K's Big Ride

Two years ago, M and I took the kids (at the time it was just Laurel and Marko) on bike trip from our house to Cumberland, MD and back. We are so lucky to have the Great Allegheny Passage close to home...it's one of the best rails to trails projects in the country and the scenery in October can't be beat. About six months ago, I hatched a plan to spend a weekend away biking on the GAP. I booked a couple of AirBnBs and convinced my friend Prachi to come along. After that, I pretty much forgot about it. I did a couple of practice rides to make sure my bike was in good shape, and it really just needed a good cleaning. I would not say I was in peak physical shape when the weekend finally (quickly?) arrived, but like most things, I figured I could do it if I tried.

The weather was great. Cold enough to wear my lobster claw gloves when we set out from Ohiopyle, but sunny. It warmed up by midday enough to be comfortable sitting for a while when we ate lunch. Our plan for day 1 was to ride from Ohiopyle to Frostburg, which was about 60 miles. This was slightly ambitious since we had to drive from Pittsburgh to Ohiopyle first, and the days are pretty short in October. However, I knew from experience that it could be done. I expected it to be easier since the last time I rode 60 miles I was hauling a small child and loads of gear in a Bob trailer. It turns out you will feel the burn from a steady, ever-so-slightly uphill from Ohiopyle to the Continental Divide whether you have a trailer or just overstuffed panniers. We felt like we were flying once we crested the mountain and started heading down towards Frostburg.

In Frostburg I had booked a really quirky AirBnB that ended up being super comfortable and incredibly well stocked (It's called Wesley's Playhouse, and I definitely recommend it). There were tons of games and books, but I just went to bed. The host advertised "free continental breakfast" but had left us a fridge full of groceries...local milk and bacon and pastured eggs. After breakfast we headed down the trail with the intention of making it to Cumberland. It was freezing! I had on a hat and gloves, but the grade is a little steeper on this stretch so you can go pretty fast. With only a mile to go, we were surrounded by a mob of pink-clad breast cancer awareness walkers, practically shoulder to shoulder. We decided not to wait for them to pass (they were moving very slowly and there were literally a thousand of them), and turned around to head back up the mountain. Today, we only had 50 miles to go, so we took our time. Pedaling back up Savage Mountain took a while. At one point we stopped at a cluster of picnic tables to make some soup. Just as I was lighting my stove, the tourist train pulled up, the conductors jumped out and started setting up umbrellas on the tables and putting out ash trays and then people started pouring out of the train! Apparently there was a small land slide on the tracks up ahead and instead of doing their usual stop in Frostburg, they were stopping here. Many of them were curious about us and one guy even took a video of us. (I have no idea who he was or where this footage will end up.)

It took pretty much all day to pedal those 50 miles, but we both appreciated the freedom of being able to take our time and not have to worry about kids. That night we stopped in Meyersdale and stayed at a more traditional B&B. A big group of cyclists from California was also staying there - they had plans to ride all the way from Pittsburgh to Washington DC. We had dinner and beer at the Morguen Toole Company, and once again I fell asleep early. On the final day, we pedaled back to my car in Ohiopyle. Since it was Sunday and the weather was quite warm, the trail was packed with cyclists. We stopped in Confluence for a beer and a snack and our conversation immediately went towards planning another bike ride.

I love riding on rail trails because all of the anxiety about sharing the road with cars is removed. The grade means that pretty much anyone can handle it, although you will definitely burn a few calories with the steady pedaling. The Great Allegheny Passage now has water fountains right at the trail crossings, as well as some bathrooms, and the towns are rarely more than 10 or 15 miles apart. You always know exactly where you are because there are markers at every mile. More and more long-distance cyclists are using it, and the tourism has really turned around some of the little towns along the way. But you also see a lot of local people out there, walking dogs, or taking their kids out for a ride.

What kind of bike do you need?
I have a touring bike with drop bars and pretty narrow tires. Prachi rode a hybrid with thicker tires and upright seating. There are pros and cons to each. I like mine because there are a lot of different positions you can ride in, so during a 6 or 8 hour day you don't get as stiff. But I was definitely envying her suspension. The trail is pretty rough in places.

What happens if you get a flat tire?
Luckily we didn't! But we did carry tools, a pump, chain lubricant and extra tubes. I actually had an extra folding tire as well, but that may have been overkill. I would definitely at least be prepared to change a tire and have something to make adjustments/tighten things, but if you have a more serious problem there are actually a number of bike shops along the way.

Aren't you breastfeeding Max? How did that work?
I pumped a stash before I left (it took me three months to store enough for 3 days, although I wasn't very diligent about pumping extra every day). On the trail I carried a hand pump and used it whenever we took a break. No real good way to store that milk so I just dumped it. I'm writing this a few weeks after the trip and my supply did not seem to have been negatively affected and Max was mad at me for a few minutes after I got home, but he got over it quickly.

What does a trip like this cost?
I booked through AirBnB and spent about $100 each night, which we split. We ate dinner at a restaurant twice, but breakfast was included in our lodging and we carried food for lunch and snacks. I brought my Jetboil stove so we could heat up water for tea and soup along the way. The biggest expense is obviously the bicycles, but we already had those. If you wanted to save on lodging, you could camp.

Was it hard?
I was definitely sore and tired at the end of the day. But I had only a few moments when I thought, what the heck are we doing? Why am I not at a spa on my getaway weekend?

What would you do differently?
Carry less stuff.

On New Years Eve, M and I each made a list of things we wanted to do in 2016. This was the most ambitious thing I wrote down. At the time I had a newborn and had not even been on my bike in over a year. But with a little planning and some support from M, I made it happen. Some of the other things from my list that I tried, I ended up not really liking (like the climbing gym). But riding my bike turned out to be something I really, really enjoyed. I don't think I would actually like a spa weekend anyway, and having something really physical to do during the day meant I slept great at night. The fresh air and being outside the city was really restorative. As soon as we know what our spring schedule looks like, I'm going to book another few nights of AirBnB and make this happen again!


October 2

Yesterday I went out with my friend and rode 30 miles on the Butler Freeport Trail. It rained overnight, but by the time we got to the trail just before 8, the skies were clear. We enjoyed fresh air blue sky, and a mostly empty trail, although it was a bit soggy. Our bikes definitely need to be sprayed off. The morning gave me a much-needed break from the kids, and it also felt good to really stretch my legs and get a little bit of a workout.

Life with three kids definitely makes for full days (and nights). Max still requires a lot of help with sleeping at night. I consider it a huge win if I get a three hour stretch and I am mostly not winning. But sleep aside, I really enjoy being with the kids, which was always the part of work that I liked the best. We keep it pretty simple around here....we play in the park, make art, go to the library and build stuff with Legos. I babysit some of our neighbors, and find that more kids are generally easier to manage. As my kids get older, I am starting to have a sense of what the next stage of parenting will look like and coming to grips with the realization that baths and rocking to sleep and wiping butts is probably the easiest and most gratifying stage of this whole gig.

Last night when I was tucking the kids in to bed, I sang the words to Taps (Laurel is in Girl Scouts so our repertoire of songs is expanding greatly).

"....All is well, safely rest...." is one of the lines.

"Not everyone is safe," said Laurel when the song was done. She looked a little sad. I think she was sad because she truly values the feeling of safety and was enjoying some of that in the moment, tucked in with her brother in a great big bed inside a house on a cool, fall night. The realization that not everyone gets what she has is a tough issue to grapple with for six year olds, who have an unusual obsession with fairness.

As she leaves our proverbial nest and her exposure to the world both puts her at greater risk, and offers her a greater perspective, she will develop her own ideas about her place in the equation. And probably do a fair amount of screwing up, hurting other people, getting hurt herself. When I think about this right now, I usually think about Laurel, although of course Marko and Max will shortly follow in her footsteps. I just still have a lot of control and contact with Marko and Max, but Laurel is off doing her own thing for big parts of the day. First grade is basically a full work day, she goes to play dates by herself, etc.

Rather than thinking about what I need to do with my kids (i.e. my "parenting"), I've been thinking about my own actions, activities, and interactions with the world. Those are the things they'll actually take the most lessons from, I think. There are a couple of things we're involved in that we really loved but have turned into sources of tension. I don't have any answers or even cohesive thoughts about them at the moment. I wish I had some more time to read and write, but I have used up all of that time just on this short blog post. Back to wiping butts for now!