This is the first of a series of posts about the recent solo bike tour I did from Pittsburgh, PA to Utica, NY. It’s partly to share for those who are interested, and partly for me to record things so that I’ll remember.
The original premise of this bike trip was to bike from Pittsburgh to Cambridge, NY to visit my parents. The idea was that I wanted to try solo bike touring — and biking toward people who would be willing to come pick me up if I wasn’t enjoying it seemed like a good plan. In the end they did come pick me up in Utica, but not because I wasn’t having a good time. I enjoyed the trip greatly, but the last day of the trip would have been on an awkward route through an area I had grown up in (and therefore seen) so I decided it wasn’t worth it.
My conclusion from this trip was that I do, in fact, enjoy solo bike touring. It was really advantageous to be able to go at exactly my own speed. I didn’t pace myself off other people, going slightly faster than was comfortable. I didn’t have to agree on when to take breaks or for how long. When I did the GAP trail to DC a couple years ago with a group, there were times when the only thing that got me back on the bike and peddling was that the group was leaving. I was a little worried about not having that, but it turned out that, perhaps because of setting my own pace, I just never got to that point of exhaustion. I was also worried that I would be bored on my own. Again, that wasn’t the case. I can’t really explain why, but I think it had a lot to do with going through unfamiliar places. There were always things to look at, and I was always very in the moment.
So, the first day:
The route that I took (about 78 miles) is plotted on MapMyRide here. Click on a picture below to see the images larger with captions.[Not a valid template]
I started from Squirrel Hill around 9am, which was later than I had planned. I had a lot of things on the list of things to do before I left, and of course they took longer than I had expected. I had bought a fair bit of snazzy new gear for this trip, including front panniers and an ultra-light tent (Big Agnes Copper Spur 1 person — I’m a big fan). I also had a small Thermarest sleeping pad, an inflatable pillow, a sleep sheet and emergency space blanket thing (didn’t figure I needed a full-on sleeping bag for this summer trip), three sets of biking clothes, one set of non-biking clothes, a rain coat, a small towel, a pair of flip flops, bike repair kit, person-repair kit (first aid), a few toiletries, Kindle, cell phone, camera, wallet, food, a rope to hang the food at night, and water. All told it came to about 40 lbs of gear (including the bags and water and all).
My route took me out of Pittsburgh to the east, and it was pretty interesting to see the progression of neighborhoods within 10 miles of the start. First I was in Squirrel Hill, where there were lots of people wandering about, many wearing yamulkes. Then I went through Regent Square, where there were a number of 20-somethings on bikes commuting into the city. Wilkensburg was next, fairly run down, with lots of groups of (pretty much exclusively black) children out and about, no doubt glad school was out. After that came the aptly named Penn Hills with frequent middle aged joggers. A little farther out and there were plenty of golf courses and SUVs but no pedestrians of any kind to speak of.
Not too far out of the city there was construction on the road I was on for about 4 miles. They weren’t actively working on most of it, but the road surface was gravel with no shoulder marked, which wasn’t fun. Finally I got out of that though, and it wasn’t too much farther to Slickville, which was where I picked up the first bike trail of the day. The Westmoreland Heritage Trail was pleasant, though unremarkable. Once I hit the end of that I was on roads again for a few miles. I had to cross a large divided highway at one point, which was an adventure since I didn’t have great acceleration and had to wait for a pretty big gap in traffic from both directions. Eventually I found the Hoodlebug trail, which turned out to mostly be a gravel track along said highway, separated by a cement divider. Not too exciting. But soon after that I was on the West Penn Trail.
The West Penn Trail was the first of two trails to have lots of informative signs about the area’s history and geography, which was nice. The first part of the trail was rail grade, but then it diverged from the rail trail to go over (as the sign said) “significant hills”. The trail lead through some pretty forest to the Conemaugh flood control damn. The original rail line had gone through tunnels in the ridge next to the damn, but those tunnels had been plugged to prevent the flood control lake from draining through them. So I had to go over the ridge. I ended up walking a fair bit because the trail was quite steep and covered in pretty loose gravel.
After the West Penn Trail was the Ghost Town Trail, which got me to Nanty Glo where I camped for the night. The Ghost Town Trail had more people on it (perhaps because by this point it was Friday afternoon and evening). It also had a lot of informative signs, mostly about the old mining towns that used to be along the trolley line (now trail). All of the little mountain streams that crossed the trail were orange from the mine runoff. I passed a group of teenagers who were daring each other to touch some of the standing orange water. I don’t imagine it actually would have been harmful to them.
Along the Ghost Town Trail were a couple old iron furnaces. One of them (apparently on of the best preserved ones around) was called Eliza Furnace. This of course made me think of the bike path in Pittsburgh with the same name. I wonder if they are somehow related. Anyone know?
By the time I got to Nanty Glo I was pretty thoroughly tired. The campground I was staying in was a small municipal campground with maybe 10 sites, a community swimming pool (playing host of a party full of 10-year-olds at the time), and a small fishing pond. I was promised hot showers in the bath house, but they turned out to be cold. Which was very disappointing, though I survived. I went to sleep a bit after 9pm. It turned out to be pretty chilly night. It was the only night when I actually needed the warmth of the emergency blanket I had brought with me. The thing was pretty crinkly and loud (not surprising, since it’s basically just a sheet of aluminum foil), but it did keep me warm.