What happens to bicyclists on the C & O Canal Towpath when they reach its western terminus at Cumberland? Their gentle course along the practically flat towpath ends and they face the Allegheny Mountains, which though not as high as the Rockies in the West pose greater challenges to cyclists.
Good news: they can switch over to a trail used by “Native Americans, British and colonial American soldiers, traders and settlers, teamsters, railroaders, and truckers…to negotiate the Allegheny Mountains” and connect the Atlantic coast and the Ohio valley. Now called the Great Allegheny Passage, this trail follows the “topographically dramatic and difficult corridor created by the valleys of Wills and Jennings creeks and of the Casselman, Youghiogheny, and Monongahela rivers.”
George Washington was correct; this route,when joined with the Potomac River, does provide the link between what were for him the East and the West.
For a century, this transportation route was dominated by railroads, but during the 1970s and 1980s, some of these companies began to shut down their lines and abandon their tracks. The longest was a set of tracks owned by the Western Maryland Railway, which ran between Cumberland and Connellsville, Pennsylvania. It took close to 30 years for various trail and conservancy groups to acquire these routes, transform then into a connected trail, and develop management systems. All who enjoy these trails, including the large number of people whose businesses depend upon those of us who travel them, owe a strong word of gratitude to those who have created and maintained these passages.
From Cumberland to Pittsburgh, by way of the Great Allegheny Passage, is 150 miles of leafy wilderness, hard packed trail, and solitude. Despite the fact that it cuts through the eastern continental divide, the steepest grade is about 1.7%, no steeper that the bike trail on the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River a few blocks from my condo. Cyclists with the patience to travel it can go all of the way from Georgetown to Pittsburgh—335 miles—traffic free! Best of all, if the guidebooks are correct, no granny gears are needed; a middle range of gears will suffice even for an old man like me.
The history of America, as it unfolded along the Great Allegheny Passage, is lovingly, beautifully told and illustrated in a book edited by Edward K. Muller, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, and Paul g Wiegman, photographer and naturalist. The title of their book—An Uncommon Passage: Traveling through History on the Great Allegheny Passage Trail—suggests the romantic glow that shimmers through the volume.
In downtown Cumberland, cyclists make the easy transition from the C & O to the GAP. The trails are much the same: long stretches of cycling in a quiet, close to nature, world where there is no place to go but where the trail goes. On maps, the trail twists and turns, but on the ground itself, riders see only easy bends up ahead. The irregular surface provides a governor on speed, and the crunching sound (especially on the GAP) lulls cyclists into a rhythm that carries them forward throughout the day.
The GAP, however, differs from the C & O. Most notably, the surface, which is hard packed, crushed limestone, is significantly better. The route is free from the ruins of locks, aqueducts, and abandoned buildings that cyclists on the C & O pass frequently. It seemed to me that a larger number of day users cycled along the GAP, the majority of them large-bellied old men with short white beards, who were wearing ordinary clothes (rather than cycling garb) and mounted on knobby tired, fenderless, upright bicycles. In most cases, I suspect, these bikes were rented from a supplier at the nearby village.
Their mood was clearly stated by two men sitting at a canopied table toward the western end of the GAP. “A day on the trail,” one of them told me, “takes us away from the pressures of life in the city.” I understand what they mean. Riding these trails for a week had a mesmerizing effect on me. The rhythmic, evenly paced ride through one sylvan glade after another allowed a sense of settled calm to rise up from my inner self.
Although once is enough for me, I can understand why some people return to these trails as if they were on a pilgrimage to a land of sweet peace.