Touring Not Tourist: Pittsburgh to DC Along the Great Allegheny Passage

I’ve lost hours with a pen in hand staring at the empty page in a notebook. A cursor on a vacant screen blinking, daring me to try and recount our days from Pittsburgh to D.C. without a single mention of Covid. Alas, I couldn’t even make it two sentences without avoiding the dreaded C word, and rightfully so. Covid-19 and the pandemic we are currently in the grips of have dictated all aspects of our daily lives and certainly dictated this trip’s timing. Without Covid, the three of us would likely have been on the road in some capacity or other. Steph has been touring with bands big and small, managing their merchandise sales. Ed has been a touring musician for the better part of six years and was getting ready to embark on another tour just before the pandemic striking. As for myself, I would have oddly enough found myself in Washington, D.C., just the same, camera in hand, shooting the annual DCCX race.

I had met Ed a few years back during his stint as the bass player for the band Beach Slang. Ed and I had chatted after a couple of shows and quickly realized we had more in common than just dirty rock n roll clubs. Just before joining the band, Ed had cycled across the country with a buddy. An avid surfer and rock climber, the constant touring cycle of a rock n roll band kept Ed away from his outdoor interest. We had been kicking around a few ideas on bike trips in the naivety of March, thinking that things could possibly straighten out by the end of the summer. Boy, were we wrong.

I picked up Ed and his friend Steph on the eve before our departure outside the train station on a cold and drizzly night in Pittsburgh. October in the Mid-Atlantic is easily the best month of the year; summer’s humidity and rainstorms disappear, leaving the air distinctly less oppressive. The days are usually warm and sunny enough that riding a bike is extra pleasurable. However, Pennsylvania is just far enough north that it doesn’t take much to turn a perfect day into a preview of winter’s wrath. (Just ask Mr. Watson how quickly the weather can flip a Brôvet trip on its head.) We planned to make it to D.C. in five days, and as we finished our dinner contemplating our first day of riding, the falafel must have kicked in some bravado as someone may have slipped a, “Maybe four days?”

The venture would be both myself and Steph’s first multi-day bike trip, and we were also meeting for the first time. I have had a few overnighters throughout the years but had spent far too much of my free time chasing bike races around. Ed, on the other hand, was a seasoned veteran, having just wrapped up a trip down the west coast. Starting in Astoria, WA, he had to pull the plug somewhere around Santa Cruz due to the fires ravaging much of California. His defeat in California sparked this trip, and in my driveway, on a Friday morning, we shoved off under grey and cold skies towards Washington, D.C.

The route from Pittsburgh to D.C. is hardly a challenging one, either navigationally or elevational speaking. The Great Allegheny Passage runs 150 miles into the C&O Canal Trail, which meanders for another 170 or so before dropping one smack dab in Georgetown. A few have been daring and foolish enough to tackle it in under 24 hours; for us, this was an intentional effort of escape. It was an escape from the constant news cycle, of the restrictions we had put on ourselves for the better part of 6 months, and an escape from the pending election and its outcome (phew).

Out of Pittsburgh, we rolled along the river banks of the Monongahela, retracing the ghosts of the once-mighty steel valley. Forgotten structures and tracks fragmented along the trail, the industry that once dominated the area is nothing more than shells of concrete. The city’s outskirts faded along with the morning clouds as we chased the remaining sunlight to our first cold night of camping.

Greeted with a frosty morning, we took comfort in bonus rounds of coffee from the press pot, giving the sun time to warm the air before setting off for the tunnel of fall foliage through the Laurel Highlands. Another day’s long meander through the forest of Western Pennsylvania and any sense of ‘stranger’ or ‘acquaintance’ vanished. A wise man once said to me that ‘you learn more about a person during an 8-hour ride than you would living next to them for a lifetime.’ We would log in 5 lifetimes worth of next-door neighbors together throughout our journey by that theory. Our inside jokes and graduate-level hypothesis of what the Spice Girls ‘Wannabe’ is really about carried us through some very long and lonesome sections of the C&O.

By day four, I had begun to understand the beauty of the bike tour. Disconnected from the world at large, body fatigued from the accumulation of miles in the legs, simple pleasures are amplified. Perched on boulders littering the Potomac banks, we enjoyed the sunset and isolation of our final evening together. In the morning, we would have to hustle to make it to Washington D.C. for Steph and Ed’s train back to Philadelphia, but not before enjoying burritos in the sun.