Wednesday, June 26, 2013

True Grit: My Attempt to Ride Across Pennsylvania, June 2011


The year 2011 started bad and got worse. My long-standing knee problems had deteriorated to the point I was seeking an alternative, any alternative, to replacement. I was sedentary again, unable to ride or hike. And what's more, I was unable to see a light at the end of my troubles. After entering a course of physical therapy and being told I was "wasting my time and money, see a surgeon now" I decided on a course of action. I was going to see the surgeon and set up the probable bilateral knee replacement for the winter, and my summer and fall would be spent being as active as I could physically stand. The physical therapist called it "strengthening", noting that a fit, active person recovers better from the surgery. I called it mental therapy, because I'd go mad spending a summer sitting around waiting for the trip to the operating room. 

I spoke with one of my doctors about my plans. "Activity is a good idea, but in moderation."

"Hmm. Moderation. I don't know what that word means, doctor", I said. 

"What did you do last weekend?"

"I hiked up a mountain at a place called Pole Steeple."

"That's almost as bad as you spending a day grouting a tile floor! What am I going to do with you?"

"Look, I know most people who have knee replacement did it so they could walk up stairs without pain. For me this is about more than climbing stairs."

But I kept my doctor's word "moderation" in mind. My early rides were short. And when it came time to plan my vacation, I kept the cycling plans moderate. 

I decided to ride across Pennsylvania. Well, not the whole state. Just most of it. Doing the whole Commonwealth would be a bit excessive. But to make up for the short gap between the Delaware River and my home I chose to begin in Ohio. 

My Buckeye buddy Aaron signed on to ride with me to the border. This would be his first bike tour, and so I planned two days, with camping at Mosquito Creek State Park in Ohio and Pymatuning in the Quaker State.  From Pymatuning I'd continue solo across the northern part of the state, turning south on the flattest route possible in my hilly home. The sole concession to my physical condition was that I'd keep mileages short and stay inside where I could. 

Months of planning were put in motion a sunny morning outside of Akron. Aaron and I were off. The photo shows my buddy pulling out of his driveway. However, we didn't get very far. I thought my tires still had enough wear in the for the trip. But I was wrong, and in the second mile from the start I got a flat on the rear. Aaron rode off to the local bike shop while I sat on the curb.
Once I had a working tire again, we headed off. At this point we realized our directions weren't the best route I'd ever plotted. And it would have helped if I'd not left them back in Pennsylvania. But soon enough we figured out where we were going. 

And then the second revelation. Ohio has hills. Or perhaps I should call them rises. But anyway the state has them. And I found myself have to work harder than I anticipated on some roads. 

We found a respite on a rail trail from Stowe to Kent. Or we did for a minute until the heavens opened. We ducked under a trail shelter to wait out the passing rain. And the rain did pass. But it left a messy, ponded trail for our riding. 
This was the first band of rain. The second held off until we reached Kent, the end of the trail. This time we ducked into a market, propping our bikes at the ice machine while we waited inside. 

The second band came and went, and so did we. Directions didn't improve, and we had to reroute a couple of times. Aaron's GPS didn't get a very good signal, and it was a while until we found a sure path to Mosquito Creek. Meanwhile I realized how spoiled I am riding in Pennsylvania, where motorists are used to seeing cyclists on roads, and the roads have shoulders. We both had uncomfortable moments and close calls. Aaron is one of those folks who rarely has a bad day, so his good cheer helped me endure a rough first day of touring. 
And then the rains came again. And again. Band after band, and sometimes the rain was hard. Our progress was painfully slow. At one point we ducked onto the porch of a warehouse, and Aaron had to urinate. We both looked at each other, laughed that a little more water wouldn't hurt anything, and I turned my head as I walked a few feet away. Then it was back to the bikes and seeing the road through raindrops. 

The ride was catching up to us. I stopped counting bands of rain when I reached eleven. Aaron had to stop and walk up one rise. "I have to catch my breath" he said, and I should have caught his reason. Finally by seven PM we'd ridden 40 some miles, and had less than five to the park. We stopped for food and water at the first store we'd seen in hours. For all the rain, we didn't have fluids in our bottles. Aaron appeared a broken shell of a man, sprawled on the step guzzling water and shoving pastry down his throat.  We pushed on, although I found the going a little difficult. My saddle seemed to be getting higher. I figured it was just fatigue playing tricks on me, and we continued on. 

We reached the campsite, set up our tents as the light faded, and I started the camp stove.  Aaron was looking very defeated, and I figured something hot and salty would help his mood and prevent cramps. He grimaced when I served him my tuna and noodle mixture, but he ate his plate clean. And since the rain began again, he didn't need to wash it. 


The tent sites at Mosquito Creek are small, and our site was partly flooded. I gave Aaron the pine needle area and chose to camp on the concrete parking slab. I crawled into my tent, listening to the patter on the roof and thinking of the day past and the day to come. I wondered what I'd dragged my friend into. And when the first cramp hit me, I wondered why I'd dragged myself into it. I was soon enough distracted by the coughing coming from Aaron's tent, and it was to the cough and the rain that I fell to sleep. 

I rose early the next morning. The rain had stopped. After I got back from the bathroom I found Aaron sitting on the picnic bench.  He didn't look good.

"How was your night?"

"I was coughing all night. I'm coughing up blood. My wife is coming to pick me up."

After assuring me that he'd be OK, we talked about the day before. Aaron was disappointed to not continue on with me. Meanwhile I realized I could have killed him. He'd pushed on past all his danger signs so he could ride with me and so he could consider himself a bike tourist. 

As we waited for his better half, we talked about the tour. 

"Look, buddy, bike touring can be riding your bike somewhere and camping. You've earned the title. And you worked harder for it than many. You rode through all that rain, over those roads, nearly got killed by that truck -"

"The black one?"

"Was there a black one? I meant the delivery truck going up that hill at the intersection."

"Oh, that one."

"Anyway, you did great."

"Yeah, and I've not seen so much water since I left the Navy."

Aaron's wife arrived, they packed up, wished me well, and then headed to an emergency room to be checked out. I began to break camp, only to notice I couldn't straighten up. I tried to mount my bike, and I couldn't reach the pedals. It seems that odd sensation that my saddle was raised was a warning sign. My hamstrings were overstretched during the ride, had contracted overnight, and now were pulling my lower back out of shape. I called my next stop, my friend Troy, and he picked me up that afternoon. I spent two days recovering at Troy's farm while I pondered my next move. I eventually returned to Ohio, and shelved my trans-PA ride for another year. 

Was I wrong to have attempted such a ride in the shape I was? I don't think so. I needed something to get me through the time before surgery, and I'd not be who I am if I didn't push myself hard. I had discomfort, but I tried. This isn't about being able to walk up stairs. As I told Aaron, a thousand men wouldn't have even attempted to do what we did knowing we had bad joints and bad lungs. As for Aaron, he fully recovered, and a week later we were turning out 40 mile rides. We had good weather, but after what we went through nothing could rain on our parade. 



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2 Comments:

At June 29, 2013 at 7:45 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in Akron,Ohio and have ridden out that way; no more than the state line. I believe cycling PA would have been much more difficult.

 
At July 2, 2013 at 4:36 PM , Blogger George Carey said...

Many years ago I rode out to Lake Erie by way of West Virginia and Pittsburgh. Yes, it can be a hilly ride coming across the state. When weather is fair it's enjoyable but when it rains all day it's pretty miserable. I chose to stay in motels on that particular trip instead of camping so at least I got a hot shower and comfy bed to rest in before hitting the road again.

I hope you try your trip again sometime. It sounds like you just had some bad luck. Things should be better next time!

 

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A Taste For The Woods: True Grit: My Attempt to Ride Across Pennsylvania, June 2011

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True Grit: My Attempt to Ride Across Pennsylvania, June 2011