Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Touring for Dummies

We don't think about these things. Or I don't. The cold. The water issues. The sores. The frost. The reaching out of my sleeping back to find glasses frosted, cigarette lighter encrusted, the wet elbow from the wet sleeping bag from the cold morning. But then if we did, if I did, we'd never end up in these situations, and what's the fun of that.

So instead there I was, awake just prior to done, poking the fire as though to awaken it, lying back in the darkness to envy the moon her diffuse beauty through the pre-dawn mist, wondering whether sleep would return, whether dawn approached, which direction that was, east suggesting a great deal of night left, west suggesting morning's approach, wondering.

It all began innocuously enough: a Myspace bulletin from a friend suggesting a little ride: a jaunt out of the city, through Mckeesport, and twenty miles or so down the Yough Trail, 45 miles each way, Saturday into Sunday, not enough miles to really hurt, especially given the flat terrain, just a way out of town, sleeping in the open, a celebration of fall.

When we met Saturday morning at Tom's Diner, we were a ragtag quartet. B1 (of Urban Velo) and E (of BikePgh) and B2 (whom I finished an alleycat with, once), gathering for a heavy breakfast and a slow prep for the ride. After breakfast, we scattered, variously, to Giant Eagle, Thick Bikes, and REI for random gear and provisions, before finally reuniting at, and leaving from, REI on Southside a little after 1 for our ride.

The ride itself was much as B1 had suggested, short, low key, pleasant. Temps were between 50 and 60, and I changed out of my fleece tights even before leaving breakfast. From REI, we rode out to the end of the Southside trail, then walked a quarter-mile down the railroad right of way to Sandcastle. There, we rode over to the Greenwood Bridge, and climbed the stairs to its southern end, picking up on a strip of dirt alongside the roadbed down toward Homestead, finally entering traffic where it became practical.

From there, it was 837 through Homestead, out past Kennywood, and then toward McKeesport. After passing through McKeesport's blight, we found ourselves at the trailhead, where we passed up a short climb into the woods, B2 and I discovering the surprisingly well-maintained trail for the first time.

Whatever it is that opposes a sense of urgency is what we had, and we took our jolly good time. We were all on road bikes, so we didn't travel slowly, but we were perhaps too confident of the simplicity of the ride, and so we tarried, enjoyed our various and frequent breaks, were slow back to the bikes. B1 rode a track bike equipped with jury-rigged panniers over his front wheel; E rode a touring bike equipped with panniers over the rear wheel; I rode my Ti-bike, the roadie I don't use nearly enough, and my gear and provisions rode in an unfortunate backpack that my shoulders are still talking angrily about; B2 rode a roadbike and carried his gear in a messenger bag.

The mileage was easy, though, and aside from a few close buzzes in McKeesport, everything was very low key.

Finally, after a stop for ice cream at a trail-side convenience store in Newton, we reached our desination, a campground 40-plus miles from my house, fifteen miles or so down the trail. All along, B1 had been defining this trip by the fact that we'd reach a brilliant shelter, a three-sided structure with the fourth occupied by a working fireplace, stone, with a chimney -- the Lexus of lean-tos, in a sense. And the shelter was just where he said we'd find it . . . and occupied.

Ensued from there a faltering discussion of whether we'd ride onward, to the next campground some 12 miles (and the last hour of daylight) away, or set up without cover at one of the firepits in the same space. The campgrounds near the shelter featured firepits and cinder platforms for tent erection, which would have been delightful had we a tent. But of course we hadn't brought tents, confident that we were the only people in the planet who knew about the ubercool shelter B1 had identified.

After some negotiation, we opted to stay, confident in our gear and the rain-free forecast, and, at least for my part, vaguely excited at the prospect of sleeping under the stars on a cold night. We selected an isolated spot, for privacy, and settled in -- picnic tables, firepit, firewood, etc. It wasn't until after dark at 8 or so that we realized that the pumps at the campsite actually were fed by a conventional waterline, and had been shut down for the winter. Reluctantly, we were forced to consider whether four of us could get through the night on the 20 or so ounces of water (not including my bottle of frappucino) we had amongst us. Deciding that we could not, the two B's decided to head back down the trail four miles to the nearest convenience store, which (conveniently) was open. Eight miles on a star-lit trail, with only street-oriented headlights to guide them. Easily, the trip MVP's on that front alone.

All of this is building up to that moment, near midnight, when we bedded down. I can't speak for anyone other than me, but there's something special about lying down in the darkness, next to a fire, and sealing up a mummy bag to leave little more than an eyeslit, and staring up at the stars above. Within moments, the heal I was resting on the ground, the other foot resting across it, began to take on the cold (my pad is 3/4 length), and I pondered for the umpteenth time the prospect of hypothermia.

Of course, a night with a low of 30 isn't the most dangerous condition one might imagine, but I'm no veteran of this sort of camping, and my 20-degree sleeping bag is nearing 20 years old. I've taken care of it, but I had no illusions about it living up to its rating after so many years, and so I spent the first part of the evening suspicious, wondeing whether it was really up to the task, and taking dead seriously the danger implicit in falling asleep in an inferior bag on a night at or below freezing.

But my heel was hardly numbing, the bag seemed adequate in the heat of the first, and then there were the stars overhead. The stars were beautiful, the woods peaceful except for the periodic trains passing on the other side of the river and the snores of my friends.

For a spell, I slept deeply, my sleep growing irregular only near dawn, when I noticed the fire faltering and the fact that most of our woodpile had disappeared, the word of Brad2, who we later learned had slept poorly and thus tended to the fire intermittently all night, making all of us more comfortable.

And then my eyes opened on full-blown morning, B1 tending the fire, my bag and our bikes encrusted with frost, sleeping bag moistened outside with dew. We lingered for a while, hours in fact, toasting cheap bagels, drinking coffee from a nalgene french press, continuing the endless bullshitting session of the night before, warming to the morning.

B2 and I complained of sores; neither of us had done a long ride in a while. But for me at least the bike welcomed me when we finally got moving. Lots of bitching and moaning, for sure, but that's how these things go. We lazily returned, stopping for breakfast in Newton, for no good reason at a cemetery near the start of the trail, and finally saying good bye at the Hot Metal Bridge, where we split for our various destinations.

But what a way to welcome the cold, and to reject its tendency to drive us inward. Instead, we four consider the cripness of its air, its bugless clarity, its way of pruning crowds down to a hard core, and welcome the transition, the invitation, the challenge. I should do this more often.

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Blogger brian said...

Ah, the S24O.

8:10 PM  
Blogger Keep said...

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1:38 AM  

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