Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Day 4 on the Great Allegheny Passage

Ohiopyle to West Newton (43 miles)
For most of the day our trail hugs the western shore of the Youghogheny River.
We can hear the whistles, the clacking wheels, and the singing sounds of steel scraping steel as trains pass on the opposite shore, but the trees are so thick between us that we usually cannot actually see the trains.
There are lots of little springs, and a few lacey waterfalls trickling down the rocks where our rail bed was cut from the side of a mountain, leaving steep layered rock outcroppings.  We always marvel at all the ferns and wildflowers that can somehow find a roothold and enough nourishment to thrive in spots like this.
At lunchtime, we ride through Connellsville to a small community park with a picnic shelter, where our leader Angela has, as usual, set out a generous spread from which we can choose to assemble our lunch.  Adjacent to the park is a bar that welcomes cyclists with signs promising cold beer, and quite good music blaring from speakers outside.  We enjoy the music from a distance, and are pretty sure it would be too loud inside. No one slips over there for a beer. (Am I the only one who even contemplates the idea?)
This totem pole is unlabeled, so its origin and meaning remain a mystery.  A nearby marker with geological and historic information about the area is labeled as an Eagle Scout project.  Bravo to the Scout!
This is a Connellsville Bike Shop--would you rent this bike?
I am enjoying the trailside art.
These elaborately decorated tanks are beside an otherwise grungy little industrial operation.  I am not sure what they make, but all the big garage doors are open on this hot day, and I can see a couple men carrying long metal poles with glowing hot cylinders on the ends from a furnace to a work area.
We also see many signs of a long gone industrial past along the trail.  There are rows of black holes in the mountainside--the remains of what used to be 40,000 coke ovens along the river.  We see remains of abandoned coal mines, and a small memorial near the site of one of the worst coal mine tragedies in our history--239 miners died in a coal dust and gas explosion in 1907.  Flowers and other tributes have been placed around the marker by those who have not forgotten.
Another legacy coal mining is the acid drainage that continues to leach out from some of those old mines. 
We stop for a moment to savor the moment when we reach the 100 mile marker. 
But we still have lots of lovely wooded miles to go before we hit our end point for the day, West Newton. 
We complete 121.6 miles on and around the GAP, and celebrate with hot fudge sundaes at a pizza and ice cream shop strategically located at the West Newton trail head.  (I can't resist commemorating this meaningful moment by finding a geocache strategically located at the trail head as well.)
Tonight we have a speaker who provides a presentation on Frank Lloyd Wright's home for the Kauffman family--Falling Water.  We will be visiting Falling Water tomorrow, and have been eagerly anticipating this presentation, but we have a very difficult time keeping our eyes open.  Is it her terrible presentation skills, or are we just bushed from today's ride?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Day 3 on the Great Allegheny Passage

Rockwood to Ohiopyle (33 miles)
We are glad that our Road Scholar GAP trip substituted a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water house for the “white water rafting” included in past Road Scholar GAP offerings after seeing many rafts lazily drifting down the shallow river with passengers frying in the sun, and people in duckies trying to pull their little inflatables off rocks.  There seems to be hardly any navigable white water to be found.  It looks to be a very hot and boring way to spend a few hours.  Meanwhile, we are riding through verdant woods above and beside the river most of the day.   

Here are some photos from today's travels:

At Confluence, we stop in at a nice little bike shop across the street from a shady town square park with an old fashioned band shell.  We document the moment with a group photo.

Just a few miles past Confluence, we enter the Ohiopyle State Park, where we are riding through the woods, paralleling the river, and enjoying glorious shade.  Little springs emerge between the layers of rocks where the rail bed was cut from the side of a mountain.  We are enjoying riding through the woods so much that we do not stop to take pictures. Look at tomorrow's blog--we will still be riding in the park for about seven more miles then. 

The Falls at Ohiopyle
We end today's ride in Ohiopyle, a town in the middle of the park.  A beautiful, but somewhat modest in size waterfall has been attracting visitors to Ohiopyle since the railroad got here in 1871.  We head to the Firefly CafĂ© for ice cream before boarding the bus back to Laurelville. 

Tonight we have a fancy multicourse dinner out at the fanciest restaurant around.   They let us bring our own wine, providing the only officially sanctioned wine drinking evening of this entire program, since all our other dinners are at the Mennonite Retreat Center.  I seem to be the only one at our table who is very excited about having a chance to drink wine, and despite sharing tasting samples with the other five people at my table, I am pretty much left to consume the bottle on my own.  At least I don’t feel like I am drinking alone--everyone else has a bit of wine in their glasses for most of the meal--they are very polite about slowly nursing their little samples, never actually coming right out and saying that they didn’t much cotton to my beloved J. Lohr Chardonnay.

Day 2 on the Great Allegheny Passage

Frostburg to Rockwood (29 miles)
Frostburg was our starting point when we rode the trail two days ago, but instead of coasting downhill from Frostburg, today we will be pedaling uphill, at least until we hit the Continental Divide.  The first eight miles are all uphill--but not as bad as we had been dreading--it is only a 2% grade at most, after all.  We can do this!

Here are some of the highlights of today’s ride:
We stop to literally straddle the Mason Dixon Line with one foot in Pennsylvania and the other in Virginia.
On the elaborately commemorated line

The Pennsylvania/Maryland state line marker

The Big Savage Tunnel is 3,300 feet long--a bit of a thrill ride, and a cool respite.

Crossing the Eastern Continental Divide is a long anticipated moment--it’s mostly all downhill from here for the rest of the day (and our next two days of riding, too)!

Continental Divide--elevation 2,392 feet
We have a brief stop at the old Meyersdale Train Station, now a nifty visitor center that has some model trains and memorabilia on display.  It also sells maple syrup, since Meyersdale is also known as Maple City, host of the annual Pennsylvania Maple Festival.  The town looks charming, but we haven’t time to explore further. 
Meyersdale,  aka Maple City

 There are lots of sunny stretches with abundant wildflowers lining the path, and butterflies fluttering about nectaring.
 The Salisbury Viaduct is nearly 2,000 feet long--we ride it high over the cornfields and rail tracks and U.S. Route 19 in the valley below. 

This wind farm creates renewable energy on a ridge where strip mines once operated.


We stop at a combination berry farm, bakery, and winery for a break on the long bus ride back to Laurelville.  Road Scholar treats us to huge chocolate cookies with fresh raspberries and white chocolate chips--they are really almost too moist and rich to be considered cookies, but we don't know what else to call them but heavenly. 
Then we head round a garden path to the winery, which makes a wide variety of unusual fruit wines, in addition to the usual red and white vineyard varieties.   There is no limit to how many free samples they will pour, and only the shortage of time for this bus stop keeps us from trying a bit of everything.  The rhubarb wine is awful, but our taste buds are smiling for peach and pear, and we are so enchanted with cranberry wine that we buy a couple bottles for the holidays. 
The grounds are beautiful--vineyards stretching up the hill, cutting gardens full of colorful blooms down below.  It would be a delightful spot to stroll around while sipping a glass of wine and snapping pictures.  But, it is tome to hop back on the bus, and return to the retreat center for showers and dinner.




Urban in the Morning, Rural in the Evening

Pittsburgh to Laurelville, PA 

Our explorations begin with a boat tour of Pittsburgh, cruising the three rivers in the center of the city--the Monongahela and the Allegheny which converge to create the headwaters of the Ohio.  It is a beautiful sunny day, the waterfront is alive with bikers and walkers on paths and in parks along the shores, and kayakers and paddle boarders plying the waters. 
A towboat pushing ten barges passes us, giving us some extra time for photo ops near The Point with its huge landmark fountain.  Although we will not bike this far, The Point is the northern terminus of the Great Allegheny Passage, also known as the GAP.  

After the boat tour, we hop on the Duquesne Incline up to the top of Mt. Washington.  Dating back to 1877, its steep tracks rise 400 feet with a track length of 800 feet.  
(Note in the photo above how clearly you can see a line where the waters of the muddy Monongahela don't really want to mix with the clearer dark waters of the Allegheny--it is quite an impressive sight.)
We lunch at a restaurant next door to the station at the top.  Our table next to a window has a view of downtown Pittsburgh that was reputedly voted by readers of USA Today as one of the top ten sites in the world for viewing a cityscape.  

After lunch, we return to the incline station, where we pay 50 cents apiece to see the cogwheels and gears driving the cables that pull the cars up the tracks, after which I am, strangely, much more comfortable on the ride down than I was riding up. The cogs on the wheels are made of wood, and the pieces holding them in place look kind of jerry rigged.  You wouldn’t think this view would be a confidence-builder.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the incline is that it is privately owned and operated by an association of neighbors who had the vision to save this historic treasure and its priceless contribution to the vibrancy of their neighborhood.
Then we are on our way to our Road Scholar Program that begins at 5 pm this evening.  

Our headquarters for the next four days is a Mennonite Retreat Center in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania.  From the minute we park our car, we are reminded of our past church camp days at Lake Geneva Summer Assembly in Wisconsin.   There is no lake here, but the cabins and gathering spaces, the dining hall, the craft building all seem strangely familiar--warm memories flow before we even start building new memories here.  We check into our Lake Geneva-type room, and meet our co-riders and our enthusiastic leader Angela before a classic Lake Geneva-like buffet dinner in the dining hall.  

After an orientation and opportunity to get to know our fellow riders better, we are looking forward to riding the trail together, starting tomorrow.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Preview of Coming Attractions

Cumberland, Frostburg, and Beyond 

We are on our way to a Road Scholar Program during which we will ride 100 miles of the Great Allegheny Passage, a rail trail constructed on the bed of defunct rail lines running from Cumberland, Maryland to Pittsburg.  Today, we are getting a head start on the program by riding a fifteen mile section that our Road Scholar group is skipping. 

We have reservations with a Cumberland bike shop to drive us and our bikes up to Frostburg, so that we can ride from there back to Cumberland.   The clouds are hanging low over the mountains, and we are driving in and out of fog and misty rain as we make our way to the bike shop, but by the time the shuttle drops us off at the Frostburg rail station, where we pick up the trail, the rain has stopped and the clouds seem to at least be rising above our 1,832 foot elevation. 

 We hardly have to pedal as we make our way back down to Cumberland, 1,200 feet below. 

We stop to enjoy valley and holler views, to read historic markers and to watch an excursion train pulled by a steam engine puff its way up the hill past us and into the long tunnel we had just ridden through, leaving billows of sooty black smoke pouring out the tunnel behind it.

Wisps of black smoke are still emerging from the tunnel after we can no longer hear the train in the distance.  We understand now why there are signs at the tunnel entrances warning people not to enter if the train is coming.   (And, we are a little disillusioned that a diesel locomotive was at the back of the train, providing extra support to the huffing puffing steam engine. )

Another highlight of the trail is the Cumberland Bone Cave discovered in 1912, where scientists subsequently unearthed the remains of 40 mammals--28 of them extinct--some up to 200 years old.  We couldn’t go in the cave--we could just see the entrance, but it was exciting to think about what a rich fossil discovery lay right here beside the tracks.  There were lots of other caves carved in the limestone along the rail bed--who knows what other bone caves may remain unexplored around here? 

Near the end of our ride, we pass through The Narrows, a passage where tall cliffs rise on both sides of the road.  A trailside marker tells the tale of a Lover’s Leap where a young Indian woman and a white man fall in love and jump to their deaths when her father, the chief of the tribe will not let them marry.  

In our short ride down the mountain, we have enjoyed some art, and learned some natural and social history, geology, and mythology, all in fifteen easy pedaling scenic miles. 

The Cumberland bike shop is located at the point where the GAP Trail ends and the C&O Canal Trail begins, and there is a big park area around the remains of a canal bed near the shop.  The place is hopping--a band is playing on a temporary stage, kids in matching tee shirts are arriving to do some sort of performance, and crowds of people are converging on the field, despite the intermittent misty rain and overcast skies.  We secure out bikes on the back of the car and walk a few blocks to Cumberland’s Main Street, now turned into a pedestrian mall, at least for a few blocks.  We have an outstanding lunch (who knew we could build such an appetite coasting downhill?), then are on the road again.

Our backroads route north takes us through lots of small towns, but when we hit Somerset, PA, the county courthouse is so striking that we have to stop for a closer look.  In front of the courthouse stands this Civil War monument erected in 1888 to honor “those who died defending the Union.” There are separate panels for those killed in battle and those who died of disease.   Those killed in battle outnumber those who died of disease, but not by a very big margin.  We are only a little bit surprised to learn this.  

We get another history lesson in Berlin, PA, where we stop to find a virtual geocache at the home of the leader of the 1794 whiskey rebellion in Berlin PA.  When the still very new Federal Government attempted to raise funds by taxing whiskey in 1794, local merchant Robert Philson raised a liberty pole and encouraged his fellow citizens to join him in not paying the tax.  President Washington responded by sending troops to quell the rebellion and arrest Philson.  His criminal record seems not to have diminished his standing in Berlin--after his release he went on to serve as a county judge for twenty years and be elected to Congress.  And to this day, Berlin honors his memory with an annual Whiskey Rebellion Celebration.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

History Lessons Along the National Road

August 22, 2014

We just have to start with a big shout out to Rise Up Coffee Roasters, Easton's old gas station turned coffee shop, where everyone in town stops in on their way to work for coffee and conversation.  We drank our lattes out front, but there's a big back room where you can sit near the huge roasting machine and big burlap bags of beans for real industrial atmosphere

The most shocking history lesson of this history-rich day was the revelation that George Washington was not our first President. 
This statue of John Hanson on the plaza of the County Courthouse in Frederick, Maryland set us straight.  A bronze plaque on the base states, “The John Hanson National Memorial was donated in 2011…so that the people of Maryland and the United States may at last have a place to pay tribute to their first President.”  For those of us mistakenly thinking that George Washington was our first President, another plaque explains John Hanson’s rightful claim to the honor--he was “the first president of the first United States government, the United States in Congress Assembled, which existed from 1781 until 1788.”

In addition to getting this history lesson in Frederick, we enjoyed a stroll through a linear park there with stone pathways along both sides of Carroll Creek, which has been transformed from little more than a drainage ditch to a water garden full of and colorful water lilies, lotus, and other aquatic plants, with koi swimming lazily below and pedestrian bridges crossing above. 

There are fountains, waterfalls, and little gardens with places to sit and enjoy the views along the way.  

One notable bridge began as a generic cement utility structure carrying two lanes of traffic over the creek.  A talented local artist transformed it into a trompe l’oeil masterpiece, painting it to appear to be constructed of stones with many elaborately carved sculptural insets and spots where vines trailed over the stonework.  The subjects of the inset pieces were ideas that local people offered in response to the question, "What does community mean to you?"  Truly, this park is a community project, and a cornerstone of community pride.

A faux bird bath painted on the bridge
 We spent the afternoon on another historic quest, traveling the national road, our country’s first federally financed infrastructure project, authorized in 1806 to connect Cumberland, Maryland with Wheeling, West Virginia.  Portions of the national road date back to even earlier times, when British General Edward Braddock blazed a road to secure the frontier during the French and Indian War.  

There are lots of historic markers and sites along the road, and we stopped a lot to look and learn. Some of our picturesque stops along the way included:


The Dahlgren Chapel, built in 1881 by Madeline Vinton Dahlgren, the widowed wife of the inventor of the gun the warship Monitor used against the Merrimack.   The small stone chapel sits in a small mowed segment of a vast field of wildflowers. 

The First Washington Monument
Across the road is the Old South Mountain Inn, which has been in virtually continuous operation as a travelers’ rest since 1790.  We have dined here on past travels in the area, and have also visited the state park nearby that houses our nation’s first Washington Monument, completed in 1827, predating the famous one in Washington D.C. by 58 years.


Down the road in Wilson, we stopped in at the Wilson General Store, which contains both historic exhibit items and real items for sale.  The two are sometimes hard to tell apart, and there was nothing that tempted us to pull out our wallets, including the old-fashioned candy, which may well have been around for quite a few years gathering dust.
This place is promoted as “The Store of Three Wonders,” and surely one of those wonders is  that it has managed to stay in business so long.


Not far from the store is the oldest stone bridge in Washington County, built in 1819--a beauty!

 Our national road is lightly traveled, and heavy with history--our kind of drive.