On our bikes we were there for the long haul
When my brother mentioned he was planning on spending a week biking from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC, of course, I immediately prompted myself.
With the surge of the pandemic, given the inherent social distancing, the bicycle industry may have had its biggest year ever in 2020. (You know someone who has tried to buy a bicycle recently ?)
There is a growing call for biking experiences that extend beyond a few hours on the road into the overnight vacation realm. The rapid increase in rail trails in recent decades – today there are more than 24,000 miles of multi-use trails along disused rail lines in the United States, according to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, with thousands more in the works – means more people are planning multi-day trips covering hundreds of miles.
The Great Allegheny Passage, or GAP Trail, runs 150 miles through the wooded southwest corner of Pennsylvania to Maryland. From here, cyclists can join another trail, the C&O Canal Towpath along the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. In total, the combined trip is 334 miles.
Some of our relatives wanted to know: Were we crazy? Well, maybe a little.
I have participated several times in the Pan-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon. The training for this race was about the same – at least one race per week, increasing distance.
Since we would be camping along the way – GAP and C&O have plenty of free campsites along the way – we had to plan meticulously. You don’t want an extra pound of gear weighing down your bike.
I bought a waterproof handlebar roll, which fits my puppy tent and inflatable sleeping pad; a seat bag, protruding from the rear tire, into which I stuffed all my clothes; and a triangular frame pack, for repair needs, hygiene products and snacks. Fully loaded, I couldn’t have put in a few spare toothpicks. Mike went with more roomy panniers slung over a rear rack.
One Saturday morning in early June, Mike’s son drove us to Pittsburgh, where we packed the bikes and had a festival by the water to the town’s meeting point, the Point National Park Fountain. A large inlaid medallion marks the official start of the GAP trail (or the end, depending on which direction you choose).
Soon you have passed the concrete underground passages of downtown Pittsburgh and taken a paved trail along the Monongahela River. The trail runs for several miles along a steep embankment populated by a large herd of goats, which have been run by an environmentally friendly plant management company called Allegheny GoatScape.
The goats teamed up with the Pittsburgh Yinzers, but the wildlife along the rest of the way was only wild. Deer were everywhere. Eagles and hawks, and all kinds of little birds wake us up at dawn. Hundreds of turtles enjoying the stagnant waters of the old canal. A rattlesnake sunbathing on the bike path.
The first day was hot. Before setting up camp that night, we refreshed ourselves with a few Iron City lagers at a place called Trailside. Another biker with a southern accent recommended the BLT. It’s “to slap you mom!” he said. I ordered the BLT.
Day two started with a little rain and a great opportunity for GAP to show off its self-proclaimed reputation as “America’s friendliest long distance rail trail”. While waiting for a brief downpour under a shelter, we were joined by a team of four from Southeastern Pennsylvania: experienced riders Betsy and Brett and their new long-distance neighbors, Ilse and Ronnie. Minutes after chatting, they mentioned that they had booked an Airbnb for Monday night in an upcoming city. The place had 17 beds, they said. We were welcome to two of them.
After a steady but manageable day of climbing, Mike and I stopped in for a mandatory photoshoot at the Eastern Continental Divide site, the highlight of the Pittsburgh-DC bike trail. We walked through Big Savage, a 3,000-foot rail tunnel carved into the mountainside, which was ominous black and thankfully cool halfway through. Another mile and a half brought us to the Mason & Dixon line, commemorated by a series of recently installed granite boulders.
Splashed in an appalling amount of mud, day four marked the start of the C&O – the “Grand Old Ditch,” as it was sometimes called – of our trip. Outdoor painters were scattered around the first of more than 70 historic locks built in the 1800s. A few lock keepers can be hired; a father traveling with his young son said he paid $ 126 to reserve their surprisingly scenic lock for one night.
Everything went well on the fifth day. We did 75 miles, after averaging about 50 each of the previous days. At dusk we crossed the Potomac into the incredibly tidy town of Shepherdstown, W.Va., where we found some well-earned sandwiches waiting for us in a UK pub. In the morning, we set aside time to explore Harper’s Ferry, the site of abolitionist John Brown’s ill-fated raid on the Federal Armory.
On the seventh day, we basically rested. With only 25 more miles to go to reach Washington, we have walked the crushed stone path with no real urgency. As the towpath became increasingly popular with nature hikers and day cyclists, we suddenly emerged from the riverside in vibrant Washington DC’s Georgetown.
On our last night of camping, we had shared a picnic table with a solo rider from North Carolina. Jen was a seasoned cyclist, she said, well used to what she called “trail magic” – the fortunate coincidences that make this kind of travel adventure so rewarding.
In DC, Mike and I headed to the National Mall, where a busker with an electric guitar performed an instrumental version of “What a Wonderful World”.
James Sullivan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.