ABOUT SIX YEARS AGO, two friends I don’t see often had one of those ideas that I say yes to, vaguely, because I suspect it will never happen. The idea was a multi-day bike trip on the lower half of the Greater Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail, which starts in Pittsburgh and traverses something I’d never heard about, the Eastern Continental Divide.
Not only did I doubt we would do that trip, but it never crossed my mind that our biking together would continue for half a dozen years, including this fall when two of us headed for Mississippi’s Natchez Trace.
Back to 2010: plans kept rolling along until we’d put down deposits for a trip in early October that required pedaling dozens of miles every day. We were to start in Cumberland, Md. and end up in DC, or as it turned out White’s Ferry — about 150 miles.
In August, I panicked. I started riding any bike I could find, in DC, at the Delaware shore and when I took my son to college in upstate New York. For the first and maybe last times, I took two unbearable health-club spinning classes. Not believing I deserved either to spend the money or to sport serious biker garb, I found discounted liner shorts with padding that go under everyday pants, if a little lumpily.
What made such a trip even remotely doable was the discovery of a local guy who, along with his mother, helped us find B&Bs for overnights along the way and then provided bikes, drove us to the starting point, and, crucially, picked up our luggage every morning and left it where we would spend the next night.
The first year had some high points: good B&Bs, lovely river views, fun return to civilization in Shepherdstown. Also some lows: one B&B that served Shake & Bake chicken for dinner and had no dairy products for morning coffee; and the interminable chipped gravel of the C&O tow-path trail that required mountain bike-sized wheels and made for very slow going.
That’s when I learned something fairly exciting: to bike many miles, you don’t need to be in great shape or especially athletic or coordinated, luckily for me. You just keep pedaling. You may be slow but you will get there. And though sometimes I was the slowest, often I was not.
There’s something about surviving such an endeavor that makes you yearn for more. The next year was much better: the top half of the GAP, from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, also about 150 miles — this time on hybrid bikes and lots of strong coffee with dairy products every morning — had more varied landscapes and better B&Bs. The downside: one very long day riding more than 60 miles on a slope, gentle but uphill. We tried that route again the following year, finding one fabulous riverside B&B in Confluence, Pa., but still couldn’t avoid one very long uphill day.
After that came two years on the Eastern Shore (where one of us lives) with several day trips — starting with Blackwater Refuge, 40 miles of riding through a flat and gorgeous expanse of water and grasslands — could be the Everglades — and precisely where needed, a delicious crabcake lunch at Old Salty’s.
Then on a spring trip to California to visit my son, a bike trip was proposed with no promises of flat terrain. I was slightly reassured that my son had never been very focused on sports, though recently when his San Francisco employer offered to support employees training and running half-marathons, he had done that. Our plan was to ride from San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and return by ferry. It was a splendid outing, with cool breezes and sunshine, spectacular views of the Bay and a delicious outdoor lunch in Sausalito. Again, I survived.
So, what next? This October, one person of our threesome wasn’t available so the other, Cary Ridder, and I decided to take the leap and travel —by plane to somewhere new. With flatness the highest priority, we chose the Natchez Trace, an old Indian Trail running parallel to the Mississippi River, which has been paved and is open to cars, but where bikes have the right of way.
We signed up with VBT (Vermont Bicycle Touring, though it’s never called that) for its good price and amenities. Now, along with the miles, what worried me was the group — meals, sightseeing and riding all day with no break from people. Spending that much time among close friends, with no downtime, can be challenging for me, a hardened introvert. Now add some 20 unfamiliar people for long days that started at early, chatty breakfasts, plus tours with guides — never my favorite — and continued into the evening. I informed the organizers beforehand that I might skip evening group activities, even the “included” dinners.
Yet again, surviving was my greatest thrill. Other highlights: downtown Jackson, Miss., with its art museum of well-curated shows and local art; the Vicksburg battlefield and fascinating story of its Civil War turning point; Natchez right on the Mississippi River — the prettiest city, after Savannah, not burned by the Union Army; a manageable amount of antebellum mansion touring; and a final day in Jackson at the Eudora Welty house.
A lot of credit goes to our terrific group leader combo, one from Maine, the other from Mississippi who gave us local flavor and lore. Credit is also due the other riders: one told me it was the friendliest group she’d traveled with.
Now the world is our oyster. VBT has trips all over. Alternatively, for destinations that are not the least bit flat, some pricier companies offer E-bikes that provide a little electrical support when needed. How will we ever choose? And could I finally justify springing for biking attire or at least for actual bike shorts?
— Mary Carpenter
Mary Carpenter is the well-being editor of MyLittleBird. See more of Mary’s posts.