Escapes: A Bicycling Adventure, and More, Along the Great Allegheny Passage

Wind turbines rise above the 150-mile-long Great Allegheny Passage near Meyersdale, Pa.
Wind turbines rise above the 150-mile-long Great Allegheny Passage near Meyersdale, Pa. (By Christine H. O'toole)
By Christine H. O'Toole
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On the right: a deep, Swiss-style farm valley encircled by high peaks. On the left: sheer rock. Overhead: a sulfurous storm cloud. Behind us: the nearest town, six miles back. Up ahead: the gloomy entrance of the Big Savage tunnel. As we pedaled our way toward the Eastern Continental Divide from Maryland to Pennsylvania, there was only one choice: onward.

Call it the trail cyclist's Tour de Chance. Jim and I had never biked this section of the Great Allegheny Passage, a laid-back rural path that climbs gently northwest through the Allegheny Mountains from Cumberland, Md. After cresting the divide (Chesapeake watershed to the east, Mississippi to the west) it dips into Pennsylvania's Somerset County. If we'd waited for a sunny stretch during this summer's soggy weather, we might never have made it. But luck was with us -- mostly.

On an overnight round trip through little towns with grand nicknames -- the Queen City, the Mountain City, the Maple City, the Rock City -- we did 76 miles, hugging big green mountains with stunning views. Like that of the trains that used to rumble through these hills, our route (laced with rivers, cornfields and wind farms) across the divide, at 2,392 feet, was slow, steady and mostly level. The grade was gentle, even if the forecast was fierce.

A decade of growing popularity has smoothed the gnarly edges of the Great Allegheny Passage, the 150-mile trail that will connect the C&O Canal towpath from Cumberland to downtown Pittsburgh (the final few miles just east of Pittsburgh are now being completed). Trail towns now cater to long-distance riders like us, who have a weakness for luxury (beds, showers, hot food). Another way to ease the journey: cheat. We let the Western Maryland Scenic Railway haul us and our bikes the first 16 miles from Cumberland, sparing us a climb of 1,500 feet.

A few cyclists were cruising through downtown Cumberland on a damp Wednesday evening in July as we arrived. This red-brick county seat was always an early adapter in American transportation, from the 1828 start of the canal to the interstate that now roars through the heart of the city. The canal and the coal trains went bust long ago, but old-fashioned transit, as in passenger trains and bikes, is drawing visitors back. Along with the refilled canal and the railroad station facelift, we found nearby blocks refurbished as an entertainment district. We lingered over dinner on Baltimore Street. The 19th-century street, now a pedestrian walkway, sported a new crop of sidewalk cafes and antiques stores that lent a steampunk vibe to downtown.

The next morning, we wheeled up to the train platform, bound for Frostburg. Already on board were 30 jittery preschoolers, a handful of train buffs and two other bikes stowed in the baggage car. "We will glide past scenic ridges!" promised our exuberant announcer as we slid from the station.

That was in fact our bike plan for the following day. Instead of reboarding the train at Frostburg for the return to Cumberland, we'd coast down the trail to canal level. Conductor John Jeppi, a Penn Central retiree, immediately endorsed our idea. "Sure, you won't even have to pedal," he promised. It was every biker's dream.

Our hour-long ascent concluded at the 1891 depot in Frostburg (the Mountain City). As the train reversed direction on its turntable, we dropped a half-mile downhill to the bike trail. Two hours later found us grinding slowly toward the summit of Big Savage Mountain. As we rounded a bend, the humid mountaintop panorama was our reward. We rolled on, into the twilight of the Big Savage Tunnel. At 3,300 cool feet long, it felt like a ride-in refrigerator.

The tunnel, and in fact the whole passage, with its carpet of crushed limestone, is in far better shape than the C&O towpath, and it's a far friendlier excursion. As we passed the continental divide, just a few miles past Big Savage, we began to get smiles from passing cyclists. We got waves from drivers far below as we crossed bridges that used to carry the railroad across broad river valleys. As we crossed the Casselman River into Rockwood at sunset, a long coal train rumbled through town, and the engineer gave us a thumbs-up.

One reason to see Rockwood: the opera house. Really. Beginning in 1904, vaudeville troupes would hop off the train for one-night stands here in the mountains. A few years ago, Judy Pletcher, a Rockwood native, refurbished the two-part building, got it on the National Register of Historic Places and still books a few acts a year on its grand stage. She also runs the ground-floor cafe and bakery, the next-door antiques shop and our overnight destination, the Hostel on Main Street.

For 50 bucks, we were willing to forgo private accommodations. Turned out that wasn't necessary: We were the only residents that evening in a turn-of-the-20th-century grocery with tin ceilings, original woodwork and spiffy new furnishings. The Pletchers showed off the improvements they'd made -- we approved of the endless hot water supply -- and sent us down the street to the bustling Rock City Cafe. No microbrews here, just Bud long-necks, burgers and bar-side conversations about bowhunting.

Blam! Seven a.m. brought a wake-up call -- not from our cellphones, which had been out of range through most of Pennsylvania, but from the carpenters at work on the backyard deck. We staggered next door for breakfast and heard the forecast we didn't want: a storm moving through. Our 44-mile return trip would be wet.

Wet, as it turned out, was an understatement. We were soaked and slowed by the morning-long downpour, and as we crept toward lunchtime, Jim's tire deflated with a nasty hiss.

Our stop atop the continental divide could have been the low point of the trip. It wasn't. Jim quickly fixed the tire as we dried out at an overpass. A dozen muddy teenagers from the Bible Christian Fellowship of Middlesex, Pa., were stranded with us, giggling and watching the rain. But before they unpacked their wet sandwiches, they gathered around pastor Paul Jorgensen for a heartfelt prayer -- and then offered us a rendition of "Amazing Grace" in three-part harmony amplified by perfect tunnel acoustics.

Well, it was all downhill from there.

The sun came out as we emerged from Big Savage Tunnel to that postcard view, and we began to pick up speed. As we passed Frostburg, we were averaging a mile every four minutes -- the closest we'll ever get to a Lance Armstrong pace, and as fast as the train had carried us the day before. Back at Cumberland it was a hot and sunny sunset, and bands were tuning up for an outdoor celebration on Baltimore Street. We chugged in right on time.

Christine H. O'Toole is a Pennsylvania writer and biker.

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