Thursday, May 25, 2017

Cumberland, MD to Washington, DC: The Towpath, Dragonboats, and the Mall

While the GAP is a rail-to-trail that's your typical unpaved bike path – level, graded, crushed gravel with good drainage -- the C&O towpath was more like a really long dirt driveway from Cumberland to the White House.

Heading out from Cumberland, it was even singletrack at times (for those of you non-cyclists out there, singletrack means just one of the two “tracks” found on a double-track road made for a car, so it can be a bit more weavy and uneven since it doesn't permit a car). But, it was a trail, and I came to like it quite a bit after the first day. I think the GAP had spoiled me and I needed to reset my expectations... also I was hot and still had a little fog brain.

Aside from the surface of the trail, the nature changed, too. Just after crossing the Continental Divide I crossed the Mason-Dixon line and everything became more humid. The amount of wildlife seemed to increase, aided, I am sure, by the old canal.

May as well have a real estate sign up for frogs and turtles.

Let me explain a bit about the towpath, since I didn't understand it at first. Before trains were a thing, people needed a way to get supplies – mostly coal, I think – between Cumberland and DC. It was more efficient to carry heavy goods like coal over water than over land. George Washington started the Potowmack Company and dug a few canals around less navigable parts of the Potomac; eventually, someone had the idea to complete a canal 185 miles long from Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD, complete with 74 locks to raise and lower boats as they went, 11 aqueducts and 240 culverts, a tunnel more than a mile long, and pumps and drains to maintain the water level. It was finished in 1850. Mules were tied to the boats to tow them along the canal, and the path used by the mules was the towpath. Eventually, trains beat out the canal in cost and efficiency.

The canal was then bought by B&O so they could maintain rights to the land, but they only maintained the parallel railway, not the canal or the towpath. In 1938, the US Government bought the land and turned it into a national park, and since then it's been improved upon to be the biking and hiking trail of today. C&O stands for Chesapeake and Ohio, as the canal was supposed to run from the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia to the Ohio River in Pittsburgh, though the section from Cumberland to Pittsburgh was never completed.

Okay. History lesson over (if that sort of thing interests you, the Wikipedia page is full of all sorts of cool information and the Library of Congress has some cool photos).

Library of Congress

So the bicycle path has, on one side, the old canal, sometimes full of stagnant water and sometimes dry, and on the other, the Potomac River. So there are turtles, beavers, snakes, insects, birds, lizards, and all sorts of critters that have made their homes there.

It was a beautiful intersection of nature and engineering, like an old building left to the devices of the outdoors, a building without a roof that runs 180 miles and is bike-able and has free camping along the way, and also the parts needed for travel are pretty well maintained.

Like this aqueduct.

I spent my first night on top of an aqueduct. At first, I was a little worried there wouldn't be any other cyclists along the way – maybe they were all spoiled by the GAP, as I had been. But on the morning of the second day my worries were washed away as I was passed by about ten fully-loaded cyclists going the other way. I also ran into Larry and Vinny again, the two cyclists from Queens with heavy accents that had passed by me in Meyersdale, PA the day before. They regaled me with anecdotes of their travels and time in the big apple. I wish I had recorded every time I ran into them; being around them was like being transported into a film noir where the culprit was a flat tire and the two of them switched seamlessly between detective and comic relief. I'll put what I got on the map as stories when I get a chance, but I don't think any amount of text can replace being in their presence. As I rode off, Larry shouted his characteristic, “Keep the rubber side down, brothah!”

When I stopped in Cumberland the day before I had inadvertently downloaded my e-mail while trying to find a Warmshowers host somewhere along the trail. I opened it that morning to a personal emergency of sorts that required an e-mail to resolve. It was hard to enjoy where I was with that hanging over my head, but I eventually came into a... city? Town? Village? Map marker? There were two bars and one house. One bar was closed and the other didn't have wi-fi. I was desperate, so I approached the house. The dogs alerted the owner, and I explained I had a personal emergency of sorts for which I needed internet. The fellow was very kind and got me set up on his porch. It felt a little sacrilegious, out in the middle of nature trying desperately to find internet, but it needed to be done. I kept asking if I could pay him $5 or do anything to thank him, and he kept turning that around and offering me water and fresh eggs. Eventually he came out of the barn with half a dozen eggs laid that morning and said if I didn't take them they would go to waste. So, I got internet and fresh eggs.

I stopped at the open bar to see what they had and ran into no less than eight other cyclists who had all stopped there for lunch. The timing seemed impeccable – they hadn't been there when I first passed through. I asked to sit with four of them: Lenley and his daughter Haley, who were celebrating Haley's graduation by biking from Pittsburgh to DC, and two brothers whose names I don't recall who were also cycling from Pittsburgh to DC. One of the brothers had a (great?) grandfather who drove a boat up the canal, so that was pretty cool. After lunch and some story telling, we all went down the trail at our own pace.

Also, the ceiling of the bar was plastered in $1 bills.

Later that day I ran into Larry and Vinny again, which was a treat. I also ran into Roger and Betsy, a couple that met on a bike ride more than 30 years ago and rode around the world from 1982-1987. They had stories to tell, and I'll put what I can on the map when I can.

That night as I came into camp, I needed a bath. I hadn't had one since Pittsburgh, four days and more than 200 miles ago. It was hot and humid. So, I dove into the Potomac. Cold and wonderful. I got out to set up a clothesline, and just as I was about to change into dry clothes...

it started to rain.

Refreshing became obnoxious. I waited it out in the portapotty.

The next day was short but beautiful. I had set up a Warmshowers host so I could actually shower, and I wanted to arrive early to blog. I'll let the pictures do the talking.

Blogging became napping. I believe the original cause of fog brain in Cumberland, four days previous, was a sinus infection and lack of sleep; below the Mason-Dixon, it seemed to be allergies. So sleep was needed. You should be aware, dear reader, that there will come times when I will choose my own health over writing a blog post. After all, if I am too ill to ride, there will not be much to blog!

My hosts for that night were Scott and Jen, who were nothing less than lovely. They had an adorable miniature wiener named Cricket, and assorted wiener paraphernalia on the walls throughout the house. I'm not sure if they acquired it for the sole purpose of hosting cyclists, but my accommodation that night was my very own Airstream:

Needless to say, I was very grateful for their generous hospitality. In addition to the company and food, I also got my shower in and was able to do laundry and fully dry my tent.

We're now on Saturday, one night away from my sister in DC!

I took a fairly easy day, stopping just 15 miles down the road from Scott and Jen at Harper's Ferry, a historic town that is basically half museum, half food court. The Appalachian Trail also runs through Harper's Ferry, so every now and then I'd see people with hiking packs (and a few dogs!) pass through town. They had come about 1000 miles from Georgia and had about 1200 more to go until Maine. On foot. I had biked about 1600 from Minneapolis, but I had the luxury of coasting and not carrying my things on my back. I'm not sure one is necessarily better or more impressive than the other. Both the same culture, I think. I also met Amy and her daughter Sadie, who were camping the trail as I was (everybody else I'd met so far was doing Bnbs along the way, which I was jealous of, it's just not in my budget) and had stopped for ice cream. Amy had quite the personality and we geeked out over our bikes and vagabonding in general. I was glad I'd run into them, and it wouldn't be the last time, either.

In any case, after wandering around Harper's Ferry for a few hours, I went another five miles to Brunswick and had dinner in an old church. I wish I had thought to take a picture (the below is from the internet), but I made friends almost instantly, and ended up sitting with two different parties while I was there. None were cyclists, all were just friendly, inquisitive folk who wanted to get to know me, and I them. One of my favorites was Heather, an artist who redesigned outdoor spaces. We spoke of the vision for her next project, pop-up circuses in neighborhood cul-de-sacs. She wants people to be transported from the neighborhood into something else, like the tents in Harry Potter at the quidditch tournament. One moment you're outdoors, but step through the flap and you're... somewhere else.

I then set out to hunt for a place to stay before the storm that was supposed to come in. The first free campsite? Full. It started to rain. The second? Full. The third, full. As I arrived at the forth, containing only two tents, it stopped raining. Funny how life works out like that.

I set up my tent and was eventually greeted by the two other cyclists, Jenny and... Pam? (nuts! I'm sorry if you're reading this, I didn't write it down...) They were taking three weeks to do the trail, so they got to see everything along the way. They had all sorts of questions about my setup, which was flattering, but I guess I am going around the world so... maybe that makes me an expert? I, in exchange, asked them about their Europe tour – what to eat, how the roads were, etcetera. We talked until it was so dark we couldn't see each other, and sadly had to call it a night.

The next day the trail gradually got more and more populated until finally, I arrived in Georgetown, a neighborhood of DC. Along the way, I ran into Amy and Sadie again (or, they passed me as I was fixing a flat), and Larry and Vinny, and made some new friends with a group of five cyclists using a sag wagon (car that carries your stuff so you don't have to). At Great Falls, about 15 miles out of Georgetown, the trail suddenly felt very touristy. Not that it's not for tourists, but I went from seeing cyclists with panniers every now and then to seeing hundreds of people just walking the trail. It was weird to think that I had biked through mostly secluded trail and small towns and was now just 15 miles from DC, with a population of more than half a million. The trail continued through Georgetown, becoming singletrack again as there was little room for it amidst all the buildings.

I could have continued on to the National Mall and my sister's, where I'd be staying, but I had biked all 184 miles of the towpath and I wanted to find mile marker 0. The map I had said it was behind a boat house, so I went to the boat house, and... there was a dragonboat festival and I wasn't allowed back. The staff gave me directions around, which I didn't think would work, but I kindly tried them anyways. I ended up on the wrong side of the canal, and went back and asked them again: “I really think it's back there, could I please just have a look?” I showed them the map of the trail and explained that I'd biked 184 miles and I just wanted to see where the trail started. Reluctantly, they let me walk by the boaters without my bike. Sure enough, it was back there.

When I returned saying I had found it, they were extremely apologetic. They were just doing their job, I knew, and to someone who hadn't biked the trail, it was really just a cement stick in the dirt. But to me it was a landmark, a sense of accomplishment... I made it to DC!

On the way to the mall I ran into somebody else waving their map at a local, trying to find mile marker 0, so I kindly gave them directions and told them what to say to the dragonboat staff.

Past the mall, which I had seen before but not biked to from Minneapolis before...

...towards the White House, and then I ran into Amy and Sadie again! It was nice to catch up with them one last time – they were now headed back up the trail to Pittsburgh, where they had started from. I commended them: I'd definitely like to do the trail again sometime, but I can't say I'm fond of the idea of the 30-mile, 4% grade up from Cumberland to the Divide. But yes, Amy, I really did enjoy talking to you, despite my sarcastic remarks otherwise.

From the White House, it was a short ride past the capitol to my sister's apartment. I'm spending the week her with her, her husband, and their dog, enjoying home cooking, helping around the house, and being accosted by their golden retriever for more pets and cuddles.

Good morning! You may commence petting.

Did I mention the food is good, too?

Idli, next to upma (there's a story about this on the map).

I plan to leave again next Monday, which should give me just enough time to bike to New York for my flight from JFK to London, and then... well, then I'll be in London. I'm nervous, as this will actually be my first time in Europe (I had layovers there on my way to India and Zambia for my service project, but was never able to leave the airport), but also excited, as I get to see Europe! I am sure that things will go wrong... but I'm also pretty sure I can figure them out.

I may or may not do another post between now and then. I have some ideas percolating, just not sure if anything is substantial enough. I'm also prioritizing sleep and time with my family, as who knows how long I'll be gone after this... I'm actually, really, biking around the world, aren't I?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Connellsville, PA to Cumberland, MD: Canadians, Waterfalls, and Wildlife

When we last left off, I was in Connellsville, MD, having just gotten not much sleep because of all the trains passing through town, taking an easy day because of the resulting fog brain. I then stopped at a local Italian restaurant for some much needed soup and went on my way. Almost immediately, I ran into Greg and Corinne from Canada, biking from West Newton to DC to see the graduation of a relative. They had other priorities than biking at the moment: having just gotten to town, they wanted beer! And I can't blame them; in fact, I would have liked to join them if it hadn't been for my fog brain. We talked a bit about our trips and they mused about how I was going around the world, yet carrying less than them. To each their own! I was sad to leave such a friendly couple, but we would see each other again. Such is the nature of cycle touring.

Out of Connellsville began what I can only describe as “the waterfall tour.” The next city I would see larger than a few thousand people would be Cumberland, MD, two nights from where I was, so except for the trains there was a heck of a lot of nature. At first I was taking a picture of every waterfall I passed because they were all beautiful, but at some point I realized the waterfalls were endless, so I kept the camera away and enjoyed them the old fashioned way.

The trail was beautiful, and in the style of “taking it easy” I made a point of parking the bike to climb up some of the waterfalls and trails that looked interesting. There continued to be countless cyclists along the way, most doing the trail end-to-end (Pittsburgh to DC) but some just out for the day. I didn't make the acquaintances of any just yet, as I seemed to be the only one in “What's that? Let's climb it!” mode, but there was still plenty of cycling to be done. After a relaxing 30 miles in 5 hours, I found a quiet place to sleep off in a flat part of the woods.

When I was done reading, journaling, and practicing uke for the night, I lay down and noticed through the small window in the fly what appeared to be a satellite with a rather erratic orbit. It would blink once directly above me, then five minutes later it would blink off to one side, then two minutes later it would blink off to the other. I thought maybe aliens were coming down to abduct me or NASA had recently been forced into some difficult hiring decisions, but fell asleep with the riddle unsolved.

Since I was fog-braining I'd been drinking lots of water and had to exit the tent in the middle of the night for obvious reasons. I had my headlamp on just long enough to make sure I didn't step on any snakes, then turned it off, and... fireflies, everywhere. I was surrounded by hundreds of fireflies. They weren't aliens, nor satellites programmed by drunk engineers at NASA. I wish I'd been conscious enough to take a picture (my camera is supposedly half-decent at long exposure shots), but all I could do was pee in awe and then stand in awe until I was too cold to be out of my tent. They flashed all around me, lighting up the forest from the ground to the canopy for as far as I could see.

It was a glorious way to go to the bathroom.

The next morning, the nature continued. I stopped in Confluence for breakfast and a nap and visited the bicycle shop despite not needing anything. The owner, Brad, regaled me with stories of other long-distance cyclists passing through, though there hadn't been any recently. He also educated me about his chain of shame, which included, but was not limited to: the helmet that got backed over by a car, the wheel whose spokes were ripped out by a stick (which resulted in a fully loaded touring bike that had to be carried three miles to the shop)...

It was, he said, for the stories and the people that he worked there, not for the money. Brad specifically mentioned a couple from England who had come through last fall, nearly done with their round-the-world. He took my picture, we shook hands, and I went on my way.

On the way out of town, I encountered another cyclist who had stopped to take photos of a bird on the trail. He said it had started chasing him and theorized it had a nest around there it was protecting. He took off, and the bird starting accosting me! I tried various methods to dissuade it, but in the end just got on my bike and rode as fast as I could. To my next nap spot.

I awoke just in time to catch the Canadians going by. We caught up on the events of the last day and continued to pass each other for the next few hours. At one point I pulled over to relieve myself, looked up, and saw my first snake of the trip. Or, more correctly, my first two snakes.

Fortunately, I think said snakes were napping, and didn't notice me, just as I hadn't noticed them. I made a note to check the trees above me before venturing off the trail from then on. In any case, I'd been playing tag with the Canadians all day, and I caught up to them one last time as they arrived at their campsite for the night. I regret not asking if they wanted to share a site, as they seemed like fine folk and that would be the last time I got to see them, but in the end I decided to go a bit farther that day in order to camp for free.

A few more waterfalls and a flourishing peacock in the middle of the trail later (I wasn't quick enough with the camera, but yes, there was a peacock, tail fanned, right in the middle of the trail. It collapsed its tail and returned to its ostentation as I got closer), I eventually found a place to settle for the night in an old cemetery next to some cows. It wasn't exactly “stealth” camping as it was right next to the trail, so I elected to sit in the grass and play my uke until the sun went down. The result was that as I ran into people over the next few days, they would say, “Were you the guy playing uke in the cemetary?” And thus, I became “the uke guy” (I'd like to campaign for something cemetery-related like “the ghost uke” or “the graveyard strummer,” but nicknames aren't like that).

To the cows, I was just the "do you have food?" guy.

That night some strange things happened which I would attribute to sleeping in a cemetery if I was superstitious, but I'll let you make your own judgments. I've added them as a story to the map.

The next morning was spectacularly foggy, so I opted to make breakfast in order to wait for the sun to come up and dry my things. This also afforded me the opportunity to take some pictures... you know, of the cows, and the viaduct.

Just a mile down the road I stopped in Meyersdale for second breakfast, and ended up being regaled by the local folk about all the cyclists that come through. They had a guest book and, despite it being 8 AM, I discovered I was the fourth cyclist to come through that day. Surely they aren't that busy all the time, but it was quite humbling all the same. Just for giggles I asked about the couple from England on their round-the-world; sure enough, the cafe folk remembered them, and I was able to find their entry in the guest book. On the way out from Meyersdale, I had my first encounter with Larry and Vinny, two cyclists from Queens, NY, who had almost comically strong accents, raspy voices, and dry senses of humor, but we didn't get to know each other much just then.

From Meyersdale, it was some unknown number of increasingly sweaty miles to the Eastern Continental Divide, the highest point on the trail and probably for my trip in the US. I already posted a picture of me at the top of it on Instagram/Facebook, so here I'll post the vantage point where there were about eight other cyclists all enjoying the view.

I sat for about half an hour as cyclists came and went. A few traded stories, a few just enjoyed the view. I was offered a place to stay by a Warmshowers host in New Mexico (or was it Arizona? I have it written down...) when I make it around the world. After a while, there was nothing to do but get on and pedal on.

The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP trail) runs 150 miles from Pittsburgh, PA to Cumberland, MD. From Pittsburgh to the Eastern Continental Divide, about 120 miles, it's a 2% uphill grade. From the Divide to Cumberland, about 30 miles, it's a 4% downhill grade. So I did the next 30 miles in about two hours, with very little pedaling, arriving in Cumberland with time to do some grocery shopping and head out on the next trail, the C&O Towpath. The Towpath is a different beast altogether than the GAP, but...

...I'll cover that in my next post.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Lancaster, OH to Connellsville, PA: Houston, We Have Hills

When we last left off, I was in Lancaster, OH, at a coffee shop using wifi. I had inadvertently biked past my host for the night, so I had to backtrack about 10 miles. I foolishly thought I could find a less hilly route than the one I took in, and ended up on rolling hills with no margin and cars rushing by at 50 mph... and also it rained... and also my chain broke.

There was much swearing.

However, my host that night was well worth it. Gloria had stories upon stories upon stories to tell. She had a farm just outside of town and I'll be sure to post at least some of her saga – between the rednecks and the Amish there seemed to be endless anecdotes. She also spent three years broke in Greece. It made me want to write a book about her life, but I think she had plans to do that herself. If she ever publishes it, I'll post a link here.

On Thursday, 5/11/17, I did not want to get up. Gloria and I had stayed up late the night before and I was tired from what would only be the beginning of the hills of the east coast. But, I had 85 miles to do. I clambered out of bed and sat down for breakfast. Gloria and I got to talking again when she asked if I wanted to see an old mill. I did, but I had 85 miles to do that day, so I was hesitant... but then I remembered, this trip was as much about seeing cool things as it was biking long distances. So I went, provided that Gloria could give me a head start afterwards.

It was worth it.

The mill had been under restoration for the past 12 years. They had just put the gears in, so I got to examine someone's fine handywork, and read a little bit about history. It was a nice recharge from being on busy roads or in a busy city, feeling like I needed to be somewhere... which is sort of the opposite of the point of cycle touring.

In the car on the head start, Gloria and I continued to have good conversation. She was truly a remarkable person and I'm grateful I got to meet her. I was her first Warmshowers guest and I hope I left a good impression because Warmshowers needs more people like her.

That afternoon was when the hills really began – I was, I had been told, now in the foothills of the Appalachians. I decided to take what I thought would be a shortcut instead of sticking along a windy river. The thing is, roads along rivers tend to be flat, and roads in and out of rivers tend to be... well, not flat.

I did run into this huge crane thing which was pretty cool:

Apparently it was once used to mine coal. As you can see, it's huge, and there was once (or is somewhere) a huge crane used to drag it along and pick up coal.

That tiny little bucket in the middle of the photo is what I'm standing inside of in the previous photo.

So, I didn't end up regretting the hilly route. In my last post I lamented the impossibility of getting away from civilization. I didn't quite do that (perhaps I never will as long as I am bound to a bike, and therefore the road), but I did come pretty close. After about three hours of climbing rolling hills, I finally summited what seemed to be the top of the world.

I eventually made it to Cumberland, OH, out of water. I didn't see a gas station or anything evidently able to provide water, and when I asked, everybody said the only shop in town was the gun shop, which sold bottled water. So there I went, and we had an interesting talk about how the well water in the city is non-potable, so everybody gets their water from out of town or from the gun shop. And they still have to pay their water bills, they just get a letter from the city every year saying if they drink tap water, they'll probably die... it made me feel I lived a very privileged life everywhere I'd resided, always able to turn on the faucet and drink whatever came out, often for basically free.

A few more hills and I made it to my host for that night, another one from Warmshowers. Craig biked across the US last year, and he, his wife, and I spent the night sharing travel stories and drinking bourbon. He rode out with me the next morning, which was an almost ridiculous morale boost – the first non-city cyclist I'd seen since the trail from Cincinnati to London, OH, and to have someone to talk to about seat height and skipping chains and hills and headwinds... it was glorious. I tried not to be overwhelming and just absorb the moment.

Craig rode with me about 15 miles, and then I was on my own again. It was cloudy that day, and a bit chilly. My layers came on and off, on and off, and the hills went up and down, up and down... and my chain broke again. When this happens, I'm able to fasten it back together with the broken link removed; but, every time I do this, it gets an inch shorter. It was now two inches shorter than when I left, and it had already been short to begin with. Aside from being too short, I was almost certain there was something wrong with it, being it had broken twice nice. So, I resolved that a new chain was in order.

A few poorly-chosen (read: hilly) roads later, I made it to Blaine, OH, and then it was about a three mile downhill to Bridgeport, OH, where there was a bike shop with a chain. The bike shop was up about a mile of flat highway that I could have ridden on if I'd wanted, but I didn't want to (because highway and I was mentally exhausted), so I opted for back roads instead... not expecting they would be as hilly as they were. This resulted in about 30 minutes of walking uphill, but by the time I was walking, I was already far enough up I would have only turned around begrudgingly. I was rewarded with a view:

Another descent back to the river, and I went into Quick Service Bicycle Shop and bought my chain. The store owner, Dave, quickly figured out I was on tour, and he immediately began regaling me with stories of his tour, which I'll add to the map when I have time. “How far did you bike today?” he asked.

“Sixty miles,” I guessed.

“Sixy miles! Come back and have a beer!”

So I spent the next half hour in the back of the shop, swapping travel stories with Dave and a pseudo-employee, Dan, drinking beer, and generally feeling right at home. Dan had done all of the ventilation system there; in exchange, Dave let him use the shop to work on his bike. “Give a little, get a little,” they called it. Just the way it should be.

I wanted to get to where I was going before nightfall, so I had to leave eventually. Wheeling felt a little sketchy, and was not the most bicycle-friendly city, but there was a bike trail that went around most of the industry. After another hour or so, I made it to a coworker of my mom's cousin, Dave, who had me on his couch for the night.

It isn’t very often I stay with people I don’t know personally or through Warmshowers (a reciprocal hospitality website exclusively for touring cyclists), so it was a privilege to stay with Dave and his family. Together, he and his wife orchestrate a demanding job, a house they sometimes make improvements to, kids in high school, the training of three dogs, and the most complete collection of Stephen King novels I have ever seen. I was impressed; on top of all this, that they took the time to invite basically a complete stranger into their home for a night was incredible. I was treated to dinner at a local restaurant, as Dave and I shared the sentiment that travel is about experiencing things you can only experience in the locale. Over dinner, we had some playful banter and genuine inquisitiveness on the topic of our differing lifestyles. It was a refreshing night for which I am incredibly grateful and impressed, and I hope it wasn’t the last time I get to spend time with Dave and his family.

The next day I took off for Pittsburgh via... mostly bike trail. There was a trail up the river, and I wasn't going to make the same mistake I'd made two days before. It did end just shy of the next one, however, and at that point even Google maps concluded there was less climbing to be done headed away from the river than up it. It was still, however, a lot of climbing.

I did have to get off the trail to get to my host for the night, a friend of my sister's who lived in a suburb just south of Pittsburgh proper.

Somebody should have told me how hilly Pittsburgh was. There were hills upon hills. I'd reach the top of one hill – or what I thought was the top – then turn and there would be more hill. This would ensue for half a mile or so, then there'd be a downhill, just to go up another hill of the same or greater magnitude. It took me an hour to go five miles, which is less than half the speed I try and average. Needless to say, my legs were very sore.

Finally, I reached... well, the end of the road for the day. You could say I completed my quest.

See what I did there?

Amy, my host, had a lot going on that night, but I was still very grateful just to have a place to stay. We did have a chance to talk briefly and she seemed like someone I’d like to get to know better given the chance. The world, it seems, is full of people like that.

Getting out of Pittsburgh was as much of an ordeal as getting in, and at one point I ended up on a road that was more like a cowpath.

Yes, Google actually told me to take this "road." I did.

Finally, though... finally, I made it to the Great Alleghany Path.

Distance to DC now countable!

The GAP runs along various rivers from Pittsburgh, PA to Cumberland, MD, where it becomes the C&O to Washington, DC. What does this mean...? No more hills for a week!

Although, I am told that the C&O is of questionable quality. Time will tell.

Along the GAP I met a wonderful trail volunteer by the name of Marei (“more-ee”). We exchanged contact info, I bought a really cool t-shirt, put my pin the map, and continued to where I'd heard there was free camping in Connellsville, PA.

Along the trail were waterfalls, old bridges, a cool graveyard from the 1800s only accessible by the bicycle path (all of which will have photos on the map or on Facebook at some point)... and, oh yea, other tourists!

I have seen in my travels so far a few people on bikes, maybe even a few people going more than ten miles by bike, but not a single pannier... until the GAP. It's full of them! I saw no less than eight people with panniers on their bikes yesterday. It was glorious. All, it seems, are taking a long weekend, or a week, or just a few days to bike the GAP or the GAP and the C&O. So the chance encounters have been plentiful. I haven't meant anyone doing a cross country or round-the-world, though by word of mouth I know there are a few out there.

In any case, I spent the night at the free camping site in Connellsville with four other cyclists. I wish I could say we all sat round the campfire singing songs and dancing, but three of them kept mostly to themselves. I did get to know and spend time with JT, an Army veteran who is kicking off his retirement by biking down the GAP/C&O. We played cards, talked about touring, he asked me if I'd met any hot girls yet... it was a grand old time.

The sunrise was nice too.

So, now we're at today, Sunday, 5/14/17. My legs are still exhausted from four days of hills, so I'm taking most of the day off. I didn't get up until 8 (usually when camping I get up at 5 or 6), though I hardly got any sleep because of the trains that constantly pass through Connellsville (one of the many reasons I am generally suspicious of free campsites, well-intentioned as they may be...). I spent about an hour this morning trying desperately to find a local coffee shop or, well, a local anything that would let me use their internet, but after a few places being closed on Sunday and a few places not having internet, I've relegated myself to the city McDonald's. I'm just getting coffee here so I don't feel too morally ambiguous about using their internet, but I've been recommended about three places to go for lunch.

Then I'll take it easy down the trail. It's stealth camping the next three nights before my next host in Shepherdstown, WV, a 190 mile ride from here. I should probably find a waterfall to bathe in between now and then... but, details, details.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Lancaster, OH: Musings from the Road

”Musings from the Road” is any post where the content is not constrained by chronology. This gives me more freedom to write about whatever comes to my mind, though the content will almost always be influenced by the tour in some way.

1. The Bike Shop Dilemma

I’ve worked as a bike mechanic before and I totally support bicycle shops, especially non-chain shops, but as a fixer and a tinkerer, I often feel coerced to spend money that I don’t really need to spend.

My bike is about half a size too small. When I bought it, it was just the frame: the Trek 520 frame costs anywhere from $3-700 new, but I found it used for $100. I usually ride a size 58 or 60, and this was a size 59. For $100? Heck yea!

So, I built it up and rode it off. Only, my neck started hurting. The frame was the “right size,” but it didn’t fit. Nuts.

I stopped at a local bike shop (colloquially “LBS”) in Champaign, IL and had an excellent talk with someone who knows more about bike fit than me. I’m a mechanic, but bike fit is a world all of its own. They spent maybe an hour with me, discussing various options from a $65 stem (piece that holds the handlebars on, $65 plus the cost of install) to a new frame at around $600 (they lambasted the cost of moving the parts over from the current frame, not knowing that I could do it myself…) to an entirely new bike at around $1200. If I am going to bike around the world, I want a bike that fits, and $1200 to save myself from a year or more of neck pain is definitely worth it.

And yet…

We mourned the lack of standard sizing in the bicycle world: road bikes use centimeters; mountain bikes use inches; some companies just use small, medium, large; how even between bikes that use the same system, two bikes that are the “same size” (such as 58 cm) might fit entirely differently. This isn’t the shop’s fault, it isn’t my fault. It isn’t anybody’s “fault,” really. It’s the result of some manufacturers thinking their way is better and some not caring enough to get it right and probably some unintentional imperfections. But it’s annoying and it shouldn’t cost $1200 to fix.

So I went on Amazon and bought this for $12 instead:

On the one hand, I am incredibly grateful to this LBS for spending time with me, answering all my questions, and in general giving me great service and being very kind to me.

On the other, my neck doesn’t hurt anymore, and it cost me all of $12, much less $65, much less $1200. Does my bike fit perfectly? No, of course not. If I went in and asked to have it fit as is, would they recommend getting “a bike that fits?” Probably, yea. And to be honest, if I worked there as a mechanic, I would probably say the same thing.

It is a shortcoming of bicycles that finding the right one can often be such an ordeal. When you get in a car and the seat isn’t adjusted properly, the solution is… fiddle with the seat until it’s adjusted properly. Nobody ever gave up cars because they tried one that was uncomfortable. Yet when some people get on a bicycle and it’s the wrong size or not adjusted properly, the sad, too-often solution is that they conclude “bicycles are uncomfortable.”

I don’t know that I have a conclusion to this one -- it’s mostly about sharing the ambiguous feelings I have about spending money and a general wish that fitting bikes was less of a black box. I absolutely think it’s worth it to spend a bit more to shop locally (I could, and probably will at some point, detail why doing otherwise often hurts more than helps your wallet). Support your local bike shop. Get a bike that fits -- buy a fit if you have to. But also, sometimes there are drastically more affordable solutions than the ones suggested by professionals with the best of intentions.

2. One with Nature

It goes without saying that when bicycle touring, you spend a lot of time outside. Yet no matter how far you bike, there is always some way (besides the road itself) that we seem to have polluted nature. There’s almost always power lines obscuring your photos, there’s trash in the most random (and sad) places. The two worst perpetrators, in my opinion, are lawns and noise.

Lawns? Yes. Why do we need so much finely mowed green? Because it looks nice? Seriously? There’s three times as much lawn in the US as corn, making it the most irrigated crop in the country. 9 billion gallons of water per day. PER FREAKING DAY. Not to mention the amount of time and gas we spend mowing. We spend more on lawn care than foreign aid.

Don’t get me wrong. I like having a nice, soft bed of grass to lie on as much as the next guy. Chances are if you’re reading this, I’m not talking about your lawn (but do you really use it enough to warrant spending 90 hours a year maintaining it?). There are some huge freaking lawns out there, and I’m sure all the action they get is the mower. Lawn space is nice. But we need a fraction of what we’ve somehow decided is necessary.

Then, there’s the noise. There’s nothing like escaping the city and highway sounds and just hearing wind and nature around you. This happens rarely -- less than ten times in the two or three weeks I’ve been pedaling. Most of the time I hear the low drone of a highway in the distance, as if mother nature is groaning beneath our weight.

And when you do escape the lawns and the noise (which you almost never do), there’s usually trash somewhere.

Cycle touring is many things. It’s been a great way to meet people, gather stories, and see places I wouldn’t otherwise see. It is also an expose into the omnipresence of humankind and our impact on the world. Often, our reach seems inescapable. We have become one with nature.

3. Horns

On a bike, cars communicate with you in various ways. Most pass you with plenty of space -- four or five feet, much more than the legally required three. Some wait behind you if there is oncoming traffic. That’s awesome!

Some honk.

This musing isn’t to slander people that honk. I think, in fact, that it’s usually well intended: “I’m here!” I really think very few people that honk mean, “Get off the road, asshole!”

The problem is that regardless of the intention, it usually scares the living daylights out of me.

If you want to tell me to “get off the road, asshole,” then just roll down your window and do that. It’s less passive aggressive and less dangerous since you’ve slowed down to 12 mph to say it (I can’t hear you if you’re going faster than me). I’ll probably smile and wave, because I almost guarantee I know the bicycle laws better than you. My life depends on it, so I’ve made a conscious decision to be wherever I am in the road, despite the traffic or the presence of a margin or sidewalk (fun fact: riding a bike in the sidewalk is 25x more dangerous than riding a bike in the road. Visibility and predictability are my bets at why). If I’m in the road instead of on the white line, it’s to make you go around me, instead of thinking, “Hey, I can sneak by…” “Sneaking by” is how accidents happen. It’s annoying for both of us -- I’d rather there be a bike lane too! But for both of our safeties, please wait until there’s space (either in the opposing lane or via the appearance of a margin).

If you want to let me know you’re there… thanks, but no thanks. I probably already know you’re there, unless you’re driving an electric vehicle and snuck up on me at 15 mph. If I need to take the lane, I’ll check for cars first.

So whether you mean it maliciously or politely, please just don’t honk. I don’t know what it means and unless your intention is to scare the crap out of me, there are better ways to do it.

4. Dogs

This musing includes some graphic descriptions. If you’re queasy or would rather not see prose made out of tragedy, you can stop reading -- this is the last musing for this blog post so you won’t miss anything else. In short: I saw a dog get hit by a car.

One of the unfortunate and uncontrollable side effects of riding a bike is that dogs love to chase you. Indiana has been the most dogful state so far -- on one day I had at least ten dogs chase after me. Fortunately, almost all of them were stopped by leashes or invisible fences.

If you’re wondering, the best solution to being chased by dogs is to stop moving. This is the process I follow when I hear barking:
  • Find dog.
  • Assess dog: is he or she interested in and able to chase you? If not, continue biking. Else, continue to 3.
  • Brake and dismount on non-dog side.
  • Keep bike between you and the dog. Stop or walk forward until it’s safe to pedal again.
Almost without exception, once you dismount, the dog will immediately become uninterested. It’s almost like you were never there and they’re playing hide-and-go-seek -- “I’m not here!” They realize you’re just a person, and people are, well… uninteresting. I’ve never had a dog continue to chase me once I dismount. Follow me? Yes. Bark at me? Yes. But chase me, as if trying to catch me? No. If they do, that’s why you put the bike between to two of you -- no dog is going to bite a bike.

Unfortunately, not every dog barks.

It was in Indiana when a dog managed to sneak up on me. They have uncanny senses, dogs -- they’ll bark at you from behind houses, cars, bushes, sometimes from a quarter of a mile away. This dog had seen me from behind a bush and had run across the yard and into the road before I knew it was there. I heard the clack-clack of its claws on the pavement and turned my head to see it. I know what I would have done then: without time to stop, I would have had to lift my leg over my bike as it rolled, balancing my weight on the far side as I slowed down so the dog couldn’t bite my ankle. I didn’t have time to think this, though. Whoosh - thud a car drove by, and suddenly there was red in the air, and the smell of blood. The real irony blood smell, that you only smell when there’s been a deep cut.

I heard a yelp, turned my head again, and saw the dog lying in the road. Thankfully, it got up and limped out of the road, whimpering loudly. Dog alive!

I stopped and waited across the road, seeing if anybody would come out of the house. There were no cars in the driveway. I’m not sure what my obligations were at that point. I was, obviously, a little shaken. The car didn’t stop -- I’m not even sure they knew; they probably didn’t even see the dog as it had only popped out of the bush a split second before. It was, I’m sorry to say, probably better that way. Had the dog startled them, they could have instinctively swerved away from it -- and into me.

I felt bad, but I didn’t know what to do. I hope that dog is okay. And I hope they leash it from now on, or put up a fence. I used to have nightmares about terrible things happening to a dog I had once, who often got distracted by moving objects. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

Zionsville, IN to Lancaster, OH: How strange, it's sunny...

The format of this update will be different than usual: I’ll do a drier, more event-oriented post first to give some context, then shortly after, a post with a little more musing.

After recharging in Zionsville for a day and being treated to my host’s excellent hospitality (10/10 would Warmshowers again!), it was time again to embark. This was Friday, 5/5/17 and something was different from the past few days...

Hint: it was sunny.

Sun, a tailwind, and rolling hills… it seemed karma, if there is such a thing, was finally catching up to me. Or I was catching up to it? You know what I mean.

I had 85 miles until my place to stay for the night, but given the 20 mph tailwind, I thought it was prime time to try out interval shooting on my camera for the first time. I think I did pretty good:

Something pretty cool also happened to my odometer that day:

I decided to celebrate by giving Louisa (my bike) a hug, but the winning photo ended up being an unplanned one -- the camera started shooting before I was even in position, and the result was a Newsie-esque photo of me going round the pole I head leaned her against.

Happy 1000 mile dance party? Open the gates and seize the day...

Otherwise, it was a pretty standard day. Rural Indiana, turns out, is much like rural Illinois. I did have the pleasure of having Bob and his wife Carolyn for hosts that evening, who have done many cycling trips of their own and had many stories to share. The evening including, but wasn’t limited to, curry chicken, a hike in the woods, discussing digital nomading with their son, dessert, dog petting, fresh eggs in the morning from the chickens down the road, and staying in a home built in the 1850s… there were some pictures taken, but I’m going to keep them to myself for now.

The next day (Sunday, 5/7/17) also had a bit of a landmark:

It feels like just yesterday I rained into Raindiana.

Again, a tailwind, and pretty nice roads for the first 30 miles or so. But it got hillier and hillier and the margins got narrower until I wondered if I would ever make it out alive. The last five miles, however, redeemed the rest of the day:

Again, I had a wonderful host that night, some friends of my mom’s from way back when. One of them was even kind enough to try and meet me on the road to ride in with me, but he was just 15 minutes or so too early. As a result, everybody was looking at me funny on the way in -- “is that who the other guy was looking for?”

Another evening with fantastic hosts, a bit of a throwback to my days as a swimmer back in elementary school…

I didn't even know they still made these.

...and off again, back onto the trail, which I would spend the rest of the day on.

Interval shooting +1.

It was nice not to have to worry about any cars, but since it was during the day on a Monday, I didn’t see much of anyone. There was lots of pedaling on straight, flat pavement, and as nice as that can be, for hours on end you start to wish for hills…

My goal for the day was London, OH, 70 miles from where I started. I didn’t have a host, so I planned to get water, then look for stealth camping just outside of town. Lo and behold, London has free camping, and it was actually pretty decent.

I registered with the local PD, then went into town for dinner. When I returned, I found a couple sharing the camp, Chris and Christine. They had both quit their jobs to drive around the country, visiting national parks and deciding where they wanted to live next. We were, quite clearly, kindred spirits, so we spent some time getting to know each other and playing cards (by which I mean I beat them at Gin… shots fired).

As much as I wanted to see them again in the morning, I realized, upon waking up, that I would have a chance to see the sunrise if I pedaled hard enough out of town. I waited as long as I dared, hoping I could ambush them with a hug if they left for an impromptu bathroom visit, but the sky never stopped getting brighter. To the Chrisses… if you’re reading this, know that it was you or a sunrise. No hard feelings. Also, I totally found a place for you to stay tomorrow night, so you’d better legit e-mail me (why didn’t I just give you my number?).

I stopped at a gas station to pick up some biscuits, then pedaled and pedaled out of town, looking for a farm with a view… as I pedaled, the sky and woods around the trail changed color constantly: first they were black from the night, then grey, then green as the light gave them color, then everything would shift to red, orange, and purple… just in time, I found a spot to sit, have breakfast, and watch the sun rise.

The rest of today was, for better or worse, pretty non-eventful. Having left so early in the morning (I was pedaling by 6), I made it into the town where my host is by 12:30, so I’m spending the next few hours updating the blog and making sure people know I’m not dead (please note, however, that five days between updates will likely not be unusual!).

Now, let’s see if I can crank out one more before it’s time to head out of town and meet my host for the night.