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I know the weather report, but I don’t believe it until I see it, rearing up in front of me as I arc around the last Trans-Canada Highway curve that separates the mainland from the jewel-like province of Prince Edward Island. I am 945 miles from home, on Day 2 of a weeklong solo motorcycle trip. The white legs of the bridge are bolted against a black-hooded backdrop of storm. The wind starts to rip.

“Well this isn’t gonna go as planned,” I say inside my helmet, visions of a sun-dappled week cruising Nova Scotia and its flanking territories dissolving into gray.

In a flash of complete confidence, I pin the throttle anyway and fasten my body tighter to the tank of my motorcycle, veering headlong onto the 8-mile bridge crossing. That confidence lasts about five seconds - just long enough before the sky unzips in a thunderclap.

I’m here as a physical demarcation of one chapter of life to another. I am here in an attempt to not get lost in transit. A month ago, I accepted a position for a new job - leaving an organization I’d been with for over a decade. The change was significant, and to give it a proper nod, an adventure to a new place felt like the most appropriate way to signal this next bold move. I wasn’t looking to carve out a period of rest between jobs. I was looking for a mindfulness practice. A “here we go, Em, you’d better wake up” moment in time. Habits cruise at a default mode after we’ve been settled in a routine for so long, and I knew I was in a deep rut in this sense. The new job was a chance to pirouette. The new job was a chance to halt all of the inner modules and re-novelize - myself, my career. A rare moment in middle adulthood to pause and spend some time future authoring, exploring and getting comfortable with the unknown ahead. What I wanted out of this trip was to explore the power of the uncertainty mindset, to playfully joust with my perception and brute reality.

Which is why traveling 3000 miles alone to the tip of Nova Scotia on my motorcycle felt like the perfect sandbox.

Which is why I didn’t bat an eye when the forecast suddenly did its own pirouette to a week of solid rain.

“Will it make it, you think?” I ask the day before I leave, doing my due diligence to have my mechanic go over my motorcycle before pointing north.

Nick and I stand, hands on hips, surveying the rear tire of my motorcycle. The June sun is hot, and beats down on us in the parking lot of the Triumph service center. He rubs his stubble-flecked chin and wipes the sweat from his forehead. His eyes are kind but tired, his navy blue shirt a brushstroke of dark grease. He is my favorite mechanic, and I look at him now as if what he says next will unlock a new portal in the universe.

“Well, I think so,” he says, “but get in here as soon as you get back. I’ll put the tire on order for you now.”

Fog fills spaces, like water or darkness. So does fear. I am in Souris, a tiny fishing town of under 1000 on the northeastern province of Prince Edward Island. In my left hand is a paper cup of lukewarm coffee. In my right is a brown bag with a breakfast that I’ve suddenly lost an appetite for. The paper is stamped with the bright phrase, “bonne journée!” Have a good day!

I’m not having a good day. The tire Nick had cautioned me about is suddenly the least of my concerns.

My motorcycle won’t start.

I pace with with my coffee and breakfast to the corner of the street. I pace back. The weather hangs low in a gray gauze over the town. I look at my motorcycle sideways. I sit on it tenderly. I jump on it and land my ass square on the seat. I’m an animal at the mercy of another animal whose language I can’t speak. The rain is coming down in cold sheets, and with my three layers on underneath an oversized rain suit, I must look like one of those air dancers that promote store sales, waving and deflating as my spirit cycles through losing and regaining hope. “Look here at how I didn’t plan properly!” my desperate gestures seems to shout, though in truth I don’t know if the tool roll I forgot or the jump box I failed to purchase would do me any good now.

Defeated that my little dance does nothing to rouse the engine, I call a local garage. There isn’t a motorcycle shop within a hundred miles, but as long as I can get a jump, at least I can make some kind of forward progress. Keith arrives in the low-bellied grumble of his tow truck with a tool box and a gentle smile. His eyes are a quiet blue, like remnants of the ocean that surrounds us. I know his name is Keith because his shop shirt says so, just like Nick’s back home. There’s something comforting about the familiar attire, something about the smell of grease, signals to the nervous system that a problem is about to be met with the audacity of a mechanical knowledge far greater than mine.

We pull off the seat of my motorcycle, clip the jumper cables to the battery and she fires right up. I do a tiny jig and throw my arms around Keith in an overly enthusiastic hug. Keith runs a few more diagnostics to determine that the battery is, in fact, fine, but somewhere in the electrical system there’s something draining it. With my new job’s start date looming, I don’t have time to devote to a few days laid up with my bike at a garage. “Thank you!” I chirp. “But…what should I do?” I explain my original plan to catch a ferry into Nova Scotia and head to the legendary Cabot Trail on the province’s northern reaches.

Keith gives me a sideways smile and chuckles as he coils up the jumper cables. “You’ve got long hair and a motorcycle,” he laughs, “you’ll have no trouble finding help if you need it. And you can always bump start if you have to. Go!”

Keith’s encouragement untangles the knot of fear in my belly. Never mind that I don't know how and have never had to bump start - a method of popping the clutch to start an engine. The notion that help or a solution is within reach no matter where I go is a liberating reframe and fills me with comfort, like light between trees.

I run the edge of the PEI coastline towards the Northumberland Strait, wiping the rain from my visor, the clouds moving across the landscape with me until all of its details go missing. The weather and I take on the terrain is if there are no obstacles. There is a strong relationship between the lens you put on and what you’re going to see. This adventure didn’t come prepackaged as good or bad. I can’t fall down, with this mindset. I can only fall up.

“This is how you swear like a good Quebecer,” Jean exclaims with thick French Canadian flair as he sits his can of beer on the pavement. He takes a deep breath and flexes his arm. “Tabarnak!” he howls. I laugh and give it a try, but clearly don’t get it right. Jean and his friend Philippe get a lot of amusement out of this, and continue to coax me towards the right tone and emphasis.

We lean against our motorcycles and banter on in this way as we wait for the ferry that will take us to Nova Scotia. In a brief hiccup in the weather, the sun comes out from behind a moving boulder of black clouds, and its warmth is regenerative. Motorcycles are given priority in ferry lines, and so the three of us have been bundled together at the helm of a long line of cars at the Wood Island terminal. When its time to board the boat, I lead - but hold my breath when I go to start my bike. The green “neutral” light flickers, but the engine turns over, albeit with a strain. I can see Jean give Philippe a sideways glance, aware of my mechanical issue. “We’ll give you a push if you need,” they confer with a nod of their helmets.

Entering the giant belly of the ferry is like entering a whale. Every sound becomes a haunting bellow. It’s as embracing as the sea itself, and it’s a thing that strikes me dumb. I park my bike and gawk, stupefied, at the innards of the ship.

“Tie it down, tie it down,” I hear Philipe suddenly say, and then realize it’s directed at me when a rope hits my elbow. “Like this,” he says, gesturing to his process as he straps his motorcycle to the boat deck, looping the rope to D-rings bolted at my feet. I hurry to mirror his movements, and the three of us give my motorcycle a good shove to make sure it’s secure.

There’s something peculiar about traveling solo in this way - the chance encounters, the help from strangers, the fellow wayward travelers that connect a journey like pinpricks of light in a constellation. It’s like holding a messenger owl or tropical bird - you can’t take them home with you, but they live in memory like exhalations, like apparitions which are. Maybe that’s what I find so much comfort in as well - knowing that I’m also one of the apparitions, someone else simply moving through this illimitable, quiet, never-resting thing that is time. There’s an objectivity to this that’s at once embracing and at once something of which I have no place to speak about.

This is the objectivity I feel when the ferry touches Caribou’s shore, Nova Scotia unfurling from underneath the fog now that our faces are pressed right against it. The landscape is without geography, hidden by so much weather. It lives like a map without territory beyond my limited sightline.

I turn and nod a goodbye to Philippe and Jean. I hit my starter three times. On the fourth strike, the engine finally turns. I shrug and peel out of the ferry’s mouth. I’m living in the moment now, because there’s nowhere else to go.

As a painter, I notice colors. It’s been a lifelong journey of cultivating this noticing - an awareness that is particular to artists, but simply boils down to paying attention. When you start learning how to paint, at first you see a landscape and think it’s all green. Looking closer, the nuances emerge. The hue, the value, the saturation, the tinge. It’s a thousand greens - a thousand little conversations the landscape is having with the light.

In Nova Scotia, it’s not just a conversation with light - it’s a choir. I’ve never seen so many facets of green, reflecting back new shades like the faces of a jewel.

By some miraculous sweep of good fortune, the storms have corralled themselves to the far reaches of the horizon for another beat, a sun-swept kinship rolling out in front of me. I am throttling north, with an eye on landing in Cape Breton Highlands National Park to camp by nightfall. Initially I had planned to ride the route clockwise, emulating the path of the sun the way Buddhist pilgrims do. But a wrong turn put me on an interior road and a counterclockwise course. I study the map now at a gas station, refilling my small 2-gallon, 100-mile tank for the umpteenth time.

“Thank god you’ve got some proper clothes on, girl,” the clerk says, scanning my Snickers bar and black coffee as I study the map on my phone. “These ladies come in on the backs of these motorcycles with tank tops on, shivering! I just took the snow tires off my car last week. They’re nuts!”

I laugh and grab my odd choices in nourishment, catching sight of myself in the window’s reflection, looking androgynous and weathered in my rain suit. Whatever illusions I hold of motorcycles being sexy is eroded by the sandpaper of so many hundreds of miles on the road wearing against my small frame. I sip my coffee and realize I’ve been clenching my jaw so hard I risk grinding my teeth to powder. I pinch my fingers across the map in my Gaia app. I pull up the radar. Hours to go and another storm front on my heels, I throw back the last of the hot coffee, swallow the chocolate in a single bite, and hold my breath as I pull in the clutch.

She fires up with a labored gasp on the third try.

Even if I manage to move a little faster, and stretch my arms around the map a little tighter, and fuse my body to the tank a little closer, I can still feel what’s left of the engine slipping away from me. It takes so much effort to hold onto what we have, as if it all moves, and vanishes, under its own inertia. Life is short, and life is long, in this way - and not always in that order.

As I open up the throttle and merge back onto the highway, the sky unzips again. The kaleidoscope of green blurs into a purgatory of monochrome gray. The rain feels colder, harder. Dime-sized chunks of hail strike the mirror of the asphalt. I’m tired. I hydroplane for a millisecond that rattles my marrow. I’m not sure what I’m doing here. A bolt of lightning flays the horizon, and now I’m not just unsure that what I’m doing makes sense, I’m unsure it’s even safe. The entire landscape quivers. I have a brief conversation with God.

I hang on for another hour and finally pull off the road into a convenience store parking lot to shout over the deluge at someone filling their tank, “is there a motel around here?!” He can’t hear me - he cups a hand to his ear and signals me to ask again. “MOTEL!” I yell. I can’t shut the engine off for fear it won’t start again. He points a finger down the road and nods. I head in that direction like I’m reaching in the dark for a doorknob. If I could cross all of my fingers and toes, I would. Lightning flashes across the landscape again. Around the bend, a sign - the Fair Isle Motel. I exhale, and maybe cry a little. I ease up the steep entrance road to the motel office and park beside another motorcycle. I don’t even care if the bike doesn’t start again - all I can think about is a warm bed and a hot shower.

Please have a room, please have a room, please have a room, I chant.

Not the mantra I’d envisioned myself reciting on this trip, but here we are.

“Ha, another one!” I step through the door and am met with the hearty laugh of the motel office lady and the tired gaze of a fellow motorcyclist, equally as drenched as I am. We stand side by side and together gravity manages to drain enough water from our rain suits that a small lake balloons underneath us on the hardwood floor. A calico cat peers with a bored, judging expression from her warm perch on the desk.

“Here’s your key darlin', you go get yourself dry,” the lady says, a kindness sweeping around her face like the second hand of a clock.

Changed, warm, dry and feeling slightly more human in my motel room, I call my friend Matt, a talented motorcycle mechanic who I had joked I might need on speed dial for this trip, as if in foreshadowing. I pull back the window curtain slightly to stare at my motorcycle, still exposed to the rain that won’t let up. “It’s not gonna start at all in the morning, I know it. What the hell am I gonna do?” I say across the thousand miles between us.

“Well, time to YouTube the bump start, Em!” Matt replies, matter-of-factly.

I’m slightly annoyed at my feeling of helplessness, but he’s right. There’s no dependency here, and no one else who can get me home, save for my own resourcefulness.

I step out of Room 3 at 5:00 a.m. The horizon smolders with the diffused light of another storm-riddled day. I walk over to my motorcycle and strap on the tail bags. I turn the key. Pull the clutch. Hit the starter. Soundless. Lifeless. Thank god for Youtube, I think. I pop it into neutral. I pull the whole machine back towards me like loading a slingshot. “Do the fucking thing,” I mutter to myself. I run, the bike at my side, hands and arms balancing the weight. Gravity has us now, and at that moment I swing my leg over the saddle and pop out the clutch while simultaneously rolling the throttle. I don’t expect anything to happen but it does - the engine roars to life instantly. In disbelief, I nearly stall it. In disbelief, I turn left onto the main road and towards the entrance of the infamous Cabot Trail, that rugged coastline that drops away into the sea, that rugged coastline with its iconic views that, in this weather, on this day, I’ll never see.

What a thing, to travel so far and not see what you’d planned on seeing.

What a thing, to let go of the boulder in the center of the river you’re clinging to and just let the current take you, regardless.

In reality, it takes another three days to get home. In memory, it is one day strung together by a series of keyframes, moments that feel innocuous alone but together end up time-stamping the in-between of my careers in a way I hadn’t expected. It’s a day that begins when I step out of Room 3 in Nova Scotia and ends with me stretched out in my yard in Pennsylvania, motorcycle parked at last, woman and machine fully spent, texting my sister that I need a week-long nap to which she replies, “no, you need a hoagie,” and shows up a half hour later with dinner and a hug.

It’s a day that places into my palm three bald eagle feathers, gifted to me by a man named Dodd at a gas station just outside of Margaree Forks.

It’s a day of shouting “I can’t shut it off, it won’t start again” to customs as I cross the border back into the United States.

It’s a day of chancing into a visit with a distant friend in New Hampshire who offers me brief reprieve in a hot tub and a push down a gravel road to get going again, the White Mountains vanishing in and out of sideways rain.

A day of three random strangers in a hotel parking lot giving me the last push I need for the final 10-hour homestretch.

A day of realizing I can’t actually turn back and see the people or landscape that urges me onward, only reach out behind me with one hand to wave as I go, trusting they’re there to receive that small gesture of gratitude, the other hand steady on the throttle.

I know you shouldn’t reminisce on an adventure until it’s over, but I can’t help doing it as I ride on this homebound trajectory, this series of days lived as one. I can’t help but wonder what will be sorted as fact from fiction, wonder what will be distorted ruthlessly (did I really sing like that into that gorge off the Cabot Trail, my motorcycle still running, my voice dropping away like a coin into a well?) and what will always emerge clear from the quagmire of memory. The trip is easy. It’s not dangerous. I face no more peril than eating a handful of peanuts. But I am reminded of how powerful I am, and how elastic the mind can be when faced with a difficult endeavor. Even when I inevitably lapse into useless nostalgia months from now, I hope that that is the accountability I always arc towards - that nothing begins or ends, only changes form, and I’m here to make the best of the ride, regardless.

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  • enzebel9

Some questions break us down. Some questions break us open. Some do both. For a long time, I carried it in the container of why. Why stay? Why go? Why choose this path, or that one? Inevitably the questions became quicksand - I was knee deep and sinking, and there was no hauling myself out. This is when motorcycles entered my life.

“Alrighty everybody, let’s see if we can get them in neutral,” Coach Dean says, hands on hips and slightly bemused as the four of us toe the shifters of our motorcycles, our feet like those claws in the toy machine that can’t quite grab the stuffed animal. Finally I find it - the glory of the green-lit “N”! After a few minutes of stall-outs and near-starts, all of us are aligned in our success, and await our coach’s next instruction. It’s mid-December, just before Christmas, and the air crackles with my breath. It’s downright cold, and I can’t feel my fingertips.

I am new on the motorcycle in this beginner safety course, but new in a lot of other ways I could have never expected for myself, too. Newly split from a ten-year marriage. Newly without a solid home. Newly searching for a better job that can support myself and my nine year old. Daily, I fight the impulse to look forwards and backwards at once, overwhelmed with the pressure to understand why everything fell apart, how to make up for lost time, and how to tie it all up neatly with a bow and just move on. But these things don’t happen cleanly, or quickly, I know. Signing up for the motorcycle class was the first actionable, immediate thing I could think of to grab onto. It had been a curiosity of mine for years, tucked away per my partner’s safety concerns. But now, in the sharpness of winter, I giggle inside my helmet as I trace the lines around the range in each exercise with my demo Harley. I realize I’m not just learning something new now. I have initiated the process of redefining myself and exploring a new identity. There isn’t time for questions. Only an opportunity to do things differently, to decide what to focus on and what to neglect. I am getting a running start for my new life, ready to hold onto my whole self and jump the length of the canyon that wants to swallow me up.

I successfully received my Class M license that day. One week later, I bought my first motorcycle - a sparkly little blue Honda 250 Rebel. When I need to take it for inspection - my first real ride on roads and highways of consequence, in January no less - I ask my mom to watch my daughter for me while I run out. Gearing up in thick pants, an insulated shell and my warmest gloves, with a clenched fist of nerves in the pit of my stomach, my mom looks at me squarely before I walk out the door and says, “Why are you doing this. You’re going to die.”

I haven’t died yet. But I have logged thousands of miles. And I have slowly, but steadily, been building a new life for myself, with the motorcycle as an existential, essential keystone to this life. I’ve graduated from that unassuming Rebel to a sleek Triumph Thruxton 900. I’ve ridden across state lines and weather patterns - from the Rocky Mountains with lightning storms nipping at my heels, to quiet, gentle moonlit Pennsylvania backroads. I’ve stood under the awnings of gas stations, waiting out downpours, chewing on chocolate bars and stale coffee, feeling like a queen. And I’ve ridden through grief, through the darkest nights of the soul, untangling the crippling heartache of a suicide.

What do you turn to when you’re denuded of all you know? Why? Of all the decisions I’ve made in life and all the passions I pursue, why I ride motorcycles is the question and sideways look I get most often. When I answer that question, it’s simple: because it’s fun as hell. But mostly, I don’t want to answer that question, or know how to. Is it really a question that must be asked?

The problem with “why” is that it assumes something is wrong.

Sure, asking “why” can have value - after all, it can give us context and comfort, and help us correct our course in a positive direction. But asking why can colonize the mind. It can pirouette from a question to a lament. It’s not a call to action at all, but a back-to-front question that can lead us in the opposite direction of where we want to go. If I continued to ask “why leave” mid-tailspin in an unhealthy marriage, I might still be there. If I continued to ask “why ride a motorcycle,” I might have never mapped all of those sunsets and serene skies to my skin, or opened the door to a new kind of freedom.

Sometimes, you just need to trust the impulse and do the thing. A life, after all, is really only the distillation of time, and time is fickle, time is fluid. It can’t be found, but it can be lost. So why are you still standing here? Go after it.

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  • enzebel9

Updated: Mar 23

by Emily Zebel

Featured in Bikepacking Journal #9 and nominated for the 2022 Bikepacking Awards, Best Writing in Print

Around Mile 110 of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), tracking east toward Cumberland, Maryland, my 10-year-old daughter Willow and I become sullen two-year-olds. We don’t talk much, we stop a lot to eat more snacks or ponder a leaf, and we remark often that another mile marker surely has to be just around the next bend. We have, essentially, become each other’s babysitters. The July sun is kerosene, and for this particular stretch, there is no shade to shield us from it.

“Can we look at the map again?” Willow asks.

“Sure,” I say.

“What’s a viaduct?” Willow asks.

“I think it’s a thing that goes over land.”

“Oh. Like an aqueduct. But for land.”


“Oh, ok.”

Tedious silence resumes.

To be fair, we’d started the trip on fumes. I was relatively new at the non-profit I was working at full-time, and I hadn’t earned any vacation yet but was hell-bent on cramming in a trip with Willow before the summer melted away in our hands. In the week leading up to our scheduled departure, with no trip plan yet in place, I was knee-deep in our organization’s statewide conference while trying to feel capable of pulling a plan together in time. For those who’ve never been involved in running a conference, it can feel a bit like running an ultramarathon.

When did I last fuel? Am I hydrating? Remember to suppress all personal complaints and other negative verbal statements to volunteers. Oh, hi, photographer! I am to give you no indication that I’ve been running around this convention center for 10 hours and, here, enjoy my unfettered smile and bubbly personality for your shot, sure to make it into next year’s marketing materials!

At night, sitting on my couch in the hotel, I sipped on a beer and pored over maps on my laptop, trying to untangle what would be local enough to minimize travel and long enough to satiate our adventure craving. In the glow of my MacBook Pro, the Great Allegheny Passage wriggled itself to the top of a growing heap of Google searches.

Of course. It was perfect. Around 150 miles of flat-ish rail trail stretching from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cumberland, Maryland, with miles that all snapped neatly together, linking quaint towns along the way. I knew this bike route, in spite of being flat and smooth, would push Willow to a new frontier of fatigue. But we could take a weekend to do it and pretty much break anytime for an ice cream cone or a call to grandma.

On top of that, I was familiar with several key points along the trail, having interviewed a handful of prominent trail advocates and local business owners a few years ago on the making of the GAP trail for a documentary project. When an online source pointed out that Amtrak, with its newly expanded bike storage compartment, could be used to shuttle bikes and simplify the logistics of the whole undertaking, I bought two one-way tickets, confidently closed my laptop, and felt satisfied that this ideation process had landed me on our perfect summer adventure.

The Adventure We Wanted. The Adventure We Got.

“I mean, I figured it would be right here,” I say, fumbling on my phone to find the GAP route in Ride with GPS, balancing my overloaded bike against my hip.

Willow pedals circles around me, the city of Pittsburgh towering over us with its Friday night racket and summer heat. In case the bit about me planning the entire trip on a couch just days before departure didn’t tip you off, I’m a terrible planner. And although minimal planning can be a surefire way to step into the unknown and allow room for a true adventure to unfold, it can also leave you standing in the middle of an enormous city, a grown woman knee-deep in adulthood with her young child at her feet, feeling very much like a fool. Such a world-renowned trail will certainly have a clear path to the start from this parking garage! I told my exhausted self as I parked my Subaru in an empty spot on the second level of the Smithfield-Liberty Garage, scattering a small flock of bored pigeons, never thinking to preload a GPX file.

But no.

So after lugging our loaded bikes down two flights of stairs, spending several sweaty minutes guessing at our intended direction, and circling the area for a good half-hour, I finally resorted to my phone to locate the route. Now I can lead the way at last! We’re not far off, but the sun is setting fast. I start riding and call anxiously after Willow behind me—stop, stop, stopping—as traffic flies by at its inhuman pace and lights tango red to green to red again. We wend our way through the city, dipping in and out of thick rectangles of shade as the blinding evening sunlight cuts between sky-high buildings.

We reach the start, a medallion embedded in concrete at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers. It feels otherworldly. Jet skis clip the tips of waves across the choppy green water kicked up by a humid wind. “Can I swim?” comes the anticipated, albeit innocent, question out of Willow’s mouth.

“Oh, geez, absolutely not!” I say a bit breathlessly, now a tad nervous that what I thought would be a simple launch has turned into an hour-long debacle. “We still have to figure out where we’re sleeping tonight!”

As far as I know, there’s no cycling quote analogous to climber George Mallory’s “Because it’s there.” But as we pedal beyond the magnetic nucleus that is the city of Pittsburgh, the sheer fortitude of the GAP’s because it’s there attitude begins to make itself known. This isn’t just a path through the woods. The 10-foot-wide trail is built on railroad corridors constructed to high standards of gentle grades, sweeping curves, and bridges and tunnels that take riders through the mountains, not over them.

Working our way deeper into the green hills and away from the city, remnants of the enormous behemoth of industry that is Pittsburgh’s legacy stand solemnly on the riverbanks like abandoned houses given back to the wild. This region was once called “hell with the lid off” and worse. Now, the trail opens a gateway into a serene, uncomplicated quiet, the two of us peacefully cycling underneath a patchwork of emerging stars and in the vigils of old ghosts.

Mile 15. We should find a spot to camp soon, right? I ask myself, once again frustrated by my lack of planning. The landscape takes on a haunted feel. We turn our lights on, illuminating an empty corridor of gravel and dust. To our left, the bones of the blighted town of McKeesport stand in the shifting morphology of the sunset’s hues. A neon sign that reads Discover McKeesport! emits a lonely blue light against the night sky. Having done zero research, I’d assumed that McKeesport would be a trail-friendly town with a memorable dinner stop based on the fun amenity icons on the map.

“Wanna venture in there to see if we can find some food?” I ask Willow, mustering some parental confidence and authority while eying up the dark alleys. One locked Subway and a Sunoco with a clerk sitting behind bulletproof glass later, we have our dinner: Goldfish crackers, Diet Coke, and one squishy banana. I owe Willow a lot of pizza after this, I say to myself.

Objectively, it feels like we have traveled nowhere. What we have done is land on a weird dinner in a slightly uncomfortable town with an unknown destination for sleep ahead. This is when the sky decides to close in around us, lightning crackling along the horizon like water in a hot pan. “Oh boy, let’s go!” I say, doling out another handful of Goldfish to Willow. She giggles, enthralled by this footloose adventure, aware that I’ve conned us into something that’s about to become slightly more uncomfortable and that there’s no turning back.

It’s midnight when we finally make it to Dravo’s Landing, an official cyclist campsite 10 miles beyond McKeesport. We scramble and lift our bikes into the safety of a shelter as the sky unzips its weight in buckets of rain. Lightning illuminates the campground, and we can see that a few other shelters have been claimed by fellow travelers, their gear draped across bike frames and their fires smoldering to curls of smoke in the downpour. We unfurl our pads and sleeping bags and tuck in. Willow squeezes my hand and mutters, “This is so cool,” before dropping into a deep sleep.

By modern standards, the GAP is what rail-trail dreams are made of: a major urban center as its western focal point, a historic town at its eastern base that caters to trail users, sprawling landscapes, expansive bridges and tunnels, and relics encapsulating the region’s history from the days of George Washington to its heyday as an American industrial powerhouse.

About 15 communities line the route, many of them former coal, iron, and steel enclaves that have embraced a new calling in the post-Industrial Age as trail towns. The forming of the GAP trail, I learned firsthand during the documentary project, was as complex and dynamic as the towns it touches. Taking nearly 30 years to complete, with the first nine miles near Ohiopyle completed in 1986 and the last section, from West Homestead to downtown Pittsburgh, completed in June 2013, the trail wasn’t always welcomed. In the early public meetings, one business owner based in Confluence, Pennsylvania, rebutted the general community uproar about the trail coming through town. “I said, by god, do you really think a cyclist is going to run off with your television under one arm!?” he told me with a grin. It would take an enormous effort of mass collaboration—trail advocates and champions, funders, volunteers, corporations, municipalities, counties, and two states—before the vision could be fully realized.

Chasing a Child, a Train, and a Definition

No matter the scenery, there comes a point in every trip that I call the “Bottom of the U.” It’s the low point where you can’t quite see the end but you’re feeling the weight of where you started. We are there. The sun is high as we near the Big Savage Tunnel, breaking for a snack and a gander at an expansive mural that wallpapers an underpass. We still have around 25 miles to go and a train to catch if we’re to make it back to Pittsburgh as scheduled.

I turn my wrist to check the time and realize our margin to make it is razor-thin. “What are you doing with Tweety Bird?” I ask Willow, trying to mask the impatience in my tone. It’s all well and good planning a trip from a couch, feeling like a brave and adventurous mama, but it now appears much more attractive not to be the one in charge.

“I’m just arranging him for a photo,” Willow replies with a bright smile as she poses her stuffed animal for a portrait at the mouth of the underpass. He’s a rather disheveled thing, having been discovered in a soggy river bank on a canoe trip back in early spring. Three spins through the washing machine couldn’t fully scrub the patina of mud from the little guy’s weathered exterior, but Willow has clung to him since that trip, nonetheless, like a slightly misshapen mascot plucked right out of a cartoon reel.

I turn back to the underpass and fish out a snack. Just as I’m about to take a tired bite of a Pop-Tart, my gaze lands on a prominent mark on the underpass mural. “Huh,” I say, stepping back to take in the full panoramic scale of the artwork. Small black dashes hatch a horizontal line that steadily trends upward to a high point. It’s the elevation profile of the trail. It hits me then, my watch still ticking relentlessly toward the timestamp on our train tickets.

“Willow, look at this!” I call out, landing a finger on the high point, which turns out to be our exact location. She scrambles to my side, dusting the gravel from her knees, and we simultaneously realize that we’re about to cross the Eastern Continental Divide, about 2,375 feet above sea level. From the Divide heading toward Cumberland, the trail drops 1,754 feet. This can mean only one thing: it’s all downhill from here. We get the full pull of gravity. We get to fly.

I don’t know who scrambles for their bike quicker, but we’re cranking together in no time, and soon I can’t keep up with Willow’s pace. We zoom full-tilt down off the mountain’s spine like coins circling around a wishing well funnel.

We bend time.

Filthy and sunswept, we make our train.

How to Retell a Story

One day, not long after we return from our trip, a friend asks, “Wasn’t that just a flat rail trail you guys did?” I’m quiet for a beat, and I think about it. Yes, it’s pretty flat, and yes, it’s a rail trail. But then there is this word, adventure. What does it mean, exactly? So many people are pushing themselves by completing huge routes in a day, soloing remote trails in faraway countries, and partaking in proper expeditions. Taking a jaunt on the GAP trail might not be worthy of National Geographic, but then again, diluting an experience through comparison runs the risk of oversimplifying things. What gets lost is the sight of the salve and source of perspective any adventure can offer if you’re open to it.

And I think, then, that maybe adventure is really just the poetic distillation of curiosity. Maybe it’s about the lessons that come along in a sidecar as you peel back that curiosity: patience, alignment, perseverance, humility, clarity, beauty, life. Either way, it’s always a win. In those last 25 miles flying down Savage Mountain, both of us with huge smiles plastered across our faces, I didn’t need to ask myself, “Is this an adventure?” What it really comes down to isn’t the sum of our efforts. It’s the gift of finding something to throw ourselves into.

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