by Emily Zebel
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.”
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.
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.