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.


  1. Glad it worked out to stay with Amy! Looking forward to the update with photos, I've been loving your photos. Sorry I didn't mention the hills in Pgh, they can be killer, but at least you get the glorious coast down the other side!

  2. Bathing in waterfalls sounds glorious! If they're big enough to stand under, heavenly! I hope that you come across some. Love you.