Allegheny Mountains Bike Tour Narrative
You can follow the route of this tour by downloading the Appalachian Bike Tour to your phone or tablet.
It was late when I arrived at the hotel, but I couldn’t sleep without checking the bike. I unpacked the box and pulled out the bike for inspection. Everything looked good. I could have gone to sleep, but the multi-tool was handy and it seemed like a good idea to attach a few miscellaneous small parts. That lead to a few more and eventually into full assembly mode. The task wasn’t easy because I was working in the motel room and all too aware that oily chains and motel carpets aren’t a good mix. The bike box became a workable repair stand and carpet protector.
By 1:00 am the bike was functional so I decided to call it quits, after just one more thing. More “One more things” kept me up for another hour. By that time the bike was ready for panniers, and gear. Another half hour passed. By 2:30 there was nothing more to do, so I cleaned up and went to bed. I was awake by 6:00. First days are like that.
They can also be aggravatingly complex. In Minneapolis, I can find a can of white camp stove gas on short notice. In Buffalo, I found myself explaining what white gas was to a perplexed hardware store manager. Two stores later and five miles off route, I found the gas in a camping store.
Map 1 of the mobile Appalachian Bike Tour .
Everyone needs a Vince on the first day of a tour. Pre-Vince I had been obsessing about the challenges of the day: Late night bike assembly, searching for stove fuel and leg cramps. Severe leg cramps, the kind that forced me to get off the bike and walk.
Vince sat next to me on a bench while I waited out a thunderstorm. I told him about my day.
“From Buffalo?” he said. “You’ve gained about a thousand feet of elevation, and it’s not like you climbed a thousand feet then leveled off. You were up and down all day so you climbed about 3000 feet.” That explained the leg cramps. He asked my destination and pondered it a moment. “There’s nothing flat on that route.”
Vince has toured by bike in the US and Europe. He understands the emotional roller coaster of a long tour. We talked until the storm passed, and kept talking. It usually takes several days to get into the Zen of bicycle touring. Vince got me there in one day.
Allegany State Park
Map 2 of the mobile Appalachian Bike Tour .
I spent most of the day in Allegany State Park, primarily because of the climbs. I walked the first mile of the approach road, then rode three miles to the summit at a blistering 5.5 mph. I would do two more 45 minute climbs before leaving the park and one more hike-and-bike climb before the day was done. I braked, sometimes hard, on the descents to keep my fully loaded bike under 30 mph.
The photos below are of the Stone Fort at the end of a gravel road I couldn’t resist.
Bear country. The first time I heard about the bears was at a campground called, appropriately, Black Bear Campground. They probably wouldn’t show, the owner assured me at check-in, because it was Monday and the dumpster had been emptied. The bears apparently know the weekly schedule.
The owner didn’t account for Bob. The first time I met Bob was at the dumpster. I was there to dispose of trash, Bob had other plans. “Did you have any visitors?” He asked. It took me a moment to understand that he was talking about bears. I assured him that I had not seen any in the hour I had been in camp. Sure that I was disappointed, Bob offered a ray of hope. He had cooked a bunch of chicken wings and dumped them into the dumpster. His trail camera was mounted on an over-sized pickup truck and facing the dumpster. Bob was giddy about catching footage of the bear.
He asked about “visitors” again the next morning, Fortunately, none, but Bob was beaming and pointed to the mess around the dumpster. A bear had stopped by. He had the video chip in hand and couldn’t wait to plug it into his computer. An hour later the owner picked up trash around the dumpster with the resigned efficiency of someone who had done this many times before.
Longhouse Scenic Byway, PA
The mountains kicked this flatlander’s butt the last two days, but today started with 15 miles of gradual downhill through deep woods on Longhouse Scenic Byway, a nearly car free road. The scenery was unbelievable. The legs haven’t screamed today and a little swagger has come back into my step. I’ve been warned that there are nasty hills ahead. Hopefully today’s ride gave my legs enough rest to handle them.
Map 3 of the mobile Appalachian Bike Tour .
Bring a gauge. That’s the lesson for today. Using your thumb to test tire pressure works well if your thumb is calibrated. Mine isn’t, and after two flats I realized that I was over estimating the tire pressure. I stopped for replacement tubes at an outfitter’s store. A couple of hours later I was pitching a tent in Gary and Kathy’s back yard, about 15 miles south of Ridgway.
These are outdoor people with a laid back, but accommodating, approach to hosting guests. Gary set me up at a quiet spot in the backyard, then dropped off water and a cooler of beer. Kathy drove up a few minutes later, pointed to the garden and said “Help Yourself.” Then Gary, concerned that he had harvested most of the ripe tomatoes, sliced up one of the best, added garlic powder and placed it in front of me.
We drank beer, stoked the campfire, spotted deer in a nearby field and watched a satellite arc across the sky. I spent a lot of time petting the friendliest of their two dogs, while also protecting my food from his insatiable appetite. After nightfall, Gary plugged my phone in for charging and we called it a night. I’ll still carry a tire gauge in the future, although I might have missed this night without those flat tires.
The photos are from this morning’s ride. I’ve rolled into farm country with no mountains in sight.
Punxsutawney is best known for Phil who climbs out of his hole on Ground Hog Day and predicts the weather for the next six weeks. Mildly interesting. The chainsaw carving store was better. The old guy with the loud chainsaw and massive earmuffs might have been good for a story but he was working hard and I wasn’t interested in interrupting someone running a high powered, wicked sharp, chainsaw. He had to be the master carver who created the biker dude with hairy armpits, full beard and beer belly, possibly a self-portrait from his younger days. He was surrounded by sculptures, some quite intricate, in various stages of completion. Behind him worked a young woman with equally large earmuffs, but her chainsaw was smaller and she worked a little more tentatively than the master.
Map 4 of the mobile Appalachian Bike Tour .
I had damp gear from the night before and rain was imminent so when I saw the hilltop church with the sheltered picnic area, I stopped. A night under a hard roof, and a chance to dry out gear, couldn’t be passed up. I spread the gear on picnic tables, but didn’t stake a claim. Instead, I read, and positioned myself for maximum visibility. Someone from the church would surely drive by soon and check in. I would use the opportunity to ask permission to set up camp. I didn’t anticipate Bob.
Bob pulled into the church parking lot and called out “Hey Buddy, how’s it going?” If a guy calls you Buddy, I’ve been told, it’s a sure sign that he’s a salesman. Bob started probing. Did I have a home? Was I hungry? Did I have a wife? Was I a Christian? He had trouble believing that an adult male with a steady job would be bicycle camping in rural Pennsylvania.
He had less problem with my lack of religion. Bob was a retired salesman, he could sell religion. It wasn’t long before he was deep into the horrors of hell. “I’ve had people tell me that they don’t mind going to hell,” Bob related. “At least all of their friends will be there.”
“But hell isn’t like that,” he said ominously. “It’s a black chamber with no sound, no contact with people, no sense of touch or taste.
Do you know how long a person can last in a place like that? Twenty minutes, but Hell isn’t twenty minutes, it’s eternity.” I took it as an argument for not being buried for eternity in a casket, but Bob made it clear that he was talking about hell, not caskets.
I was impressed. Beelzebub (the Devil) has modernized. Rolling stones uphill and burning in eternal fires are old school. Sensory deprivation chambers are now all the rage in Hell. I assume Bob didn’t get his revelation from a personal visit since he had already told me, in detail with examples, about how honest he was.
Convinced that he’d scared the hell out of me, Bob made a simple request. “Tonight, get down on your knees and pray to God. You have nothing to lose. Ask him for a sign that he exists.” It was tempting, but I didn’t want to wait for sunset. I wanted to drop to my knees right there in front of Bob and call out.“God, if you exist, show me a sign and take this man away from me right now!”
That may have caused a bit of a dilemma for Bob, but I was getting desperate. For the first time in my life, I felt homeless because Bob, in his zeal to convert, made me feel homeless. He simply couldn’t accept that I was out here because I wanted to be. Or maybe he did, but saw this as an opportunity to build up God Credits. I did my best to maintain some dignity and calm, all while wondering how a truly homeless or hungry person could put up with this sort of pressure on a nightly basis.
Fortunately, God works in mysterious ways. Several cars pulled into the parking lot in quick succession. I directed Bob’s attention to them, which had the immediate benefit of disrupting his sermon. As it turns out, the congregation was arriving for Wednesday night church service. Bob called over the pastor, and several male congregants came along for the distraction. He told everyone my name, reassured them that I was married, had a home, wasn’t hungry. He then proudly proclaimed that I had promised to get down on my knees tonight and pray for a sign from God. Honest Bob had just told a lie.
“I did not,” I said. “You asked…” That created a rather awkward silence. “I’m just trying to be honest.”
Bob shut up, giving me a chance to explain my situation. I took pains to point out that I was doing this for fun. I asked the pastor if I could camp here for the night. He said yes. It was that simple.
Church was about to start. I was asked to join the services. Bob asked if I was hungry, again. I declined and said no, again. I would have accepted an offer to use the church bathroom to clean up and take care of basic needs.
After services I kept a low profile in the dark of the shelter. Bob did call out Good Night, but didn’t stop for conversation. I knew the pastor would be last to leave and timed my approach to catch up with him before he got into the car. I thanked him again for letting me stay in the shelter. That initiated a conversation that covered the weather, the challenges of running a church with an aging, dying population, cutting firewood on his brother’s farm and bicycle touring. We have different beliefs, but we’re two humans sharing a small planet and we were able to set aside the sales pitches long enough to enjoy each other’s company.
The day finished with a long gentle descent into Johnstown, PA where I stayed the night in a motel and ate dinner at Press, a restaurant that uses homemade pickled carrots and peppers in nearly every dish and cocktail.
Maps 5 and 6 of the mobile Appalachian Bike Tour .
Today’s route took me to the Flight 93 memorial near Shanksville, PA. The site is a National Park with a Visitors Center and viewing platforms to follow the flight path as the jet plowed into the earth at over 500 miles per hour.
Passengers were able to call from in-flight aerophones on the jet and leave messages on home answering machines. Three of the messages can be heard at one of the exhibits. The messages are heart rending as the callers repeat, over and over, their love for spouses and family. At the end of one call, the woman very calmly told her sister where she keeps her safe and recited the combination. She had accepted her fate. I carried that woman’s message and stoicism with me all day.
I struggled to turn the pedals all day. Near the end of the day, and just after crossing from Pennsylvania to Maryland, I asked a homeowner about the city park in Finzel, a few miles down the road. Would it be OK to camp there for one night? He thought it would be fine, filled my water bag with water for cooking and drinking, then asked if I was Christian. He thought about my response, then said. “My religion tells me I should try to convert you, but I’m an introvert and don’t feel comfortable doing that.” We wished each other well and I thanked him again.
I found a nice pavilion in the park. Note the wind break on two sides and the long bench for food and picnic supplies. I left the tent in the panniers and spent the night on a picnic table. Food hung from the rafters for protection from small critters and the phone charged at the only live outlet in the shelter. Quite comfortable.
Elk Garden, WV
Maps 6 and 7 of the mobile Appalachian Bike Tour .
The mountains returned with a vengeance. The first climb was over 2900-foot Meadow Mountain to Grantsville, Maryland. Next was Swanton Hill Rd, a two-mile grind at about 4.5 mph. The final climb started at the North Branch of the Potomac River in West Virginia and ground three long miles to Elk Garden.
The Forest Service has a campground at Jennings Randolph Lake, a reservoir on the Potomac River, but it is four miles downhill and not along my route. That meant four miles uphill in the morning. I debated that one, but gave in to the thought of a hot shower and WiFi.
But the campground wasn’t at the lake. It was at the top of the next mountain. My legs gave out. I waved down a pickup truck and accepted a ride to the campground. The campground was full, it was Labor Day Weekend. After several delays and unenviable alternatives, including a suggestion that I ride another 10 miles to a primitive campsite, I finally said what I had been thinking for an hour “I wish I had stayed in Elk Garden.”
The ranger, who had been quite helpful, offered to drive me back to town. During the drive he talked about settling in at this relatively obscure national park after bouncing around much larger parks for a dozen years. He liked the smaller park. In a large park, he explained, he would be confined to a single campground on a major holiday, instead of giving a lift to an exhausted bike tourist.
I still didn’t have a place to camp in Elk Garden, so he pulled out his ancient flip phone, called his friend, Paul, and asked if I could stay in his backyard. Back yards can be surprisingly large in small towns. I set up camp near the edge of a large field and ate dinner while watching distant neighbors celebrate the holiday.
In the morning Paul walked out to the backyard with an egg and bacon sandwich. He invited me to the house for a cup of coffee. During our visit his wife, Mary, mentioned that she lived in a village of 50 to 60 families along the Potomac River. Around 1970 the entire village was bought out by the Federal government. The buildings were razed and a dam was built, creating Jennings Randolph Lake, where I had intended to camp. The lake provides drinking water for Washington D.C. Mary’s hometown is at the bottom of the lake. Imagine having your childhood village buried in hundreds of feet of water so residents of a large city can water their lawns.
The photo below is of a fawn adopted by the neighborhood. It walked up to me as I was breaking camp. The rope necklace warns hunters that the deer is not wild and should be left alone.
Map 7 of the mobile Appalachian Bike Tour .
I came down off the mountain today, initially in a scary-fast three-mile descent, later on an undulating drop that allowed me to maintain a 20 mph pace with only light pedaling. By mid-afternoon I was in a pleasant little motel on the edge of Petersburg, WV. I’m overdue for a rest day, so I’ll be here two nights. What a fine, guilty pleasure to know that tomorrow will include lounging at an outdoor pool, napping, reading and eating. There will be some errands to run and minor bike maintenance, but all done at a leisurely pace.
If the photo below is an indication, it is a good idea to advertise whether the beverages you sell in West Virginia are legal.
Smoke Hole Rd deserves special mention even on a route that has one amazing road following another. I entered the road on the north side, 7 miles west of Petersburg.
On the map the road looks flat as it heads due south, but in reality it climbs along the edge of a broad, steep-sided canyon that drops to the distant, unseen, south branch of the Potomac River. The heavy woods, interspersed with views of the broad valley, mask the incline, but gravity isn’t affected by scenery. The climb exacted a toll. By the first U turn, I was ready for a break. The view was a long broad valley that flowed away to the north. I thought I was looking at the entire valley, but Google maps indicates that I saw only a small slope, one of the few that was shallow enough for pasturing cattle.
The road climbed some more, then swept back and forth across the ridge in a serpentine roller coaster of dips, twists and climbs. It never quite followed the ridge, but didn’t wander far from it either as it dropped into a shallow depression, circled a rock outcropping or slithered over a high spot. I never knew whether to expect a climb or descent around the next bend. Eventually it didn’t matter. I was having too much fun.
This went on for about 15 miles, then the road dropped into the valley at Eagle Rocks, a towering granite obelisk named for William Eagle, a revolutionary war soldier who had lived in the area.
Big Bend Campground is upriver from Eagle Rocks, in an oxbow of the river. It would have been a good spot to spend the evening in this beautiful canyon, but I had miles to go before I could sleep, so I turned south.
The road flattened, but didn’t straighten, as it followed the South Branch through Smoke Hole Canyon. An historical sign along the river explained that Smoke Hole Cave, resembling an inverted 40-foot-high hornet’s nest, tapered to a natural chimney or “smoke hole” at the top. It was used by Native Americans and early settlers to smoke-cure meats. Giving the cave and the canyon their names.
I knew things were going to get a little strange when I saw grass growing in the middle of the road, then the “No Snow Removal” sign.
I straddled the bike and leaned on the handlebars. This would take some analysis. I’d walked more than pedaled on the climb so going back down would be easy, but there were no short cuts off this mountain. I would have to back track nearly ten miles, then take an unknown route around the mountain until I hooked up with the planned ride. On the other hand, going forward required riding a low traffic gravel road across and down the mountain. I had no idea about the condition of the road or how steep it was. My best guess, from studying the map, was that I would hit pavement again in about five miles. Five miles of gravel is manageable, even with a heavy touring load, but if I fell and hurt myself, I could lay there a long time before a vehicle drove by. Nonetheless, the gravel road seemed more interesting.
The road turned downhill within half a mile and it was steep. I didn’t know gravel roads could be that steep. I managed to slow the bike enough to dismount, but quickly decided that walking wasn’t an option. The heavy bike wanted to take off down the mountain and no combination of braking, leaning uphill and digging in my heels was going to hold it back for long. I remounted the bike, clamped the brakes and inched through rocks, ruts and loose gravel.
Civilization appeared as cattle wandering in the road, then disappeared into deep woods. The next sign was a log skidder and portable toilet, but no workers. The road split, the most promising branch went to the right.
The incline mellowed after a couple of miles and I let up on the brakes. Pavement started again at the bottom of the mountain, followed by the looming form of a giant, abandoned barn.
Tonight’s campsite is below a flood control dam. There is no cell service, even for locals, in the area. I had to check in with Vicky using a landline and forgot to dial 1 first.
Sugar Grove, WV
The Sugar Grove General Store has been around for 85 years. The store is long and narrow and the walls are lined with the original shelves. The shelves are stocked with canned goods like creamed corn, beans, and mushroom soup. You won’t find bread or cereal in the store, but there is a nice selection of new rifles to choose from. They’re lying on boxes along the aisles without gun cases or locks.
There are also some antique children’s toys, various building supplies and odds and ends. If you want gas, you have to turn on the pump inside the store, then turn it off again when you come in to pay. Credit cards don’t work. If you want credit, and you are an able bodied man, expect to be grilled by the store manager if you don’t have a job.
The store is photogenic, but when I pulled out my phone, the manager stopped me. No photos allowed. “Here’s why,” he explained. “There’s a Post Office in the back. Since 9/11, it’s against the law to take photos inside a Post Office.” Rest assured, America, no photos have been taken inside the Sugar Grove General Store and Post Office for 15 years.
The manager was pleasant and had a few moments to spare. He settled into a well worn chair. I sat on a stool at the counter and downed two bottles of water, one of orange juice and some bakery goods while we talked. The conversation ended abruptly when the mail car pulled up. He had work to do. Folks would be stopping by soon to check their PO boxes.
Map 8 of the mobile Appalachian Bike Tour .
After two days of rest and visiting with family, I crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway and entered what felt like a new state. Instead of the mountains and remote towns of the western part of the state, I was in the Virginia of colonial days with large estates and manicured lawns. The mountains are behind me. I’ll miss them, but not until I’ve recovered from this trip.
Map 9 of the mobile Appalachian Bike Tour .
The James River Brewery is in Scottsville, about 2 blocks from the James River. I made a mental note to come back to it after setting up camp and eating some dinner. Camp, however, was across the river. The act of getting on the bike to go back to town, after a long day in the saddle, was a known barrier.
Setting up camp turned out to be another barrier. The owners weren’t around. They were at a wedding, which meant a late night. I could have returned to the Brewery to wait it out, but a night at the tavern wasn’t what I had in mind. I had been thinking more in terms of a quiet beer and early bed.
I asked around and was referred to a middle aged group of tubers who had just come off the river. It didn’t take long to recognize that they wouldn’t need a night at the tavern. The floating beer coolers, raunchy jokes and loud voices were sure clues that they had taken the tavern with them.
I leaned on the bike and waited for the party to settle in. Besides hauling the tubes to various RVs, the process included a number of beer influenced arguments, a heavy man parading around wearing his wife’s bra, one couple locked out of their RV, loud arguments about which one locked them out, problem resolved with a spare key, and the realization that this was actually a very closely knit group of couples for whom the antics and arguments were a normal part of the bonding that comes with frequent trips over several decades.
I approached one woman and asked for Bob, my recommended contact. She pointed to a heavy, middle aged man. Bob, in turn, directed me to a line of campsites near the river and told me to settle in anywhere. I could pay for the site in the morning. I was also invited to join the group for beer and food. They had plenty of both.
Bob stopped by the site just after I had the tent set up. He placed a plate of food and a bottle of water on the picnic table, said “Enjoy!” and repeated his invitation to join the party.
The group had mellowed and settled into a circle of lawn chairs by the time I finished setting up camp. Bob filled me in on the history of the campground, his long term connection to it and the history of the group. It was an eclectic group, spread across three states, that got together several times per year to enjoy each other’s company. They had one primary rule for each gathering, no kids, and the rule still holds even though the kids are adults with families of their own.
Bob gave me the overall story of the group, but I was more interested in the dynamic between Kate, I don’t know her real name, and her husband. Kate was the woman I first met. After hearing my elevator speech (bike tour, Buffalo, NY to Yorktown, Virginia, about 800 miles), she went into detail about being a runner, currently suffering a running injury and feeling frustrated. She was more fit than the rest of the group, but I rarely associate runners with the kind of drunken behavior she demonstrated, so I acknowledged her narrative with little comment.
The narrative fleshed out around the campfire with Kate insisting that she doesn’t like to drink that much anymore, which drew a range of responses from the group. “You’re just as drunk as the rest of us.” “I used to be a runner. Someday I’ll get back to it.” “Not me. I’m done with that.”
“Show me how to run,” Her husband Kurt, not his real name, responded. He would repeat the request multiple times, often pleading, sometimes in a slur. Kate was non-committal, dismissive. She had run with him, but he was too slow. He knew that, but… She changed the subject.
A mental picture began to emerge, speculative, but not without precedent. Kate, it seemed, really was sincere about running, but the party environment was her history. These were her friends and her social life. Her husband was part of the group and their relationship grew within it. Running was pulling Kate away, and Kurt sensed it. The injury brought her back, but would it keep her in the group?
Kate could still party, but her heart wasn’t in it. It was increasingly oriented toward fitness. Kurt would run, but his heart wasn’t in it. It was into the relationship. He would run to keep the relationship going. The couple eventually wandered away with Kurt still pleading. The strain on the relationship would not be resolved this evening.
The party wound down as couples wandered off to their respective tents and RVs. It was early, but this was a middle aged group and they’d had a long day on the river. I couldn’t wander off, however, because one hanger-on had photos to show. He pulled out his phone and scrolled through a string of photos of exquisite islands in the Florida Keys. He stumbled over his words and smelled like beer, but his commentary, and awe with the beauty of the islands, were genuine. I usually don’t enjoy the company of inebriated minds, but this was an exception.
When he finished, I turned in. The campsite came to life again a couple of hours later. Several of the couples had returned after a nap. The conversation was low. It would continue late into the night, I think. I turned over and fell back to sleep.
Powhatan State Park, VA
Flat! This tire is well past it’s useful life. I’ve booted it with a dollar bill and will limp it into Richmond.
Powhatan State Park is about 3 years old, under used and minimally developed. Eventually it will be a busy destination for residents of Richmond, just thirty miles to the east. But with only primitive canoe camping sites on the historic James River and a few facilities, it wasn’t a draw this evening. I had the campground to myself. This will be my last night of camping.
Many stories are about the people I meet along the way. This one is about being in a primitive campground alone. There were no other campers, no people passing through, no lights. I hung out by the river in the evening and listened to owls and coyotes through the night. This morning a deer drank from the far bank of the river.
Bicycle touring is rarely about camping in the wild. When it does happen, it’s as memorable as any encounter with people.
The patch held. I picked up a new tire and will mount it in the morning. Today’s ride took me along the James River in Richmond, an unexpectedly rocky and shallow stretch of water. Dinner was at Mama J’s Kitchen, described as a southern and soul food restaurant with a chill vibe. The food was delicious and the cakes were dangerous. There are still miles to ride: to Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown, but they will be with vehicle support and the nights will be spent in hotels with my wife.
Map 10 of the mobile Appalachian Bike Tour .
The last few days were about exploring Colonial Virginia. They included a guided bicycle tour of the complex and contradictory history of Richmond, a ride on the Virginia Capitol Trail between Richmond and Jamestown, explorations of Jamestown and Williamsburg, and a final ride on Colonial Parkway from Williamsburg to Yorktown.
Yorktown marks the end of a cross country bicycle tour that started 40 years ago with a ride to Portland Oregon, and finished in stages over the last four years. It leaves me with the satisfaction of completing a cross country bike tour and the uncomfortable possibility that this may have been my last long distance tour. I’ll need some time to sort out those feelings.