GAP Journal, May 2016

Great Allegheny Passage 5/9 – 5/18/2016

5/9/2016, Mon: Drive to DC, more specifically, to Jessica and Arturo’s place in Rockville, MD. Decent weather, sunny in the morning. “Lady in the box” (ie., Garmin Nuvi GPS) seems to be on crack at times, took me off Rte. 95 for no good reason, it seemed, and then right back on. But no big deal. Made it to DC around five PM. Spent a relaxed (!?!?) evening with Jess and Arturo and Liam and Rafa, watched “Fast and Furious” on the big screen TV. Lots of explosions and car chases and what-not. The rug rats (Liam and Rafa) running around fooling with their plastic toy guns. Ugh.

5/10/16, Tues: Mostly hanging out at Jess’ place, making last minute adjustments to the kit, deciding what stays and what comes along. When I leave this apartment, I am in hike/bike mode. I left around 2:30 to catch my 4:30 train to Pittsburgh, from Rockville center. The bike ride took all of 10 minutes. But a nervous time at the station, there isn’t a single Amtrak logo to be seen. There is not a single person of authority who can tell me I am at the right station, let alone the right track to catch the “Capitol Limited” at 4:29.

Nevertheless – it all went well. I was on the right platform. Train arrived exactly on time. A special car on the train has bike racks. The bike hangs against a wall, from the front wheel. Panniers remained on the bike. The train ride was quite pleasant, if a bit long. Views were nice, while we had daylight. The train got to Cumberland right around dusk. After that, as we climbed into the mountains, I could see low clouds hugging the hills, wet streets, cars with wipers going.  In Pittsburgh, the streets were full of people on account a hockey game – the Pittsburgh Penguins had just won their playoff game. The stadium was right next to my hotel. Streets were wet, but rain was not falling, or falling very lightly, for the few minutes it took to ride from train station to hotel.

5/11/16, Wed: Day 1. Gloomy morning in PGH. Light rain. Made my way to the fountain at Point State Park, right where the rivers meet. Eventually found the Hot Metal Bridge, though it required backtracking a couple of times. Rain mostly done by 11 or 12 AM. Trail starts to acquire a rural feeling around Duquesne or West Newton. Got a Frappucino from a convenience store just off the trail. Then lunch at the Trailside Cafe in West Newton. (Greek salad and beer.) Weather has turned warm and sunny by now. My “plan” is to make it to Connelsville, which I did, by around five-thirty. There are lean-tos at the edge of town but the scene didn’t feel right. So I decided to push on to Ohiopyle, which I made by about 7:30 or so. Right off the bat, I had a raspberry milkshake. Camping did not seem like an option, so I got a room at the Yough Plaza motel. Overpriced, but I was in no position to complain. After shower, I walked across the river to a pub where I had another beer, and a dinner of pulled-beef tostadas.

On the walk back to the motel I could feel a cold coming on. My stomach was queasy, probably from all the dairy products I’d consumed that day. Great. I didn’t get to sleep till the wee hours. Bummer.

5/12/16, Thurs, Day 2. Woke to a gray dawn but by 8:30 AM the sky was crystal clear blue. Got dressed and walked around the block to have a nice breakfast. The coffee got me cleared out, so tummy felt much better. But the cold is still here, and nasty. Had to stop to blow and wipe nose at least 100 times today. The great weather held out till a few miles past Confluence. At Rockwood I stopped at a bike shop to buy a Pepsi, which I took along. I could hear what sounded like distant thunder but preferred to believe it was something else, maybe a truck rumbling down the hill.

Well, yes, dammit, it was thunder. I stopped for an extended break at one of those covered picnic tables, figured it would be a good place to wait out the rain. And it was. The “svaha” was five seconds, ie., the lightning was hitting within a mile of where I sat. It poured hard, with considerable wind, for the better part of an hour.

So rain and fog was part of the scene for the rest of the day, mixed with brief episodes of sun. Salisbury Viaduct was cool but it was raining again so I didn’t linger. Then Pinkerton Tunnel. No lights in the tunnel but you can see the opening at the far end. Got to Myersdale at 4:30. First stop: drug store, for some Day-Quill Extra-Strength caplets. Next stop: Fox Pizza, “official Pizza of the Pittsburgh Penguins.” It really was quite good. Marvelous. I ate half of it (along with a large, sweet lemonade) and took the other half along. No camping in Myersdale, so on I go. It’s only another seven or eight miles to the Eastern Continental Divide. The sun in Myersdale gave way to cold mist and fog, except for one moment while crossing a high trestle. The E.C.D. is all socked in. Made it thru the Big Savage Tunnel. Found a nice campsite just after that. Probably not “legal” but who’s there to stop me? Views are supposed to be awesome from this spot, but visibility is about 100 feet. Ah, but tent is set up on smooth lawn and I have a covered picnic table to sit at. Life is good.

5/13/16, Friday: Day 3. About 42 miles today, 20 on the rail trail, 22 on the tow path. Plus two side-trips – Frostburg, for breakfast, and near Spring Gap, for groceries. At the Princess Diner in Frostburg, I ordered a standard two-egg breakfast but found I couldn’t eat it. I’d had another night of upset-stomach, most likely from that awesome pizza. I ended up chucking the last few slices of pizza that I’d carried with me from Meyersdale. The coffee was good, though. That morning started out cold and misty (like the prior evening) but mostly cleared up by 11 AM or so. I spent the day peeling back layers, one by one. I didn’t stop at Cumberland except for a few photos, and to wash off the bike – which was a waste of time. It was an easy morning. The trail was all downhill from my campsite at the E.C.D., down to Cumberland. Pedaling optional, or just to keep the feet busy.

The tow path is rutted and muddy, starting pretty much in the first mile. I rarely go over eight or nine MPH. Much effort dodging puddles and ruts in the mud. Stopped pretty early (about 4 PM) at “Town Creek Aqueduct” campsite, and I have the tent set up right by the river. Dinner was french onion soup from a mix I’d bought at the grocery store earlier. Amtrak rail line is on the other side of the river and I watched the “Capitol Limited’ go by at around 7 PM, en route west and north (next stop: Cumberland.) There are other campers here but they are not here on bikes – they’re a canoe-camping bachelor party, planning a day on the river (the Potomac, of course) and another night of camping, downriver, tomorrow. They had a good campfire going, and shared their beer with me (I just had one.) Nice crew, they partied by the fire till the wee hours but they were quiet and far enough away so that I was able to sleep well.

5/14/16: Sat: Day 4: Woke to decent weather, got some photos of mist rising off the river, and fog burning off. Rode from “Town Creek Aqueduct” to McCoy’s Ferry state campground. That nice weather didn’t last. It was still clear when I entered the Paw Paw tunnel, soon after starting out. But it was cool and gray when I emerged from the tunnel at the far end, and rain began shortly thereafter. Took lunch at Weaverton Bakery in Hancock – a bowl of chili, and salad bar. Hancock is where one picks up the Western Maryland Rail Trail, if one is of a a mind to do that. WMRT is a pretty standard “blue blaze” off the official GAP. The WMRT is smooth and paved and runs immediately parallel to the tow path for about 20 miles or so. I alternated between WMRT and tow patch a couple of times – and I can honestly say the tow path was in horrible, miserable shape in this section. Construction equipment was parked along the trail. Some of the destruction almost seemed deliberate.

Coming to the bitter end of the WMRT, I saw no easy route back to the tow path. Now, that’s surprising. Turns out you need to travel by road for a mile or so (up a steep hill) and then turn right, into Fort Frederick State Park, to rejoin the tow path from there. As I did that little detour, I was hit by another downpour. Took refuge for a while on the porch of the ranger station. When the rain cleared I had a brief warm spell, and I found McCoy’s landing campsite right after finding the tow path itself. It turns out I should have gone on another ¼ mile or so to the official tow-path Hiker/Biker site.  The site I was at was a state campground that actually charged money. (It asked $20, I put $10 in the envelope, cheapskate that I am.) It was a cool and windy evening – no longer raining, but the grass and picnic tables were still wet from rain. Wind was kicking. Not a great evening to linger outdoors, so I got to sleep early, and slept well.

5/15/16: Sunday, Day 5: McCoy’s Landing to Harpers Ferry. Finally, a day without rain, though I couldn’t be sure till it was over. I wore the diving booties, since my sneakers were still soaked from yesterday. We had clouds, sun and wind all day, it didn’t get “genuinely nice” till pretty late in the day, but overall, it was pleasant riding. On this day I rode past Dam 5, then Dam 4, and in between those, the “Slackwater” section, where there is no tow-path. The canal in this section is (was) the Potomac river itself, so the towpath is somewhat improvised. There’s a short section where it consists of a very modern ($$$) concrete roadway, immediately adjacent to the river.  That was fun riding, but over way too soon. I stopped for breakfast in Williamsport at a place called The Desert Rose. Had an egg-and-bagel sandwich, and then ordered a sandwich and chips to go. A cool clean, fifty miles today, ending at Harper’s Ferry, where I got one of the last bunks at the Teahorse Hostel, and then a decent light dinner and a beer at the Blue Anvil, down the block from the hostel. Sleeping in the hostel, it took a while to catch some shut-eye but eventually I did, and slept fairly well. I think I stopped for a good long while at one of the two Dams (5? 4?) but then clouds rolled in, it got kinda chilly, and I moved on. Mixed sun and clouds, lots of wind, but at least there was no rain. By six-thirty or seven, it was warm and pleasant out, but now I was feeling some pressure to get to Harpers Ferry and up to the hostel. I knew it would be a hard ride uphill once I got into town – not to mention lugging the loaded bike up a long spiral staircase, to get to the bridge over the river.

5/16/16, Monday, Day 6: Waffles for breakfast at the hostel. I’m showered and fresh, though my clothes are all still grungy. Clear and very cold outside, about forty degrees. Forecast is for good weather today, but rain again tomorrow. So my plan is to not-quite-finish the trail today, have an easy ride and camp somewhere around, say, Mile 10. Then, tomorrow, finish up, and make my way to Rockville. Texted Jessica with “details” of the plan. She’s OK with it. Well, the weather was fine but there just weren’t a lot of exotic sights to see today. Leaving HF, the tow path coincides with the Appalachian Trail for about two miles. I met lots of cyclists coming the other way on this stretch. I did a mini-tour of the town of Brunswick, five miles down the trail from HF. I came away with some chocolate, cookies, chips, etc. for the day’s snacks. I knew dinner would be my Mountain House Chili-Mac, which I’d been carrying with me all the way from Pittsburgh. I was hoping “Point of Rocks” would be an interesting place to see or maybe linger at, but – somehow I missed it. Or the big-attraction was out of view of the trail. I must have blinked. Well, there were herons. Right along the trail. Relatively unafraid. Let me get good and close for a photo. They’re huge birds! There were lots of people strolling, out for short rides, fishing along the canal.

I ended up at Swains Locks campsite. Mile 16. Ken was there, a bicyclist who I’d met the night before, at the hostel in HF. He’s also doing the entire GAP, but started from his hometown in Ohio. Plus a couple other interesting characters. And I’d met a few interesting guys on the trail, both yesterday and today. John, a sort of vagabond, towing a huge heavy trailer behind his bike. A kid on a cross-country hike (American Discovery Trail,) pushing his belongings ahead of him on a sort of hand-truck. Josh, a dreadlocked dude just doing the GAP trail, but in the opposite direction from me. A relaxing, quiet evening at Swains Locks. These C & O campsites are nice, but often the ground is very lumpy. Took a long while to decide just where to pitch the tent. There was no perfect spot.

5/17/16, Tuesday, Day 7: Up at dawn, on the trail by 7:30. Rain began almost immediately after I took down the tent, and continued most of the day. I really didn’t catch many sights today. The Potomac goes through some curious rock chasms at around Mile 14, but because of the rain, I was in no mood to linger. For the last few miles, a paved path parallels the tow path, and that paved path is loaded with bicyclists and joggers. A road, on the other side of the canal, with lots of inbound (to DC) traffic. Counting down the last few miles. 10. 5. 2. I never did find Mile Post Zero. Over the last half mile or so the tow path and canal wound between office and residential buildings, deep in Georgetown, and then finally disappeared – or got to a place where I could not see it continue. Meanwhile, I’m deep within Georgetown’s commercial district, so I stopped into a Starbucks for some shelter from the rain, and, get my bearings, and plan my retreat to Rockville. While I was checking out the map on my smartphone, I noticed the White House was barely a mile or two away. So I rode down the main drag in Georgetown, which more or less becomes Pennsylvania Avenue, until I reached the White House. And of course, got a photo of my bike in front of it.

OK, so now it’s time for the retreat to Rockville, which is north and west of where I’m at right now. I figure I can head back out on the tow path, or that alternate paved path, and then maybe at mile five or so, start veering onto proper streets. I need to find Rte. 190, which will lead to Rte. 189, which leads to Rockville. Also hoping very much that I can contact Jessica and maybe she’ll pick me up somewhere. The rain is relentless today, and I’ve had about enough of it.

So, I found myself at “Cabin John” regional park, and mostly so because it was the first spot I’d found where I could take shelter from the rain. I was off the canal now, but it was a residential neighborhood, and I hadn’t found any other business (eg., fast-food place or restaurant) to take refuge at. I was afraid the phone would malfunction if I kept trying to use it in the rain. Jessica eventually found me there, after a few wrong turns. I even learned a trick or two on my phone in the process, eg., sent Jess a screen capture of Google Maps showing my position on the map. I think it was about 1 PM or so when Jess finally got found me at the park, and from there, a half-hour drive to Rockville.

Back at the apartment, another lazy afternoon and evening, another feature movie on the big-screen TV. We did ramen meals “take out” from a Korean restaurant in Rockville. It felt great to be wearing clean cotton again. My one mistake was failing to have a spare pair of shoes or sneakers to wear, but they were mostly dry by the next morning. My muddy bike and panniers were in my car ready to leave early the next morning.

5/18/16, Wed: Drove home from Rockville. Mostly ignored “the lady in the box” whenever she told me to leave I-95. Some real slow going, waiting to get on the George Washington Bridge, I felt like I was stuck in a Chris Christie “traffic control study.” Once over the GW bridge I knew the way home, took the Deegan, the Sawmill, 684 to 84 to 90 and then home. Heavy traffic again on 128, a mile from home, but just the “usual” midweek rush-hour crap, nothing I haven’t endured a thousand times already. The ride took almost exactly eight hours total, including several pre-emptive potty breaks and a couple of fill-ups. The estimate from Google Maps is 7.5 hours, without traffic.