Traveling 150 miles in awe of both nature and human engineering.
Our party rolled out of the park and onto the trail. The Great Allegheny Passage starts out as a downtown multi-use path winding along the Monongahela River past both active and abandoned elements of the steel industry. Eventually the industrial architecture gave way to more green spaces and we meandered with the river. Where the Monogahela and Youghiogheny Rivers forked we beared east and began the gradual ascent upstream towards the eastern continental divide. The rail bed creeps up in elevation at an almost unnoticed rate. So subtle it didn’t seem to register as a climb at all.
After a few hours Mark began to slowly drift ahead of us until he was out of sight. Wilson, Brantly and I were content to cruise along assuming we would catch up in a while when Mark took a break. A short time later that happened and we discussed pacing. Mark had a much more ambitious pace in mind so we agreed that we would let him drift away knowing that if things went bad we would be able to still communicate by phone. Not long after we started again Mark indeed began to pull away.
The surface of the trail was great considering the large amount of rain that had blown through the region in the days leading up to our trip. The crushed gravel was damp and soft but packed enough that what additional fatigue it was causing was not noticeable. The temperature was warm enough that damp feet were a non-issue. We cruised along through forest and past small towns. The river moved from our left to right and back again as we crossed repurposed train bridges.
It was right about this time that things took a turn for the worse. The front tire on Wilson’s bike began to develop a problem. The bead of the tire seemed to be stretching out and the tire began to creep up from the rim threatening to outright fail by blowing off and leaving Wilson in a serious bit of trouble. The threat of tire failure was indeed serious and would result in walking an unknown distance to a point where one could exit the trail. How much further to a point where Wilson would be able to either wait for us to come back or get some alternative transport was a complete unknown. Options would likely be bleak. He partially deflated his tire, reset the bead into the rim and re-inflated with less pressure. It seemed ok… for a time.
When we passed through Ohiopyle things got interesting in more ways than one. The scenery of southwestern Pennsylvania is quite a thing to behold. Old forest, rocky outcrops and steep drops to the river below. We paused briefly on one of the many bridges to take it all in.On either side of the bridge was at least a 100 foot drop down to the river. Rocky cliffs lined the river as its rapids churned over craggy rocks. The sun was high in the sky and brilliantly lit up our surroundings. If not for the bigger goal at hand I could have stayed there for hours marveling in the beauty of Youghiogheny River.
Once again the issue with Wilson’s tire began to happen again. This time the sun was beginning to set. He repeated the previous attempt to fix things and we set out again. Once more after a bit the problem came back. By this point it was dark and the temperature was dropping. We were roughly 50 miles from Cumberland, Maryland where the only somewhat convenient place to pull out would be. To say I was getting grumpy would be a reasonable assessment. I stopped about 15 yards from Wilson and Brantley this time and slowly ate a cold sausage egg mcmuffin while they discussed the issue. It was clear that Wilson’s bike was not going to make it to Cumberland in its current state of affairs. The tire was becoming deformed and a complete failure appeared to be imminent. It was then in that darkest moment that Brantley had a moment of brilliance. Why not duct tape? Why not? Wilson had packed some duct tape and quickly wrapped several layers around the tire and rim to secure it all together. We knew that on pavement it would wear off eventually but we were hoping that the softer surface would delay that.
After a few miles of cautious optimism things appeared to be holding. And it was a darn good thing too. Inside the last 50 miles of the GAP trail there are very little chances to easily exit the trail and it was now nighttime and just about everything we did encounter was closed up.
It was about here that my only personal crisis of the ride happened. We were closing in on 125 miles which put the distance pretty close to the longest rides I had ever done. The reality that we still had over 200 miles to started to sink in and I started to feel a bit of dread. What if my knee gave out? What if I started cramping? It was nighttime and the prospect of a problem was giving me pause. I thought to myself about how we were drawing to closer to Cumberland and that would be the best place to quit. Well, at least the least inconvenient place to quit that is. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to stop but I feared what may happen if things went sideways a 3am in no-man’s land on the C&O. It was then I started to run through my mind what I would do if I pulled the plug in Cumberland. Find a hotel, lay out who knows how much money to stay there. Book a train ticket back to Washington DC and hope they have a spot for my bike. More money, more hassle. The only upshot was that as a precaution I had packed shorts and t-shirt so at least I would be riding the train in something other than a smelly cycling kit. For about 30 minutes this internal dialogue quietly played out in my mind. I wondered if we were all thinking the same, because our group gone eerily silent.
At about 130 miles we finally hit the eastern continental divide and things immediately improved. The final 20 miles of the Allegheny Passage are all downhill into Cumberland. All at once my mind was at ease. The thought of quitting instantly vanished from my mind as we passed through the arch that marks the divide.
We began the gradual descent into town along the way we passed through the Borden and Big Savage Tunnels. Big Savage in particular was incredible. At over one half a mile long and cavernous. It felt like passing through an endless and enormous tin can. Our excited voices echoed as we cruised along. While I can’t say it was out weighed the beauty of the bridges in Ohiopyle or the other more natural features of the trail, I can say that it was the most impressive man made feature of this leg of the trip.
Sadly things were about to go wrong for one half of our party...