Dale Rides HER Bike

According to the archives, I haven't posted since April 5, 2014. In that span of time, so much has changed. This blog has been seen by THOUSANDS of people (current metrics put it at about 100 unique visitors per day). But that number has troubled me. It's not the tiny little blog that no one read or noticed like when I first started. With each passing month, as it grew and grew, I knew that eventually I would have to come clean about something that happened to me about 8 months ago, right around June - July 2014, and that's a lot of people to tell at once.

Don't worry; I wasn't in an accident or suddenly discovered the joy and freedom of rollerblading. I'm alive and well and still riding my bike (although, not so much in the dead of Winter). Instead, I had a powerful, life-altering experience. ...for the better!

Let me start at the beginning...

From a young age, I knew something about me was different, but I didn't really know what until, back when I was still in my single-digits, I came across an article in (of all places) The Weekly World News.

In between pictures 3-foot-long grasshoppers, pictures of "bat boy" and Bigfoot, I came across the news that Christine Jorgensen had died.

Christine Jorgensen was the famous "Ex-GI" who became a "Blonde Beauty" back in the 50s. It was the first time I'd ever heard of a man becoming a woman, and the very idea set my mind on fire. Reading her story began triggering waves of questions that continue to this day.

Although I have some earlier memories of gender dysphoria, from that day on, I just KNEW that some day, I was going to become a woman. (Although, technically/medically, we don't refer to it as "becoming" a woman; it's simply affirming what we feel we were born as.)
I just knew it was something I had to do.

And then life happened.

I grew up. I learned a little bit more about how the world works and feels about people like me. I realized how expensive surgery can be, and that I'd have to see a therapist if I ever wanted to start hormones -- and seeing a therapist would mean admitting that I had a "problem" that would make me different and leave me with a mark that society would judge me by for the rest of my life. It was too much to ask of teenage me, so I waited.

On into my 20s, the thoughts and feelings had settled and made me much less desperate to change myself. Or, maybe it was more that I knew how difficult it would be, and feared becoming ostracized by my friends and family. From time to time, I'd forget about it, until the occasional dream where I would be in the "correct" gender, leaving me emotionally crushed when I'd wake up and see my body as it really was.

On into my 30s, after working a miserable office job where I would babysit servers for hours on end and escape into my fantasies to pass the time, I decided I couldn't take that kind of life, any longer. In response, I moved 3000 miles away, to Seattle, WA, where I tried to find myself with a better job and new friends. I was miserable; I forced everyone out of my life. I had nothing left to lose. But, in the end, it solved nothing. I knew there was a deeper problem, but I couldn't face it. Not yet.
I moved back home, defeated. If there were ever time I wanted to kill myself, this was it. I never felt so worthless.

Eventually, after trying to kickstart a career in journalism (which burned out after 3 years) and scraping by as a dishwasher/factory worker/whatever I could find, I answered a tweet from a friend on Twitter who needed help at his computer shop. I started part-time and quickly proved myself invaluable; then things started happening and getting better.

After a year or so, I got a significant raise and realized my dreams of moving away from Hazleton were a possible reality. So, I jumped at the first opportunity and settled down in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Then I got sick, hurt my back, moved back to Hazleton for 2 months before getting back on my feet and finding a new apartment in Wilkes-Barre, ready to try again. As of late May 2014, everything was looking up and up. I couldn't be happier! Or so I thought.

Into the Present

Living on my own, away from family members, and without the need to hide from roommates, I realized I was finally in the position to live my life however I wanted. And there it was, plain as day. The very first thing I thought about doing was living as a woman.

The door kicked wide open. The feelings returned, stronger than ever. After about two weeks in the new apartment, right around my 35th birthday, I was sacked by feelings so primal and deep that I cried for an entire weekend.

I was no man. Everything I had done in my life was an overcompensation for that fact. Pushing myself beyond my limits, trying to "prove" myself to the world. I couldn't face a mirror for about a week, realizing that all this "getting into shape stuff" was me trying to find a way to make myself less ugly, more acceptable to my own eyes. Nothing worked. No matter how thin, how clean-shaven and groomed I could make myself, I only saw an ugly, balding blur of a face in the mirror. It was horrible. I looked like a man, and it went against the way I felt inside. It nearly killed me until I realized the truth of what I had always known; I am not a man. I was never a man.

My Bike, My Salvation, My True Self

All last Summer, I rode my bike as fast and as hard as I could, running scared from every dark thought in my head. 100 - 200 miles a week; sometimes more. I would ride about 10-15 miles around 6 am, then come home from work and do the same route at around 6 pm. On the weekends, I'd take off into unexplored country and get as lost as possible. Occasionally, I'd meet up with friends and go on a group ride, but I was always alone, inside my head, going over all these feelings and doubts and questions, trying to find an answer as to how I could transition and stay alive.

How could I explain it to my family, my friends and my boss? What if they rejected me? How much danger was I in if someone found out? I'd be out of a job, out of my apartment, and out of a home. God, wouldn't it just be so much easier if I got hit by a car, run over and killed? I had to stop thinking about things like that. There was so much fear to overcome.

Day by day, I found the answers I needed, out there, out on the road. I began to slow down a little. I put the energy I was spending on riding my bike into making plans for the future and working up the courage I needed to come out of the closet. I set goals for my transition and started seeing a therapist. I was a woman on a mission. The demons didn't scare me anymore. I could enjoy riding my bike at a leisurely pace, again. I could enjoy life, again. The bicycle had saved me, as it had so many times in the past. It allowed me to explore the hidden places of the world while my mind explored the hidden parts of me.

I knew what I had to do, and I accepted it. I cried, again, but these were tears of joy. I knew it would be difficult; I knew it would be scary. But if you've followed my blog up until now, you know how I respond to a challenge: I faced it head on.

I read about celebrities like Laverne Cox (although I never saw and still haven't seen Orange is the new Black), and Laura Jane Grace from the band Against Me!. I felt that the time was right; the world was ready to start accepting people like me. But could I make that change? Could I actually live in this world as a woman? I realized quickly that I would have to. It was becoming abundantly clear that I wasn't getting a choice in this. One thing we know in the transgender community is that once Pandora's Box is open, you can never close it. It was either survive and thrive, or destroy myself.

Within weeks, sensing how miserable and paranoid I was becoming, my boss asked what was wrong. Friends and family were wondering. TOTAL STRANGERS were asking me if something was wrong. It was so obvious, but I couldn't tell a soul as I delved into some kind of secretive, double-agent role: Who knows? Who doesn't know? Who can I trust? Has anyone noticed my shaved legs? Cyclists shave their legs, so it's cool. But how do I explain the makeup? Have they noticed I'm dressing more feminine? Do they know?

I knew I had to come out, and by the end of the Summer, my boss knew, my mom knew, my friends knew. And it was ok. It was totally ok. In fact, as time went on, people were more ok with it than I ever could have imagined. Instead of asking, "What's wrong?" people were telling me that I seemed much happier and open instead of being upset and reclusive, as I was for most of my life. My worst fears were put to rest, so I forged ahead.

By the end of Autumn, somewhere around the end of October, I was out, full-time. Wearing women's clothing, a wig and makeup. I bought dresses and skirts that I loved and wore them everywhere, every day. I used and preferred female pronouns, and even came out on Twitter and Facebook. No more hiding. I soon realized, I had nothing to be ashamed of. This is me, now. And, for the most part, I'm not all that concerned with changing my name. (It's a unisex name, and I've worked hard towards building it up and getting it out there. So, changing now would just be difficult and expensive.) However, I do usually just go by Dee, these days. (Get it? It's my first initial.)

So, here we are. February fading into March. 15 degrees but it feels like 2. Snow is everywhere. I've faced some of the most incredibly dark moments I've ever faced in my life and come out on the other side bursting with joy. I can finally be who I am. I'm free. I'm not just living as my true self, I'm thriving. I'm happy, for once in my life. I really, actually feel happy and contented.
Now, if only it would warm up a little. Bring on Spring, I wanna ride my bike!
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Getting Up to Speed in Cycling Season 2014

Welcome to cycling season 2014!
Although, for a lot of us, cycling season 2013 never really ended...

I never mentioned it here, but I moved to Wilkes-Barre in October and was enjoying a much shorter commute. Going to work was almost completely uphill along Route 309 into Mountain Top and would take me about 45 minutes to complete. Of course, that meant that the commute home was all downhill, taking me about 15 minutes from start to finish. It was great; I'd get a nice workout in the morning and a fun ride home.

My coldest commute was 18 degrees Fahrenheit in mid November, which still seemed warm compared to most of the days that followed, but that's not what stopped me from commuting. As the daylight got shorter and the clock got set back for daylight savings, it became treacherous to ride with the amount of traffic coming from the various on and off ramps along my route. Then came the snow and ice, the frigid temperatures... I kept riding throughout December and January, but I just couldn't keep up the commute. And then I got sick...

I was waylaid in late February by a bad flu and spent a few days in bed. Following that was a terrible, terrible back spasm that gripped my sacroiliac and made it impossible to walk for almost 2 weeks. It was so bad that I was worried I might have some serious damage and not be able to ride again, but my chiropractor checked me out and said I should be ok. It was a very scary time for me, as I shuffled along, hunched over in pain for the rest of the month. I'm still getting a lot of pain when I stretch my legs in certain positions, but I'm working on it, slowly bringing myself back to 100%

While it seems that pain may be a constant companion as I get older, I'm doing my best to get back in the saddle and get back up to speed. I didn't sign up for
30 Days of Riding this year because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to take part, but I've been hitting every day, so far -- even if it means riding on the trainer. From doing short sprints around the neighborhood to happily riding along my favorite Rails to Trails, I've been getting myself in shape for the Spencer Martin Memorial Ride in May. I'm happy to say that my friend +Michelle Hryvnak Davies will also be volunteering for traffic control, again. Can you believe it's been a whole year?

Speaking of Rails to Trails, I was really hoping to see the bridge on the Greater Hazleton Rails to Trails open this year. As of this writing, here's what the bridge currently looks like:

It's coming along nicely since I first saw it last year, but it's far from done. Looks like they just need to finish the deck and clean up the surrounding areas, but I'm not sure when it will be done.

Note that they added a nice fence running along the ramp up to the bridge and are fencing in the areas along the sides that run into the train tracks (tracks that are still, very much, being used. So be careful if you go exploring down there!)

I can't help but be tempted to hooft it across the small creek/marsh/whatever on the other side of the tracks and see how much farther the trail actually goes, but I'm patient enough to wait and see when it's finished. Eventually, it's supposed to run all the way to Eckley Miners' village, but that's a post for another day. At any rate, get on your bike and ride.
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while thinking about Kickstarting a $35 bell.

I happen to be in the market for a bell, which are words I never thought I'd be writing in my lifetime, but there you go. If you need proof that cyclists aren't right in the head, this is it.

I'm currently having a bike be rebuilt piece by piece. I found a vintage (circa 1980) Raleigh Reliant that I thought was nice, but wanted to make a little extra special. In other words, I had the original, working parts stripped off and replaced with modern components. Sacrilege? Yeah, a little. Let's just say, I had some other ideas about the bike than its original intent and made some tough choices. Choices like converting it to single-speed, upgrading to 700c wheels and outfitting it with some thicker tires that will chew through gravel rather than the other way around. I wanted an urban cruiser that wouldn't mind going off-road for a bit, and if I can do that with a snazzy-looking, vintage frame, why not?

I'm pretty excited about this bike! As such, I want to make it even extra special-er. More special. Special+. And so, I'm in the market for a bell.

You might think that you could just go to Walmart or your local bike shop and buy a bell, and you'd be absolutely correct. They do that; they sell bike bells. They usually have them in stock right where you can see them, and you can probably just go there and buy one right now, depending on when you're reading this. It's not like you're buying a controlled substance and need to meet a strange guy somewhere, or show some photo ID or ask the person behind the counter for something unusual as a password so that he'll know you're on the level before he shows you his secret stash. You just go to the store and buy one. Bells aren't even rare, they're pretty much everywhere. But, you know... We need things that are hand-crafted and special. And we all know that hand-made things are better than mass-produced things because, I don't know. They just are. And that's how you end up with
a $35 bike bell on Kickstarter.

The really sad part is, I want that bell. Not a "want" like a hungered, passionate desire that keeps me up at night, but more like a, "Can I find something similar on Amazon that doesn't cost as much?" and then I do a few searches kind of "want." That sort of "want."

Why do I want this bell? I just like the way the hammer/trigger thing works. I like how you can aim the bell forward instead of straight up. Makes it more "aero." But I don't want to spend $35 on a bell, so let's see if I can find something cheaper. Here are some bells on Amazon that aren't as expensive:

Mirrycle Incredibell XL BLK Bicycle Bell (Black)

Black, polished mirror finish. Sexy.
The Mirrycle, which is spelled like that on purpose, I guess, seems kind of big and garish, but I'm sure it's pretty loud. I don't know what it sounds like, but I'm guessing it sounds like a bell. I bet it goes "Ding!" which is great for telling people to get the hell out of the way without yelling, "HEY! GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WAY!"

You can most likely mount the bell so that it stands upright or aims forward, but it's probably harder to pull the hammer back if it's not upright. On the other hand, the soundwaves seem like they'll travel horizontally and alert people to your presence in a wider range instead of vertically, which would only benefit airplanes and passing satellites. Oh, wait... that's silly. Sound doesn't travel in space. Sorry, folks aboard the International Space Station! I guess my bike will just have to run straight into you...

PRICE: $8.80. You save $26.20!

Skye Supply Swell Bell - Cow "Moooove"

Not actually a cow bell, just a bell with a picture of a cow on it. What's up with that?
Here's an awesome bell because it has a cow on it that says, "MOOOOVE!!" with two exclamation points, so you know it's super serious about getting people out of the way. It also says, "COW BELL," but it's not a cow bell, it's just a bell with a picture of a cow on it. Crazy.

You can mount this one in any way you like, but I don't think it will make a "MOOO" sound no matter where or how you mount it. It probably just goes "ding," which seems like a missed opportunity, to me. Come to think of it, maybe they should have shaped it like a cow bell. That would have been awesome.

PRICE: Only $6.75. That's a savings of $28.25!

Electra Compass Bell

Not electrical, in any way. Also available in silver. Also: compass.
Remember that Murmur MirrorMirro Myrrh-cycle bell from a few moments ago? Well this has a very similar design, but it's also got a compass on it! So, the next time you're in the woods, you can see if there's any truth to that old wives' tale that moss only grows on the North side of a tree. Or was it South? Or West? Or maybe it was "Moss doesn't grow on a moving Fat Bike?" What was I talking about?

You can mount this one to round things. Maybe you could wear it like a ring! Or, mount it to other body parts -- I'll let you use your imagination here -- just be very careful about where you mount it and read all of the instructions. Also: compass.

PRICE: $7.58 It's more expensive than the Cow Bell, but less than the Mr.MicrophoneMryrrrcycle Bell. Plus, it pulls double-duty as a compass, making it a two-fer! You save: $27.42

So, there you have it. Bells don't have to be expensive. In fact, at a total of $23.13, you could buy all three of these bells for less than the price of the Kickstarter bell. Hopefully, I saved someone some money and embarrassment today.
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For One Whole Year

It's hard to believe, but this blog is 1 year old. 1 whole year of documenting my journey from a guy who used to occasionally ride his bike maybe once or twice a month to a guy who rides almost every day. Well, almost every day...

A year ago, after a summer of eating healthy and losing about 30 pounds, I wanted to accentuate that diet with exercise. I had been walking along the Rails-to-Trails with a friend about once a week and racking up plenty of miles, but walking just wasn't holding my interest. I wanted to go faster, and farther. So, I pulled my bike out of storage and started doing about 10 miles a day.

Before long, I was adding a few more miles a day, but never venturing too far out of the neighborhood. I decided to challenge myself, to see just how far I could go. I felt the way most runners and joggers do after they start really developing a habit and improving themselves. I wanted to enter a race, or at least an organized ride. I felt like it was something I had to do.

The first thing I did was to hit Google and look for events that were happening close by. One of the first events I stumbled on was the Flaming Foliage Festival that was taking place right here, in Hazleton. I had never even heard of this event before, and here it was in my own back yard. It seemed like fate. So, I set a goal to get myself in shape for the event with the goal of being able to ride 50k -- about 31 miles.

I began by learning as much as I could about sports nutrition and plotting longer and longer courses for myself. I'd ride about 2 or 3 times a week, setting a new goal each time went out. I hit a few snags and learned a few painful lessons, but I eventually made my goal. I rode the half metric century course in the Flaming Foliage Festival in October and had a great time. I even met a few new friends. All in all, it was a huge success. As I look back now, has it really been a year? Time really does fly when you're having fun.

My life has changed in a variety of ways since those days. I started a new job, bought the bike of my dreams, kept the weight off and even met several other goals. I even managed to bike all the way to Pittsburgh! I mean, that was just a crazy idea I almost never meant to keep until it occurred to me -- only a few weeks prior -- that I could really, actually do it. And now I'm looking at the achievement from the other end and wondering how I did it; I still can't believe it.

1 year of biking and blogging. How far will I go over the next year?
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On A Cold Morning, Chasing His Shadow.

This morning's commute to work was a chilly one -- 52 degrees Fahrenheit at 7 a.m. However, it was still warmer than the 49 degrees I had to trek out in, last week. What's up, Summer?

We had a very late spring and now it feels like summer is pretty much over and done. We still have August ahead of us! Don't be like that, Summer.

As you can tell, I like to turn up the heat a bit. I didn't even mind the heat wave we had a few weeks ago; I just kept on riding my bike and loving every minute of it. Can we have that back, please?

At any rate, here's me, chasing my shadow with the sun at my back.
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Through the Carnegie Science Center

BIKES: Science on Two Wheels.
Growing up, one of my favorite places to visit was the Buhl Science Center in Pittsburgh. I loved seeing the exhibits and all the cool, hands-on activities on display, and the planetarium was a neat experience, as well.

Sometime in the early 90s the old Buhl building was sold or closed, or something... I was never quite sure what happened to it as it had happened after we moved away from Pittsburgh, but a new, bigger science center was opened. They even retained the Buhl Planetarium to honor the memory of the man who built it, so while it's not exactly the same experience, at least it retains some of the old magic. Naturally, with my love of science and science museums, I just had to drop in and pay a visit, as I do every year. This year, however, there was a new exhibit that was much more relevant to my interests. A bike exhibit!

This year's theme is "BIKES: Science on Two Wheels." Showcasing a large assortment of bicycles from the earliest concepts of what a bike is to some of the latest light-weight carbon set ups, there were dozens of bikes to look at.

Of course there were a few 19th Century "penny farthing" style bikes, and some of the earliest "safety bikes" to touch and look at, but I enjoyed seeing some of the bikes from the mid-20th Century, with large fenders and swept back, comfortable designs. These heavy, steel-framed beasts must have been hell to pedal around on -- my favorite was the Huffy Radiobike from 1955. It featured a radio built into the "gas tank facade" along the top tube that ran on vacuum tubes. Vacuum tubes! I'm not sure how they held up with all the bumps and bounces one is sure to encounter, but the idea is mind-blowing. It's too bad transistors were still too expensive, as it would have been a welcome improvement to have a lighter, more vibration-tolerant technology.

Another treat to see was the famous "Pee-Wee Herman Bike" from "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," a Schwinn DX. Seeing one of the models used in the movie mounted right to the wall, and getting a chance to touch it, was a real joy. (I should note, we weren't actually supposed to be touching any of the bikes, but how could I resist?)

In addition to famous bikes throughout the years were a few other "pop culture" inspired bicycles, such as the Huffy Bandit from 1978, which was inspired by the Pontiac Trans Am driven in the movie "Smokey and The Bandit." Then were was a "tallbike," a tiny UDC Mini Bike, a few recumbents, unicycles and folding bikes also on display. I actually got a chance to try riding the mini bike, but couldn't get more than a few cranks in. Those things are just ridiculously small. Then came a bike that defied all explanation, the F&R Lowrider, as seen below.

F&R Lowrider - Because "art."
Reverse angle. Also because "art."
Another favorite, the Bowden Spacelander takes the prize for "Bike I'd Most Like to Own."

Heavy? Impractical? I don't even care, I want one.
Some of the interactive elements on display included a demonstration of the gyroscopic forces at play when bikes are in motion. Guests are encouraged to sit on a swiveling stool while holding a large bike wheel mounted to a handle while another guest spins the wheel with their hands. When the wheel is up to speed, the seated guest will tilt the wheel to the right and left while lifting their feet off the ground. What happens next is that the guest will suddenly rotate to one direction or the other, depending on which way they tilt the wheel. It's quite a unique, memorable experience, and just one of the many demonstrations available at the exhibit.

Finally, the Carnegie Science Center is sponsoring a number of outdoor activities to get people interested in biking, including a BMX stunt spectacular that was being put on by the "Freestyle Action Sports Team." I shot a few videos of their stunts, which you can see on my Instagram feed.

If you live anywhere near Pittsburgh and are into science museums as much as I am, it's definitely worth the trip. I mean, heck, I biked more than halfway across the state just to see this exhibit, and I thought it was totally worth it.
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Across Pennsylvania - 270 miles from Hazleton to Pittsburgh

I did it. Even a week later, I can't freaking believe I did it. I actually biked from Hazleton to Pittsburgh... Where do I even begin?

At the end of biking season in 2012, I set a little goal for myself. One of my dreams has always been to travel by bike, but I never really had a particular destination in mind. Because I grew up in Pittsburgh, I like making trips out there to visit when I can. Therefore, it seemed likely that if I were going to do something crazy, a bike trip to Pittsburgh would be it. As it stood, it would probably be the craziest adventure I've ever had, so I couldn't wait to begin.

Back at the start of 2013 I started making arrangements to do a weekend in a state park up near Scranton, but that plan sort of fell by the wayside. As July approached, I realized time was running out. With all of the lousy weather we'd been having -- rain, cold, terrible storms -- this Summer was flying by and felt as though it had never even really started. Would it be clear enough for me to actually make this attempt? I just had to try.

Over the last few weeks, I'd been saving up to get important accessories for my bike -- a rack, clipless pedals, panniers and tires. A quick look through a few of the past posts on this blog should give you an idea, I was definitely gearing up for the big trip. Days before leaving, I decided not to get a new front tire. With nearly 2,000 miles on the stock tire, I really wondered if this was going to be a decision I'd regret. The stock rear tire was a disaster, allowing nearly every sharp object I rolled across -- glass, rocks, harsh words -- to puncture the tube. Thankfully, most of the weight is on the back. At any rate, I had 3 spare tubes, ready to go.

With directions hastily printed out from Google Maps only hours before launch time, I left the house at 5:55 am. And then I quickly returned. I'd made it about 3 blocks before the brackets on the bucket pannier I made snapped and dumped on the ground.

I built the kitty litter bucket panniers based on plans I found on Instructables.com. They seemed like such a good idea, but the brackets just weren't up to the challenge. I could have, and probably should have, bought a set of panniers online, but I wasn't convinced they'd be able to hold all my stuff. Actually, that should have been a good indication -- I was bringing way too much junk. A tent, a towel, 3 cans of stew, a lighter, an alcohol stove, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, some bottles of water, a box of Clif bars, some string, utensils, a pot to cook in, a coffee press, some coffee, a knife, phone chargers, a sleeping bag, and a few other items. Too much, too heavy. Regardless, I jammed everything into a large bag, strapped it to the rear rack with bungie cords and headed out again. It was now 7 am.

The directions I got from Google Maps were designed to find optimal biking routes through low-traffic areas. For the most part, it worked exactly as described. Twisty-turny back roads, country drives, and long, lonely stretches that went on for miles. Unfortunately, it also included rough trails and unpaved uphill sections completely inappropriate for thin, slick tires on a road bike. What a predicament I quickly found myself in as I pushed my bike up a rocky, 7 mile hill in bike cleats. Even when it leveled out for a bit and I could ride my bike if I wanted to, I was afraid of what the terrain was doing to my tires. One large cut or slice could be catastrophic!

The lesson I quickly learned was to abandon the biking directions from Google Maps and go straight to Pedestrian mode. This would ensure me the quickest, shortest routes that could be walked. Google's Bike mode depends too heavily on trails and designated bike paths for me to rely on in the long run. I needed smooth roads, regardless of traffic. If it was legal to walk, it would be legal enough for a bike.

At the end of Day One, I set up camp at Reed's Gap State Park. I quickly pitched my tent while soup cooked on the alcohol stove and used the spare time to take a shower in the camp's bathroom. It was a well-maintained site with modern facilities and I definitely appreciated the shower. Unfortunately, then the rains came. A sudden, violent thunderstorm quickly drenched me and everything I owned in a matter of minutes. I dove into my tent and stripped off all my clothes. It didn't stop raining for the rest of the night.

I was the only person in the entire campground, which, when you hear someone walking around, or at least think you do, and you know you're the only person there, that can be pretty unnerving. The slight paranoia mixed with bright flashes of lightning and booming thunder meant I wasn't going to get much sleep, that night.

I laid on my back trying to get comfortable in the tiny 6x5 foot tent. It was cramped an uncomfortable, but at least it was keeping me dry. That's when I noticed that, all around me, I saw tiny beams of light against the sides of the tent. I couldn't imagine what they were, so I cautiously zipped back the door to look outside and saw some of the biggest, brightest lightning bugs ever. They were so bright that their light shone all the way to ground... or maybe it was just the darkness of the forest and starless, cloud-covered night, far away from the big city light pollution that made them seem brighter than usual? At any rate, it was beautiful.

At about 2 am, I heard the crunching of footsteps. I tried to tell myself that it was just the rain slapping the side of the tent, but it really sounded a lot like footsteps. And then it happened again, and again. I was almost certain someone was walking around the tent, but what could it be? A homicidal maniac, or just a woodland creature in search of food? Or what if it's a bear? And that's when something brushed against my foot from outside the tent.

I bolted upright, knife in hand. I turned on my flashlight and zipped the front flap wide open, yelling, "WHO'S OUT THERE? WHO WANTS SOME?!" But there was nothing there... nothing but a small mouse that quickly scurried under a log and stared at me, eyes shining, before slipping away into the forest.

I finally did it. I finally let my paranoia drive me to the point where I had lost my mind. And then, it all went away. Any fear or paranoia evaporated away and I was too tired to allow irrational fear get the better of me. I drifted off to sleep and woke up bright and early the next morning.

I decided that Day 2 would be better. I started out with a positive attitude and wanted to reach Blue Knob State Park with plenty of time to spare. That's when I came across the aforementioned rock trail and the 7 mile slog uphill. It was hell. I still have numbness in my big toe from the bike cleats -- either my shoes were too tight, or I don't know. But it was hell.

When I finally got back on the road, I had almost forgotten what smooth, flat pavement felt like. It felt good, and fast, but I was still lost in the backwoods of the middle of nowhere, and as beautiful as the view was in Rothrock State Park and the Alan Seeger Natural Area, I just really wanted to get to Blue Knob. The trek up that trail hill had stolen a whole 2 hours, at least, from my schedule. I stopped at the first place I could find to get a decent meal in me. My plan was being shot to hell and I had hoped I would make it before the sun went down, but I was having no such luck. As I miserably climbed steep, endless hills that would go on for miles and miles, I felt defeated. This wasn't "fun." I had expected a challenge, but this was torture. I wanted a chance to ride my bike all day, to simply enjoy the act of adventuring, but I was in pain and completely worn out. How could I endure this for another day? Where the hell is the next camp site? How much higher can these damn hills go?

I biked and walked for a good 12 hours or more, arriving well after sunset and forced to set up camp in the dark. But I had done it. I made it. Once again, I beat the odds. I wasn't happy, though. The wind was picking up and the temperature had dropped. I decided that, when I reached camp, I wasn't even going to unpack. I was just going to throw my stuff into the tent, sleep, and head out early the next morning. I made a fire and stared at it while the stew cooked.

Why was I so miserable? I considered that it wasn't like I had anything else planned... So what if it took the whole day to get here? Where else was I going? I was upset that I didn't get to chill out and relax, that I didn't get to do the "campy" things you do at camp, like build a fire, look at the stars, relax. But then, as The Beatles played on my phone, I realized that was exactly what I was doing. I had a fire, I had the stars, I had a hot meal and nowhere special to be for a few hours. Aside from a little bit of pain and suffering, this was the best vacation I had ever taken. What more could I really want?

I had allowed myself to slip into a negative frame of mind, where I was focused more on the destination than I was on the journey. I looked back at some of the photos I had taken and wished I'd taken more. In was in such a hurry and so angry about that trail -- Cooper's Gap Road -- that it ruined the rest of the day. It wasn't the roughness of the trip, it was my own lousy attitude. I listened to The Beatles, finished my meal and looked at the stars as the fire slowly faded. And then I went to bed, peaceful and relaxed.

Blue Knob State Park was absolutely beautiful. I didn't get to fully appreciate it until morning, when the sun had come up. It was still very cold, so I got a bit of a late start as I didn't want to tear down the same structure that was keeping me warm, but I needed to get moving. Fortunately, Blue Knob has electrical hookups at each campsite, so I didn't have to leave my phone unattended in a bathroom while it charged. With a full battery, the first thing I did was open Google Maps and set it to Pedestrian mode. Well, actually, the first thing I did was ride a few miles down the hill, where I could get signal. When I finally saw a few bars and "4G" light up on the screen, I was in business.

Another big detractor on Day 2 was the lack of any civilization. That trail, and the surrounding areas, were so far off the map that it wasn't until almost 4 pm when I finally found a place to eat. I didn't want to make that mistake again. When I started planning the trip, my intention was to travel 45 miles, eat, then travel another 45 miles to my destination. It seemed like a good idea, I just didn't plan it well enough. On Day 3, however, I made straight for the busiest highway I could find that was still legal to ride a bike on: Route 22.

Day 3 ran like a precision machine. I had dumped every last item I didn't need. One can of stew, the bottle of alcohol fuel for the stove, empty bottles for water, the printed directions from Google Maps and a roll of toilet paper I had brought along "just in case." My load was significantly lighter. My bike was no longer trying to buck me off and dump me on the ground every time I came to a stop. The original load was so heavy, in fact, it had almost gotten me killed on Day One when I couldn't unclip from the pedals and fell within inches of a passing van. Again, I had way too much stuff with me.

I had made it to Route 22 and turned off my phone -- no need for GPS when you finally know where you are. No turns, no detours, no mystery trails that lead to nowhere, just a straight shot to Pittsburgh. What Day 3 lacked in memorable experiences it had made up for in how much better I felt just knowing where I was, for once. Well, at least, emotionally... My saddle sores had saddle sores. My legs were twisting in knots, even as I kept plenty of food water going down my gullet. My left hand was going numb and my feet ached. The sun was searing me a golden brown and the sweat was dripping from every pore. I was in bad shape, but I knew I didn't have long to go. Just a few more hills, a few more miles, a few more hours... When I finally got to the hotel, I was as happy as I could be. I unpacked and then set out to do some urban exploring.

I had time. Time to screw around, time to play. Time to do a victory lap around my old neighborhood, which I did. Time to enjoy a Slurpee from the convenience store on the corner, just as I had done in my childhood. Time to snap a few photographs and reminisce about places that no longer exist. In contrast, I was so much happier than the night before, simply because I had time to enjoy myself. The work had been done, the pain would be a distant memory. I had time to revel in my accomplishment. Why was I so miserable at the end of Day 2? Because it was all work, no play. Now I had time to play. I had plenty of time.

I went back to the hotel, took a long, hot shower and crashed into bed. 3 days of riding had come down to this: a quiet room with air conditioning, a hot shower and a comfortable bed. And my vacation had still only just begun.

I had the chance to meet a few people on this trip, including a young woman who thought I was a bike racer. I met a cyclist who offered to run "wind break" for me, but I couldn't keep up. I met a backpacker who I had passed and thought would never see again, until he suddenly popped up a few hours later. I guess he hitched a ride and passed me at some point. And then, although I didn't meet him, I saw a man on a fully-loaded bike coming up West 22 as I was headed home in a car on East 22. I don't know where he came from or where he was going, but more power to him. More power to anyone crazy enough to do this. I still can't believe I did it.

Looking back, only a week later, it still feels like some impossible dream. I've got the scars to prove that it actually happened, that it was real and that I survived. Now the adventure is just a fading memory, and there's nothing left to do except plan for the next one, to hope that I can see that one through the end, as well. So many variables; so many unknowns. Where will I go next? Even that is a mystery.
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