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The Great Allegheny Passage : Ten Years Later

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2011 at 7:30 pm

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Ten years ago, I biked the Great Allegheny Passage, from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD. It was a difficult time: The world was reeling from 9/11, the U.S. had just invaded Afghanistan, and the newspaper I had lovingly freelanced for had just folded. Desperate to escape my troubles, I pedaled into rural Pennsylvania with limited supplies, little training, and no idea that the trail was incomplete.

My friends Bill and Lee recently biked the entire Passage and C&O Canal, from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. In celebration of their achievement, and to commemorate 10 years since I took my own strange journey, I present this essay, first published in Pittsburgh Magazine in 2004. Photographs taken on the trail in November, 2001.

From the start, I knew it was a terrible idea – to bike 150 miles through the woods, from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD, in fewer than three days. My deadline was Thanksgiving, which meant biking at the onset of winter, braving sub-freezing temperatures and rifle season in one of the most aggressively hunted regions in the country. I knew that every campground would be closed, the towns were scattered, and I’d have to subsist on my meager provisions for long stretches.

But the Great Allegheny Passage was too enticing to ignore. Nearly completed and billed as the megatransect between Pittsburgh and Washington, DC, the Passage winds along the meandering Youghiogheny River, forming a level, continuous trail through the rolling wilderness of southwestern Pennsylvania. As part of the Rails-to-Trails project, an endeavor to convert retired railroad lines into bicycle paths, the Passage has few rivals for length and panorama. I’ve always been an avid cyclist, traveling with my parents through France and Germany back in high school, and the thought of another lonely Greyhound ride to Washington’s overpacked bus station was less than thrilling.

So I called my parents, who graciously volunteered to pick me up in Cumberland, and I gathered my gear: My Trek hybrid bicycle, two saddlebags my Dad had fashioned for long trips, a waterbottle, a book, a portable radio, a few Snickers bars, a Salvation Army blanket, and a road atlas, in case I lost the trail. I lacked a great deal – a bunjee cord to attach the bags, a flashlight, a cell phone, a Swiss Army Knife, a tent, a book of matches, and, most importantly, spare tires. One false move could mean getting stranded in the forest, miles from the nearest house, with no passing traffic and no means of calling for help. But for a recent college graduate stuck in an office job, the deadly challenge was worth it.

First Day

After a pit stop at Bruegger’s Bagels, I wove through the streets of South Side and headed for McKeesport, where the Passage begins. It was a warm day for November, and I was sweating by the time I reached the first bridge. Driving through Pittsburgh is often confusing, but for cyclists it’s far worse – restricted highways and dangerous underpasses force riders to cross bridges, stick to sidewalks, and huff over dilapidated, glass-strewn side-streets. I later learned that the bus to McKeesport bears a handy bike rack, and I could have skipped the small factory neighborhoods in-between, but few riders ever came out this far, and I was grateful for the sunny views of the homes and warehouses along the Allegheny riverbank and the scruffy hills looming above.

The entrance was hard to find; the signs announcing the trail zigzag through McKeesport, and I spent nearly an hour talking with locals, who shrugged their shoulders and said they’d only heard of the trail, but didn’t know where to find it. I crossed a final bridge, cut through someone’s yard, and staggered into it; joggers bounced past me, along with other bicyclists, most of them older and nodding distantly as they passed. Spoiled by shorter trails in Vermont and Minnesota, I was surprised to find the trail composed of finely ground gravel, not street pavement, and I was grateful for thicker tires – the narrow treads of a road bike would have flattened within hours.

I followed the river for nearly five hours, catching glimpses of human life – a man, strapped into goulashes, fishing in the water, some nature walkers ambling by, and the occasional house. The old mills gradually vanished, replaced by occasional water-towers and rock faces. As the sun melted through the trees, I got anxious for a place to stay.

In the lonely dark, I could make out the lights beaming on the horizon, and though I couldn’t see any signs, I guessed the next town was Connellsville. At last the trail broke into even streets, and as a freezing breeze whistled between the old houses, I tracked down the highway and a vacancy sign. The woman smiled she handed over the key, and I slept until six the next morning.

Second Day

The mist lifted by late-morning, and as I pedaled away from Connellsville, the landscape become lonelier, more isolated. The hills no longer supported radio towers or secluded houses; the river, I finally realized, was flowing against me, which meant I was riding up an imperceptible incline. I rode for hours without spotting another cyclists, instead hearing the pops of rifles echoing through the naked limbs of trees. As I reached Ohiopyle, the favorite state park for vacationing Pittsburghers, I wondered when I would find an open visitor’s center, or even a restaurant with an open door. I filled my waterbottle with the hillside run-off – the tiny trickles along the rocks – and ate the last of my food. My legs and back ached terribly, and I swore to look into the latest ergonomic bicycles.

By mid-afternoon, a light hail was falling, and the gunshots had died away. The forest parted for a half-hour as I ventured into the Allegheny Highlands, riding over isolated wooden bridges and a graveyard for retired school buses, wedged into a forgotten valley.

Sunlight was precious, and when I found one of the tunnels closed for construction, a treacherous detour burned a lot of valuable time. My wheels clunked over exposed rocks and broken sticks, threatening to pop the innertubes at any moment; as I finally circled the small mountain, noting the other boarded-up entrance to the restricted tunnel, dusk had nearly descended. I fished out my atlas, disheartened to find the next town lay over 20 miles away.

At last, exhausted from two straight days of biking, I lost my balance from vertigo and crashed into the gravel. I lay there, breathing hard, as my wheel still spun, then stopped. I unfolded my blanket and wrapped myself up, shivering in the dark, and considered staying there. My muscles burned fiercely; I hadn’t eaten a full meal since breakfast. This seemed as good a place to sleep as any.

The howls from the woods changed my mind. Coyotes, I decided, and lots of them. I’d run from coyotes before, but in the dark, they had the upper-hand, and a slumbering biker was an easy target. I grumbled and set my bike back up, summoning the last of my energy, and biked the last 20 miles, where the trail abruptly ended.

In Garrett, I asked a gas station attendant where I could find a hotel. “Well,” he said, “you’ve picked a hell of a place to get lost. You might find a place in Meyersdale, but I don’t know if anybody’s open this time of year.”

Left without options, I followed the unlit highway, coasting at breakneck speeds down the long, curving shoulder as rigs flew past me, throwing debris into the air. After two days with only the occasional freight train for company, snaking along the opposite side of the river, the sight of Meyersdale’s lights over the hills was overwhelming; I found a bed and breakfast downtown, begged the proprietor for a room, and thanked her profusely. I slept for five hours, waking an hour before dawn.

Third Day

Nearly paralyzed from exhaustion and down to my last $30, I crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and found a payphone in a windswept shopping outlet parking lot. My parents were happy to hear from me, and my Dad started the four-hour drive from Washington to Cumberland, where we planned to meet. The Passage hadn’t been finished, and the remaining 20 miles were made up of labyrinthine country roads and steep highways, which are technically off-limits to cyclists. Left without options, I biked over mile after mile of multi-lane highway until I hit Frostburg. I called my Dad’s cell phone and implored him to meet me there, but he said to press on; Cumberland was only a few miles away.

The last leg between Frostburg and Cumberland was all downhill, a relieving surprise after so much climbing. I pressed my pedals sparingly, floating down long hills and whizzing into the town center, where I met a maze of streets that all shared similar names. At last, using the last minutes on my calling card, my Dad found me at a fruit store wedged between Cumberland’s famous cliffs, just a few hundred feet from the C&O Canal, where heartier bikers continue their journeys through Maryland. As for me, I was spent.

An egregious stench wafted off my clothes, and I slept in the passenger seat, all the way back to my grandmother’s house. A turkey and stuffing awaited us, and though my calves throbbed, I was left with only a couple scratches. My brakes were worn to the nubs, but otherwise my bike was still in working order.

Which meant I’d be ready to traverse the Passage again – maybe in summer, this time.