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Pennsylvania Greenway Sojourn 2005

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Erie to Cabot
July 16-22, 2005

A Rails To Trails Conservancy Adventure

Day 0

We arrived in Cabot, PA after an overnight in nearby Butler, PA.  Cabot is a really small town.  We joked that it was a one horse town, and then that it was actually only half a horse, and then we proclaimed to know which half of the horse it was ... but that's unfair.  There's not much to Cabot, but it is a fine rural locale nonetheless.

Following the stern warnings on our rider packets, we arrived very early.  It was rainy, but not exactly raining.   Volunteers in bright vests guided us not to the trailhead, but to the tiny "Pit Stop" restaurant/pool hall/bike rental shop across the street, where we parked our car in a field with the others, and unloaded our bikes and gear.  Irresistibly, we started sizing up the other riders.  This was a pretty easy sounding ride to us - - 200 miles over 6 days on mostly flat rail-trails - - but we were still surprised by the composition of the crowd.   They were older and apparently less fit than the typical participants of these events.  The oldest rider was 84.  There were a few pretty young children as well, the youngest all of  4 years old.  He rode in a trailer.  There were a surprising number of pre-teens and teens - some without parents, but the 20's, 30's and 40's seemed under-represented.   We came from 17 states, 50% not from Pennsylvania, and 65% were over the age of 50.  There were 310 of us in all, 200 of us would ride all the way back to Cabot, and the remainder ending their ride either in Foxburg or Franklin.  There were a lot of "comfort bikes" and kickstands galore. 

Somebody asked me later in the tour why we don't have kickstands on our  bikes, when clearly they are so convenient.  Half jokingly, I said they were uncool and heavy, but in truth it's just one of those things... like putting a bumper sticker on a sports car.   It's just not done.

If you are a cyclist you know - this is how we size up other riders.  Until we actually start riding, the method purely superficial.  With the kind of callousness reserved only for complete strangers, I categorized folks into Freds, Duffers, and Lightweights.    It didn't occur to us at the time that 6 days later we would find ourselves in this same field, with the same people, thinking of them simply as friends.  At the end,  they would bear names, and carry stories, and the gift of shared experience between us.  At the end, I would try to remember the stereotypes assigned at the start - and I would be unable to.

We donned purple wrist bands denoting us as starting from Cabot.  Yellow bands started in Erie and would take the bus on the last day.  Green and Pink bussed to Erie from Foxburg or Franklin.   As we loaded our two busses to Erie, I wrote in my journal that the tour was, "well organized" and it was the last time I used those words.  The rain started falling pretty hard.  During the two hour drive, we got to know each other.  Ian, second in command to Tom, gave us some general ride information. The rest of the time was spent getting to know each other.  "Where are you from?", "What other tours have you done?", that sort of thing.  We found ourselves next to Susan Weaver who was covering the story for Adventure Cycling, and who we met on the Peanut Tour.  She lives in Lehigh Valley like us, but we have only met up with her when we are away.

We arrived in Erie as the rain started to let up.  We picked a campsite at Liberty Park, practically lakeside, and pitched our tent under fairly dark skies and amid distant thunder.  We were told that were the only group to ever camp there.  It was around 4:00 PM, and the ferry to Presque Isle - the "almost island" - ran until 7:30 PM.   There was a promise of some beachside trails, and we wanted to check that out.   It took a long time for our bikes to arrive, and then it took a long time for the ferry to arrive.   We finally boarded with our bikes around 6:00 PM.    Then, it took a long time to load the ferry with all the bikes - we were pretty loaded down.   I was looking at a map and picked a short loop tour that would take less than an hour, and wondered if we had even that much time.  The cruise across Lake Erie was only about 10 minutes, but as we approached the skies let out in a torrential downpour.  Most of us on the ferry decided not to even get off, and about 2 dozen folks waiting to come back managed to cram their carcasses and steeds onto the ferry as well.  There were bikes and bodies everywhere.  Eventually we were fully loaded, and made the trip back to the campground.  Just as we arrived back at Liberty Park, the rain let up again.

We went back to our campsite, got changed, and waited now for the arranged just for us shuttle bus into town.  It was a few miles into town, and again, just as we stopped, the rain picked up again.  About a dozen of us stormed into the first interesting restaurant we saw, which was Molly Brannigan's.  We were soaked, but this was Irish food, so it was somehow appropriate and reminiscent of our bike trip to Ireland.   The restaurant was excellent and we took our time enjoying food that was actually better than anything we'd eaten in Ireland.  A band was setting up for the Jazz Walk, and the crowd was growing.  The rain was tapering again, and we decided to surrender our table with hopes of catching the shuttle bus back in time to catch the evening orientation session back at Liberty Park. 

We made it with two minutes to spare.  At orientation we learned there would be no cue sheets or route maps.  Cue sheets are detailed directions, usually including all turns, significant intersections, points of interest or hazard, interval and cumulative mileage.  They are standard fare for bike tours.  Despite the objections and panic, we were told that the absence of cues was to keep us all together and to keep riders (uhm, like us) from riding too far ahead.  We would be kept on course by a team of riding volunteers, and road signs placed along the way.  We were worried about this, and we were by no means alone.  This was very unusual protocol.  The thought of riding with 300 other people on a narrow trail was a bit unnerving, but we had allayed our fears with the belief that we would all spread out pretty quickly.  Now, we were being told that we would not be able to spread out.   This did not seem likely a welcome development.  Riders slow and fast were buzzing about this, but there was nothing to be done but wait and see.

We fell asleep to the sound of thunder, having successfully put an end to Erie's draught.  We were told that it rained every day on the previous year's tour.  We hoped for better luck this year.

Day 1
    Erie to Clymer - 34.3 miles

After a damp night, we joined the kickstand brigade at about 8:30 AM and worked our way towards the front of the group.  A typical tour will start over the course of an hour or so, with lycra clad bicyclists pushing off slightly arrogantly with cues and maps safely in hand.  This tour, by design, had us mass starting at 9:00 AM.  Perhaps not by design, though, there was very little lycra to be found.  Instead of the usual cyclist uniform, at least 50% of these riders weren't wearing cycling shorts.  They were wearing jean shorts and Teva's and skorts and all manner of atypical wear.  There was one guy who rode 3 days in polyester pants, a belt, dress shoes, and button down shirt - looking a bit like a bus driver.  His only concession to the sport was a small band around his right pant leg to keep his cuffs from tangling in his chain.   In case you're wondering, it was 90+ degrees.  We were feeling a little out of our element and, after taking in all the available information, decided that it would be best to  ride towards the front of the masses.  These were narrow trails.  Crowds could be dangerous, and passing would be difficult.  We didn't need to race, but we didn't want to be trapped either.

After a brief dedication of the Bayfront Connector Trail, and a ribbon cutting (green, of course), we were off.  We started with a police motorcycle escort and we were relieved that the pace was brisk - although not too fast by any means.  We easily followed the escort and within a mile looked back to note that there were about 15 riders in our group, and the remaining 300 riders had already fallen out of sight behind us.   I was relieved.  Even after our mockery of the kickstands and jean shorts, a gap this large was unexpected.  The trail was a glorified and slightly uphill sidewalk, and we were thankful to have police escorts up and down the trail blocking traffic for us at intersections.  As we approached the Erie city limit, the escort pulled off and we were on our own. 

We continued at that pace, and within a mile we hit a branch in the trail.  There was no sign.  We had no map, no cues, and the promised "ride leader" was no place to be seen.   About a dozen of us were standing there clueless when a 10 year old buy rode up and said he knew which way to go.  I was a bit incredulous, "Really?  Do you really know?" but he assured us he did, and since none of us enjoyed standing there, we took him at his word.  He guided us - quickly, I might add - through the winding paths of Behrend College, and amazingly enough we ended up at our lunch spot at Knowledge Park.  We had a snack, and waited about a half hour until a rider bearing an orange "leader vest" finally arrived behind us.  This no map, no cues thing wasn't going to work out if the ride leaders didn't ride with us. That was our fear, anyway.

We spent the remainder of the morning and early afternoon riding up and down the ample hills of Erie.  We speculated that folks expecting gentle 3% railroad grades weren't going to like the hills, but so be it.  The roads were generally low traffic, dirt and asphalt.  Riding the mountain bike on roads, especially over hills,  is not as easy as it is on the road bike -- but it's still fun.  The skies were alternately dark and light depending on our direction of travel, and there was some light drizzle a few times.  We rode with Jerry - who at first glance was a lightweight with a comfort bike, baggy shorts, and Teva's - and later revealed himself to be a wolf in sheep's clothing.  He is an ultra-marathoner and occasional Hash House Harrier (that's the "drinking club with a running problem" ).  We were also joined by a teenager with moxie who stuck with us for most of the afternoon.  Neither of them wore the uniform, but they both rode well - reminding us that athleticism couldn't be judged by clothing alone. 

I wouldn't say there were a lot of signs marking the route, but there were enough and we managed to get to Clymer without getting lost.  We were among the first to arrive.   It was hours later that we would realized that we'd crossed into New York.   We staked out a campsite in the wet grass, and noticed that the luggage truck hadn't been unloaded yet.   Being a veteran of many bike tours, we knew the routine, gathered up a posse, and unloaded the truck ourselves.  Jeff led the charge, but we all felt good about the high energy display of teamwork.  With our luggage unloaded, we pitched our tent, took showers, hung our damp clothes on a clothes line, and headed downtown (if you could call it that) for some ice cream.

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Downtown Clymer, NY (Photo courtesy of Jerry Taylor)

Downtown, "The Dutch Village" was experiencing a no-doubt record setting run on ice cream.  We joined Susan and Jack and watched out the window as many cyclists continued to ride by en route to camp.  At 5:00 PM they were still arriving when yet another torrential downpour let out.  The rain came in waves, pretended to stop, and then picked up again each time we thought we might leave.  We hung out at the restaurant as long as we could, and eventually made a damp dash back to camp.  Our items on the clothesline - only slightly damp when we put them up - were now soaked.  So were we.  But the late comers whose luggage we'd unloaded to the parking lot - well, if they didn't pack in plastic bags, they had a lot of wet gear to complain about.  I came up with a new motto, "if you can dry a towel on a tour - it's a good one."  I wondered if we'd dry out at all during the week.  It wasn't looking good.

We hung out inside the school until dinner, and then joined the masses for a spectacular smorgasbord courtesy again of The Dutch Village.  If they'd had lima beans it would have been complete.  People filled two and three plates with the bountiful feast.  Although it was hot in the school basement, everybody seemed to enjoy both the meal and the company.

The evening was capped by a community production of The Wizard Of Oz at the school, which we skipped in favor of sitting under moon which was slowly revealing itself from behind the clouds, and chatting with our new friends.

It rained again during the night.  And, in the morning.

Day 2
    Clymer to Titusville - 39.7 miles

Once again we were all corralled for a mass start.  With breakfast from 7-8, and luggage loaded on the truck no later than 8:30 (for those that followed the rules), there was nothing to do but sit around and kvetch about the inconvenience and relative danger of a mass start.  That's exactly what we did.  Some tried to leave early, but either they couldn't find the trail (remember, we got no directions), or they were turned around by vigilant ride leaders.  Before we left, an announcement was made that due to the number of people whose luggage got soaked, there would be no more early unloading of the luggage truck.  Those of us that finished early would have to wait for the others to arrive before we could get our tents, shower accessories, and clean clothes.  We added to our list of gripes that we would now have to face a logjam at the showers.

Once we started, we again moved to the front and enjoyed an inaugural ride on the "not quite ready to be inaugurated" Corry Junction Trail.  It was a rough and muddy trail, and I found myself wondering if there were going to be a lot of cyclists in over their head.  For all intents and purposes, it was singletrack without the hills.  Behind us were all manner of tandems, recumbents, trailers, road bikes, and other bikes not really fit for this terrain (in my opinion.)  Again, about 15 of us rode towards the front, with a big gap behind us.  I nearly wiped out once in the thick mud, and my chain-ring took a big souvenir bite out of my calf.  I joked that chain-rings are sterile, although of course they're not.  It didn't kill me, anyway.

After the Corry Junction Trail we took dirt roads and another trail to our lunch stop in Spartansburg at the Sparta Grange.  The grange put together a very nice lunch for us, and we adjourned to an outside gazebo to wait for the others to join us.  Lunch seemed to drag on, and eventually an announcement was made that they were holding us there because there was a 4 mile swatch of contested trail.  Although an injunction had been issued two weeks prior and by decree of the courts we had the right of way, we were told that there was barbed wire and razor wire across the trail, protestors, and that we were waiting for the state police before we rode on.  There was an alternate route we could have taken, but with the law on our side it didn't seem prudent to back down.  As we relaxed for about a half hour in the shady grass, completely guilt free - I aware of the rarity of time and space to do nothing.  It was good.

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Lunch at Sparta Grange (Photo courtesy of Jerry Taylor)

When we were finally called to ride, Jeff, Jerry, and I were again in the lead group.  We rode for awhile over a somewhat rough trail and then the ride leader stopped and told us that after we crossed the railroad trestle up ahead we'd be on the contested part of the trail.  I didn't feel I knew enough to do anything more than ride and be quiet.  If we encountered protestors, I decided I would be quiet and respectful but determined.  I hoped there wouldn't be anything nasty - like rock throwing.

About half a mile after the trestle, Jerry pulled off with a flat tire, and Jeff and I stopped to went back and help him.  As we did, we noticed that there were 2 people immediately in front of us, and 5 behind us, all seemingly with flat tires acquired at the same instant.  Suspicious.  Neither Jeff nor I got flats, but we helped a teenager with a flat by patching her tire.  As we did, we discovered the carpet tacks.  She had 2 in her front tire, and 1 behind.  Some people had 4 or 5 or more.  For 2+ miles there was a carnage of bikes alongside the trails - all with flat tires.  Even folks with a spare tube and a patch kit found themselves with not enough to repair the damage.  We patched for people who were either unlucky, unprepared, or both.  There were a surprising number of cyclists who didn't have any tools, spares, or the wherewithal to change a flat tire.    Earlier, we would have labeled these people as foolish, but now, we were friends through shared experience, and it didn't matter.  As we changed tires, we were treated to a short but intense deluge of thundering rain.  With no place to go, we just stood there and got wet.

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Fixing Flat Tires

After the patching, we walked along the trail until the intersection with the road.  The logic was that since we couldn't see the tacks in the trail, and didn't know if there were more, we were less likely to pick them up if the bike wasn't weighted by our bodies.  We walked right by the protestors, who were Amish farmers with their children holding signs like, "your hosts are thieves."  I, for one, didn't understand their anger.  How could anybody not want a trail?

We noticed that the ride leaders had no emergency instructions, no maps, no phones, no walkie-talkies, no way to communicate up and down the trail with each other unless it was face to face, and no central person to get information and instructions from.  They carried no special tools, and generally speaking, did not help to fix peoples tires.  When we first found the tacks, Jeff suggested to a leader that they divert the rest of the riders to the road alternative - but there was no way to convey that message to the riders behind us.  This, like the lack of cues and maps, seemed like a serious liability.  Flat tires were merely inconvenient, but an actual emergency could have had dire consequences.  Sure we could have called 911 (if we were in wireless phone range, which often we weren't), but even so - we wouldn't have known how to tell anybody where we were.  For most of  each day, nobody really knew where we were. 

Eventually we walked to the intersection of the next road, and there was a ride leader there who instructed us on a road alternative we could take - which we did.  Having stopped to repair so many tires, were at the back of the pack now.  Many before us continued walking on the trail because nobody was there to guide them - and of course they had no maps.  We traveled the remainder of the day on dirt and paved roads, and stopped along the way to help people who were still suffering from recurring or delayed flat tires.  It was getting late, and we noticed with some concern that at the back of the group, riders seemed to dismount and walk up even the smallest hills.  Now wonder they arrived so late the day before.

With just a few miles to go we passed a woman with a flat tire who said her husband was ahead of her, and he had the spare.  Jeff and Jerry stopped to help her, and I did my best domestique imitation, and backtracked down (and back up) a big hill and bought iced tea for the 4 of us.   While we refreshed ourselves, Jeff created an amazing four patch masterpiece on an inner tube that had punctured numerous times on the same tack.  It looked like an old pin cushion. 

Eventually, we rode through town, and down a small paved path to the park in Titusville which was our home for the evening.  It was already 6:00 PM, and there were plenty of riders still behind us.  It was not a hard day, but it was a very long day.  An announcement was made that we could get free inner tubes and patch kits courtesy of a local bike shop.   We camped immediately adjacent to the BMX park, and we watched kids launch themselves over hill and dale.  We saw some of our riders in there, too.  Ever adventurous, Jerry - who by the way is well into his second half century of life - rode it the next morning.  We didn't.

As we set up camp, there was a brief rain.  We showered and got back on our bikes to ride a few miles into town for dinner.  We found the Four Sons Brewery, which was not surprisingly packed with our kin.  Ian, the ride leader, joked, "at least the beer isn't FLAT."  Others dubbed the ride, "Tour de Tacks" and "Nails to Trails."  We could laugh about it now.  Ian explained a little more about what happened:  A landowner who owns property immediately adjacent to the Amish property doesn't want the trail.  The trail doesn't run through his property, and his agenda was unclear, but to advance his cause he told the Amish farmers that if they allowed the trail that these nasty bicyclists (us) would steal their children, rape their wives, and build a methamphetamine lab in their neighborhood.  No wonder they felt so threatened!    It seemed to me that the Amish, because they are socially isolated, are especially vulnerable to this sort of propaganda.  I felt sympathy, not anger, and reminded myself how many of our world beliefs are based on similar tidbits of propaganda - often not entirely true.

We rode back to camp in the rapidly fading light.

Press coverage of the day's events:

bulletTitusville Herald, "Tour de Tacks"
bulletErie Times, "Bicyclists Get  A Flat Welcome"
bulletPittsburg Post Gazette, "Locals help riders with flat problems"

Day 3
    Titusville to Franklin - 27.5 miles

On the third day, we awoke to dampness but no rain.  Breakfast was served up by the local Boy Scouts, and we ate sitting on the sidewalk.  What was remarkable about this to me  is that some of these people are pretty old.  Judging by the cars at the start, many have quite a bit of money.   And yet, I heard not one gripe about sitting on the sidewalk for breakfast.   It's just what we did.  And, to be sure, this was our vacation, and we paid to do it.  There were a few gripes about the rubbery eggs, though.

Speaking of septuagenarians, when we arrived at the Pit Stop that first day in Cabot, there was one woman who immediately stood out.  Catherine immediately presented herself as no-nonsense, ready and willing to tell the absolute complaining, stinking truth (as she saw it) to anybody that would listen.  I instantly dubbed her, "Cantankerous Catherine" and stood in awe of her pure devotion to simply being crotchety.  She seemed to make a scene wherever she went, and it took awhile for us to realize that she was in on the joke.  Catherine, we learned over the course of the week, was 74 years old.  She does 5-6 bike events every year, including some very hard ones like Bike Virginia, and never gets on her bike in between tours.  She is a veteran long distance backpacker, which is evident by her ultra-minimalist packing.  She wore the same blue swim shorts and red shirt every single day, and every single evening, and said she showered in her clothes as well.  The other thing about Catherine is:  she can ride.  Many days we thought we were in front, only to later discover that she'd passed through town ahead of us.  She's also very smart and interesting, once you get past the crotchety part.

As nice as Catherine and the others were, nobody was guarding the gate.  Ever the rebels, we left early.  The day started on the beautifully paved Oil City Trail.  Jeff and I set out alone a little in front of the crowd, and enjoyed an easy paced and slightly downhill ride along the creek.  Although the prior day's ride was not long in miles, it was long in hours, and we both found ourselves content to take it slow.  En route we saw plenty of chipmunks darting around and showing off their fancy racing stripes.  At one point we saw a deer with two spotted fawns.  Quiet is just one advantage to being just two people.  Another is that we felt free to take the time and read the interpretive signs along the trail, and learn about the very brief oil rush 100 years prior.  This area, now named Oil City, was home to the first oil well in the world.  Quaker State and Pennzoil both started here, before they moved to the much more oil abundant city of Houston.  The smell of petroleum was still ominously in the air, although mining had stopped long ago.

After the trail, we took to a dirt road, and then a paved road, and we were among the first to arrive at a big welcome tent set up just for us by the Oil City chamber of commerce.  We downed some cold beverages and chatted up the locals about how hard it is for a city to reinvent itself after the major industry has gone.  For Oil City, it was of course the oil companies.  For our home town of Bethlehem, it is Bethlehem Steel.  But we all know that this story is playing out in towns across the country.

These locals were creative, though.  Apparently (in hindsight), there were Sojourn signs that would have led us directly onto the Samuel Justus trail, averting downtown.  The townsfolk, however, put up their own signs which hijacked us right down the main street.  It was a cute town and they even closed off parts of roads just for us.  In town, we stopped at Spill The Beans coffee shop, sat outside, and summoned other riders to join us as they passed by.  We weren't there long at all when Catherine rode by en route to the library to check her email.  Others joined us for a short break.

Once we found it, the Samuel Justus trail was as nice as the Oil City trail.  There were quite a fewold oil derricks alongside the trail, as well as some huge mansions.  The trail was also slightly downhill, and even without trying we arrived in Franklin pretty early.  Once the trail ended at the outskirts of Franklin, though, we had no idea where to go.  There were no signs.  We had no final destination other than "Franklin."  We winded around town, and eventually saw Catherine up ahead and followed her.  She'd been on the tour the year before, and while she didn't know where we were camping, she knew a lunch spot.  We followed her, and she led us right to the campground.  When we arrived, the luggage truck was locked tight, and no amount of complaining was going to liberate our clean clothes and shampoo.  We hopped on our bikes and headed downtown and scoped things out.  We located the Laundromat (for later), and warm welcomes everywhere.  It is a very charming town.  Many shops had welcome signs just for us, with a picture of [Ben] Franklin riding a bicycle.

We got sandwiches and brought them back to the school which would be our campsite.  Then, we nagged some more until Ian couldn't take it anymore, threw his hands up in disgust, and let us unload the truck into the school basement.  This was a complicated ordeal that involved a bucket brigade of about 40 people running through the parking lot, down the stairs, down the hall, and into the basement.

Once the truck was unloaded, we picked a rare shady campsite, showered, gathered our laundry, and sat in the grass with Jerry (and later, Mark) while our skivvies got clean and dry.  Afterwards, we enjoyed a nice dinner on the outdoor patio at Boston Garden, and walked over to the park where Acoustic Fish was playing a free concert for the Soujourners.  As the sun set, we grooved to classic rock with a blues twist.  It was perfect music for a bunch of ageing hippies, and besides that, the band was really very good.

Before falling asleep, I wrote in my journal:  The moon is big.  The sky is clear.  My laundry is clean.  Everything is good.  Sometimes, that's all it takes.

Day 4
    Franklin to Foxburg - 35.5 miles

 It didn't rain overnight!

... but at 2:45 AM, the garbage truck made a pick up immediately adjacent to the field where we were camped.  The whole group was treated what seemed like an eternal cycle of Hydraulic lift, shake, bang, dump, bang, dump, drop followed by a bout of heavy duty compacting.  At 3:00 AM there was a line for the bathroom because everybody was awake.

There was a short walk to breakfast at the elegant downtown Franklin Club which definitely won the prize for best breakfast.  It was the same old fare as we had elsewhere:  scrambled eggs, fruit, toast, juice - but it was better done, in a very nice setting, and we had actual tables and chairs to avail ourselves of.

A picture of our group appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, and we looked like vagrants. 

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Vagrants or Bicycle Tourists?  You decide.


After a short en masse road ride, we took to the picturesque Allegheny River Trail.  This gentle, paved trail is immediately adjacent to the surprisingly placid Allegheny River, and with nice views of both nature and lovely homes.  We took a diversion onto a dirt road where a resident served us homemade Amish bread and refreshments.  As we relaxed, we learned about the things we had missed - - a side trail, a rock with historic carvings - - that a cue sheet could have alerted us to, but didn't.  Too bad for us.  

We returned to the trail, and encountered two very dark, long tunnels, each over a mile long.   As we entered, where the path was still lit by the outside light, people had written things like, "Go Ask Alice," which I thought was funny.  Although we had headlights, the scene in each tunnel was almost pitch blackness except for the reflectors.   Everything became dark and invisible.  There was no path, no walls, no end - just three airy lines of reflectors to mark the lanes.  All that could be done was to take a deep breath, and ride slow, steady and loose and hope for the best.  It was cool and damp and spooky and fun all at once.

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Cover the green with your hand to imagine what the inside of the tunnel looked like

Continuing our trend of more eating and less riding, our lunch stop was on the deck of a beautiful riverside home.  We were a bit early for lunch, but not as early as Catherine.  It had been an easy day so far, and we had not many miles left - so we just hung out for awhile.  Typically gung-go, Jerry decided it was a good time for a swim, and he waded out into the Allegheny.  Others soon followed.  Jeff and I just hung out on the deck watching the action, and chatting with Catherine and Tom, the regional director for Rails To Trails.

As we approached Foxburg, the paved trail ended and we rode on unimproved dirt (i.e., mud) and railroad ballast for about 5 miles.  From town - which was a restaurant, a wine store, and a gift shop - we followed a Sojourn sign up a hill.  It was the first hill to speak of all day.  The road switched back and became steep, rocky dirt, and we had a long, grueling climb to the top.  At the top, the road split and there were no signs.  We became separated.  I rode half the distance back down the other side with Jerry.   Jeff, who was ahead of us, rode all the way down before realizing he was on the wrong track. As usual, we had no idea where we were going so we couldn't even ask for directions.  Through pure trial and error I rejoined our group, and later Jeff rode up, and even later, Jerry did.  I suggested that the ride leaders put up a few signs to help us out, and then learned that we'd been off course and had actually climbed the "goat trail."  Whew.

We were still among the earliest riders in, and we helped again to unload the luggage truck and pitched our tent in a rare shady spot on the vast Steffi Estate.  Dr. Steffi, who made a small fortune as a neurosurgeon and a larger fortune patenting a kind of screw used for spinal fusion, owns a swatch of land probably amounting to several square miles overlooking the Allegheny river.  As in the past, he has allowed the Rails To Trails sojourners to camp on it, and also provided hayrides, singing cowboys, and a really impressive bonfire (no marshmallows, though).

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Impressive bonfire sans marshmallows

After we cleaned up, we walked through the luxurious barns (usually an oxymoron, but not in this case - these barns had self-mucking stalls) and pet the noses of the work horses, who were both majestic and friendly.  Later, as I said, we hopped on the hayride for a ride down the mountain (via road, not goat path) and dined riverside at the Foxburg Inn.  The hayride shuttle then returned us to our mountaintop campsite, but not before we bought a bottle of locally crafted wine.  We joyously downed the adequate Marechal Foch (like a Merlot), and were soon joined by Bill ... then Ken and Alice and then more and more people either brought their own bottles or shared somebody else's until it seemed that half the camp was in a silly, boozy post-ride bliss.  Then came the massive bonfire, the cheezy cowboy stories and the songs led by one of Dr. Steffi's ranch hands.  As the sun set fully, and the full moon rose,  it got cooler.  We kept inching closer and closer to the fire.  Eventually, we retreated to our tents for a night of very quiet sleep.  It was actually a little bit cold - but it didn't rain.

Day 5
    Foxburg to Kittaning - 27.5 + 3.3 walking miles

Again there was confusion.  Most of our information seemed to be of the whisper-down-the-alley sort.  We were asked to load our bikes onto the truck the night before, and were told that we'd be walking a few miles in the morning - but nobody explained the whys or wheres of it.  There was a lot of speculation, though.

With our bikes loaded, we took the hayride express back down to breakfast at the Foxburg Inn.  It was cool and drizzling.  After breakfast, an announcement was made, and when we asked enough questions, the whole story finally became clear.  We were walking 3 miles over an unimproved trail.  With the exception of the airy trestle, the trail was probably no worse than others we rode on.  Then, we would board busses and be shuttled 12 miles down the road and across the river.  The reason for the shuttle was that we did not have a legal right of way for those trails, even though we heard they were beautiful.  Plus, one of tunnels had collapsed.  The reason for the walk was that it was easier to load the bikes the night before than have us ride 3 miles, get all spread out, and then load them.  It sorta made sense, although my preference would have been to ride the whole way, even if it meant riding on unimproved trails or roads.

So, after breakfast, we followed our leader out to the trail and started walking.  Pretty soon we encountered some newly downed trees with No Trespassing signs ominously affixed.  There was no mistaking these were for us.  Somehow, we were again without a leader - and Catherine stepped aside while others relocated the tree and dismissed the warning.  Catherine led us on again.  In light of the Carpet Tack Incident, you'd think we wouldn't be so brazen - but we were.  I guess it's the security of being in a mob.  Shortly after that, maybe by will of the mob induced bad karma, it started raining harder.  By the time we reached the busses, we were goodly damp.  Those behind us got outright soaked.  Yes, a big gap formed even when we were just walking.

We waited on the bus for awhile to regroup, and the mood was definitely not positive.  Nobody wanted to ride in this rain, and we tried to get together enough money to bribe the bus driver to just take us to our evening destination.  No luck.

Additionally, our ride leader, Tom, explained that the he had messed up the promised mileages.  This was not a major announcement, and I only heard it because I was sitting right next to him.  That day (and not the next, as it was written) would be our longest day.  We worried about all the people who finished late on shorter, easier rides.  We worried that it seemed certain to be in the rain.  Further, once we got on our bikes we were promised that it would be as rough as the end of the prior day - which was quite rough - and we worried about that, too.  And, to add insult to injury, we wouldn't be able to start actually riding until close to noon because of the walking and bussing.  I'm not sure if it was the long and windy bus ride (probably) or the thought of riding 30 miles in the rain through deep mud and wet rocks, or the extreme humidity inside the bus - but I was duly nauseated by the time we reached our "starting point."  The bus took us 5 miles past East Brady, and down a drainpipe of a road until it was so narrow we couldn't continue.  It turned out we'd missed the turn, and on this steep, narrow road, we made a U-turn.  Then, we went down a different narrow road.  The upside to this was that by the time we'd reached our destination the rain had let up.

We found our bikes lying in a field.  Mine had a new dent in the downtube - from the looks of it a pedal had chafed it the whole ride in the truck.  The rear quick release skewer was also missing a chunk.  Neither of these things seemed structural, and even if I could prove that they had caused the damage, what kind of person would I be if I sued Rails To Trails Conservancy?  Suck it up and ride on.

After breakfast, a hike, and a bus ride we all noticed the obvious omission of lavatory type facilities.  Being rational adults with a mission, we simply by decree assigned areas of bushes as "Men" and "Women" and solved the problem.

Although I felt better once we got on our bikes in the cool air, I asked Jeff to hold an easy pace for awhile.  Lunch was in only 5 miles, in East Brady.  If you've been paying attention you'll know that the bus had taken us past there just so we could ride back to it.

After lunch, we found the unimproved Armstrong Trail with the help of green-shirted volunteers at every intersection pointing the way.  The volunteers certainly helped, although it may not have been the most efficient use of resources.  We proceeded to ride 20+ miles on axle deep railroad ballast that made my ulnar nerve (wrist) cry for mercy, puddles so deep I feared sharks, and mud as slippery as ice.  Often, these obstacles paired up so we'd have deep puddles on top of ballast, surrounded by wheel sucking mud.  Although there were no hills to speak of, these were hard miles. 

Along the route we passed through a riverfront part of the trail that wasn't really a trail at all - it was just people's backyards.  There was a sign that the trail was only open for us that one day.  It seemed nice until we saw the bicycle hanging in a tree - by a noose.  Was that an effigy or art?  A chat with the neighbors let us know that it was in fact an effigy.  Not everybody likes trails, and not everybody wants one running through their neighborhood.  Happily, a neighbor of the effigy-source was of thankfully opposite opinion and fed us cool water and trail mix.

We rode on.  Many of the puddles were unavoidable, or dangerous to avoid because the slippery mud was on the rim.  Soon, Jeff and Jerry started riding straight through them, and I followed suit.  We got filthy.  So filthy that it didn't wash off.  So filthy that my bike and the clothes that I wore are permanently stained with what seems to be graphite.  So filthy that I was dirty under my clothes.  So filthy that the puddles towards the end actually started to make us cleaner.  My shoes were so wet they had a tide.  (There was an undertow joke here, but it has been omitted for your safety, gentle reader).  C'est la vie.

Click to see enlargement

Wendy, Jeff, an Jerry show their filthy side

We arrived at "Lock 8" 2 hours late for the ribbon cutting ceremony, but since we were practically the first ones through, they waited for us.  Actually, Catherine had come through before us.  While the Commissioner didn't mention her by name, she was easily recognizable by description.  Apparently when they asked that she stay for the trail dedication, she gave a good rant instead.  Noting how far back the bulk of the riders were, Tom remarked that he may have bitten off too much for this day's ride - and that the riders were doing the chewing for him.  I anticipated a lot of angry riders that evening, and I wasn't wrong.  This wasn't the kind of riding we envisioned when we signed on.  We were not alone in our surprise, although we may have been unique in our reaction... the rough trails kept it as an adventure and a challenge.  At least in hindsight, it was exhilarating.  As good as we felt about making it, we also had true respect for the people who did the same but with tandems, recumbents,  kiddie trailers, or who were twice my age.

Also on the bright side, we think we got our picture in the local newspaper looking as grubby as we do in the above picture.  Shortly after the dedication, we hosed off (sorta) and got a nice tour of a working lock.  Then we hit the trail again, this time on the inagural surface which as it happens was as rough as some of the unimproved parts.  Apparently the limestone didn't come in yet, so we were still riding on the base layer.  These rides are purposely planned years in advance around not-yet-built trails, and used as an incentive to finish them.  Sometimes, the timing doesn't quite work out.

We rode some of the way on the adjacent road, and then back on the trail which was now made of some sort of black sand.  Possibly quicksand.  It was no longer rough, but it was like we were riding in ether ... slow motion.

We made camp a little after 4:00 PM, and we were among the first.  The trucks were not yet unloaded.  Dinner was at 5:00 PM, and it seemed unlikely that everybody would be back in time.  Rather than stand around and kvetch about not being able to shower until the truck was unloaded, we doused ourselves under a spigot and went for a walk to find downtown.  Specifically, our stated mission was to find an ice cream shop, but after walking a few miles we only found a general store.  Good enough.

Mark, who managed to miss the bus in the morning and had to hitchhike to Kittaning, started the ice cream mission with us.  He stepped into a bar to "ask for directions" and we gave him about 10 seconds and decided it was unlikely that he was coming back out.  We walked on.  When we called him on it later he admitted that he forgot all about us.

After dinner at the firehall, we got a 6 pack of Yuenglings and sat around with a small group imbibing.  At close to 9:00 PM Rod, our resident mechanic, came by and said he was taking the stake body truck downtown to get some ice cream and we were all welcome.   Half of the campers who were not out drinking loaded into the back of this truck like cattle and we paraded through town to the interest of the locals.  I didn't really need more ice cream, but it was worth it for the adventure.

No rain, but the bugs were biting.  There's always something to complain about, if you want.

Day 6
    Kittaning to Cabot - 30.1 miles

After an icky breakfast, Jeff, Jerry and I hit the road a little early because we wanted to explore the downtown and riverfront a bit.  On the ice cream run the night before, we'd noted some interesting architecture and wanted a better look.   Mark joined us for awhile, but turned back once we picked up speed.

The trail was paved through town, then easy dirt, and then rough dirt and ballast, but still  easier than the day before.  We were escorted by a local rider who told us that if we'd been a few weeks later they would have laid the limestone top layer which would have made for easier riding.  That sounded familiar.  We got a lot of local history en route to Shenley, most of it being the same as everywhere:  local industry (Eljer in this case) moves out, town tries to reinvent itself.  At Shenley we had an early lunch, and then loaded our bikes onto the truck again.  I, for one, was seriously considering finding the road alternative because all this transporting the bikes and regrouping and waiting was getting to me.  Alas, we played by the rules, loaded the bikes on the truck, and then loaded our bodies onto the ferry.  The ferry took us up-river a few miles to Freeport.  It was not even 11:00 on the last day, but somebody noticed that the captain had a cooler of beer, and a few adventurous souls were all for it. 

In Freeport, we waited for our bikes, waited to regroup, and then had a police escort over closed roads to the trailhead of the Butler-Freeport Trail.  At the trailhead, we started heading west, saw a big end-of-trail marker, and made an ill-coordinated group U-Turn.  The effect was that we were not in the front of the pack anymore. 

The Butler-Freeport trail was the wonderfully groomed crushed limestone all the other trails promised for the future.  This was the best trail of the whole ride.  Even though it was slightly uphill, it was heaven.  Jeff, Jerry, and I soon found ourselves at the front again.  Or, near it.  We were holding a brisk but sustainable pace when some kids tried to pass us.  Jeff had a surge of competitive testosterone, and took off like he had robbed a bank.  I chased him like it was my money he stole.  Soon about 8 or 10 people were trying to catch us.  Jeff maintained the pace, and I could hear riders behind us gasping with exhaustion and eventually dropping off.  Finally, it was just the two of us.  I was pretty much gassed, but these were the last few miles and I had no need to conserve energy either.  We'd ridden most of the week at easy pace.  Now, we looked behind us, and nobody was even in sight.  We backed off a bit, laughed, and enjoyed the remaining miles by ourselves.  We were the first riders back to Cabot, and got our picture taken for the Butler-Freeport Trail website as the "prize".  Just as the picture was about to be taken, Jerry - baggy shorts and Teva's - rode up next to us, and joined us in the celebration. 

There was a lot to celebrate.  Friends.  Adventure.  Next year?

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