We wanted to get from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., on bikes. There was only one thing standing in our way: the eastern Continental Divide.
"Let me get this straight," I said to my husband, Jim. We were riding into downtown Pittsburgh to meet 14 strangers with whom we'd pedal almost 300 miles. "We got the boys bikes for Christmas . . ."
What began as the kids' gift sort of got out of hand, mushrooming to include two more bikes, a growing balance with Wayne at the bike shop, a few pairs of those dorky shorts that are a cross between a Playtex long-line and Pampers, and finally, the Big Show: a chance to ride a nearly complete trail from downtown Pittsburgh all the way to Georgetown.
Our journey, five days of eight-hour-a-day pedal-pushing, had its peaks and valleys: physical, topographical, emotional. The highs were cold beers, tranquil trails and treetop-level views of white-water gorges. The lows were water-level mud and snakes.
Like the 19th-century canal and railways that preceded it, and whose rights of way it follows, the nonstop Washington-to-Pittsburgh bike route is a grail of a trail: a dream within sight, but out of reach. Of the 400-mile network proposed by the Allegheny Trail Alliance (a coalition of seven trail-building organizations), 89 Pennsylvania trail miles and the 185 miles of the C&O Canal towpath are complete. The missing links, being opened in sections over the next four years, dot about 35 miles at the crest of the route, from near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border to Cumberland, Md. We bounced through enough of the unfinished stretches to know that it's better to use roads (or a sag wagon) to bridge the gaps for the next season or two.
Answers to FAQs:
No, it's not hilly. (The grade never exceeds 5 percent, so it's relatively level--so level, in fact, that parts are still recovering from the flood of 1996.)
No, it's not too hot; you're under trees 90 percent of the way (not much consolation in a thunderstorm).
Yes, it's uncrowded, probably because a gap still exists where the proposed trail crosses the state line.
Yes, it still aches.
And finally, two pounds.
Hold your hands together, palms down: the natural slant on either hand approximates the way the trail slides away from 2,900-foot Big Savage Mountain. You can start in either big city and encounter roughly equal amounts of gradual uphills and downhills; the only difference is, you'll have the Youghiogheny River and the canal on the left-hand side coming from Pittsburgh and on the right coming from Washington.
While the canal is frequently just a sunken memory, the constant variety of river views--the rushing Youghiogheny to the north, the swelling Potomac to the south--rewards long days of pedaling. And we had it to ourselves. The isolation and natural beauty outweighed petty complaints (usually mine).
In terms of trail quality, I'd give Pennsylvania the nod. The route south from Pittsburgh was crushed limestone, well-drained and cleared, and the vistas were superb. True, Maryland had campgrounds (though we stayed in motels). And water pumps. And port-a-johns, though I nearly spent the night in one near--well, nowhere--when the door stuck shut. Picture that evening.
The northern terminus of the trail is currently in Boston, Pa., 20 miles from downtown Pittsburgh. The city has opened several other sections, some of which we used en route to the Youghiogheny River Trail--North. This path begins in the back yards of mining towns ("Poor Man's Country Club," said a sign on an old trailer) and meets the Yough Trail--South 40 miles later, in a forested white-water gorge so striking that even the birds go silent sometimes.
From Connellsville to Ohiopyle to Confluence, little mining and mill towns in decline for the past three decades, the bike trail is a boon. When life handed them lemons, they made Gatorade: Their new economies cater to kayakers and bikers.
Take Confluence, the meeting point of three pretty little rivers. The town still hears the whistle of the CSX line, but it has turned its attention to the trail on the other bank. The town provides whatever visitors need: a good hardware store, cheap and charming accommodations, and cafes for carbo-loading. (Last year, however, when a group of 700 Philadelphia bikers descended on the area, doubling the town's population, the town had to politely ask them to provide their own water.)
Our climb uphill and upriver had been fairly gentle; river rapids left, rocks and waterfalls on the right, trees above so intensely green that the filtered sunlight looked pink by contrast. With the exception of our youngest rider, who'd sprained her ankle on a porch step that morning, we felt strong. So far.
By this second morning, we'd taken our proper places. Dave, Mark, Tom, Sue, Michelle and Nancy, our speedsters, set a zippy 10-mph pace, while the amateurs (that would be us) lagged behind even the injured Shannon, who was leaving us in the dust despite her ankle cast. We caught up briefly at rest stops.
We pedaled. And pedaled. And ate. And ate. Every time we saw our white support van in a clearing, it seemed to set off a Pavlovian response, causing us to gorge on bananas and Power Bars and argue about lunch. "Tuna salad?" said Dave scornfully. "That's okay--for the women. I want something that grazed."
Swinging away from the Youghiogheny, we entered the woods bordering the Casselman River. Here we left the finished trail for a punishing track that later this year will extend the Allegheny Highlands Trail to Rockwood. How long could it possibly take to build a trail? Pull out the railroad ties and it's practically done, right?
Actually, no. The rocky ballast that we rode on was only the bottom stratum. Still to come are further tree-clearing (the gorge was littered with whole giant trees tossed over the side), path widening and a crushed limestone topping. Giant graders and rollers sat in a silent clearing. When we pulled our bikes around them, the limestone layer they'd laid behind felt like velvet. Ahh.
The morning's reward and high point: the Salisbury Viaduct, a 100-foot-high span leaping the river, Interstate 219, and farms in one mighty stretch. We were close to Meyersdale and the state line. But there was a bigger problem down the road. Big Savage tunnel, slated to bring the trail under the mountain to the Maryland border, is so wet and neglected that it's downright dangerous. The Western Maryland Railroad closed it in the mid-'70s, and it will take about $4 million and four more years to dry it out.
Our guides Eric and David, Supermen in spandex, decided on a personal inspection, plunging down a ravine and climbing on roads to the top.
"Cold, flowing water, a foot deep," reported Eric. "We were soaked when we got through. The water comes right through the roof."
While they eventually coasted downhill on Route 36 into Frostburg, the tale of their afternoon made me glad I'd opted for the van for the evening ride to Rocky Gap Lodge. It has a lovely lake we were too tired to try. The hot tub, however, was first rate. When informed of this amenity at the front desk, our weary back-of-the-pack bike mate Ellen fairly shrieked, "They have a Jacuzzi?"
If good guides are the entertainment on wilderness trips, Eric Martin and Rich McCaffery should do stand-up. As likely to start the conversation with "Ever driven in Buenos Aires?" as "Need more water?" the pair never faltered. They leap-frogged ahead of us by van, appearing at trail heads with food, tales of adventures with bears in Maine, discourses on the best Asian restaurants in Costa Rica and pep talks. Competent cooks in the male style, they never forgot the cooler of beer at the end of each trail day. By the third day, I'd decided to marry them both.
Eric reassured us that our third day would be a piece of cake. "From Cumberland," he explained, "you'll drop from 610 feet to 400 [above sea level] at Hancock. It's downhill all the way."
At Oldtown, Md., where gnats buzzed above a watered length of the canal, dads and kids fished at the edge of a Little League game. Except for the happy gang of Boy Scouts whooping through the Paw Paw Tunnel, that was the biggest crowd we were to see for the next three days.
The tunnel was an unexpected spot for a traffic jam. We trod its chilly half-mile length in total darkness on an earthen path three feet wide, the canal alongside dank and spooky. We kept to the wall, hearing several dozen " 'scuse me's" alongside our elbows.
The towpath clearing, with its clay and gravel surface, retained enough daytime heat to lure coldblooded creatures from the water's edge. We saw lots that enjoyed basking in the warmth: swallow-tailed butterflies that matched our pace, turtles everywhere and those pesky snakes. One queen snake stretched across the path had the misfortune of looking exactly like a tree root. It wasn't until my husband had run over it that we realized he was a murderer.
Lots of weekend walkers use this route, and by the evidence, lots of horses. And really tough cyclists camp along the path, towing their two-wheeled buggies with tents and gear.
The rhythm of the towpath was set by 74 identical scenes: a broad, grassy clearing and white lockkeeper's house; a wooden lock; a quick scoot down the slope, a deep breath, and into the woods again.
Our big favorite among the few tiny villages we passed was Little Orleans, Md., at the edge of Green Ridge State Forest. The only sign in town said "General Store and Mayor's Office," a combination pool hall, bar, supermarket and restaurant. We sat in its porch swings watching a storm gather, eating again (chocolate bars). This time, the quiet seemed ominous.
The fitful rain that followed was more tolerable than the gusty dust storm. Swallowing grit and bugs, but grinning, we finished a 60-mile day in Hancock.
Our evening menus usually included kidding and the kind of dig-in food that matched big appetites. But our last together, in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. (just across the bridge from the towpath), on Sunday evening, was almost silent. Serious fatigue had set in. Rain was forecast. It wasn't until our blood sugar and alcohol levels had risen a half-hour later than we were able to recover our bonhomie. We toasted: only 60 more miles.
The thrill of riding the last leg was tempered by the thunderstorms and mud we plowed through all day. The towpath reached its African-Queen-like nadir at Point of Rocks, weedy, wet and neglected. Hard rains puddled in the tracks, down our necks, into our socks. At White's Ferry, Md., we gave up all pretense of staying dry and walked our muddy bikes and selves right into the Potomac. It felt almost as good as the hot tub.
We picked up speed after Great Falls, rushing like the river--then braked. A scant mile from our finish line at Thompson's Boat House, an oak had crashed across the Capital Crescent Trail, completely blocking our path. Wet and numb, we wrestled our bikes up the slope to the parallel towpath. Bring it on: We would finish.
And a few minutes later, we did. The late-afternoon sun glittered off the water as we cruised past Washington Landing. We hugged. I cried. We posed jubilantly for the team picture.
After one of the most exquisite showers of my life at the boathouse, I threw away my soggy sneakers and hit the scale.
Two pounds of pure muscle, gained in just five days. Bring on the granola and beer.
Christine H. O'Toole is a writer from Pittsburgh.