Point State Park, Pittsburgh.

Day 11: Pittsburgh to Cleveland

6/13/15: 117 miles, Pittsburgh, Pa., to Middlefield, Ohio

Awoke to a steady drizzle coming through downtown Pittsburgh. Last night was the first night I’d partied like a rock star on the trip, and boy I felt it. With nothing else to do but pack and go, I made coffee and waited for the rain to stop. Got out early before my Airbnb hosts got up, about 8 a.m.

Saturday morning in Pittsburgh, post-rain. Silence and hills. And there it was, emerging from the fog, to remind you of all the well-educated brain cells you’ve punished: The Cathedral of Learning at University of Pittsburgh.

Cathedral of Learning.

Cathedral of Learning.

I made my way downtown to Point State Park, where the three rivers converge. Grey sky didn’t make for the photos I hoped, but I ended up talking with a dozen or so separate couples preparing to ride to DC. Including a couple from Chicago, who noticed one of my water bottles and asked if I lived there.

Point State Park.

Point State Park.

I rode by Heinz Field and PNC Park where the Steelers and Pirates play, and plodded along the Ohio River on one of the city’s trails. A few miles later, it spit me out on Pittsburgh’s streets near a big jail—Riverside Community Corrections Center. That a bike path squeezed by this massive, ghostly compound suggested the city’s determination to extend the Ohio River Trail, which only had so many options. On one side is a river, and industrial neighborhoods on the other.

Inmates shouted at each other inside the jail. I could hear them standing outside. Hungover, marveling at this place, grateful I wasn’t there, it seemed like an oversight that I could just easily ride up to this place and into the parking lot if I wanted.

The slammer.

The slammer.

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The guys I met at the bar last night advised me on the best route out of Pittsburgh, and somehow I remembered: Follow the McKees Rocks Bridge over to PA-51, onto Neville Island to avoid a big climb, and follow PA-51 to PA-18 into New Castle. Much of the ride laced me through a few nasty climbs through old Pittsburgh neighborhoods, not all unlike Cleveland’s Flats with an Appalachian flavor. Once I got out of downtown, the riding wasn’t bad, considering the industrial Rust Belt landscape along the Ohio River.

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I stopped near the towns of Aliquippa and Coraopolis, industrial towns clinging to life, and caught some shots of this abandoned building on the side of the road.

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The route brought me into Beaver County, Pa., which I have to give a big thumbs up. The roads weren’t great, but the views of all the Ohio River communities from bridges—Monaca, Rochester, New Brighton—were worth it. Towns that could easily be in a Normal Rockwell painting.

Bridges.

Bridges.

And just like that, I found myself in the middle of the Happy Days Car Cruise hot rod show in Beaver Falls, Pa. I got few weird looks as the loaded bike riding among choppers and classic cars, but once I stopped for a gyro and lemonade, a few folks asked me about the bike and where I was going.

Happy Days Car Cruise, Beaver, Pa.

Happy Days Car Cruise, Beaver, Pa.

I don't know much about cars, but these are sweet.

I don’t know much about cars, but these are sweet.

It was about 2 p.m., humid, in the mid 90s. I wasn’t much for putting in a long day, though it got to the point when I had to start figuring out where I would stay tonight. Looked at the map, and Ohio was within striking distance. Most of the campsites near Youngstown were a good 20 miles into the state and not really on the way to my folks’ place in Geauga County. Meh, I thought. Let’s get to Ohio and figure it out.

PA-18 took me north to New Castle, where the road looked like this for 15 miles. Not bad.

Once in New Castle, I stopped at a gas station for Gatorade and gummy bears. A guy named Jeff in a truck asked me about my trip, and he said he was a cyclist, too. Had done some touring, but as a local truck driver, he lamented his long days and lack of momentum to get on a riding schedule. I encouraged the guy to get back at it, that he’d be beating everyone on the couch even if it’s one day a week.

The last 10 miles from New Castle to Ohio were on a paved bike path I never heard of, according to the fellow Drunkcyclists from last night. And after a bit of meandering through idyllic rolling farm country, indeed, they were right.

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Welcome to Ohio.

Welcome to Ohio.

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As I expected, the trail condition turned from smooth pavement to unmaintained asphalt with weeds and tree roots buckling the path. Couldn’t wait to get back on a road, even if it was a shitty Youngstown road.

I’d never been to the first town, Lowellville, Ohio, where people were playing corn hole and hanging out in the town square.

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Now that I was in Ohio, about 6:30 p.m. with 70-some miles covered, with plenty of daylight, I decided to pull the trigger and make it a century to my parents’ farm, about 45 more miles away. Yeah, I’d be coming in at dark, but with a set of dynohub lights I had’t really tested at night, this would be a good chance to try them out. Once I’d get within 20 miles or so, I would be on familiar roads, so I wouldn’t need to navigate. And with almost two weeks off the bike coming up, I wanted to see how I’d feel (and see if I could ride) after 100+ miles. So I did.

I won’t wax poetic on how run-down Youngstown is, except that it gives Detroit a run for its money. But there are signs of life downtown with bars and restaurants. There was even a Pride street fest going on.

Youngstown.

Youngstown

Sunset over Youngstown.

 

The roads through the rest of Trumbull County—Niles, Girard, Warren—didn’t offer much in terms of smooth pavement, until I hit the Western Reserve Greenway. The WRG runs north-south from Warren to almost Lake Erie, and it’d shoot me north enough where I could navigate home in the dark.

Running from rain in Warren, Ohio.

Running from rain in Warren, Ohio.

About 9:30 p.m., I had 12 miles to go. Visible light drained from the sky, and I turned on the lights. In pitch dark, the Busch & Muller lights work splendidly. The downside? The headlight turned on the bug machine. I pulled my cap brim down and tried to keep the bugs out of my eyes.

Once I got on OH-87, I rode in the shoulder that’s occupied by Amish buggies in daylight. At 10:30 p.m., I rolled down my folks’ driveway.

117 miles in on the day. The trip resumes on June 24.

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Day 10: Pittsburgh, Steel City

Day 10

6/12/15: 78 miles, Ohiopyle, Pa., to Pittsburgh, Pa.

John was gone by the time I got up, around 7:30. He mentioned he had to get to Pittsburgh by mid afternoon to catch his ride back home, so I wasn’t surprised he was gone.

I rolled from Ohiopyle, down the steep path to the GAP, and rode to Connersville, Pa. Found myself at the Hometown Diner, I believe it was called, where I noshed on biscuits and gravy, fruit, coffee, and apple juice. Reloaded at the grocery store, and from there, it was a hot one all the way into Pittsburgh. I resolved to hit up the REI on the city’s southside strip along Carson St. for a new sleeping pad, since I’d had trouble getting comfortable with my Thermarest foam self-inflating pad.

Breakfast in Connellsville, Pa.

Breakfast in Connellsville, Pa.

The GAP along the Youghiogheny River became more of a lush, emerald green tunnel due likely to the heavy rains that had come through lately. Plus, there were a fair amount of downed trees like on the C&O.

Around mid-afternoon, my legs weren’t feeling great. B-bu-bu-but, I had biscuits and gravy! And Gatorade! At least that’s what I told myself. It was likely a case of not-enough-water, a hunch remedied by a chugging a bottle, soaking myself at a water pump, and popping a couple Advil.

How I get my water.

How I get my water (taken along the C&O, but the GAP has the same pumps).

Fatigue does set in at times, no matter how strong day after day of riding will make you.

Ice cream helps.

Ice cream near West Newton, Pa.

Ice cream near West Newton, Pa.

As I reeled Pittsburgh in, I was debating whether to ride the Montour Trail around the west side of town, or head straight through the city and take it from there. I had ridden in the Dirty Dozen, a freak show of a bike race that takes you up the 13 steepest hills in the city, back in November. As painful as it was, I wanted to get back to Pittsburgh and ride around town. When I reached McKeesport, the head of the GAP trail where it connects with the Steel Valley Trail that goes downtown, I decided to head downtown. It was Friday night, and the food+cold ones on Carson Street were calling.

End of the GAP in McKeesport, Pa.

End of the GAP in McKeesport, Pa.

Pittsburgh’s Steel Valley Trail led me downtown just as an angry line of storms were blowing in. I mashed to REI, some 13 miles from McKeesport, and beat out the rain. I locked up my bike, ran inside, and watched as blinding sheets of rain came down. When it stopped, I left with a new pad and some Honey Stingers, and headed over to Over The Bar, Pittsburgh’s bike-themed joint with superb chow, similar to Chicago’s Handlebar.

600 miles into the trip. I have arrived in #Pittsburgh. Now. Beer.

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And there, as I expected, I met a motley bunch: Denny USAC official, John, Patrick, Jon, Kate and a few other good souls who summoned the whiskey gods. Halfway through my burger and bender, I realized I wasn’t going to make it the 20-some miles back out to camp on the Montour Trail. I ended up finding a $60 room nearby on Airbnb in Oakland. Only a mile away! Sweet! But in Pittsburgh, the saying is, “You can’t get there from here,” a nod to how difficult it is to find a direct route anywhere because of the city’s layout. I rode down Carson, across the Hot Metal Bridge, and up the Bates hill. Holy God, that was steep. Granny gear all the way up for the mile climb. I found myself on the sidewalk for most of it, since traffic was heavy, the road was wet and dark, and after a few drinks, my risk tolerance was low.

Eventually, I made to Catherine and Jason’s house, my Airbnb hosts, where I was greeted with a cold Yuengling and a friendly Westie named Abby. We chatted for about 45 minutes about my trip, about Cleveland where Catherine was also from originally, and our experiences as Airbnb hosts (my place is listed in Chicago on most weekends). Good folks. I had a bedroom and bathroom to myself, and a secure spot downstairs for the bike. That beat forking over $130 for a hotel on that short of notice.

 

Cross the Eastern Continental Divide.

Day 9: Over the Divide

6/11/15: 83 miles, Cumberland, Md., to Ohiopyle, Pa.

After last night, I learned my lesson in not settling for what appears to be an ideal campsite. At first glance, Evitts Creek campground, at mile 180.1 of the C&O Canal, is an attractive spot. Freshly cut grass, no garbage, ample tree cover, a wood-stocked fire pit (yes!), and no one else around? And a flat tent spot? Only five miles from breakfast?

That was all well and good until the active CSX rail yard about 300 yards away came to life. I knew there were trains nearby since freight and Amtrak follow the graded terrain along the Potomac, but after I climbed into my tent train after train after train came through. Then they’d stop, followed by a loud, rippling tensioning of connections that spread down the line, domino-like, as each car got ready to move. Then they would, to be replaced by another train moments later.

I slept about an hour all night because of the locomotive cacophony. At some point, I Googled it on my phone. Turns out, I camped across the from Cumberland Terminal Subdivision. A big factory of loud. Pro tip: If you’re riding the C&O through Cumberland, don’t camp at Evitts Creek. If you do, wear earplugs (which I generally don’t do for safety reasons).

Groggy, I headed five miles back to Cumberland for breakfast. I hit up Cafe Mark, a coffee and breakfast joint, for an omelet and large Americano to ward off the headache from lack of sleep.

Cafe Mark.

Cafe Mark.

As I left, I met a guy named John on an old Trek 520 touring bike who looked about my age. He asked if this place was good. I told him it was. After chatting about our trips (we were both headed for DC) I rode along for the 30 mile climb up out of Maryland into Pennsylvania. It’s a slog up a rail-graded path. The temperature got hotter with each pedal stroke. I stopped in Frostburg, Md., for a Gatorade and snack about two-thirds the way up the climb, before finishing the eight miles to the divide. Once you get over the divide, it’s a sweet gradual descent 140 miles to Pittsburgh.

The climb over Big Savage Mountain took three hours or so, and took me through a couple more tunnels. The downhill payoff was worth it.

Maryland/Pennsylvania Border, aka the Mason Dixon Line.

Maryland/Pennsylvania Border, aka the Mason Dixon Line.

The first sign I saw in Pennsylvania.

The first sign I saw in Pennsylvania.

Over the divide.

Over the divide.

A few miles later, I crossed the divide. John, the guy I’d met in Cumberland earlier, caught up at the divide, so we took some pics and rode along into Pennsylvania together. Said he’s from Alexandria, Va., was a teacher in his mid 30s, and was riding to his girlfriend’s folks’ place in Pittsburgh, where he was going to catch a ride back to DC. He was a strong wheel, so we rolled downhill to Ohiopyle, Pa., an outdoors getaway town in the middle of Ohiopyle State Park, known for its hiking, rafting, backpacking and impressive views of the Youghiogheny River. Along the way, we ate sandwiches in Meyersdale and an entire BBQ chicken pizza in Confluence.

In Ohiopyle, we picked up a six pack to split over campfire at Kentuck Campground, part of the state park. Pro tip: If you’re trying to get to Kentuck from the GAP trail, you have to hike your bike up a very steep 1/4-mile long trail that takes you up to the backside of the campground. I tried climbing in my lowest gear, but alas, John and I ended up dismounting and pushing our rigs up the hill. From there, we rode (uphill) to the front of the campground where the main entrance and office are. By the time we got there, we were shredded. It’s not impossible, but you earn your campsite at Kentuck. That said, it was a quiet, shady, bug-free place with lots of firewood in the brush. And it was only $10 for each John and I. Setting up camp, I realized I lost my headlamp when I dismounted on the climb to camp, because it was poorly bungeed to my rear pannier. The headband had been wet and I strapped it to dry out. So spent all night with my backup bike headlight in my hand.

We made short work of a 6-pack before calling it a night.

Map of Kentuck: Where it says “To Bike Trail” below campsites 85 and 86 is where we came in. It’s a steep hike. The more you know.

The bridges over the Youghiogheny River near Ohiopyle, Pa.

The bridges over the Youghiogheny River near Ohiopyle, Pa.

Cumberland, Md. End of the C&O Canal.

Day 8: End of the C&O Canal

6/10/15: 68 miles, Hancock, Md., to Cumberland, Md.

Getting out of the Super 8 was slow going. Made a couple pots of coffee and tried to get my shoes and clothes to dry out using the hair dryer after I’d hand washed everything in the sink last night.

In the daylight, I could see where Super 8 motels really shine: water-stained cushion on the chair in the corner, curious brown handprints above the tube TV, and yellowing dog-earned cable channel guide on the nightstand. Again, any port in a storm. I was just glad to be dry, have a roof and bed. Not that your standards go down when you’re bike touring, but you need to be flexible depending on what the road throws as you. I know some people like to stay in nice hotels, but frankly, the motels are key for bike touring, because you don’t need to deal with wheeling your bike through the lobby and screwing around with an elevator. The motels generally have the room door on the exterior of the building, making it easy-in, easy-out. Less hassle, the better.

Ate breakfast from the food in my pack and hit the road around 10. The weather and trail conditions improved. Relief.

The trail gradually become much more Appalachian today, with more exposed rock along the canal and router terrain. I met a group of older folks from England who were credit-card touring (where you carry very little and stay at hotels and B&Bs). The one woman was spreading her husband’s ashes along the trail, with whom she had ridden the C&O years ago—I guess the occasion for the trip.

At one point when I stopped for water, I struck up a conversation with a homeless dude who called himself “Pitiful.” I suspect it wasn’t just a clever name. He said the park service always asked him to leave because he scared park-goers, and lamented the high prices of food in Hancock and Cumberland. I guess when you have nothing, everything is a high price.

Here’s his bike:

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The canal meandered away from the Potomac River at one point. That brings us to the first tunnel, the 3,000-ft. Paw Paw tunnel. It was constructed for the canal originally. There is a narrow, pot hole-riddled, railing-lined foot path to ride along, while the stagnant canal claims the majority of the tunnel. When I arrived at the tunnel, a group of guys said the rest of their group was walking through the tunnel. I could see their headlamps poking along the tunnel wall. They made up a group of about eight, coming from Pittsburgh to DC, but I think they were from Richmond. We talked about our trips, tours, bikes, gear, mileage, life, jobs, and I told them about my travelogue. (Hey, guys!)

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Fellow tourers going from PGH to DC.

One of the women suggested I should walk through the tunnel, but I assured her I’d ridden it before (I had), and I had lights to illuminate the way. It was bumpy as all hell, not all unlike most of the roads in Chicago or Cleveland I’m accustomed to. You definitely need lights, or you gotta walk. Riding through a dark tunnel with nothing but the light at the end to focus on becomes instantly disorienting. It’s hard to tell if you’re riding straight, left, right, up down—inducing a sort of vertigo that has caused riders to simply lose balance and crash.

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Paw Paw Tunnel.

As the C&O meanders into Cumberland, Md., the city reveals itself as the surrounding Appalachian hills peel away. It’s a decidedly Appalachian town, though it felt like another outdoor-oriented town. Think Flagstaff. Or Bend. But in Maryland. The path ends at a big trailhead with a bike shop, bar, historical center and all that—even a big arch that makes you want to sprint finish (see top photo). Because it’s also the intersection of the Great Allegheny Passage trail, which runs north from Cumberland to Pittsburgh, the trail head is built up to seamlessly recognize and connect both trail termini.

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Where the C&O dumps into the GAP.

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Flags in downtown Cumberland, Md.

In my never-end quest for food, I rolled down Baltimore Street. It’s a pedestrian-only brick road that, with restaurants, bars, shops and cafes, appears to be Cumberland’s core. I downed a couple High Lifes and snarfed a crab cake sandwich with onion rings at the Baltimore Street Grill before hitting up a corner store for a night-cap tallboy.

So, #lastnight. #cumberland #Maryland #beer #liquor #Americana #neon

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The nearest campsite was Evitts Creek, which meant I had to backtrack five miles on the C&O. Ah, well. It’s free. And that would give me a few miles to warmup before attacking tomorrow’s 30 mile climb over the Eastern Continental Divide into Pennsylvania.

Caught the sunset lighting up the Western Maryland Railway Station on my way out. This building is the landmark junction of the C&O Canal and GAP trails.

Western Maryland Railyway Station

Western Maryland Railyway Station

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Day 7: Storm-trashed C&O

6/9/15: 67 miles, Sharpsburg, Md., to Hancock, Md.

Got up at sunrise and couldn’t roll out fast enough. Because of the late afternoon scramble from the rain last night, I never went to the grocery store (or liquor store). That, and because the water pump at camp was busted, I only had a half bottle of water to drink.

Packed up as fast as I could and headed off the trail onto the road for breakfast in Sharpsburg, Md. There wasn’t much there, so I rode 5 miles south to Shepherdstown, W.Va., a small college town that seemed like it had more to offer. Ended up at Betty’s, a greasy-spoon type diner (my favorite). Saw a few other bikes outside, sealing the deal. Grabbed a counter seat. I ordered pancakes, scrambled eggs, hash browns, coffee, wheat toast, bacon, and grapefruit juice. Nothing in on the menu was more than $8.

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Another rider named Tony took a seat next to me after a few minutes. He was from Asheville, N.C., recently retired and former Navy. Said after he retired, his wife left him after 30 years. He seemed OK with that, and we talked about our touring trips. He’d done Alaska to Montana and the TransAm before. He then told me about how great the riding is where he lives in Pisgah National Forest. Our conversation tapered as he dove into his biscuits in gravy.

On my way out of town, I stopped at a Sheetz, my favorite gas station ever because of the indie rock and grunge music they pipe in as well as their Dunkin-Donuts style breakfast. I talked to a woman there, Zoe, who told me about how her sister went to college in Santa Cruz after I explained my trip to her. But we might’ve been talking about two different Santas. I don’t know of a college in Santa Cruz.

After I left Shepherdstown to get back on the trail, I was met with more downed trees from the storm. The first hour of the day, I was carrying my bike over branches. Would try to ride for a bit, then stop 10 or 20 yards later to do it again. Didn’t get very far, maybe 12 miles, and it was already noon. The National Park Service guys were out there with chainsaws clearing the way here and there.

Once the trail cleared up, I checked out some of the original canal lockhouses and dams on the Potomac. At one point, I rode by a power plant that dumped its hot water down a man-made practice course for the Olympic kayaking team to train on.

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The riding was thankfully uneventful all the way to Hancock, Md., where I decided to get a Super 8 for the night. The last 14 miles into town were on the Western Maryland Rail Trail, a paved 22-mile path straddling Hancock. That made the last few miles into town a relief. My pack needed a good drying, and my clothes a wash. Plus, the Cavs/Warriors game 3 was on, and I hadn’t slept the night before. A good night’s sleep in a bed, I felt, was well-earned. I hit up Weaver’s Family Restaurant for dinner: wings, spinach salad, double-baked potato with cheese, and a piece of coconut cream pie.

Damn near ate half the menu. #Hancock #Maryland #chow #biketour #convenientparking #pie #diner

A photo posted by Nick Wright (@nwrighteous) on