Even though most folks probably don’t think “Appalachia” when they think of Pennsylvania, this southwest corner of the state definitely is. Paul counted 190 cars on a train filled with coal, and we passed many reminders of the area’s coal-producing past, including a cave that was used to fire coal into coke for use in steelmaking in Pittsburgh (see Laura in photo below), and a rusty red waterfall that an explanatory panel told us was acid mine drainage. Even though the GAP trail took up one rail right-of-way, there are many, many trains still running – almost constantly – on the other side of the river. We wondered what they’re carrying in the closed containers.
Meanwhile, on the ridges we observed fleets of wind turbines, indicating a new, cleaner, safer form of energy and the jobs that go with it.
The first and third days were sunny and warm, and we were cooled most of the way by riding under the tree canopy along the Monongahela and Youghigheny (yahko-GAIN-y) rivers.
The middle day, Sept. 1, began with a drizzle that turned into a pretty heavy rain, mitigated by the tree cover, so we managed to stay dry. I promptly got a flat on my front tire, which was fortunately easier to fix than a flat on the back, where we were carrying our panniers. Paul fixed it, as I watched avidly, realizing that I’m no longer competent to change a flat on a bike, as I used to do, and that I’d better re-learn fast. Once rolling again I promptly got a second flat, and this time Laura inspected the outside of the tire and found the culprit – a tiny stone that had made a little hole in the tire. As we worked in the rain, many cyclists passed us and asked the exact same question: “Do you have what you need?” We did, so on we rode through Ohiopyle State Park, along the Youghigheny, a stunning place with lots of whitewater rafting/kayaking and hikes going into the forest off the GAP trail.
It had stopped raining when we got to the town of Ohiopyle and the first thing we saw was a hose made available to cyclists to clean off our muddy bikes. We had a delicious lunch at a farm to table place a block away and then walked over to the river, where a country fair was in full swing, including a bluegrass band. I spoke to two guys selling Ohiopyle State Park merch who volunteer with the trail crew there, and they were so nice and so committed to protecting their wild place, as I am to my own local state park. I really wanted to initiate a conversation about politics, but I didn’t. I knew I was deep in Trump territory. I kind of regret it now.
We had our share of trail angels, in the form of bike shops when we needed them and helpful bike mechanics. Back on the trail, Laura had a flat on her back tire. Again the questions if we had what we needed, which we did, except for a standing pump to get enough air into her tire. A trail angel, Bob, came by and escorted us to the next town, where his friend ran a bike shop that was many blocks from the trail. We could have found it on GPS, but he was very nice to personally take us there.
Back on the trail, Laura promptly had a second flat on her back tire. This time another trail angel immediately passed by who shot some CO2 into the tire to pump it up.
We lost so much time on the second day that we missed our chance to visit Fallingwater, architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s master work, which was just a few miles off the trail at Ohiopyle, but it was straight uphill and we needed a shuttle. But that night at our B&B I found a book about it. I really enjoyed looking at the photos and reading a little of his philosophy, about combining architecture with nature. One thing I learned is that he was commissioned to build it when he was 68 and his career was ebbing. Quite a comeback!
After breakfast the next morning we set off in the lovely day and covered the same number of miles as yesterday in about half the time. We hit the Eastern Continental Divide, the Mason-Dixon Line, the Savage Tunnel and one other tunnel all within an hour or so. The Big Savage is half a mile long, but it had lights in the ceiling so it wasn’t that dark (we had our bike lights too). All the tunnels and viaducts (like the one above) were built to make the grade level for the railroad, and it was fascinating to see all the engineering feats.
After the Continental Divide, the ride was noticeably downhill for the last 15 miles, while it had been so slowly going uphill from Pittsburgh that it seemed flat. There were some spectacular views of mountains and wind turbines and hay bales sitting in green fields; felt like a combination of old world and new.
When we got to Frostburg, we learned the town itself was up a steep hill so if we wanted lunch we had to ride up the switchbacks and then on a steep road. We got to the top and the only restaurant we saw open (since it was Labor Day) was fortunately right in front of us – a Chinese place. So we ordered and our food came immediately, and it wasn’t bad. From Frostburg we coasted/pedaled all the way to Cumberland. We arrived in town, took a few photos, and piled our bikes and ourselves into Paul’s car parked near the end of the trail. Even though it was Labor Day, we didn’t run into traffic and they dropped me home at 10 p.m., the end of a fabulous, Bucket List-worthy adventure. Thanks, guys!