When I learned of a work commitment in Scranton the Thursday before a family commitment in Malvern, my brain that has been jonesing for another long ride adventure started scheming. The D&L Trail travels a big chunk of the length from northeast PA to southeast, and it just seemed silly to drive 3 hours back to the central part of the state just to drive the same distance eastward a day or so later. What started as a harebrained idea a couple months ago became a reality this past weekend. After talking about trails for two hours with my colleagues, I changed out of my work costume and into my dirtbag biker one, waved goodbye and took off down the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail.
The pedal out of Scranton went surprisingly quickly and I soon found myself climbing up the mountain on a road that made me do a double take whether it was an actual road or just a driveway. But according to the map and my route, the road went through, so I mashed my way up the steep, loose gravel. The climb became more gradual and the road became paved. The city was now far below.
After a sign warning about no winter maintenance, the road once again turned to gravel and suddenly was littered with no trespassing signs. It also split at a Y-intersection amid a sea of rusting cars and ramshackle sheds. But Google Maps showed it as a township road, and I’m used to some pretty backwoods byways, so I wasn’t turned off yet. I chose the less sketchy looking of the two forks, which quickly turned into what appeared to be an old rail line.
A large downed tree blocked the path, which should have a sign to turn around, but I don’t like backtracking. I wriggled my bike through its maze of branches and kept going. It looked like a small tornado had come through right next to the trail, as there was a line of downed trees 20 or so feet wide, and the “road” itself was littered with debris.
I started getting a feeling that maybe this wasn’t right. I looked at my phone. The blinking blue dot that indicated my location was now off my plotted route and I was headed in almost the opposite direction of where I needed to go. How did I get so far off track? My sense of direction is usually pretty good. Still, I tried to find a way to keep moving forward. Satellite imagery showed that I could keep going and find a network of roads through State Game Lands that would eventually pop me out where I needed to be. Okay, I’ll do that.
Several hundred yards later, two gates, a falling down shed, and plenty of signage warning ATVs to keep out was like a scene from a scary movie. Well, I’m not an ATV… I thought. I cautiously crept ahead. Suddenly, a harsh barking caused my heart to leap out of my chest. I turned around and ran, leaping onto my bike and pedaling as fast as I could, my adrenaline dictating my decision. I was not going to get mauled by an angry dog in the middle of nowhere.
I crawled back through the tree, back to the intersection where I’d made my wrong turn. The other option of the Y did not look inviting, so I ended up descending a lot of the elevation I’d climbed up before, going around and climbing up a two lane, fairly busy road instead. I preferred my backwoods route, but busting out another steep climb on pavement with little shoulder was better than getting shot at or my leg ripped off by canines.
Once atop the mountain once again, the houses disappeared, the traffic died down, and Game Lands lined both sides of the road. I passed through Bear Creek and stopped to admire a roadside waterfall. Before I knew it, I was almost to White Haven. The last mile or so was on the D&L Trail, and I popped out on the back side of town. I beelined to Antonio’s, a pizza joint where I remembered stopping after paddling the Lehigh with my friend Jeff. It was different than my memories, but I don’t think it was because the place had changed.
I downed two giant slices and a root beer, loaded up on snacks for the next day at the grocery, and treated myself to a can of wine because I didn’t know where to buy beer at the liquor store was right there. Evan called and we chatted for a few minutes, then I headed down the trail to find a place to camp for the evening.
I slept on a bed on leaves on a secluded natural bench between the trail and the river. Opting to forego the tarp as the weather forecast gave no mention to rain, I awoke just before dawn to what I thought was a rain drop on my nose. While it wasn’t light yet, the world was an early morning blue hue, and I knew it must not be that far from dawn. It was clearly overcast, and a check of the weather confirmed that there was a slight chance of showers. My phone told me that it was just before 5 am, so I decided to pack up camp rather than fiddle with the tarp or gamble on the rain holding off. Twenty minutes later, I was pushing my bike back up to the trail and pedaling my first few miles of the day by light of my headlamp.
Paralleling the Lehigh brought back lots of memories from my kayaking days. I used to come out here a few times a year for release weekends with Jeff and the rest of the A-team. I found myself missing those guys. And doing the “Triple Header” with them in 2013 was really my first foray into all-day adventures of endurance. I passed the big rocks we used to lunch on and our usual takeout at Rockport just as I didn’t need my headlamp to see anymore.
I stopped for coffee in Jim Thorpe and briefly conversed with some other cyclists who were riding the D&L to Bethlehem that day. We exchanged words about the nearly-complete-but-still-closed pedestrian bridge that connects the two sides of the trail over the Lehigh, and whether or not it was passable. I found my way around via some back roads and railroad tracks, ducking back onto the trail just on the other side of the bridge.
The section of trail south of Jim Thorpe was incredibly interesting, riding an elevated strip of land between the old canal and the river. There were also several intact locks along the way. In Lehighton, the trail shared the road briefly, and I somehow missed the re-entry, finding myself turning circles in an auto repair shop parking lot. I knew where the trail was, I just couldn’t figure out how to get to it from where I was. I started to backtrack, and a rough-but-friendly-looking older guy flagged me down.
You’re looking for the trail aren’t you?
Yes I am.
He proceeded to give me detailed instructions, then launched into his stories of riding the D&L and a long rant about how the auto shop people were late to work. I genuinely enjoyed the chat for several minutes, then excused myself, eager to get on my way.
I continued southward and the day grew hotter. Just north of Allentown, the trail stops and cyclists have to ride roads for a few miles to get to the next section. I took this opportunity to find a grocery store. I’d forgotten sunscreen and I was starting to turn red, and I should probably eat something besides gummy bears for lunch. I found a little market and locked my bike outside. In the deli section, I stood staring at the case of pre-made sandwiches and packaged potato and pasta salad. I knew I was hungry and I knew I needed fuel, but nothing seemed appetizing except the giant deli pickles. I grabbed one of those, but continued to stare.
What are you looking for? I’m sure I was a peculiar site to the lady behind the counter.
I don’t know… I’m on this bike tour and need to eat but I don’t know what I want…
I can make you something to order, she says. I tell her a sandwich would be great. Prompted by her questioning, I suddenly know what sounded good.
What do you want on it?
Roast beef? And all the toppings.
Sandwich, pickle, a small tube of sunscreen, and a juice in hand, I paid and walked out. I was lathering sunscreen onto my sweaty shoulders when a man came up behind me.
You need a lot of that today.
Yup, I laughed.
He proceeded to ask me a series of questions about where I was riding, and I provided vague answers.
Be careful out there, there’s a lot of crazies on the road.
Yeah, I know.
But there are a lot of good and considerate and helpful people too.
Bethlehem was a bit of a clusterfuck and I learned a valuable lesson about route planning — check to see if the intersection you intend to turn at is at grade or if there is actually a giant bridge way above where you are and no clear way of getting where you need to be. But I figured it out — luckily there were some steps for pedestrians to get up and down from the bridge, so I carried my bike up and got to the other side of the river, picking up the Bethlehem Greenway past the old Bethlehem Steel stacks.
My original route plan was once again foiled by roads that didn’t actually intersect despite appearing to do so on the map, and roads that were under construction with no way through because it was the middle of the day on a Friday and there were actually people working at the construction sites. Between Bethlehem and Hellertown, I spent lots of time looking at my phone, trying to find alternate routes.
At one point, I cut through a neighborhood called “Society Hill.” I found the pretentious name amusing, as well as the fact that here I was, a temporary hobo pedaling my way past their cookie cutter homes. Halfway through the neighborhood, all the roads leading to the main road on the other side were gated, my guess is to deter motorists from doing the same thing I was doing — using the highfalutin streets as a shortcut. I cut around and was soon back on course, following the Saucon Rail Trail for a few miles towards Coopersburg.
The Lehigh Valley was unbelievably hot. I ate my emergency pickle under a tree on the rail trail, but once I was on roads for the remainder of the day, there was no more shade to be found. I reapplied sunscreen and tried my best to keep up with my fluid intake, swapping my snacks for my water bottle in the easy-access Manything Bag on my bars. I was cooking to a crisp.
I got to Green Lane, my camping spot for the night, much earlier than expected. I grabbed some much-needed veggies at a vegan joint in town, then headed to the campground to wait for my companions for the evening. I’d gotten in touch with some local acquaintances who Evan and I had met a couple years ago when they were on a bikepacking trip in our neck of the woods. I thought it would be fun to meet up, but at that moment, I was somewhat regretting that decision. Because it was still so early, part of me wanted to just keep going and bang out the remaining 30 miles to Evan’s parents house. But though I knew I could, my legs didn’t feel much like doing that after already riding 90 miles, especially in the heat.
So I laid down on a picnic table and basked in the happiness that comes after a long day on the bike. While this wasn’t the hardest ride I’ve done lately in terms of terrain, it is the longest ride I’ve done since my overnight double century last fall. It is the longest ride I’ve done since my hamstring injury. It felt really really good to be back to pushing myself without considerable pain.
And it felt really really good to do it alone. I love riding with friends. I love riding with Evan. But there is something incredibly freeing about doing long pushes solo. All you need to think about is what you want and need to do. Fueling, resting, pedaling your own pace, stopping or going. Comparisons and self-deprecation disappear. There is no one to worry about waiting for or keeping up with. It is a pure, simple existence.
At Evan’s parents family picnic this weekend, his aunt asked me if I was scared to do the trip alone. I started to answer, but his mom jumped in.
This gathering is more difficult for H than the ride. She nailed it.