In 1999, I decided that I would ride the entire "Youghotomic" trail, that is the Youghogheny River Trail from "Little" Boston to Confluence, PA, the Allegheny Highlands Trail from Confluence to Cumberland, MD and the C&O Canal Towpath from Cumberland to Washington, DC. The first real problem that I encountered in my plans was that I had only been in my current job for a few months. Not long enough to earn any time off.
By September, I would have worked long enough to have earned myself a single day off. A week to late for me to take advantage of the Labor Day weekend. So, with my one day off I would have to do the entire 320 mile ride in three days.
That might seem like a lot but I was fairly comfortable with having done the MS150 bike tour. That's 150 miles over two days. That's 80 miles the first days over hills and valleys from Cranberry Twp. North of Pittsburgh to Meadville. Doing a little over 100 miles a day on the flat towpath and the almost-flat rail trail wouldn't be all that difficult.
Apparently, most of the other people I talked to didn't think so. In conversations at bike shops I would be met with wide eyes and open mouths when I would tell them I was doing it in three days. The general consensus is that it should be done in no less in five days. The Pittsburgh mayor and his daughter were doing in seven days. Even at my slow average speed of 10 mph that only 5 hours a day on the bike. What would I do with the rest of my day? And besides, I didn't have the time off of work so it would be three days or nothing.
The second problem is that there were no decent places to camp for the night in Pennsylvania. There was a campsite at Confluence but that was only 80 miles in to the trip. I would need to make better time than that. I had never been to Meyersdale at what would be the 100 mile mark but, from what I could tell, unless I slept on the porch of the rail station there, there was going to be nothing otherwise. That meant getting to Cumberland the first day. 130 miles. To Meyersdale wouldn't be a problem along the level and even crushed limestone surface of the converted railbank but after Meyersdale the trail was incomplete. I wasn't sure what level of "incomplete" it was but I figured I would be taking to the road at that point to get down to Cumberland.
Friday, 17 September 1999
130 miles didn't seem so bad, especially early on, so when the chosen Friday came I got my wife to drive me to the trailhead at Little Boston so I could get started at 6 am. About a mile in, while it was still pretty dark, I came upon a gentleman with a backpack. He was on his way to Cumberland as well, though at a much slower pace. I told him I was planning on being there by that evening, wished him luck and set off ahead. Weekday mornings you don't see other bicyclists; you see old men with big sticks and young women walking big dogs.
It was a long day of riding but I particularly liked the trail after Connelsville because I had never been down beyond that during any of my training rides. Climbing higher past Ohiopyle and Confluence the trail became more scenic. Of course, with my Cumberland deadline, I really didn't have any time to stop and sightsee.
I arrived in Meyersdale in mid-afternoon. The trail had quickly deteriorated from the find crushed limestone to a simple packed earth to fist-sized sharp rocks. Completely unridable. So, it was to the road and I thought "Thirty miles to go and plenty of time." Except that that the thirty miles was over road. That meant a lot more twisting, turning and hills. Lots of hills. Then a nasty climb up Mount Savage. I was able to follow the tiny backroads on the Great Allegheny Passage map but I missed the turn in Frostburg that would keep me on those less trafficked roads so I took Rt 40 down into Cumberland. The miles rolled by all too slowly as darkness approached.
It was dark when I finally got into Cumberland but I was not in the clear yet. After wandering about town I finally found the C&O Canal Towpath and set off on the trail. The first campsite was still four miles away. I hadn't expected to be riding at night so I rode with my mini-maglight in one hand. Sticks, bumps and puddles came up very quickly in the light's narrow beam and the whole thing was white-knuckle tense.
Finally, I arrived at the Evitt's Creek campsite at around 9 pm. Fifteen hours in the saddle and I was ready to sleep. I didn't have a sleeping bag or a blanket so I threw on some sweats and got a small fire started. It was going to be chilly but I figured I would be OK.
I was wrong.
The Evitt's Creek camp sits right next to a major rail yard. All night the cars were banging into one another, screeching and squealing, it was a cacophony all night long. I might have slept here and there but it was a long, noisome night.
Saturday, 18 September 1999
Saturday morning on the C&O Canal Towpath was brisk and foggy. There were also more deer than I had ever seen in my life. There were individuals. Small groups. Herds. They would stand and look at me from the trail until I thought I might hit them if they didn't get out of my way. This went on for nearly two hours.
Unlike the trail in Pennsylvania which, being of converted rail line has a slight grade, the C&O Canal Towpath is completely flat except for the occasional 8 foot drop at a lock. On the other hand, the towpath has seen continuous use since it ceased being a towpath with cars and trucks using it as an ad-hoc road. As such, it is more like a dirt road with pits, bumps and puddles. It's not too bad but it could be better. The Yough and Allegheny Highlands trails are designed and built from square one for non-motorized traffic making it a much smoother ride. If the National Park Service could exclude motorized vehicles from the towpath and lay down a bed of crushed limestone it would be an absolutely perfect ride.
My left knee was beginning to bother me so I put on a brace. By the end of my day it was hurting significantly.
I'm not sure which campsite I decided to pull over at but it was relatively early. I wanted to be able to collect more wood for the fire because I had been pretty cold the night before and, with the rail cars making noise, I wanted to get some sleep. I gathered wood, ate a peanut butter sandwich (my diet for the entire weekend) and lay down while it was still light and warm.
I woke up sick and cold at around 10 pm. I tried to start a fire but my butane torch chose just that moment to run out of fuel. Is for my stomach, when I was making the peanut butter sandwiched that would sustain me I had run out of the cheap peanut butter and had to resort to "the good stuff". However the higher quality peanut butter should be kept refrigerated. Two days in my saddle bag and it had gone bad. Ugh. So rather than huddling all night, sick and cold, I decided to walk it off.
Of course, my flashlight batteries died as well. It was a full moon but that only seemed to light the sky. Under the trees it was pitch black except for the faintest trail of white where the trail was. And that would disappear if you looked at it directly. For hours I walked my bike in darkness with a thousand yard stare guided by a ghost seen in my peripheral vision.
Occasionally I would see faintly glowing green spots but, like the trail, to try to look at the phosphorescent mosses directly would render them invisible again.
Sunday, 19 September 1999
When it got light enough I got back on the bike and started riding again. My night's walk had taken me to just above Harper's Ferry.
At White's Ferry I found a convenience store so that I could throw away what was left of my peanut butter sandwiches and buy myself something to eat. Because I had been favoring my left knee the day before, now my right knee was hurting. The brace helped for a few hours but I eventually took it off because I thought it was doing more harm than good.
At Great Falls I ran into a pair of Trail Wardens, volunteers who ride the trail to help people out and keep an eye on things. My entire ride on the C&O Canal Towpath had been without a map and I was curious to know just how much farther I had to go so I asked these guys if they had any extra maps. They did and we got to talking.
My panniers made it clear that I was on a long distance ride so one asked, "so, where did you start from?"
"Oh, yea? When did you start out?"
"Day before yesterday."
"Really? Wow! That's a lot of riding"
I pulled out my cell phone and called my sister's house where my wife was visiting and waiting for my call to go home. I let her know where I was and my estimate for when I would be in Georgetown.
Between Great Falls and DC the pedestrian traffic got very thick. After two days of being mostly alone it was kind of jarring to have to navigate through literally hundreds of people walking, biking and rollerblading on the trail.
At exactly 2pm I arrived at the C&O Towpath visitor's center in Georgetown. This was also exactly the time I had targeted to arrive to give me sufficient time to be driven home to Pittsburgh and get a much deserved rest before going back to work on Monday. However, my wife didn't show up. I wasn't sure how long it would take to get from my sister's to Georgetown and so I waited for about an hour before calling. I got a short form of the story from my sister but it wasn't until another hour later when my brother-in-law showed up in his vehicle did I get the whole story.
When my wife was coming down to my sister's, the muffler went bad. So, she took it to a mechanic and while there he said that the CV joints were shot. I had ball joints replaced earlier in the year and knew there were some problems with the joints but my mechanic was of the opinion that it could go for a while longer. Well, my wife decided to have the work done. OK, for her peace of mind on a long trip I can accept that. But when she was leaving my sister's to come get me, the car stopped. The engine was running but there was no power going to the drive train. Transmission. It had to be towed, thus the delay in coming to get me. It wouldn't be until the next day that anyone could do anything about it so I was stuck in Maryland. Missing work for it.
When I got back to my sisters, I began to unpack so I could clean up. Oh, the stench the emanated from the ziplock bags of my dirty clothes. I must have reeked something awful and people had been polite enough not to say anything. A shower solved that.
My car wasn't quite so simple. It turned out that the transmission was fine, it was the axle. The jokers that had replaced the joint claimed that there is nothing they could have done to cause the axle to "fall off" but they were the only people doing anything under there. I made a stink about the absurdity of their claim but it was my sister who really laid into them. It took all day to sort out but they fixed it and didn't charge us, which is good because there was no way I was going to pay for them breaking my car.
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