The 150 mile Nice Allegheny Passage bike path leaves the troubles of 2020 behind

Bike shop owners in cities like DC, Chicago, and San Francisco are seeing unexpected spikes in sales and interest. Here’s how to handle it. (The Washington Post)

The pandemic closed so many travel options, but not this one that has been on my bucket list for ages. The 150-mile route begins where the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath from Georgetown to Cumberland ends. It excites me to know that our country is criss-crossed by forgotten corridors left over from ancient modes of transport – canal boats pulled by mules, coal-fired locomotives – that still connect large metropolitan areas. Susan and I were familiar with the towpath, but the Great Allegheny Passage was unknown to us and sounded almost exotic: “Passage” through what? This three-day drive in late August would be a test of how far removed you are from the worries of 2020 with a quick local vacation.

We found the medallion marked mile 0 of the GAP, as the passage is called, embedded in the sidewalk of the small square that serves as the transition from the end of the towpath. It has to be a magical keyhole because stepping off the sidewalks of Cumberland onto the path felt like disappearing into another dimension where we were euphorically alone and jumping free.

The route hugged a creek through a deeply forested gorge and for a while ran parallel to the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. As the miles rolled behind us, we listened to the cicadas and the crackling of crushed limestone under our tires on the hard-packed path. I rode an old trek that I used in college. Susan was astride a commuter bike she got when she went back to work shortly after the birth of our first daughter nearly 22 years ago.

Hypnotized by the rhythm of pedaling, one of the first things we talked about was our dreams. Not our dreams for the eventful future, but our dreams of last night and the night before. We have thought about the random people from our past who popped up in them and we speculated about whether we existed in their dreams. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d had one of those aimless, spatial conversations we’d had so often in the past. “It reaffirms how fun it is to be just the two of us,” Susan said at one point.

We had both spent the past few days covering the 57th anniversary march to commemorate March 1963 in Washington, a continuation of a summer of racial justice protests, and now, at mile 20, we were led by the passage of Maryland to Pennsylvania via the Mason-Dixon Line, the traditional north-south border. It is marked by stones inlaid diagonally across the path. A few miles earlier I had seen the name of George Floyd, scrawled in chalk on a rusted railroad signal post, who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, far north of the Mason-Dixon. As I crossed, I thought about how some borders lost their meaning in 2020.

The eastern continental division at mile 23 initially seemed just as inconspicuous. A culvert marked our way across the geographic gap between the water catchment areas of the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. I shrugged and spat on both sides so some of my DNA could end up in both Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. It was only as we stepped further that we noticed: Walking had become subtly easier. From Cumberland the path had gone uphill barely perceptibly. But from here on the passage to Pittsburgh would go slightly downhill. With no extra effort, our pace rose from 7.5 mph to 10. I felt an inexplicably deep satisfaction that even though technology defeated topography, such an elemental force still counts on my bike.

We took a break for lunch breaks and accommodation in river villages and railroad towns where charming bed and breakfasts, brewpubs and bike shops hang out during the pandemic. Some of the food was gourmet, but the best dinner after a long day – a Sunday when restaurants were closed – was a gas station pizza that we shared along with a couple of Fat Tire beers picked for the bike and printed on their labels.

The route continued along another old railway line that opened the most efficient route for freight from Pittsburgh’s factories to the east coast in 1912. This corridor was carved in record time by African American workers and immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Mexico. We were grateful to them for relying on the monuments they left behind: the incredible tunnels that pierced the mountains and the panoramic bridges and viaducts that stretched over fast-flowing streams and lush fields of grain.

Around mile 93 I spotted what looked like little caves in the forest on the edge of the path. On closer inspection, however, I saw that they were the mouths of decommissioned coke ovens in which the high-quality coal mined nearby was burned to fuel the Pittsburgh steelworks. Trees had now grown around the abandoned brick kilns, and brambles and cobwebs camouflaged their openings. We stopped at monuments along the way to reduce disasters – 239 miners were killed in an explosion in 1907; Nearly two dozen were blown up or buried alive in 1901. These disasters occurred right next to what is now the bike path, but the forest has removed most of the traces of this type of life and death, with the exception of some shiny black coal seams that are still approaching rock formations next to the path and a red waterfall with acid runoff an old mine that stains tree trunks and stones the color of cayenne pepper.

What couldn’t be erased was how the pandemic hit business in the retail squares that housed the mighty mills that helped win WWII. We cycled through empty parking lots and admired traces of steel splendor that had been preserved like sphinxes in a post-industrial desert: a massive gantry crane between a Courtyard by Marriott and a Hampton Inn; A dozen towering brick vent piles over an AMC movie theater and LongHorn steakhouse.

From the deck of the Hot Metal Bridge over the Monongahela River, we could finally see the skyline of a city that is no longer dependent on coal or steel. We then drove to Point State Park, where the Ohio River begins and where another medallion embedded in the sidewalk notified us that we had reached the end of our passage. It was an abrupt return to 2020. Cars, crowds, the coronavirus threat and raw impatience seemed everywhere. “You shouldn’t stop here!” growled a city biker as I paused to take a picture. I pulled my headscarf over my face for the first time in three days.

Susan and I looked at each other. Yes, we were back where we started. But what a long way we had come now – and much further than the 150 miles between the two medallions. A history of America had disintegrated for us on these miles, both tragic and inspiring. I felt more hope in my own endurance and that of the nation than three days earlier. The darkest tunnel is coming to an end, I knew if you just keep pedaling.

David Montgomery works for the magazine.

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