We celebrated my 32nd birthday by riding our bikes from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. There’s a bonkers unsanctioned race on the same route in April called Crush the Commonwealth that kind of tugged at me as something maybe I might want to do (you know, but then I realized I am the least competitive person and hate doing things fast, so….). Q suggested we do the ride over a few days instead, and dubbed it the Cruise the Commonwealth ride. I like it.
Q wrote up a summary of the ride from his perspective over at his new blog Not Distance But Depth.
He also uploaded a photoset to flickr, here.
First thing to know, of course, is that we made it and had a great time. Evidence:
Let me preface this by saying that for the first time in my life, I am surrounded by this amazing bunch of people who, instead of saying “WHY WOULD YOU EVER WANT TO DO THAT??? YOU KNOW THERE ARE CARS THAT CAN TAKE YOU THERE!” when I started talking about this bike trip, were totally amped for us. One of my dearest pals made me this amazing birthday present:
The bike route is marked in red! Unbelievable!
So with that extra confidence of nobody being worried about me, and a few extra-long hill climbing rides under our belts, we buckled down on my birthday proper to make sure our bags were packed, hardware tightened on securely, chains all tidy, and rain gear ready. Threw in a hat and pair of gloves just in case, because if backpacking’s taught me nothing else, it’s always wise to have one more layer than you think you’ll actually need.
It rained allllll night long and into the morning. We waited till it cleared up a bit and rolled out around 8am into several hours of rain. It was warm and we were cheerful, especially because we got to sneak through the not-quite-finished connection on the GAP trail. We stopped briefly at West Newton, where I took off my shoes and squeezed out my socks, making puddles of water on the ground. It felt pretty disgusting to put them back on, but I didn’t swap out for dry socks because it was obviously about to rain again any minute. The day felt easy and familiar, but with this added bonus of being totally desolate. Almost nobody else was out. We saw more cats than people for a stretch. We stopped at a grocery store in Connellsville and had two really sweet exchanges — Q was walking off some gnarly hiccups and a woman told him she was proud of him for riding so far (!!!) and I talked to the store manager for a while, who seemed kind of wistful about having grand adventures and said “well, maybe if I were younger….” I encouraged him a little, and then he ran in and brought us two cold bottles of water. I think Connellsville’s really benefited by having the trail go right through town.
Somehow last year when we rode through this stretch en route to DC, we didn’t stop for the photo in the arch here. It’s so cheerful to ride through, especially because after so many flat miles, the trail takes a little downhill as you go through!
Q seemed pretty weary and was plagued by hiccups the first day. I felt really strong but like the next day would be the real test. We rolled into Confluence to camp and were bummed to learn that they didn’t have the showers opened up at the campsite yet. Not a big deal, but man is it nice to have a shower after riding in the rain all day! Q’s hiccups got worse till he threw up a little and then seemed instantly better. I was feeling nervous about the fate of the trip for a bit, until he stopped hiccuping!
We both slept pretty hard in the tent (totally went to bed at old people time. crashed out by 9pm!) but slow-poked in the morning. Didn’t roll out till around 9.15am, but with our bags packed better than the previous day, which felt a lot better. Our chains were all gunked up with trail silt, but we didn’t want to really clean them up yet since we still had 20 more miles on the soggy trail to contend with. I scraped off some crud and didn’t bother more than that. Those last 20 miles were hard and rotten. It was cold and our noses ran non-stop. There was a lot of storm debris on the trail, and since it had rained so much, the trail was just sodden and sucked our wheels in. It was really windy and our chains were all squeaky. Tested our patience for sure. I was eager to get off the trail and onto roads, even though I was anxious about heading straight into the hills with less protection from the wind. Rightly so!
Winds picked up (gusting to 25mph-ish) and the road between Rockwood (where we got off the trail) and Somerset — though called Water Level Road — was 8 miles of rollers. Q really ran out of steam on them. I got tired but kept thinking “this one isn’t as long as 39th Street” or “this one isn’t as steep as 39th Street!” to get up them. The bulk of my very short commute is up a steep hill. I think it made all the difference on this trip. I started referring to my “39th Street Advantage” over Q. We stopped to eat lunch in Somerset, and Q got some hiccups again that subsided quickly. Getting back out of Somerset was bonkers — it started to snow, and we were beat, and the hills got longer and steeper till we eventually made it over to the other side of the mountain. Q was struggling on the climbs, and I was struggling on the descents — they were fast, with some debris in the shoulder, and had either headwinds making my eyes water, or crosswinds causing some shimmy.
Then — glory! — the route turned onto smaller, less-traveled, no-shoulder roads that had been freshly paved! So smooth! The climbs felt so much easier and the descents so much less hairy. Or maybe I was just warmed up. Tough to say. But we were happy! Rode a good long spell and stopped for a snack at the intersection of three dairy farms. Couldn’t stay stopped for very long because it got so chilly, but we both felt a lot stronger the rest of the way. Stayed the night in a cozy PA Dutch themed motel:
Didn’t wind up sleeping quite as soundly as I’d hoped. Not sure why. Rolled out early to get some breakfast at a charming little spot in downtown Bedford. Got a ridiculous chocolate chip, apple, and peanut butter panini that was delicious but heavy — my belly felt a little funny for the first hour or so but settled out fine. The ride from Bedford to Breezewood was long and incredible — huge long hills leading up to the ridge top, where we rolled up and down along some beautiful fields under a (finally!) warm sun. It didn’t actually get warm enough to take off our gloves or jackets, but it wasn’t raining or snowing! We stopped for lunch in Breezewood, where we ran into a neighbor who wished us well. Oh Breezewood!
Just after the sketchy on and off ramps is the steep little dirt path up to the abandoned turnpike, which was so so so so fun. It’s crazy to think that it hasn’t seen car traffic in almost 50 years. The road surface in the tunnels was way nicer than I expected, which made the tunnels more fun and less scary. I kept being amazed that we ran into NO people. At all. These tunnels felt less sketchy and scary to me than the Paw Paw Tunnel on the C&O.
From the turnpike on through the next several towns, each hill was tough, and we stopped on all of ‘em for a breather. I could hardly believe how much we ate! It can be pretty hard to keep up with calorie intake when you’re climbing all day! We stopped for a spell at the mill at Burnt Cabins and then plugged along. It felt like we were going soooooo slooooooowly for a while there, but the descents made up for it, so we kept up with our anticipated pace. We got to the road that goes through the Buchanan State Forest, fully prepared for it to destroy us. Turned out to be lots of great rollers, and an incredible, long, smooth, winding descent. We loved it and felt restored. We’d been planning on stopping at Cowan’s Gap, but just raced on past it.
Stopped at Chambersburg to eat and get a motel room instead of pushing on the next ten miles to camp at Caledonia. Q was pretty spent. I felt sure I could soldier on and get there just fine ….. until we stopped. It’s the stopping that’ll do you in! We ate a sketchy fast food dinner and then I felt suddenly so sleepy! I was glad to sleep in a motel that night — and the manager let us bring our bikes into the room, for which we were grateful.
It was such a good call to save those extra ten miles for the next day — it really evened out the load. We felt a lot fresher and stronger after a rest. The hills up and out of Chambersburg felt long and slow and a bit boring — the climbs weren’t as hard, but the descents weren’t as fast. Another 10 or 15 miles out, and the hills turned back into rollers. Much more fun. There was a fair amount of truck traffic on the route this day, but I kept being surprised by how decent the drivers were, the whole time. Maybe the “share the road” signs really work!
One thing I really enjoyed over the last few days was watching the dairy farms give way to orchards, which then give way to beef farms and then to towns. But at every place — every farm, every town, every house — there were blooming lilacs. What a time to take this ride!
We stopped at East Berlin for a quick lunch. Hoped for a grocery store lunch, but the grocery store was miles out of the way, so we just had some gas station food. Got some local potato chips (of the many many local varieties in East Berlin!) and found them to be inferior to other local varieties. Obviously I still ate them all.
The rest of the ride was more rolling hills, easier and easier, though the day warmed up enough to make it tough to regulate temperatures. Still needed gloves and jackets, but just barely. Made good time — got to York in time to get groceries for dinner, shower up, and do a load of laundry before anybody got home at Q’s sister’s house! Had a great time visiting the family that evening.
This was pretty much a rest day, which I was grateful for — Q’s knee was feeling beat, and I had some really stiff feeling stuff going on in one thigh. We got up and had a huge amazing breakfast with our friends Jesse and Hayley who also live in York — pancakes bigger than our heads. Glorious! Hung out for a spell with them, then rolled off to Lancaster in a drizzle. We were in no hurry as we were only going about 20 or 25 miles. Crossed the mighty Susquehanna, which I loved. It ‘s so wide! The bridge felt like it went on forever, and the drizzle made the river all foggy and dramatic.
The road to Lancaster was kind of trafficky and red-light heavy, but smooth. The lack of pot holes on this trip has been amazing. We got some great chai at the Square One Cafe, where the folks working greeted us with “are you the guys from Pittsburgh?” because our York friends posted on their facebook page that we’d be coming through. Awesome.
We fixed a dinner and stayed the night with some old friends of Q’s – it was the first time I’d met them, and it was so fun to do that conversational dance of getting to know somebody new, find out what you have in common, think about what assumptions you’re making about each other. Especially wonderful as you learn you have tons in common and really like each other! I feel like it’s been a very long time since I stayed with somebody I didn’t know well.
We got up to a dark sky and pouring rain, a soaked saddle and bar tape (don’t know that I’ll go for leather bar tape again. It gets so clammy and gross feeling when it’s wet….). Quietly ate our breakfasts and re-packed our bags, trying to get excited about rainy riding. We set out and it wasn’t bad at all, especially as we got out of town and onto the farm roads. We saw a good number of horses/buggies, and it stopped raining after not too much time. It did start to get pretty warm and was so humid that I struggled a little. Took my one and only hit on the inhaler and felt a lot better.
We stopped at a natural foods store in New Holland, where a young Mennonite woman teased me for being so soggy. She said that I could get a shower every time a vehicle passed me. We rode on steadily to Morgantown to eat a little, dry off, and put on some sunblock. Mark the first time this trip we rode without jackets! After lunch on the last day! HA! I also joyfully took off my soaked socks and aired my feet out before putting on dry socks. It is hard to express how good dry socks feel.
As we rode on and the day heated up, we struggled a little — the heat was tough on us after riding in such chilly weather, and Q’s knee was really starting to bug him. Somewhere around Valley Forge, we realized how tired we were, when we briefly got off-route and were testy with each other. Took a break for more sunblock and snacks, crossed the (comparatively tiny) Schuylkill River, and gleefully found the river trail. I think we were as excited to get ON the trail here as we were to get OFF the trail at Rockwood! We plugged along the last 20-odd miles and encountered a thousand spaced out teenagers at some crazy rowing event. I felt like I was in a video game, trying not to get beaned by a boat or an oar. We made it to the art museum, took a Rocky photo, called our families, and then made our way to our friends’ home to get cleaned up and eat a magnificent amount of food.
After spending the day and night in Philly, we jammed our bikes and bags in the trunk of a tiny little rental car and drove to visit Q’s parents for a few days. It made for a really lovely friend and family tour of the state.
I’d do it again in a minute. As much as we felt astonished by the range of weather we saw on the trip, it was kind of ideal. I don’t know that I could do all that climbing in hot weather. The funny thing is that I expected to feel like a superhero when I got back to town and started riding my regular commute again, but it feels like the same slog home as always, because I’m usually pretty out of steam by that point of the day anyway. Maybe I should try it NOT at the end of the workday sometime.
I was a little bit nervous beforehand about our preparedness — we both rode through the winter, and Pittsburgh has lots of hills, and we’d done one bike camping trip and a few hill-seeking rides leading up to this trip, but not a lot of … you know, “training.” But I think we were as prepared as we needed to be. The PA bike route system is pretty remarkable — it’s so well signed, and the route is pretty nice, and thoughtfully put together. I feel like so much of this trip was a pleasant surprise, honestly! I wasn’t worried about being able to do it, but I think I was worried that it might not be fun for us, or that it would be a real struggle to accomplish. It was HARD but the good kind of hard — hard enough that we really feel like we did something.
Now on to the next great adventure…..