Bikes, trains and (almost) no automobiles

November 23, 2015

2015-10-07 17.34.22There comes a time in bike advocates’ lives where they need to just climb on the saddle and take off. After a summer of only weekend rides, a July of family visits (love you all!), Larry, who was two months into retirement, wanted a Big Trip.

In about a week we organized a trip I’m calling: Bike, trains, and (almost) no automobiles.

In addition to desperately needing a bike tour, we wanted to test out Amtrak’s new bicycle walk-on service, which had been announced to great acclaim at the National Bike Summit in 2014. Rather than having to prep, pack, and check in boxed bikes as luggage, bikes are rolled onto a baggage car, locked to a hook and ready to ride when you get to your destination. Learn all about the service here.

There are a few challenges. It is not available on all trains and at all stations. Space is limited so advance registration is recommended. There are no walk ons in Iowa so we drove to Normal, Ill. to catch the Illinois Service to Chicago and, later that night, the Capitol Limited to Pittsburgh. Our adventures began early on Monday, October 5.

Our goal was the Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD, and the C&O Canal Towpath to DC. Both trails are unpaved, although the GAP is crushed limestone and maintained by trail councils along the way. The C&O is a national park and more like a semi-maintained farm driveway. Riding from Cumberland, you pass locks and viaducts built for canal boats, which means that you are going veeeery slightly downhill when you head toward DC. Both trails are heavily used, depending on the time of year, and offer free hiker-biker campsites, as well as trailheads and access to towns along the way.

Our bicycling adventure started in the industrial city of Pittsburgh and wound through several older industrial cities. Fairly quickly, cyclists find themselves in small communities like McKeesport and Dusquene. Check with and as you start pick up a handy brochure noting services. The C&O offers an online version with links.

Oct. 5: Left our car at the parking garage at the Normal, Ill., Amtrak station. Picked up the Illinois Service (only a little late), where we rolled off at Chicago’s Union Station. After biking around Chicago for a few hours, we rolled back onto the Capitol Limited to head to Pittsburgh that evening.

Oct. 6: Rolled out of our sleeper at “O-Dark-30,” (5:30 am-ish) in Pittsburgh. Five cyclists loaded their bikes onto the train, which was continuing to DC and points along the way; we later met two of them who had gotten off in Cumberland.

Noon: Stopped for nap at free Dravo’s Landing Campsite. Woke up at 3 pm, ate dinner of tuna and potato chips and put up tent to go to bed properly. Total for the day: 27 mi.

2015-10-06 16.18.58A note about the campsites: Both trails have free hiker-biker sites every few miles along the way. There are other accommodations such as bed and breakfasts and private campgrounds with more services (like hot water for showers!), but the free sites are scenic, with fire rings, firewood, pit toilets, well water. A few on the GAP trail also have lean to shelters.

Oct. 7: Made up for half day ride with 60 miler to Ohiopyle. Anne rode the last 20 miles solo from Connelsville, where we’d stopped for lunch and a bike shop visit. At the trailhead, she chatted with two locals, who asked, “Are you Anne? We were just telling Larry he shouldn’t have left you alone back there. We walk there every evening and we always carry pepper spray for the bears!” Stayed at the Yough Plaza Motel, named for the Youghiogheny River, which it follows at that point.

Oct. 8: Planned an easy day, with another couple, rode 4 miles (straight) uphill to possibly get an outside tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. After slogging up 2 miles, we decided to ride back down to town to hire a driver from the local adventure shop to take us to Kentuck Knob, another nearby Wright design, where we were able to score tour tickets. Afterwards we rode the 11 miles to Confluence. Stayed in a guest house in Confluence, which we found through the manager of the Ohiopyle Falls River Café and Market.

Oct. 9: Waited out a rainstorm in the gazebo at the trailhead in Rockwood. When the rain started we hauled bikes under the gazebo roof, hung a tarp to keep the rain off us and took a nap. Stayed in Meyersdale at Morguen Toole Co., a former industrial building converted to a charming hotel (shared bath), restaurant, and bar (the latter is clearly a townie hangout).


Oct. 10: The 150 mile GAP trail from Pittsburgh ends in Cumberland. Unfortunately, we also arrived at night, on a holiday weekend, during leaf watching season. No rooms at the inn for tired, hungry and not very clean bicyclists. And, just to make things fun, “Gypsy” once again led us around and around and the wrong way down one-way streets until we found the only “campsite,” a park across the street from the YMCA. Dinner was granola bars from the vending machine and what we had in panniers. Anne got a shower before it closed; Larry, who was setting up the tent in the dark, didn’t.

Oct. 11: Woke to a cold, foggy morning in Cumberland. In the daylight, realized we were a straightforward mile from where we’d started looking for a place to stay. And there was a nearby all-night gas station where we could have gotten warm. Highlight was a warm oatmeal breakfast and lots of coffee at Queen City Creamery.

Both trails cover more history than you can shake a stick at. GAP visitors cross both the Eastern Continental Divide and the Mason-Dixon Line. However, the 184.5 mile C&O Towpath, a navigable waterway originally planned to connect Georgetown to the Ohio River, simply oozes history. It was surveyed by George Washington and President John Q Adams broke ground on July 4, 1828. It wasn’t an easy project and by the time construction ended, far short of the Ohio, in 1850, it was eclipsed by the railroad. The towpath closed in 1924 and was established as a national historic park in 1971.

About 40 miles along, as we were starting to look at campsites, a jolly group of three dad-brothers and their eight-year-old son-cousins hailed us. “We have burritos!” they yelled. While only Larry and I took them up on the burritos (and pancakes the next morning, thanks, guys!), Devils Alley campsite was a full house with three additional canoers, and a cyclist.


Oct. 12: Williamsport, a picturesque old town with lots of history, is right on the towpath. Towpath travelers know they’re getting close to a town when dog walkers, runners, bicyclists without baggage, and walkers appear. We rode a bit through town, stopping at a Scheetz gas station/minimart (Larry insists on pronouncing it “shits” and wanted to check out what was inside.) where we struck up a conversation with a woman who was gassing up her car. Asked if she could recommend a place to stay, she said, “My sister has a B&B right around the corner. Should I call her for you?” Candlelight Inn Bed and Breakfast

Oct. 13: One thing about the C&O. It is a towpath, and was built for the mules to pull barges. A bicyclist is close to the earth, and all its roots, rocks, puddles and jarring your bike and wrists.


On this stretch, from Williamsport to Harper’s Ferry, we jumped off the towpath to ride some country roads, which are well-maintained without a lot of car traffic. They are, however, on the edge of the Appalachians. Consider yourself warned. We rode by farms, ranches, and Antietam National Battlefield, stopping for lunch at Captain Bender’s Tavern in Sharpsburg. At this point, having had enough fun hauling a fully loaded bike up hill and down dale, Anne jumped back on the trail at Antietam Creek and Larry continued on the road to Harper’s Ferry. The trail was in better shape and (slightly downhill) at this point. Larry had a short, intense slap in the quads riding to town. Half of Harper’s Ferry, where John Brown conspired to trigger the Civil War in 1859, is a national park. We stayed at the Town’s Inn about halfway up the hill, which also has a, little store, a restaurant and laundry service. Harper’s Ferry is a crossing point for the Appalachian Trail and is accessible from the towpath via a metal circular staircase and pedestrian path on the railroad bridge.


Oct. 14: Our last night on the towpath we stayed at Marble Quarry campground, by ourselves, seeing only a passing cyclist in the morning.

Oct. 15: DC! Amtrak to Philly for the start of the “Daughter Tour.” (We stored our bikes at the Bike Station at Union Station and shipped 3 boxes home from the post office in the basement of the station. We also shipped a 4th box from Philadelphia.) We had a great ending to our adventures riding the Boltbus to NY, Amtrak back to DC, Chicago, and a bus to Normal, IL (turns out the track was closed for two weeks to upgrade the line, which runs from St. Louis. While upgrading to “high speed” track is always a good thing, it would have been smarter for us to have figured it out ahead of time). Home at midnight, Oct. 22.

Adventures off the bike

March 10, 2014

Most of the adventures here on the BikeWriting blog involve my jumping on one of my bicycles and riding away. I spent last week talking about bicycles at the National Women’s Bicycling Forum and the National Bike Summit, organized annually by the League of American Bicyclists. The agenda is always jam-packed and attracts both “roll models” and politicians. The agenda is always full.

The Summit’s last day is lobbying on the hill. The Iowa delegation met with Senators Harkin and Grassley, as well as Congressmen Loebsack and King. Larry and I were only able to attend the Harkin breakfast, but spent a fair amount of time talking bicycle and pedestrian safety and the current state of the trail system in Iowa.


Back in Iowa City, it was time to think about the Silent Auction and Hand-Built Bike Show, a benefit for the Youth Off-Road Riders program of the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County. I’d been on the committee since last fall, mainly to do media relations. I snagged a few choice donations, such as “Irish I was riding my bike” T-shirts from Bike Rags and a beachside bag of goodies from Prairie Lights and me. This was the group’s first fund-raiser and, while we’d gotten lots of good reactions and donations, we weren’t sure how it would go. It was a huge success, about 150 people bid on $7000 worth of merchandise. A total of  $11,553 was raised for the program.



The top picture with the auctioneer is from Brittany McConnell. Emily Robnett blogged and posted a number of pictures of the evening.

Freaky Las Vegas

January 18, 2014


Better writers than I have written about Las Vegas’ contradictions, the yin and the yang. I took this picture because its twinkly light Nativity scene-ness seems incongruous, but, when you think about it, Jesus was born in the desert, wasn’t he?


This is also the city where it rains on the half hour. Inside a mall.


IMG_1097We found a mall made out of containers.

IMG_1085And where a silver piggy greets us upon arrival at the Rumor Resorts Hotel.

IMG_1102And dinner may kill you.

IMG_1086But, most of all, it’s 60 deg. F when it’s so cold at home the planes aren’t flying!

Livin’ Las Vegas

January 17, 2014

In early January Larry and I sought a warmer climate for a long weekend.  Did we go to Mexico or Southern California? How about the “redneck Riviera?”  No to all that. We went to Las Vegas! Las Vegas, where neon goes to retire, where people go to spend money on slots and craps, eat endless amounts of buffet, and enjoy high-ticket, star-studded shows.

We found a few other things to do. What were they, you ask? How about…

Mountain biking in the desert: More like desert riding, we rode over hill and dale on what was described as a trail for “fit beginners.” I was sort of disappointed we didn’t see any lizards or other desert denizens, but, it was fun to get out in the “wild” and still be so close to the city.  Our guide was Brandon, courtesy of Las Vegas Cyclery’s Escape Adventures.




IMG_1072Later, we went into a neighborhood park to play disc golf. Sunset Park is a lively place where the tees are laced around baseball fields, a cricket pitch, playgrounds, and tennis courts. Disc golf isn’t exactly my sport. As a matter of fact, it brings out the whiner in me (I’ve even been known to accuse a certain teammate of enjoying my humiliation!). Still, it was fun to be outside and I managed to pull together the contortions of a throw. Eventually.

Another half-day trip to see the red rocks  poking out of the desert terrain at Valley of Fire Park.

Hoover Dam is a feat of engineering and the tour guides are among the jolliest around. “Take all the dam pictures you want,” said our guide, Ray. I also wanted to go because I’m thinking it may become a relic someday. Water levels at Lake Mead and the Colorado River are entering a 14th year of drought. Someday it could be a tourist attraction along the lines of the “great wall of Nevada.”

The Excaliber, our first hotel (more about that later), let us explore the Strip, where tremendous numbers of pedestrians get from block to block via skywalks accessible by stairs and escalators.  The walkways send pedestrians through indoor shopping malls and food courts, small exhibits, bars and restaurants. We saw a few hardy bicyclists but also police officers on bicycles.

Our stay at the Excaliber was part of an airfare-hotel package. The room was large and comfortable.  There was no wifi in the room, only an ethernet connection — useless to a Mac family! The wifi was in the lobby. Dare we think this was a plot to keep guests out of the rooms and in the casino?

Still, by Monday morning, it was good to contemplate going home, even to Arctic temperatures. We were gassing up the rental car just a few blocks from the airport, bright-eyed and bushy tailed for our 6 am flight when I checked my favorite traveling app, Flightboard, and saw our flight was cancelled.  As a matter of fact, both of our flights were scratched! Turns out the cold and wind that plagued ya’ll was too dangerous for airplanes. The tsunami of flight cancellations spread throughout the land, and we were held hostage in Vegas for Three. More. Days.

Never reluctant to stare down a challenge, we found a hotel off the strip (Rumor Resort) and decided to try to walk to it. First we has to find a (walk) way out of the McCarron Airport. We walked our roller bags through the parking ramp and lot, finding ourselves at the edge of that bit of paradise. The problem is, the exit jumped right onto a busy freeway.  We realized that we were trying to exit as the cars would. What we needed was the entrance. We would go out the way we’d gotten in. Once we got to the “front” of the airport, a sidewalk took us right out and where we wanted to go!

So, a nice walk on Paradise, a different hotel, and a couple more days of 60 degree weather. Rough, eh?


Harvest time at home

August 3, 2012

The lovely Audrey has been house, cat, and garden sitting for us. There’s nothing like August in Iowa, is there?


What in the world?

August 3, 2012

We’ve met lots of nice people on the road. We’ve crossed paths with a couple from Utah riding north to Seattle (I’ve learned this isn’t recommended because the prevailing winds run north-south. We met a dad and his two sons who are riding south to the Bay Area. Another group we’ve seen several times are a group of University of Illinois students who are on the last days of a 4000 miles ride to raise money for cancer research. You can read all about them here. Another man is walking pushing a huge canvas world ball to increase awareness of diabetes. He hands out fruit and healthy snacks people give him. Learn about him.

The World Guy was resting but Larry agreed to pose with the ball.


Cyclists get to eat a lot, as you know. Here are a gaggle of bikes (most are the Illini kids).


Oregon is definitely not flat

July 30, 2012

I will be the first to speak up to correct ignorant comments about Iowa’s supposed flatness. However, I gotta say, boyz and grrls, there have been climbs here that kicked my ass. Like the first day out of Portland on Highway 6. Taking the light rail to Hillsboro (bikes ride for free!), we began our adventure rolling through some gorgeous, mostly rural, countryside. None too heavily traveled, for the most part, your humble cyclist was thinking it’d be a piece of cake. We knew we had to climb over the coastal range through the Tillamook forest but it all seemed manageable. Unfortunately, we had to climb a 1630 foot summit to even get within range of the the first campsite. With cars and trucks churning by at highway speeds, I was moving so slowly it was hard to stay upright. I finally caught up with Larry at the 1000 foot overlook. By then, I was in serious bonkage and just wanted to go home. Some trail mix, energy food, and water revived me enough to struggle the rest of the way. Just to make things interesting, there was some serious downhill before we got to Elk Creek Campground.

There have been other challenging climbs since then; On Wednesday we rode the Otter Crest loop on the way to Newport. By then, I was better at just cranking down into granny and letting the bike do the work. That day, we met an older lady name Monica who rides it every day between her home and rental property! Monica was wearing rubber boots and riding a Magna mountain bike. I think of her now when I’m churning up a hill on my nice Lemond and wearing clipped-in Keens.

Today, we rode the aptly named Seven Devils Road from Charleston, south of North Bend. The only thing that helped was Grateful Dead piped through some speakers hooked to a solar powered charger on the back of Larry’s bike. Brilliant!

Here’s Monica!


This doesn’t look steep here but I had to ask for help from granny.


Oregon has wonderful hiker-biker camping

July 30, 2012

Then there’s this. Which is the view from our hotel terrace.



July 27, 2012

We’re at the ocean. Proof.


Checking in

July 27, 2012

Waldport, Oregon–mile marker 160 from Washington border. We’ve ridden about 170 miles from Portland. I’ve had every intention of blogging every day but here I am, Day 7, and just entering the first one. We’ve been on the road since Sunday; it is now Thursday. We’ve camped three nights and moteled along the beach one wonderful seaside evening. Right now we’re sitting on a bench in front of the Green Bike Coop. They recondition donated bikes and lease them away. And, yes, they’re green! There’s also an expresso/smoothie stand so we’re sipping fruit smoothies and sharing an apple crumble muffin. The route here along the coast is great. There are shoulders and the roadways are marked as a bikeway. We’re using the Adventure Cycling map and also one published by the state for bike touring. I’m glad there’s a shoulder because there are also big trucks and RVs pulling cars. We stayed last night at South Beach State Park just south of Newport. We rolled right in to the hiker-biker spot and set up camp. Lots easier than hauling an RV!

Yesterday held another treat for us. Bike Newport is a bike store in Newport. They sell a nice array of bikes. We saw a Sun fatbike, a handmade bamboo bike from Santa Cruz, and a bike built for one of the owners of the Amgen company. They sell cute ladies clothes (no, I didn’t buy anything). But, the most amazing thing of all is that they offer free unlimited hot water showers (with towels and soap and toiletries!)’ laundry, wifi, and a lounge. It was a religious experience.

Spent the night at a Comfort Inn in Florence. Charged up electronics, laundry, ate at a nice Italian place in Old Town, slept in a bed.

We’re pretty good camp cooks, though. Here’s a shot of a smoked fish-veggie-pasta dish.