Abandoned Turnpikes and 300K Pipedreams

Long summer days mean it’s time to ride bikes. None of this put on a bunch of layers, gloves, and booties, and go ride bikes. No. It’s toss a rain jacket in, and let’s go frolic in our short sleeves. Don’t forget sunscreen.

Felkerino, Eric P., and I settled on a plan to check out a hilly 300K fun ride that started in Hagerstown, Maryland, and popped briefly into West Virginia, until sloping up into Pennsylvania – including a visit to the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike. We extended the original cues to 192 miles and set out on our journey.

West Virginia, I think

A long ride just after the solstice excited me for so many reasons. Lots of new roads to explore. A full day outside. Eric and Felkerino’s company. And a distance that was ambitious, but not punishing.

Or so I thought. This ride was an a$$ kicker. We started out well enough – steady pedaling on roads with barely a car on them, a little bit of flooding, and some good honest climbing. But after our decadent one-hour-plus lunch stop at mile 80, I could feel the ride getting away from us.

Guardrail road

Essentially, I had put too many conflicting criteria on my 300K fun ride. Tired of the regular roads we ride, I craved new territory, not realizing how much more time it would take to check our cues and make sure we were following the route we planned.

We wanted a hilly route, but didn’t account for the steepness of the grades and how that would eat into our daylight hours.

I hoped to not feel rushed and to enjoy a leisurely lunch stop at a slow-paced farm-to-table spot in Bedford, and yet we set out to accomplish 300K.

The Old School

To top it all off, we had two flats and a chain incident that slowed our progress, too. In the end, we opted for a shortcut and finished the day with only 177 miles. And even with the shortcut, we didn’t arrive back to our cars until after 10:30 at night.

Chain incident… quite something. Thanks for not ripping off, derailleur!

Long story short, our ride got away from us. In a way, the ride was a lesson. In another sense, it turned into a true adventure we all are still savoring. (Or at least I am.)

Rides like this make me glad Felkerino and I have so many years of randonneuring in our bodies because we know that, even when we are riding past our bedtime, as long as we have food and water and keep moving forward we will eventually get there.

Lots of this all day

There may be irritation about how long it’s taking us, but we do not allow ourselves to become overly despondent. This day also made me grateful that we were riding with our friend Eric – also no stranger to after-dark adventure.

And this ride was a grand exploration. I loved so many of the roads Eric sewed together for us (he was our main router for the day). Many initial miles were ridden alongside swelling creeks. Water cascaded down off the mountains. The crisp chatter of the water was magic, and it was just us out there enjoying it together. While the morning was overcast, we only encountered one passing shower the entire day.

Surprise gravel section

The climbs were granny ring champs, and we clawed our way over lots of steeps along the way. We had some surprise gravel segments thrown in for good measure. Thankfully, the practically car-free roads allowed us to really dig into the climbs and not fret about traffic.

The apex (This could be overstating it. Okay, really overstating it) of our ride was an 8-mile stint along the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike. Known as “Pike 2 Bike” the full length of this segment is 13 miles. This section of the Turnpike was abandoned in 1968, and it is gradually degrading.

Path to the Abandoned Turnpike

I don’t even know where to start with this [insert expletive here] Turnpike. Much of it is deteriorated, crumbling, and teeth-rattlingly rough. A dentist’s dream come true! As the Pike 2 Bike website says, “Come get a glimpse of America after the apocalypse!” I mean, who hasn’t wanted to do that?

The two tunnels on the old turnpike were longer than I expected and shockingly dark. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a space that dark. It was worth it to experience that disconcerting sense of complete darkness, and to know how much I really don’t like it.

Overall, the Abandoned Turnpike was a creepy bumpy experience paid for in one flat tire. One glimpse of America after the apocalypse will do it for me. We only have so many spare tubes and money for dental bills, after all.

The Abandoned Turnpike

Completing our segment on the Turnpike, we headed off to the current Pennsylvania Turnpike Travel Plaza, where someone asked Felkerino if they allowed bikes on the Turnpike. This was when I just gave up into the ride and started laughing at the ridiculousness of our best-laid plans.

We rigged up a 15-mile shortcut at this point in order to cut out two of the last brutal climbs in exchange for a nice moderate ascent up Cowan’s Gap with a delicious swoopy downhill payoff and valley roads to Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. We were fortunate that we could lop off a few miles and several feet of climbing because it was a boost to our spirits to know that we would be arriving before midnight.

Leaving the tunnel

As we entered Mercersburg we encountered a tandem RAAM relay team, waiting to do a handoff for their next segment and that raised my spirits even more. How amazing is that?!

The RAAM team was Sea to See, and I believe they were attempting to be the first tandem RAAM relay team with all blind stokers. The team members were full of positive energy, and we had so much fun talking with them about their ride.

Team Sea to See seemed to think it was perfectly normal that we were out riding around the countryside at 8:30 at night. I could not believe our timing in intersecting with this group, a tandem relay group of all people. It was tandems and tandem people galore!

We set sail again and, revived through a Snickers ice cream bar as well as our lively conversation with the tandem teams, we rode animatedly, with sublime moonlight illuminating everything around us.

Goodnight, Pennsylvania

Around 10:30 p.m., with 177 miles in our legs, we arrived at the hotel parking lot grateful to finish and overwhelmed by what the day had offered up. I had wanted this ride to be everything and it delivered – a long-distance training ride, a checkout of new roads and places, a leisurely ride (with over 4.5 hours off the bike!), and a day free of the pressures of the clock.

In the process of becoming all of those things, we lost control of our ride, which ended up taking 17.5 total hours. I think each of us had moments where we struggled to accept where we were at various times. But you can’t undo the time you’ve frittered away once it’s gone. Best to put the focus on what’s ahead, rather than what you could have done.

Like I said, for me, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Travel Plaza was my turning point. It was when I realized how lucky we were to be out riding bikes together, enjoying a beautiful day that was going to turn into a good night for riding.

We were strong, we were fed, and we were going to ride until we were done. It wasn’t what any of us envisioned, but in the end it was somehow better than I could have predicted. One of those unforgettable rides you laugh about later, and give yourself a pat on the back for sticking with it. I suppose glimpsing America after the apocalypse helps one appreciate the little things.

Categories: Randonneuring

MG

Brevets, commutes, tandem rides, coffee. Sometimes a marathon. Washington, D.C.

11 Comments

    • Chris

      That section of Turnpike was featured in the insanely depressing movie The Road after the book by Cormac McCarthy – fittingly, a post apocalyptic journey for survival by father and son. I think it’s been in a few other shows and movies as well.
      I’ve done both options there – over the mountain and through the mountain. I think I prefer through. Haha.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Abandoned Turnpike seems a perfect setting! Yes, you’re probably right about going through, but dang is that bit of road deteriorated…

        Like

  1. So many thoughts I have reading this…

    1) I never cease to be amazed that when I think a ride will be pleasant and relatively easy (or at least doable) I find myself in the throws of something far more difficult than I originally imagined. I’m glad you were able to find the highs along the way – there have been so many times when I just couldn’t find my way out of the mental mire, even on much shorter rides than you completed. So, congratulations to you (and all who completed the journey).

    2) I have a definite feeling and image (or lack of image) when you describe the darkness of the tunnels. It reminded me of being on a tour down in the Carlsbad caves as a teenager. They gathered us all in one area and shut off all lamps and it was just complete darkness like I’d never experienced. I recall not even being able to see my hand directly in front of my face. I can’t even imagine having to ride through something like that – it would be quite unnerving!

    3) The serendipitous moments that happen in life are always interesting to me. I love reading that you had such a moment with the Sea to See group of tandem cyclists.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I certainly enjoyed reading of your ride, encounters with the RAAM tandem teams, and experiencing the deteriorated roads of the old turnpike! Reading this also reminded me of a time many years ago when, while hauling gear for our churches youth drama group, I was pulling a utility trailer behind my pickup truck. I was, as a southwest Missouri country boy, aghast by the traffic on the turnpike and still recall with a since of relief, the time a speeding semi nearly cut me off on the old road. Also, this mountain tunnels were something, too. Thanks for the cool story. I’ve never done any randonneuring but feel you’ve successfully been able to convey some since of the feel of the rides into the night. Thanks for the sharing!

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