Bake and his roommate, Dan, were up early to start their day at work – I was reminded that it was a weekday and people had responsibilities…lately, all Sam and I had on our mind was biking.
We took the incline to the bottom of Mt. Washington. To be honest, I had no idea this incline existed until Bake told us at the TOP of the hill. Riding down, I was almost upset at how easy it was considering the battle Sam and I had the night before going up. With the miles that Sam and I had put on our bikes, I was also slightly relieved that I wouldn’t have to test my brakes out, which were sure to need some serious cleaning. The skies looked friendlier than the day before, and Sam and I were psyched to jump on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), one of the premiere biking trails in the world. It didn’t disappoint.
The miles flew by as we made our way out of Pittsburgh and headed southeast toward Maryland. The fall foliage, railroad tracks, and cool weather were all welcome change from the humidity of the Midwest. We were also energized by the other riders on the trail. Riding some of the roads through Indiana and Ohio with touring bikes and gear while cars zipped by you, you sometimes feel like you are the only one on earth who felt like this was a good idea. But on the GAP there was an entire community of tourists that you could stop to speak with and swap stories about your trip, while also getting useful tips on the miles ahead from cyclists going the other direction.
Then the rain started. And it didn’t stop.
Sam and I’s past trips had never involved more than an hour or so of light rain, so I was not prepared for these conditions. The first you thing you notice about riding in rain is how wet your feet are. Being the closest part of your body to the trail, any puddles you ride through will completely soak your feet and leave your shoes water logged. You eventually stop thinking about the prunes, formerly your feet, that are propelling you forward. Sam and I had recently reviewed the rules of biking however (http://www.velominati.com/the-rules/), so we felt like hard men pushing through these conditions. In reality, we were mainly delirious from the countless miles and lack of sleep, but whatever mindset helped us get to our destination was a good one at the time!
With the wet conditions, our bikes quickly accumulated enough mud and crushed limestone to make our brakes completely ineffective and changing gears more difficult. We decided to stop off at a bike shop halfway between Pittsburgh and Confluence to hose off the stallions and eat lunch, which consisted of some peanut butter with a side of oatmeal in the rain.
Our journey continued on toward Confluence, as did the rain. At this point, we were soaked to the core by rain and caked in the crushed limestone that made up the GAP. The trail thinned out as the more sensible riders took cover for the day, leaving Sam and I with an ominous, yet picturesque path through a fog-filled forest. By the time we made it to Confluence, there was no daylight left. The idea of sleeping outside in the rain in our current state of affair was less than appealing, so Sam and I decided to search out other options for the night. Confluence, being on the water, is advertised as a “resort town”, with plenty of Bed and Breakfast spots way out of Sam and I’s price range. By pure chance, Sam and I stumbled across a bar called “Dodd’s Hotel”. Wondering why a bar would have “hotel” in the name, I asked one of the workers (who I later discovered was the owner, Chubbs) if this was also a hotel. He ended up having some rooms he rented out attached to the bar, and gave us a great deal along with his famous Chubby burgers and some beers! We spent some time in the bar talking to Chubbs, who told us how in his 68 years in Confluence, he had never seen so much rain.
Sam and I spent a considerable amount of time cleaning our bikes (even employing the help of the local fire department to spray us down), and trying our best to remove the layer of limestone that had attached to our legs. It was a long day…one of our longest since the beginning of the trip, and the conditions were not in our favor. Still, we were thankful that night to have a roof over our heads and the promise of reaching the end of the GAP the next day.
Heading toward Cumberland, the GAP has a slight incline until you reach the Eastern Continental Divide, where you start a much steeper decline. We woke up in Cumberland knowing that today, we would reach that decline and be able to coast for miles. It was the motivation we need to throw our wet gear back on and head into the mud.
Although it had stopped raining at this point, the damage had already been done to the trail. Fortunately, the crushed limestone allowed us to continue with our Surlys – if the trail was a dirt one, our trip would have been over (foreshadowing…). The trail felt like the day before, but without the rain there were quite a few more people joining us. We stopped and talked to a few that were heading the other direction and had come from Washington D.C., taking the C&O Canal trail to Cumberland, where they picked up the GAP. Again and again, these cyclists warned us about the conditions of the C&O Canal, which was a dirt trail. The rain had completely washed away large portions of the trail, and those portions that were rideable were now mud. As capable as our Surlys were, they were not designed for much off-roading. Sam and I held onto the hope that these riders were over-exaggerating about the conditions of the trail, but part of us knew that we may not be able to take the C&O Canal.
We stopped for lunch about 35 miles into our ride that day, and we ran into a group of cyclists that we had seen the night before in Confluence. We talked to them about what we had heard with the C&O Canal, and they confirmed our suspicions. It was time for Sam and I to start coming up with a Plan B. Sam recognized a Public Health Service logo on one of the cyclist’s jerseys and asked him if he was in healthcare. As it turned out, everyone in the group was a physician of some sort. One of the guys then said, “Yeah, Boris here used to be the Surgeon General!”. Boris ended up giving us his card before leaving, and their group headed back out on the trail while Sam and I ate our lunch. We looked up his name, Boris Lushniak, and saw he was the Surgeon General of the United States under President Obama. Woah! It’s truly amazing the people you meet on bike trips. As Sam and I finished our lunch, he looks up at me and says, “You know you just called the former Surgeon General by his first name…”.
Plan B: our options were limited…the C&O Canal trail was a necessary part of our trip to Hershey, and we were running out of time. A detour would set us back too far. So, I did what any grown-up would do in a situation where they are stuck. I called my Mom.
My Mom, being the saint she is, agreed to meet us in Cumberland and save our trip. She would drive us to Mechanicsburg so that we could finish the ride to Hershey the next day, meeting Casey and the rest of my family at the hospital. Now, Sam and I just had to make it to Cumberland, which marked the end of the GAP.
Hopping back on our bikes, we didn’t stop again until we made it to the Eastern Continental Divide, where we met up again with Boris and his crew. One of the physicians with Boris, excited that Sam and I were medical students, pulled out what looked like small pebbles from his pocket and asked us what they were. Not realizing that someone would collect these, my first guess was NOT kidney stones he had passed throughout the trip! But, here he was, showing them to us. He pimped us on the make-up of the stones (calcium oxalate), and I made a mental note not to shake this guy’s hand without gloves on.
We had made it to the Eastern Continental Divide, and it was time to cruise into Cumberland as we rode the decline and enjoyed the last leg of the GAP. My Mom was there at the end of the GAP to shuttle us to Mechanicsburg in preparation for the last day of the trip.