The Long Ride

In just about eight days, I pedaled 349 miles on two wheels from M Street, Washington D.C. to Point State Park, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with many others from several states and a handful of countries. The trip took four pounds off my waist, mostly, made my soccer thighs, and beard, even thicker, and brought me home to clear blue October skies one day prior to turning the page on a third decade of life.


It rained last night while I found a few moments to sleep and rest my nerves. They've been at it since I received my replacement bike frame, after returning the defective original, just eight days ago from California.

Jerry Kraynick, who modestly answers each phone call with the essential, "Bike shop …", graciously lent me some tools and a workstand and a wee bit of space, as he does for anyone that enters his bicycle haven. "It'd make my days easier of people learned how to maintain their own bikes," he often states, "and besides, I hope to retire in five or ten."

Two years before I was born, Jerry's father moved the shop after he inherited it from his father. He relocated from the Hill District to a spot tucked away under a few of the shade trees remaining along a stretch of Penn Avenue that is just beginning to see a few of those coveted beautification dollars. It'll be a sad day when he, a third-generation Kraynick's Bike Shop owner, takes down his rusted and faded sign and stores away his spoke wrench for good. Yet, there is something fitting to his leaving before the wave of gentrification swallows fully the East End of Pittsburgh.

My bicycle and I consider ourselves lucky to have discovered this three-story pot of gold and spokes and bolts. There, my Bleriot was assembled twice, mostly, and for what was remaining—tape, cables, fenders, rack—my living and dining rooms remain today in disarray.

It rained last night but so far this morning blue sky has accompanied final preparations and extended goodbyes. My lovely girlfriend had to cut her hair all cute and playful just before my leaving, didn't she…

I recall past summers in second-length flashbacks when my days had me perpetually out-of-doors before and after PB&J on enriched white bread, Cheeze-Its, and chocolate syrup mixed with 2% milk. On those days you would find me rearranging found patches of moss into swaths of carpet for miniature forts at the edge of the backyard's forest. I would set up battles between two and three G.I.Joe figurine battalions. The fights and intrigue would be elaborate and would last the day. There were guns and enemies, but oddly I do not recall anyone ever dying.

Some years later, when small groups of us neighborhood boys were old enough to explore deeper uncharted thickets of woods, we would take our fully articulated figurines along with firecrackers to see to it that death might finally come to any number of lesser troops. During that summer, little did we know how there was no turning back to those pure and infinite worlds of no consequence.

This ride, hopefully a respite from the world of news and war and consequence, should return me to this place, somewhat wild and mostly free. Taking a long deep breath of all the fresh air, if only for one week, may very well be quintessential.

Today was a light ride. First, my friend Bobby came with his friend Coco and a gal with fun hair to see me off before they continued on to shop and experience the Georgetown decadence. Then, I started off down the trail which began where M Street ended. Less than one mile into the trip, I hit my first snag and lost whatever patience I had left with the aluminum fenders mounted to my bike. Not only were they rubbing my tires, bent from the box truck ride down with dozens of other bikes, every piece of stone debris kicked up from the trail by wet tires, made an awful clang I could not tolerate for one mile, never mind hundreds.

I pulled off to the side of the trail, refused several offers for help, removed the fenders from hell, turned around, and rode back to Georgetown to locate a bike shop. I found one amidst the shops and there I found some trusty and plastic and German-made-and-engineered. The new, less-fashionable variety worked like a charm. With fenders mounted, I pedaled hard, stopping only a few times to shoot pictures in the beautifully waning daylight, to make up time and 14 miles of trail to arrive in time for my first cooked meal of the trip.


The Potomac on my left and the long abandoned canal on my right have been the steady rails to this two-wheel journey northwestward. Besides this, I have found the only constants to be sleeping, riding, and the intake of calories. The relationship of food as fuel has been rekindled in my genes as filled plates–yes, more than one–are cleaned long before anything finds my stomach. How nice modern life is to be able to enjoy food beyond its strict utility.

Imagine having marched 17 miles in several hours without any break or wonder cake and be expected to stand attention, in front of a shower of lead, and beneath Shrapnel’s exploding ordinances. Today my idea of hunger was tested during a detour into the nearby rolling farmland hills of Maryland. Antietem, the battle named after a small tributary from the North which ran red with blood of some 23,000 who lost their lives in just 12 hours on that day, was fought by men, many without shoes and all without bananas or meal replacement snack bars or freedom from fear. Even after learning this and witnessing the hallowed and silent farmland, I succumbed to the irony of leaving the three-hour battlefield tour early to try to make up the next 16 miles in time for the next scheduled meal.

Mile 112 brought us past yesterday’s 33 locks in varying states of disrepair, through 6,284 puddles of rust-colored mud, and into an infinite amount of gnats, biting flies, mosquitos, and all other flying insects attracted to the scent of my sweat and sheen of my eyes. Today it brought some of us onto unfamiliar roads and past a historic battle site. And as I hit the unseen wall of fading calories yesterday with 10 of the 55 miles left to travel before Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, I did again today with but two left. This time one bruised banana, tucked away in my black British saddlebag, was destined to be my savior, my wonder cake.


Today was the first day that my legs began to ache. Fort Frederick to Hancock to Little Orleans where, despite our being perched atop a modest mountaintop and away from the standing pools of the old canal, we are still experiencing swarms of small things that like to bite and sting.

Rain is forecasted for tonight. So instead of occupying the large sloping lawn, I’ve opted for some throughfall protection of an old oak canopy and erected my tent in the shade next to a patch of large orange mushrooms.

My bowels keep reaping havoc. I overheard someone speak of how, on a few of the days with more hills and more mud, we’ve burned an average of 1,000 calories for every 10 miles of riding. With us commonly reaching this mark five times over daily, filling our plates to fill our bellies never quite seems to happen, despite the number of trips back to the tin trays and sturno. With so much more going in, you would expect the same in excess going out, but that has failed to present its case. Perhaps this is what has been ailing me tonight–my system has yet to figure out how to process all of this food which I have all but neglected as anything but fuel.

Today, also, my bicycle met with another mishap. Day one had me returning to Georgetown for better fenders. This foggy morning of day four found me briefly turning my back on the bike rack where I left my blue beauty. For the moment I turned to fetch water to brush my teeth, I turned around to find the elder man from Ontario bending over to pick her up. There is a reason signs posted nearby such bike racks read “Back Wheel In First…” So, I took her from Pat, without saying much except something like “Everything is fine.”, got back on to ride off with toothbrush still in mouth, but did not move. The front wheel was bent and so was I. Yet, I could not unbottle my frustration upon a man more than twice my age riding a budget bicycle more than half my age all this way.

I decided to take my anger out on the trail. I opened up my front brake to avoid rubbing and make my diligent way twelve miles down the path, past arcane centuries-old cemeteries along highways, to Hancock and the C&O Bike Shop where the day and my ride were salvaged. Afterwards, almost everyone moved indoors to Weaver’s Restaurant to fetch a famous piece of pie while Pat and I occupied a bench along Main Street, ate my two PB&J sandwiches, and chatted about the weather.


At the beginning of this trip, I weighed options that would determine how organic it might pan out. I considered modern comforts: music to have in my ears to take me beyond pain or boredom; sunglasses to avoid changes in daylight brought on by passing clouds or cold drops from an autumn shower; clipless pedals to help climb the rare hill; or a wristwatch to help measure the pace cadence or the rate of my heartbeat or just to anticipate the next snack or meal. I did not mull and decided these accouterments would be serve me sitting idle at home in the city where life runs on tighter schedules and demands comforts to offset the bustle and shameless inconveniences.

I wanted to exist within the natural pace and experience the elements as they were dealt, just as those did who gave original reason for this path. For those who came generations before me, neither life on the canal nor life on the rail ever stopped for the elements save the snow and ice brought on by the Easter months.


Yesterday we rode on a far more superior surface of crushed limestone and tallied our first miles of the GAP, the Great Allegheny Passage. Sixty miles, plus a few more, took us from the terminus of the C&O Towpath in Cumberland, Maryland to another river town–Confluence, Pennsylvania. We climbed the modest Savage Mountain for twenty-four miles, never descending, and near its peak, crossed the Mason-Dixon line. Here, as snow melts and rain falls, the inevitable flow of water makes its choice to travel at gravity’s and time’s pace to arrive either at the Chesapeake Bay or the Gulf of Mexico before returning to the ocean.

The Big Savage Tunnel at the peak of Big Savage Mountain was one of many unlit passages that would bring us from one threshold to another. This tunnel also brought the temperature down past thresholds familiar with hypothermia for the first time this journey. I stopped to unpack and put on my jacket, which would not end up leaving my body for days to come. No longer were my fine layers of merino enough.

Despite having also learned my lesson about proper fluid and caloric intake, I was still exhausted when I finally rolled into a town with no cell phone reception, plenty of passing freight trains, and a ball field. Here I set up camp behind the dugout after consuming two bowls of warming curried carrot soup.

I feel I might have gotten used to the gypsy cyclist lifestyle. Last night I slept unabatedly without the aid of earplugs to drown out the thunder of the rails. I awoke in the darkness just before dawn, dismantled and packed my tent, ate ravenously again, remounted, and rode onward with the thin sunrise at my back. No matter what the routine, it apparently becomes second nature and adopts ease with the passage of time.


“Railroading… Settlers Life… Sand Mill… Concrete Factory… A Coal Mining Town… ” read the titles of interpretive signs that I would pass at 15 miles per hour throughout this trip. The moment's glance would be just enough to acquire a greater sense of what shaped these pockets of densely forested land before nature decided to reclaim it. These were rails built for efficiency and for industry and now are trails, built for leisure. And it was an odd sort of leisure that brought me along side them.

As I have passed through each tired town and along this pastoral route, I have wondered how much time we have left before we need the rails back. There are things in and about this world so much greater than me, or this ride, colliding with an unstoppable mass as I write this. I am both terrified and enraptured, and yet I hold on to hope that the future indulges me with the leisure I was able to rediscover during this brief journey.

1 comment:

mstyer said...

i enjoyed this. glad your bike survived.