“One of the most important days of my life, was when I learned to ride a bicycle.” -Michael Palin
This year marks my 40th anniversary of my graduating from high school. While I am not attending the reunion due to scheduling conflicts, I am participating in rekindling memories with childhood friends. I, along with hundreds of Spring Valley, NY students, attended the same schools from birth to graduation. We know one another. It came as no surprise when, emailing with one of my girlfriends, that she said, “ I always remember you on a bicycle.”
Riding was a way to get around without having to ask Mom for a ride. It was the ultimate freedom for me! Pedaling up hills and sailing down the other side. Last week, seven of my dearest friends and I rode from Pittsburgh, PA to Washington, D.C., nearly 325 miles over 6 days. While I love to ride, I was not all that enthusiastic about this trip.
Since all of the adventurous ones were going, I did not want to miss out. Thus, I trained with my fiancé and friends here in Tampa, riding the Courtney Campbell Causeway on most weekends, so we could clock some miles on the bike and in the saddle. Saddle training was critical and proved to be the main source of discomfort over 6 days. Did I mention that we trained in July and August? It was hot.
The route picks up in Pittsburgh at the start of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP). It is a 187 mile rails to trails roadbed that winds through some spectacular woods and parks. A canopy of Fall trees shedding their leaves was our constant companion. I should mention that we were escorted by a guide on the path and followed by a “sag” wagon, delivering enough snacks and drinks for an army. We averaged 50 miles a day, and stopped frequently for snacks and a tasty lunch, prepared by our guides. At night we were treated to local accommodations in small towns in PA, WV and MD.
The rail trail ends in Cumberland, WV and picks up along the Chesapeake & Ohio Tow Path. Here, this 184 mile path follows the man-made canal, paralleling the Potomac River from Georgetown to Cumberland. The goal in 1820, was to create better transportation out to Ohio from MD, a flawed plan since the canal was obsoleted by rail in 1850. The barges that served the canal were pulled by mules. The canal was enhanced with a series of over 70 locks, an engineering feat in the day. As you ride the path, remnants of the locks are visible and well maintained. Adjacent to the locks are lock tenders homes, many of which are available for overnight rental. This leg of the trip meanders through the historic sites like the Antietam Battlefield and Harper’s Ferry. For a civil war buff, this is hallowed ground.
While following a path leaves little chance to get lost, of course that happened anyways. Both Jim (my fiancé) and I missed a critical turn and were separated from the group. Until you are lost and your cell phone won’t work in remote areas, you don’t know how critical your cell phone is to your life. I was unable to reach either guide but thanks to Verizon cell service, I tracked Jim down. Once we were reunited, (he rode 8 miles to retrieve me, bless his heart) we received instructions from the guides via a text message on where to meet. Crisis averted!
The total route includes a steep incline, eaked out over the first 2 days in a barely perceptible climb. At the end of the second day, crossing through a tunnel marking the eastern continental divide, we were treated to a thrilling downhill ride for about 4 miles. The following day we were pampered with a 16 mile downhill that required limited pedaling. I tried not to pedal at all, and with gravity as my friend, enjoyed standing up in my pedals for most of that stretch.
We pedaled into Georgetown in Washington, DC midday on Monday. Our re-entry into civilization was harsh. There was construction on the last mile of the tow path. Until that point, we were surrounded by the freshest air, the gentlest of breezes and a silence unbroken for nearly 300 miles. It was a true vacation and personal achievement.
If you are ever in that neck of the woods, spoil yourself with a few miles on foot or by bike to the trail. It was a treat.