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 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.


Dean Rowntree said...

Well done Dale, sounds like a tough old time. But take it as a learning experience. The next trip will be much better!

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