I’m the first in the house to awake, too excited and anxious to sleep. I awake to that feeling where I get this rush of anxiety, I feel like my heart is beating so fast that I almost lose my breath. I calm myself with long stretches and this also acts as reassurance. With each deep lunge I tell myself that this time my knees will be ok, the circumstances are different. My stomach feels hollow but at the same time it’s hard to eat. I empty half a tub of soy yogurt into a bowl and pile granola on top of it. I wake Jason up and my anxiety begins to fade as we both light up with smiles knowing that the only thing we have to do for the next five days is ride our bikes.
It doesn’t take us long to prepare for departure, most things were packed the night before so we carry our bikes and our gear down the three flights of stairs after giving out hugs to our friends – both half awake and in bed still but wishing us safe and fun travels. As we load our panniers onto our bikes and situate our loads, remnants from last night’s thunderstorm begin to sprinkle lightly upon us. We jump onto our bikes and I instantly remember how good it feels to just ride away. We ride out of Braddock and after some confusion we make our way onto the Great Allegheny Passage. When we cross the railroad tracks and turn onto the trail we are relieved and dive into conversation, catching up on everything since I left Detroit.
Nearly two years ago, Jason met Matt and I in Detroit to ride with us on our first day of our tour. This day will forever be known to the three of us as the worst bike ride ever. That day the temperature dropped down into the 20s and the wind picked up to that same speed. With the temperature and riding into the wind my bad knee pretty much exploded but I didn’t want to give up. Our clearest memory is of stopping in a playground and hiding in this little train, a sad attempt to block the wind. We shared food bars that were nearly shattering from the cold as we tried to break them apart. Our water bottles were freezing shut and I felt like a complete failure.
This ride would be different. The rain had faded and the autumn temperature felt perfect. Anything could feel perfect after reminiscing about that ride on December 1, 2010, but really it was. We rode just over 70 miles that day, arriving to Ohiopyle as planned. The only terrible thing about our first day wasn’t the ride at all, it was pushing our bikes up the 1/4 mile loosely graveled trail to the campground. That 1/4 mile felt like 5 at the end of the day. The sun was fading fast, so we made camp at one of the the sites nearest the trail, we had plenty to choose from and didn’t see anyone camping nearby. Enjoying our dinner of vegan mac n chz on a picnic table soaked from the recent rain, I felt drained but was feeding on the energy from my enjoyment of being on a bike tour. Within minutes of climbing into the tent a storm rolled in that lasted hours into the night but luckily ending before we woke the next morning.
Our clothes from the day before were soaked, but in hopes of it not raining, I decided to put on my 2nd (and last) set of dry clothes. It didn’t take long for it to start raining on us that day. Our damp clothes from the day before strapped to our bikes collecting just as much rain as the clothes we were wearing. The tunnels that day rejuvenated us, their entrances surrounded by heavy fog and their insides cool, damp and dark. Our time spent in the Big Savage tunnel discussing doom metal and staging photographs was perhaps the cause to arriving late into Cumberland at the end of the day but no matter, it was all quite worth it. The rain was falling steadily, I could see it in my bike light and feel it on my face as Jason and I rode 17+ mph in the dark on the trail. With Jason’s front rack and load they couldn’t get their light to point to the path, so they rode behind me watching to make sure they didn’t need to avoid anything in the path. Their light threw my shadow into my path and with the rain and my glasses it made for a bit of a sketchy ride, but I kept pedaling faster and sometimes found myself laughing at our situation, enjoying our adventure.
At some point we decided that it’d be ok to stay in a motel that night considering that our tent was still soaked from the night before as were all of our clothes. We made our dinner on the sidewalk of the hotel , boiling water with my camp stove but still protected from the rain. We carried our rice noodle soup with some added TVP and seaweed snacks back up to our room. Walking into our room it almost felt like we were camping with the tent set up to dry taking up a third of the space, our bikes propped against tables, wet clothes hanging from anything that we could find and a bathroom filled with mud and random bits of nature.
Most of the first two days of riding had a slight climb to it, nothing much but enough to make me clench my teeth as I tried to straighten out my knee slowly. It felt tight and almost like someone had left a screw driver wedged in there somewhere. I ignored it as much as I could because even this felt no where near the pain that I rode with on my last bike tour. Knowing that it was a steady decline in elevation for the rest of our ride left me feeling positive.
We had finished the GAP trail the night before when arriving to Cumberland, riding around 75 miles on the 2nd day. The storm on our 2nd night left the C&O trail full of deep and muddy puddles. After only a couple of hours, we felt mentally exhausted maneuvering around and splashing through the puddles, and dodging tree roots. The C&O was a drastic change from the GAP in routine maintenance. But what it lacks for in a smooth trail, they made up for with their free campsites located about every 5 miles along the trail. Each with a pump offering you iodine stained water and an outhouse to suffocate in.
Jason and I made a habit of racing the sun as it was setting, attempting to get to our campsite before it was dark, our eyes were able to focus just enough to allow us to see the trail ahead of us, although the tree roots and rocks usually remained hidden, unknown to us until we’d blast over them with our bikes. We balanced our last three days of rain-free riding with 60-70 mile days. On our 4th day, Jason had the task of attempting to fix their seized rear derailleur, or setting it up in a way that would get them by until we made it to DC. Success! It set us back almost 2 hours but shortly after we were able to enjoy the periodic paved portions of the newly opened section of the trail. The paths goes right up along the rock face with the river directly on the other side. In an attempt to take a quick photo and unlayer, I lost my fleece but I wouldn’t realize it until we were making camp and I would become cold again once off my bike. Our last meal and pretty much all that we had left of our food stock consisted of cooking dehydrated pinto beans with couscous and a packet of taco seasoning. Perhaps one of my favorite camp meals yet! We fell asleep under the full moon knowing that we had only 64 miles left to ride.
Jason awoke to sore ankles and I awoke to my sore knees and ass cheeks. We had spent large portions of our ride covering every topic we could think of: punk hardcore, relationships, gender and sexuality, veganism, straight edge, bikes, Detroit, growing up……I could go on. But on the last day, we rode at different paces and I replaced conversation with music – setting goals to stop every 15-20 miles to snack or just touch base for a minute. At one point I was laying across an old brick foundation, we noticed a butterfly high above the height of the trees, followed by several more, all flying in the same direction. I counted more than a dozen but then it was time to ride again. Seeing the butterflies migrating was better than the energy that I could get from food or rest.
The last 20 miles of the trail into DC was more annoying than anything, the abundance of people on the trail, counting down the miles and all I could think about was eating a ridiculous amount of food once in the city. I imagined having this triumphant moment when seeing the zero mile marker but Jason actually passed it without noticing and then I was yelling and racing up to them trying to get them to stop so we could figure out where we needed to go next. I sometimes wonder where I get my energy from, because when we arrived to DC I was bursting with it. My knees were sore and I was thirsty for non-iodized water but mentally I was full of energy. My energy levels are often times obnoxious in these situations and I was failing at holding them back. Later that night after showers and over huge plates of Ethiopian food with our generous friend and host, we were all laughing and telling stories. We would take the train back to Pittsburgh the next afternoon but while in DC we made sure to fill ourselves with huge plates of vegan deliciousness.
Our five days and 340 miles left me with a feeling of achievement, all the while only filling me with a craving for more adventures.