Sunday, August 29, 2010

Blue Mountain Permanent - August 14, 2010

A wall of land runs east-west for 150 miles in central Pennsylvania. Verdant family farms spread over the rolling fields south of the wall. Amish, Mennonite and smallish, corporate-sponsored farms grow corn, clover, organic vegetables, raise cows, alpacas or goats. North of the wall, the towns and villages of coal country sporadically appear. The land wall thrusts 1400 feet up as though two ancient land masses offering different ways of life resolved their dispute by smashing themselves together to build a barrier that would forever hinder any exchange between the two. That wall is Blue Mountain.

Blue Mountain doesn't have peaks and valleys. It's a ridge, bristled with pine trees, that forms a uniform barrier just north of I-78. Time has not yet conquered it. Humanity has not yet plowed it over or smashed through it. Though sprinkled with homes; State game lands and State parks leave it as an untamed space. To cross the ridge, you go over it.

The bike route climbs Blue Mountain - twice. A pre-trip look at the elevation profile showed two fang-like projections along the 128 mile course, the first near mile 42, the second near mile 93. For each, I wrote CLIMB! on the cue sheet as a reminder and a warning.

The ride starts in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Within minutes, the route leaves traffic and enters the quiet of a Summer Saturday morning in Pennsylvania Dutch country.

The road aisles through fields of corn planted to within a foot of the asphalt. The corn is mid-August corn; tall, topped with gold brown tassels and with plump, tightly wrapped ears. Swallow flocks skim above the stalks, darting and flitting from wire to air. A horse drawn buggy, the first of several seen throughout the day, clipclop clipclops a steady beat on the road ahead. Along with the acres of corn are fields of grazing cows and the periodic farm house.

Further into the trip, the farmhouses offer fresh veggies, and occasionally fruit, at small stands for sale on the honor system. They also offer for free kittens. Again and again - free kittens. Apparently Bob Barker's sign off from the Price is Right hasn't gotten much play in these parts.

For forty miles, it's an autopilot cruise over clean smooth asphalt that rises and falls with good sight lines and smooth transitions. Downhills swoop into uphills with enough momentum to carry you over with a few choice pedals near the crest. Only the thought of the coming climbs tempers my speed. 
Covered Bridge
Cars and trucks of all sizes drive the road over Blue Mountain. The shoulder is narrow- fouled with broken pavement and road debris. The traffic is fast and close. The wind blast of passing trucks shakes me. I am no stranger to riding in traffic. As a teenager, I regularly rode in the streets of New York City (before the bike lanes), later did a brief stint as a bike messenger in San Francisco and now regularly bike commute but the whiz of traffic racing just off my left shoulder was unnerving. I knew they didn't expect to see someone riding up that hill on a bike and that meant I was more vulnerable than I liked.

The Appalachian Trail crosses Blue Mountain along the way up. A signpost optimistically points toward Maine and Georgia. The trail entrance is a small gap in the roadside vegetation. I look toward Georgia but no one happens to be hiking by.
Cross Road
My bike is steel - strong, sturdy and reliable but it is not light. I am not light. If you took two Alberto Contadors and put them on one carbon fiber bike you would approximate the weight I was taking up the mountain. Gravity exacts its price when I climb. I am no king of the mountain. I have no visions of a polka dot jersey; instead Sisyphus comes to mind as I grindingly pedal up.

The climb is slow and steady with single digit speed and beeline direction. Wavering adds unwanted distance. However, the top comes sooner than expected and with less suffering. The bite of the first fang has not been crippling.

Down is the payoff. Wide touring tires grip the road with comforting tenacity. The bike's long wheelbase and stable frame soak up bumps and defects with aplomb. I tuck and surf the road, carving an arcing line toward the small towns north of the wall.

Streets with wooden houses and occasional brick banks line the towns on the north side of the Mountain. The sidewalks and porches largely sit empty. The weather is beautiful, sunny, warm with low humidity. I expected to see people. Maybe there is a county fair or carnival going on. At the mailbox for the required post card check in, I hear what sounds like a soccer game or little league. Maybe that's where folks are. The ride continues.
Post Office

The foothills of the Mountain soon return marked by the resurgence of POSTED NO HUNTING signs. I have been on the bike for over five hours. To keep my down time to a minimum and overall pace up, I eat home made energy bars and drink Gatorade at regular intervals instead of stopping. So far, each check point stop has been about five minutes or less. My legs are feeling the time and effort.

A barking charging dog announces the bottom of the second big climb. A second dog joined him. Wondering if they will stop at the fence, I plan my response if they don't. When they turn at the fence, I turn back to the task at hand.

The second climb threatens to break me. It is not as high as the first, but it is steeper and 90+ miles after I started hours ago. As I climb, my thighs burn and tremble from the mileage, prior climbs and lack of rest. The mountain does not notice. The road goes to an even steeper pitch. I curse and cajole. Tell myself that it's all down hill after this. I am reduced to intermittent walking to prevent the cramps that the leg twinges portend. I call home and tell my wife where I am and that I'm okay which I know will tell her where to find my body if necessary. The mountain doesn't care. I have not yet reached the summit. I remount in the granny gear and suffer up the hill. The mountain does not move.

The road levels before the peak and the summit is basically mid-ridge. I find the answer to the checkpoint question and start the glorious downhill. 

The return to the gentle rolling hills of the farmland is welcome. My pace triples.

Despite having a Camelbak and two water bottles, I run out of water before reaching an afternoon checkpoint. It's about an hour away – doable but too far for comfort. I ride on but keep an eye out for a place to get some water. Half hour later, still nothing. I need a road angel. Minutes after saying that, I see one. A man on a riding tractor with three kids about. Perfect. Squealing to a stop in front of him, I ask if he could spare some water. He says sure. When he goes inside, the kids stand and stare at me and I stare at them. The father returns with a jug of water and asks about the ride. I tell him I'm about a hundred miles into it and expect to get to a place soon to buy water, but "I'm not from around here." He says, "I know." His little boy asks why I am riding that far. I can't figure out a way to explain it to him so I just say, "That's a good question." After filling a bottle, I thank him again and continue on the journey.

The route trends downhill toward the finish. At the next checkpoint, I buy about a thousand calories of breakfast burrito, chips and OJ and tuck them into my home made musette bag. After remounting, I spend the next few miles, happily riding and eating from the feed bag. The food does its thing. The effects of the mountains fade from my legs.

The ride to the final check point again meanders through the bucolic farmlands. A fox runs from one cornfield to the other. Free range chickens and grazing cattle barely look up as I pass. Fruit stands and "Free Kittens" signs re-appear.

The quiet roads leave no trace of my journey.

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