Even if I am not the biggest fan of small talk and mingling, I have to admit that sometimes it can lead to most amazing things. I learned about an awesome bike trail between Pittsburgh and DC in the Fulbright welcome reception in October when chatting with one of the Fulbright staff members. It was only half a year later, though, when the topic came up again with a friend of mine over lunch. To my surprise, she was immediately all in. It still took a few more months for the plan to mature. One more bikey woman was approved to join the team, and we decided to time the adventure for the Memorial Day weekend.
Thursday May 22: Washington, DC – Pittsburgh, PA
As I had signed up for a series of bike mechanics classes with The Bike House on Thursday nights in May, we could not leave before I had finalized the class on shifters and derailleurs. Skipping the class would have meant too much bad karma for the tour. The girls agreed to pick me up from Petworth right after the class. We loaded our bikes and panniers to a rental van, and our crazy adventure started. Around 1AM after about four hours of driving, Pittsburgh by night opened up in front of our eyes. Pretty! I was a little surprised as well: Pittsburgh is actually a proper-sized city, much bigger than I had imagined. Our first home away from home was an old priory converted to a cool hotel.
Friday May 23: Pittsburgh, PA – Dawson, PA
After a good night’s sleep and stuffing as much food to ourselves as possible at breakfast, we packed the van again and drove downtown to return it. It still took quite a while to get going: Reassembling front wheels on the bikes, adding air to the tires, buying a map and a copy of the legendary the TrailBook, and taking photos in front of the baseball stadium, the local Red Cross chapter, and eventually in Point State Park, the official starting (or actually ending) point of the Great Alleghany Passage (GAP), all of this took time.
Around 2PM we were finally on the trail. The weather was a little cloudy, but I didn’t mind at all, as heat is not for me. The first part of the trail was paved, so we were moving very quickly along the Monongahela River. We crossed a couple of impressive bridges, saw and heard the first trains, and rode a while with two chatty, patronizing guys who were heading to the same direction. We had a quick break by the beautiful Dravo Cemetery, and then stopped for dinner in West Newton. I was a little concerned that we would not arrive at our next home away home in Dawson before it gets dark, but I also figured that it is better to arrive in the dark than to arrive hungry. The patio of The Trailside restaurant was full of locals and other bikers, and we all loved the relaxed Friday night atmosphere.
We had about 20 miles / 32km to go after dinner. We got about half way before it started to get dark. The trail was no longer paved, but still in very good condition. Around 9PM we were done with our 57 miles / 92km. This was the all time highest daily mileage for each one of us, the first time biking with panniers for both of my friends, and even the first time with clipless pedals for one of the two. My heart rate monitor estimated that the recovery time was 68 hours, but I actually felt great: Knowing that I could do this distance on my hybrid with panniers made the 56 mile ride / 90km on a road bike as a part of a Half Ironman feel much less frightening.
Having dinner in West Newton was probably the right decision, as Dawson turned out to be a tiny town with 451 inhabitants at the 2000 census (and many have probably left since). Fortunately, we found our accommodation, Dawson River Guest House, easily. We had the entire 194-year-old house for ourselves. The house looked very much like someone’s grandmother’s place, or like the house of the three bears in Goldilocks. There were even three beds in a small bedroom upstairs, one of which clearly belonged to the Baby Bear.
The only establishment that was open in Dawson on a Friday night was Phil’s Nite Club. Finding it turned out to be surprisingly difficult considering the size of the town. The first lit building that looked like the bar from distance, was actually a garage that belonged to a local weirdo. The garage was full of 50s memorabilia and other random junk. It was easy to imagine that it also would serve as a meth lab. The guy was hanging out there with his lady friend and two teenage boys. None of them seemed to be doing particularly well. Kind of a sad scene, so we cut the small talk as short as we politely could, and headed forward.
Luckily, the next lit building was the one we were looking for, a combination of a restaurant and a bar, sort of an American version of Kaamasen kievari. Three gals in biking gear definitely stood out from the crowd. There sure were a few other bikers in the bar, but they do not ride bicycles, they ride motorcycles. A very memorable evening, and probably the cheapest beer (2 beers and a bag of pretzels for $5) and the biggest tip (60%) of my Fulbright year.
Saturday May 24: Dawson, PA – Rockwood, PA
In the morning I noticed something funny on the front porch: A chair made of skis. And two skis in the middle were not just any old skis. They were Finnish skis by Karhu! I love spotting Finnish brands in unexpected settings, and this definitely was one. A similar proud moment for a Finn than spotting the Fiskars machetes on the Kingman Island.
Before the trip, my internet research had shown that there is a gluten free bakery in Dawson. Based on what we had seen the night before, it felt very hard to believe that there would be any kind of bakery in the town. We decided to check out Lisa’s Gluten Free Bakery anyway. And it does indeed exist, but unfortunately the opening hours on Facebook were up to date, so we had to carry on without cupcakes.
We ended up having a no-nonsense breakfast at Valley Dairy in Connellsville instead. A few mamils had also stopped there for a coffee. They were not as patronizing as the guys we met the day before, but again we got to answer a few funny questions, like if we had cancelled the trip if it was raining. Of course not! Like always, my distinguishable accent was also of a lot of interest. I gradually started to feel like a celebrity on the trail due to being Finnish, and eventually we did not meet any other foreigners during our entire ride.
From Connellsville it was a lovely ride to Ohiopyle. So green and lush, a nice canopy, sunshine, blues skies, and a winding trail along the Youghiogheny river. It felt like flying, except that you could feel the wind and warmth on your face, and you knew that the only thing moving you forward were your own muscles. In Ohiopyle we got off the bikes to visit Fallingwater, one of Frank Lloyd Wright‘s houses. The brilliant architecture of the house really takes the most out of its beautiful location. Fallingwater reminded me of the Didrichsen Art Museum in Helsinki, although Frank Lloyd Wright designed the house in 1930s whereas Viljo Revell designed the Didrichsen villa only in the 1950s.
From Ohiopyle it was supposed to be a pleasant 10-mile ride to Confluence. It was incredibly pretty, and we kept moving pretty fast – until I started to feel pain in my right knee. Significant pain. I did not want to make a big deal out of it, but eventually I had to unclip my right foot and do the last miles pedaling primarily with my left leg. I felt grateful for the one-leg drills that I had done earlier in spring as a part of my triathlon training. At least I had some strength in my non-dominant left leg as well.
Confluence was possibly the most picturesque town along the whole bike route. The famous Sister’s Cafe was closed unfortunately, as it was evening already, but River’s Edge Cafe was open. I hoped that my knee pain would leave together with hunger. Unfortunately our delicious dinner overlooking the river in the wonderful evening sun was not enough to cure my knee. For a moment I thought I could get away by only clipping in the left foot again. Soon I realized that even if I was able to do that for a few miles, it would be irresponsible and just plain stupid to try to do it for another 19 miles. I would have to stop biking immediately to avoid further damage, if not entirely, at least for the rest of the day.
I had been looking forward to the bike tour so much that having to stop was a huge disappointment. At the same time, pedaling had felt so horrible that I also started to panic if I had just destroyed my Half Ironman dream as well. The feeling reminded me of a teary night in October 2010. I had hoped to run my first marathon in Beirut in November that year, but after suffering multiple consecutive colds, I just was forced to face the facts and do just a 10K Fun Run instead.
Once the tough decision was made, I got back to my solution-driven mode. Years ago, one of my first supervisors taught me what she called the law of karma: “Whatever you do, good or bad, comes back to you threefold.” A Wiccan tenet or not, I’ve kept this in mind ever since. Now it was clearly time to cash back some of my good deeds. So what do you do if you are in a small town in rural Pennsylvania without phone reception? You start asking for help! We spotted Lucky Dog Café right by the trail and stepped inside.
I explained the situation to the bartender. We learned that there is no taxi service in Confluence, neither is there in Rockwood which was our destination for the day. Calling an ambulance would have been an option but it did not feel justified, plus probably they would not have taken a bike onboard anyway. Next I asked the bartender if she happened to have a friend or know anyone who would like to make me big favor for some gas money. A man in his late 40s or early 50s eating fries at the bar overheard the discussion and offered to drive me to Rockwood with his pickup. Under normal circumstances I do not hitchhike or accept rides from middle-aged men that I know nothing of. In this case, though, I decided to let this man prove that not all helpful men are ax-murderers. It seemed that everyone who worked in the bar knew the man, so I figured they would not let me accept the ride if there was anything sketchy about it.
And everything worked out just fine: I sent my friends off for the last leg of the day. I let the man finish his fries together with the bartender. Then we walked to his massive white pickup truck, offloaded a few kayaks and loaded my bike. The drive to Rockwood was actually quite a lot longer than the bike trail, so I got plenty of small talk exercise. My savior turned out to be originally from Germany, a father of two, and a devoted kayak teacher and kayaking enthusiast since the 1970s. He had lived and worked in Confluence for years before moving to the West Coast, and he had known the bartender since she was a little girl. He kindly dropped me off right by at our accommodation, Hostel on Main.
My earlier than expected arrival in Rockwood turned out to have a major positive consequence: The only grocery store (which actually was a Dollar store), was only open until 9PM. That left me with about 20 minutes of time to creatively hoard food for us: eggs, milk, bananas, granola, pretzels, Gatorade, and ice cream. Due to the Memorial Day weekend, the store would reopen on Sunday only at noon, so without my coincidental grocery run we would have had no breakfast. When my friends found the hostel after biking in the dark again, this time encountering snakes on the trail, especially the ice cream was much appreciated. After 36 miles / 58km and a pickup ride for me and 55 miles / 89km for them, lying on bunk beds, eating Moose Tracks and debriefing the day was glorious.
Sunday May 25: Rockwood, PA – Cumberland, MD
On Sunday morning I was very nervous to get on the bike again. After about half a mile it was clear that this would be my last day of biking. The strongest pain was gone, but I could feel that something was not quite right. Luckily, we had planned a shorter day for Sunday, only 45 miles / 73km. I also knew that after a very gradual climb to the Eastern Continental Divide the remaining 24 miles / 38km would be downhill. I would have hated to miss the leg from Rockwood to Cumberland, as I knew we had an awesome day ahead with lots of sightseeing on the way, so I decided to give it a go using the smallest gear possible at all times.
The first major sight was the Salisbury viaduct. I must have had a ridiculously big smile on my face. After all the challenges on the way, I was so happy to be able see these impressive constructions build for trains more than a hundred years ago. In Meyersdale we stopped at an old railway station for a long unrushed lunch. They had a world map on the wall where guests were asked to pin their home towns. I was the first one from Finland. Biking Finland onto to the map of the world!
Soon after the break we crossed yet another impressive iron bridge, Bollman bridge, and the Keystone Viaduct. Seeing the Eastern Continental Divide in front of my eyes may have been the most rewarding moment of the entire ride. The Eastern Continental Divide is the line from where water drains to both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. For me it was a big victory and relief as I knew this was the highest point on our route and I would make it to Cumberland.
To document our achievement, we asked an experienced looking biker to take a photo of us. He was riding a very nice Surly touring bike, one of my dream bikes, so I got curious about his story. This crazy guy from Idaho, Harvey, had started his tour in February and biked over 3,000 miles / 5,000km since. He had started in California, crossed the Sierras, biked through the southern United States all the way to New Orleans, and eventually Key West. The bike ride from DC to Pittsburgh was the last leg of his tour. Very inspiring!
The next sight was the longest of three tunnels on the GAP trail, the Big Savage Tunnel. It felt strange to take off sunglasses and turn on bike lights in the middle of a sunny day, but the tunnel was long enough (1km!) to make both of those actions very necessary. Coming out of the tunnel, a beautiful view to the valley opened up in front of our eyes. Then we arrived to the state border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, also known as the Mason-Dixon line. That is where we had the next awesome encounter: Again I asked someone to take a photo of us. This time I had randomly selected a deaf couple. One of my friends is an American Sign Language interpreter, so thanks to her special skill we ended up having a lengthy conversation on biking and kayaking.
From the Mason-Dixon line it was all downhill. There were two more tunnels, Borden and Brush, and miles and miles of railroad tracks. Some sections of the trail were quite narrow and uneven, so I felt very grateful having learned to bike on gravel roads a child. Otherwise whizzing down the hill might have been scary to say the least. I also felt grateful that we had decided to start the bike ride from Pittsburgh and not from DC. Climbing up this hill on a hot, sunny day would have been hard work even without any knee issues.
A little bit before Cumberland the trail was paved again. It felt so luxurious! At the same time I felt a little sad knowing that my ride would be soon over. Arriving in Cumberland was awesome, though! We found the official ending (or starting) point of the GAP. I have probably never been that gritty after biking, but that did not prevent us from another funny photo shoot. The bikes were obviously super gritty as well, but luckily Fairfield Inn where we stayed offered facilities for washing them before bringing them inside for the night.
We celebrated the completion of GAP by having dinner at Uncle Jack’s Pizzeria. Sometimes pizza and beer are exactly what you need! The rest of the evening we spent again lying on our beds and eating ice cream in our hotel room that was so full of bikes and gear that it would have been nearly impossible to fit in anything more. The girls were watching Youtube videos on how to repair a flat now as their mechanic (= me) would not be able to join them. Who would’ve thought that I would ever be considered a trusted bike mechanic?
Monday May 26 (Memorial Day): Cumberland, MD – Washington, DC – Hancock, MD
One of the main reasons why I decided to risk it and ride from Rockwood to Cumberland was that I figured that getting home from Cumberland should be much easier as it is a much bigger small town. All the car rentals indeed have an office in Cumberland, but when we started to investigate the situation, it turned out that they were all closed due to Memorial Day: Avis, Enterprise, Budget, Hertz… Similarly no luck with U-Haul either. This challenge had not even crossed my mind. Why on Earth would you not keep car rentals open during a long weekend when people actually have time to drive to places?
While the girls were getting ready for their nearly 60 mile ride, I started to explore other options. Greyhound? No buses between Cumberland and DC. And even if there had been, they would not have taken the bike unless it was put into small pieces and boxed. Amtrak? There would’ve been a train early in the morning, but again no bikes. Zimride? I even tried catching a ride through the car pooling service of the DelFest music festival that had happened in Cumberland that weekend, but no luck…
I was gradually getting unsettled. I published a general appeal on Facebook for someone to come rescue me, and I was about to start asking people in the breakfast room randomly if they were about to check out and head to DC. I did not get quite that far when things started to move: We got a friend in DC on phone half-asleep, and he promised to help the ‘damsel in distress’ probably before he properly woke up. When he did wake up, he realized that the clutch in his car did not work properly. Luckily the other of my friends on the trip realized he could take her car and drive up with it. Problem solved!
After I had given my last motherly (and probably completely unnecessary) advice about the importance of nutrition, hydration and not stopping for way too long to complete the ride before dark to the girls and sent them off to the trail, I had plenty of time to walk around Cumberland while waiting for my evacuation. I sat quite a while in the garden of the one of the churches in Old Cumberland, hung out at a cute book store, and got a cone of yummy ice cream from Queen City Creamery recommended by Harvey on Eastern Continental Divide. My rescue patrol arrived around 4PM.
There was quite a lot of Memorial Day traffic, so it took us about 3 hours to get back to DC. Then it was my turn to hop on the driver’s seat, first drive to Columbia Heights to drop off my bike and then head back north to meet the girls in Hancock. I was super happy that I had been driving in Miami only a few weeks earlier, so I was not completely terrified in DC traffic. I also realized that thanks to biking around the city almost daily during the past nine months, I knew the street network very well: one-way streets, bike lanes, hidden alleys, and so on. Soon after getting out of DC, the battery of my phone died, so I had to navigate the rest of drive relying on signs – very old school, but it worked. Still I think I was more exhausted after the drive to our last lovely accommodation, 1828 Trail Inn Bed and Breakfast, than after any of the days on the bike. What a day! 270 miles for my rescue patrol, 230 miles for me, and approximately 60 miles on the C&O trail for the girls.
Tuesday May 27: Hancock, MD – Washington, DC
On the last morning of the adventure we took it very easy and had the most amazing breakfast prepared by our friendly host Darlene. For once even I was not in a hurry to get going. The girls had decided to only complete the Western Maryland Rail Trail on this trip, so it would be an easy 11-mile ride for them, and an even quicker drive for me, so we did not have to worry about darkness. Naturally I would have much rather biked with them… But when your body tries to tell you something, you’d better listen.
Once the heroines completed their ride and we were happily reunited again in Big Pool, we only need to load bikes on the bike rack and hop in the car. At least the logistics were super easy as a result of my evacuation. In the original plan we would’ve needed to get a rental car from Hagerstown. Country roads took us to Williamsport where ate a yummy lunch at the Desert Rose Café, got the daily ice cream overdose across the street, and made some more biker small talk with another group of bikers. Then it was unavoidably time to drive back home to DC after doing our share to save the small town America.
Check out additional photos on Flickr.