Day 13: Rain and hills through Amish country

6/25/15: 91 miles, Akron, Ohio, to Mount Vernon, Ohio

It was a long sufferfest across the midsection of Ohio, but one of the best — and hardest — rides I’ve had on the trip. From Akron, I followed the Ohio-to-Erie trail along tail end of the Cuyahoga Valley towpath to Massillon, a post-industrial town that reminds me of Hammond, Ind., a town I’ve ridden through from Chicago.

The OTE took me along the Sippo Valley Trail to Dalton, followed by jaunts along country roads through Wayne County. Eventually picked up the Holmes County Trail, which is double wide for cyclists on one side and Amish buggies on the other. Steady, cold drizzle fell, but I had the path to myself aside from three riders I met heading to Cleveland from Cincinnati:

That explains why I didn’t see many buggies on the road–many of them were on the trail. After chatting with a Boy Scouts group from Georgia that was on a tour up to Cleveland, I met Michelle in Millersburg and had lunch at a place called Bags to warm up and dry off. I didn’t accomplish either, but I had an amber lager from Millersburg Brewing Co. next door. I finished out the Holmes County Trail when serious hills in Knox County began. From Killbuck to Brinkhaven, I thought my knees were going to explode as I mashed my granny gear (the easiest gear I could ride in). Barely going walking pace, enough to stay upright. But the views across the rolling hills of this part of Ohio, which I’d never seen before, were a worthy payoff. The views always are.

I began the Mohican Valley Trail at the Bridge of Dreams, the longest covered bridge in Ohio, and was met with atrocious cyclocross conditions. Mud, gravel, horseshit, horseshoe prints, ruts…not ideal for heavy loaded touring. Better for an ATV:

Frustrated, I Google Mapped my way around the last two miles of MVT to Danville, where the Kokosing Gap Trail began. It’s a 13-mile paved rail trail, one of the smoothest and well-maintained, into Mount Vernon. The run abated and late afternoon sun peaked through the trees, drying up the path. Relief. The way to end the day. I stopped by Kenyon College in Gambier, the rival to my alma mater, Denison, for a quick heckle…

…and look around, before jamming the last few miles to Mount Vernon, where Michelle and I got a night at the Mount Vernon Inn. I was soaked, and setting up camp on wet ground was a tough sell, so we lived it up for a night.

 

Day 12: Ohio-to-Erie Trail

6/24/15: 60 miles, Middlefield, Ohio, to Akron, Ohio

After more than a week off to hang with my folks and attend a wedding, I headed across the Buckeye State on the Ohio-to-Erie Trail. It’s a relatively new route that follows what would’ve been the canal to connect Lake Erie with the Ohio River, but it was never completed much like the C&O.

I rode down from Trumbull County into Portage County through Garrettsville, Ravenna, Kent, Tallmadge and into Akron. There, I rode by old Goodrich rubber plants. The Freedom Trail, a paved rail trail running from Kent to Akron, was the first of many trails across Ohio that I never knew existed.

Made it to Portage Lakes State Park, where my girlfriend met me (since we were headed to Columbus for another one of my best friends’ weddings). You could say I had some unofficial SAG support.

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.

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

Days 1-4

Day 1

6/1/15: 31 miles, Yorktown, Va. to Williamsburg, Va.

 

On Monday, June 1, Tyler and I dipped our rear wheels in the Atlantic at Yorktown Beach in Virginia, after which we immediately had a couple fish sandwiches—blackened swordfish for me, tuna for T—and PBR tall boys to fuel up. It was in the mid 90s, thick and humid. We weren’t in a blazing rush. It was 3 p.m., and it was going to be a half day, how most of my tours begin.

We pedaled back up the hill to the Yorktown Victory Memorial where the TransAmerica route officially starts. It’s an 84 ft. Maine-granite obelisk marking George Washington’s Revolutionary War-ending battle over Gen. Cornwallis in 1871. It’s the first monument the federal government ever authorized. I’m a nerd I read all the historical plaques.

From there, we headed up the 23-mile Colonial Parkway, which was paved with exposed aggregate concrete. It’s rough and makes for a loud rumble in a car—as though it was paved with clay with smooth stones mixed into it. On a loaded bike, no big deal after a few miles. Guess it’s intended to slow cars down so they admire the surrounding national park and historical American-ness.


We slow rolled through Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown, eventually finding the Capital Trail. It’s a new-ish paved path running between Jamestown and Richmond.

It brought us to a county park on the east bank of the Chickahominy River, where we decided to camp. There, we saw one of the Adventure Cycling Association’s supported touring vans, and met the tour leaders Jack and Heather. They were in the middle of leading a tour from Key West to Maine, and their group of a dozen 60-70 year olds was in a hotel in Williamsburg.


We joined their campsite, shared beers and pizzas. Before the sun went down, T and I hopped the fence at the park and jumped in the pool. By 8 p.m., the rain machine turned on and everyone scrambled into their tents. Thunder, lightning and late spring rain pounded the campsite until 1 a.m., when I finally fell asleep.

Day 2

6/2/15: 64 miles, Williamsburg, Va., to Ashland, Va.

 

 After a wet night, we packed up camp and rolled out by 7:30 a.m. I took on a enough water overnight through the tent’s canopy and seams at the pitch to inspire an eventual new tent purchase. My Lunar Solo, borrowed from my pops, needed seam sealant, which I couldn’t feasibly find and apply without taking a day off.

We rode the freshly paved Capital Trail from Williamsburg to the outskirts of Richmond through old plantations, including the homes of president John Tyler and others. The route took us through a handful of Richmond National Battlefield Park battlefields—places where hundreds of thousands of soldiers mowed each other down during the Civil War. Desperate for some lunch we caved and ate pizza, M&Ms, Gatorade and bananas from a Valero truck stop.

Heading into Mechanicsville, Va., the weather turned from muggy and warm to that Midwest flavor or overcast, gray mist. Add in Richmond’s rush hour traffic—rush hour sucks no matter what city you’re in—and morale began to wane. We made tracks for the Americamps RV Resort in Ashland, across the street from the white noise of I-95. Our ACA pals from the night before showed up, too, so we crammed into the group tent parking lot among the other tents. Threw our wet stuff in one of the dryers behind the main office, showered up.

So hungry I could’ve eaten my arm, T and I found an Irish bistro a mile away and splurged on a couple beers, oysters, tuna, burgers and BBQ pulled pork and salad. By the time we got back to camp around 9 pm, everyone we expected to kick it with had crawled into their tents and passed out. We bumbled around the campsite with our headlamps before deciding to do the same.

Day 3

6/3/15: 80 miles, Ashland, Va., to Stafford, Va.

 

Peeled myself out of the tent to a damp campsite and a panorama of RVs, all silent. The ACA group next to us was nearly done packing up before 7 a.m. before I started, but then again all they had were tents to tear down.

Over the last two days, the weight of my pack felt heavier and heavier. There were things I brought that hadn’t been used yet, and a few redundancies (e.g. The extra set of tire levers where I had some built into my multi-tool). When I get to Ohio, I’ll update the pack list. I resolved to mail a bunch of stuff home. We left the RV camp after a free waffle breakfast and headed for the post office in Ashland. Ended up cramming 6 lbs. worth of clothes, tools and stuff home. When I came out of the post office, it was pouring. T and I looked each other, exasperated, and rolled on. A few miles outside of Ashland, we ran into Hoel, a recent Duke grad originally from France, biking from North Carolina to D.C. He was a mega friendly dude, and a good wheel (a thing biker racers say about other riders who are predictable, ride a good pace, and handle the bike well), so we rode together for the day.

Misery loves company. The rain turned on and became steadily heavier, throwing in a headwind for good measure. We found this old storefront shack at a dead intersection near Cedon, and took a breather.

  
Making our way to Fredericksburg, we stopped in Bike Works bike shop before plugging on to Stafford. We’d decided to split a hotel three ways since, after seven hours of rain, we’d need to let everything dry out. An $80 night at a Best Western split three ways proved totally worth it.

 

Ordered a ton of Mexican food from a Carlos O’Kelly’s across the parking lot. Never heard of the place before, but I guess it’s a chain to be found near big interstate exits. When we walked over to pick up our chow, they’d forgot one of our burritos, so Hoel and I bellied up to the bar. Rolling into just about any situation in cycling clothing generates attention. I ordered a shot of Makers, and since Hoel nor the bartender would join, I bought one for a guy named Ben, who was thumbing at his phone next to us. I try to be a good cycling ambassador. 

T, Hoel and I made short work of the Mexican food, watched the Blackhawks take game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, and nursed a few Tecate tall boys. I draped my tent over the railing of the Best Western to dry out, making it look like a skydiver parachuted into the hotel.

Day 4

6/4/15: 55 miles, Stafford, Va., to Washington, D.C.

 

Waking to a hotel room of three guys’ worth of camping gear exploded around the room is claustrophobic. A sleeping bag hanging here, a few jerseys there, plus three bikes. I had tied a Paracord line to the two farthest points in the room—the door hinge and a towel rack above the sink. Nearly all our clothes were draped over it. T said he didn’t sleep much, so Hoel and I took down the free breakfast. Inside the breakfast room, a few older women were yammering full volume about how they were grade school teachers, and their students these days beg for the calculator when they should use their heads.

We got back to the room and slowly packed up with Sportscenter chirping away in the background, picking up clothes and gear. “Is this mine?” “This yours?” “Hey, you left this hanging in the bathroom.”

Looking at the map before rolling out, we figured we could shave 15 miles off of what would be an 80 mile day by routing through Quantico, the giant Marine base. We’d read on a few blogs that some cyclists have made it through. So why not try? It would be a 3 mile detour downpayment on a 15 mile shortcut. Worth it.


We headed down to Quantico. The checkpoint for road MCB-2 was at the bottom of a long descent. Drizzle picked up. A couple of soldiers waved us over, and asked for our IDs. We told them we were trying to get through, and showed them our proposed route. He took our IDs and went back to his kiosk to ask as giant black-on-black Escalades and Suburbans came and went through the gate. A few minutes later, he came back and said he couldn’t let us through. So back up the hill we went and eventually got back on the ACA Atlantic Coast route.

We got some rain after an hour that lasted all day. Stopped to see a few horses at a big property, who seemed to dig us.

#horsepower

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Deeper in Prince William County, we took a few more breaks, slowing down our pace. Not that we’d been pushing it, but the rain and wind picked up. Hoel had a look in his eye that we wanted to take off, so I told him no hard feelings.


My ankle had become sore from rolling it about a month ago, and T’s knees were giving him guff. At a gas station near Independent Hill, we shook hands, and Hoel took off.

Prince William Parkway looked like it would’ve been a great road to ride on, but it ended up being under construction, causing us to jump on an adjacent path, which turned into unfinished sidewalks, tight shoulders and all around unpleasant riding. Eventually, Tyler and I had lunch in Occoquan, a historical colonial town that looked like the kinda place I’d take my mom. A couple women there offered us nachos, so we bought them their second round of wine.

Heading into Lorton, we hit more rain and rush hour traffic. Morale started to plummet, and with 30 more miles to go before we go to our friends’ in DC, we looked for a Metro stop. We ended up taking a bus from the Lorton VRE (commuter rail) station to the end of the blue line, which dropped us at McPherson Square in downtown DC. From there, it was a mile ride to our friends’ place on Logan Circle in DC. We got in just before the Cavs/Warriors game, and decided to spend a day or two in DC to see how T’s knees felt and get out of the rain.