I’m opening my mud-caked panniers as the rain smacks the ground, digging for the crumpled remains of a Clif bar to make a peace offering to my tyrannical appetite. After grinding through 70 snake-infested miles, my soaked body demands calories. I chew the stale bar as I pull the line on my hammock’s rain fly, praying it holds against the night’s storms. It’s humid, yet I’m cold. The swampy remains of the C&O canal sit just a few feet below my hammock. As I climb into my sleeping bag and pick ticks off my shin, I tell myself that this is the definition of Type 2 fun.
I’m getting ahead of myself. None of us is a stranger to the insanity wrought by 2020’s indoor isolation. This is true now, as we straddle the dual realities of vaccine rollout and the strictest lockdowns to date, but it was even true in the summer, when we indulged in the thought that the worst of Covid was behind us (we were so young!). Craving outdoor adventure and having left my old job, I got two close friends together for a bike trip from Pittsburgh to DC — my first multiday bikepacking trip.
Our path would take us down the entirety of two trails ancient by American standards: the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a rail trail, and the 184-mile C&O Canal Towpath, a dirt trail originally used by horses towing canal boats between DC and Cumberland. We budgeted 4–5 days. I loaded up on tuna, peanut butter, and dehydrated meals. Putting long-dormant Tetris skills to work, I managed to fit everything into four panniers. Oliver, Adrian, and I loaded our panniers and three bikes into the car and set out for Pittsburgh, my girlfriend Katie verrrrrrry kindly offering to drive us the distance.
After a night of camping outside the city, we drove downtown. I’ve heard Pittsburgh described as a model train town, and with its endless bridges, rolling hills, and twin rivers, it fits the bill. In a way, Pittsburgh feels untouched by time, a living relic of America’s industrial heyday, when Carnegie’s plants churned out 1/3 of the nation’s steel output and trains powered by coal from the surrounding Alleghenies rolled out from the city around the clock, chugging down the very paths we were about to bike. But unlike much of the Rust Belt, Pittsburgh has managed a recovery from the death of US manufacturing, driven by leading technical schools and a thriving startup scene.
We ate breakfast at De Luca’s, a diner in the Strip District. Across the street, an art deco building housed the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., which claimed itself as “The Italians’ Italian Store.” I felt like I was sitting in a John Updike chapter. After picking up cigars for the trail, we drove to Point State Park, the union of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers into the Ohio River and the GAP’s western terminus. We chatted with a fellow biker named Ian, who had biked the GAP + C&O before and alerted us that we were in for a bumpy ride. Warning in hand, we bid a sad farewell to Katie and began pedaling southeast.
Our first twenty miles were paved, rolling hills out of Pittsburgh, sprawling and abandoned steel plants sitting silently across the river. We seized every opportunity for a slick pic of the bikes in front of industrial backgrounds. Catching our breath in a tiny trail town, we overheard a group of 12-year-old boys deliver the most cutting and vicious your momma jokes to each other. I can’t repeat them here. Our mouths were wide over our slurpees.
Single miles became dozens until we happened upon an eerie complex of Chernobyl-esque ruins. After exploring its vine-snaked pits and generally getting spooked, we read the historical marker sign to learn that we were standing at Darr Mine, the site of the fourth-deadliest coal mining disaster in US history. In 1907 a coal dust explosion caused by lax guidelines under the Pittsburgh Coal Company killed 239 miners, many of them boys and most of them immigrants. To add to the tragedy, some of the miners came to work at Darr Mine after an explosion only two weeks prior had killed 34 of their comrades at the nearby Naomi mine. Nature and graffiti artists had largely reclaimed the site, but the memory of that mass and sudden death confirmed the shivers I’d felt moments before. We rode on.
That night, we rode against the clock, pushing to get to Connellsville, PA, which sat around 63 miles from the day’s start. Getting there by nightfall was important for two reasons: 1) it had great camping, and 2) it was Oliver’s birthday and we needed to get the man a beer. We rode into town as dusk settled into dark, heading straight for Marlene’s Corner Bar. Marlene must have been pretty libertarian in spirit, because despite a Sharpied sign behind the bar weakly asking customers to keep their distance, every stool at the bar was occupied. Masks, which would have gotten in the way of the cigarettes, were nowhere to be seen. One old woman, seeing our worried faces peering in from the window, opened the door with a smile and said “don’t be shy now.” I poked my head in the door, feet still outside, and asked for a six pack of whatever they wanted to give us. Beers in hand, we went back to our luxurious campsite, complete with lean-tos and picnic tables.
One thing I came to understand: bike trips offer little down time. Our first night and morning on the trail is illustrative: once at camp, we filled our bottles and starting making dinners of dehydrated meals. After eating, we washed everything and unpacked our camping supplies, set out our sleeping pads, quickly inspected the bikes. After catching up on texts for the day, it was 9 PM: bedtime. We slept hard for ten solid hours after our long day of pedaling, then woke up, broke camp, made breakfast, and hit the trail again, 60–70 miles ahead of us.
Our second day was beautifully remote. Rural Pennsylvania rolled by us — its hills, rivers, and majestic railroad bridges — with nary a town for dozens of miles. We came across Ohiopyle State Park, which sits a few miles from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. Packed with summer tourists, it felt like Manhattan compared to the morning’s quiet. After a rejuvenating dip in the Youghiogheny and an ungodly amount of food, we continued onward past trains and countryside, the loose gravel rewarding us with new mile markers far less frequently than we would have liked.
Since Pittsburgh, we had biked steadily uphill (at a mercifully low grade). By late day, we had reached the topographical peak of our trek: the Eastern Continental Divide, separating the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay watersheds. Everything after this point would be downhill until we reached sea level in DC. We celebrated with a snack, then again saddled up to beat the fast-encroaching night.
At dusk we rolled up to the yawning maw of the Big Savage Tunnel, which drives 3/4 of a mile through the mountainside and is named for a surveyor who, stranded with his comrades in 1736, offered up his body for food. They were rescued before it came to cannibalism, but still, metal. We flew past the tunnel’s massive doors, howling and singing into the echoing belly of the mountain as the air grew frigid around us.
On the other side of the mountain, the trail opened up to an expansive view of Pennsylvania and Maryland as the sun set to the west. Above our heads, giant wind turbines churned, the only sound breaking the silence. We’d camp here. Pulling dehydrated meals, Jet Boils, and cigars from our bags, we sat at the edge of cliff, watching the last vestiges of light fade from the valley.
Then things got eerie. It’s hard to recount, but Oliver and Adrian remember. The wind turbines lent a steady mechanical grinding to the air, like a distant jet. Strange, unnatural noises from the black woods behind us broke the quiet frequently enough to slowly subdue our conversation. The gaping tunnel sat just around the corner. Finally, Adrian poked his head up like a deer and went off to explore what he’d only describe as a “negative, trickster presence,” similar to one that he said he’d encountered in South America. I ate my 800 calories’ worth of rehydrated mac and cheese in silent terror, refusing to look behind me and engage with what felt like very real pagan spirits. We smoked our cigars quietly, then committed to bed. I put in ear buds, resigning myself to a satanic death.
But morning came. Unscathed, we celebrated with a spartan breakfast: oatmeal, water, and cactus tea. We packed up camp and readied the bikes before greeting the day with yoga.
Maybe it was the pitch-perfect weather, maybe it was surviving the night’s forest demons, maybe it was sunstroke — whatever it was, the world came alive that morning. I was bent forward in half pigeon, face to the ground, when the sheer intricacy of the grassy world an inch from my eye hit me. I felt like a five-year-old again, discovering the planet anew, wondering at the experience and scale of an ant’s environment. I slowly raised my head, mouth open, and looked to my left. Adrian was going through his vinyasa, eyes closed. I looked to my right and fixated on a tree with red, truffula-like flowers. The red burned into my retinas with a vivacity that made me wonder if I’d ever actually seen the color before. I laughed, pointed out the tree. Adrian laughed with me, saying the color has always been there; my mind was simply seeing it in a new way. It was going to be a fun day.
As long and fruitful a life as I have, I don’t know if I’ll ever match the happiness of that morning as we flew down the mountain — the first noticeable downhill of our entire trek — the resplendent flowers heralding us with every measure of color imaginable. The joy overtook me in waves, my face fixed in a smile. We came to the marbled monument of the Mason Dixon, where we let out a whoop. At a turn in the road, we found a prehistorically-large crawfish making its way south; we gave it a French accent and derived about ten minutes of pure delight assigning it a backstory. Riding on, we came across a stretch of grass punctuated by absurd wooden house cutouts, like the scene of some outdoor play.
“That’s the Capulets, and that’s the Montesquieus. Montagues,” I said to my own giggles.
Farther along, we came to the Cumberland Bone Cave, where the railroad builders had blasted into a treasure trove of archaeological gems, including the bones of saber-tooth cats and cave bears. A man in yellow ran past us. Serotonin kickstarting my imagination, it hit me that this man must run to the Bone Cave every day, where he enters the cave’s portal and is transported back a day’s run down the trail, only to restart his endless trek. Thus, he is always running in a straight line, never a loop, throughout all time. It hit me, further, that every person we encountered may be on similarly infinite treads. A woman biking past us was stuck on the narrow path of a five mile loop, which she would bike for all ages; an elderly man strolling by was walking the entire circumference of the earth in a straight line, undaunted by ice or rock. These were not people but preternatural demi-gods, perhaps cursed to wander on predestined paths for long-forgotten primeval sins. Adrian and Oliver agreed. I really do think we had sunstroke.
We kept down the mountain, time crawling. At a wall of raspberry bushes, we spent what felt like hours picking and eating, staring into the ruby depths of the wild berries as if they were jewels. While funneling the berries into our mouths, we somberly hypothesized that U2 had never actually created any music. We needed food, badly.
At long last we rolled in to Cumberland, MD, the endpoint of the GAP and starting point for the C&O, which would take us along the border of Maryland and West Virginia/Virginia all the way to DC. Having eaten only raspberries, we gorged ourselves. A stranger asked me for a light; I gave him one. I realized I’d left my sunglasses at the Mason-Dixon. Storm clouds were rolling in. Adrian said he hoped for rain.
Rain it did. The drizzle started as we passed from the GAP to the C&O Canal trail, the rooty bumpiness of the ground an immediate divergence from the smooth sailing on the GAP. We came across our first few locks — there would be 75 by journey’s end — where we stared at the bright green algae resting under the lock’s wooden gates. It swirled into itself. We rode on, the rain falling heavier and heavier.
At a certain level of soaked, we decided it was high time for our first formal bathing experience of the trip. We pulled off trail into a campsite, which was occupied by an obliging older couple also biking from Pittsburgh. We stripped down and jumped into the Potomac — a far cleaner experience near the headwaters than down in DC — and, Dr. Bronner’s in hand, cleaned the trail dirt from our bodies. A train, hidden behind trees, whistled and chugged down the opposing shore. Fog crept up the river. For a second, I was a late 1800s C&O mule driver taking a bath on the long trip to Washington, naked and unaware of any tech more advanced than the steam engine. It was a feeling that would hit me frequently on the C&O, this touchpoint with the past.
Mid-afternoon, our clothes and panniers soaked through, we came upon the spookiest sight of our journey: the Paw Paw Tunnel. At first glance, the tunnel looked impassable — a giant metal sheet covered the 25-foot-wide entrance. But at second glance, a small door opened up into the pitch black of the tunnel like something from a horror movie. It was from this door that a family emerged. The dad called out to us with his West Virginia accent, “Wait ’til you see this thing!”
“Wait, is that the Paw Paw Tunnel?”
“Yessir and it is very cursed.”
“Yeah, trust me you’ll see. We were reading earlier that a lockhouse keeper was murdered and his head tossed into the tunnel, so now he haunts the tunnel, whispering.”
He glanced at our bikes, then looked at us wide-eyed. “Y’all biking through?”
We nodded. He laughed. “Hope you brought lights ’cause there are holes in the path. Oh, and don’t touch the railing — there’s snakes.”
We walked to the tunnel entrance. Adrian went through first, and he disappeared into the dark immediately. Oliver followed, then me. Once inside, we lit everything we had — headlamps, bike lights, iPhone cameras. Ahead, a tiny, bumpy dirt path stretched out into pitch black. A short, rotted railing separated the path from the swampy water sitting beneath a heavy fog. The arched brick ceiling seemed to sag under the accumulated moisture of 170 years. Every drip echoed. There was no light at the other end.
We hesitated, but not for long. Some bat-like creature started shrieking in the scaffolding to our left, and with that adrenaline kick, I consigned myself to horrific death for the second time in 24 hours and began pedaling as fast as possible behind the other two, my lamps making hardly a dent in the thick, black fog.
My memories from the sprint through this 1-kilometer-long death tunnel:
- A flash of some red goo dripping from the railing and the momentary wonder at what the ever-loving fuck it could be;
- The constant roaring echo of the bikes over the gravel, a sound as if we’d opened a portal to hell;
- The echo of my own heavy breath playing against the brick wall arching tightly against my right, which I swear to God sounded like the whispers of some wraith chasing me;
- Cursing the fact that I was last in the troop and that this wraith would steal my soul;
- Adrian yelling out “holy shit” and laughing anytime there was a pothole; and
- Finally seeing a vague light ahead, whereupon Adrian yelled “Stop!” so that we could appreciate the tunnel fully, which I failed to do because I was still terrified for my immortal soul.
After finally emerging as new men, the scene was downright beautiful. The rain had largely stopped, but water playing down the mossy canyon walls around us sounded like a soundtrack from Headspace. We closed our eyes and meditated on the sound around us, indulging in the combination of the adrenaline high and peaceful atmosphere.
When I opened my eyes, I saw a water moccasin snaking through the canal water. As if we were characters in some Roman myth, it was the first of seven snakes we’d see that day. Without fail, they’d look like sticks until the last moment, when the heart-dropping realization would hit and we’d swerve around in a panic, praying the snake wouldn’t be brave enough to nip at our ankles.
As the day turned to dusk, we found ourselves exhausted, soaked, and extremely muddy. My panniers had accumulated an entirely new layer of mud shielding. The final straw for our morale came when a deep mud pit caused us to spin out, throwing Oliver to the ground on his bad wrist. Praying he didn’t break it, we helped him up as a man biked up, helmet askew, saying to himself, “Oh my, how are we doing now, I guess very well I’d say, har har har.”
He was something out of a comic strip. Lanky, with limbs that were always in wave-like motion, he never looked us in the eye but inspected our rigs with roving pupils. His partner biked up behind him.
“Well we’re just out here for the day enjoying God’s green earth. What a lovely day, har har har. Are you okay?” he asked as he stared at Oliver’s drivetrain.
Telling him we were fine, he continued down the trail, whistling. Our final mythical visitor on what had been, spiritually and physically, an extremely long day, we found the nearest campsite and dug in for the night.
To be continued