Any Road or Fire and Rain

I chose Any Road to the PNW as the name of my bike tour but it’s beginning to look like I may have to change to Fire and Rain (hell, add Wind because the Great Plains are not exactly a light breeze).

Up until today, I have been focused on road closures in Idaho and Oregon. These closures are the result of fires from last summer. In the last several days, the mid-Atlantic has been hit with a rain event that will continue through the weekend. (Can’t wait to ride DC Bike Ride on Saturday!)

The rain is washing out sections of the C&O Canal towpath, the unpaved, flat route through the Appalachians. My friend Rudi has given me a workaround that will allow me to bypass more than one-half of the towpath. There will be some serious hills in the bargain.

There is no word about the western third of the towpath as well as the GAP trail from Cumberland to Pittsburgh.

Gee, I can’t wait to get started!

My Top Ten of 2015

The year began with a paper lantern rising in the post-midnight sky over Old Town Alexandria. I hoped it was a sign of good things to come. Here in no particular order are the highlights of what followed:

Around the World in 19 Days: When your kids move to the other side of the world, you have a perfectly good excuse to go visit them. We flew via LAX to Sydney to meet up with our daughter who was studying abroad at Macquarie University. We explored Sydney, Uluru, and Melbourne in Australia and Rotorua in New Zealand. Then we flew to Thailand where our son now lives, teaching English at a school in Phuket. We flew back via Abu Dhabi and JFK, completing our trip around the world. Speaking of travel….

Six Days without a Plan: I did my first bike tour in ten years, riding 370 miles from Pittsburgh to home, nearly entirely off road in six days. Kevin and Ryan made for good company. The Meth Man not so much. Earl and Anne, two friends from my years in Boston,  met up with us for Mothers Day brunch. And we saw the Pirates execute a triple play at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Speaking of baseball….

Where’s My Ring?: I pretty much went all in as a Washington Nationals fan this year. I attended 8 or 9 games (one was a rainout) and watched dozens more on the tube. In the process I discovered the wonderful bike valet service at the ballpark, bottles of ice water (mostly ice) sold outside the stadium, and SeatGeek, a web service for cheap seats. Sadly, the Nats completely fell apart in August and September ending with the sad display of a bad apple reliever choking the eventual league Most Valuable Player. Speaking of things surly…

Getting Surly: My bikes were getting old. And so was I. So I decided to buy a new one, just for riding events and such. I bought a Surly Cross Check on the enthusiastic recommendation of a half dozen friends who own one or wish they did. I’m still working on giving it a name. My fleet of now four bikes carried me over 7,000 miles this year. Speaking of mileage….

Turning the Odometer: I hit 60 in August. My brain still can’t believe it but my body does. Denial only gets you so far in life. I celebrated by hiking Old Rag. My advice is to do this hike long before your 60th birthday. Mrs RC made me with a quilt  from my old running t-shirts. This totally surprised me with it even though she made the thing right in front of me. Still, turning 60 was inescapably depressing.  Speaking of depressing…

Goodbye Blue Mondays: I started the year dealing with rather severe depression, not the “I’m sad” kind but the clinical kind. It’s a drag just thinking about it. I forced myself to socialize (see below), ate vitamin D supplements (I had a severe deficiency), and began daily meditation at the repeated suggestion of a friend. You could say that when it was over I had become comfortably numb. Speaking of numbness…

My Right Foot: I also started the year with a mysteriously numb right foot. I saw a neurologist who was incredibly enthusiastic, competent, and beautiful about my case. She sent me to a physical therapist who gave me a set of exercises including bird dogs, side planks, and nerve flossing that I still do every other day. On a whim, I went for a Thai massage. It didn’t do a thing for my foot but it was just about the most relaxing 90 minutes I can recall. “Use your third eye, John.”  I also went to an acupuncturist who didn’t do a thing for my foot either. He did fix a pain in my upper arm and recommended some orthotics for my shoes. Speaking of shoes….

Ramping Up My Hiking:  After each of my hikes last year, my back and knees were killing me.  The second I put the orthotics in my shoes, my back felt better. I did ten hikes this year, most of them in Shenandoah National Park and a little further north on the Appalachian Trail. All but one were solo hikes. The exception came when Ultrarunnergirl kicked my ass all the way to the top of SNP and back. My knees and back hardly protested. Speaking of protests…

What’s a Park It?:  Bike riders in DC had been getting hit by cars turning illegally through the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes. I attended a protest that was designed to bring awareness to the fact that new barriers called Park Its had not been installed on two blocks of the avenue. The protest was successful (the Park Its were installed a few months later) and was a great opportunity to get together with friends old and new. Speaking of new friends…

Do I Even Have a Fusiform Gyrus?: Three months after apparently meeting me at a December 2014 holiday party, a woman walked up at a post-ride reception and said “Hi John.” I had no idea who she was. She later said I needed to have my fusiform gyrus checked out. So began my improbable friendship with Katie Lee. A few days later we spent four hours in a booth in a downtown tavern. Two peas in a pod, pod people you might say, engaged in an incredibly intense conversation. I felt as if I had caught lightning in a bottle of Shiner Bock. On my way home for the first time in months the fog of my depression had lifted. Like a paper lantern. I know a sign when I see one. Thanks for showing me the score, KL. 

Encore, you say?….

Sitting in the Lap of the North Wind: A year or so ago, Mrs RC bought me a CD of celtic sounding music by a Quebec folk group called Le Vent du Nord. As luck would have it, they played very small venues near DC twice this year. We were in the second row for both performances, practically in the lap of the foot drumming, song singing, fiddle player. Even though I studied French in high school and college I can’t really follow their lyrics but I have no trouble enjoying their hurdy gurdy fueled music. Tres bon.

 

No Wrong Plan – Mind and Body

I have a friend who refers to my bike commute as my daily meditation. Anybody who sees me in my trance on the way to or from work knows what she is talking about. I often find myself three blocks from the office and have the “How did I get here?” feeling.

This tour took the mental aspect to an entirely new level. The gentle hum of my tires in the grit and dirt on the GAP trail as we rolled along was perfect for shutting down the monkey in my head. On the C&O towpath, we had to focus on the rocks, roots, horse poo, and irregularities in the trail, leaving no room for stressful thoughts. Even when we weren’t rolling there was the rumble of passing trains or the occasional drone of water spilling over a dam in the Potomac to put us at ease. Adding to these calming effects was the fact that, the gentle steady slope of the trails lent  to a constant level of effort. This was tiring for my legs, but meant that my respiratory rate was constant for long periods of time.

I don’t mean to imply that the three of us didn’t converse as we rode. None of us is particularly chatty by nature. The presence of Kevin and Ryan also meant that I didn’t have to occupy my mind with concerns about contingencies for shelter, mechanical problems, and the like. Moreover, the ride was virtually devoid of auto traffic. Setting aside my not-all-that close encounter with an Amtrak train in Meyersdale, the fact that we didn’t have to worry about big metal things added another factor that made this ride perfect for turning off my busy mind. Six days on two wheels felt like six months of therapy (not that I know what therapy feels like, but you get the idea).

As I just mentioned the constant level of effort could be really tiring. Riding up a gentle 0.3 degree incline with no opportunity to glide for any significant distance meant that the same exact muscles were used over and over and over again. My legs were tired from the time we got off the bikes in the evening to the time we got back on in the mornings. The funny thing was, after 15 minutes of gentle riding my legs came right back to life.

I definitely grew stronger as the ride progressed. We took a relatively easy day on the third day and it gave our bodies a chance to recharge. If I were doing this again, I might plan to alternate long/hard and short/easy days.

When I arrived home and dismounted, I felt oddly mentally and physically refreshed. My body felt a good kind of tired. I took The Mule out two days later and it felt like a racing bike without the touring load and with my legs fully recovered.

As with all five of my bike tours, I simply did not eat enough. The day after I got home my clothes were falling off me. (This was literally true in the case of my pajama bottoms the next morning. Whoops.)

I suppose the biggest testimony to my mental and physical state was simply that I was sorry the ride was over when my bike came to a stop in my backyard. My mind was clear. My body ready to wake up the next day and do it all over.

So here I am seven days later still feeling the mental and physical afterglow of six days of riding a bike in the woods. I hope it never wears off, but I know that it will. There is only one remedy:

Bike tour anyone?

No Wrong Plan: Day 3 – Meyersdale to Pigmans Ferry on the GAP Trail and the C&O Canal Towpath

No trains. No birds. Just bleary eyes. We woke up and ate breakfast in Yoders. The kitchen had been fully stocked while we went out for dinner and ice cream last night. We ate our full and headed outside dreading another encounter with the Meth Man.

The first order of business today, as it was yesterday, was chain maintenance. The limestone grit covers bicycle drivetrains. If it gets wet it can solidify and freeze up gears, cause chains to skip (mine already skipped a couple of times on the way here) and derail, and incapacitate brakes. A few minutes each morning kept our machines in working order.

We climbed back up to the GAP trail. It was a three step operation. First, we rode uphill to a flat cross street. I slowed to take a picture of a beautiful victorian house that had both a tower and a wrap around porch. (I am a tower person; Mrs. Rootchopper is a wrap around porcher.)

Kevin and Ryan rode ahead and turned uphill. The hill is interrupted by train tracks then continues steeper still to the trail. As I approached the tracks I head a horn. The gate wasn’t down so I proceeded across. I looked left and spotted an Amtrak train coming round the bend. The gate came down behind me.

Pedal. Pedal.

The train gave me a little adrenaline boost which helped me get up the last bit of hill.

On we rode on a slightly damp trail. The trail was wet like a baseball infield, just damp enough to keep the dust down without making it muddy.

We continued the climb through the woods, trestle after trestle over gurgling streams. The water ran more slowly up here, I suppose indicating that we were nearing the top. To our left a freight train rumbled past. It was pulling only new black tanker cars, probably oil from fracking operations.

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Soon we came upon a series of photo ops. First, the Eastern Continental Divide which is marked by a small tunnel. Our climbing was over! Yess!  A map inside the tunnel showed us what we had accomplished and what was in store. A 70–ish mile gradual climb of 1,400 feet would give way to a 1,600 foot downhill run over the next 20 miles.  We took pictures celebrating our achievement and headed downhill to our next landmark, the Big Savage Tunnel. It’s long. It’s lit. It’s a hoot (and much easier than climbing the mountain on the roads). On the eastern side of the tunnel the terrain changes abruptly. The tunnel of green gives way to majestic vistas of rolling mountains with farms as far as the eye can see. We stopped and  gaped at the view. Wow!

Back on the bikes we soon reached another landmark: the Mason Dixon Line. This marks the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland. South of here slavery was once legal.

Onward we rode, now spinning freely at 18 miles per hour. If this were a paved trail, we’d have easily topped 20. Our next landmark was the Borden Tunnel. This one is shorter but rideable behind Kevin’s generator light and with Ryan’s headlamp. (My camp headlamp was useless.)

Soon we arrived at Frostburg where Ryan said the “F” word: he had a flat rear tire. Good timing. We needed a break. We decided to use a $1 bill to boot his tire (covering the hole the puncture made) even though he was carrying two new tires.

After the repair, we rode onward, downward, curving with the trail as it ran back and forth across the tracks of the excursion railroad that runs between Frostburg and Cumberland. We continued to pass westbound bike tourists, all were smiling despite the effort of their climb.

We entered a very dark tunnel, shared by the rail line. This was a bit disorienting for me and my crappy camp light. I focussed on the reflective material on Kevin’s back and concentrated on staying upright.

After a stop to admire a barn and the countryside it was located in, we came to the Bone Cave. This cave was filled with bones of ancient critters. Kevin found it fascinating.

Onward we decended through Woodcock Hollow. A ridgeline loomed to the east. Covered in green with some rocky parts for visual variety. Woodcock Hollow gives way to The Narrows where US 40, a river, a train line, our trail, and our train line all squeeze through a gap in the mountains. In a few minutes the trail became paved as it wound its way into Cumberland. We had biked the GAP!

The canal boats on the C&O were towed by mules. We stopped so that I could pose The Mule with a statue of a mule and its driver.

Next up was lunch at a cafe in the touristy part of Cumberland. The sammiches were good and the beer was cold. We had ridden 150 miles in 2 1/2 days. Once fed and watered we were ready for more.

The C&O Canal towpath has a very different character than the GAP trail. Like the GAP, it is mostly unpaved but it is much bumpier with many more tree roots and rocks. This means that riding requires much more focus on the trail and less on the scenery. As it turns out this is just fine because the scenery is constant for long stretches. The canal, usually on the left. is either filled with clear water, a stagnant swamp, a bog, or a wooded sunken tract. To the right more often than not is the Potomac River. Woods and mountains encroach on the canal, towpath, and river in various configurations. Wildflowers, purple and white, line the towpath for miles and miles. This different sort of trail results in a different meditative quality to the ride. Where the GAP lets your mind wander and lets you feast your senses on your surroundings, the C&O rewards your wandering brain with a jolt of a rock or tree root.

Focus. Pedal. Breathe.

We stopped to admire a canal lock and lockkeepers house. A solo hiker bound for DC chatted with us. He was stocky but had calves of steel. We hadn’t seen the Meth Man all day so he became the Anti-Meth Man. A solo rider heading west warned us that there was no food to be had for many miles ahead. I was happy that I kept and apple and a banana from Yoders.

At after a few more miles we spotted Pigmans Ferry campsite near a farmers field with no animals in sight. We pulled off and set up camp. A short day of only 48 miles. Ryan cooked up some mac and cheese with Velveeta. I thought it was disgusting, but it was fun to watch his cooking process. I decide to eat my remaining food rather than take the chance that a critter would find it while I slept.  Anti-Meth Man showed up and made his dinner, Thai food in a pouch. He had is act together for sure. Westbound cycle tourists, a family of three, set up camp at a distance.

The campsites on the canal have water pumps. The National Park Service treats the water with iodine. The water here had a brown tint to it. It didn’t taste all that bad, but I was reluctant to gum up my water bottles with the taste. It was useful for bathing and getting all that GAP grit off our bodies.

At sunset I looked westward across the farmer’s field. A distinct yellow haze hung in the air. Ryan had been sneezing all day. I had itchy, watery eyes (despite having taken an antihistamine). Each day I was awakening with eye boogers from all the pollen. Ick. As annoying as this was, I’ll take pollen over cold rain any day of the week.

I am not a good tent sleeper. I think I need a thicker sleeping pad. I closed my eyes and listened as frogs peeped in the woods. Birds tweeted. A train whistled in the distance. ZZZZZ.

Check out my pix on Flickr.

No Wrong Plan: Day 2: Connellsville to Meyersdale on the GAP Trail

We woke up having not been murdered by the Meth Man. Two more of those bright orange birds zip past our campsite. What are they? They are beautiful.

It rained a bit overnight. Ryan had not put on his rain fly. Oops. Kevin and I were completely dry. I picked up some breakfast, fruit from the supermarket. Kevin and Ryan made coffee in camp. Ryan cooked some oatmeal for himself.

We broke camp and headed for Ohiopyle. Leaving town, the trail begins to rise, a false flat that requires constant effort for the next day and a half, about 70 miles.

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Ohiopyle is a town and  a state park that is to die for. Well, maybe not with Meth Man around. We stopped in town for an ice cream. Back on the trail we leap frogged with Meth Man for the rest of the day.

No wind. Butterflies. A tunnel of green. Incredible bridges over the Youghiogheny River.

We stopped at Confluence, once called Turkeyfoot where the Castleman River meets the Yough. Here the French and Indian War is said to have begun as a young colonial British officer by the name of George Washington led an ambush of a French settlement.

The trail follows the Castleman. We climb the nearly imperceptible incline. We clear the forest and cross the Salisbury Viaduct. It seems like it goes on forever. Next we reach the Pinkerton Tunnel. To our left is a rather shocking gash in the mountain, the apparent result of a highway project.

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The Pinkerton tunnel has never been open to trail users, but this day we can see straight through to the other side. We can see workers toiling away preparing the tunnel for its eventual opening. We take the detour through the woods. It will be a shame if they shut down the detour because it is a truly beautiful ride.

Onward to Rockwood we encounter our first bugs of the ride. Gnats or midges or some sort of little bugs in vast swarms. They are annoying and take me out of my biking trance. In Rockwood we see Meth Man lurking on the side of the trail. We pass him by with a nod and head into town for lunch at the Opera House, now a cafe and ice cream parlor. Rains starts to fall as we go inside. It is over once we leave. Timing is everything.

Back on the trail, we leap frog some more with Meth Man. Ryan takes the lead and encounters about 15 to 20 turkeys arrayed across the trail. The turkeys scatter as he rolls through. We begin to see bike tourists heading toward Pittsburgh. They are all smiles.

As we reach Meyersdale, Meth Man lurks along the trailside. We turn off the trail down the hill into town. We check into Yoders Motel, more of a boarding house than a motel. It’s plenty cozy and has secure indoor bicycle parking. We shower and head out for dinner. Then ice cream from the parlor across the street.

We finish the night watching the Wizards lose a playoff game on the big TV in the downstairs parlor. Shiner Bocks are consumed.

We finish with another 60 miles behind us.

More pix over on Flickr.

No Wrong Plan: Day 1 – Pittsburgh to Connellsville via the GAP Trail

You could ride from Pittsburgh to DC on roads. Since none of us is named Contador or Chiapucci or Lemond, we decided to do our tour on the car free trails of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal National Park.

Before we started we headed out for breakfast with Earl and Anne, my old Boston friends who relocated to the ‘Burg, Earl’s hometown. It being Mother’s Day the line at Pamela’s, our restaurant, was long so we didn’t get rolling until noon. We began at Point State Park directly across the street from our hotel. It’s the Point because the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers forms a point where the form the Ohio River. It has nothing to do with Harry Nillson or a dog named Arrow.

After some picture taking we headed out and immediately came to a disagreement about where the trail was. Ryan insisted it ran directly along the Monongahela River. Kevin and I recalled that Dave, our shuttle driver, said that it ran up the Boulevard of the Allies and then turned over the Hot Metal Bridge. Ryan insisted he was right but followed us up the Boulevard. We followed signs and soon cross the river, on the wrong bridge. What a way to start a tour!

Fortunately, we found a trail on the southside of the river, cleverly named Southside, and rode toward DC. After many bumps and a few odd detours we found the Hot Metal Bridge and signs for the GAP. Yay!

And we were on our way. Earl had given us a blow by blow of the ride out of town. Condos, a waterpark, big box stores paying minimum wage with no benefits now stood where steel mills with good paying steel worker jobs once lined the river. Soon we were clear of Pittsburgh and on our way to McKeesport about which I know next to nothing other than a goofy comedy routine by a comedienne named Donna Jean Young. (If you get that cultural reference you are hopelessly old.)

McKeesport featured abandoned mills and factories with weed filled parking lots lined by chain linked fences. So sad. In odd contrast, at one point on the trail we came upon a traffic light for bikes.

Once out of McKeesport, the paved trail gave way to an unpaved surface covered with a thing layer of finely crushed limestone. The ride began to take on the character it would have for the next several days. Trees and shade. Rivers. Train whistles. Mountains, often with rock faces and waterfalls. The crunch of our tires in the limestone grit on the trail. The chatter among us abated, replaced by reflection.

Pedal, pedal.

Breathe.

Feel the breeze on your face.

Hear it in your ears.

A bright orange songbird flits across the trail in front of me.

So relaxing. Later I write in my notebook: “Pure meditative bliss.”

We pull into West Newton hungry and eat at the Trailside Restaurant. It’s a good name because it’s right on the side of the trail. Clever.  It has a bike shop beneath it and a liquor store in back. We eat sandwiches and then head back out.

We roll with little effort up the gentle grade to Connellsville, about 200 feet above and 60 miles from Point State Park. We move with purpose to make sure we score a free camping spot near town.

Not only do we get the camping spot but it has Adirondack shelters, three sided wood structures. A pit toilet is also provided but no showers. I take the floor of a shelter with my sleeping bag and pad. Kevin hangs his hammock tent across the opening. Ryan sets up his new tent on the ground alongside.

A homeless looking man who coughs a lot occupies another shelter. A creepy guy riding with a backpack and a water bottle hanging off his side occupies yet another. He has a small thick cross on a chain hanging on his chest. Creepy guy comes over to chat. Asks us, “What’s the weather like tomorrow, brother.” We get an uncomfortable vibe. We decide he is a meth addict who will kill us in our sleep. He becomes “Meth Man”.

After he leaves Kevin and I head to the shopping center next door for pizza, ice, and several gallong jugs of water. We use the water and ice to fill our bottles with much needed cold water. Some of the water becomes bath water, much needed with so much limestone grit all over us. The pizza disappears without much effort.

We sleep an honest sleep despite noisy birds and trains clanging together into the night. Meth Man doesn’t kill us. All is well after our long day of riding.

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Lots more pictures in my Flickr album.

Bike to Work Day – Seven Day Version

On Saturday morning I head out on my first bike tour in a decade. I only have four tours to my credit. My first tour was ridden on The Mule about 16 years ago. It was not very successful. The plan was to ride to Cockeysville MD north of Baltimore, pick up the new North Central Rail Trail and ride it to York PA and then ride home. It was brutally hot and my saddle tore the bejesus out of my…er…flesh. To add to the disappointment, the NCRT was not yet complete resulting in me turning around at Hanover Junction PA. It was a learning exprience.

In 2003 with a new recumbent (Big Nellie) designed for touring I left my in-laws’ house in Indiana for a ride back to DC. This tour also crapped out but for different reasons. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to ride 113 miles on my second day. Also, carrying an spare tire is not the worst idea in the world.

In 2004 I rode from Niagara Falls to my Mom’s house in Albany. This four-day tour also on Big Nellie worked like a charm. No rain. Two hills. Beautiful scenery along the Erie Canal and Mohawk River.

In 2005 I rode from DC to my in-laws house, the 2003 tour in reverse. This time, despite a couple of equipment failures, I made it the entire way.

The 2005 tour included riding nearly the entire C&O Canal towpath. (A section far to the west was underconstruction.) From Cumberland MD to Meyersdale PA I rode the very hilly highways and byways of western Maryland and Pennsylvania. These hills were TOUGH!  I picked up the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail in Meyersdale and rode it to West Newton PA. It was bliss.

This year’s tour is planned to be six days entirely on the GAP trail and C&O Canal towpath. No hills to speak of, just some mild railroad grades. I am riding with @ryansigworth and @bicyclebug (a.k.a Kevin).  The plan is to take a shuttle to Pittsburgh from DC. This will entail riding from home to DC on Saturday morning. This is basically 85 percent of my bike commute. On Saturday night we are going to a baseball game. We head for home on the GAP – which now goes continuously from Pittsburgh to Cumberland) after breakfast on Sunday morning.

We are hoping to meet up with fellow blogger Red in Pittsburgh on Saturday night at the game. There is some talk about Red giving us a rolling escort out of town. Also, I have two friends from my Boston days who live in Pittsburgh. We may do breakfast with them if Mother’s Day doesn’t fill all the eateries up.

I am a little concerned about The Mule’s ability to make the entire trip. I’ve crashed The Mule a couple of times in recent years and the steering tube is probably not in the best of shape. The handlebars are also slightly bent. At least the saddle is in good shape. As for me, I am riding a bit slower these days but I actually feel very good on my bike. During my 2005 tour I got stronger with each passing day. It would be great if that happened again.

I don’t much know if we will do much off bike stuff along the way. What I really need and want are six days of nothing but shady trees and gurgling water and critters and the sound of bike tires rolling over the trail.

My only regret about this ride is the fact that so many of my #bikeDC friends have said, “I wish I was going with you.” So do I. Some of these folks are thinking about riding out the C&O on Friday to intercept us on our last day. It would be fun to roll into town with an escort and, perhaps, top off the tour with some cold liquid refreshment and a pile o’ grub.

Then I’ll get to ride the rest of my bike commute home. This seems fitting as this will be Bike to Work Day.