I woke up with a smile, still basking in the happiness of my college graduation the night before, and excitedly anticipating what the weekend would bring. My first bike touring trip. After a breakfast of salmon and cheese on rolls and chocolate chip muffins, and the gathering and packing of gear, we were off. The weather couldn’t have been better. Sunny and 65 degrees. We rode out of town, headed north into a headwind. I had it easy, drafting behind Evan as he nearly pulled me along. The residential neighborhoods slowly turned into farmland and soon we were pedaling by barn after barn, each one unique, of all shapes and sizes and levels of dilapidation. A field of cows turned to stare at us, strange creatures on two-wheeled contraptions, so different from the usual car or farm machinery.
We left the highway any chance we got to cruise along the smaller, quieter, less-traveled back roads. It was then that we were finally able to ride side-by-side, have a conversation, and take in the countryside without the distraction and hustle and bustle of continuous traffic passing by. Through the small Central Pennsylvania towns of Spring Mills, Coburn, and Millheim, we admired old houses with intricate woodwork that gave hint to the previous heyday of the area. Even their now-peeling paint and slightly-sagging porches couldn’t completely diminish their former beauty and grandeur.
A quick bite to eat and a beer in Millheim and we were back on the road, winding along Pine Creek, through a mix of farmland and woods, the shade of each patch of forest a welcome break from the beating sun. When I walked into the bathroom at lunch I had realized how red my shoulders were getting, and for the first time that day, actually thought about sunscreen—which I had forgotten, of course. I was reluctant to buy some, as I have about 7 tubes of it sitting at home, the result of this being a common item that I fail to bring. But I knew I couldn’t spend two full days in the sun without it or I’d be extra miserable come Monday morning, so I made a mental note to buy some the next chance I could, and put on some long sleeves to save what I could of my shoulders and arms.
With the idea that this trip would solely be about the journey and not the destination, we didn’t plan a specific route ahead of time, not wanting to either pressure or limit ourselves. We only knew that we were heading north towards Bald Eagle State Forest. As morning turned to afternoon, thoughts of dinner and a campsite for the evening began to enter our minds. The pickin’s are slim as far as stores go in central PA farm country, so we decided to ride to Mifflinburg, a large enough town where there would have to be a grocery store, and from there head into the state forest.
Climbing up the mountain through Woodward Gap, we passed several other cyclists going in the opposite direction, also enjoying the beautiful spring day. The long climb was rewarded with an equally long downhill, coasting for several miles with forest on both sides, the cool breeze on my face and in my hair. Life was good.
By the time we got to Mifflinburg, the miles seemed longer. I was hot, sweating profusely in my long sleeves and lack of shade on the open road. I felt a little lightheaded in the heat, and I struggled to maintain my good mood. The cool air inside the store, the promise of a good dinner, and the realization that we didn’t have that far to go until we could find a spot to camp perked me up a bit. But I was tired, no doubt about it. Bags loaded with food made the bike feel noticeably heavier—or maybe it was all in my head. I slowly pedaled up and over little hill after little hill, baking in the late afternoon sun. I felt sluggish, frustration building. The winding asphalt turned to gravel, and I mentally hit a wall. Suddenly all I could think was I can’t do this anymore. I was exhausted and hungry and everything hurt. I did something I very rarely do—I vocalized my struggle and told Evan that I needed a few minutes to take a break. I tried to get my head back in the game, and got it together enough to make it to the state forest. Less than a mile later, we quickly found a perfect spot to camp, in a grove of rhododendrons, beside a clear stream, and for a few minutes, I felt pretty sheepish about wanting to give up when we were so close.
Dinner of spicy tuna, cheddar cheese, and green peppers on wraps, fuji apples, and wasabi almonds tasted so good after a long day of riding. Two beers later, and I was nearly nodding off on the rocks next to the fire. I crawled into the warm confines of my fluffy down bag and was sleeping moments later.
Morning brought the sun peeking through the leaves of the rhododendrons we had slept under, as well as a refreshed body and mind. Our ride began with a long climb up a gravel road, all the way to the top of the mountain. My mental state was good, all frustrations and weaknesses from the day before vanished in the crisp morning air, washed away by a new day and the sunshine and the feeling of being lucky to be on a bike, in this beautiful place, with someone who’s company I greatly enjoy.
I was finally really in the groove, the serenity of the woods helping me maintain a positive mindset even through the miles of climbing. I quickly buried thoughts of wanting to stop and rest, knowing that the trick to getting through it was to keep moving. Slow as the going may be, just keep pedaling. And don’t forget to look around, at the trees with fresh new light green leaves, the bright blue sky, the mountains and valleys and all that lies between. Just because it may be hard doesn’t mean there isn’t much to be enjoyed.
We decided to ditch the gravel for a little bit more adventure—a dirt snowmobile path that gradually descended the mountain. It was somewhat rocky and very rutted, with deep pools of water covering the entire road in locations. It asked for a totally different style of riding—different from the road cruising we had been doing for the past day, and different from any kind of mountain biking that I was used to. It required being open something new, allowing yourself to accept that you won’t be sitting and spinning and mindlessly rolling along like on the road, nor zipping down the trail over rocks as if it’s nothing, like on a mountain bike. It was more a careful picking of one’s way, requiring a certain grace, finesse, and control.
As I balanced on small ledges slightly above the pools of muddy brown water that looked like they could very well be leech-infested, I hoped I wouldn’t lose my balance and fall in—a situation I could not see ending pleasantly. I had one rather close call, but we both managed to stay dry. A random clump of daffodils even greeted us at the end of the road, where we stopped for a quick break before continuing downhill, back on the graded gravel.
It was 12:45 in the afternoon and we had set to see a single car. A nice change from the day before. We were on a beautiful road, secluded and cool and gently rolling. An easy ride. We stopped quickly to refill water at the stream that wound along beside us, and just in time, as the forest turned back into fields and we found ourselves once again in farm country. More barns, more cows, more horses. An Amish buggy. Fields of vibrant greens and yellows, curved perfectly, like someone painted it to be just so. The ridges in the distance, flanking the valley.
Not wanting to be repetitive and in favor of a slightly less busy road to head home on as opposed to our route away from town the day before, we jumped over to Rt. 192 through a gap in the small ridgeline. Road signs listed names of places that held the promise of lunch, but our hopes were dashed when we got to the next town only to find a post office and shoe repair shop. Another 11 miles until we could possibly get something to eat.
Though I was hungry and it was nearly mid-afternoon, I didn’t care. I was in the zone. I was content, even with the rumbling in my stomach. 11 miles went by quickly, and soon we were in Centre Hall, ordering a pizza and onion rings and sitting in a dark air-conditioned room. A half hour or so later, bellies full, we were back on the bikes, back in the warmth and sunshine, pedaling down yet another country road en route to State College, our journey almost done.
After taking the scenic route around town and a minor unplanned detour, we arrived home just in time for me to run out of water and feel like I was once again at my limit for the day, signs of a fulfilling day, a successful weekend.
There’s something special about going places on a bicycle, two wheels and the power of your own legs your only means of transportation, everything you need to survive in a few small bags on a metal frame. The bike becomes a part of you, a trusty companion. There’s something wonderful about rolling through the world at a fraction of the speed you would in a car, being exposed to the wind and the weather and all the elements of nature, noticing every smell, every gust of wind, every hill, intimately connected with the environment that surrounds. Places so familiar are once again new, seen by fresh eyes that can finally notice details missed when flying by in an enclosed motorized capsule. Every mile is appreciated, no longer just another mile to get through but part of the journey, with something memorable about it.
A quote by Ernest Hemingway comes to mind—“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of the country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”
I sweated up and coasted down a lot of hills this weekend, learned a lot of contours, and now will always remember this little piece of the world better and more fondly than I ever could had I only driven through.
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