Monday, May 9, 2016

Great Allegheny Passage Rails to Trails Sojourn

This weekend I went on a Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage Trail in Pennsylvania.  It was an amazing weekend and an awesome experience!  85 of us rode 109 miles between Meyersdale and Pittsburgh!  I met some great people and even slept in a tent!  Anyone who enjoys biking on rail trails should plan to attend a sojourn! This was the first time I’d ever done a multi-day, big mileage bike trip and I have to say I loved almost every minute and can’t wait to do another! 

One of the great things about this trip was meeting people who enjoyed the same things as I do! As I watched everyone arrive and noticed how many Subarus there were I figured these were “my people” and I was right! Most everyone was fun to talk to and had stories of adventures similar to mine!  There were folks section hiking the AT, people who had lived in Colorado, even someone who’d biked the rail trail in Bermuda! And, oddly, I was the only teacher in the crowd!  Usually these types of events draw teachers! Some I got to know better than others and spent more time with, these people were key to my enjoyment of the weekend!  I didn’t get anyone’s permission to write about them in my blog so I have assigned them all “trail names”, these names are based in things that happened over the weekend, but we never called each other these things!  I hope this is enough of a disguise that no one will mind me writing about them!

The Drive

The trip was departing from the Homestead Waterfront near Pittsburgh, PA on Friday morning at 7am.  According to Google Maps it was a 4 hour drive from my school in Chantilly, so I decided I could drive the RV, leave immediately after school on Thursday and sleep in the parking lot where we were meeting and be ready to go Friday morning.  This would save me money on getting a hotel room for the night!

I stopped for dinner at the West Virginia Welcome Center Rest Stop on 81N and while I was eating my soup, reading Facebook and listening to the generator run, I saw someone outside checking out my van.  He was an older man, with a friendly looking dog and didn’t appear to be a threat, so when he knocked on the door I answered (hard to hide the fact that I’m in there when the generator is running!).  Turns out he’s a Pleasure-Way Ambassador and I “knew” him from one of the Facebook groups I’m in!  We had a nice chat and before I left I drove up to meet his wife who was in their Pleasure-Way making them dinner! 

This was my first experience driving the PA Turnpike in the RV.  I’d driven the turnpike a few times in college and it wasn’t my favorite road to drive, however, this time I really enjoyed it.  There was no traffic, plenty of places to stop if you needed to, and it was scenic! It had been raining for days so I thought it was a good sign that the sun started to peek out just before sunset! 

The drive ended up taking 6 hours and I arrived at the Homestead Waterfront at 9:30! The shopping center was very high end and looked perfectly safe to stay overnight.  We’d be leaving our cars here for the two nights of the Sojourn so I figured overnight parking was legal.  I found a good spot where I could back in and only take up one spot, closed the curtains and crawled into bed!   The only problem was the active train tracks just across the street from where I was parked.  Train tracks in an urban area means lots of horn blowing.

Day 1 – Meyersdale to Turkeyfoot Valley School

It was 6:30 am when the 1st sojourners began to arrive at the parking area!  I was so excited to get started I quickly finished up getting ready and headed out!  I quickly got my bike tagged and on the truck and my luggage stowed on the bus we were going to take from Homestead to Meyersdale.   While everyone else was arriving I started chatting with Mr. Pickle.  We chatted for a long time waiting for everyone to arrive and begin boarding the buses.   Once on the bus I met many more people and had a hard time not talking through the speech the trip director gave to tell us all the details we needed to know.  

We arrived in Meyersdale at about 10 am.  It was cloudy and cold with a 90% chance of rain!  Ugh.  After a brief speech by the mayor of Meyersdale welcoming us to the town and the trail, we were off!  I ended up being one of the first riders to leave and kept a pretty fast pace and ended up at the head of the pack!  We were the first ones to arrive in Rockwood, which was the best place to stop for lunch. 
Trailhead in Meyerdale

Ready to go!

Blue Sky!

I’m glad I was on the early side, there was only one place to eat in town, Rockwood Mill Shoppes and Opera House! I had a great pizza and finally got to talk to the guy who’d been riding in front of me all morning!  Didn’t recognize him from the front!  LOL!  We chatted all through lunch and headed back to the trail together.

We were riding along and chatting and it was great to have a buddy to ride with, but he was riding a faster pace than I was comfortable with so I was having a hard time keeping up.  Eventually we reached the Pinkerton Tunnel, which slowed me down, but not him and as much as I enjoyed our chatting I was a kinda glad to be on my own again. 

The tunnel was pretty cool!  I’d put my headlamp in my day pack for the tunnel, but didn’t stop before I went in to put it on.   The tunnel looked short, but it wasn’t and it was very dark in the middle!  I was really glad I’d had lots of experience with tunnels on the Route of the Hiawatha

Just when I got to the other side of the tunnel it started raining!  It was a light sprinkle, so not bad at all and I was pretty close to the campground.  I did stop to put on my pack cover though, just in case it started falling harder. Luckily the rain didn't last long! 

It wasn’t long before I caught up with a guy from Ohio who was riding more my pace and we stuck together the rest of the way to the campground.   Thanks to a short mileage day (26 miles) and riding so fast, it was a little after 2:00.

Our campground for the night was a K-12 school and we weren’t really supposed to be there until school dismissed at 3:40.  The people who had brought tents couldn’t set up until then, and while the Comfy Campers people had started setting up, my tent wouldn’t be ready for several hours.  So now what?

I decided to ride 2 miles into the town of Confluence to check it out.  Once I got back on the trail however I decided that I didn’t really want to ride anymore, especially since I was going to ride this section of the trail again tomorrow.  I’d gone a bit over a mile before I stopped, got off my bike, and sat down by the side of the trail and had a snack.   I walked my bike part of the way back to the school just for a break from riding. 

Back at the school I still couldn’t get into my tent, but I found the “charging station” and luckily I’d put my charger in my day pack so I sat down next to one of the 20 or so plugs set up on the porch of a field house to charge my phone and check email and stuff.  There were a few others phones plugged in and 3 other people hanging out.  While I was hanging out charging my phone, the rain started.  It was a nice gentle rain and it was pleasant sitting under the roof watching the rain, making new friends and waiting for my phone to charge.  

Also while I was charging my phone the first train came through.  I’d observed the train tracks mere feet from where we were setting up camp, but I’d hoped maybe it wasn’t an active track.  Wrong.   The train came roaring in, luckily the nearest road crossing was after the school so we heard the train first then the whistle. (lucky because the train would wake you up 1st, then the whistle, rather than the harsh whistle jolting you awake) The trains were long – 200+ cars – and usually had a 2nd or even 3rd diesel engine at the end pushing it, and they were louder than the engines at the front!  It could be a long night! 

Tent City at the school (train tracks are behind the trees, and the grass was soaked from the rain...wet shoes galore!)

Around 4 I went to find my tent!  It was all ready for me with an air mattress  and towel inside and a chair set up outside!  I laid my bike next to it and got my bag from the truck and settled in.  It was raining pretty hard by now and my tent was dry so I just stayed inside and read my book until dinner time. 

At dinner I saw Mr. Pickles again, first time I’d seen him since getting on the bus with him this morning! I sat with him and soon we were joined by Pearl Jam, Blue M&M, and Papa Bear.  They were a family traveling together and I hadn’t met them yet so it was fun to get to know some new people!  After dinner a group of us (Pearl Jam, Blue M&M, T1 and T2) played Uno until we were kicked out of the school cafeteria so the custodians could clean! I’m so glad T1 & T2 had thought to bring cards! 

It was barely 8:00 and everyone had retreated to their tents!  I knew this was my kind of crowd!  I crawled into my tent and went right to sleep, until 10:30 when the 1st train came through.  I only heard one other train, at 2:30 am.  Other people told me there were more trains, but somehow I managed to sleep through them.  

Day 2 – Ohiopyle

Day 2 was very different from Day 1, starting with the sun was out! J

By 6 am our tent city was coming alive!  I got a shower and packed up my things.  Since I’d used Comfy Campers I didn’t have to take down my tent so I headed over to enjoy my coffee with a few other comfy camper people while we waited for breakfast.  At breakfast I met Flat Rock and enjoyed chatting with her!

After breakfast I finished up packing and was ready to head out.   We had 32 miles to ride and all day to do it, so I was planning to take my sweet time and enjoy!  I didn’t want a repeat of yesterday when I got into camp super early! 

I started out riding a nice easy pace and enjoying the sunshine!  I was both passing people and being passed!  About 5 miles into the ride we entered Ohiopyle State Park!  This was the prettiest section of the whole trail!  We were right on the Youghiogheny River and there were wildflowers, waterfalls, rocks and rhododendron.  I stopped several times for pictures.  It was at one of those picture stops that I fell in with Mr. Pickles and Flat Rock.  We quickly settled into a pace that worked for all three of us!  

We arrived in the town of Ohiopyle at 10:30 and set off to explore!  All three of us wanted to take a walk as a break from the bike so we found some short trails that we thought would give us views of the rapids and the rafters.  We had a great 2-ish mile walk, but other than some awesome views of Ohiopyle Falls we didn’t see any of the rapids.  When we got back to Ohiopyle we rode our bikes over to Wilderness Voyagers – the company that put together our trip – and had lunch right next door.  

After lunch it was time to keep moving down the trail.  The weather had turned perfect and it wasn’t hard to get excited about an afternoon of bike riding!  The trail stayed right next to the river and the scenery was great most of the afternoon!  There were a few moments where my butt and thighs hurt so bad I didn’t think I’d make it, but a quick break to stretch a little solved it and I was good to go again.  The GAP trail is very flat, it’s generally heading down hill, but it’s pretty flat.  You’d think this was a good thing for riding a bike, the problem is that you had to pedal the whole time.  On hills you get to coast down and you get a break! The great thing about riding with Mr. Pickles and Flat Rock was that we would take frequent short breaks and we were riding a pace that was comfortable! 

The funny thing was that we didn’t see many other folks from our group.  We passed a few and few people passed us.  I think we’d all gotten spread out and were on different schedules!  We did stop at the support stop in Connellsville (where I had my 1st experience with a prison toilet!  It was cold!) and caught up with several other Sojourners, after that it was only a few miles to the KOA campground in Adelaide, our home for the night. 

The KOA was nice, lots of amenities, as expected from KOA!  Our sites were along the riverfront, it was a great setting, even though we were all crammed in with little distance between tents.  It was very nice sitting in our chairs watching the river go by while we waited for dinner time! 

Here comes the train!

After dinner the KOA had a DJ for evening entertainment, but we retreated to the river to hang out.  We did get chased into the charging station tent by a quick passing shower (thunderstorms were predicted but they never materialized!).  When T1 and T2 finished their showers they broke out their other game, Cosmic Wimpout!  It's a dice game with some rather random rules, but it was a ton of fun, and was the source of many of the trail names I’ve bestowed upon people! 

Once again, we were all retreating to our tents before 9:00!  The only problem here was that the DJ dance party went until 10 and my tent was right in front of the pavilion.   Once again, we had trains coming through to disturb out sleep.  This time there were on the other side of the river and there weren’t any road crossing so no whistles, but the trains were still noisy.

Day 3 – 49 miles!!!!

Last day of riding and it was going to be a personal best mileage day!  I’d never ridden more than 45 miles in one day.  Luckily it was another sunny day!  Cooler temperatures, and a stiff headwind for about 13 miles, but not raining!

Once again by 6 am our camp was waking up!   I was ready to go pretty quickly and enjoyed chatting with some folks drinking coffee before breakfast!  Once I was ready to go I grabbed my bike and found Mr. Pickles and Flat Rock  and we headed out with a plan of stopping every 10 miles for a break.  We figured we’d break the day down into 10 mile chunks since 10 miles seemed easier to think about than 50. 

My butt and my thighs protested riding the bike again at first, but as soon as I got into a rhythm they stopped complaining!  We stopped at the 1st bathroom opportunity (a very stinky pit toilet) and a few other sojourners passed us, then we passed them a little while later.   Then we stopped at the support stop (with a flushable porta potty! This is now the "toilet tour!") and saw a bunch of other folks.  It was fun seeing everyone while we were riding!  We’d been together for 3 days now and pretty much all knew each other – at least knew each other’s faces, even if names got mixed up.  As part of the Sojourn we all had license plates on the back of our bikes with our names (some people had "vanity plates" but most of us had our real names) making it easy to get names right when you came up on someone on the trail!  We were all yelling encouragement at each other to help keep us all going! 50 miles was a personal best for many people in the group.  The rest of the day continued this way – stopping at support stops, passing and being passed by other people in our group. 

At one point we caught up with Pearl Jam, Blue M&M, and Papa Bear.  We hadn’t ridden with them yet this weekend, but we quickly found that we rode the same pace so joined up for the last 20 or so miles.  The trail was very wide and in places we were able to ride 3 abreast so we could talk! 
At the last support stop there was an ice cream place! First time in 3 days we splurged on ice cream!  I had peanut butter chocolate and it was really good!  It was sunny and cool and the ice cream hit the spot.  

The last 13 miles we were back in urban Pittsburgh and the scenery and trail were very different!  The trail was paved, but it was also rough in places and had lots of twists and turns, we were riding on roads in places, up steep hills – often without warning making it hard to get into the right gear!  On the flat I stay in a pretty high gear, so it’s hard to get down to a hill friendly gear quickly.  This is also where the wind became and issue! No more trees to shelter us! The trail passed a few abandoned steel mills and went over many train tracks.  It was very industrial and not all that nice. We did pass Kennywood Amusement park!  We came around a corner and there was a roller coaster!  That was kinda crazy!  The different terrain was nice and kept things interesting at the end!  

Right at the very end we were riding right along the edge of the Waterfront shopping area and we could see the smokestacks we parked under!  Almost there!  We had once more bridge to cross and it had a tight ramp up it.  Flat Rock was in front and she didn’t realize how tight it was and managed to wipeout and skin her knee/leg!  Only injury of the trip and it happened with less than ½ a mile to go!
We wound through the shopping center and soon I could see my van!  We were back!  We made it!!!!!   Mr. Pickles and Blue M&M took off to ride one more mile around the parking lot so they could hit 50 miles, I was good with 49!  

After I collected my bag, secured the bike and conducted a few tours of the RV it was time to head home.  I was considering stopping and camping, but I didn’t want to get a campground, I knew Walmart would be loud, and I didn’t have any food or clean clothes! If I could get home, I could sleep without a train waking me up!

I stopped in Somerset for dinner at Eat-n-Park and fuel.   I told the waitress that I’d just finished a 3 day bike tour and the lady sitting behind me started asking me questions – turns out she’s a member of the Meyersdale Garden Club and had planned on being there to see the group off but wasn’t able to get there in time!  She was very interested in hearing about the rest of the trip, where we parked, how many people, etc!  So after a delightful chat with her, I headed back to the van to get on the road! 
It's not every day you get to park next to an elephant!

Once again it took a lot longer than google maps promised, it was after 10 before I got home, but I made it!  I took the bike off, grabbed my phone and my iPad, left everything else in the van and went to bed!  I’m very glad I took today off too!!! 

It was a great weekend and I’d LOVE to do another Rails to Trails Sojourn if the dates work for me!  

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