Despite the leaky tent and splattering rain and the crashing bashing thunder and lightning that illuminated the sky, I slept like the dead in the campsite/cemetery up the road.
But who needs sleep? Or coffee (which I’m trying to cut down on anyway)? I had a destination on Sunday morning, May 27: the city of Steelers and Pirates and Penguins and… maybe a basketball team? And it was a short day, only 30 miles to Pittsburgh from West Newton, pretty much all downhill. I’d been in touch with a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend via text. Last night he’d said that I might get there before he wakes up, because he was going out clubbing all night. And also, he told me not to worry about my muddy bike (I had inquired as to whether he might let me borrow some old towels before wheeling my bike into his apartment), because his place was “already a disaster.” Hmm. I’m game. Cautious, but still game.
It’s only thirty miles, so I can deal with any sort of lifestyle. The shower would be gross, I’m sure, but I’m grossAF in bike shorts I’ve worn for days, my gloves stink so bad it’s fascinating, and I can use my own towel, if need be. I’d arrive, pull out my laptop, spin a few blog episodes, feel accomplished, and be ready to leave bright and early on Monday morning. Thirty, schmirty, let’s get crackin’.
I never quite got crackin’ that morning. There was a slight headwind, enough to eliminate the benefit of the ever so slightly downhill orientation of the route. Somehow short days can be the hardest, especially with no assistance (tailwinds, caffeine, or sleep). Cyclists were less friendly the closer I got to the city. That’s to be expected (I don’t think PGH is known to be a particularly friendly city – what northeast city is?), but I’d gotten used to all the camaraderie of the first several days. The culture of bike travel, whether you’re doing the whole GAP and C&O Towpath, or a few miles with your Meals to Wheels church group, or working your way across the country, is a mutually high-five-oriented pastime.
But, nada. No love.
In order to busy myself when it’s a struggle to keep going, sometimes I sing. Loudly. (When no one else is visibly present, of course.) On the trail the day before, soon after Rick split, I busied myself by fixin’ to sang Crazy and Walking After Midnight, and I even videoed myself doing it. (Not sure if I am game to post the result, but maybe… A highlight of the performance was being caught in the middle by a couple of other riders going the other direction as I was rhapsodizing all Patsy Cline-like into my iPhone.) But this morning I couldn’t find a song that suited my mood. I certainly am crazy and had been wide awake way after midnight, but I wasn’t exactly fallin’ to pieces, and nothing else came to mind, so I kept spinning.
One brightening moment occurred when I passed a trio of riders with loads. These were Andy, Dan and Scott. “Where are you from?” Andy yelled as I passed by.
“LA,” I yelled back not intending for that factoid to be relevant.
“Us, too,” was the reply.
I spun around. Turns out that these guys have been making their way across the country for years. Yes, years. No, not continuously, but with legs. Legs of a journey, I mean, as well as with their actual legs. Their process is certainly unique. Annually, the three of them fly to the location where they left off. Instead of flying with or shipping their bikes, they rent a storage space and stow their gear at the final destination of the previous year…and then pedal their legs for the next leg…and so on. That’s a commitment.
Andy, it turns out, is the CEO of Good Samaritan Hospital in LA, about a mile and a half from my apartment. How random. We chat for a bit, have a few laughs. They’re good guys. Energized somewhat, I pedal off.
As I got closer to Pittsburgh, how to follow the trail became less obvious, and the GAP must’ve ended at some point and evolved into Three Rivers Trail. I thought I was in the city way before I actually was. Homestead is a borough, which means town or city in Pennsylvania, not borough of a city like Bronx or Brooklyn. Aargh.
Pittsburgh is at the confluence of three rivers (the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers) which makes for a lot of bridges that lead into different neighborhoods. I love bridges and tunnels and dams and all those feats of engineering. But, when you’re tiredAF and you don’t know whereTF you are, grrrrrr. It’s time to turn Google Joan on again and punch in the address of the reported “disaster” area. It turns out that he’s in Etna, which is a borough in the PA sense of the word, not part of the city. So, I follow Joan’s instructions and, as I am currently at river level, anything out of the area is a climb. Maybe it’s because Pittsburgh is home to multiple rivers or maybe it’s my Day 5 tired legs, but the climb out is tough. As data has demonstrated so far, Joan isn’t exactly avoidant of hills. At the pinnacle of the mapped climb, I’m supposed to go right. Luckily, that’s downhill. Unluckily, that’s blocked off. To the left, aka the wrong direction, is an even steeper hill. Going UP. Stumped. Not going back down the hill because what if I have to climb back up it? Internal tantrum. Refusal to go anywhere. Ten seconds pass, because my impatience mixed with a desire to get somewhere/anywhere (I’ve failed to mention until now that it’s 12:30pm and boiling and humid), outplays bratty inertia every time. I diddle with Joan and begrudgingly she provides another option that’s only “2 minutes longer” than the current route. So, back down the hill I go.
A half hour later, I’m still searching for some trailhead Joan is clearly pretending exists. Why is she messing with me? What did I ever do to her? A man with major Steelers paraphernalia festooning his garage is outside about to get into his truck. There is a bicycle hanging in this garage. Deep breath. I ask for help.
The man levels with me. I have to backtrack over the bridge I crossed earlier into downtown again. Backtrack?! He understands. He is soothing and corroborates that Joan’s route is more punishing than it needs to be. I knew it! The man doesn’t know exactly how to bike to Etna (his attitude suggests a bit of why Etna?), but his best suggestion is to google-map it from downtown. Okay.
I’m already at 39 miles when I reanimate Joan. Etna is still 45 minutes away from where I am. Failing, flailing, almost bonking, fuming, I am not up for this. I text Kate (who’s from PGH but is a close friend in LA) a basic helpmeimflippingouttext. No response. Forget Etna, a hotel is only a yelp! away. I make an reservation online at the Priory which has a lot of online love to its name and make my way over another bridge to get there. This bridge is closed to tourists for Sunday cyclists and walkers. My mood has shifted, especially as I pass by the PNC Park where the Pirates are currently playing. The way that stadium is part of the city’s landscape is fantastic. It’s open and accessible to the community, feels classically American in the best way, right there on the Allegheny River. You can see what’s going on and check the score as you ride or walk by.
After a brief chat with Kate, who duh-ingly and lovingly validates my need for ‘self-care’ (her word, I’m buyin’ it), I crash out for the rest of afternoon in the cool AC and blindingly white sheets. I wake up about 6pm, grab some fried chicken, a bag of spinach and some cut watermelon from the supermarket and crash again.
Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow I’ll be stronger. Tomorrow I’ll be more resilient. Tomorrow.