Saturday, July 6, 2013

Goat Race Ride, Harrisburg, PA, September 2009

In 2009 I traveled to Harrisburg to ride with the local bike club on their "Running of the Goats" ride to see goat races south of the city.  We left my friend Ben's house at 8:45 AM on Saturday, expecting weather like the lovely 70 some degree day Harrisburg had experienced Friday. Instead it was cold, overcast, and windy. I wore shorts and a short-sleeve jersey, and hoped to warm up later. My only sign of good sense was wearing wool socks. Had I realized how the weather had changed I might have tried to borrow a jacket from Ben, but as he's both shorter and lighter than me, and I'm as stubborn as a goat, I ignored the cold.

The first leg of the ride was two miles of rollers, including one steep climb, to get to Karn's Market, where we waited for the ride leader" She was to be there at 9:30. By 9:45 we and another cyclist went on to the next stopping point, City Island, and waited there for the leader, wondering if the ride had been scrubbed because of the weather.

The ride leader was running late, but she arrived, and soon enough we were under way. I borrowed a jacket from another rider; it was too small, and I couldn't close it, but it did provide some added warmth.

Our course led us on Harrisburg's Greenbelt, past the PENDOT building, through a couple of small river towns, and onto Rt. 441. My usual problems with club rides came up - I needed to stop more often than the group. And when I did stop, I was rushed and couldn't take photographs. Even though I repeatedly told him he could ride ahead, Ben stuck with me much of the ride. I found out later some club members had been questioning him about me - "has he been training for this? can he ride this distance?" and the like. My friend was upset, partly because he knew I took riding seriously, and partly because he thought the club was being rude to me, his guest. I knew none of this, only that the group seemed to be riding fast for a casual, no-drop ride.

I missed taking photos. Sunday morning I went back to shoot some objects along the route I didn't have time for on Saturday. That included Three Mile Island. The cooling towers were more impressive-looking on Saturday, when there was no rain. As someone who spent hours riveted to KWY Newsradio's continuous coverage of the 1979 accident, I was excited to actually SEE the towers myself.

Past Middletown and the cooling towers the climbs became tougher. I managed them all except the last one, where I cramped halfway up. Fortunately I was almost at the goat races.

I have almost no experience with goats, so I'll probably miss many fine points of goat-racing lore as I describe the event. Forgive me, goat-fans.

There were three goats in each heat. The goats and their owners run from one end of the track to the other. Presumably losing goats get made into stew or something.

In addition to the goat races, there was a dog ball-chasing competition, a kiddie tractor pull, and a midway with live country music, ice cream, hot foods, t-shirts and other goat-themed merchandise. I downed two burgers to stay warm, and had some ice cream because it was ice cream and made fresh. Ben found a gnat in his bowl.

"I can't believe you are passing up a free protein snack" I said.

"Ok." And Ben ate the bug with ice cream.

I made a face that I was told had to be seen to be believed, and quietly said, "I'm putting this incident in the ride report."

I was already feeling ill, and watching Ben eat a bug didn't help. The temperature was dropping, and the guy I borrowed the jacket from wanted it back. Since there was a bike club member there with a van, I asked for a ride.

As I settled into the front seat, the temperature gauge on the dashboard showed 64 degrees. As it started to rain ten minutes later, just as we passed Ben on the road, the gauge read 59. The rain picked up into a steady drizzle by the time I reached my car and Ben's house. I called him, offering to pick him up, but he said he was only 20 minutes behind me. His average riding speed must have been near 20 MPH on the way back.

Once I was inside, I changed and dried off. It took about an hour or so to warm up. I said goodbye to Ben  and his wife and headed to my campground across the river. I stopped off at a Target to buy some warmer clothes, getting a track jacket and pants. (Note to self - on car camping/riding trips ALWAYS bring cold weather gear.)

Harrisburg East Campground and Storage was nice for what it was, a speck of pine trees five miles outside the capital. However, it was very damp. Once I had the tent set up under a nice pine, I drove out to find warm food and drink. They made me a little less cold. I went to sleep in my damp tent, listening to the rain on the fly and feeling the occasional drop of water inside.


Holmes County Trail, Holmes County, Ohio, June 2011

On a drizzling Saturday morning my friend Dan and I set off on the Holmes County Trail, heading out from the trailhead in Fredericksburg. We pulled up to a parking lot next to a baseball diamond, and watched as the grounds crew used leaf blowers to try to dry the grass for the game. "Buckeyes love sports" I thought as I set up my bike.

The trail is paved for about 15.5 miles, largely flat, and double wide. The reason for the double width is that Holmes County is to Ohio what Lancaster County is to Pennsylvania - it's the Amish region. The trail is used by horse-drawn buggies, and we saw several of them during the ride. And local business, Amish or "English", often have a connecting path to allow buggies through. We followed one such short side trip to Wal-mart and noted the special buggy parking shed. Glad I'm not working for that store. I'd hate to have to retrieve carts from there!

The trail continues through farm country and a couple of small towns. It ends at the edge of Killbuck, but the road into town is low traffic and flat enough you can continue your trip easily. We did just that, since we were both hungry. The only place open was a pizza shop, which made meatball subs that had Dan raving and had a mural of Ohio State coach Woody Hayes that reminded me how much Buckeyes love sports.

When we came out, the clouds had parted and we rode back in sunlight. We stopped again at the train station/bike shop/museum in Millersburg, the midpoint of the trail. On the outbound leg we'd stopped and ridden into the historic downtown. Or rather Dan rode into the downtown. I spent much of the time walking, since Millersburg is located on a hillside and I couldn't climb. I have to say in my own defense that I'd ridden a fast ride the day before and bonked hard, so I was probably still suffering. Fortunately the slower pace of this ride didn't tax my strength.

We finished with 33 miles, covering the entire trail, a short ride uphill to Millersburg, and the ride into Killbuck for lunch. And I finished with the desire to come back and ride this trail again.

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Ride to Hartville Market, Hartville Ohio, July 4, 2011

After my first day riding 46 miles as part of my abandoned cross Pennsylvania tour, I'd kept my road riding in Ohio to a minimum. Part of it was that I didn't like the roads, part of it was that my host didn't think bikes belong on roads, and part of it was that with all the trails nearby I didn't need road riding. But I wanted to do at least one trip from my hosts' door and back, and so July 4 I set out on a short ride of ten miles to the Hartville Market, one of the largest indoor farmers and flea markets in Ohio.

Since I didn't know what I'd find there, I brought the trailer too. This caused a problem when I didn't find any bike racks at the market building. So I decided my bike and trailer were my shopping cart, and I took them inside.

Maneuvering was a little tight but I made it work. Bike, trailer, and rider walked up and down every aisle, and later visited the food court. One of the vendors gave me an American flag, which I flew on the back of the trailer.

 I picked up a few items, unfortunately most of them being food a fat cyclist should stay away from. One item I regretted not having the cash or room for was the Pepsi trike. This machine has a built in cooler!  I wasn't sure what I'd do with it, and I'm still not sure, but it was a curious looking machine.

In retrospect, I wish I had gone on to historic downtown Hartville, but my host had company coming and I wanted to be back to meet him. Oh well, I'll have to save it for my next bike adventure in Ohio....

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Friday, July 5, 2013

Chester Valley Trail, July 4, 2013

I marked Independence Day with a ride on the unfinished Chester Valley Trail. This rail trail project is being completed in segments, or "phases" as Chester County calls them. Phase One is the six miles of paved trail I rode yesterday, from the Route 29 shopping complex to north of Exton. 

I started from the grandly named "Battle of the Clouds Park" near Malvern. The park is your typical playground and grass township patch, but the name commemorates a genuine Revolutionary War battle, or a near battle - on September 16, 1777 Washington's and Howe's armies were prevented from conflict by a violent rainstorm. Much of Washington's supply of gunpowder was ruined, but Howe wasn't able to chase the retreating Americans because his army couldn't advance over the swampy dirt roads. 

I didn't have Howe's problem two centuries later, despite recent rains, because the Chester Valley Trail is paved. From the park there's a small connecting trail, and a couple of minutes after arriving I was pedaling north. 

The trail itself is marvelously secluded for a path through a heavily developed part of Chester County. I passed through railroad cuts, under Swedesford Road, on a bridge over another road, by a township building and suburban homes, and aside from three road crossings there was nothing to disturb my mood until I reached the Route 29 crossing. After using the lights to cross the highway the trail snakes alongside a strip center anchored by a Wegman's supermarket and a Target. The trail ends here, for now; Phase Two should be open later this summer, and continue north towards King of Prussia. I didn't stop at the stores, but I noted the shopping center was inconsistent when it came to accessing the trail - Wegman's had a nice paved entrance through the trail fence, but Target's was made of cobblestone. 

Heading south of Battle of the Clouds Park, the trail becomes more open, with less tree cover. The surface remains paved and with next to no elevation change, but the surrounding land switched from suburban homes to office parks. I turned around when the pavement ran out. The trail will continue south to Exton when Phase Three is opened in 2014. 

I put in fifteen miles on Independence Day, riding the trail both ways and redoing some parts so I could get photos. I also rode on parallel roads a few blocks so I could get a feel for them.

One place I rode back to was a development a couple of miles north of my parking area. For a trail based on a railroad there was little evidence aside from cuts that a train ever passed through here, but I found one relic from the railroad past. The Mahlin Station House is a couple of foundation walls from the mid-1800 train station. Tucked behind a fence, its easy to miss. It was worth riding back to see. And the Chester Valley Trail is worth revisiting.... perhaps when its longer.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Thoughts on Shame

One of the blogs I read regularly, Chubbysuperbiker, has a celebratory post. The author is celebrating losing 300 pounds since he began changing his life in 2005. Please read his post, and come back. I'll wait.

On reading his celebration, I was struck by this statement:

"I haven't blogged a lot because I've struggled with in my head what to blog about.  There's a lot of stuff I want to, but it's deeply personal, deeply revealing, and deeply the stuff that people struggle with but will never talk about.  Varicose veins.  What it's really like to live when you're morbidly obese.  Clothes.  Hygiene.  Pain, the biggest one of all, pain.  All the stuff I wish someone would have told me 15 or 20 years ago, but that I never would have listened to."

I'll say here some of the stuff Chubbysuperbiker is shying away from: Being super obese sucks. There is no such thing as a happy super obese person. Even keeping clean is a struggle. Clothes look horrible on you, even if they are attractive in themselves, which isn't often. The health problems associated with obesity are so well known I won't repeat them here, but there are a lot of them aside from diabetes. 

I personally have no shame in saying I was once over 400 pounds. I lost 160 of them over 18 months in 2006 and 2007, maintained more or less successfully for 2007 and 2008, struggled with keeping my weight down in 2009 and 2010 as my knee troubles worsened, and ballooned to 350 as I recovered from having both knees replaced in 2012. I'm down to 310, and dropping. We all make mistakes, and we all have unexpected problems to overcome. The point is to overcome them. Part of losing weight is accepting responsibility for what you've done to yourself and others. Yes, I built myself to over 400 pounds and unable to walk a city block, and I don't mind saying so. I'm not proud of it, but I'm not ashamed of it either, because I'm not the person I was. 

It sounds to me from the paragraph I quoted that Chubbysuperbiker is struggling with shame. Shame he reached 567 pounds. Shame for the life he led. That's not an uncommon reaction to massive weight loss. I've struggled with it. I know other former super obese people who had to get over it; one friend once wrote he couldn't understand "why I hated myself so much." What I would say to Chubbysuperbiker were we in the same room, or riding together, is - that was then. This is now. You aren't the same man, because you can't be after the transformation you were through. Think of the old fat guy as the distant past, and move on. You can talk about him and what he faced because you aren't him anymore. 

And celebrate not being him anymore. One of the best moments in my life was after a 50 mile ride. I came home, showered, had dinner, and began reading a book. Then it struck me. I'd done a 50 mile ride and the experience was normal to me. And that kind of normal is worth celebrating. 

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Kennerdale Overlook and Freedom Falls, Venango County, August 2010

Its amazing how much outdoor fun you can have on an "off day" on vacation. On my August 2010 trip into western Pennsylvania I spent one morning getting groceries and doing laundry in Oil City, along with my friend Judy. But once we had food and clean clothes for the next few days, we had the afternoon free.

I brought with me on this trip several guidebooks about scenic places in the state, and while my clothes were in the washer and dryer I searched for spots in the Oil City area. We discussed riding the Sandy Creek Trail again, and so I got into my riding gear.  Before we went to the trail, however, we made a trip to Kennerdell Overlook. The sky was clear, and so we had a spectacular view of the Allegheny River. I saw there seemed to be a hiking trail near the overlook, but we left that for another day.

One of my guidebooks mentioned a waterfall, Freedom Falls, with a short and easy hike from the road. Assuming we would be able to easily find the small road it was on, we postponed the planned ride till later that afternoon. Finding the falls turned out to be a challenge involving a lot of driving around on back roads. Once we found the parking area we experienced a harder than advertised hike to the falls. The distance was short, but the hillside steeper than we expected. Judy was OK but I had a little trouble, for I was dressed for riding as I hiked, wearing full kit and Crocs.

Once we reached the falls, we found it was worth the trip. Freedom Falls is big, standing over twenty feet tall and fifty feet wide. Even in the middle of an August dry spell it was impressive. The water flow in Shull Run was low enough that I could stand safely near the lip of the falls and shoot down into the plunge pool. Talk about not having a net!

Once I'd taken photos from the top, it was time to see the face of the falls. I returned to the bank of the run and made my way down to the plunge pool. I hesitated at first, but then went in.  The water level was below my knees, and refreshingly cool. Crocs were the perfect wading shoe, and I'd have not gone into the water had I been wearing hiking boots.

Photography is a fascinating subject, but I'm not a skilled photographer, nor do I have anything beyond a point and shoot.  But I do try to practice the good advice I've been given or read. One of my favorite guidebook writers is Scott Brown, author of Pennsylvania Waterfalls. Brown advised when shooting to use a lower shutter speed and a tripod, and to try to use a filter to reduce background highlighting. The woods were showing up as very bright, and since the falls as a whole weren't heavily flowing I focused on segments of the waterfall. This let me make the water the focus and allowed me to 'crop' out the woods. I won't call my photos professional or serious, but they pleased me very much. And they still do. Seeing them again reminds me of a cool afternoon along and in Shull Run.

Not quite as cool was the climb uphill. I suppose I could get a decent footing in Crocs, but my pair are a size larger than my hiking boots, and my wet feet shifted in them as I climbed. I must have looked ridiculous to anyone who saw me; a fat, knock-needed guy in bib shorts, jersey, and orange Crocs climbing up a hill on hands and knees.

We spent an hour and a half hiking and shooting at the falls, and for an off day I'd worked up quite a hunger. Having gotten in an adventure, we decided Sandy Creek could wait for another day, so we headed back to our campsite at Two Mile Run County Park. I'd offered to make dinner, but on discovering that my campfire specialty was tuna hash, my companion decided she would cook. That evening Judy showed off her skills at camp cookery with steak, corn on the cob, fresh beans and squash, and tea, prepared over the fire pit an on her stoves. It capped an exciting and active "off day" for the two of us.

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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Book Review: How I Learned To Ride The Bicycle

This review was first published in 2007 on my previous blog.

How I Learned To Ride The Bicycle by Francis Willard

Bicycling recently called this short tome the best book ever written on learning to ride. While they got the title wrong - the book originally bore the title Wheel Within a Wheel; this edition uses a less metaphoric title - Bicycling very well may be correct in their judgment.

Frances Willard's book was written in 1895, and was intended as more than just an instruction manual. Women in the United States hadn't the voting franchise, and wouldn't get it for another two decades. Many forms of employment were closed to them. Society frowned on their participation in certain activities, including athletics. The medical profession's opinion of women was that they were a weaker sex, prone to hysteria and overstimulation, a view nicely summarized in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper." As the narrator of that tale says, "Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good."

Work did Frances Willard good - she was president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union from 1879 until her death in 1898. And as president, she threw herself into an assortment of social causes, ranging from suffrage to labor rights. As the bicycle craze of the 1890s grew, she saw the potential benefits to women of learning to ride. A bicycle is emancipation, in that the rider is in complete control of the bike. Here was something that a woman could control, and what's more, it brought her out of the house and into the outdoors, engaging in healthy exercise. So Willard, at age 53, taught herself to ride. Her little book describes her lessons, and includes photographs of her astride her bike, Gladys.

As a book that anachronistically can be called a feminist tract, Willard's tome strays from the path into matters of social justice that are dated, to put it kindly. And she's often guilty of high Victorianese in her prose. But much of the book remains fresh, particularly when she addresses motivation:

"That which caused the many failures I had in learning the bicycle had caused me failures in life; namely, a certain fearful looking for judgment; a too vivid realization of the uncertainty of everything about me; an underlying doubt - at once, however (and this is all that saved me), matched and overcome by the determination not to give in to it."

But my favorite quotation is this wonderful sentence: "I finally concluded that all failure was from a wobbling will rather than a wobbling wheel." I'm constantly reminding myself of that as I attempt to master my bike. And it is for Willard's insight into motivation that I encourage you to read this book. Fans of history, bikes, and women's studies will also find this tome fascinating reading.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, Willard's book is currently available in two different editions. A reprint of Wheel Within A Wheel, under its original title, is available; the edition under review, How I Learned To Ride The Bicycle, includes interesting essays on Willard's life and how women participated in the 1890's bicycle boom. And as the book is in the public domain, ebook editions are available for free at sites such as

For further information on Frances Willard:

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Book Review: Heft on Wheels

I reviewed Heft on Wheels in 2007. Since then the author had his life fall apart, regaining weight, cheating on his wife and losing his marriage, giving up cycling and then finding it again. He's written dispatches from his decline and rise for Bicycling over the years, but his work suffered; I remember a soggy essay on Greg Lemond that included the author's overwritten confessions of his infidelity, for example. Turning again to Heft on Wheels, it's a pleasure to encounter Magnuson on top of his talent and his personal life.

Heft on Wheels: A Field Guide to Doing a 180 by Mike Magnuson

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. For Mike Magnuson, it was worth more; it changed his life.

Magnuson, a professor at Southern Illinois University and author of two novels, wrote an article for Gentleman's Quarterly on his love of cycling. Unfortunately for him, he agreed to pose naked on his road bike in a photo for the article. Years of beer, junk food, and smoking had plumped him up to 255 pounds. When the picture appeared in GQ, alongside his article, he was horrified. Not only because of the unflattering appearance he cut, but also because it made him seem he had written the piece "as a goof to make a couple of bucks....cycling's not a joke to me." Magnuson immediately attempted to restore his self-image by riding with his local club during inclement weather. But he hadn't reached bottom yet; while trying to climb a hill during the ride, a thunderstorm strikes, and the group sends a biker back to rescue Magnuson by letting him catch up and draft. After the ride, the author vows "I need to prove something out of this. Cycling's not a joke. I'm not a joke. I don't want to be a figure of fun. I'm not a fat man on a bike. I'm a real cyclist, and I'm hereafter going to do everything in my power to achieve my fullest potential on the bike..."

Magnuson attacked his problems with his all. He quit smoking, gave up drinking, and lost 75 pounds in about three months. Heft on Wheels, however, isn't just about giving up your vices, nor is it just about the bike. Magnuson gets down to 175 pounds, participates in rides and a race, but the changes in him are more than just physical or a matter of experience. He questions his loss of his old unhealthy lifestyle. He questions the time he's devoted to his two-wheeled passion. He questions his goals: "What do I do now? Pedal up a mountain, because it's there?" These doubts and many others Magnuson struggled with are told in a simple, conversational prose style; even Magnuson's frequent references to literature, such as his comparison between dieting and Kafka's tale "The Hunger Artist", come across with the easy tone of a friend who just happens to be well-read. And this book could well be the friend of anyone who has undergone "a 180" from a harmful, life-sucking lifestyle, even if they don't ride a bike.

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Monday, July 1, 2013

Nola, the trail cat

The Great Allegheny Passage is known for many kinds of exotic wildlife - peacocks, black bear, timber rattlers, recumbent cyclists - but few creatures were as fearsome as Nola.

Just when this ferocious feline began patrolling the trail just past the Deal trailhead isn't known, but I tangled with her on a hot morning in August 2008. Her approach to me was classic cat. She knew I'd slow on seeing her, and so she took her time approaching me. I wasn't going anywhere. As I stopped, she turned towards me and rolled onto her side. I dismounted the bike, as she expected. She looked at me with her feline eyes, as if to say "I have a soft white belly, and I'd like you to rub it."  Then she purred. I was foolish and lured in. I extended my hand towards her belly, and as I got close the trap was sprung. Her claws came out and sprang at my hand. Fortunately I was slightly faster than Nola, and got my hand away in time to avoid scratches. She then rolled back onto her side, and purred again to get my attention. Having had one near miss with Nola, I had no wish  try again. I remounted the bike and continued on to Cumberland.

This was my only meeting with Nola. When I rode through the Deal trailhead in 2009 and 2010 she wan't at her post. In 2011 I'd heard she'd disappeared and was presumed dead. If so, the GAP is missing a mascot and greeter. Nola, wherever you are, I hope the mice are slow and fat, and you have an unending stream of cyclists to greet. 

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Book Review: One Man's Leg

One Man's Leg by Paul Martin

In 1992 Paul Martin was a salesman in training with Lincoln Electric in Cleveland, Ohio. In that year, his life changed after an accident cost him his left leg. His strong interest in sports led him away from business and to the life of athletic competition. His 1995 participation in the New York Marathon led him to believe that "anything I wanted to do, in any field, for any reason, was possible. If I dedicated myself to any reasonable goal, I could ultimately achieve it." One Man's Leg is Martin's account of his life as a disabled athlete.

Martin's story, and thus his book, reminds me of an autobiography by a rather more famous bicyclist, Lance Armstrong. Both men overcame rocky childhoods and health struggles that would have defeated many people. Both went on to become superior sportsmen. Both rode bikes competitively, among other sports - Martin specializes in triathlon, like the young Armstrong did. But one seemingly minor difference struck me. In his book, Armstrong specifically makes the statement that he became a better man because of his cancer. Martin leaves unstated the fact that had he remained a two-legged salesman in corporate America, he would be less of a person.

Another difference, and one that makes Martin's book, and himself, somewhat more approachable than Armstrong's, is that Martin's sports career was played as an amateur. While he did have sponsors, the sponsorship money was a lot smaller than the millions provided the US Postal and Discovery bike teams. Martin's decision to turn his back on a stable income to pursue sports will seem crazy to some, and being so hard up you have to sell your bike to pay the rent isn't a position anyone wants to be in. And yet, the author makes such a life look easy. Or at least easy compared to winning a race on only one leg.

Martin apologizes in his book for his skill with a pen, although no apology is needed. One Man's Leg is a well-written account of a sporting life well-lived, one so well-lived that the word "disabled" doesn't apply.

Paul Martin's website is


Pine Creek Rail Trail, August 2009

From the first moment I'd heard about a place called the "Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania", I fell in love. I read everything I could find on the canyon and the 62 mile Pine Creek Rail Trail that ran through it. This included every article and page on the website, which is a remarkable resource for a person planning a trip. In particular the articles by writer David Kagan drew me in, especially his account of a 117 mile ride on the trail.

It took a while, but I finally visited in 2009. The trip turned into a vacation with bike rather than a proper bike tour. I didn't feel comfortable having the car deposited at a public lot with no security at the southern end of the trail, and the outfitter quoted a price but was unenthusiastic to  pick me up and take me back to the car. So I resolved to ride portions of the trail, including the Pine Creek Gorge.

My first day had nothing to do with the bike, but a lot to do with being a tourist, and a little to do with the weather. My first stop was two hours into the drive, at Boulder Field in Hickory Run State Park. The boulders, all 16 acres of them, were deposited by a retreating glacier. Note the threatening sky. The heavens opened a few minutes later. It took forever to get out of the park in the blinding rain. I later learned there had been a tornado warning - a funnel cloud had been spotted nearby.

Once on I-80 I made decent time, despite the rain, to Williamsport. My goal was to ride on their bikeway, but the weather made me cancel. Instead I visited a private zoo, Clyde Peeling's Reptileland, and spent an hour with snakes, lizards, and turtles.

I stopped in Jersey Shore, a place that in my youth I called "the most boring town in Pennsylvania." It wasn't quite that, but I found little reason to stay once I'd visited the town square. I figured sooner or later I'd reach it as the southern end of a trip on the trail. But today it was onward to my campsite.

I spent the night at Little Pine State Park in Waterville, 4 miles from the trail and many, many miles from 'civilization.' The conservationist on site had a social get together with campers and answered questions, most of which were about the list of 50 state parks scheduled to close under a budget proposal. Little Pine was on the list. While the parks employee couldn't comment on that, one of the campers claimed to be friends with a representative in Harrisburg and stated that proposal wasn't being discussed. Pennsylvanians love the state park system and no politician wants to be known as the guy who closed the parks.

The next morning I headed north for Wellsboro, but became concerned because what was listed as a state road on the map became a gravel fire road. Also, my gas gauge was getting low, and I doubted I'd find a station in the middle of nowhere. So I went back, had breakfast and fueled the car in Waterville. Over breakfast I thought about how my plans for the day were messed up because I'd be late getting to the northern end of the trail. I'd fallen victim again to my stubborn determination to follow a plan and follow it through. Then as I ate I remembered two phrases from my friends: "Just ride bikes" and "No more epic journeys." I smiled and knew what I should do.

So instead of heading north, I rode the trail from Waterville trailhead up to Dry Run, and south to Torbert, the last access point before the southern terminus in Jersey Shore. Since Jersey Shore isn't worth seeing twice in two days, I turned around and rode RT 44, the parallel road, back to the car. It's PA Bike Route G, and while the climbs were much harder than the trail, it was worth it. I was glad I wasn't dragging a trailer when I did them.

The trail surface is fine gravel, and very well groomed. Grade crossings are well marked. Services leave a bit to be desired. Country stores are all over the place, but I missed being able to get 'real' food at a sit down diner. I was a bit less of an outdoorsman in 2009; on subsequent trips I've not missed a diner at all.

The views were all that could be desired. After the riding in the morning, I drove up 19 miles to Cedar Run to my campsite, and rode from Cedar Run to a mile or so past Blackwell. The Blackwell access point, where Babb's Creek meets Pine, is the end of the Pine Creek Gorge, so by riding north I got a foretaste of Sunday's ride. I finished the day with 35 miles of riding.

But the end of the day became a mess. I had to drive five miles to get food, and by the time they served me it was dark. I had to set up camp in the dark, using my car's headlamps to illuminate the campsite.

The commercial campsite I used was unkempt, with 110 sites and only three toilets and two showers for men. The showers required a quarter for three minutes. As nice as the site was, located so close to Pine Creek that I woke up to the sound of the flowing water, I'd not stay there again.

After paying 50 cents for a shower, I packed up and drove north to Wellsboro. A couple of places I had to stop to take photos. Also, it gave me a break from bouncing up and down on semi-paved roads. I reached Wellsboro and immediately went to the Wellsboro Diner for breakfast. After fueling, I took photos of the town, particularly the rows of gas lamps on the main streets.

Next, I drove up to Colton State Park and found one of the scenic overlooks of the canyon. Colton Point is the park on the west rim, a few miles from the outfitters. Photos and reputation hadn't done the canyon justice. It's rare that my jaw drops, but it did here. I began to take photos, but not before reflecting on the wonder before me, and He who created a world with such wonders for us.

Then to Pine Creek Outfitters. I arranged to ride the canyon and gorge to Blackwell, 18 miles, and then get picked up. The canyon ride was great, although the tree cover obscured much of the view of the canyon walls. Also, the canyon is best seen from above, not below.

I raced people in canoes along the creek. They were also getting the three PM shuttle back to the outfitters, but I managed to jump ahead of them. I finished the 18 miles in a little less than three hours, which included many stops for photos, water, and.... a rattlesnake.

Doug gave his side of the story in another post. What really happened was that another rider pointed out the snake to me. After he rode off, I took out my camera. Another two riders came up and pulled out cameras as well. One of them seemed to know a lot about snakes, so I suggested we try to get him to move. So I sprayed the snake with my water bottle from a distance of about three feet. He obviously didn't like getting wet, so he raised his head and rattled his tail. He had 8 rattles, and made sure we knew it.

After getting picked up in Blackwell and deposited at my car I got ice cream at a small store outside Colton Point State Park and headed to the northern end of the trail. Wellsboro Junction isn't a town so much as a road crossing, scenic railroad terminal, and a farmer's market. The trail runs through farmland until it reaches Darling Run and enters the canyon, and I enjoyed seeing the mountains in the distance, and not up close on either side. I rode 4 miles to a trail bridge and then back, giving me 26 miles for the day.

After getting dinner and changing in the bathroom at the farmer's market, I headed to the East Rim of the canyon in Leonard Harrison State Park and spent about a half hour at the overlooks there. The views are even more spectacular at Harrison than at Colton Point, but I prefer the solitude one has on the West Rim. I had to tear myself away for the five hour drive back to the Philadelphia suburbs. Its a shame I had to leave, because if I could I would live there forever.

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My First Rattlesnake, Pine Creek Rail Trail, August 2009

A short story of my first encounter with an Eastern Timber Rattlesnake, told from the snake's point of view. I'll add in my defense that I now know I shouldn't have disturbed the reptile, and next time I'll leave it alone. The timber rattler is a protected species in Pennsylvania, and found mainly in the central and western mountains of the state. His proper name is Crotalus Horridus, but this one prefers to be called Doug.


(Back in the snake den, Doug is talking.... and talking.... and talking.... He corners another snake and stops him when he tries to slither away.)

"So wait till I tell you what happened!"

"Gee Doug, the wife was expecting me to bring home dinner, and I need to get a mouse quick."

"Wait, this'll just take a minute. I was in vacation in Pennsyltucky-"

"How did you get up there?"

"I flew."

"Sure, you sprouted wings."

"No, I flew in an airplane."

"Oh come on, tell me another one."

"Don't Tread On Me"
"It's true. Haven't you heard that snakes can be on planes? Well anyway, I was vacationing in a place called the Pine Creek Gorge. It's got lots of nice rocks and flat, level gravel that we can sun ourselves on. So I was resting there, soaking up some rays, conditioning the new skin - I'd shed the old coat, and all of a sudden I feel some water land on me. I looked up to see if it was raining and I saw one of those strange big creatures on two wheels squirting water at me from his water bottle."

"So what did you do?"

"I showed him who was boss. I reared up and shook my rattle at him."

"And what did he do?"

"Well, I'd hoped he'd drop the water bottle and run away, but he didn't. He took out a camera and took photos of me. I was flattered of course, but I realized he may have had more water, so I slithered away. I kept shaking my rattle so he knew I was taking it easy on him. "

"You were lucky. Those two-wheeled creatures are dangerous."

"Yeah. We need to get them outlawed. You should contact all your relatives who are lawyers or members of Congress."


Book Review: The Immortal Class

When I'm not outdoors I'm reading about the outdoors. I'll be posting book reviews from time to time. The following review was published on my old blog seven years ago, and on rereading it there's not a word I'd change. While the subject of bike messengers isn't a usual topic for A Taste For The Woods, its still an interesting book and review.

The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power by Travis Hugh Culley

What do you do if you are young, have a degree in theater but no job, and have ambition but no money? Become a bike messenger. And what if you have a large, bordering on the overdeveloped, sense of self-esteem? Write about being a bike messenger.

That's just what Travis Hugh Culley, a twenty-seven year old BFA holder from Miami, Florida, has done in The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power. And the book shows all the positives and negatives that a twenty-seven year old theater major can bring to the page.

Let's start with the prose. In the beginning was the word, and Culley uses them well. His voice is lyrical and Whitmanesque. Culley has an eye for the dramatic incident, such as a rider breaking a cab window with a U lock, and he knows how to build drama out of it. He brings a young man's fervor and passion to his writing, but it's a controlled passion, just like in the theater. And he clearly loves being a messenger. Culley makes a comparison between the wheeled couriers of the Windy City to Mercury, the winged messenger of the Olympian gods, both explicitly and indirectly. "You become'" Culley writes, "part of a class who, in order to continue, must believe itself unstoppable. This heightened feeling gives the messenger a confidence, a speed and agility of almost metaphysical proportions. We cling to the dream of being untouchable, part of an immortal class of winged angels, hailed for speed and strength."

Very nice. However, like many a young man who struts the stage, Culley gets so caught up in what he is saying he stops thinking. Witness the following credo early in the book: "The bicycle is a revolution, an assault on civilian territory, intent upon taking, from the ground, responsibility for the shape of our cities. It is a mutiny, challenging the ever-one-way street. The bicycle is a philosophy, a way of life, and I am using it like a hammer to change the world and to redeem our war-torn cities."

My postman could have said the same thing of his truck the day he delivered my Amazon order containing the book. Sorry Travis, you are using the bike to carry packages and letters for major corporations in Chicago, not as an instrument of social change. Using the bike for such deliveries in itself is an interesting topic, for it's an interesting life; had you stuck to that, and kept the windy rhetoric for your fellow messengers in the lobby of the Sears Tower, the book would have been better.

While on the subject, Travis, I find it best to avoid holding forth ex cathedra on subjects I don't know much about. You rather undercut your extensive lectures on urban planning with the following admission: "I don't have the degrees from the old universities to call me an authority on urban development, but I do have this: I have the question and I have the city to relate it to..." Sitting on a bike saddle can turn even the most incompetent cyclist into a know-it-all - as anyone who has ridden with me can advise - but there's no need to advertise the fact.

If you can get past the enviro-politicking and the windy pronouncements from on high, The Immortal Class is interesting, gritty, and thought provoking. The details of a day's riding, the crackle of the radio with directions in bizarre dispatch code, the feel of the street under the tires, the pounding of the body going through this punishment daily, the excitement of an "alleycat" race - Culley captures it all. Culley never comes to grips with the irony of his being a rebel in the servitude of Corporate America, but in a nation that dotes on millionaires singing songs about being poor, that seems a small quibble.

Of more concern is Culley's defense of one of the biggest complaints against messengers, and by extension all bicyclists: their habit of violating traffic laws, and indeed being above the law. The incident of the U lock and the cab window I mentioned previously comes to mind. In the book, the cab driver cuts off the messenger, the rider smashes the window, and after he pedals his getaway, he returns to the courier headquarters to change shirts and helmet so he can go back out without being recognized. Culley, a new messenger, is shocked that no one is upset about the incident, but he comes to realize it's normal and acceptable behavior. In his brave new world, two wrongs do make a right. Incidentally, both Culley the rider and Culley the writer miss the irony of an "immortal" hiding himself from his handiwork.

On the lesser matter of traffic laws, Culley makes much of the cyclist's ability to react to his environment and to traffic around him: "In time, I too would learn that an experienced messenger can see anywhere from five to thirty seconds into the future. The traffic can be read so closely that he is rarely caught off guard. Most people think that this comes with having good reflexes, but who needs reflexes when you can actually see the future?" This "immortal" precognition leads him to mount a case that rules of the road apply to everyone but bike messengers. "A messenger," Culley writes, "following a commuter's level of caution and defensiveness would destroy his livelihood, insult his character, and impede his right to the road....An intersection burnt by a courier should herald cheers from cops, motorists and pedestrians alike. It is the clearest expression of a messenger's technique."

So much for "Share the Road." The 27 year old has spoken, folks. Let us learn about life from his wisdom. However, if like me, you can chalk up the posturing to youth and the arrogance to the bike, you can enjoy The Immortal Class. Just don't ride with them.


Bike and Swim, Bike and Hike Trail, Akron, July 2011

I spent two weeks riding in Ohio in June and July 2011. With my time amid the Buckeyes coming to an end, I wanted to revisit the Bike and Hike Trail. I'd ridden it the week before with an online friend who had raced RAAM, gone into the redzone when I pushed myself to try to keep things interesting for him, and had dry heaves on someone's lawn. I don't like being pwnd, and I wanted to see the part of the trail I hadn't ridden. So off I went from one of the trailheads on the north of the trail, headed over the bridge towards Peninsula.

After a roller-coaster descent I was on a mildly rolling trail. The most scenic portion of the entire ride was the railroad cut known as the Boston Ledges. I'm fond of railroad cuts, and the Boston Ledges were impressive. I sat on the bench on both the outbound and return trip to enjoy the shade and quiet. 

After several road crossings there's a mile long on road section of the trail that was a complete mess when I rode it, featuring a steep descent and climb from a bridge.  I understand MetroParks Serving Summit County has since constructed a pedestrian and cycling bridge parallel to the road and trail on either side. I went through the mess and got back on the trail to face this for miles and miles.....Flat as a pancake, under the power towers. The surrounding views were pretty, but I was roasting in the heat on the exposed trail. Finally the Bike and Hike Trail ended at the juncture with a park path called the All Purpose Trail, five rolling miles leading to the Tinker's Creek Gorge overlook and a waterfall. I stopped for lunch at a table at the shaded trailhead. Once fueled and watered, I started on the All Purpose Trail.  I rode partway, decided I didn't give a tinker's damn about Tinker's Creek, and went back. 

I continued south past my starting point, down the section I'd had the problems the week before. After this set of rollers along the highway, I stopped at a TGIFriday's for dinner. Fortunately it had an entrance on the trail. I propped my bike on the fence and downed three strawberry lemonade slushes while waiting for my order...... so much for any calorie burn on the ride.

Fueled, I continued on. My destination was Munro Falls MetroPark, about a mile from the trailhead in that area for the Bike and Hike Trail. I knew the parked closed at 8 PM, and I wanted to go for a swim. I pushed myself through the late afternoon heatI arrived at 7, changed into my swimsuit at 7:05, and jumped in the lake. What a refreshing end for 38 miles of riding in 90 degree weather. The water was warm, but so what? It was wet. 

Soon after the park closed my host arrived to pick me up. I felt I'd partly redeemed myself for the ride on the trail a week before. I hadn't tried to be a RAAM racer, only myself. And I'm pretty good at being that. 

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A Taste For The Woods: 2013-06-30

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A Taste For The Woods