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Crossing Mountains, Chasing Rivers

By Tom Bilcze

Can a bicycle ride transform your life? In late June of this year, my best cycling buddy Chuck Gough and I--we both live in the Akron, Ohio, area--ventured out on our first bicycle tour, a 325-mile, eight-day ride across the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal towpath from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Washington, D.C. For seasoned bicycle tourists, this ride may not seem that notable or challenging. For novices like Chuck and I, this trip became the ride of our lives.

Some Background
In the summer of 2008 I underwent laparoscopic adjustable gastric banding (Lapband) weight-loss surgery. I was approaching 300 pounds and in poor health with multiple chronic diseases. I was extremely sedentary. In the summer of 2009, Chuck underwent Roux-en-Y (RNY) weight-loss surgery. Chuck weighed close to 350 pounds and had many of the same health issues. As with me, cycling and exercise were not part of his life.

Weight-loss surgery changed our lives in dramatic ways. We lost considerable weight; 130 pounds for Chuck and 90 pounds for me. We adopted an active healthy lifestyle. Chuck ran a marathon in 2010; quite an achievement for a person who a year earlier walked with the assistance of a cane. Chuck and I met at our local weight-loss support group and both began cycling. We quickly became friends and formed a cycling club to encourage a fit and healthy lifestyle for weight-loss surgery patients.

In early 2011 Chuck and I decided to cycle the GAP and C&O Canal trails. Taking on challenges had become a passion for both of us. This ride was just the ticket for this point in our lives. We spent considerable time planning and training for the week-plus of cycling. We christened our bicycle tour "Crossing Mountains, Chasing Rivers," with a byline of "Cycling the footsteps of history through the Alleghenies to the Chesapeake." (We chronicled our story on a blog, www.crossingmountains.com.)

Our Tour
On a warm, overcast Saturday morning this past June, we pedaled east from the waterfront retail development in Homestead, just outside of Pittsburgh. Our bikes were laden with food, clothing, camping supplies and the necessities for an eight- nine-day, self-supported bicycle tour. Day one proved to be somewhat challenging. We cycled almost 50 miles through the woods along the Youghiogheny River to the River's Edge Campground just west of Connellsville. We were both tired and exhilarated after completing our first day as bicycle tourists.

On Sunday we got our first lesson in cycling a constant uphill grade with over-packed bikes. We crossed through the beautiful Ohiopyle State Park and stopped for lunch in Ohiopyle. It was at this point that we realized that our day's goal to reach Rockwood was unachievable. We re-planned and made a decision to end the day in Confluence. We opted to forego primitive camping and spend the night at the River's Edge Bed and Breakfast. We were to learn that this decision would positively impact the remainder of our ride.

Monday morning saw Chuck and I each mailing 25 pounds of excess gear back home. With lighter loads, on-the-trail experience and much needed rest, we cycled with new vigor uphill through Rockwood and into Meyersdale. Much more confident and relaxed, we continued to climb the Alleghenies. It was on this day that Chuck and I became a team rather than two buddies cycling together. We learned the success of bicycle touring is about relying on each other's strengths and being responsive to each other's needs.

Tuesday afternoon we crossed the Eastern Continental Divide and began our downhill descent into Cumberland. Scenic mountain and valley vistas combined with a series of tunnels made this a day to remember. We crossed the GAP Mile 0 mile marker and began our journey on the C&O Canal towpath at the Western Maryland Railway Station. We celebrated our 140-mile journey across Pennsylvania at the Crabby Pig with our pal Aaron, a Cumberland resident, who was our innkeeper for the night.

At this point, we realized our limited vacation time and miles remaining did not add up. So on Wednesday morning, our friend Aaron drove Chuck and me to Fort Frederick, and Aaron cycled with us from there into Williamsport. (Also, by saving 60 miles of cycling, we assured ourselves a free day to cycle around Washington, D.C.) The views from the C&O around Dam 5 on the Potomac River were quite beautiful. We enjoyed a delicious lunch at Desert Rose's in Williamsport before we said our goodbyes to Aaron and continued east. We set up camp for the night along the shores of the Potomac in Antietam.

Thursday was our most enjoyable day of the tour. We cycled into Harper's Ferry and spent the afternoon exploring this historical and scenic mountainside town. In late afternoon, we cycled into Brunswick, where we would spend a few hours at Beans in the Belfry, a coffee shop and restaurant that was very welcoming to bicyclists. We concluded Thursday with a stay in lockhouse 28, a National Park Service program where we rented a restored lockhouse for a night. The day's lesson was that it is okay to take it easy now and then and to get to know the people and places along the trail!

Friday was a day of anticipation and excitement as we cycled the final 48 miles into Washington, D.C. It was a day of memorable landmarks-crossing the Monocacy Viaduct, enjoying a mid-morning break watching traffic shuttled across the Potomac at White's Ferry, and resting in the shade watching canal boats at the Great Falls Tavern. On a hot and muggy Friday evening, in the middle of a holiday weekend happy-hour crowd, we cycled into busy Georgetown and crossed Mile 0.

Saturday was our reward for our week of cross-country cycling. We cycled eight miles down the shady Capitol Crescent Trail from our hotel in Bethesda to the National Mall, where we did the typical D.C. sightseeing. It was such a dramatic change for both of us. The bikes were lightened of their 50-pound loads, and quiet trails were replaced with the bustle of the city.

We returned home the following morning by car, covering the distance of our 325-journey in a matter of hours. In our hurried lives, we seldom venture off interstate highways. Trails such as the GAP, C&O and Capitol Crescent connect us with the people and places beyond the exit ramp. Our fondest memories are of the innkeepers, servers, shopkeepers and locals we met a long the trail. I thank Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and local trail organizations for their tireless work to expand and maintain this trail network so that we can enjoy more of these experiences in the years to come!

Photos courtesy of Tom Bilcze and Chuck Gough. 


Posted Wed, Aug 17 2011 3:00 PM by Karl Wirsing (RTC)

Comments

Eric wrote re: Crossing Mountains, Chasing Rivers
on Wed, Sep 14 2011 12:55 PM

My daughter and I just finished the ride from our house along Arrowhead Trail in Peters Twp (Part of the Montour Trail) to mile Zero in DC.  It was the most rewarding , combined, physically, mentally, educationally and emotionally fullfulling experience for me.  In the lead up to the ride, neither of us considered ourselves bikers or had ridden a bike more than 10 or 15 miles at any one time and here we were getting ready to do 336 miles in 6 days.  As my daughter put it when she would tell her friends who questioned our sanity for embarking on such an endeavor, "we are just overly ambitious."   Well, reading your account Tom and Chuck of your adventure really makes it all come alive for me again.  Thank you for that!  And thank you to the Conservancy and all of the organizations, businesses and individuals who make this possible.

taylor sk wrote re: Crossing Mountains, Chasing Rivers
on Wed, Sep 14 2011 2:01 PM

Great accomplishment!

An inspiration to many I'm sure.

Congratulations!

kim moon wrote re: Crossing Mountains, Chasing Rivers
on Wed, Sep 14 2011 2:21 PM

Very Nice! I would love to do a ride like that. In Michigan we have an organized event called the PALM. Pedal Across Lower Michigan, that goes from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron over 6 days. We camp at high schools along the way and use the facilities as they are available to a group of over 700 riders!

Doing a bed and breakfast version seems less hectic and probably more memorable as each stop takes on a deeper meaning.  Good for You!

Don't stop!

Riley Kilmore wrote re: Crossing Mountains, Chasing Rivers
on Wed, Sep 14 2011 2:33 PM

Great recounting or your journey! And congrats to the both of you for that other journey -- through weight loss and back ro rigorous health.

A friend and I did the GAP/C&O a year ago this month. It had been something we had both been wanting to do for years. YOur story brought back lots of great memories. Next time, I want to try the trip from East to West AND stay in a lockhouse!

Marc Metcalfe wrote re: Crossing Mountains, Chasing Rivers
on Wed, Sep 14 2011 3:29 PM

Tom and Chuck, very wonderful story. As a healthcare professional, I take care of many patients undergoing bariatric (weight loss) surgery. Congratulations to both of you on your accomplishments (the weight loss AND the bike trip). My colleagues and I did the GAP and C&O last week and, although rained on quite heavily for two days, we enjoyed the beauty, serenity and exhilaration of riding the trails. I hope your lifestyle changes benefit you for many years to come.

Tom Bilcze wrote re: Crossing Mountains, Chasing Rivers
on Wed, Sep 14 2011 9:39 PM

Thanks for the comments. The GAP uses the slogan, "The Ride of your Life". It was so fitting for Chuck and I. We had a week we will never forget. These trails are just amazing places. We know we will return for another ride in the future. For those who dream of an experience like this, I say "Go for it!" The GAP and C&O make the trip fun and easier than you might imagine. It is a great example how the trail organizations, restaurants, campgrounds, B&B's and motels work totterer to provide a very accommodating and welcoming experience for cyclists. You will find the miles adding up faster than you could begin to dream about. -- Tom  

Chuck MacDonald wrote re: Crossing Mountains, Chasing Rivers
on Thu, Sep 15 2011 1:51 PM

An inspiring story.  I congratulate you on your accomplishment and the fun you had along the way. I would like to try it myself someday.

Richard Krombel wrote re: Crossing Mountains, Chasing Rivers
on Thu, Sep 15 2011 8:17 PM

Congratulations on setting a challenge for yourselves, learning from your experience en route, and making adjustments to get the most out of your experience.  Celebrate this turning point in your lives.  This trail was my very first long distance ride several years ago. I traveled very light and stayed at bed & breakfasts along the way.  The scenery, river crossings, tunnels, aqueducts, and historical sites, all in the absence of vehicular traffic. make this one of the most spectacular resources for cyclist in the Eastern U.S.

John Gerlaugh wrote re: Crossing Mountains, Chasing Rivers
on Thu, Sep 15 2011 8:52 PM

My buddy and I are thinking of doing the Aleganey Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland on our new recumbant trikes?  Has any one done that before and if so can you share your experiences with us?

Thanks John G.

Karl Wean wrote re: Crossing Mountains, Chasing Rivers
on Fri, Sep 16 2011 10:03 AM

Living in W.V. my riding buddy and I have spent many hours on the Great Allegheny Passage. It is one of the most beautiful trails around.We have ridden most of the trail at one time or another. We also did a 3 day trip on the C & O canal from D.C to Cumberland.We are fortunate to be so close to a great rail trail.The most beautiful part is beyond Confluence going towards Cumberland.High bridges over the Cassellman River and an overpass some 300 ft tall over rt 219 before Myersdale. Well worth the trip.

Ginny Roedig wrote re: Crossing Mountains, Chasing Rivers
on Sat, Sep 17 2011 9:19 AM

Terrific story. Living in Cleveland, I've always wanted to do the GAP. But one question I have for all longer cycle trips. How do you get back to the starting point, where did the car come from?

Bill Christenson wrote re: Crossing Mountains, Chasing Rivers
on Sun, Oct 30 2011 9:57 AM

Tom's and Chuck's experience on the GAP/C&O Towpath is indeed inspirational. Reading about it was very interesting to me because I have done this whole 300-mile+ trail both ways, all on foot since I don't have a bicycle. With offshoot trails that experience took well over 700 miles, all of it was done on dayhikes over the past 3 or 4 years. This was my first experience level-hiking after doing many thousands of miles of mountain hiking since retiring 2 decades ago. (E.g., I have walked the Appalachian Trail both ways, from south to north and v.v. - a total of well over 5000 miles, including offshoot mountain trails.) Unfortunately, my 77-year-old knees no longer allow me to do much mountain hiking without pain, but thank goodness for rail and canal trails. I can still do more than 20 miles a day walking on level trails without pain. In the past couple years I have done a few other rail, canal and other bicycle trails in Northeast U.S. totalling a few hundred miles. I plan to do a lot more of that on other level trails if my body can hold out.  

 

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