First day on the C&O

Yeah, we needed a rest day. Everyone agreed. We spent the day in Cumberland taking care of little things, re-stocking, enjoying a fine Italian dinner at Ristorante Ottaviani (recommended by other cyclists) and resting. 157 miles of cycling doesn’t really seem like all that much to me in retrospect, but the day after day grind really does have a cumulative exhausting effect.

But having rested, we were all eager to launch into the second half of the trip: the C&O Canal National Historical Trail, which runs for about 185 miles from Cumberland MD to Washington DC. The skies were blue, the air was fresh and warm, and the trail just seemed to be calling us out of the hotel. We obliterated the complimentary hotel breakfast and saddled up as soon as possible.

The C&O is a very is different sort of trail. Unlike the finely groomed GAP, it consists of moderately rough double-track for most of the way, with tree roots and mud puddles every few hundred feet. It reminded me of long-ago days in Massachusetts when I would mountain bike with friends in the forests: mostly flat, mildly technical, and a lot of fun.

But my compatriots were not as sanguine. Bert’s e-bike battery was reduced to the lowest daily level we’ve seen so far, due to mileage (45 miles by the end) and higher effort needed to overcome the rough gravel. Adam and Susan felt it was tougher than the first part of the GAP, too. I felt like it was a breeze in comparison to the GAP, so I guess I’m finally over the bug that slowed me down last week, and I feel a lot less like a weenie now.

In any case this was the longest and hardest section of the C&O, so it is literally and figuratively all downhill from here. Not much downhill, mind you, but at least mostly level and no significant climbing.

The old long-abandoned locks and lock keepers houses are scenic and interesting, but unfortunately you can’t go inside the houses. For us, the engineering marvels of aqueducts (one example pictured above) and the 3,000 foot Paw Paw Tunnel were the big thrills of the day.

In the Paw Paw it is dark and slightly treacherous footing on a narrow tow path, with other cyclists coming in the pitch dark, so walking the bike is the only practical option. The trip through takes quite a while as a result, and I found it delightfully spooky.

Long distance riders recommended to Bert that he try something called Butt Balm for the inevitable chafing that occurs during rides like this. We all mocked him mercilessly at the beginning but gradually we’ve conceded that Butt Balm (or similar products such as Chamois Butt’R) has its place, so to speak. And except Susan, we’ve been applying the stuff to that place. I have it on good authority that she will be the next convert, starting tomorrow.

The bike shop mechanic in Cumberland said I would be fine with my existing tires (700C x 32) and he was right. His recommendation was that anything from 32 to 38 would be appropriate. But the trail is dry and the muddy spots are mostly firm. I still think that if the trail were wet I would want something a little wider and with more aggressive tread.

We’ve overlapped with a lot of tour groups on the C&O, more than on the GAP. Most of them are supported by vans that carry their luggage, so they have an easier time of it. If you’d like to do this ride but are worried about your cycling ability I’d definitely recommend checking a tour guide out.

Today’s trip ended in Little Orleans MD, which is a tiny town with few resources for cyclists passing through. There is one restaurant, which unfortunately for us is closed on Tuesday nights. Forewarned of this, we brought some food along to scab together a semblance of dinner. There is also only one place to stay, but it’s a great one: Town Hill B&B. To get to it requires a 20 minute shuttle, which the inn provides cheerfully, and at the end we found ourselves in a sweet historic inn that knows how to cater to cyclists.

So after a dusty and humid day of harder-than-expected cycling, I am comfortably settled on the couch in the inn’s living room with a complimentary tea and feeling extremely civilized with the memory of a long hot shower in my recent past. This beats the hell out of tent camping. Perhaps it is because of these comforts that after 200 miles and six day of togetherness we are still all having a wonderful time, and already talking about the next trip.

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.

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.

To love me is to love my Airstream

I think the aspect of Airstreaming that I love most is that it cannot truly be defined. Life aboard the Airstream is whatever you choose to make of it: an almost overwhelming array of choices enabled and even encouraged by the simple idea of bringing your home to your interests rather than waiting for them to come to you.

I have seen people in their Airstreams thrilled by the prospect of hiking a glacier, while others are thrilled by the prospect of a trying out an interesting donut shop followed by a good double espresso. The size of the adventure does not matter; both are valid. It only matters what you desire to achieve. If it’s important to you, the Airstream is ready to facilitate your journey.

I’ve seen people crying away the pain of recently-lost love, and others striking out with quivering anticipation in search of a new life partner. But it doesn’t have to be a choice, because you can load your Airstream with memories of your life while building fantastic new ones. The Airstream does not care if you are sad or elated, it will cosset you with warm blankets and familiar foods at the end of the day regardless.

This season of travel has been unlike any other for me. On the surface, the Airstream has done what it always does. It has been my home away from home base since mid-May, allowing me to visit close friends in the Gulf Coast states, then to participate in Alumapalooza in Ohio, explore more of New York state beauty, and finally hang out with family in Vermont. It has carried the material to run a pop-up store, and the accessories needed for long-distance bicycle touring, urban explorations, motorcycling, hiking, and more.

Beneath that practical layer the Airstream has opened doors I did not expect. I’ve often said that that the Airstream is excellent lock-pick (it opens doors everywhere it goes) because people are often attracted to the dream of running off to adventure and thus are eager to share their world in exchange for a few hours of vicarious living.

While that’s still true, this spring I realized that the Airstream also helps me meet people by virtue of what it is not. Isn’t it true that there’s an instant bond with someone who says, “You have an Airstream? That’s so cool!” You can tell instantly that person is destined to be a compadre, an appreciator of the traveling lifestyle, like-minded and ready to hear more about your travels.

The flip side of that is the person who hears “Airstream” and calls it a “camper” or “mobile home”—or worse, avoids mention of it at all, treating the core of your living situation as a dank secret best swept under the rug. I think some of those people feel that they are somehow doing a favor, as if the Airstream were a facial blemish that everyone can see but nobody in polite society would dare to point out. If it’s not a traditional house or apartment (so the logic goes) choosing to live in a “camper” for part of the year must be a symbol of your reduced circumstances. Given the price of Airstreams nowadays this is not logical but it is surprisingly common thinking.

Sometimes those people can be taught to appreciate what the Airstream represents. It’s worth a try. After all, you wouldn’t want to miss out on a potential friend (or even the love of your life) just because she cluelessly called it a “camper” a few too many times. I’ve heard of and experienced this phenomenon myself. But I actually appreciate that a certain category of individual will permanently avert their eyes, and thus reveal that they are not very open-minded. It saves time.

Pet-owning friends of mine have said, “to love me is to love my animals” and similar platitudes. I get that—whether it’s your children, your dogs, cats, or budgies. To love me is to love my Airstream. You don’t have to live in it. But you do have to understand that it is the floor that I walk on. Without it, a huge part of my life would vanish. I wouldn’t be able to have the experiences I’ve had, my family would never have seen the 48 states, and I wouldn’t be the person I am. The people destined to be friends and partners know that instinctively and they embrace it.

Rich Jef EricaColin BrendaAustin R V

This spring and summer I’ve met and reunited with a few such people, which I regard as the biggest win of the entire year. Long after the travel memories have faded, I hope to have them in my life. For me, this season, the Airstream has facilitated the beginning and the furtherance of wonderful relationships. It brought me to my interests and it will continue to do so in the future. You gotta love that.

Rich Laura SteveAtlanta R C

New York State Parks

When I get to New York on my big cross-country trips, I have to revise some expectations. For example, I have to forget what I paid for diesel fuel everywhere else and just grit my teeth at the considerably higher New York prices. But the really interesting change is the state parks. They are more abundant than in most other states and, for an RV traveler, sometimes a bit challenging.

The abundance is the part I like. As I travel through the center of the state along I-90 (NYS Thruway) there is a smorgasbord of great little state parks spread out along my path, and once I reach the Adirondack Park there are numerous smaller Dept of Conservation (DEC) parks tucked into the green woods and alongside lakes.

I’m always tempted to stay at every one that I can squeeze the Airstream into. That would mean spending weeks crossing the state, which would be impractical, so instead I pick one or two each trip through and hope that eventually I’ll have seen them all. So far: Darien Lakes, Letchworth, Hamlin Beach, Cayuga Lake, Delta Lake, Verona Beach, Fish Creek Pond, Mills-Norrie, Thompsons Lake, Watkins Glen, Point Comfort, and Eagle Point. There are dozens more, although many in the Adirondack region are tent-only.

The trick with many of these parks, especially upstate, is that they are old-school and hence have narrow roads and tight access for longer rigs. Verona Beach was a good example. I had to make an impossible 90-degree turn into the campsite from a single-lane road. If trees had been closer to the road there would be no way to get the Airstream in that site, but fortunately there was enough open grass that I could cut the corner.

Getting into a site like that is always a bit stressful but also gratifying once parked. “Ah,” I can say to myself, “Stand and tremble in awe at my magnificent Airstream backing skills!” It’s even better when there are onlookers who were wondering if the trailer would jackknife or hit a stump. The key is to completely ignore them as you are parking, and then step out of the truck with a bit of a swagger, so that all of the weekend campers can marvel at the skills of a full-time Airstreamer. At least, that’s what I tell myself is happening whenever I survive one of those episodes.

Eagle Point campground Pottersville NY Airstream1

But even the skills honed by camping in literally hundreds of different campsites can still be tested. On the next night I decided to try Eagle Point Campground in Pottersville NY. This DEC campground is perched atop a rise above Schroon Lake, and it is a lovely place that clearly was designed with tenters in mind, not 30-foot Airstream trailers. Most of the sites are un-level, irregularly shaped, and have impossible approach angles for anything larger than a pop-up trailer. Merely towing through the campground was an interesting test of skill to avoid the trees and rocks that lurked at every squiggle along the way.

There are a few spots designated for 30 and even 40 foot rigs but I think that is more of a theory than a guarantee. I took site #16, which can sort of be accessed as a pull-through by much shorter trailers, but for a 30-footer there’s no way. Once I had the Airstream pulled in enough to clear the very narrow road and a big tree, the car was trapped by a fence and another tree. Even squeezing forward as far as possible, the back of the Airstream was less than a foot from the root-strewn single-lane trail (I have trouble calling it a “road”). Thus I could not unhitch without the aid of a helicopter.

But I got it in, and it looked like a good possibility that I’d be able to get it back out in the morning as long as I was very careful, so I dug out every leveling block I had and made a pair of mountains to raise the right side of the trailer to approximately level. In this case, “approximately” means that full glasses of water would not spontaneously slide off the counter, but in all other respects it was going to be a rather slanted night.

Eagle Point campground Pottersville NY Airstream2

Ah, but so worth it. It is worth the risk (or a detour) to me in order to mingle with beauty for a night and wake up inspired for future adventures—although it would have been better if I was able to stay for more than one night.

From that stay to my final destination in Vermont was a short and uneventful trip through stunningly beautiful countryside. I’ve driven these roads many times before but when the Vermont summer is peaking there’s no beating it: vistas of gorgeous Adirondack and Green Mountains, deep blue Lake Champlain dotted with sailboats, fields mowed or planted, farm stands open … the air itself seems to carry a hint of a marvelous & active summer developing.

I’ll be in Vermont for five weeks, until it’s time to go to the International Rally in Virginia. It’s time for boat rides and bike rides, hiking and wakeboarding, creemees, cookouts, concerts on the grass, fireworks and farmer’s markets. Summer has begun!