Monday, July 12, 2010

Ray's Pike2Bike Adventure! A Guest Blog

I've posted blogs before from my friend Ray in Pennsylvania. I've known Ray since high school and he always has wonderful adventures. I particularly loved this one and asked if I could post it. He said I could. Enjoy!

One of my friends, Brad or Chris, I don't remember who to give the credit to, discovered Pike2Bike, a bike trail that was once a superhighway. The Southern Alleghenies Conservancy owns that part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike that was bypassed and abandoned in 1968. This 8+ mile stretch includes two tunnels. It is not officially open but you can ride it at your own risk. Once knowing about such a place, we had to do it. Here's that story.

Chris has a Winnebago motor home so we were going to "camp" in that at Trough Creek State Park. He's a teacher so he is off for the summer and could get to the park and get it all set up before Brad and I could get out of work.

I got there a little after 6 and Brad arrived around 8. Time for steaks, mashed potatoes, and salad for dinner. Then snacks and beer during the inevitable Cinch game. Not meaning to brag but we played three games and I won all three, something without precedent in our card playing history. Brad had to get back to his bike shop in the morning but not before he made his famed omelets for breakfast. No pictures from me this time as I was using my new video camera the whole time. This view is from Chris.

After Brad left, Chris and I loaded up for the drive down to Breezewood. Two bikes, lots of water, sunscreen, helmets, gloves, and lights. Of course, this being central Pennsylvania, the drive from the park to Breezewood could only be called circuitous or to put it more politely, scenic. It was only 35 miles but it took an hour.

We found the parking area easily and it was just a few minutes before we were ready to push our bikes up the steep stony slope to the former superhighway. The pavement is mostly intact and you have your choice of lanes. Often enough one side is better than the other. Nature is slowly reclaiming. If the Conservancy ever gets enough money (like that could happen) they will plan to pave and to light the tunnels. For now, it is what is after 42 years of no maintenance.

It is uphill but not badly so to the first tunnel, Ray's Hill tunnel. The locals had used it recently for a fireworks display. The detritus was left at the scene. This tunnel is closer to a parking area so there was more graffiti. Ray's Hill Tunnel is a little over 3000 feet long and you can see the proverbial light at the end.

But it is still very dark in the middle. We had lights but I was thinking to myself in the manner of the police chief in Jaws, "we need a bigger light." Of course, the pavement inside is in pretty good shape, largely protected from the weather.

Once out the other side it was downhill for a good while which made for a nice long coast. Then the inevitable uphill because in Pennsylvania the tunnel is always at the top of the mountain. I might insert here that it was 94° at the time we were riding. But it wasn't too bad as I didn't run out of leg, wind, juice, or butt. Chris was so close behind me that I didn't get a chance to video him riding up and past.    

The Sideling Hill Tunnel is over 6,700 feet long and has a hump in the middle so you can't see the light. You pedal into utter darkness, so again with the lights. Once over the hump, we could see the east portal. I thought I saw a dog there. As we got closer I thought I saw a woman sitting at the entrance. Then I was sure it was a black Labrador Retriever. Just before we got out into the daylight, I realized the dog was a bear and the woman was an upended door. It's always cool to see the bear so Chris did not rag on me too much for my misidentifications. We looked around in the ruins of the tunnel's works and decided that it was far too dangerous to attempt to get into the upper works. The stairway had rusted to nothingness. We met some hikers about this time, a father spending a day with his sons who live with their mother. I can hear it now. "Yeah dad, take us for a hike in the hot sun on hot pavement to see the ruins of a tunnel. Wait 'til we tell mom about this."

From the east portal it is all downhill to the end of the abandoned stretch. We met some more bikers at that end. They had duct taped flashlights to the top of their helmets. It didn't look good but apparently it worked. We exchanged pleasantries and then took off for the return leg. A light fog was coming out of the tunnel when we got there. It was cool and damp inside and hot and damp outside, thus the fog. Brad could explain that better.

Once at the west portal we went exploring again. This time the stairs were apparently safe enough but we prudently went one at a time. The first room we walked into was occupied by a spray paint artist. He told us this was his first essay at this art form. He used about a mile of masking tape. I don't know if he was going to leave it behind or pack it out. We complimented him on doing much nicer work than the usual guy armed with Krylon. 

Up another level and we came to the big blowers. Seriously big blowers, 1930's technology. There is a tunnel above the tunnel called the plenum. The blowers sent air down the plenum which had holes in it for the air to blow down into the tunnel and thus reduce the buildup of exhaust gases from the cars and trucks. We didn't go too far into the plenum, just far enough to get a few pictures. All the time we were saying "Brad would really like this."
The whole business reminded me of some post-apocalyptic movie set. Chris told me they did film a part of one such flick somewhere on this road. I believe it was called "The Road."

The downhill from Sideling Hill was short and the uphill to Ray's Hill was long. It was hot, there was no shade. My plan was to keep pedaling until I got there or succumbed to heat exhaustion, whichever came first. After a while, the mind tricks started. "Somebody is moving the tunnel so I will never get there. I am now on the Kafka highway where I will pedal forever and never get there. There really isn't a tunnel, just an illusion. I will be going up this hill forever and other such heat induced wild thoughts."

Finally I see it and all the bad thoughts disappear. Now the hill is not all that long or steep but to be doing it in such heat is a pain. On a nice October day it would be almost pleasant. Almost.

This called for our 4th tunnel passage. Chris opted to do it without a light but I need to see my front wheel otherwise I get disoriented and would go crashing into Chris or a wall so I used my light. We were but a few feet from the end when I ran over some broken glass and punctured my front tire. Of course, this allowed Chris to show off that he needs no tool to remove a tire from a rim. And of course, I was carrying a spare tube so it was just a matter of minutes before I was ready to ride again. Later Chris found his front tire flat but from a thorn rather than a broken Budweiser bottle.

We finished off our Turnpike day with a stop at Pizza Hut in Breezewood. Some pizza and a pitcher of ice water relieved all the discomfort of a ride on a hot day. We plan to go back again in cooler weather when Brad can share the experience.

Chris and I spent another night in the camper. We played Scrabble and he beat me. There will be a rematch. Thursday morning I headed for home while Chris took care of the business of getting the camper ready for the road again. Today he and his wife headed west for a 5 week trip and he used our little two nighter as a shakedown to be sure everything was working and that he had all the moves down for setting it up.

That's another of my very mild summer adventures. Wishing you all well and hoping you are having enjoyable days,   Ray

Thanks, Ray, and thanks to everyone for reading.


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