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It was August 1999 that I read an article in the Washington Post’s Travel section about a trail that would connect Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. I live in northern Virginia but am from western Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh to D.C. route passed through many locations of which I am very familiar.
Although I never lived there, my parents retired to Somerset Co., Pennsylvania. My daughter, Bethany, was attending Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, WV. Going “home” meant traveling, by car, roughly the same direction as the trail, of which I am sure I have done more than 100 times in my life.
By 2001 the seed had grown and this weed took root. Andrew was young (12) and his mind was not mature enough to know not to say no. He was big for his age and was going to ride with me. We borrowed a one-wheel trailer and attached it to my bike, loaded it with supplies, and headed out of Washington, D.C. We took a longer route, the W&OD out of Alexandria to Leesburg before crossing Whites Ferry and over to the C&O Canal. We rode 70 miles the first day before pulling into a campground. Our second day was Andrew’s 13th birthday. We were both sore but continued on. But we had an accident at Antietam Creek. My rear wheel was bent beyond repair. We had to abandon the trip.
Two years later I had a business trip to Pittsburgh. A smarter Andrew, then 15, was wise enough not to want to take this venture again. To him, mile after mile of forest and river views along the Potomac River was just “boring.” After ensuring that he did not want to ride with me I decided that I would finish the trip we started two years earlier. However, it would be west to east instead of east to west.
I rented a car and drove one way, taking my bike with me. I would bike home — Pittsburgh to D.C.
I did little training for this ride. Actually, I did none. I was barely on my bike. I had foot problems that were bothering me immensely. I never rode more than 10 miles at one time. I never thought about doing this ride until the business trip came up just a few days before I left. This lack of preparation would turn out to be a very critical mistake.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
I printed out my cue sheet and thought I knew my way out of Pittsburgh. I left the Hilton at Point State Park and took a picture of downtown. This was a great beginning.
I started off on the Pittsburgh streets where my ride would be a short six blocks up to Grant and First streets. When I reached the beginning of the river trail I stopped again to take a picture of my “official” start. Within minutes I was pedaling the paved rail trail from downtown next to the Parkway East. I was enjoying myself. The temperature at 9:30 a.m. was in the low 70s and there wasn’t much humidity. It was a perfect day for riding.
On my bike I thought I had everything I needed. Unlike two years ago when Andrew and I started out going from D.C. to Pittsburgh, we had tried to carry everything we needed. I towed a one-wheel trailer (“Bob”) and we had our tent and sleeping bags with us. We even had a cooler loaded with food. We probably had too much.
This time I wanted to take just the minimum. I had a small bag mostly with bike supplies (pump, extra tubes, wrenches) on the back of my bike and wore a Camelbak with my personal items. I had just taught a day at our arbitration advocacy course in Pittsburgh and had my “business casual” clothes with me as well. I rolled them as tight as I could and stuffed them in my backpack. Having filled my pack with clothes I had no room to fill the bladder with water. It was a calculated decision based on the pleasant weather and the presumed availability of water along the route I was riding. It was also a critical mistake.
I was taking in everything by riding this section of the trail next to the old J&L property. As a kid I remember driving into Pittsburgh from the Parkway East and seeing this gigantic steel complex belching out fire and smoke from its stacks. Now it’s gone and an industrial park is in its place.
I was following the Monongahela River. The trail featured a slight upgrade. While the grade was manageable, that would also be a theme for the next two days; continuous climbing.
I soon caught a young lady in her mid 20s who was roller blading. We talked briefly. She was just out exercising and I was riding from Pittsburgh to Washington. She wished me luck and I was gone. I can only imagine what she thought when I told her I was on my way to D.C.
Cruising along the “Mon” and feeling good I was surprised to discover the trail ended just 2.5 miles outside of Pittsburgh. I was on the Eliza Furnace Trail aka “Jail Trail” but it quickly went away from the river which told me that I did not want to ride there. I looked at my black and white map I had printed and was unable to discern river from trail. I had thought that staying on the north side of the river was the correct choice but then thought of Pa. Route 837 which I remembered was one of the detours to the trail. I realized that I had followed the wrong trail out of Pittsburgh and needed to cross the river.
Fifteen minutes into the trip to D.C. and already I had selected the wrong route!
I rode down to an industrial road and rode back towards Pittsburgh to the Hot Metal Bridge. The Hot Metal Bridge is now decked to carry cars on part but had been a railroad bridge at J&L built in 1904. While on the bridge I had my best view of downtown Pittsburgh and wanted to stop and take a picture. But there were no shoulders or bike lanes, only a jersey barrier and 5 inches of white paint. And not the most bicycle friendly population either.
At the end of the bridge, I did stop to take a picture of downtown. It would be the last time I saw the tall buildings of the Golden Triangle. There was a trail here and I jumped on it. I never looked back. This was on the south side of Pittsburgh and it just felt right, that after the tactical mistake of following the wrong trail, I finally picked up the right one. I would state that most of the trails around Pittsburgh are virtual trails, that is, they exist in the future but aren’t yet developed.
I think had I left Station Square I would have ridden on a trail for a couple of miles but may have also been forced to ride on Carson Street. But now I was on a trail and immediately was beside the huge UMPC Sports Complex, which is where the Pittsburgh Steelers practice. I saw some Steelers in the far corner of one field but they were too far away to identify any of them.
As I rode the trail a huge CSX train passed me and the engineer waved to me. I waved back. After about three miles on this trail I came to a sign which stated “trail ends.” My only legal option was a U-turn. Getting out of Pittsburgh was proving to be extremely challenging. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.
I stopped and surveyed my location. River to the left. Industrial plant or steel mill straight ahead. Two busy railroad tracks to the right. Sign marking the busy railroad tracks. “No trespassing.” I thought about backtracking again on this day and decided that was not in order. I needed to cross the tracks. I picked up my bike and carried it across the tracks where I had to cross a guard rail to get on Pa. 837. Once on that road I thought I could ride to Sandcastle, a Pittsburgh water park on the river where I was hopeful the trail would continue.
Pa. Rte 837 featured “modern” Pennsylvania road building techniques. Jersey barriers on both sides and no shoulders. This road carried lots of industrial traffic and sometimes one thought the tractor-trailer drivers just wanted to see how close they could get to this cyclist. I came to a ramp and had to navigate the ramp like any traffic. This was essentially a limited access highway except there were no signs prohibiting bikes. Or pedestrians. Or farm vehicles and the like.
I came to the Glenwood bridge and pulled into a small gas station which carried some snack items. Having exhausted the water on my bike already, I stopped and invoked one rule that would guide me along my journey. Never pass up a chance to take on more fluids. I stopped and bought a Gatorade and asked about the trail. Neither worker knew anything about the trail and told me I would have to ride to McKeesport on this road. I believed they were right.
For all the talk about a rail trail to Pittsburgh, the reality of it is that the last 20 miles to Pittsburgh (or the first 20 miles out of Pittsburgh) consisted of some finished trails and many road detours. I was resigned to staying on the road. I left the station and climbed a steep hill into Homestead and saw no trails. I rode past a roadside sign commemorating the Homestead Grays, the Negro League team that played here featuring Josh Gibson among others. I stayed on Rte. 837 and came to Kennywood Park. It wasn’t quite 11:00 a.m. and the smells of 100 years of amusements came over the highway. Or maybe it was just creosote. I wanted to go into the park and grab some funnel cakes but had to keep going.
Passing Kennywood, I crossed a bridge over a rail yard and began a descent to the Mon river valley. This was a four lane road which I would not recommend for most cyclists, especially youths. But I came to McKeesport and crossed the bridge over the Monongahela into town. I rode through McKeesport and came to the last bridge on the Youghiogheny River. This was where the Youghiogheny flowed into the Monongahela. Try spelling that in Scrabble!
I found a sign marking the Steel Heritage Trail so I thought I had finally had found my path. I crossed the bridge and descended into a poor section of town. I started to follow the Steel Heritage signs but soon discovered that they, quite literally, led one in a continual loop. There was no way out of this section and I headed back to the base of the bridge. I saw a two lane road which paralleled the “Yough” and decided I would follow it upstream because it surely would lead to the trail.
The road continued for a mile or two and then came to an industrial plant. I wasn’t sure what I would do next but decided to ride another 50 yards. There, on a traffic sign, I could see a blue sign marking the YRT (Yough River Trail). I no sooner left the road and hit the asphalt of the YRT that I saw spray painted on the trail sign “Trail Closed.”
I didn’t know what to do. My experience is that even when a trail is marked closed that you ride it as far as you can and deal with the consequences later. It was especially true here because I saw no other options other than backtracking and riding the roads — roads which weren’t clearly marked and for which I had no map. I started up the trail and had an immediate climb. As I reached the summit of my climb I saw orange barrier mesh that had been placed over a section of trail that looked like it had succumbed to a hill slide where the trail simply gave way and was gone. However, there was enough repaired to continue through. My hopes of a paved rail trail soon ended as the trail turned to the crushed limestone base which makes up all these trails in this section.
I had an on-board computer tracking my speed and miles (sounds impressive, doesn’t it? — it’s just a $25 speedometer) and my odometer told me that I had gone 26 miles when I saw my first mile marker — 20. I assume that the mile markers are right and that when the trails are finally completed that will be the accurate distance back to Pittsburgh. But starting in the Golden Triangle, going up the wrong trail and having to backtrack, plus taking a road overland certainly added to the starting distance. There was a trail map and I could see that Connellsville was at milepost (MP) 58.
A boat went flying by upstream and I was a little surprised that this section of the Yough was navigatable. I wasn’t sure if there were dams on it or the white water was just further upstream. I hadn’t seen any cyclists but at Boston (Pa.) came to a park where some locals were riding. You can also tell the locals by the lack of equipment they carry. I was feeling pretty good but getting a little tired. I was sitting in the saddle most of the time.
Near West Newton I came to an intersection and saw an ice cream stand about 100 yards off road. I bought a vanilla-raspberry cone and continued on. I never rode a bike before while eating a cone and thought it was a stupid idea. Not because of safety but because of bugs. Who wants bugs in their cone? But I don’t believe I ate any bugs so it worked out.
At MP 40 I started cramping in my right thigh. Cramping is a sign of dehydration and I was suffering. The temperature wasn’t too bad, mid to high 80s, but I hadn’t been taken on enough fluid either this day or in preparation the day or days before. I was most unprepared for the mental agony of a continual uphill climb from the moment I left Pittsburgh.
Along the route I tried using my cell phone and was able to connect with my dad. My plan for Day 1 was to get to Confluence, Pa., where my parents would pick me up. I made four or five calls throughout the afternoon, each one pushing the time back. First from an ETA of 4:00 p.m. to 4:30 then to 5:00 and eventually to 6:00 p.m. The last call would not only push the time back but also the pickup point from Confluence to Ohiopyle. I was “in difficulty” and my speed was dropping.
I did stop at a Cedar Creek State Park and bought a snack and drink. I wasn’t hungry but forced myself to eat. I can’t say that it tasted good but I ate to get some energy. When you exercise hard you typically do not get hungry but you need to keep the body fueled so I knew that much.
Just a couple of miles outside of Connellsville the trail passed a campground where all trail users were welcome. I went into the camp store and asked for a banana. They didn’t have any. I did buy water (they didn’t have Gatorade either) and drank most of it on the spot.
In Connellsville I rode through a small downtown area which had a curbed lane especially for bikes. That was pretty neat. In front of a bike shop there was a drink machine with juices but it didn’t work. I reached the waterfront park and stopped to take a picture of the sign: Washington 280, Pittsburgh 58. It wasn’t much but it was a sign of progress. My 58 miles had been 64 and I still had 18 to go. Just as I entered Ohiopyle State Park two women leisurely rode by me from Ohiopyle. They said “isn’t it a gorgeous day for riding?” and I responded “too hot.”
It is in Connellsville that the trail starts its increase in grade. From Ohiopyle, the river drops the most to Connellsville and I knew it would be a difficult climb to end the ride. I had ridden about five miles and it was here that I was passed for the only time. A teen pedaled by me and I wanted to yell “but you haven’t just ridden 70 miles.”
I continued on, alternating between being in and out of the saddle. Often I broke pace and sprinted then coasted, sprinting and coasting, just to change the pace up this last climb. The one redeeming feature was the beauty of the river. I tried to watch the river as much as possible and saw a blue heron which completely surprised me. I did not know that there were herons in southwestern Pennsylvania.
It was nearing 6:00 p.m. and I hadn’t reached the top yet. I knew I was getting close when I saw a sign on the trail warning users not to descend to the river far below for swimming in the rapids was prohibited. That was an ominous warning that Dimple Rock was waiting. Twenty people have lost their lives in the last 20 years, most of them at Dimple Rock, including one man earlier this summer.
In the 1970s I had purchased my own four-man inflatable raft and we had ridden these rapids many times. In 1975 while at Dimple Rock we capsized and in the ensuing struggle to remain afloat while being thrown through the turbulent rapids, my sister Brenda met one of the rocks in this section. She ended up in the hospital and had to have her spleen removed.
By the late 1970s the State Park began to limit access to the river pushing off private rafts like ours. I eventually sold the raft but riding this section brought back memories. However, I had never been on this rail trail before because when we rafted the river in the valley below this had been the right of way for the Western Maryland Railway. We always marveled at the trains that passed through those woods high above us.
About 6:10 p.m. I reached the trestle at Ohiopyle. I could look down 100 feet below and see the end of “the Loop” a place I rafted many times in my life. On this day those memories did not come streaming by. I just wanted to finish the day. Even more than finish I knew that only about 400 meters separated the first trestle with the second one that crosses above the falls and ends at the train station in Ohiopyle. And I knew that half way between the two trestles was a Powerade machine. I crossed the trestle and even though my parents were waiting, I stopped and got a drink. There were no trash cans present and my empty water bottle was already on the bike so after drinking half I mounted the bike again for the final 200 meters, carrying my drink.
Here stands one of the prettiest trestles anywhere. Following the old Western Maryland Railway it crosses the deep water right about the falls at Ohiopyle. One hundred years ago this line carried wealthy passengers from Pittsburgh to Ohiopyle for summer vacations. But the automobile changed that and passenger service stopped by the mid 20th century. Freight ran on these lines until 1975 when the WM was merged with B&O. Since the B&O has better rights on the opposite side of the river the WM was abandoned. Now this old trestle was rebuilt with a wooden road bed for carried bikers and walkers.
I crossed the bridge to see my parents sitting the bench at the station. My mother had a camera and as I approach I said, “no smiles here.” She handed me a power bar and I bought another drink. The end of a long day.
We drove back to Somerset and I took my parents out to the Grapevine Italian Restaurant to thank them and to celebrate their 53rd anniversary. Another tactical mistake before this day was eating wings and fries the night before. They are good but are not a high energy food. This night I went right for the pasta.
The check came and I got out my credit card to pay . When I went to sign the receipt I found that I could not grip the pen. Strange.