Three men on bikes

You can’t blame me for trying to make the title sound like “Three men in a boat”. It so happened that I was reading this book at the same time as I went on a long bike ride with two of my other friends.  We biked from Pittsburgh all the way to Washington DC over five days. Why? Because we could, that’s why. The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and the Chesapeake and Ohio tow path (C&O tow path) span a total of 336 miles and provided a splendid biking experience. What I am going to present in this article are my noteworthy experiences over the period of five days. I haven’t included the logistics of the travel here, I will be adding a more formal one later. Here is fun and drama. So let’s begin our ride!

Customs

I see what JD meant in the show “Scrubs”. Even I can’t sleep well a day before some big plan, and that was the case on day 0. I shopped, got back my bike from repair and mentally made notes of what to do if I get hurt, faint, get hypothermia, get bit by insects and so on and so forth. I am generally a tensed person and of course, this wasn’t a mere one day trip to not worry. But yes, eventually I slept for a total of four hours while rolling in the bed 1024 times.

Cats

We met her for the first time on our way to Connelsville.

On day 1, it was our beaten path from Pittsburgh to Confluence. We biked hard till Connelsville and then slowed down for the next 30 miles till Confluence. At Confluence, we stayed at a beautiful bed and breakfast place, which was a villa in between a farm transformed to a guest house. The folks there gave us a really warm welcome and provided us with great food. As it turned out, we were far away from the city and hence I had a treat for my eyes. The Milky way galaxy was visible for the first time ever in my life. Oh the beauty of that dense band of stars! I just kept staring at it till the clouds came over and said, “Chop chop buddy, now I need to watch the stars, you may not see any more”.  Oh well. But I was also enjoying feline company there. This domesticated cat named Gizmo came to me curiously and started rubbing itself against my feet. Of course I started petting it. There were bunch of other curious cats as well. One guy that stood out was Furry, the shy, scared and lazy furry cat, which just lazed like me on the swing.

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Short break at McKeesport. The guy in the red jersey, Saurabh, had his tyre punctured 6 times in four days.

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Lunch break at Confluence. Since I was the weakest among the three, I carried almost no load.

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The three of us at Ohiopyle. From left to right, me, Ajay, Saurabh.

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Sanity was merely an option for us, as we discussed worldly issues while burdening the other rider.

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Taxidermy. Drama. Me.

Couple

We started very lazily next day at 10:30 towards our eventual destination of that day. The path today, since it was new, was very refreshing and was a pleasant experience riding throughout the day.  The first half was uphill and was very similar to the previous day’s path. We were lazily biking our way for half of the day till we met one of our friend who started the same day as us, went to Cumberland and on his way back to Pittsburgh. Talk about being an under performer. The second half after the continental divide was fun! It was downhill and we were breezing at 30 kmph. All was good till one of my friend’s tyre got punctured due to the gravel beside the railway tracks. Fixing it took a while and then we reached Cumberland at around 6 pm. A central theme in our trip was that, no matter when or how early we started, we reached our destination no earlier than 6 pm.

When at mile marker 0, i.e , Cumberland, we realized that we overshot our hotel by 5 miles. While we were somewhat tired, we decided to bike back anyway. At that time, a couple we briefly met in Meyersdale showed up. They were really kind enough to offer to drop us off in their truck back to the hotel. Talk about coincidences. We also discussed Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech, which the husband recited with great clarity. Of course, we went to the hotel and hogged food, getting ready for a new tomorrow.

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At the continental divide. Argument? None. Just bike lengths.

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Some drama kept us alive. On top of the continental divide.

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Mile 0. I tried to look like the statue and ended up looking like …

Cooperation

The start and the scene on the C&O path was breathtaking, with all the foliage, tiny turtles and murky water. Except for the road. The road was a gravel road and the bone shaking nature of bikes was once again reborn. It was still worth traversing this path for various spots on the way. My favourite part of this half of the trip were the numerous locks spread across the path. Though they were mostly abandoned, some were preserved as artefacts to explain to enthusiastic bikers about its functioning, the importance during the world war and of course, life of the lock keepers. The very first lock had a house beside where a kind elderly lady showed us around and offered us cookies and water. Who said the world isn’t a nice place?

One of the major issues with C&O path was that the roots of trees grew into the path, which meant we would fly with our bikes if we don’t take care of our surroundings. Solution? Cooperation.  One of us lead the pack and had his look out for roots. He would shout whenever we approached a root, asking us to take a left or right, and the next person would shout to the last. Surprisingly, we were able to go at close to 15 miles an hour with this.  Of course, this doesn’t mean we did 60 miles in four hours. We would stop for a snack break just 1 mile before a water spot, guessing that there won’t be a better place to rest for the next ten miles. And then we would again stop at the water spot because we need water.

Paw paw tunnel was very intriguing. It was long and dark and I have to admit, a bit scary. Thought it’s close to a mile, it doesn’t seem that way when seen from outside. In case you are interested to know, the water level in paw paw tunnel isn’t more than a feet. If you fall down, don’t panic, nothing should happen. No, I didn’t fall. Another interesting thing to see is the lock number 64 2/3. I have no clue where that fraction came from.

We reached Hancock at the end of the day and gorged on a piping hot pizza from Pizza Hut. The nature of these rides is that no matter what your eating habits, appetite or preferences are, at the end of the day, you see food, you eat till your jaws ache. And then you eat a little more.

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Lock 64 2/3. Hogwards style?

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A long exposure shot of the Paw Paw tunnel, thanks to Ajay’s DSLR.

Cosplay

We met her at Williamsport in the morning and unexpectedly around 15 miles before Harper’s Ferry in the evening.

Another lazy day. Today we were biking around 60 miles, so we didn’t really bother about biking early on. We started from Hancock sometime around 9 am and biked for 10 miles when we arrived at Fort Friedrick, which paved way to one of the strangest experiences of the day. We took a left from the bike path, only to be greeted by numerous men, women and children in medieval costumes! For a very brief while, I was confused if some part of USA was still living in the medieval ages, denying any technological advancements of today. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. We came to know that the costumed people were enacting the take over of Fort Friedrick by the British. I would strongly suggest anyone biking around this area to go to this place and enjoy the beautiful medieval aged set up. To quench our thirst, we ate an ice cream and made haste from there.

After a while, we went through a path that overlooked the river directly and was flanked by huge boulders on the other side, a very cool and pleasant riding experience. I particularly liked this part of the trail because I was slightly exhausted from a long spell of 15 miles without break. We had lunch in Williamsport, where there was a street fair. Food was very cheap, but unfortunately for me, not vegetarian. I got good vegetarian food in a nearby cafe though.

Towards afternoon, we came to a beautiful spot. There was a short stretch of cemented road directly beside the river. The ride was easy, sun was bright, sky was blue, water was bluer, there was speed boats, quaint houses on the other side of the river at and the mind was happy. Fewer places have given me such ecstasy as this stretch. I wish the rest of C&O was as well paved as this one.

On and on we went that day, with more frequent breaks, thanks to the hot sun that day. As we approached Brunswick, we started faltering in our ability to think, messing up with repair equipment and snapping at each other. My friends were nothing but super sweet guys. One of them was laughing at our stupidity and the other was joking about how our IQ was rapidly falling as we biked, which made me wonder if the number of miles should be subtracted from our IQ to get the effective IQ. Life goes on though, as do bikes.

At Dargan’s bend, around 15 miles before Brunswick, we briefly halted to stretch ourselves when we saw an elderly lady struggling with her bike with a flat tyre. We helped her by pumping in air and in return we got 3 huge bottles of Gatorade! Who said there are no kind people in this world. And after another 15 miles of hot sun and haste to reach destination, we finally reached Brunswick at around 6 pm, yes our own standard reaching time. At Brunswick, we just ate, cleaned our bikes, oiled them well and good and almost went to sleep when my stupidity reached a new level. I happily opened our bag, searched the nearest toothbrush and went ahead and cleaned my chain. Well, I am not the smartest person on this planet. A hot water bath and we were all set to crash. The ultimate day was coming up and we wanted to start early and start fresh.

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Hancock. Taking nature’s call to a literal level.

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The good.

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The bad.

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The ugly. I was the poster boy for faux-candid poses.

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The beautiful paved stretch between Hancock and Brunswick.

Completion

We boarded the train with her.

So it begun. We started our day with lots of coffee and lots of caffeine in other forms at 5:30am. We had to catch a train at 4 pm in DC and one of my friend didn’t see the city. We started off with all our lights on, jackets on, and our vigil minds and active bodies on. We went well for two hours and then of course, my friend’s tyre punctured. His tyre did not puncture only on the very first day. I wonder if it’s due to the fact that he had the smoothest and the thinnest tyres of all. We cruised as usual after that, with short breaks for water in and water out. This was the first time I knew what dehydration meant. I had the urge to take a leak every fifteen minutes and it was uncontrollable. The coffee we drank. The waffle I ate which had caffeine and protein bars which had caffeine as well — all contributed to my dehydration.

Part of the stretch also involved us sweeping through cobwebs, which wrapped us nicely in the nets and converted us into makeshift houses for various insects. I think this was due to the fact that we were the first riders on the trail that day. As we approached DC, the trail started antagonizing us. Anything good about C&O was finally shattered on this last stretch of 10 miles. To the point that we started biking fast to get down with it soon. The only saving grace was that there were breathtaking scenes as well, which kept our spirits high.

And so it ended. At 10:30am, we took a snapshot with Honest Abe, with smiling faces, surprisingly intact bodies and cycles and a hot sunny day. I branched off and lazed around in the city and found a restaurant for all of us, while the other two saw all the important monuments. We then ate well, had a good cold drink and went off to the railway station.

The train ride was marvellous. we almost traced back our bike path and saw the various spots where the rail road touched the bike trail. I had the pleasant company of an elderly person who spoke of his various biking endeavours. I was proudly talking of our five day trip when he watered down my parade with his 2 month, 4,500 mile tour across USA. Talk about being the best at what you do. The cafe rooms in Amtrak trains are a must sit places, thanks to their large windows and well placed seats.

We reached Pittsburgh at 10:30, worn out, but not down with spirits. We biked a short stretch back to bus stop and went home. We did it. We planned well over a summer, executed with good plan and we biked 336 miles. Luckily, we had only minor snaps on the bikes and almost no injuries. Food was great throughout the trip. People were amazing. Bikes were rugged. Weather was surprisingly good.  Looking back, the reason, that we did because we could, still stays, but the experiences we gathered will weigh over any such kind of whim.

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Sanity. Optional.

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The park just before Georgetown was a welcome respite from the arduous path.

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Done. Three of us in front of the Lincoln memorial.

Who is she?

Ah so we address the question finally. Who is the person referred to again and again in those italicized sentences? Answer is, we don’t know. She was a lonely traveller who started off with us and ended the trip with us. She had heavy bags and was camping everywhere. She was rather talkative and spoke very fast, only making our task of understanding her harder.

We met her on the first day while going towards Connellsville, where she was telling us about how she wanted to do this solo from her childhood. We met her again in Confluence, where she briefly halted for dinner. We met her again after two days in Williamsport, where she halted for the street fair as well. On the same day, we met her at Dargan’s bend, where she was talking about issues with telling people where exactly they were camping. And on the final day, we saw her in the station, where she boarded the train to Pittsburgh with us.

I’ve never met such consistent, energetic, brave soul ever in my life. She used to ride slower than us, but took far fewer breaks. She camped while we stayed comfortably in hotels. I was so curious about how she went about doing all these things but I was too tired mentally to speak to people. All said and done, she will remain an inspiration for me.

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Musings of a biker

Why should you bike instead of driving a car? Car moves the body, but bike moves your soul. One with the bike, you are.

After a very long time, I decided to go biking for a short stretch on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) in Pittsburgh.  It it a beautiful and fairly flat stretch that runs from Pittsburgh to Washington DC, but that’s not the long route we traversed. We instead went for a total of 15 miles up until McKeesport and back.

I agree. When you are alone on your bike, you tend to get extremely philosophical. Seems like life is pretty much like biking. It really isn’t about the final destination, but more about the journey. Reminds me of this professor’s story who biked from west coast to east coast and found that the ups and downs of his life were similar to his biking experience.

After the annoying sounds of fast moving cars, we slowly move into the wooden areas which is flanked by green trees on one side and the Monongohella river on the other side. It’s quite a beautiful site, particularly late in the morning, when the sun rays bounce off the waves of the river to create a shimmering effect. Added to this is the multitude of factories on the other side of the river. Pittsburgh was once a steel hotbed. Andrew Carnegie, founder of CMU was a steel giant. No wonder Pittsburgh was called the Steel city of USA. Often reminds me of my own home town, Vishakhapatnam.

You know, Homestead is quite a famous historic landmark. One of the first strikes for labour rights was held here almost 100 years ago. Can you see those smoke stacks beside AMC? Yeah, they are remnants of a steel factory of a bygone era. Doesn’t Pittsburgh seem more and more interesting by the day? You should also read about the French English wars here.

The ride started slowly and stayed so through the journey. I was particularly keen about riding slow and enjoying the really nice weather. We started off with quite a cloudy weather but luckily it turned sunny, but the atmosphere was still cool. We rode across the waterfront towards Kennywood roller coaster park. We were wondering if we could jump the fences and take a ride in the empty roller coasters, but decided against it, considering the impractical propositions of ours and a danger of getting razed to ground because of the high voltage transformers.

Do you like trains? I love anything technology. When you go ride from Pittsburgh to McKeesport, you will come across a lot of tracks with running trains and abandoned trains. It almost feels like those compartments want to tell you a story, but are so rusted with time and weather that they are just sitting there and lamenting their static life. Isn’t it rather interesting how we crave to associate a story with everything we see?

After Kennywoods, it was a short stretch to McKeesport, and the marvellous weather only meant that we were all excited to traverse it in good speed. We reached McKeesport soon enough and sat at the bus stop for a while wondering if we should take the bus back home or, considering that the route back is somewhat downhill, bike back. We decided to bike anyway, and I was glad. On the way back, I was particularly excited to see a goods train beneath us when we were riding our bike. Interesting thing is that, due to the wooden planks on the bridge, and thanks to the fully filled tyres, I was constantly being shaken. Bizarre feeling if you think about it.

John Dunlop’s son came in the evening and said, “We have a tricycle race tomorrow. I really want to try and win. Unfortunately, it’s such an onerous task, considering the jolts you receive on these unpaved roads”. Dunlop was wondering about how apt the name “bone shakers” was for these bikes, considering that you have a free tour of hell on earth. While he was watering his garden, he observed that he might try wrapping an air filled hose around his son’s tyres. It turned out to be marvellous idea, as his son smoked the tricycle race. Next week he had a barrage of requests for fitting their tricycle tyres with the air filled hose. It went to such an extent that he had to finally ask all the tricycles to be taken back without any fitting. The next week, a patent officer came and asked Dunlop to patent his marvellous idea. And thus, my friend, was born the Dunlop tyre company.

Way back, we saw mother gander with its children wobbling and walking. We halted and were taking photos and the mother gander looked at us as if saying, “Oi mate, what are you looking at? Bugger off! I need to take care of my children”, and so we obliged and had to make do with only a couple of images. And then we kept biking. Considering that it was ever so slightly downhill, we were hardly tired.

Isn’t it interesting? When we go back, whatever was hard is now easy and whatever was easy is now hard. Quite philosophical things you say my friend. Pretty similar to life eh?

And then we kept biking in the now cloudy weather, but still cool enough to not know the long stretch. We essentially traced back the path, from McKeesport to Kennywoods to Waterfront to Southside. Finally, we came to Downtown and took a bus back home. As in any tiring trip, we slumped as soon as we got into the bus. My calf muscles seem to complain a very tiny bit, but more or less it was a comfortable trip and a rather enjoyable one. Ever so slowly, the weather turned even cloudier and the temperature lowered. Added to this, there was a mild drizzle, as if welcoming us back home after a good day under the sun.