Sometimes an experience forever alters our future trajectories. For me, that experience occurred in the summer of 2012. I worked a lot then. I lived an ordinary life and I did not yet think it was normal to wash my underwear in the sink. My life lacked adventure and ice cream did not disappear by the quart. Bike touring created all sorts of weird new habits.
The Great Allegheny Passage is a car free pathway that, together with the C&O Canal Towpath, connects Pittsburgh, Pa to Washington D.C. My plan was to ride 150 miles to Cumberland, My (the end of the GAP), turn around, and ride home. Simple, in a week I would be back at work climbing trees. Life would return to normal.
I knew next to nothing about bike touring at the time. I did however, have plenty of backpacking experience and all the camping gear required. What I needed was a way to carry it. A backpack was out. Riding long distances with weight on your back did not fit my idea of comfort. My bike frame was carbon fiber so racks and panniers were also out. That left a trailer. I lucked out and my favorite local bike shop, Biketek, happened to have one in-stock: The Topeak Journey. I spent the evening learning how to pack it and I practiced balancing this fully loaded rig on the street in front of my house. I spent the night dreaming of adventure.
In the morning I loaded everything up, filled the cooler with ice – yes I carried a cooler behind a carbon fiber frame on this trip and yes it was a mistake – and I road out the front door towards the trail. I was carrying too much weight and my ass was not used to all that riding. By the end of the second day, I could barely sit on the saddle. I spent much time standing to pedal and I took frequent breaks. By the third day, I was used to the time in the saddle. I rode enough before hand that my butt wasn’t totally green, thankfully, and the ride actually became pleasant and even enjoyable further enhanced by certain company.
The sound of rushing water calmed me. The sway of the hammock rocked me to sleep. I awoke to threats of arrest. It was dark and I was exhausted from the long days pedal. I tried pushing up the hill but gave up in favor of riding the roads to the Ohiopyle campground. That too failed. I gave in and hung my hammock in the park above the waterfall. Rafting guides preparing for the day ahead tried to warn me, “The ranger comes at nine. I wouldn’t be here.” Modern plumbing took precident and I did not take their advice. “If you don’t produce ID I am going to arrest you, take you to the station, and find out who you are.” He was in my face nose to nose. He asked if I had drugs and faked a call for a k-9 unit. I say “faked” because they never showed up. He searched me then wrote a ticket for $160. My crime? Hanging a hammock in a state park.
The next night, I pushed my bike up the freakin hill. Frostburg’s Campground sits atop a steep hill. To get up there is a wooden ramp that switchbacks up the hill. Wearing road spd with an exposed cleat, traction was impossible but I managed to push/pull my rig up to the campground. I did not accomplish my goal of reaching Cumberland, My. In the morning I decided to not ride the 32 round trip miles. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. If I had gone on to Cumberland, I would not have met the unique individuals that altered my future trajectory. I would not have met Sarah.
Sarah was on a rather long trip. She toured the Northeastern U.S. with her brother, then hitched solo from Maine to Baltimore, Md. There she met a friend and the pair were on their way to Detroit, Mi for a conference. Her odometer read over a thousand miles. I was awestruck that a person could do such a thing. I mean, who ever heard of riding a bicycle across states! Making her trip even more fascinating was how much money she had spent. Less than $10. Weeks on the road for less than the cost of a burger and fries at a local bar. Unbelievable.
She taught me her secret. In Homestead we passed a local bakery. We raided the garbage and found a cookie bigger than my head. It was broken in half, most likely the reason for its being in the trash. It was the most delicious cookie I have ever eaten. Later that day we raided the trash again. This time a large supermarket dumpster. In it we found food for the next few days. Actually, we found enough food to feed an army of touring cyclists for a week and that says a lot. You know how much a touring cyclist can eat! We snatched what would could carry: Two bags full of bagels, some donuts, a whole watermelon, some meat and cheese, and much more. One bag of bagels was given away in a small riverfront park. We told of where they came from of course.
In all, I rode with Sarah and her friend for four days. Our time came to an end 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh, camped in a strangers backyard, with a fabulous dinner eaten on the man’s picnic table who insisted we camp in his yard instead of the yard of the couple we originally asked. We would be much safer, you see, as he was a retired police officer. I found this level of kindness astounding.
Bike touring changed my life. From the daily routines such as washing my underwear in the sink, no longer wearing deodorant, less frequent showers, and eating obscene amounts food. To major lifestyle changes such as selling my car and commuting by bike, finding the cheapest housing available with rent at only $60, to quiting my job to ride to Bar Harbor, Maine for a lobster. And now, a year off work to ride south along the coast of the Americas. My life no longer lacks adventure.