binder bolt housing was cracked. Why else would it have let go after two days? The farther I went, the less the bike looked like a touring bike, and the more like a clown bike.
Seatpost intervention in Connellsville, PA.

I stopped for another seatpost intervention in Connellsville, and then twice more in quick succession to get the height right. But it finally held. My paranoia dissipated. North of Connellsville, the track is less wooded, but no more memorable. I passed through town after town, each one more run-down than the one before. I stopped for for an excellent lunch at the Trailside in West Newton. In no time I reached Boston, which was the end of the GAP trail for me. By cutting off the trail, I could save ten miles of a loop of the Mononghela For the first time in 250 miles I went up a hill. And it was a serious one. I ground along for a mile in the 38x32. Two map checks later I was bombing down the other side. My complete lack of confidence in my anemic brakes and the poor handling of the heavily loaded front end ruined the downhill. I knew the road ended in a T intersection at the bottom, and I had a vision of foot dragging right into the river. Glassport Rd, which took me to the bridge over the river was busy and super-industrial, with a depressing view of the Clairton coke plant. I felt like I was barely moving.

The tiny towns on the GAP trail had been depressing, but Clairton made them look happy and prosperous. Half of the buildings on the River road were abandoned. I managed to completely miss the entrance to the Montour trail while looking at the coke plant. To my credit, the sign for the trail was about 3x6inches. Instead of turning back, I consulted the map and the GPS and continued up St. Clair Avenue, thinking it would intersect the trail a few miles up the the road. As I rode through downtown Clairton I felt nervous for the first time on the trip. The main street looked pretty sketchy, and unlike the river front, was full of people. I wondered if I could outsprint any of them. I passed out of the downtown, certain that I was nearing the intersection with the trail. Unfortunately, I soon found myself riding out onto a bridge. Dismayed, I looked down and realized that the trail ran along the streamside, 150 feet below me. I continued on in denial across the bridge, certain that a footpath would lead down to the stream. No such luck. Resigned, I roared down Walnut Street with my anemic brakes back to the river, and the spot I had been 20 minutes before. This time I found the trail, though.

My frustration continued, however, and I found myself uncharitably cursing the Mountour Trail Association. Three miles later I was standing at a busy intersection comparing my bike GPS, my phone GPS, and the low-resolution laminated map I had made. I took another wrong turn about a mile later. The signs for the trail were seemingly randomly placed, and mostly in useless places—like when it was obvious you were on the trail. They did provide some nice directions around two of the road sections. After a few more wrong turns, I ended up on the last section of the Montour trail, which then became paved and slightly downhill. I was really motoring. I kept thinking, “If I go through the tunnel, I've gone too far. But I'll hit the street I want before that.”

I saw one possibility to Angela's house off to the left, Linwood Ave, but it was a dirt road with a 15 +% grade that looked like it might be a struggle to get up. Just up the trail I reached the tunnel. I stopped for some photos, and again, in denial, continued on through. I asked a couple on the bridge, who were enjoying the sunset, to confirm that Hidden Valley Rd was on top of the tunnel. Why, I ask, should “Hidden Valley Rd” run along the ridge line? Someone in Pittsburgh needs to vet these names more carefully.
I backtracked, and turned up Linwood Ave. It was incredibly torn up, and it was hard to keep the bike going in a straight line, even though I was in the bail-out gear. At 3.2mph from my back pocket, I heard the chime announcing a new text message. I knew it was from Sandra, and that she had beaten me to the house, but I was not going to stop and read it. After all I was only about a half mile away. A few minutes later, after winning a drag race against a four-year-old on an electric cart, I pulled up in front of Angela's house and a very welcome cold beer.


Three and a half days alone with my thoughts did not create the mental melt-down I had feared. My back held out, after all the seat-post interventions. I am, however, done with the C&O towpath as a bike-touring destination.