Fits and starts

I had expected something very different for this summer of Airstream travel, when I first began planning four months on the road. I would sail from event to event around the northeast, solo for the first time, smoothly because of my experience in this sort of travel, and find adventure at every turn.

Instead it has been a summer of personal challenge, although everything has gone well from a logistical and technical viewpoint. Tugged by emotional bonds to those people and things I care about back in Tucson, I’ve found myself compelled to fly home twice. Traveling solo has its benefits, but it also comes with risks. For me, the primary risk has been loneliness driven by a sense that I’ve done all this before and now I’m simply re-tracing old paths without my usual cast of supporting characters.

Between Alumapalooza and shortly before I towed the Airstream down to Virginia for the WBCCI International Rally, I hopped a flight to Tucson, leaving behind the cool and damp northeast for scorching hot and dry Arizona desert. After the rally—which was a nice time filled with old friends and fellow rally-goers who remembered Emma as a toddler—I pulled back up to Vermont and spent a magical 10 days, but the thrill of re-discovery didn’t last and once again I bought a ticket to fly home for two weeks.

In short, I thought I was going for a nice calming walk for the summer but I brought along a terrier on a leash who had his own ideas.

All of these halting starts and unplanned absences from the Airstream threw a wrench in the works of my carefully machined plan for the summer. The culmination of it all was to be an epic bicycle ride from Pittsburgh PA to Washington DC, along the Great Allegheny Pathway (GAP) and the C&O Canal, a total.of 333 miles of cycling. To be ready for this I was supposed to be training all summer on pleasant Vermont bicycle rides, and instead I blew it off in favor of time spent in Tucson.

This might not have been terrible if not for the coincidental virus that struck me the day I landed in Tucson. I spent the next two weeks coughing and it evolved into bronchitis which lasted until just a few days before the schedule bicycle trip. So, with virtually no training and a slight weakness from being sick for two weeks, I launched into this huge ride with three of my dear friends (Bert, Adam, and Susan).

Fortunately they are understanding people and we have been friends for a long time. Readers of this blog and the Tour of America blog will recognize those names as people who have shared many an Airstream adventure. Bert has been contributing to Airstream Life magazine since the very first issue in 2004 (although we did not meet until 2005, in Acadia National Park), and Adam and Susan have been overlapping with me all across the nation since I met them at Airstream Homecoming in 2004.

The logistics of this ride are harder than they would first appear, for an Airstreamer. Normally the Airstream is a significant advantage but in this case the camping options around Pittsburgh are poor and ultimately I chose to stash the Airstream 119 miles north at the camp of my friends JJ & Sandy. They provided me with spectacular courtesy parking inside a pole barn alongside a river with a two point hookup and wifi, several meals, and the sort of open-arms friendliness that one comes to expect from fellow travelers.

On the penultimate day before the official start of the ride, I drove down to Pittsburgh to meet the rest of the gang at a Courtyard Marriott near the airport (Bert had flown in from Montana). The next morning we joined the commuters into Pittsburgh to launch from the very heart of downtown—the Grant Street Transit Center parking garage— and begin cycling from the urban heart of this great rail town into the green woods.

 

There will be an article in Airstream Life which documents this trip from Bert’s perspective, and I am sure that his fancy Trek e-bike will be the centerpiece. Bert is 79 years old, and while still an excellent cyclist he has wisely chosen to grant himself a concession to age with some electric assistance. The rest of us are all in our late 50s and while we would all like to be pedaling lightly as Bert does, we’re not quite ready to concede yet. So I’m on my trusty Jamis touring bike, and Susan and Adam are riding cross-bikes, all with the old fashioned form of propulsion: two sturdy legs.

We are all burdened with thirty pounds or so of gear, but fortunately not tents ands such. Early on in the planning we decided that we’d make things easier by booking inns and motels along the way instead of camping, as most thru-cyclists seem to do. This makes the trip considerably more expensive but the value was apparent after the first day when we straggled into Bright Morning B&B in West Newton PA and immediately took hot showers and flopped into bed for a rest before dinner.

Each day is filled with small experiences, too many to document here, Cycling all day is partly an opportunity for meditation, as there are always moments when the conversation fades and you are focused only on the pedaling, as anonymous trees flank both sides of the trail and the path stretches onward to the horizon. And then there are moments of excitement: perhaps a crumbling relic of America’s industrial history to explore, a fantastic steel span over a deep gorge, a strangely colored waterfall that tells a sobering tale of sulphuric acid leaching from abandoned coal mines, or an unexpected conversation with a local resident.

As I write this, we are about 80 miles into the trip, about to start the third day of cycling. Each day is different, and cellular service is spotty, so I can’t promise regular updates. Today I am fortunate to have woken before 6 a.m. so that I can type these few words before we meet at 7:30 for breakfast at an Ohiopyle (PA) cafe, and particularly fortunate that the AirBnB house we rented has good wifi. I can guarantee there will be no evening updates to the blog, as sheer exhaustion causes all of us to mentally shut down until after dinner.

I also spend an inordinate amount of time eating. I have not eaten like this in years, but basically if it stops moving for a second, I eat it. It’s the riding. My metabolism still runs high even at this age and I lost a fair bit of weight last year so I’m trying to maintain now. Yesterday I ate a large breakfast at the inn, then two protein bars and about a gallon of electrolyte-infused water during the morning, then I ate my lunch, most of Adam’s French fries, and half of Bert’s lunch, then several more bars before dinner. At dinner I had a fantastic Impossible Burger, then finished Bert’s dinner for him, the remainder of Susan’s chips and guacamole, and then went prowling the town for a chocolate-peanut dessert thing. Later that evening I found a stash of banana nut bread in the refrigerator and guiltlessly snarfed down two pieces of that before bed. This is probably the most fun part of the trip, for me.

From here it’s all going to be great. We have a week to go on the trip and nothing but fun in the distance. The group is getting along great, as we always do, and for all of us this is a trip of a lifetime. Once it is over, I’ll reunite with the Airstream and start towing back to Arizona, and that will end my Airstream travels for a while. My travels started in May and stumbled at several points but things are ending on a high note and I’m satisfied with how it all turned out.

Follow along here if you want to read more about our bicycle trip over the coming week. If you are only interested in Airstream travel I’ll do a little documentation of my final voyage back across the country starting around Sept 17, but be warned that it is going to be a fast trip with no romance. The new romance awaits back at home, and shorter trips around the southwest are going to be the norm.