i was invited to chart a ‘rapha continental ride’, ie a bike ride in the continental style: dirt roads, mountain passes, grand vistas. it will be part of a published series of rides documented in a classic style, ie from a van with medium format cameras, hanging out the window on 40 mph rutted descents. and so. i stared at maps for ages and plotted and pruned and preened a route. and yesterday i woke at 6 am, ate an egg on a muffin and a slurped a big cup of coffee and headed out the door for a 3.5 hour drive through pelting rain, whilst listening to the kills very loudly, on repeat, to state college, the geographic center of pennsylvania. state college is a bit lost in time. it looks like what i imagine yorkshire to look like, but with more trees. it is a valley hemmed in by low mountains that are carpeted in pines, mountain laurel, fir and oak. the valley itself is agricultural, but the farms are small and tidy, many of them run by menonites or amish, so electrical lines are few, and wash is always hanging on impossibly long lines to dry in the breeze.
state college gets less than two months of sun a year. the winters are long and sloppy, not cold enough for serious snow accumulation but cold enough to get the occasional 2-3 feet. but when the sun does make its presence felt, it is remarkable, perfect temps, scattered clouds, deep blue skies… as a side note, i lived on the side of mount nittany, and in my last year there i had a close encounter with a bear. returning home i hear a noise in the bushes about 5 feet to my right. i look over and see fur moving: a deer. the deer stands up and emerges from the bushes, inches from the road. i think, oh, thats odd, a person in a bear costume. right as i breeze by, i realize it is of course a real bear, but i am past and no harm has come and it happens so quickly that i do not have time to get scared: looking behind me i see him ambling across the street. i believe he was checking for cars.
ahh but back to yesterday. i stop for coffee at mile 120, (or so), at a proper david lynch roadhouse, with wood paneled interior, waitresses in smart red uniforms and thick diner mugs of steaming hot coffee, served too weak to bother with cream. in proper lynch mode i buy a squishy donut. back on the road the sky blackens from a flannel grey to a muted midnight. the wind tosses the car half across adjacent lanes. the mountain passes loom ahead, made eerie by the crack of good weather i can see at the top. descending the backside of the twisting road, passing thousands of acres of thick pines and tiny deep blue lakes, i emerge into a world sheltered by 1200 foot mountains, which serve to hold the cold front at bay, roiling just a mile back in my rearview mirror.
i arrive at the yellow wooden post office with bright white trim in Lemont, the same post office that i picked up packages from for 2 years. i am to meet a fellow named whit, who will be the ride leader, a philosophy major turned pro bike racer turned philly english teacher. we will generate a cue sheet for the ride, i will drive, point things out, make the right turns, get us mildly lost, and he will diligently record our path on a custard yellow note page with a dying pen.
i have already driven 4 hours. i am about to drive 8 more. onward. i point out local oddities, the house with the stream under it, the barn filled with rare bikes and roosters… our journey takes us through rolling, impossibly scenic farm lands, past tiny streams, chuttering black buggies with dour amish drivers.
on a side note, my toes are unreasonably tingly right now.
our rough mid point dumps us in milheim, a squalid down shoved at the bottom of a mountain pass that no one uses any more because the timber industry has dried up. we are looking for food. the local pub is closed, not open for 4 more hours. turning back to the car we see what appears to be a missplaced western hotel, a rambling brown wood fascade with a wooden sidewalk/porch, and a carved painted sign reading hotel milheim: fine food, spirits, and lodging. we walk in.
we wander thru 3 ancient dining rooms, the last of which oddly has old iron bathrubs serving as salad bar containers. our journey ends in a darkly paneled bar, attended by a sparely tooth’d woman with a cackling smile and hair that looked like an eminent fire hazard. we ordered the special, and 2 drafts of cheap local beer and sat back in our cracked fake leather bar chairs and taked about racing and not racing and marriage and gear ratios and beer and i think, how strange, i have only just meet the guy.
leaving the hotel, meager bill paid (28 dollars, 4 beers, sandwiches, fries, and soup!) we emerged into a torrent of rain. epic rain. fitzcarraldian rain. i had left my window down. i sat on a soggy fabric seat and we drove on. the road twisted and turned past sinking creek, now a flooding river, mere feet from the edge of the road. logs drifted down like whitewater rafters. we turned over a bridge and left the river behind, climbing into the mist on dirt roads that were build to connect logging communities that no longer exist. the visibility drops. mist hangs like spanish moss from the leaves of laurel, pines press in close, their tops obscurred in white. we slide thru muddy turns and bump over sharp rocks, the suspension protesting and chattering.
ahh the reason for the ride. penn’s view overlook appears suddenly on our left, a shear drop of 1000 feet to the winding river we left below, mountains stretching out only to dissolve in the gray curtains of rain. white clouds scatter at our foot steps. whit has to snap a few pictures. i hide under a scrawny pine, clinging desperately to granite boulders.
more views await, the car sliding around turns as even downshifts will not slow our progress. we emerge on the otherside of the ridge, passing a lake that has been recently drained for dam maintenance, an oddly visceral site, like a corpse post autopsy. soon we are climbing again, road names like vonada gap, synagog gap, mountain church road, locust grove road. we drive a twisting ridgeline, and suddenly turn down, barreling down the mountain back toward the valley.
midsentance i yell: fuck. i slam my brakes and slid across the road. i have almost run over a giant yellow cock. the rooster is making his way across the road, oblivious to the fact that his death was nearly imminent. whit chases him back home with his camera, and in fits of laughter we continue our descent, but at a more stately pace.
ahh i need more tea.
so. well. how much more is there to tell? those are the high lights. we were mildly lost at one point, but after looking over a huge topo map that whit thoughtfully brought i divined the route (ok not really, we just sorta kept going and found the road) and we finished with no more yellow cock run-ins. i took a slight break from driving and poked in an antique store for old cameras. when i emerged, it was snowing softly. i drove home having consumed 2 more cups of coffee and a bad gas station sandwich.
11 hours after i started, i returned to frederick a tired tired tired man. mission accomplished though, and that’s the important thing.