Adversity and triumph on the GAP

I mentioned in the previous blog that cycling offers meditative moments, when the conversation flags and the trail goes straight and flat into the distance. Over the past 157 miles from Pittsburgh to Cumberland MD I’ve had lots of time to think in a way that differs from the long hours spent towing the Airstream across the country.

Those thoughts intensified in the past couple of days. From Ohiopyle to Meyersdale PA the GAP trail begins to climb more noticeably, and for a cyclist loaded with 30 or so pounds of gear it becomes more of a challenge, which leads to a different sort of thinking. No longer just a pleasant jaunt between the trees and the river, there’s gravity’s constant reminder that even when you are surrounded by beauty, life can be hard and sometimes there’s nothing to do about it but just keep pedaling.

We left our rented house in Ohiopyle for a quick breakfast at a local cafe and then saddled up for Day 3 with fog still hanging in the hills. This was the hardest day of the trip, with a constant slight climb for 43 miles.

I have to admit that I struggled to keep up even a moderate pace after the first 20 miles or so. A shallow 1% grade is not much until you ride it constantly for a long distance, and then it becomes humbling. My personal experience was complicated by a digestive disturbance that at first I attributed to my recent gluttony, but later realized was a side effect of too much electrolyte-infused water. I also managed to get stung by a hornet.

Still, those minor misfortunes were balanced by the nice ride. We had sunshine (enough to require a bit of sunscreen), perfect cycling temperatures, scenery, art, and friendly conversation for hours. We were three days into a bicycling trip in the damp northeast and hadn’t encountered a drop of rain, and that is a minor miracle.

Besides, adversity can be inspirational. I’ve been thinking for months about new ideas (for books, new products, caravans, etc) and only in the midst of the toughest ride, at the absolute nadir of my despair, did the mental logjam break and some fascinating new ideas begin to develop.

I also can’t complain about the itinerary and daily mileage, since I planned the trip. I knew that the ride from Ohiopyle to Meyersdale would be the hardest of all, and so I made sure we had compensations in the days to follow.

On the map above we are traveling from right (Pittsburgh) to left (Washington DC). Eastbound means about two days of relentless shallow climbing, followed by a single wonderful day of downhill ease from the Eastern Continental Divide all the way down to Cumberland MD.

But before we could do that, we stopped in Meyersdale at the “gem of the GAP”, the beautifully-restored Levi Deal Mansion. I can recommend a stay here, for the exquisite hospitality, the lovely house and bedrooms, and the breakfast—with a small warning to those who are sensitive to train noises at night, because (like virtually every part of the GAP) freight trains are not far away and they blow their horns a lot.

The one person who had no trouble with all the climbing was Bert, thanks to his fancy Trek e-bike. Normally he ran it in TOUR mode, but if the grade was level he could go to ECO mode, and on the few brief steep sections he could flip the controls to TURBO and blow past us scarcely needing to pedal at all. The real-world range of this bike can be up to 70 miles so there was never a concern that he might run out of juice.

E-bikes have been the source of much consternation in the national parks. Just a few days before we left, the Interior Dept announced a new rule which specifically allows e-bikes on all trails normally open to bicycles. Bert had been concerned he might be hassled on the C&O Canalway (which is part of the national park system) but with the new rule he’s completely in the clear. To be sure, he brought along a printed copy of the official memorandum to park Supervisors.

I haven’t had a chance to talk about things we’ve seen along the ride. We’ve crossed innumerable high bridges over gorges, viaducts, passed through several long and dark tunnels (one over 3,000 feet long), and read dozens of interpretive signs. George Washington slept here, as a young British lieutenant scouting the rivers. There’s a cave that was filled with Pleistocene bones, street art on the underpasses, tons of railroad history, and little towns left over from the golden age of rail travel. I think one of my favorite small things was a simple tourism information shack with a sign “Shout out your home state as you ride by”, so we all had fun yelling “Arizona! Montana! Maine!” to the two high schoolers staffing the booth.

After Meyersdale we had only 8.3 miles of slight grade up to reach the highest point on the ride, the Eastern Continental Divide. Other than our arrival in DC next Saturday, this will undoubtedly be remembered as the most triumphant moment of the trip. From this spot we would get all of our hard-won elevation gains back in a glorious 1-2% downhill grade spread over 24 miles. Finally, for the first time since Pittsburgh, we could actually coast a little bit, and even when pedaling everyone felt like they were riding Bert’s e-bike.
Along the way we passed through two more tunnels and crossed the famous Mason-Dixon Line. I’ve come to realize that everyone has heard of it but few people know what it is. In the years before the Civil War it was a survey line that resolved a long-standing conflict between the Penn and Calvert families. Mason and Dixon were not the landowners, they were the surveyors. For us, it meant we’d crossed into Maryland and left the old North for the South.

Now we are in Cumberland MD, taking a rest day. We reached Mile 0 of the GAP and have found the beginning of the C&O Canal. This is our day for rejuvenation, laundry, bike adjustments, blogs, and phone calls home to our loved ones. It is very civilized here in the hotel with a swimming pool, wifi, breakfast in the lobby, etc. I have gotten very comfortable and my sore legs are grateful for the break.

Tomorrow (Tuesday) we begin anew. The C&O will be very different, with much smaller towns, less cell service, fewer eating options, and rougher terrain. I’m a little nervous about the street tires on my touring bike and plan to talk to the local bike shop about swapping in something more appropriate. We’ll all have to review the food we’re carrying as well, since there will be a few times when we have to rely on ourselves for lunch. And the trail may be muddy in many places.

We shall see what happens, and not worry too much about it. We committed to riding to Washington DC and—short of a broken leg—that’s what we will do. It is, as Bert keeps pointing out, the trip of a lifetime. We can do no better than to take it easy, enjoy and smell the flowers, and remind ourselves that whatever happens we are generating memories that we get to take forward with us forever.


  1. David B Johnson says

    I’m following you on your long bike ride. I used to enjoy long bike rides, like 50 miles in the afternoon, but not any more. Bert is an inspiration to me to get back on the bike. Thank you for your blog. David