My Two Days on the GAP

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I’m a casual cyclist with little interest in bike touring. And yet, over the last year or so, I’ve felt the urge to do a solo trip on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP). I don’t know for sure what need I’ve been looking to meet with a solo ride. Maybe it’s the need for adventure and to push my personal limits. Or the need for solitude. Or wanting to reconnect with some of my contacts along the route. I did, after all, spend five years working in communities along the GAP and feel an affinity for the area. And so last week I looked at my June calendar and realized that if I’m to work in a ride this month that it has to be now – this week! In a matter of a few days, I decided on a three-day route that would cover about two-thirds of the 150-mile trail. This isn’t what I actually ended up covering (see my trip report below for what amounted to 56 miles in two days).

The reason I’m reporting on my ride is that I’ve been moved by two different women over the last couple of months to share my story. Kerry Gross, producer of the Women Who Dare podcast, biked around the country last year and interviewed inspiring women along the way. In her podcast, and in conversations we had while she stayed with me in Pittsburgh, she shared that there aren’t enough stories out there about women and their adventures. Whether it be blog posts, podcasts, Instagram stories, or zooming GoPro videos, there’s room for more stories and more inspiration. Another friend came along this spring and repeated the message. She’s started sharing her outdoor stories, not because she craves the limelight, but because putting them out there adds to the inventory.

With these examples before me, I’ve decided to share a bit about my two-day GAP trip. And here’s why I think it’s especially important to do so: Kerry biked 5,700 miles last year. I, by contrast, biked 56 miles this trip. It would be so easy to not share my story because it wasn’t ‘epic’ or extensive. But, it mattered to me. I did something nearly on a whim. I set some very important time aside for myself. And I felt both physically and mentally challenged. And, when it comes down to it, there are more Amys than Kerrys in the world…women who might want to go out for a day or two and who might benefit from this trip report.

Loving the GAP

Before sharing the details about my ride, I’ve got to say, I was feeling rather sentimental about the GAP while out on the trail this week. On the first leg of my ride, I remembered my very first GAP ride. It was probably 20 years ago, a little half day trip while in college. This week, the trail’s “40th Birthday” is being celebrated; I’m glad to have appreciated and benefited from the trail for about half that time. There have been so many other rides and experiences over the last 10-11 years especially. There was a time that I led a trip for Venture Outdoors and the ages ranged from 27-72 (exactly those ages). We saw a man reach his 1,000th mile for the season that day. There’ve been family rides, including the time that my 7-year-old nephew got out ahead of the group and we had to pedal our butts off for miles to catch up to him. And it was too long of a ride for his little legs, so we got a bungee cord and attached his bike to my brother’s and he had a fun, sling-shoty ride back. There was the time I accidently ran a friend into a ditch (sorry, Kimberly!), and the time my wife and I did 90 or so miles between Confluence and Cumberland. We held a bright orange newt, waited out a thunderstorm on a front porch in Meyersdale, and enjoyed the challenge of the climb out of Frostburg. There are so many other memories, and I know anyone who’s spent time on the GAP or any other rail-trail can appreciate this. As for my trip this week, here are some of the details:

3:00 p.m. Wednesday

I park at the Martin’s Shopping Plaza and let Martin’s customer service know my car would be there overnight. I then stop at Colebrook Chocolate Company for an old favorite – chocolate-covered marshmallows and also a milk chocolate dipped Nutter Butter. These will prove to come in handy at about mile 25 later in the day.

I depart for Ohiopyle, going through a favorite public art piece, the Connellsville Arch. (Upon my return the next day, I’m sorry to see that two of the stained glass panels are missing – hopefully just for repair).

After 10-11 miles of lush forest and Youghiogheny River views, it’s time to take a selfie to send to my favorite person. It’s the best way I can “share” with her even though she’s in her cubicle 60 miles away.

The trip to Ohiopyle feels a bit grueling. It’s a 17-mile slight incline. I’ve done Connellsville to Ohiopyle maybe 4-5 times in my life, and it always feels a bit challenging to me. But it’s stunning, and I always look forward to the scenic view about five miles from Ohiopyle’s town center, the one with the rocks and the sun. And then, I look forward to reaching Ohiopyle High Bridge – one of my favorite spots anywhere. Anytime I have a group in Ohiopyle, we cycle or walk over to the bridge and take in the wonder of Youghiogheny Gorge.

5:30 p.m. Wednesday

I make it to Ohioyple and decide on a beer at Falls City Pub. The server mentions the carnitas taco special for the day, and suddenly I have tacos on the way. I wonder whether or not I’ll regret a heavy-ish meal as I pedal to Confluence, 11 miles from here. The service at the pub is great! I’m able to charge my phone, my server offers to refill my water bottle, and my time on the deck is entirely pleasant. Meeting a sweet beagle on my way out also helps :).

About a mile outside of Ohiopyple, I start to get some intense cramps in my quads. This is probably where I should share that I haven’t trained for the ride. My longest ride of the season up until now was probably about 40 minutes on the GAP in Pittsburgh. Lesson learned. Train, at least a little. As for the cramps, I’m thinking I wasn’t drinking enough water. So my four-part solution to the cramps was: drink water, take Ibuprofen, stretch, and raise my seat a bit. Oh, and part five – crack open the chocolate-covered marshmallows. This is an important moment for me, because I’m so close to Ohiopyle that I can bail out and find lodging there. Or I can go another 10 miles to Confluence. I decide to go on. This could be something I might regret, but instead I choose to trust in myself and my choice.

Before long, I’m feeling fine and powering through to Confluence. Off and on throughout the day, I’m thinking about one of Kerry Gross’s Women Who Dare interviews, in which the woman being interviewed says something like “Only I know what’s going on in the space between my ears.” I use the day to work on my mental state and find that I feel pretty good about being out there, even in the last few miles.

8:10 p.m. Wednesday 

I roll into Confluence and enjoy the familiarity of crossing over the first bike-ped bridge, hooking a left onto River Road, and then making a right toward the second bridge. I’m staying at friend’s house and have to retrieve the key from a neighbor (and owner of Confluence Cyclery). It’s good to be here and to have already eaten. All I have to do is just be (and rest). Priorities: deck-sitting, stretching, snacks, shower, and sleep.

7:40 a.m. Thursday

I wake up and spend some time reading. Before long, I’m back to sleep and am eventually surprised to find that I’ve slept until 9:30. Now, it’s time for some oatmeal, more stretching, social media, and hitting the trail. My friend and her fam get home before I’m quite ready, so we spend some time catching up. Wouldn’t you know I don’t actually hit the trail until almost 1 p.m.?

12:50 p.m. Thursday

Laundry for the 4K for Cancer benefit ride – a team of young adults biking 4,500 miles passed through Confluence and were treated to this hospitality.

I have trouble deciding whether or not to lunch before heading out. It is, after all, lunch time. Instead, I get to riding and enjoy the GAP through Ohiopyle State Park (the park staff manages something like 20 miles of this spectacular section of trail). I make better time today given that I have fresh legs and the grade is now slightly downward. I have lunch at Falls Market Restaurant, get some fresh asparagus and green onions and visit with Vicki at Backyard Gardens Market (and also charge my phone a bit), and then head back toward Ohiopyle High Bridge.

Today turns out to be my day of meeting interesting people. At the bridge, I get to spend some time with Jose Estremera (@jaeshots on Instagram). He’s 20-years-old (today’s his birthday!) and is biking from Cleveland to Florida. It’s so heartening hearing about his experiences over his first few days and it’s just plain fun to talk with him. Next up for Jose: riding the GAP and C&O Canal Towpath to D.C., and then the East Coast Greenway from there.

As for me, it takes me two hours and twenty minutes to get to Connellsville. I stop frequently, pedal slowly, and take in the beauty of the Laurel Highlands. One of the reasons I tend to hike more so than biking is that I like that I can see more of what’s around me at that pace. At one point, I stop and spot a heron on the river. And I turn around to see a deer scaling the hillside. I decide there’s too much to see here and push my bike for a while just because.

6:08 p.m. Thursday

I’ve now cruised into Connellsville and have made it back to Martin’s. I load up and am happy to be headed home. I originally thought I’d bike three days (Connellsville to Cumberland and then take the Amtrak Capitol Limited train back to my car). There weren’t any bike spots left on the train, so instead I did my 28-miles out-and-back for 56 total miles). I’m not sure that my legs could have handled 90 miles this time around, anyway.

For those who are considering a similar ride, a few notes:

  • I averaged between 7 and 9 miles per hour, including stops. Your pace might be different from mine. A lot of people buzzed right by me.
  • You’ll want to call ahead for lodging, a spot on the train, etc. and also check business hours. A lot of small businesses are closed 1-2 days a week, typically on a weekday, but not always.
  • Know that so much of the experience is in enjoying what’s around you – the people, the towns, the scenic views. It’s about so much more than getting from A to B (or in my case, from C to C).
  • Enjoy!

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