Featured image: The Great Allegheny Passage in Autumn.
Photo by Bill Metzger.
When Maurice “Doc” Goddard was the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Waters, later the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), he proposed that no Pennsylvanian should be more than 25 miles from a state park. Pam and I are lucky Pennsylvanians. We can see a state park – Ohiopyle – from our front porch. According to Google Earth we’re 716 feet away from the Great Allegheny Passage trail, which is owned in this section by the park.
Because I have MS (multiple sclerosis), I no longer walk but I can and do ride a handcycle, an arm-powered trike. Nope, no motor. I can be on my bike on the trail and in the park in five minutes. Twenty minutes puts me in deep woods, which means that every day the weather isn’t disgustingly horrible, I can go for a ride. No matter how a miserable day I’ve had, it takes me less than a mile to forget it all and just go “ahhhhhh…” And being well into my geezerhood, I really need the exercise.
And if you have to get exercise, this is the way to do it. You have fun and learn stuff. After hundreds of rides, I can still be surprised. Every ride is still different. A while back, a grove of aspen trees that I’ve often passed caught my eye, and I remembered reading that those separate tree trunks are really one organism — they all share the same root system. You only see one aspen with a lot of trunks. Sure enough, the grove progressed in line from the oldest and largest trunk to the youngest and smallest.
On that same ride, on the way home, a great blue heron flew over me on its way to roost, silhouetted against the darkening sky.
Lately I’ve been learning about how trees communicate with each other and on my rides, I can readily see what I’ve been reading about. The woods in this section were last logged off in 1923 and are growing into a respectable century-old forest that’s young by old growth standards but well on its way. Being a state park, it’ll keep growing undisturbed.
When the leaves are off the trees it’s a different trail from its summer counterpart. Views of the river and mountains open up, as does the railroad across the river; the old roads and grades and foundations hidden in the underbrush are visible once again.
A trail that is part of my everyday life is quite different from one I used to only ride once a week or so before we moved to Confluence, after driving an hour or more to reach it. The relationship has gone from acquaintance to intimacy, a trail that I’ve ridden hundreds of times.
The familiar has not lost the ability to surprise. One day before Thanksgiving it had rained hard all day. After dinner, the rain stopped and the almost-full moon lit up what became a warm evening. I was rolling up the trail in a matter of minutes. The moon was bright enough that I didn’t need lights, and I followed the silver path through the gorge, the only sound being the wind and my wheels on the trail surface. Most of the leaves had already blown off.
A freight train came charging up the valley across the river, his headlight reflecting off the rocks and bare trees, the roar of his engines shattering the silence. I stopped to watch and wondered what it must have been like when this trail was still the Connellsville Extension of the Western Maryland Railway.
I decided those old train crews must have been having at least as much fun working up this valley on those moonlit nights years ago as I was having on this one.
After the train passed, I paused and enjoyed the sound of the river splashing below me. The wind had died down; I heard nothing else. This is something the average person in the 21st century seldom experiences. Most are hardly ever out of earshot of radio, television, phones, cars, trucks, motorcycles, video games, airplanes, barking dogs, and any number of other assaults on the eardrums. Songs of the river and the wind, and the moon playing hide and seek with the clouds, have too much competition. The trail offers solace, except for the occasional passing train, and I don’t consider the sound of a train an intrusion.
As trail stalwart Mary Shaw is wont to say, “This is not an amusement park.” It could be a zoo, though. One afternoon my wife Pam and I were riding — she was ahead — and suddenly she stopped, and pointed. She saw two otters swimming down the river. I missed them, but this spring I saw a beaver from the same spot. A couple of years ago, some beavers tried to establish themselves on the Casselman between Harnedsville and Fort Hill, but apparently tired of getting washed out in the high water and moved on. Over the years we’ve seen beaver signs all along the trail but none have lasted. For a time, a family of beavers even lived inside the Confluence town limits.
We’ve seen bald eagles, ospreys, grouse, flocks of turkeys, numerous deer (including a four-point buck who had just gotten lucky and allowed us to stand six feet from his exhausted self; of course we didn’t have the camera), many snakes, and, one notable fall afternoon, a half-dozen elderly praying mantises sunning themselves. We’ve both seen bears, and Pam’s seen a bobcat cross the trail.
I saw a green snake once. I went home and looked it up. Turned out to be a Green Snake.
And yes, there are coyotes. Lots of them, but chances are you’ll never see them. You can tell when they’re around, though. You’ll see empty boxes from the Acme Rocket Sled Co.
On the human side, I’m constantly amazed and amused at the passing parade. One day I passed a man casually strolling with a rather large parrot perched on his shoulder. I refrained from saying “Yar” as I passed. On another ride, I glanced at a man on a bike pulling a trailer. I expected to see the usual kid inside, but no, a large German shepherd was drooling back at me. I’ve seen little fluffy dogs too numerous to count being carried in bike baskets decorated with plastic flowers, and a couple of basketed cats crouching warily as they reluctantly rode.
I’ve passed people riding anything from a unicycle to a couple I saw riding a triple (three seats, two wheels) with a kid on the middle seat, pulling a kid riding a third wheel, followed by two smaller kids in a two-wheeled trailer. It looked to be about 20 feet long, and they were all having a ball. Until they had to make a U-turn, I suppose.
As a habit, I ask people where they’re from. I’ve gotten wonderful answers, including London, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, and Japan, along with just about every state.
Fun, surprises and the sheer joy of propelling yourself through the world: That’s what the trail is about. The trail surface right now is the best it’s ever been – fast and hard – and is a joy to ride. Oh, we can — and do — talk about history, preservation of the right-of-way and its surrounding environment, and the economic revitalization the trail has brought. That’s all true.
But mostly, it’s just fun. That, in a nutshell, is why we live along the trail, and why people use it and keep coming back. So every now and then I give a silent thanks to Doc Goddard. Living close to a state park sure beats working out in a gym. And it’s free.
Bill Metzger has been riding his bike and trains all his life (so far). He is married to PPFF Membership Coordinator Pam and is the author of The Great Allegheny Passage Companion, a guide to the 150-mile GAP trail from Cumberland, MD to Pittsburgh.