Pittsburgh is three or four hours from Washington by car, or about an hour by plane. By bike? I recently learned firsthand that can take days.
It also takes gallons of water, twice your weight in trail mix and a big bottle of aspirin. But traversing the countryside slowly means you miss nothing along the way. The journey becomes the vacation. And the beauty alone of the Great Allegheny Passage and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath - the unpaved trails connecting the cities - makes it worth all the hours in the saddle.
I had said yes to the trip without thinking that it would take six days and require pedaling 320 miles over rock, mud and tall grass. I had barely been a recreational rider in recent years but caved easily when my younger friends, Anne Maxson and Kirsten Mackler, asked me, a late-30-something, to go with them.
"When, if not now?" was their argument, and it won me over.
On the pro side were the greenery, wildlife and achievement alongside friends. But also looming large in my mind were the potential for (and partially realized) bad weather, saddle sores and random aches. And while my friends seemed the picture of fitness, I felt slightly less creaky than my old bike.
We consulted a book of advice, Linking Up, that said we could consider ourselves ready for this trip once we could ride 30 miles on two consecutive days. We never did that, but I was beginning to think we could after several outings near our Baltimore homes on the newly completed Gwynns Falls and the Baltimore and Annapolis trails.
There were plans to train more formally, with several short workouts during the week and long ones on the weekends - just as we'd done for the marathons and triathlons that we'd all completed in past years. But it rained and rained more all spring. It was cold. We had jobs. All three of us managed to break or sprain something. Excuses, excuses.
Now here we were in a truck driven by my husband, Doug, on the way to Pittsburgh with three bikes and six panniers packed with gear. Pittsburgh seemed far, and not just bored-in-the-back-seat kind of far. But far away from home.
We had scrambled to pack our panniers, or unpack them, because they would have to be carried on our bikes. Aside from requiring extra leg power, the weight also limits your ability to quickly swerve around obstacles - say, a wall of rocks, where I left some of my skin.
My bags weighed 25 pounds, which meant I had to start in a lower gear just to make my bike move. It didn't help that I was the oldest and had the shortest legs. I also had the oldest bike, a 17-year-old Trek hybrid that the owner of Light Street Cycles in Federal Hill politely noted, didn't "appear to have had a tune up in a few years." More like 17. But she said she still sells this bike and made mine ride like (almost) new.
In contrast, my riding companions looked good in their bike shorts, or as well as you can look in tights outfitted with a diaper-like lining to protect your backside from your seat. They also had bought new, lighter hybrid bicycles. Works of beauty, both, but they added significantly to the tally of the trip, which cost me close to $1,000 without the new bike.
We began our trip at the trail head in McKeesport, Pa. The trail, crushed and packed limestone, was relatively smooth, allowing us to ride stretches at a hearty 15 mph, though we did slow to take in the greenery, wood and metal bridges and old rail stations.
In some small towns, we'd ride right past neighbors' backyards, just beyond their pickups and trampolines. At other times, we'd go miles without seeing another human or structure besides the portable toilets along the trails.
The passage and the towpath were conceived early in American history by George Washington as a means of connecting the Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio River and moving commerce westward.
Mules were used on the towpath to pull goods floating in the C&O; Canal, alongside the Potomac River, for 185 miles from Georgetown in Washington to Cumberland. Ground was broken in 1828, the same day as the nearby Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The towpath couldn't compete with the railroad, but became today's recreational opportunity. The B&O; was later merged into CSX Corp.
The passage was built for use by the Western Maryland Railway, which also fell to competition, and was remade into a 132-mile recreational trail to McKeesport, Pa., just outside of Pittsburgh.
Because the trails were formerly used for commerce, the inclines and declines are never more than a degree or two, with a few exceptions. On the passage, the highest point is the Eastern Continental Divide at 2,375 feet, where half the water flows toward the Chesapeake Bay and half flows toward the Gulf of Mexico, according to a nearby sign.
Near here is also a chance to ride in the dark through the Big Savage Tunnel, a 3,000-foot-long hole drilled through a mountain. It's lighted, but you have to remember to take off your sunglasses to see.
The scenery changed from fields and farmland to mountains and rivers through the trip. There was only one detour on roadways, which was a nice break from the uneven trails that often slowed our pace.
We saw frogs, monster-sized fish and a zoo's-worth of turtles sunning themselves in rows on logs. We were frequently escorted by birds, including cardinals, great blue herons and bald eagles. There were deer, beavers and even some dogs walking with their owners.
And, of course, we saw snakes from rattlers on down to the not-so-menacing, many stubbornly stretched across our path.
By the end of each day, we were ready to part with nature. The B&Bs; were a nice respite between hours - five to eight a day - on our bikes. We always had our own bed, and in most cases, a nice, homemade breakfast. We also got fresh perspective each morning, as many of our aches and pains subsided as we slept. My unrelentingly positive companions would start each day by proclaiming it a "perfect" day to ride.
There was a beautiful house in Rockwood, Pa., right on our path called the Rockwood Trail House, which had comfortable rooms and Internet access. The husband and wife proprietors, Lynn and Debra Sanner, also run the bike shop next door. He worked on my sticky brakes while I lounged and snacked on cookies she made and Fritos from a convenience store. A hot-dog vendor was the only "restaurant" open because it was Memorial Day.
One of our favorite places was the 1828 Trail Inn in Hancock, where wonderfully attentive hosts Bill and Darlene Smith let us use their hose to clean the mud from our bikes before they locked them in their shed. They stocked a large collection of movies and even sent us off with a sack of homemade muffins after breakfast.
By Harpers Ferry, W.Va., our last stop before Washington, we caught up to many of the riders we'd met along the way and found some new folks who, like us, were skipping out on their jobs and lives for a while. Some were sleeping hostel-style in the same room where we ate blueberry pancakes the next morning made by one of the managers of the Town's Inn. At least two other guests weren't riding but hiking the Appalachian Trail, which crossed through town.
Biking the trails from Pittsburgh to Washington is not quite the same commitment as hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, a months-long endeavor. But we met a lot of people of all ages and shapes determined to pedal, like us, from Pittsburgh to Washington for one reason or another. There was a couple from San Diego who had just married and decided to take a bike ride for their honeymoon. There was a pair from Northern Virginia just wanting to get away from the daily grind. Some were on tandem bicycles with loved ones or on recumbent bikes, on which you sit lounge-chair style. There was also a group of gray-haired men bonding through biking. Some had pedaled one direction and now were trying the opposite way.
There was a guy and a dog, who were both riding the same horse. There was a young soldier, whom we met at a crossroads with the Appalachian Trail, who was hoping to finish that journey before he was recalled into service. He had long hair and blistered feet and seemed better suited for a Grateful Dead show than an Iraqi desert.
We traded stories, descriptions of our aches and little lessons learned: Rural America is beautiful, padded bike shorts are essential, gummy bears are sweet salvation - and a sweaty brow, burning thighs and a sore bum are badges of honor.
if you go
The Great Allegheny Passage connects Pittsburgh and Cumberland via 150 miles of biking and hiking trails. The C&O; Canal Towpath in Cumberland runs about 180 miles to Washington. A connection between the two trails was completed in 2006, allowing for a continuous path of more than 320 miles.
Food and Lodging
We pedaled 45 to 65 miles each day, stopping for overnight stays at B&Bs.; Many of the hotels and inns cater to bikers and hikers along the trail, providing storage for bikes and a hearty breakfast, in most cases. We generally stocked up on granola, gorp, Cliff bars and energy drinks for the day and ate dinner in restaurants. Here's where we stayed and what we spent:
Yough Shore Inn: 1403 Boston Hollow Road, Boston, Pa. 412-754-0440 or youghshoreinn.info. A kind of kitschy work in progress, but right off the trail head near McKeesport, Pa. $48 for a single room, $65 for a double. Tax and continental breakfast included.
Melody Motor Lodge: 1607 Memorial Ave., Connellsville, Pa.724.628.9600 or melodymotorlodge.com. A side-of-the-highway motel with no frills, but clean. $47 for a single room, $60 for a double, including tax.
Rockwood Trail House B&B;: 131 Rockdale Road, Rockwood, Pa. 888-916-2453 or rockwoodtrailhouse.com. A warm country inn with all the amenities and an attached bike shop. $93 for a single room. Tax and home-cooked breakfast included.
Inn at Walnut Bottom B&B;: 120 Greene St. Cumberland. 800-286-9718 or iwbinfo.com. A charming and historic city inn just off the main shopping streets. $117 for single room, $139 for a double. Tax and hot breakfast included; homemade granola for sale.
The 1828 Trail Inn: 10 W. Main St., Hancock. 301-678-7227 or 1828-trail-inn.com. A beautifully finished inn with movies, home-baked goods and attentive proprietors. $196 for a single and a double room combo, including tax, hot breakfast and muffins to go.
The Town's Inn: 179 High St., Harpers Ferry, W.Va. 877-489-2447 or thetownsinn.com. A historic house offering rooms and hostel-style beds in the heart of Harpers Ferry. $132 for a room with two bunk beds, including tax and a pancake breakfast.
We decided to stay at B&Bs;, which meant we did not have to carry sleeping bags and tents. We packed two pairs of bike shorts, two tops and three pairs of socks for riding, along with fleece for nighttime and a rain jacket. Other items included bug spray, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, toiletries, bike lock, two extra tire tubes, some bike tools, bike lights, helmet, gloves and a camera. I brought three big bottles of water, while my friends wore CamelBaks, which are backpacks with a rubber bladder to hold liquids.
Great Allegheny Passage: atatrail.org. This site from the Allegheny Trail Alliance offers maps, elevation charts, preparation tips, photos and more.
C&O; Canal: nps.gov/choh. History, trail maps and tips from the National Park Service.
5 things to know before you go
1. Train properly. You'll need to ride between 45 and 65 miles a day for a week, so take a couple of months and go on short treks during the week and longer rides on the weekends to get in shape.
2. Learn to fix a flat. It's gravelly and muddy out there, and you're likely to get a flat tire. Ask for a lesson and supplies at your local repair shop.
3. Pack snacks and water. There are places to replenish, but you'll go stretches in rural areas, so carry several energy bars and packs of trail mix and lots of water.
4. Reserve a bed. Unless you are prepared to camp or keep riding to the next town, make lodging reservations in advance. Most of the B&Bs; and hotels are small and fill up quickly.
5. Buy the bike shorts. It's a long way from Pittsburgh to Washington, so get some padding on your behind. Also get a good helmet, riding gloves, sunglasses, chamois butter and bug spray while you're shopping.