On the Road

Day 76: Pittsburgh to West Newton, PA (November 13)

I picked up a trail (Three Rivers Heritage Trail)  downtown behind the PNC bank building. Being a Sunday there were a bunch of other cyclists on the trail — most on nice road bikes.

The downtown and riverside seems to be having a bit of a renaissance. The Carnegie Mellon center for studying media technology is there. Seeing the building reminded me of Randy Pausch who taught there, and his lecture on fulfilling your childhood dreams. I guess riding cross country was not one of my childhood dreams, but has been something I have wanted to do for a number of years. In a few days I will have fulfilled that dream. So what is next? Not sure, but I will think of something.

The riverside further down south out of the city gets run down again with derelict industrial dinosaurs. Their skeletons are still there but the life is extinct.

After crossing over the pedestrian Hot Metal Bridge — named for the railroad cars carrying the crucibles of molten steel that were carried from the smelters on one side of the river over to the steel rolling plant on the other — I met a cyclist Matt who rode with me for a couple miles.

We talked a bit about the route ahead for me on the Great Allegheny Passage, as well as my trip so far. He said the route through Pittsburgh is almost complete but not quite. There is a mile or two that I have to navigate on the roads after walking along the active CSX tracks for a couple hundred yards. I would have been able to take a short cut through the Sandcastle Amusement Park parking lot during the summer, but the park closes for the winter and was closed now.

He mentioned some of the urban, industrial decay along the way. The last working steel mill in Pittsburgh would be coming up on the other side of the river. An abandoned amusement park featured the film Adventureland would be coming up in a few miles. I’d be able to see the roller coasters. He turned around when the trail ended, and I took to walking along the rails.

I walked my bike over the bumpy rocks and then turned onto the city streets. Not exactly sure where I should be going from the directions I had gotten from some other people so when I saw a couple of cyclists I waved them down, and asked, “Which way to Homestead?” They said to follow them as they were going to the Great Allegheny Passage too.

We passed by Nancy B’s Bakery on West 7th Ave on the way into Homestead. Apparently it has the best cookies around, but is only open 9-5 on weekdays so I was unable to judge. These cyclists said that Homestead has come up a bit because of the ‘marina’ concept and shopping that was put there, and the general improvement has spread out a bit from there.

He had ridden the Great Allegheny Passage and then the C&O towpath to Washington DC. He said that services along the GAP trail are better spaced at about 15-25 miles apart. The C&O services are farther apart, and besides the cities that are right on the trail, they are up steep hills.

The Great Allegheny Passage starts in Homestead, and soon rises up above the Youghiogheny River, and the path goes into the trees. Some of the trees still had their leaves. The bright yellow leaves were beautiful on an overcast day. On the other side of the Youghiogheny River the active CSX line had trains chugging north and south fairly often.

Not far down the trail, I stopped in McKeeport for lunch. The service was slow, and I wolfed down a full Philly cheese steak sub and then got back onto my bike riding so I’d get to my destination of West Newton before dark. Dark was coming earlier and earlier — now before 5 PM. I rode slowly in an attempt to digest and ride a the same time. It was not the most comfortable ride but I was moving.

Start point: Pittsburgh, PA
End point: West Newton, PA
Today’s mileage: 38.5 miles
Total miles so far: 3104 miles
Average speed: 10.8 mph
Max speed: 21.8 mph
Riding time: (10:00 to 14:45) 4.75 hours
Total riding time: 379.5 hours
Weather: partly cloudy, 55-60 F

Day 77: West Newton to Confluence, PA (November 14)

There was a light drizzle leaving in the morning. Not cold but a little chill to start.

The surface of the trail is compacted chip stone. Due to the rain last night it seems a couple miles an hour slower than yesterday when dry. Still able to go about 10 mph. There are also a lot of wet leaves on the trail but they seem pretty stable and I haven’t felt any slipping.

There are little towns every five to ten miles along the route. Most have a look they were started 100 years or so ago when this corridor was heavily used judging by the style of houses.

In Connellville, I liked the Appalachian trail type huts to the northwest of type for cyclists and hikers. I ate lunch at the NY Pizza & Pasta next to the big grocery store. I had looked at the services map of the town by the bike path when coming into town, and checked out a few other places first. Despite the “open” signs on the sidewalk everything else looked closed. They might only open when lots of people come through — April to September.

Leaving Connellville the trail enters a gorge where the river narrows and becomes more wild with rapids and rocks. The low angle sun on the steeper valley, remnants of fall color, and the river created a beautiful place to ride for almost 30 miles. There were no houses or other signs of settlement in this stretch. Most if this run is inside the Ohiopyle State Park so no towns, other people on the trail and no mobile reception. It was almost, but not quite, a wilderness. The CSX tracks on the other side occasionally rumbled with a train and the horns sounded down the valley at distant towns.

Past Ohiopyle were coke ovens for processing coal into coke used in steel mills. At the time the area boasted on of the highest number of millionaires in the country including the Fricks who named many art museums. Now all that remains are a few remnant company towns and nearly overgrown, brick coke ovens.

Arriving in Confluence shortly before dark I found that all the B&B’s and restaurants had closed for the winter. There was only a bar and a pizza place open. I had a steak and cheese sub at the pizza place. I decided to camp in the Overflow State Park camp ground despite it being closed. The bathrooms were open which is all that mattered to me.

I camped out underneath the picnic pavilion which not only was near the bathrooms, but was covered protecting me from the forecast rain.

Start: West Newton, PA
End: Confluence, PA
Today’s mileage: 63.9 miles
Total miles so far: 3168 miles
Average speed: 10.2 mph
Max speed: 19 mph
Travel time: (08:15 to 16:00) 7.75 hours
Total travel time: 387.25 hours
Weather: drizzle, partly cloudy, 50-70 F

Day 78: Confluence, PA to Cumberland, MD (November 15)

Waking up to a hard drizzle or maybe rain, I went to eat breakfast at the Sweetie Bakery next to the pizza place I got dinner with the night before. Buying some donuts and a bagel with cream cheese I checked my email and hoped the rain would stop. The rain eased up and was only something between a mist and a drizzle when I headed back out.

Before Meyersdale, was one of the big things on the trail today: the 1908 foot long Salisbury Viaduct. So not to lose elevation, the railroad made a big bridge to cross over a valley. The bridge is narrow — one track wide — which makes it seem even higher than it is. It looks too be about 100 feet off the ground (but probably only 60 or so) and only about 10 feet wide.

The Casselman River

Today was going to be the “hardest” climb of the GAP trail. It goes over the Eastern Continental Divide and I could actually tell it was a little bit harder despite it being less than a one percent grade.  (Good thing I had Moby Dick to keep my mind off the steep climb…) It might have been the wet surface making it a bit slower too. The divide is marked on a tunnel with murals depicting the settlers going west and the industry of the area. It is the highest point on the great Allegheny passage at 2392 feet. Unlike the western Continental Divide, it really is all downhill from there.

The other big thing was the Big Savage Tunnel. It is 3294 feet long through Big Savage Mountain. I was concerned that the tunnel might be closed because on the map it says it closes in late November. I tried to call the GAP offices to check whether it was open since the website does not have the status but I got no answer until a couple days after I’d already gone through. The map also says that there is no easy way around the tunnel. It looked to me that there is a trail that headed over the the top of Big Savage Mountain which I could have either pushed my bicycle or rode my bicycle over and that would’ve gotten me to the other side. Riding through the tunnel was a little disorienting despite it being lighted. In the reduced light and the speed I was going I felt like I was floating.

After the Big Savage Tunnel it was a nice ride down to Cumberland. I could coast most of the way at about 15 miles an hour. There were another couple of tunnels — the Borden Tunnel and the Brush Tunnel each over 900 feet long. From Frostburg to Cumberland the path follows the Western Maryland Maryland Scenic Railroad. The trains start from Cumberland in the morning and I did not see any trains. The brochure says you can take your bicycle on the train. It could be an interesting way to cover those 32 miles from Cumberland.

Before reaching Cumberland, you cross the Mason Dixon Line and officially are in the Southern US. After visiting the the C&O Visitor center to get a map and see the exhibits on the canal, I rode around town a little. Both the Holiday Inn and the Fairfield Suites had hoses outside specifically to clean off bicycles. I used a hose to clean mine since the chip stone used on the GAP path had gotten up into my chain. Every turn of the cranks reminded me of having sand in my teeth. My poor chain and gears!

I also went to the local bike shop to check on conditions of the trail. The drug dealer in Pittsburgh told me the C&O trail could be muddy. My aunt also said she had heard the same. I was concerned that my tires were not wide enough plus they were not knobby. The salesman assured me that my tires were wide enough and that I wouldn’t need knobby tires. He said the trail gets more wet than muddy although there are puddles that can be deep and can be muddy. He said that if the puddle has steep sides just run through the bottom of the puddle don’t try to go up the sides is you could slip and fall.

I had dinner at the Baltimore Grill in the center of downtown on the pedestrian mall. I think my waitress was surprised at the speed I ate. Each time she came by to ask if everything was OK, I’d already eaten the whole plate. I must have been hungry because I even got dessert which was a little unusual. But I polished off the chocolate cake as well.

Start: Confluence, PA
End: Cumberland, MD
Today’s mileage: 69.7 miles
Total miles so far: 3238 miles
Average speed: 10.3 mph
Max speed: 22.8 mph
Travel time: (08:45 to 16:00) 7.25 hours
Total travel time: 394.5 hours
Weather: drizzle, overcast, 50-55 F

Day 79: Cumberland to Hancock, MD (November 16)

The rain was coming down as I rode through the gate marking the beginning of the C&O towpath in downtown Cumberland by the park service visitor center. Cumberland is a CSX town and the train horns could be heard at all hours with trains coming and going. The rail lines paralleled the towpath for about half the day. Even when the trains could not be seen they were present with the low throb of the locomotive diesel engines, the clatter of cars on the rails or the screech of wheels going around bends.

I had heard the towpath could be muddy when it rain. There was on section maybe a quarter mile long that I was a bit worried and rode unclipped. But it was not that bad.
The path is dual track from the tires of a truck. The bottom of the track is not level but it is mostly pea stones so not muddy. But the ruts form puddles. The puddles ranged from about an inch to six inches deep. The deeper ones were evident by a deep brown color from the fallen leaves decomposing in them. Not being able to see the bottoms I had to coast through the deep puddles. The others I could cruise through at about 9-10 mph. Definitely happy to have fenders! Also happy to have waterproof panniers.

I used the C&O Companion iPhone App to find a place to stay and eat in Hancock. I ate at Weaver’s Restaurant plus it seemed to be the only place open. There might have been a bar too. I had apple pie for dessert that was good. The C&O app is much better than the GAP app. I like that I can use it without the internet and get info on places to eat, sleep, camp, and bike shops. (Although all the bike shops look to be closed.)

I downloaded another audio book because Moby Dick will soon run out. I went with another classic: The Complete Sherlock Holmes.

Start: Cumberland, MD
End: Hancock, MD
Today’s mileage: 64.4 miles
Total miles so far: 3302 miles
Average speed: 9.1 mph
Max speed: 15.4 mph
Travel time: (08:45 to 15:45) 7 hours
Total travel time: 401.5 hours
Weather: rain, overcast, 50-55 F

Day 81: Harper’s Ferry, WV to Arlington, VA (November 18)

This will be my last day!

Leaving the Teahorse Hostel after a waffle breakfast , I rode up then down into Harper’s Ferry. Again I had to squash the urge to immediately leave town across the bridge and get riding again. So I rode around the part of town right near the river. The History Channel crew was setting up again for another shoot. There was certainly a lot of history in Harper’s Ferry with the Revolutionary War and Civil War and the founding of the country. Right now there is only one railroad bridge out of town, but previously there had been at least three. The two unused ones are slowly falling apart. Now nothing is left but their stone piers.

A few miles after leaving Harper’s Ferry, I met a man and his son. The man had rode down the East Coast of the US about 25 or 30 years ago, and was so happy when he got to the C&O because he didn’t have to ride on the street. It was a high point of his ride which was a high point of his life. I talked to him for about 15 minutes telling him about my trip and hearing some about his. He was very excited to meet me and hear about the trip and vowed to help create more cycling routes like the C&O and GAP trail.

The weather today was a bit cool but sunny and nice. Puddles were still along the trail, but it was not muddy. My 1.5″ tires were good enough for the C&O despite its relatively unimproved surface. The rocks and roots and puddles were a bit bumpy, and maybe fatter tires would do better. Suspension would be nice too. I thought the trail would get more paved or smoother the closer I got to DC, but it remained the same bumpiness the whole way to Georgetown. There were more and more people walking, running, and biking as I approached the city. I got passed by a few guys on fancy bikes. I had to tell myself that it was OK because they had nothing on their bikes and their bikes probably weighed about half as much as mine. I did notice that the closer I got to the city fewer people said hi or waved.

The C&O doesn’t become more urban as you get closer. It always feels somewhat separate although there is a major road running along side it for the last 10 miles or so. I crossed over the Chain Bridge into Arlington, VA. I had forgotten that Arlington is on a big bluff above the Potomac River, and the hill getting up onto the top was so steep I had to get off and push my bike up it. I noticed that my left shoe has really been worn down and has almost no traction. When I stop, my left foot hits the ground first often when the bike is still moving wearing away the rubber.

I haven’t enjoyed the GAP and C&O as much as I would if I didn’t feel compelled to put my head down and ride everyday. I have been listening to Sherlock Holmes on audio book to make things go a bit faster since Hancock. It is a bit odd that my bicycle trip essentially ended today. I will ride into DC to look at some museums and check on the Amtrak train and check-in, but that is a day trip. Arriving at my friends’ house in Arlington was the end of the trip. There was a definite feeling of relief when I arrived at their door. Thus ends my cross country bicycle ride!

Day 80: Hancock, MD to Harper’s Ferry, WV (November 17)

Coming into Hancock the day before, I noticed that there was paved bike path heading into Hanock and then out continuing down river. There is about a twenty mile bike path of the old Western Maryland Railroad that parallels the C&O Tow Path with Hancock pretty much in the middle. Since paved roads are faster than the bumpy C&O I decided to give it a go until it ended.

At one point on the trail, there was a sign pointing out the three modes of transportation that were tried in that corridor: canal then railroad, and then the interstate. It said that each eventually led to the demise of the previous one. (CSX still has an active rail line nearby that mostly moves coal.) I had often thought about the history of the route. From the historical signs along the canal, the canal was never much of a success. It was plagued by flooding and it was not fully completed until the railroads were also nearly complete along the same route. It could not compete with the railroads in speed or tonnage. The amount of railroads coming through are still visible with both active and abandoned railroad trestles crossing the rivers. The signs along the path were interesting because of the long and important history of this area of country for both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War as well as the development of industry and the move west.

When the bike path ended, I took to the road to ride the about mile up to Fort Frederick State Park. I was warned that the road had no shoulder, steep hills, short sight lines, and was for advanced riders only. I hoped by this point in my trip I could handle that sort of road for a mile. I think I did OK as I made it to the state park. I suppose the bike path has to say that especially since many people who go for a day ride on the bike path are probably not road riders. I think they are planning to connect the end of the ride to the C&O but not sure. There was a connector about a mile or two before the end of the path, but I missed it and no way I was going back to avoid riding on a road for five minutes.

Fort Frederick State Park was Maryland’s first state park and houses a fort dating back to the French and Indian war built in 1756. After use in three wars (French and Indian, Revolutionary, and Civil War), it had fallen to ruins, but its stone walls were rebuilt by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930′s. There are camping spots in the park, and it connects to the C&O. It was deserted when I rode though. I took a brief look into the fort, but the buildings all looked closed, and I had miles to go to get to Harper’s Ferry.

The path continued along the Potomac. A few spots of trees still had leaves, especially bright yellow, but most fallen off. The opposite bank had some development with both small summer cottages often on stilts and large estates with lush green lawns.

I was in a mode to ride. The last few days have been head down riding. Not completely, but I am slightly more focused on getting to where I want to get than to see things along the way. I think the grey dreary and chilly day also added to my focus. I have to occasionally make my self take a time out for beauty for a few seconds. In Williamsport, I briefly stopped in to the park service visitor center, but there was nothing much new there I had not seen at the main one in Cumberland. But I was given a bit more information about an upcoming detour. Part of the trail washed out along the Potomac so there was a 7 mile detour along the road. (Advised that it was for advanced riders only…)

When I did get to the detour, it was very well marker, and they even had installed porta-potties so you didn’t have to pee on people’s lawns. Quite impressed.

The clouds cleared and the sun was out for the last few hours of the day. A few miles outside of Harper’s Ferry, I came to a campsite. It was a nice spot, quiet, and I briefly considered staying there. Why didn’t I camp out my second to last night? I had one thing of ramen and a couple handfuls of peanut m&m’s left. I had eaten everything else. So basically no dinner and if I ate dinner there’d be no breakfast. Plus it was getting cold and the sun had not even set.

I soldiered on to Harper’s Ferry. I was not pleased at carrying my bike up three flights of stairs to cross the river into Harper’s Ferry, but nothing else to do. Across the river I ran into a film crew shooting on the big hill I had to ride up to get to the Teahorse Hostel where I was going to stay the night. (I found it using the C&O iPhone app…I thought it was worth the dollar or two it cost since it lists all the campsites, a lot of lodging, and restaurants along the route.) I stopped a bit before the hostel to get some pizza. I ate most of a large 16″ and saved two slices for lunch the next day.

Start: Hancock, MD
End: Harper’s Ferry, WV
Today’s mileage: 71.6 miles
Total miles so far: 3374 miles
Average speed: 9.7 mph
Max speed: 29.1 mph
Riding time: (09:00 to 17:30) 8.5 hours
Total riding time: 410 hours
Weather: rain, overcast 40 F