155 miles - Total: 305 miles
Today I made myself a present: I cycled 155 miles. I pushed on the pedals like there’s no tomorrow and I loved every minute of it. By the time I got to Pittsburgh I had dust in my mouth, my gear was heavy with sweat and soiled with mud, my legs burning and shaky. I cycled the whole of the Great Allegheny Passage, which is a trail that winds its way through the mountains of Pennsylvania. The trail is 150-mile path of crushed limestone surface, which makes for a reasonably smooth ride.
Day three of my cross-country ride dawns slightly overcast; the mist hovering low over the hills seems glued to the sides like it tries to slide up but cannot make it to the top. Rick comes to meet me at the hotel and we get a late start at 8:30am; together we take on the GAP. Rick is 57 and must be the fittest 57-year-old I have ever met. He powers through the miles with ease and I struggle to keep pace with him. Out of Cumberland we immediately begin to climb. Starting from Cumberland and heading West, there is a constant uphill grade for almost 25 miles as we ascend to the Eastern Continental Divide. The trail offers countless angles for great photos. It would be nice to just plug away to enjoy the many historic points and little detours that the trail has to offer. But I can’t as I want to cover as many miles as possible. Although the grade of the trail isn’t too bad, after a while it starts to get heavy, offering no respite so we push hard passing many cyclists with whom we exchange quick “hellos”. I am glad Rick is with me because I would have not coverd these many miles on my own.
The history of the Passage is fascinating. The first part of the trail follows the tracks of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. This transportation network was built in late nineteenth century to create an alternative way of reaching the West to the existing C&O Canal. To me the trail, dug up among hills and mountains symbolizes the adventurous spirit and the entrepreneurship of the time to expand to the West in search of trade opportunities. The trail crosses the Eastern Continental Divide, which runs along the ridges of the Appalachians and separates the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Watershed. From this point the 125 miles to Pittsburgh will be an almost imperceptible descent of 1665 feet to Pittsburgh.
I didn’t know that the Mason-Dixon Line was drawn to settle a territorial dispute. It later came to symbolize the demarcation between freedom and slavery, between North and South. Now it forms the border between the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the state of Maryland. And it is with quite some modicum of pride that I ride into my fourth state (including the District of Columbia). I stop in a shaft of sunlight and take a shot of the view. I am drenched in sweat but I am feeling pkay. The more I get into the ride the stronger I feel. Rick is very knowledgeable of the trail and provides useful insight as we plough along. The weather is fine, it is humid but not too hot as the trees and thick bushes of the Passage provide much desired shelter from the sun. We immediately press on toward the eternal downhill promised after the Eastern Continental Divide. Between the state line and the Continental Divide I was also looking forward to riding through one of the engineering highlights of the GAP: the Big Savage Tunnel, which at nearly 3,300 feet long is the longest tunnel on the GAP and C&O trails. The coolness of the tunnel is a nice break from the increasing heat. Shortly thereafter we finally come to the Eastern Continental Divide, the high point of the trail, which tops out at 2,392 feet above sea level. After the Continental Divide the scenery begins to take on a more remote feel as we pedal through the beautiful Allegheny Highlands area. The rolling hills and forests are complemented by the amazing man-made feature of the 910-foot-long "Keystone Viaduct" bridge that carries the GAP trail 100 feet above Flaugherty Creek and the CSX railroad tracks. While the Savage Tunnel is neat, I am much more impressed by the viaduct, as it combines industrial revolution engineering with sweeping views of the nearby mountains, resulting in a panorama unique to the GAP trail. At Meyersdale we stop for a lunch, or second breakfast break. I drink a frozen milk shake, which later on turns out to be not such a great idea (if you know what I mean..). Just outside Meyersdale we cross the second of the two viaduct bridges that this area is known for, and part of the triad of engineering accomplishments comprised of the Big Savage Tunnel and the two viaducts. At more than 1,900 feet the Salisbury Viaduct is the longest bridge on the trail.
After the awe-inspiring engineering of the twin viaducts, the town of Rockwood is next. The town centre is pretty and welcoming. The next village is Confluence, this is where Rick and I part ways. I thnak him for his kindness and I hope I will get to see him soon.
On my own I realize how different the ride is, much harder of course. However, the scenery takes my mind off it. I really enjoy the ride up there as the trails cuts through thick forests and over several creeks. The town itself is very small and offers a bunch of good lunch alternatives. The trail is calling, so I head back through town and regain the GAP where I left it, crossing back over the Casselman River and the Youghiogheny River. The next town, Ohiopyle, is just hilarious, comprising of 3 streets. It has a compact centre which is jam-packed with visitor services, including small restaurants, a few motels, and the various adventure outfitters. The Ohiopyle Falls are worth checking out. Heading west out of Ohiopyle I cross a series of bridges across the Youghiogheny River, first the multi-span bridge out of town, and then a second bridge that crosses the river again, providing a great view of the whitewater section and the gorge. The Youghiogheny doubles back on itself here in a horseshoe bend, which is why I cross it twice in a short distance. By this time it is past 4pm and I still have 80 miles to cover if I want to reach Pittsburgh. A long shot but doable. My body feels fine, plenty left in the tank, no leg fatigue. I just talk to myself and I decide that I want to go for it. I listen to the unruffled sound of my legs as they push on the light bike that is supposed to carry me across the United States. I want to be in Pittsburgh tonight, I don't care what time I get there. If I keep this pace I will get there at nightime but who cares?
I am forced to stop for at least 1 hour becuase of heavy rain. I take shelter under a porch of an old house and wait for the rain to let up. As soon as it does I have no choice but to ride the muddy surface of the trail. In a few seconds my legs, my shorts and the bike are encrusted with mud. During the second part of the afternoon as I gradually encroach on the Pittsburgh metro area, the sweeping views and mountain feel of the morning give way to a more typical river rail-trail feel along this section, but it is still very scenic nonetheless despite being so close to an urban area. Coming into the small town of Whitsett, the trail crosses and then parallels a road along the river.
This is the "steel valley" which is a trip down memory lane of a prosperous past of one of the mainstays of the American industry: steel. This is an area charged with shock and nostalgia. The abandoned buildings once used as steel mills and plants are now pathetic, mangled, ghost-town like reminders of the past. Are these buildings about to turn into rubble? Will everything vanish without a whisper? It wasn't a decline, it was the worst slump since 1929, people's livelihood were immediately compromised, thousands unemployed. Migration ensued. This is a tough deal. After the perfectly combined juxtaposition of trails, forests, bridges and mountains this area does not project strength or prosperity. It looks like a movie set without actors and crew.
As I get closer to McKeesport the trail begins to take on a much more industrial feel, paralleling various industrial yards, multiple sets of railroad tracks and bridges, etc. The full industrial background of the Pittsburgh area is on display from the trail. Rather than being turned off by the abrupt transition from bucolic trail to working mill yards, I find it an interesting scene as the sort of industries on view are what made Pittsburgh great.
The latter part of the day goes by quikcly as adrenaline is really what carries me through. By the time I come into town I am exhausted but oh so happy. I ride all the way to downtown in total darkness and I spot a hotel that will do for a few hours. It is almost 10 pm, what a day!
Today was a full day of riding; I spent hours on the saddle. I am happily safe on the other side of the ridge of the Appalachians. From now on I should enjoy more downhill as I make my way to Ohio. I am hundreds of miles away from Chicago, I am on schedule. This is good.
Hills behind Cumberland
Riding on the GAP with the Railway next to it
The M/D line, also the Penn state line
The view from the highest point of the GAP
More views from the top, through the gap on the right sits Cumberland
About to enter the Big Savage Tunnel
Cool, almost cold inside
Pennsylvania at its finest
Lovely steel bridge, Ohiopyle
The trail cuts through the forest
Water rafting down under
Abandonded building sits idle and silent in the heart of the "steel valley"