I’m at it again — this time riding a loaded bicycle across the country!
I’ve wanted to do this for years, but after being diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer in September of 2013, I thought it would never happen. I didn’t expect to be alive now, much less cycling across the country. I wasn’t confident that my health and stamina were good enough for such a demanding physical effort. Last year’s solo ride along the Pacific coast changed all that for me. I rode more than 1200 hilly miles on a heavily loaded bike, and discovered that I could do it.
While I always thought I would take this ride with friends, it turns out that I’ll be doing most of it alone. I enjoy the freedom of letting the trip unfold — without any schedules, expectations or goals, other than making it across the country, and a couple stops for chemotherapy along the way.
My friend, Bill, will be joining me for the first week of the trip. I will be carrying a SPOT satellite tracking device, so that my wife, Lissa, and all of our friends can follow my progress.
After all the planning, training, preparing and anticipation, I am finally on my way. Despite my minimalist packing, the bike and bags weigh over 80 pounds – and that’s without food or water. My only luxury is a 1-1/2 pound folding chair, which I wouldn’t do without. I plan on riding 4,500 miles, from Atlantic City to Seattle, with a few National Park detours. Bill will be returning home after a week, probably from Pittsburgh.
Bill and I met up in Philadelphia, and spent the evening at his place. On Saturday morning, we rolled our loaded bikes onto an Atlantic City bound train, for the start of our adventure. After a brief visit to the lovely Atlantic Ocean, we left the glitz of the Atlantic City boardwalk and casinos behind, as we headed west, into the wind. Things quieted down as we reached the Pine Barrens, a vast area of sparsely populated pine forest, crisscrossed with pristine streams. It felt good to finally start riding.
It was a hot, humid day, which made for a tough start. Neither of us are as well trained as we had hoped. After fifty hot miles, we reached our destination for the day, a campsite on Atsion Lake, in Wharton State Forest. We promptly headed to the showers, where we found plenty of hot water — scalding water to be precise — with no ability to control it. Ouch! Before we knew it, it was getting late, and we didn’t have the heart for the five-mile round trip to the local biker bar, so it was dehydrated meals for us. Yum. But we were serenaded after dark by the beautiful call of a whippoorwill, and again in the morning. And the heat broke, which was a gift.
The next morning, we headed out in the beautiful, cool weather for the densely-populated route to Philadelphia. This is my old stomping ground. Lissa and I spent most of our lives in Philadelphia. We rode through Camden and Philadelphia, then headed north to Norristown, to see our friend Tim, his wife, Zoe, and son, Jake, who greeted us with smiles, a cold beverage and snacks. It was great to see them again.
The suburbs of Philadelphia gave way to Amish Farm country, with the smell of freshly fertilized fields and mule drawn plows. We watched the horse drawn buggies, bikes and scooters of the Amish, who live a simple life with little or no technology. Then the farmland gave way to the forests, streams and lakes of the highlands.
Thursday night’s forecast was for two inches of heavy rain, along with severe thunderstorms — not much fun in a tent. With the help of Lissa, Bill and I were able to secure a 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps cabin in Cowans Gap State Park. As the rains came, we lit a fire in the hearth and stayed warm on the front porch.
Bill left for home this morning. It was nice to spend some good time together. While I will miss the comradery, I am looking forward to the unique feeling of truly being out on my own on this great adventure.
Just before the checkout time of 10, the rains stopped, and I was on my way. There were road washouts and downed trees, with work crews cleaning up the mess. It’s beautiful how life comes through when you need it most. Bike touring really connects you to the rhythm of Mother Nature. You become acutely aware of the wind and weather. The contours of the land. You sleep when it gets dark and awake to the bird songs just before dawn. You can only focus on what’s happening today. Tomorrow is unknown and yesterday is a fading memory.
The route from Cowans Gap was supposed to go under the mountain, through an abandoned PA Turnpike tunnel. Rumor had it that it was dark and creepy, but it beat having to slog it out over the mountain. Despite diligently following the signs to the tunnel, I found myself climbing into the fog. I knew I had missed it, and was climbing over the mountain. It was a hell of a mountain, with fog so thick I couldn’t see 50 yards in front of me. When I finally got to the top, the rains came.
I descended into the town of Breezewood, which is an island of motels and fast food restaurants, clustered around the intersection of multiple highways. This is a town where walking is illegal! I got a motel room and decided to walk to get some dinner. Every intersection had no crossing signs. It was impossible to walk anywhere without breaking the law, and dodging traffic coming from all directions. I was not to be denied. I crossed anyway and ate my dinner. It’s ironic, given that the town now known as Breezewood used to be a traditional pathway for Native Americans, European settlers and British troops.
It was raining steadily, with temperatures in the 40s, when I left Breezewood. Clearly, I wasn’t going to get off the hook without riding in the rain. After a long, difficult, wet day, I made camp in Shawnee State Park, where I spent 14 hours in my tent until the rain finally stopped the next morning. I immediately burned all the firewood that I had been hoping to burn the previous night. It was so nice to warm up in the cold, damp, 39-degree air.
I had one more tough day in the mountains before making it to the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a rail trail that will take me all the way to Pittsburgh. And a tough — but beautiful — day it was. Extreme gradients were the theme — 10%, 12%, 14% and 17%! Continuous up and down all day, with a steady headwind. I got it done and set up camp along the trail.
The GAP trail has been a nice, quiet, flat path along the Casselman and Youghiogheny rivers, and a much-needed break from the steep terrain of the mountains. Side streams abound, with the sound of rushing water everywhere due to the last few days of rain. This area is called the Laurel Highlands. So far, this is a trip of temperature extremes — 90 the first day and 30 this morning.
Our beloved cat, Peanut, died on Monday night. I was both sad and relieved. Peanut was 18 years old and in failing health for some time. When I said goodbye to him before leaving for this trip, I had a feeling I might not see him again. As I rode along the trail today, I thought about all the wonderful times we had together. He was a real lover. Peanut will be sorely missed.
I finished up the GAP trail at McKeesport and picked up the Montour Trail (another rail trail). After a short ride, I came upon a nice camping shelter beside a creek. As I rolled up to the campsite, I met a woman named Peggy, walking her dog. She asked me a few questions about my trip including “what do you eat?” I told her that tonight’s dinner was a couple of Middle Eastern salads I had bought at the supermarket. She said goodbye and left. About a half hour later, she returned with hot pasta, brownies, a few energy bars and a Coke, saying “You need a hot meal.” I was moved by this spontaneous act of kindness. There have been others. Like the man Bill and I were talking to in a diner, who left and picked up our tab. Others who have asked if I needed anything, offered directions, recommendations etc. With all the current political divisiveness in our society, it is refreshing to connect with people on a basic level and feel the human spirit.
I picked up the Panhandle rail trail after Mountour, which took me to West Virginia. After climbing over a steep two mile hill, I was in Steubenville, Ohio, an Industrial town on the Ohio River. With the forecast of heavy thunderstorms and no camping options, I decided to get a motel room. Good move as the storms rolled through.
The rain slowed to a light drizzle by checkout time, so I headed out. The traffic was heavy, until I reached the Jefferson Hills area of Ohio. Yes, it was back to hilly terrain. After riding through the foggy hills, I set up camp at the Sally Buffalo Park outside the town of Cadiz.
As I awoke the next morning I stretched out, as I often do, and felt a dull pain below my right knee. I got out of my tent, and nearly fell down — I found I couldn’t put any weight on my leg! I struggled to walk 15 feet to a nearby picnic bench. As I sat contemplating my fate, the pain increased until I broke out in a sweat. This was not good. I knew I needed to get it checked. A Google search for doctors in Cadiz, OH, came up with two results — one number was disconnected and the other went to a fax.
I called the campground office to see if they had any suggestions. They recommended calling 911. Being out of options, and unable to move, I agreed. Within 5-10 minutes the cavalry showed up — three ambulances and the sheriff. Sarah and Francis, the EMTs, helped me on the gurney while Paul, the campground host, zipped up my tent and took my bike to a secure area. I quickly arrived at the hospital and after some tests, it was determined that there was no blood clot or fracture. They discharged me and called back Sarah and Francis, with their ambulance, to transport me back to the campground for my bike and tent. They packed everything into the ambulance and drove my to a local motel.
I am so grateful for the kindness I received from everyone. My hope is that some rest, ice and a dose of good fortune will have me back on the road soon.
After two days, and much soul searching from my motel room in Cadiz, OH, it became clear that my leg was not getting better. The pain was substantial enough that I could not continue cycling. A trip home for some rest and medical attention seemed a prudent approach. Lissa drove the thousand-mile round trip to retrieve me last weekend, getting me home in time to make it to the walk-in Orthopedic clinic first thing Monday morning. An MRI was ordered and I quickly got an appointment for Monday afternoon.
The MRI results came back on Tuesday. Apparently, my problem is very unusual – which is not something one wants to hear as a patient. The orthopedist thought it was most likely a chronic bone infection, but could also be a cancerous lesion. A bone biopsy was performed today. Results should be back next week — which will hopefully provide a definitive diagnosis, and determine the next steps. In the meantime, I am on crutches, and not very mobile. Finishing my bike trip is on hold for now. It is very disappointing, to say the least!
This is yet another lesson in dealing with whatever comes your way. Life has a way of doing that. I have learned that you just can’t predict what’s next. I will keep you informed when the bike adventures resume.
Thanks to all of you who have been following my journey, and encouraging me along the way. You have inspired me.
It’s been 10 days since the biopsy, and my leg is finally starting to improve. The biopsy was negative for both infection and cancer, which was a big relief. This has left my doctor scratching his head. Something is definitely not normal with my tibia, but there is no obvious diagnosis at this point — just vague speculation. My doctor has recommended giving it a few weeks rest to see whether it resolves itself, before doing additional, and potentially more invasive, testing. I’ve also been seeing an acupuncturist regularly, which has been helpful.
While this ordeal has been disappointing, the upside is that Lissa and I have gotten to spend some time together. Last Wednesday, the day the biopsy results came back, was her birthday. It was quite a gift for both of us. We celebrated with a bottle of wine and dinner at a local tapas restaurant.
So that’s the plan. I’ve been cleared to do some easy spinning on my indoor bike and light walking without crutches. My hope is that I will be able to resume my trip next month sometime. I’ll keep you posted!