Pike 2 Bike — Riding the Abandoned PA Turnpike.

I have a certain love for exploring abandoned man-made things. I think they are fascinating—rusty metal, crumbling concrete, smashed windows. The ruin, the decay, and most importantly, nature once again taking over. One of the coolest “abandoned stuff” experiences I’ve had occurred yesterday, when my friend Jeff and I rode our bikes along a section of the old Pennsylvania Turnpike. This 13-mile stretch of road near Breezewood was bypassed in 1968 in favor of a newer route that did not require the use of tunnels, which had been causing a lot of bottlenecked traffic issues on the old road.

Approximately 9 miles of the old turnpike are accessible to ride/hike/explore. The other few miles are on private land and are blocked from access. A Pike 2 Bike friends group has plans in the works to repave part of the old highway and put some form of lighting in the tunnels to create a “safer” environment for users, but I’m really glad we got to enjoy and experience this unique area in its current, raw state, before those changes take place. The fact that it is currently completely unimproved and all has been left to nature and graffiti artists is what makes it so interesting.

Jeff and I headed to Breezewood in the mid-afternoon, after I was done with work. It was a dreary day—perfect weather  to accompany the post-apocalyptic landscape. We parked in a pull-off along Rt. 30, climbed a small hill, and found ourselves on the old turnpike.

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It was all I had imagined—crumbling asphalt, grass and trees growing in the median, faded white and yellow pavement markings. It was hard to imagine cars whizzing by on this strip of land. Before long, we were at the first tunnel. We started through without our lights on, and could already see the light at the end of the tunnel, a tiny dot in the distance. We still didn’t turn our lights on. It was a very odd and thrilling feeling, to ride in the darkness towards that tiny dot of light. I had no idea what was in front of me. There could be an enormous pothole, an animal, an obstacle, a dead body. I’d never know until I hit it. But there was none of that, and we made it out the other side without incident.

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After the first tunnel, we entered into Buchanan State Forest, and noticed several trails crossing the old road—opportunities for more exploration on a return trip sometime.

At the second tunnel, we took a side path up to the top, above the ceiling of the actual roadway, into rooms that housed enormous fans that provided ventilation in the tunnel. From there, we discovered another tunnel on the upper level, running directly above the roadway. There were remnants of a rail line on one side, presumably used for the transport of building materials or repair supplies into the depths of the tunnel.

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Fan room.

Fan room.

Passageway to the tunnel above the tunnel.

Passageway to the tunnel above the tunnel.

Big fan.

Big fan.

Other side of big fan.

Other side of big fan.

The tunnel above the tunnel. Notice the rail line.

The tunnel above the tunnel. Notice the rail line.

Looking down at the road from above.

Looking down at the road from above.

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This second tunnel, known as the Sideling Hill Tunnel, was considerably longer than the first—our guess is that it’s at least a mile long. When we entered, we couldn’t see the light at the end. In fact, we couldn’t see the light at the end for quite some time as we pedaled our way through it, once again without lights. For a little while, there was a tiny bit of illumination from behind. But then it disappeared, and we couldn’t see a thing. With no light ahead to act as a frame of reference, I felt myself beginning to swerve from side to side. Jeff said he was doing the same thing, and it’s a wonder we didn’t collide into each other, or into the walls of the tunnel. I almost freaked out and turned my light on a number of times, but with encouragement from Jeff, I convinced myself not to. Finally, we saw some strange lights ahead, and realized we were seeing the reflection from the light at the other end on the roof of the tunnel. The passageway was slightly convex—uphill for the first half, downhill for the second—and that’s partially why it took us so long to see the light at the other end. That too finally appeared, and we once again emerged unscathed.

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The end of the rideable portion of old turnpike came shortly after the long tunnel. We got to a large mound and a small wire fence, which we hopped over to take a look down at the other side. There was a steep drop down to a newer back road, but the old roadway continued on the other side. However, it was blocked off with “Private Road” signs—-we were bummed. So, we turned around and headed back the way we came as the sky grew dark and the air grew cold.

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Bedrock through a window in the tunnel.

Bedrock through a window in the tunnel.

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As we continued back to the car, we could hear the deteriorating asphalt moving ever so slightly under our bicycles, a sound that was similar to that of riding on a flat tire. I kept looking down to see if a tube had been punctured on a bit of broken glass, but no, it was just the asphalt. We finished quite some time after dusk, riding in the dim twilight for a while before turning our lights back on again for the last stretch.

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For more information and directions, visit http://www.pike2bike.com.

Ride guide.

Yesterday, I did my first “ride guide” gig for Rothrock Outfitters. Though I’ve been riding mountain bikes regularly for a couple years now, I know most of the trails in the area, and I’ve done plenty of river guiding and have helped lead group rides a few times in the past, I was nervous. I had never taken a group of strangers out on a ride by myself, much less in Rothrock State Forest, where it can be easy to get lost, and the trails are tough and technical.

But I was also excited for the challenge, and I want to get into more guiding, so I felt this was a great opportunity to start overcoming that nervousness and gain a bit of self-confidence in myself as a leader. And, I was getting paid to mountain bike, and show people the places I love to ride.

After a bit of a miscommunication about the meeting spot, the group of three guys from Pittsburgh and myself got a later-than-expected start, but it all worked out. I still was able to take them on the ride I had planned for them — a mix of some of my favorite trails that best showcased the “Rothrock Experience” without being too difficult for those not used to riding there. And at the end of the day, their exclamations of “that was awesome!” meant everything to me. It was one of the best feelings in the world, to know that I showed them exactly the experience they came here for.

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Chicken Peter Trail, the last part of our ride (this photo was taken a different day, a few weeks ago).

Leaves and woodsmoke.

It’s that time of year. Mornings are chilly, and smell like leaves and woodsmoke. I can see my breath as I sip coffee on the porch, hands and feet numbing in the cold air but myself unable to step back inside. It is too crisp and beautiful, and that smell of leaves and woodsmoke—it’s my favorite smell in the world.

Days are still warm—surprisingly so. Even though I know this fact, I still find myself overdressing on almost a daily basis. But by night, it quickly grows cold again. Layers are a necessity. Hat season is back — which is always convenient when it’s been a while since I washed my hair.

It's also walnut season!

It’s also walnut season!

The leaves right now are beautiful. Every fall, I am once again impressed by the vibrant colors of Pennsylvania. Autumn here is my favorite, and it’s one of the things I’ve missed most at times when I’ve been gone during this season. It’s pretty neat that this enthusiasm about colorful trees and cool mornings continues to return year after year. It’s one of the many things that lets me know that I’m in the right place.

Back roads near home.

Back roads near home.

Orange. Hesston, PA.

Orange. Hesston, PA.

Morning walk.

Morning walk in Martin Gap.

Yellow.

Yellow.

We tested our heat in the new house a few evenings ago — it works, and we have a full tank of oil going into the cold season. This winter will surely be more comfortable than last, and while the cabin experience was certainly an adventure, it will be nice to come home to warmth this year — especially after a bicycle commute home, which Evan and I have both been trying to do more regularly.

It gets dark earlier now too... and the moon has been magnificent.

It gets dark earlier now… and the moon has been magnificent.

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It’s been a great fall so far. September seemed to fly by, but October is passing more slowly, in a good way. The kind of way that lets you know you are relishing every day of crisp mornings and cloudless skies, and even the gloomy, rainy ones as well. My favorite season is here again, and I’m loving it.

 

Chaco Fantasia sandals.

Despite their popularity amongst the various young outdoor enthusiast communities that I’ve been a part of, I hadn’t ever been the biggest fan of Chacos. They always seemed clunky and heavy, and I don’t like heavy shoes.

But I also had never discovered a pair of sandals that really impressed me, and so, I decided to take a gamble. My Keens were too worn to be used for another summer, and I needed a new pair of river shoes. I borrowed a friends pair of Chacos for a river trip in June, and, despite the mild blisters they gave me at first, I found myself sort of loving them.

So I bought a pair. I chose the lighter-weight, slimmer-profile Fantasia model, and so far, they’ve done me well.

The Fantasias feature a thinner, lighter sole, but are still plenty rugged. I have gone hiking in them several times, and they do just fine on the rocks and in slippery conditions. The double straps seem to be more comfortable than the single-strap sandals I had borrowed for the river trip, and I haven’t experienced any blisters yet from my Fantasias.

The only issue I have encountered is that the heel strap, which is not adjustable, is a little too big. Mostly, it’s not a big deal, except for when trying to hike over rugged terrain or when the sandals and/or my feet are wet and my feet are wanting to slide around. However, tightening the other straps all the way alleviates the issue enough that I barely notice. The shoes in general do seem to run big, so if you buy a pair, go for a size smaller than usual.

The double strap and thinner sole also give the sandals a more feminine look — which means they can double as a comfy dress-up option or just about anything else.

Overall, I give these sandals a big thumbs-up!

Riding new trails around Jim Thorpe.

The weekend began with a driving excursion east, mountain bikes spilling out the back of my Ford Ranger, and an eclectic musical mix that included Adele and Barry White spilling from my speakers. I took us the “fun route”—one that minimized highway time and maximized miles on back roads—my general road trip MO.

At the campground, we greeted our friends Steve and Tammy, set up the solo tent that Evan and I planned on sharing (so, we like to cuddle), and shortly thereafter headed into the town of Jim Thorpe to grab some grub and meet up with the other couple in our weekend trifecta, Ellis and Carissa.

The plan was to see some live music Friday night, drink beer, get weird, ride mountain bikes on Saturday, hang with an intimate group of like-minded people, and have an all-around awesome and much-needed weekend away after a phenomenally busy summer.

I’m happy to report, all goals were accomplished.

This partially encompasses the "getting weird" aspect of the weekend.

Partially encompassing the “getting weird” aspect of the weekend. Photo by H.

We saw Sam Bush at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, and it was a great performance. Tammy got the award (and Sam’s mandolin pick!) for best and bravest dancer, and the rest of us, after several more beers, danced our butts off during the second half of the show. I promptly passed out upon arrival back at camp, but come Saturday morning, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for riding.

Morning coffee.

Morning coffee. Photo by H.

After a leisurely morning of coffee and a delicious breakfast prepared by Steve and Tammy (thanks, guys!), it was off to the trailhead.

The first section of trail was pretty brushy, but it soon opened up into a mix of grassy doubletrack and rocky singletrack. Major rock gardens were few and far between, but the trails were generally bony and loose, making for a somewhat technical ride. Lately I’ve been feeling good on the “techy” stuff—like something suddenly clicked and I’m moving beyond the riding plateau I’ve been on for a while now. This time was no different, and it felt good to actually stay on the bike in situations that several months ago would have had me hoofing it.

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Map check.

Map check.

We noticed quite a few piles of bear scat in the middle of the trail, meaning there were either plenty of bears in the area, or just one very large bear that was eating a lot. Or had some very active bowels.

One of my favorite sections of trail wound through a grove of pines, then dropped into a small stream crossing. I don’t know what it is, but something about evergreens and mossy streams is just beautiful.

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Ellis-style.

With the exception of a short uphill towards the beginning of the ride, most of the first half was relatively flat or downhill, with several loose and rocky descents that kept us on our toes. But all that downhill meant we had to go uphill again eventually, and it was then that I realized just how hot it was—somehow, the wonderful fall weather we had been having disappeared, and was replaced with a rerun of summer. Sweat poured off me, and my face burned. We all ended up taking our time pedaling up the hill, with the exception of Evan, who, in his usual fashion, did not seem to be effected by the heat and sprinted ahead. At the top of the hill we made the choice to head back to the car via mainly the grassy doubletrack trails, with a quick detour onto one last bit of singletrack.

The detour ended up being a little longer than expected, as our map wasn’t quite up to date or accurate, and we ended up taking the trail in the wrong direction. But it all ended well, as it popped us out at a familiar spot, and we proceeded on back to the vehicles.

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Post-ride.

Post-ride.

By the time we were done, I was ready for that beer and venison burgers back at camp. Ellis and Carissa left us that evening to head to another engagement, and the rest of us had a relaxing evening by the lake. At sunset, we took a quick ride out to the dam and watched the sun dip below the water—a perfect end to a great day of riding.

All good things---Ev, bikes, and sunsets.

All good things—Ev, bikes, moon, and sunset. Photo by Steve Mongold.

Fall's officially here. Photo by H.

Fall’s officially here. Photo by H.

Sunday morning, we headed back home, with plans to come back to Jim Thorpe to ride again soon.

All photos by Evan Gross unless specified otherwise. (I took this one)

All photos by Evan Gross unless specified otherwise. (I took this one)

 

 

 

 

 

The Zephyr.

It belonged to my friend Jeff. I first paddled it about 6 years ago, and I fell in love. It fit me perfectly. Sitting in a hole and surfing, it felt right. “It likes hips,” said Jeff, alluding to the fact that the boat fit me better than it did him.

Me + Zephyr, circa 2008.

Me + the Esquif Zephyr, circa 2008.

But at the time, I was a kayaker, not a canoeist. I already had a whitewater boat. And Jeff wasn’t selling anyway.

Fast forward to last fall. I had been getting more into open boating. Coincidentally, Jeff also wanted to sell his Zephyr. He had a lot of other canoes that got more use. But at the time, I wasn’t in a financial place to shell out the cash. Luckily, the boat went to our mutual friend Adam, with the stipulation that I could borrow it if he wasn’t paddling it, and that if he ever wanted to sell it, I’d get first dibs.

That day arrived. Adam wanted to sell the Zephyr, and offered it to me. This time around, I could say yes.

And so, last night, I picked up the boat I have wanted for years. Now, I just need to go paddle it — again.

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Paddleboard lessons.

This summer, I taught paddleboard lessons at Seven Points Marina as part of my gig with Rothrock Outfitters, and it’s been a wonderful learning experience—both in how to effectively teach a particular skill and in how to quell my anxiety about the situation. I’ve never thought I was a great teacher, but I love getting people outside and doing all the things I find so valuable in my life, and building confidence in those who don’t feel they are capable of doing those things (especially women).

The first few lessons were a little bit awkward (at least from my perspective—I think I am too much of a perfectionist), but with each week, more and more kinks got ironed out and holes patched. The nervousness I experienced at the beginning of each lesson slowly began to fade, and then disappear. By the end of the summer, my clinics had a very logical flow that seemed to make sense to people and help them ease them into being comfortable on the boards and figure out how this whole paddleboarding thing works.

Of course, it helps to have wonderful students. Some of my favorites were two ladies who also happen to be best friends since high school and do everything together. The two ladies informed me at the start of their lesson that paddleboarding was on their “bucket list,” and they added that “skydiving was next.” They were so incredibly silly, joyous, and full of life that I couldn’t help but smile the entire time. And while I was able to boost their confidence and get them doing something that they were slightly nervous about at first, they also boosted mine, and reminded me why I do what I do.

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Goofing off. Photo courtesy of Jean Moore.

Myself and the ladies.

Myself and the ladies. Photo courtesy of Jean Moore.

My weekly lessons are over for the season, but I’ll be guiding some fall foliage paddles this fall (see Rothrock Outfitters website for details), and I plan on doing more clinics next summer — most likely adding a river SUP class in addition to my beginner lessons on the lake.