GAP Bike Vacation: Traveling With Kids

In October 2014, we rode the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail from Pittsburgh to Cumberland and back, approximately 300 mile trip. Read more about that trip here:
Part 1
Part 2

Lots of people ask us about traveling this way with kids. At the time of this vacation, Laurel was 4 and Marko was 1. We decided to pull them in 2 Burley trailers that we bought off Craigslist. Laurel doesn't really ride a bike too well yet (she just mastered a scooter) and we only had 6 days to do 300 miles, so we thought she wouldn't last for that mileage on a tag-along. Plus, our kids are pretty small for their age. Marko's about 21 pounds and Laurel isn't much over 35. Very towable.

Snug as a bug.
A Family is More than the Kids
First, let's establish this...neither of our kids was like, "hey, can you pleeeease take us on a 300 mile bike trip? pretty please?" This was something M and I have wanted to do for a long time. Our desires and interests are just as important as those of our kids.

Basic Needs
Our first priority was to make sure they would be warm and dry enough. The trailers were awesome for that. I packed tons of fleece blankets and just padded them up in there. I got some books on tape for them to listen to, but that was kind of a bust. I also packed some small toys and books. Mostly they just looked around or fell asleep while we were moving, which frankly is not all that different from a car trip. Looking out the window is not a bad way to pass the time. If it had been raining, we would have closed the rainfly and they would stay snug and dry.

Our second consideration was keeping them fed. This is no problem on the GAP as there are country diners and stores every 10 or 20 miles. We ate a ton of pizza, ice cream and french fries. I packed little baggies of cheerios and crackers that we could toss at them if they got hungry along the way. Everyone had a water bottle they could reach.

Train-themed playground in
Connellsville, PA.
Balancing the Activity
One of the challenges was that M and I got a ton of exercise along the way. The kids, on the other hand, needed to run around. We tried to stop every hour or two and find someplace where we could sit and they could run. We also kept them up a little later at night and just all went to bed together. They napped plenty during the day so they weren't too cranky with this arrangement.

We also made sure that Laurel got to do some of her favorite activities so we stayed at a hotel in Cumberland that had a pool. The visitor center at Meyersdale had lots of model trains, as well as a real caboose to explore. She usually just climbed on rocks or fence posts when we stopped, though.

Sometimes They Will Cry

He wanted milk. (This is milk.)
Just the other day, Marko threw himself on the floor with rage because I would not give him an extremely hot pepper to eat. Laurel is now more in the can-be-reasoned-with stage, but she still bursts into tears several times a day. My job is not to keep them happy or entertained 100% of the time. Usually we can help Laurel talk about what's really bothering her and help her find a solution. With Marko? He still doesn't talk enough so we have no clue what he's thinking. We usually just give him a hug and that clears things up.

Will They Remember?
Some people wonder if it is a waste to take your kids on cool trips when they are little because they might not remember it. However, this trip is now part of our family narrative. Laurel, at least, has a slightly deeper understanding of how the rivers flow and can trace that on a map. They both must have gotten something out of the experience of having the sights and sounds and smells of autumn all around them. Marko loved seeing real trains and the river (two of his words that he shouted over and over again). Maybe it mostly matters that M and I will remember this trip. I think we all just genuinely like hanging out with each other and it was 6 days where we got to do that.

Lessons Learned
1.) Pay attention to weight. Just because you can haul a hundred pounds of stuff doesn't mean you should. This was hard mostly because of how heavy the load was.
2.) Plan 40 mile days instead of 60 mile days (at least if you are going in the fall or spring when there is not as much daylight).
3.) Try camping along the way.
4.) Pack healthier food. Fried got old.
5.) Just go for it! We weren't sure how this would turn out, and had lots of challenges along the way and it was still fun.

GAP Bike Vacation Part 2

Read Part 1 here.

It was a pretty ambitious plan to try to get from Cumberland to Confluence in one day, especially with M being sick. We needed to make 62 miles plus another mile off trail to our B&B that night. And all before 6pm when it started getting dark. Just as I was about to throw in the towel and book some train tickets home, M rallied. We figured we would at least start up the mountain and then, if he wasn't well enough, it would be an easy ride back into town and the trail didn't leave until 7pm.

So, we started up the mountain. On the way up, the train passed us twice, as did lots of folks on bikes. I have no good photos of this stretch because I had to just keep going. No stopping. No thinking about the mile markers slowly ticking by. The weather was perfect, the scenery gorgeous, and several hours later, we were back at the Eastern Continental Divide. All downhill from here!

We paused again at Meyersdale for some lunch and to let the kids play in the caboose. And it really was noticeably downhill into Confluence. We went much faster and with much less effort. M started to feel better. When we got to Stepping Stone Farm, the kids were delighted to find playmates (grandkids of the owners) and chickens!

Chickens also roamed around the yard.
The owners, Vicki and Larry, had actually been in Frostburg the day before and saw us there. (Our trailer train made quite a spectacle wherever we went.) There were 3 other families staying at the Farm that night and we had a campfire with smores. In the morning, they showed the kids how to milk a goat. Breakfast was delicious and included raspberries and pears they had grown, as well as a taste of paw-paw fruit. The weather was once again warm and sunny and we coasted back through Ohiopyle and Connellsville on our way to our final stop of the trip, West Newton.

Rocky cliffs line the trail.
That night we stayed at Bright Morning B&B, which sits directly on the trail. The room was large and had a really comfortable king bed and a private bathroom. The B&B actually takes up 3 separate houses and we had the place to ourselves. Unfortunately, that night I slipped and hurt my calf pretty badly. I couldn't even walk! But luckily there was a drug store and a restaurant only a few hundred yards from where we were staying. Ice on my leg and a cold beer improved my spirits. The next morning I found that I could still pedal. We were only 30 or so miles from Pittsburgh, so it seemed a shame to not actually finish the trail at that point.

The final stretch of trail takes you past steel mills and scrap yards. Busy train tracks parallel the trail. Stacks of rusty old pipes and mill equipment lay everywhere. The air is tangibly gritty and the noise from the mill in Braddock is deafening. I cannot imagine living in this valley when it had many more mills and factories. I started to think about the "new" Pittsburgh, reborn from the ashes, as they say. We are a tech and ed and med city now, right? But the 20 or so miles into town tell a different story. From the bike trail, you can really see and hear and smell what the effects of industry are. I'm not saying they shouldn't be there....I have a house and a car and use plenty of fossil fuels and plastic and steel. Over the last five years, I've spent a lot of time getting to know how food ends up on my table. I've adjusted my expectations about what it's worth as a result. I haven't really done this for the other resources I use, but this trip definitely made me think more about it.

The GAP ends downtown, at the Point. It was exhilarating to finally be back in Pittsburgh, but also stressful. Signs marked the way, but there were no sharrows or bike lanes so it was a little unclear where we were supposed to use sidewalks and where we should be on the street. Construction vehicles blocked the right lane on portions.

You can go no further.
Point State Park was under construction for a long time so I haven't hung out there much, but it really is beautiful. Even if you don't want to go on a long distance bike ride, it would make a great destination for a town ride, and you can stick to trails if you start on the North Shore. We hung out at the fountain for a while, and then had another 8 or so miles back to our house. M ran this app on his phone to collect mileage data for our entire trip, so he'll post our stats. (Slow and steady is what you'll see.)

Fall is a perfect time to do the GAP. Enough leaves had fallen that we had excellent views of the river and mountains along the way. We lucked out with the weather, but even if it had rained or was cold there are plenty of places to stop along the way to eat or warm up. Overall, I was really pleased with our lodging options, but I think next time we'll take advantage of some of the adirondack shelters and do a little camping. People from the towns along the way were friendly and very excited to see our kids. We learned a lot about the geography of southwestern PA and western Maryland, railroad history, coal and coke processing and saw a lot of birds. Other than the actual pedaling, the trip was pretty undemanding. There is something extremely therapeutic about spending so many hours a day outside, just watching leaves float down from above and listening to the river churn.


GAP Bike Vacation Part 1

M and I have wanted to do the bike path from Pittsburgh to DC ever since Matt and Loren did it back in 2007. But aside from an overnight trip to Connellsville and a few day trips around Ohiopyle, we never did much traveling on bikes, although M commutes by bike to work. But we finally got some time to do it this month. We decided to haul both kids and our stuff in trailers and to avoid the hassle and expense of shuttling our stuff back from DC, we planned a round trip from Pittsburgh to Cumberland and back. The trip took us 6 days and was about 300 miles.

I look happy as I am about to go down
the big hill. Panic about getting back up
will set in shortly.
Most people don't do this because there is a mountain in the way, and who wants to go over that twice? The elevation change is actually very minor, but you definitely feel it when towing a trailer.

On the first day, we set out from our house on a harrowing ride down Browns Hill Road to get to the Great Allegheny Passage in Homestead. The weather was chilly and overcast and a little windy. The trail winds along the Monongahela River to McKeesport, and then up the Youghiogheny. There were still plenty of leaves on the trees. We saw a whole line of coke ovens and other decaying structures from the Pittsburgh Coal Company along the way. The signage along the trail isn't terribly detailed or informative, but I was prompted to read more later. This article describes the Darr Mine disaster, and I also learned more about coke ovens here. (More about the history of the Steel Valley later.)

As for us, we mostly looked like this:

Pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal.....

The trail in this section passes through many small towns and we stopped and ate lunch in Smithton. The kids were pretty chill in their respective trailers and listened to books on tape when they got bored of looking at beautiful fall scenery.

That night we stayed at a cabin at the River's Edge Campground in Adelaide (MP 92). The next day we continued our uphill climb with a plan to reach Meyersdale. Between Connellsville and Ohiopyle is one of my favorite stretches. The trail sits high above the river and you start to feel like you are in the mountains. We stopped at our favorite place in Ohiopyle for breakfast after knocking off the first 20 miles of the day.

With 58 miles planned, this was a hard day, I'm not going to lie. I may even have cried a little bit and I definitely cursed out all the stuff we had loaded in the trailer. We also had to keep on moving because the sun sets pretty early in late October. We stopped for a snack in Rockwood, at the Opera House, which has a very interesting collection of things in their shops and excellent pizza. As we got closer to Meyersdale the trail opens up and you can see a lot of farms. We passed by some grazing cows and could also see the windmills lining the ridge. I had been looking forward to the Salisbury Viaduct, and we hit it right before sunset. It's crazy the degree of effort that was put into building the railroad here.

Salisbury Viaduct
That night we stayed at the Morguen Toole Company, which was a cool space, but at $140 it seemed a bit pricey. They did nice things like turn on the space heater to warm our room up before we got there, and there were ample towels and a nice bathroom with a shower (no tub). One bed was very comfortable, the other one sagged. The rooms were clean. However, their continental breakfast sucked. No coffee.

The next morning I woke up feeling confident. We had a short day planned into Cumberland and it was mostly downhill. Hands down, my favorite part of the trip was going through the Big Savage Tunnel and then coming out to the view of the valley. We coasted into Frostburg, just in time to see the steam engine come in, which is a big theatrical production. The only downside was that the town sits up the hill, but they have kindly made some switchbacks to follow, so you can avoid the steep country road. After that, we continued on to Cumberland, still coasting downhill. I actually found it sort of frightening to be going as fast as we were, because the path has a lot of loose gravel on it and I was afraid of wiping out. Riding in to Cumberland was weird after spending so much time rolling quietly through forest and farmland. We found Mile 0 and congratulated ourselves for finishing half of our trip.
View from Savage Tunnel

That night we stayed at the Fairfield Inn and Suites, which sits, literally, right next to C&O Towpath, and I really can't say enough good things about the place. They let us take our bikes into our room and found us a spot for the trailers downstairs. There was a pool and a hot tub and it was walking distance to a playground and some little restaurants and the train station.

Unfortunately, M wasn't feeling so hot. Actually, he was feeling really hot, then really cold. Turned out he had a pretty high fever. It looked like we were going to have to end our trip early and figure out another way to get home.


Going Home

You never know what will happen on the way home from school.


Itchy Feet


Picture This

I have no photos on my phone to share today, except an ugly one of my medicine cabinet that I sent to my sister. I'm attempting to strip 90 years of paint off of it. At first, I imagined that I would just repaint it, but it seems silly to invest all this time and effort and then cover up the wood again. So you can picture that, me applying coat after coat of Citristrip and painstakingly removing one layer of paint at a time with a scraper.

You can also picture me at a cutting board with a very sharp knife, in an effort to clear out our fridge from the overabundance of produce we received at Monday's market. Broccoli soup with greens. Then green smoothies for the children. They suck them down but I think it's because they like the mango chunks I throw in there. Biscuits to go with the soup, which have nothing to do with the farmshare, other than the fact that freshly baked biscuits can turn a pot of cream of broccoli soup into a meal.

The other thing I did today was run home from Laurel's school after I dropped her and Marko off, and then in the afternoon, I ran back there to pick them up. It only took 5 more minutes to run than it normally does to drive, and that may only have been because I briefly got lost behind these new apartments that have just gone up. I'm very interested in this idea of running as transportation, although it certainly works less well with small children in tow. (We took the bus home.)

Marko learned to nod his head yes, which has improved our communication tremendously, and he's now in bed, listening to Brian Eno. Laurel just shared all of her news of the day with M, who just got home from work. It was picture day at school. I ordered the cheapest package possible because I have a backlog of school pictures that I owe to all of you. Then Laurel told a bizarre story of Katy Perry sneaking into her friend's room to leave a KitKat, which somehow ended up in her possession at lunchtime. Laurel hates the grilled cheeses they serve at lunch. "They give us stale bread!" she says. The highlight of the day is always the hour or so we spend at the playground after school. Kids running every which way, dangling from the playground equipment, daring each other to drop from ever increasing heights. They climb the fruit trees and the little kids gather around and stare up in awe and then run over to the smallest tree that has a low branch and climb up all together. They perch on the branches like monkeys. I'm only a little worried that the tree will break.



Marko insisted on carrying the bag of apples but it was so heavy he staggered under the weight. I discretely plucked a few out and hid them in my purse to make the load more manageable for a not-quite-two year old. He waved goodbye to everyone we passed as we left the market. Laurel busies herself with visiting the other vendors. Clutching money in her hand, she says a loud "excuse me!" and gets a pound of coffee, or a container of hummus. Italian ices ("icetalians" she calls them) are her favorite, but they are gone for the season. She's learning about money and scrubbed the bathroom floor and tub today. (She's working off a ten dollar debt right now. Long story.)

Margaret gave us bunches and bunches of broccoli this week. I tossed it in olive oil and stuck it under the boiler for a few minutes. You can also slow roast if you have more time.


Fall Camping

Let's just get this out of the way...yes, it's cold and you might be a little uncomfortable. Once you get beyond that, it's quite enjoyable to go camping with kids. Bring hats. The leaves were pretty close to peak in Ohiopyle this weekend. It was super misty on the ridge where we dropped M off to run. We didn't buy nearly enough firewood but it was enough to cook some lamb sausage. Everyone slept peacefully in the backpacking tent. We practiced for our bike vacation by heading to Confluence and back. 1% does make a difference. I always feel like I'm home when I'm near the Laurel Ridge.


Early morning bike maintenance tutorial

Their favorite thing is probably the bell. I shout to please not get greasy because we are on our way to school. Marko can't help but spin the tire. 


The Rain Is Welcome Anytime

Nearly Five

Laurel is nearly five, which means a few things. She'll soon be old enough for Real School necessitating some real decisions on our part, we'll teach her to use a knife (house rule) and she is so firmly into childhood that her baby-ness is just a memory now. I don't even think about it when she climbs in my lap anymore. She's all legs and complicated questions.

But also, I've been someone's mother for five years. Five years! The transformation into motherhood was jolting at first, and then all-encompassing as I obsessed over the proper way to diaper, wean or sleep-train my way through the first years, and has now faded to a layer that sits beneath the surface...always there, but not the most important thing about me anymore. Having kids helped me to realize a part of my personality that was always there, but I didn't know I had. And now there is no separating the mother part of me from any other part.

After five years, my biggest lesson is that in having kids, you are inviting actual people to come into your life for a really long time. (Wanting a "baby" is kind of dangerous. Like wanting a kitten, it goes by really fast and they are super cute and cuddly and then you have a cat for like 15 years. Hope you like cats.)

The books make it sound like child-rearing is this series of gameboards you must conquer before moving on to the next level. There's infant sleep then potty training then tantrums. Then school. Peer pressure. Tweens and teen stuff. Apply each solution to the appropriate developmental stage and WIN!

Parenting has been more like committing to a long-term relationship before I really knew what I was getting into. Along the way you learn about each other...likes and dislikes and how to get along. How to disagree and make up. What you can share together joyfully. What you should just avoid in the spirit of family harmony. How to balance everyone's needs.


Hello, Autumn!

Suddenly, after a September filled with blue-sky days and pleasant temperatures, autumn is upon us. I took Laurel out in the bike trailer on Saturday where she had her very first experience of getting hailed on. It was windy and rainy and cold enough to chase M out of the woods, where he had planned to do a long run. M really loves to run so you know it had to be pretty unpleasant for him to cut that short. Laurel declared it the "worst bike trailer trip ever," but she can be sort of melodramatic about these sorts of things. The hail wasn't really that big and we were only biking around my parents' neighborhood. Note to self: buy her a winter coat.

I haven't blogged for a while for a lot of reasons. Maybe I'll write more about that, maybe not. All of us are fine here. Sort of cocooning for the winter. Folding into each other and slowing things down.

Last week we had a visit from my friend, Leah, and her two year old son. We took them to Ohiopyle for the day where we wandered around the Ferncliff peninsula trails and splashed in the Youghiogheny River. Hiking is very slow....basically Laurel sets our pace these days because she's too big to be carried. Four-almost-five-year-olds cannot be hurried. I love to watch my children in the woods, noticing little bugs and flowers.  Running their hands across mossy rocks, and climbing over decomposing tree branches. Everything I've ever seen and become familiar with is new again as I watch through their eyes. It was fun to take Leah to a place that is special to us. We've been friends for a decade, but spent most of that time on opposite coasts, growing our friendship through emails and letters and the shared experience of motherhood. We could have just hiked somewhere closer to my house....we do live near a 500 acre wooded park. Taking Leah there was a way to reveal something else about myself that could never be communicated another way. Plus her kid really likes to splash in water. (Unless it is a bathtub. Oddly, he is vehemently opposed to baths, but had no qualms about the river, or the water tables at the Children's Museum.)

I have a lot more to say, but running out of time. Here's what you should know in case I forget to blog for another month. (1) I quit my job and have zero regrets about that. I will not be writing about that here, but feel free to ask me in person. (2) We're planning a bike trip down the Great Allegheny Passage in a couple of weeks. Pray for no hail. It will probably be kind of cold. I welcome your suggestions for long distance biking with small children. They'll be in a trailer and it's about 300 miles total, I think. (3) Laurel is reading! Sounding words out on her own and blending sounds. Spending hours sitting on the couch paging through her magazines. So cool to see it happening before my very eyes. (4) Wassail Fest is ON for this year. I seriously will tune my piano, once we set a date. Mid-December.