|Harpers Ferry Train Station|
My 335-mile bike hike from Pittsburgh to D.C. is now over. It took me five days. I'm often called a sore ass, and now it's literally true. Yes, I did suffer the indignity of having my bike stolen from me less than an hour after I finished, but the trip was still well worth it. No one can steal my memories. I only wish it had been a bit longer. I thought I'd take this opportunity to make a few observations and answer some questions I've received from friends.
Why go during a heat wave? - I'd agree that 330-miles on a road in blazing heat would be tough for anyone, but most of these two trails (Great Allegheny Passage and C&O towpath) are shaded and near rivers. This helps you stay cool. I would drink at least 20 or more ounces of water an hour. Moreover, I ride, run and walk better in the heat. At my age, I am looser in the heat and cramp up less than in colder temperature so long as I remain hydrated. Moreover, there's more daylight this time of year. For slow riders like myself, who average about 12 mph at best, this gives me more time in the saddle. So long as you acclimate yourself to longer rides in the heat and hydrate, this is definitely doable.
Aren't you too old?
- I notice my age every time I ride with my grandson. He routinely clobbers me on the Ironton Trail. Though strength and speed have diminished, endurance has not. I ran into several people, including two 75 year old ladies, who rode longer daily distances than me along this trip. And on the train ride home, I met several younger guys who called it quits after about three days, although I believe their beer stops probably held them back a bit. So there's no such thing as being too old. Even if unable to pedal, e-bikes are an option and there are numerous shops willing to rent them.
If you are worried about doing 330 miles, you could ride just part of the trip. Many people do the 150 mile Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland over several days and then shuttle or take a train back.
Where did I stay? - Purists would bikepack. I had no such intention. I did enough camping in the Army. Moreover, the insects are bloodthirsty this time of year. I was lucky enough to find a hotel every night. There is a great trip planner identifying numerous hotels, B&Bs and even hostels along both trails. I'd stop sometime in the afternoon and make a call, although cell service can be spotty. Some places are smack dab along the trail. Others are about a mile or more away. Those are almost always uphill, which I hated at the end of a long ride. The best place, ironically, was a hostel in D.C. You can get a private room for about $80, which is a good deal in the nation's capitol. The people staying there were super friendly.
What did I pack?
|Hostel private room|
- I traveled light. I brought bike tools and tube, one change of clothing and was able to fit everything in a bag behind my seat or a web belt I wore. I'd wash what I wore every day. Unless you are camping, this is all you really need. Most cyclists brought way too much stuff and loaded themselves down.
Can you do this solo? - I did. I saw numerous cyclists doing exactly what I did. This includes a woman who bikepacked solo from Pittsburgh to DC, and then turned around and rode back to Pittsburgh. Most of the cyclists are couples or small groups.
How are the people in the towns? - From Connellsville to Ohiopyle to Hancock to Harpers Ferry to D.C., and at all points along both trails, people were very gracious. Yes, my bike was stolen in D.C., but there were also people who left bottles of water by the trail, along with fruit and veggies. (I learned that cherry tomatoes pack as much power as an orange or a banana). Let's face it. If you are on a bicycle, you are vulnerable. People know this, and tend to have compassion for us. I have heard stories of people who actually took cyclists into their homes. There are lots of good people out there. I met one lady near Oldtown who tried to convert me. Even here in the Lehigh Valley, where people tend to be rather stand offish, they are always kind to me if I am on a bike.
How about the other cyclists?
|water pump along C&O|
- Nearly every person I passed or who passed me along the way chatted for awhile. We'd offer each other encouragement and tell each other what we knew about the trail ahead.
The most interesting of these cyclists were the Mennonites. I learned that this is a vacation heaven for many of them. The men ride ahead and the women follow several hundred yards behind with ebikes. On the hottest days of the year, the men were wearing long trousers while the ladies sported dresses and headcovers. I saw the women at my first hotel stop in Connellsville. I actually thought they were nuns. It was not until the second night that I learned they were Mennonites.
On my second day, I had ridden 90 miles, and the hotel I was staying at was supposed to be very close to the trail. It was actually two miles away, all uphill. When I checked in, I was pissed about the long ride up a hill and let the clerk know. This obviously was not her fault. I was tired and venting, and eventually apologized. She then showed me a room where I could store my bike. I noticed there were about four or five others there. I asked her whether those cyclists had complained.
|Train stopped at Cumberland|
"No," she replied. "They're Mennonites."
Those Mennonites actually saved my ass in the last day of my ride. Several trees had fallen down on the path during a storm the previous evening, and the Mennonites cleared them away. They had saws.
Were there bathrooms? - Both trails are loaded with port-a-potties. Since I carbo-loaded way too much the day before I started, I stopped at nearly every one of them on the first day of my ride. As the trip progressed, I found I really only needed to make one stop a day. The only weird bathroom was on the Amtrak ride back home. When I flushed the toilet, it nearly sucked me down along with my rather substantial deposit.
How about water? - There's no need to spend money on water. The GAP has water fountains at every trailhead. The C&O has pumps with iodine-treated well water.
Any flat tires or other bike malfunctions? - I had all the tools I needed to fix something, although I myself am an idiot and would have a great deal of trouble fixing a flat or even the most minor problem. Fortunately, I had no need to use them. I find that when I bring tools and tubes and keep my tires inflated, I have no problem. If I did, my hope is that some kind soul would stop and help me. I am pretty much clueless when it comes to even the most basic mechanics.
The GAP is maintained and marked better than the C&O.
|Connellsville welcome arch|
- Trail maintenance along the GAP is simply outstanding. Although it's a little confusing around McKeesport, the rest of the trail is very clearly marked so you know what's ahead. There are numerous visitor centers and I'm sure that the cyclists really help the economy of these small towns. The C&O, a product of the National Park Service, is much worse. This federal agency fails to grasp the importance of helping out local economies with good signage or visitor center. It also does a terrible job of maintaining the trail. The stretch between Cumberland and Hancock is strewn with roots, rocks and potholes. You have to keep alert at all times, and even then, you're going to hit a lot of bumps. Fortunately, you can cross over to the Western Maryland Rail Trail about 10 miles north of Hancock. This paved surface runs parallel to the C&O for 20 miles. Once you return to the C&O, about 10 miles south of Hancock, the trail is actually better than the GAP. It is fine cinder, much like the surface of the trail used to be at one time along Sand Island. You can ride faster on that surface than on macadam. About 23 miles north of D.C, the trail becomes bad again. It is strewn with rocks, sand and lots of potholes.
How about the Amtrak ride back? -
I loved everything about the Amtrak ride, even though we arrived in Pittsburgh about three hours behind schedule. Union Station, incidentally, is a beautiful building. I was able to catch glimpses of the trail until it got dark and loved going to the dining car. Get this. Just before arriving in Cumberland, the train was confronted by a tree that had fallen across the track.
Where were the Mennonites when we needed them?
The engineer had no saw. He decided to ram it, and the tree was easily brushed away. But so were the headlights on the locomotive. The locomotive at the rear of the train had to be unhooked and then brought in front of the lead engine. This delayed things, but was fun to watch.
Would I do this again? - I'm already making plans.