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Sizzlin Feature

The Scenic Route

Rediscovering the countryside from a skinny-ass bike seat

Michael Bynre
Somewhere near Gettysburg, Pa.

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By Michael Byrne | Posted 5/19/2010

At a small daylit bar in Thurmont--motto: Gateway to the Mountains--a dozen bearded bikers are watching the Kentucky Derby on a giant flat-screen television. Conversations involve their various rides into town from what seems like a scattering of Central Maryland mountain locales, when they have to be back to their kids or dogs, and where they went to place their bets on today's winner (Charles Town, W. Va., mostly)--which no one picks. Pickled eggs are 35 cents, and sticks of venison are $1.35. Before the door even shuts behind me, someone shouts out, "You a horse jockey?" In a sweat-crusted wool cycling jersey, tiny cap, and cut-offs, I lamely offer, "Well, a bike jockey, I guess." Outside is a line of highway cruisers of the gas-fed variety and, locked against a parking meter, is a fixed-gear British racing bicycle loaded down with camping gear and empty water bottles.

I've had "serious" bicycles and ridden them obsessively since getting a Gary Fisher mountain bike in 1998. I've ridden tens of thousands of miles in those years and done many a heinous physically brutal thing, and the 30 miles ridden that day--over the course of five hours, averaging a pathetic 6 miles-per-hour--were the worst, the most painful, the ones that had me cursing the Lord and all but whimpering on steep climb after steep climb through the sort of mountains I didn't even know Maryland had. Bicycle touring, which boils down to riding from place to place over multiple days with most likely a load of camping gear and food, is in itself a unique beast, but doing it without gears or without the ability to coast feels as unnecessary and painful as cutting yourself.

Thirty miles by ordinary touring standards is lightweight, perhaps a good starting place for newbies. More realistic is 50 or 60 miles in a day. You get a wider berth for pacing yourself, can allow for breaks and meals, and get someplace with enough light left to unroll a tarp and sleeping bag, maybe even time enough to have a local beer. Thirty miles with around 4,000 feet of climb in them is not at all lightweight.

The day's route took me from the woods northwest of Burkittsville by the Appalachian Trail, where I'd camped in the yard of a boarded-up cabin a half-mile up the hill from a set of ruins and a church graveyard, to this Thurmont bar. Specifically, that's two trips over South Mountain, and a single slow slog up the back of granite-pocked Catoctin Mountain, the nearly 1,900-foot ridge that looms over Thurmont and stretches into Southern Pennsylvania. It's all very pretty; in very early May, the green is so explosive it feels like the treed ridges are part of the upwelling of some deep and powerful current.

But it's not a scenery fix. I mean, it is, but that's not the whole of touring, the grand why of sitting on a bike for days at a time, crawling sweat-sticky into a sleeping bag somewhere quite possibly illegal (legit state park camping isn't a whole lot cheaper than a low-end motel these days), inhaling exhaust and gnats, the inevitable roadside flats and breakdowns (that you yourself can fix!), and the similarly inevitable open road boredom of certain parts of farm country. As far as the bare getting from place to place? Well, it's probably faster than a horse--but the hour or so drive to Thurmont from Baltimore makes four or five hours on a bicycle seem like a bit less of a bargain.

Because it's there? Because it's free? Or, maybe, if you're someone like myself, it's a bit more practical than the above. Carless, how the eff else can I not be around people for three days at a time? (A requirement.) And it is a fine way of getting away in an absolute sense. It's one thing to get away from the internet for a few days, it's a whole 'nother to not have to interact with people at all.

Yet, that getting-away-from-it-all is nicer in theory, and misses one of the more interesting things that happens when you're touring long distance on a bike: Places get smaller. There was a time when this country, or even this world, was larger on an order of magnitude in the 100s. Fun fact: Charles Village was once a vacation community of Baltimore until the streetcar and its comparative speed brought that distance more in line with how we experience it now.

Touring on a bicycle, one thing that always amazes are the towns--like, the places you drive through and think, Town? There's nothing here. A couple of buildings, maybe a pizza shop, a few houses, and then back into farmland. It's a fact of physics that as things get faster, they physically get smaller. And, as things get slower, they get larger. And as they get larger, they get more detailed, more characterized. Thurmont is dusty storefronts, crab boils, a bar, and a peculiar deafening quiet. On the other side of the mountain, Wolfsville is a small road intersection in a tight valley of little kids running around main street, dogs, and tended lawns. Around Libertytown, 30 or so miles outside of Baltimore on Liberty Road, towns finally turn from strip mall and fast food nurseries to actual main streets and porches.  

Moreover, towns turn from regions back into towns. Like, say, Gettysburg. I can't explain where I rode to in Pennsylvania--around Idaville, Pine Grove Furnace--without reducing it to Gettysburg. It's not people lacking intimate knowledge of Southern Pa. farmland, per se, but understand that while it's only 10 miles between the Gettysburg and Idaville, 10 miles on a bike through the deepening hills of the area equates to over an hour of riding. In the world of cars, Idaville becomes Gettysburg. (Hell, in the world of airplanes, Thurmont practically becomes Baltimore.) It's an interesting thing: Something as American as cars have separated us more than anything from, well, America.

And separated us from other people. I know what I said above about not liking people very much, but something interesting happens on a bike tour: As much as you start re-interfacing with the landscape, you also acquaint with its people. It's ridiculous to buy bottled water or hunt out drinking fountains or public faucets for a days-long trip, so you inevitably ask people along the road. Off of the highways and onto the backroads, it might seem that everyone is along the road, a constant stream of porch-sitters, lawn mowers, barbecues, and farm workers, and they are almost always wanting to talk to the weird dude on a loaded-down bicycle. Or give you better directions than Google Maps. Or offer up a patch of land to sleep on for a night.

Some protips:

Where: In practical terms, it is very easy to get out of Baltimore onto the road via bicycle. Very near legit camping can be had a flat and easy 45 miles south at Greenbelt Park, 55 relatively easy miles west in Cunningham Falls State Park or Catoctin Mountain Park, or 50-odd miles north in Codorus State Park by Gettysburg, the town itself being a popular stop-off for cyclists. (Though offering more in the way of cheap motels than close-in camping.) My first tour took me about 80 miles into Pine Grove Furnace State Park, a bit north and west of Gettysburg in a pretty, wide mountain valley. With a sharp 1,000-foot climb at the end, you could say I overextended.

Food: First, get enough of it. Figure you're killing at least 5,000 calories in a day while touring, versus your usual 2,000. You can get a small camp stove pretty cheap but, honestly, I've generally just bought things that didn't require cooking to munch, like hummus or pre-made sandwiches.

Camping gear: Lightweight is better, of course. For less than $200, you can get a small one-person tent light enough to pack on a bike. I use a tarp and sleep on top of it with a sleeping bag and Thermarest mat or, in rain, string the tarp between the bike and a tree. The tarp cost $5 and gets the job done.  A shitty cheap sleeping bag will weigh several times more than a good one, and freeze you if it gets wet. A necessary investment.

Bike: I use an old steel racing frame covered in surface rust and chipped paint, converted to a fixed gear. You are probably not this stupid. Surly's Long Haul Trucker, going for about a grand new, is the touring gold standard. But, obviously, you don't need a super specialized bike: something steel and sturdy, and reasonably light. You do need a rear rack, at least, and a set of panniers, i.e. the bags that hang off either side of a rack. To carry more stuff, get a front rack and front panniers as well.   

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Sizzlin' Summer (5/19/2010)
Our annual comprehensive guide to surviving, thriving, and diverting yourself until September

Parks and Rec (5/19/2010)

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