Ten Best Things About Biking the C&O and GAP from D.C. to Pittsburgh [From BA 43-500]

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"Alone, you hear things on the trails: a turkey stumbling up a cliff; ducks flying toward water shortly after you wheel into view; whole families of turtles promptly plunking themselves from sunning spots into muddy Maryland canals."

1. More wildlife than you might imagine seeing. Since it was April, we were frequently the only people on the trail for miles. And, since my riding companion had been doing long bike trips through the U.S. and Europe for many years and was not only faster than me but also riding a road bike, I was often by myself on my Kona mountain bike for long stretches. Alone, you see things on the trails: a turkey stumbling up a cliff when it sees you flying towards it; ducks flapping their wings as they struggle to fly from the trail to water shortly after you wheel into view; whole families of turtles (10 or 12 of them at a time, from tiny to huge) promptly plunking themselves from sunning spots on tree branches into muddy Maryland canals as you look their way; mother geese not only hissing, but violently charging at you as you try discreetly to have a look at their newborn yellow offspring; deer outrunning your bike with grace.

2. When your iPod runs out of battery and you’re able to listen to the sounds of nature all around: geese hissing, cardinals chirping, rivers rolling, crushed gravel being further annihilated by your spinning wheels. Sure, the sounds of Midlake, First Aid Kit and Fleet Foxes juxtapose beautifully with the dark forest trails of Pennsylvania at sunrise. Mid-’80s Metallica bootlegs got me through the 23-mile climb from Cumberland past Frostburg. And the drawling soul of Maryland’s own Cotton Jones perfectly accompanied my ride from Little Orleans, Md., to Cumberland along the Potomac. But the rougher part of my ride on the 184-mile Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Trail didn’t become meditative until the surrounding world became all I experienced.

Sounds of nature all around: geese hissing, cardinals chirping, rivers rolling...

3. European desserts, like those found in a little gourmet sweets parlor nestled between mile 184 of the C&O Trail and mile 1 of the Great Allegheny Passage to Pittsburgh. When your legs are killing thousands of calories a day, it’s okay to indulge a little, and European Desserts (yes, that’s its name) is the perfect place for indulgence. My biking partner enjoyed a hefty slice of rich chocolate cake, and I eagerly devoured a fabulous, generously-sized peanut butter and chocolate ball covered in tasty frosting. (European Desserts also serves sandwiches and all kinds of coffee/espresso.)

4. Fran’s, an endearing, smoke-filled basement bar in Meyersdale. On vacation from my new home base of Colorado, I knew I was firmly back in my native Southwestern Pennsylvania when I asked a walker on the trail for the time and he responded, “Par me?” Other reminders of my return became clear as I rolled down Main Street in Meyersdale and saw a spartan vintage awning above an age-old Pittsburgh Steelers sign and a screen door leading to a little bar where Penguins games are shown on old-school projection TVs. Everyone sings along to REO Speedwagon, and Coors, Bud, Miller, and Yuengling (all just $2 every day) are the only beer options. And food? Yes, Freedom Fries. Some Americans are apparently still holding a grudge against France for not thinking the Iraq War was a good idea. After I ordered a Yuengling and a big bag of Snider’s chips (total: $3), the amiable owner of Fran’s approached the bar to let me know about the free nachos and pizza in the adjacent game room. Incredulous comments from locals about my ride from D.C. (such as, “Like, a bike without a motor?”) were relentless but friendly. It was also great to see that the early ’90s female haircut (high perm in the front) that my mother and aunt wore in Mario Lemieux’s heyday is still going strong just 100 miles south of the Iron City. And if you’re still hungry somehow, go get a big, comforting plate of yummy homecooking at the White House, a family-run restaurant about twelve blocks off Main Street. The endearing Thanksgiving-like menu includes this not-a-typo gem: “Mixed drinks: $3 / Top shelf: $3.50.”

Penguins games are shown on old-school projection TVs and Coors, Bud, Miller, and Yuengling (all just $2 every day) are the only beer options.

5. Finding out what your body is truly capable of. I had serious doubts about my endurance, like whether I could really pedal 60-80 miles a day for four days with my legs the only engine for a Kona Splice 29er loaded with clothes, tools, accessories, a journal, and a copy of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. A 50-mile jaunt around Santa Fe the previous summer had been my longest one-day ride. By the time I’d biked over 40 miles from Crystal City, Va., to White’s Ferry, Md., my doubts continued to linger. No amount of stretching or electrolytes could hide the fact that, although I bike 7 miles to and from work every day (no matter the weather) in Boulder and regularly pedal the 36-mile Boulder-to-Denver passage via the Little Dry Creek Path, my body wasn’t exactly prepared for 60 miles a day, let alone 80. By White’s Ferry, my legs hurt. My thighs had locked up and my calves were pretty sore, too. Then something happened in the 26 miles of shoddy C&O trail between White’s Ferry and Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. I felt pain-free, confident, and strong and I was actually disappointed that our first day of riding had been just under 70 miles, rather than the 100 I now longed for. My legs had become a no-nonsense motor, and almost any distance seemed possible. “Anyone can do this,” I thought. My body had changed, and fast.

Then something happened in the 26 miles of shoddy C&O trail between White’s Ferry and Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. I felt pain-free, confident, and strong. My legs had become a no-nonsense motor, and almost any distance seemed possible.

6. Biking, for the most part, from dawn until dusk. This became as natural as breathing, as if my bike had become an extension of my body. More dedicated riders bike through the night with the use of headlights, and continue pedaling in weather conditions that were less than optimal.

7. It was especially beautiful cycling, with winter gloves on, in the cold, civilization-free mornings as the sun rose and I knew that moving my legs through many wooded Appalachian miles would be my only activity until the sun went down.

8. Arriving in newly bike-crazy (if not yet so bike-friendly) Pittsburgh, my hometown. The growing popularity of the Great Allegheny Passage has started to inspire people of all ages to bike Pittsburgh, even if only between Station Square to Homestead. Over the Bar Bicycle Cafe and Ruggers Pub are the two best spots to park, eat, drink, rest and chat in Pittsburgh’s Southside after arriving in the city, and Thick Bikes is the perfect spot to visit if you need repairs, directions, etc. The rising bike culture in Pittsburgh is widely evident, but a quick word of warning: be incredibly careful. The city’s bike lanes are still in development and, much like in other large American cities, motorists don’t always notice, and are sometimes even angered, by cyclists taking the lane.

9. Tunnels. The Paw Paw Tunnel, which opened in 1850 and is about 3,100 feet long, represents probably the grandest of all the tunnels cyclists pass through between D.C. and Pittsburgh. Its giant entrance made me feel like Gandalf was about to lead me through the deserted ancestral home of the trolls, and the feeling of needing the brightest setting on my headlight at 10am was amusing. The tail end of the C&O Trail, and the bulk of the GAP, is no different—only the tunnels are even older and quirkier. And when one of them is undergoing maintenance, as is often the case, you’re really in for an enchanted (depending on your point of view) forest adventure.

10. Getting paid to bike all day. My riding partner was my boss, a veterans’ attorney. He kindly (and rightly) considered our ride from D.C. to Pittsburgh a teambuilding experience worth investing in. We attended two remarkable veterans’ law conferences in Washington, including one at which Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spoke, before getting on the C&O Trail around 10am on a Sunday in April. Before heavy rain and thunder halted us on Wednesday around 1pm, we had biked close to 285 miles, stopping only to eat and sleep (at one hotel and two B&B’s). It was an unforgettable time that will no doubt improve the way our office runs (rides?) and I’m forever grateful for it. I highly recommend long bike trips for companies looking to embrace enjoyable, challenging exercise while delving into simultaneous exercises in problem-solving, bonding, patience, conflict-resolution, acceptance and communication.

Evan P. Schneider