Monday, August 30, 2010

Down the Great Allegheny Passage (2009)

A pre-randonneuring account


My trips always seem to start after nights of little sleep. We arrived last night at 1:30 am delayed by all day rain, those work deadlines that always come up when I want to take a day off and the nagging effects of a cold or sniffles or allergy that have me questioning the security of my stomach and reaching for tissues. The flu the kids had three weeks ago was also on my mind.

I drove for 5 hours while the kids slept. Of course, when we arrived, the baby was wide awake and eager to explore at the top of her voice for the next few hours and no one was going to stop her. Sleep was interrupted for me. For my wife, who stayed awake with her, all I can say is I heard her pleading with the baby and bargaining with God at least once last night. Or maybe it was the other way around.

We are in West Mifflin, PA which is kinda sorta Pittsburgh. My plan for a crack of dawn start has given way to the reality that dawn was a half hour ago and my family is still fast asleep and I still haven't had any coffee. But it's not raining yet and I hear stirrings from the beds.

Day 1 - Amber lenses.

Watched the local news for up to the minute weather while we tucked away the free breakfast of various carbs, circular scrambled eggs and weak coffee for the adults. I then made the mistake of believing the weather report that said the rain would start at 8 and be done by 9. After waiting yet again, we ended up standing in the trailhead parking lot at 9 with no rain having yet fallen.

In the parking lot was a family in from Colorado. An adult son, his father and a brother-in-law. They were also beginning their tour of the Great Allegheny Passage followed by the C&O canal. Turns out the father and son had a tradition of taking annual bike trips together. They had a sane plan of taking the 300 trip in 50-60 mile chunks and camping along the way. The son pulled the trailer that held the gear that the trip would require.

My typical pre-trip adrenalin/butterflies coupled with the later than expected start had me eager to start pedaling. So, after some quick pics at the start, off I went. The sky was overcast and threatening rain. My solution was to wear the amber lenses in my bike shades that make the greyest day seem light and friendly.

Two and half miles into my ride, I realized I was going the wrong way. Add five more miles to a planned long ride. I turned around and instinctively tried to make up the time. 15 miles into the ride, I caught up to the father and sons team. The sons were patiently waiting while the dad attended to his bike. I said hello and pedaled on.

The plan was to meet my wife and the children at the 60 mile mark for lunch. The trail consisted of crushed limestone. It was well groomed and threaded its way through woods, farmlands and quaint towns. The amber lenses brightened the scene despite the threatening clouds. I saw more animals than people. At about 40 miles into it, the trail turned slightly uphill. Nothing dramatic. Just slightly uphill -with no downhills - mile after mile after mile. It was a no coasting uphill. If you wanted to go, you had to pedal. So I did. From miles 40 to 60, the water options were scarce. I rationed what I had.

Meeting the family at mile 60 was like finding an oasis complete with food, water and indoor plumbing. With my blood sugar restored, and now finally hydrated. I set out to complete the last 40 miles for the day. The slight uphill turned more uphill. Still not dramatic but enough, after 60 miles, to slow my progress.

The food and water lasted 30 miles. Just when I arrived at a bike and snack shop. But it was closed. In the parking lot was a man and his young son - maybe 10 years old. The father had a cargo bike loaded with equipment. We talked. He and his son were touring the trail together, taking it in small bites and camping along the way. I asked him if he knew of a nearby place I could refill my water bottles. He didn't, but he offered to refill my bottle from his supply.

As I rode off, grateful for his generosity, I thought of fathers and sons biking together. It’s a good fit. When you bike with someone, you work with them side by side. You work out your strengths and weakness. One day the father pulls the load, later the son takes his turn. And I wasn't even wearing the amber lenses.

Day 2 - Storms threaten ride.

Up before dawn. Well, I am at least. Everyone else is sleeping. I'm sure my tired legs will recover once I get moving. As for my other sore parts - I'll just say that Bag Balm is this long distance rider's must have luxury item.

The dotcom weather sites call for all day heavy rain interrupted by thunderstorms. Outside our Inn, the thunder is booming already. Riding in the rain is one thing, but thunderstorms are another. So its off to breakfast while the skies sort themselves out.

The rain passed slowly. Lofty winds, strong enough to cause the gimungous flag in the hotel parking lot to flap and snap, pushed cumulus clouds across the sky.

Finally underway, today was about completing the Great Allegheny Passage. I picked up where I left off after yesterday's century. Climbing seven more miles toward the eastern continental divide and the highest point on the trail.

Before this, I didn't know there was an eastern continental divide. Turns out it separates the Chesapeake Bay Watershed from Gulf Bay watershed. More importantly to me, it separated the long slog uphill from 20+ miles of downhill that drops over 2,000 feet. As the top got closer, the waters that fed the monster rapids at Ohiopyle State park slowed to a gentle flow.

The divide was well marked with a colorful underpass and the name of the location carved in stone. How convenient that a road passed over the exact point of the divide so that it could be accurately marked on the trail.

The change in the trail was dramatic. Suddenly 20, 21+ mph was within easy reach and I reached, cruising down toward Cumberland MD, outracing the storm clouds, passing light rain, humidity and heat.

Cumberland, MD, is where the GAP meets the C&O. I met the family at the Western Maryland Station. The helpful guy at the bike shop gave me details on the C & O trail conditions - mud and mud holes from here to D.C. He checked the weather online for me. 80% chance of rain for the rest of the day. Wonderful.

We ate lunch at the Crabby Pig and watched the weather channel predict more rain and storms for the weekend. Outside it rained then was immediately sunny and warm. It was like the weather in the caribbean- minus the beach and the rum punch. After lunch, my tired legs returned. Maybe I had stopped too long, maybe having that beer wasn't a great idea despite how delicious and cold and bubbly it was. (mmmm- beer). Anyway, right here and now, at this moment, with the Great Allegheny Passage completed and my wife and children with me, the skies were clear and sunny as far as I could see.

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