Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Thursday, July 14, 2011
While there, the journalism students focused on learning the stories of the community by interviewing villagers and photographing, writing, and blogging about them. The photo students were challenged to develop themes for their photography and shoot with the goal of creating photo books. The students also sought to learn about the culture of rural, southwest Ireland by listening to and practicing traditional Irish storytelling and performing music.
The group’s guide, Mr. Batt Burns, offered several workshops in storytelling as well as a great deal of historical insight into the area.
Frantz, Holtz, and their students traveled to the Cliffs of Moher, Galway, Killarney, and the Blasket Islands. Students also took part in hiking, biking, kayaking, and golf. One evening the group even enjoyed a traditional pub night in which the students shared their own talents in music, dancing, and storytelling, alongside the locals.
“For me, this was a real high point in my teaching career,” says Frantz. “I have long advocated a community journalism approach in my traditional classes, and I've challenged my students to see their university community as the home-base for learning. But this was the first time I've had the privilege of doing community reporting in a foreign country, and Sneem couldn't have been a better place to pull it off.”
By challenging students to practice community journalism in a small village in which they were forced to quickly learn its people, geography, history, and customs in order to locate and re-tell its stories, they were pushed out of their comfort zones.
Following a particularly challenging interview with a local farmer, who possessed an extraordinarily thick Irish brogue and was very reticent to talk about himself, senior Heather Lowery told Frantz, "This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my four years as a journalism student." Later on, however, when her story was complete, Lowery’s tune had changed. “I have never been more proud of any story I've written,” she said.
During their time in Ireland, the students recorded their reactions, observations, and first impressions of Ireland and the experience in general via a series video blogs, which you can view through the following links:
Right on the tails of the journalism class came another RMU group led by Jim Vincent, associate professor of English studies, along with Heather Pinson, Ph.D., assistant professor of communications, and Alisa Krieger, student leader.
Arriving on May 25, the group, which was made up of 25 students from Vincent's Irish mythology and literature course, began its Ireland adventure in the town of Mullaghbane in County Armagh. There they stayed in the cultural center of Ti Chulainn, an agricultural, isolated, mountainous region, famous for being a stronghold of the home hunting grounds of the Red Branch Knights of ancient Ireland, and their leader Cuchulainn.
Students also climbed the mountain of Slieve Gullion and visited Navan Fort and Giant’s Causeway. They even toured Newgrange, which is 600 years older than the pyramids of Egypt and contains passage tombs of Irish settlers from well before the Celtic Age.
During the second part of their trip, on the way to Sligo, they stopped at the Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh, County Tyron, which is a large park full of re-enactors who depict both Ulster and American life in the late 18th century.
“Many Ulster Scots, generally Presbyterian, emigrated to western Pennsylvania,” said Vincent. “Thomas Mellon has a replica of his house there, and a friend of mine actually plays Mellon at the park.”
While at the park they had a night of music with local musicians as well as RMU singers Dawn Savage ‘11, Shaun Sweeney, and Melissa Curiale. The visit to the park was coordinated by former Rooney Scholar Marie Martin and her husband Joe. The group also enjoyed a lunch hosted by Southwest College in the town Omagh.
At Sligo (name means shallow or shelly), students concentrated on the life and poetry of Ireland’s most famous poet William Butler Yeats. Sligo was Yeats’ summer home; his poems “The Stolen Child” and “The Lake Isle of Inisfree” have their sources in this region. Here they explored by bus and by boat, and climbed Knocknarea, on top of which is the legendary burial site of Queen Medb.
During their stay at The Yeats Village, since there wasn’t any cafeteria, the students got the chance to cook for themselves. “We found out who could cook and who couldn’t,” said Vincent.
They also had a lot of fun, too. “We heard poetry, visited churches, drank in pubs, sang and danced,” added Vincent. “Generally, we had a good Irish time.”
To wrap up their journey, the group spent a day and a half in Dublin, where some students visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral, others the Guinness Brewery, and some took pictures of Ireland’s scenic capital city.
Written by Valentine J. Brkich
Thursday, June 9, 2011
From May 26-31, a group of Robert Morris University staff members, students, alumni, and friends embarked on a group bike ride from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., with stops in Ohio Pyle (Pa.), Cumberland (Md.), Hancock (Md.), and Harpers Ferry (W. Va.). The following is an account of the fifth and final day of the journey as experienced by RMU Senior Writer Valentine J. Brkich.
DAY FIVE – Harpers Ferry (W. Vir.) to Washington, D.C.
Day Five. The final day. Sixty miles to go. Two-hundred and eighty in the bank. What would this final day be like? Would it be like Day Two, dodging hail storms and lightning bolts? Would it be like Day Three with mile after mile of rancid slop? Or would it be a cakewalk like Day Four? No one knew for sure.
The one thing we did know was that there wouldn’t be anywhere to stop for food or water until we hit Great Falls, 45 miles down the trail. So, the night before, I stocked up on Gatorade and ordered a pizza, which I wrapped in aluminum foil to bring along for the ride. No matter what the day might bring, at least I knew I’d have more than Fig Newtons to sustain me.
The forecast was calling for temperatures to rise into the 90s by early afternoon. So we thought it best to hit the trail early. I was up by 5 and on the trail by 6, along with Todd and his dad, Ed.
As we cruised through Harpers Ferry to get back to the trail, we passed professor of economics Dr. Eschenfelder, who was out for a pre-ride run. A PRE-RIDE RUN!?!?
I, on the other hand, chose to warm up with two slices of cold pizza and a Benadryl.
When we hit the C&O, I was happy to find it in premium condition—bone dry and rock hard. That didn’t necessarily mean the ride was going to be easy, but it did mean that we wouldn’t have to struggle through quick-sand like mud, which is always nice.
By 9 a.m., we had put 30 miles behind us. The bus back to RMU wasn’t due to pick us up in D.C. until 3:30 or so, so we had plenty of time to conquer the final 30 miles, whatever obstacles or surprises we should encounter. The only thing that slowed us down that morning was a family of geese crossing the trail. Luckily we got by the hissing daddy goose before he was able to peck us or bite us, or whatever geese do. (Can you get rabies from a goose??)
It was around this time when another group of riders caught up with us: Amanda, a 2011 graduate of RMU’s nuclear medicine technology program; Tom, an elementary education major; Mike, who due to a sore Achilles, had to ride the last 60 miles STANDING UP; and, last but not least, Jamie. Remember Jamie? The girl who had the wreck and nearly passed out on the first day? Yeah, she was still going strong.
This is when we really started making some time.
Amanda, who was a star volleyball player at RMU, led the way as we all got in line behind her, drafting like a team of racers in the Tour de France. She was nice enough to clear all the spider webs for us as she led our train of rubber and spoke down the trail. It was awesome. We tour down the path at 13 mph, each pedal getting us closer to our final destination.
Somewhere around this time I veered off the trail a bit and brushed into some evil plant that made me feel like I'd been stung by a jelly-fish. "Oh yeah," said Todd, "that happened me to me too. Don't worry...it will only burn for an hour or so."
A round 20 miles out, things started to get a little dicey as we encountered more and more hikers and bikers out on the trail for Memorial Day holiday weekend. Tom, however, a.k.a. the Human Snowplow, paid little mind to the other people on the trail, shouting out “On your left!” a millisecond before we went wooshing by in the other lane. OK...maybe his trail etiquette left something to be desired, but I could understand his urgency. We were on a mission. The end was so close we could smell it. Or maybe that was just my grimy, putrid, mud-caked shoes. (Photo: My grimy, putrid, mud-caked shoes)
Finally we hit Great Falls, just 14 miles outside of D.C. Although we were chompin’ at the bit to finish this crazy adventure, we couldn’t pass up a chance to see this natural wonder. (Photo: Our last refueling stop, at the Great Falls concession stand)
After a quick stop off at the Great Falls concession stand, we hopped on our bikes – gently, very gently – for the final time, determined not to stop until we hit D.C. As we slalomed through the throngs of sightseers and casual riders along the trail, we rejoiced every time we passed another mile marker. Then, with just around four miles left, we hit pavement—lovely, wonderful, smooth-as-silk pavement! This was it—the home stretch! Todd rode ahead with the camera to capture the moment as we crossed the finish line. (Photo: RoMo at Great Falls)
There are certain moments in my life that I will always remember: graduation day; my wedding day; the birth of my first child; the birth of my second child; and this one—the moment when I reached the end of the trail and completed my bike ride from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. I have to admit, it was somewhat anti-climactic. There were no bands or throngs of people waiting to congratulate us. There was no ribbon to ride through. It was just the end of the trail, with Georgetown University up on the hill to our right and the Potomac River off to our left. But it was still a great moment, and it’s one I’ll never forget.
One by one the other riders trickled in as we toasted our accomplishment with champagne and sparkling grape juice, compliments of Mrs. Hamer, who met us at the finish line. I looked over at Todd’s odometer: 342.03 miles. Unbelievable.
And you know who ended up being the first person to complete the ride? Jamie. The girl who I thought would never make it past the first day. She certainly showed me.
During the five-hour bus ride home, I had a chance to think about the experience and what it meant to me. Was it hard? Yes. Way harder than I ever imagined? Yes. Were there times when I wanted to give up? Absolutely. Would my rear-end ever be the same? Probably not. But despite the difficulty, I can sincerely say it was an amazing, life-changing experience.
I rode my bike to D.C.
Thanks to all of you who joined me in this experience. And thank you, the reader, for following along on our adventure. I hope you enjoyed the ride.
By the way...anyone want to buy a bike, slightly used?
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
From May 26-31, a group of Robert Morris University staff members, students, alumni, and friends embarked on a group bike ride from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., with stops in Ohio Pyle (Pa.), Cumberland (Md.), Hancock (Md.), and Harpers Ferry (W. Va.). The following is an account of the fourth day of the journey as experienced by RMU Senior Writer Valentine J. Brkich.
DAY FOUR – Hancock (Md.) to Harpers Ferry (W. Vir.)
When Annie sang “The sun'll come out tomorrow…” I used to think she was full of crap.
(Yes, I’ve seen Annie. Twice.)
But you know what? After one of the most miserable days I can remember, the sun really did come out the next day, and my ride to Harpers Ferry, W. Vir., turned out to be best day thus far.
Following the misery of the previous day's ride, I wasn’t sure if I’d even be able to get out of bed let alone ride another 60-plus miles along the muddy, skeeter-infested C&O Canal Towpath. But rather than mope about my situation, I decided to get up early and try to get some good miles in before lunch.
Down at the local convenience store I stocked up on Gatorade and bought a couple sausage and egg burritos for fuel. I ran into Ethan and Mark, who like me wanted to get moving while it was still somewhat cool out. So at 6:30, the three of us hit the trail together.
After slogging it through the fetid mud and slop from Cumberland to Hancock, starting the day off on more than 10 miles of paved trail along the Western Maryland Rail Trail was heavenly. Yesterday I had struggled to keep a pace of 8-9 mph. Today, right from the start we were wooshing along the smooth asphalt track of the rail trail at a brisk 13-mph clip. We were moving so fast, in fact, that we missed the connection to the C&O and ended up riding a couple miles down the road to Ft. Frederick State Park, where we were able to reconnect. We had 25 miles in the bank by 9:30 a.m.
When we finally made it back on the C&O, we were elated to see that most of the mud and water had dried up, creating a firmer surface that was much easier to ride on. For once I was actually enjoying myself out on the trail, taking time to appreciate our remote surroundings, wedged between the old canal and the rushing waters of the Potomac River. At one point we saw a deer up ahead, and we followed it for quite some time as it bounded down the trail ahead of us before disappearing into the brush along the side. (Photo: One of the many new friends I made along the ride)
Things were going great!
Part of the trail was being repaired at the time, so they put us on a six-mile detour around the work, along some nicely paved but hilly Maryland back roads. At first I welcomed the change, enjoying the cool breeze as I glided down a lengthy hill along the road. But of course, what goes down must come back up, and I soon found myself pushing my bike up the hills as the midday sun radiated off of the black asphalt underfoot.
Riding your bike along the road can be a humbling experience, too. You don’t realize how slow you’re really moving on a bike until a motorcycle whizzes by you effortlessly at five times your speed.
Now I know how the Amish feel.
Eventually the detour came to an end and we were back along the C&O. I was still feeling pretty good but I noticed I was running low on water. So, a few miles down the trail, as Mark and Ethan decided to take another break, I told them I was just going to push on alone and try to make it to the next town as soon as I could. (Photo: Mike Yuhas conquering a downed sycamore along the C&O)
That next town was Shepherdstown, about 12 or so miles outside of Harper’s Ferry. After carrying my bike over a couple downed sycamores and navigating some washed-out parts of the trail, I took the exit to this lovely college town and headed straight for the nearest eatery, the Sweet Shop Bakery. Other than people staring at me like I was a leper, I had a wonderful lunch outside of the bakery as the normal, showered masses went about their daily business. (Photo: Sweet Shop Bakery in Shepherdstown)
I rode the rest of the way into Harpers Ferry alone, rolling into town around 2 p.m. as the temperatures hovered in the low 90s. I didn’t find out until about an hour later that I had been the first person to arrive! It was an amazing turnaround. The previous day I had barely survived, and here I was the first rider to reach our Day 4 destination. When the others got into town and saw me sitting there sipping on an iced coffee, they looked at me as if I were a ghost come back from the dead. Which, in a way, I guess I was. It was one of my prouder moments.
Was this nightmare...I mean, adventure really coming to an end?
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
DAY THREE – Cumberland to Hancock (Md.)
After a hearty breakfast at the hotel and a quick stop at the local drug store for some insect repellent – a MUST on the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal Towpath – we set off for our next destination, Hancock, Md., a little over 60 miles to the east. Despite the previous day’s challenges and the uncomfortable task of putting on sopping wet shoes first thing in the morning, we were in good spirits. After all, we had made it through the toughest part of the journey—the long uphill climb to the Eastern Continental Divide. From here on out the path would either be flat or downhill.
Piece of cake.
As we started out, we were having a lot of fun riding through the muddy mess that was the C&O—the result of the previous day’s torrential downpours. Within just a few miles, we were splattered with mud and laughing at our utter griminess. A couple miles in, we stopped briefly to check out a Confederate soldier’s family cemetery along the trail, one of the first signs that we were officially on the southern side of the Mason-Dixon Line. (Photo: One of the many old locks along the C&O)
It didn’t take long, however, for the novelty of the mud to wear off. Before long, my legs had grown weary of fighting through the thick, foul-smelling slop. It soon became mentally exhausting as well trying to avoid the puddles, switching back and forth, back and forth, from one lane to the other. And when you did get a chance to stop for a break, you had to be sure to spray every inch of your body with a generous amount of insect repellant in order to fend-off the hundreds of blood-thirsty mosquitoes that would instantly descend on you. (Photo: Fixing a flat in West-Nileville)
And what about this “downhill the rest of the way” stuff I’d been promised? Every once in a while, when you’d come upon an old lock, you’d experience a brief downhill run. But for the most part it was up and down, up and down. The ups were never that steep, but when you’re slogging through thick, energy-sapping mud, even the slightest incline is unwelcome. It didn’t take long before I’d fallen back and was once again on my own.
Our first stop was the tiny town of Paw Paw, about 30 or so miles down the trail. Of course, I missed the turn off and had to backtrack a half mile once I realized my mistake. In town I saw a number of mud-caked bikes parked outside of Anthony Jr.’s, the local pizzeria. I found the crew I’d been riding with earlier in the day already inside. We were all getting some pretty bizarre looks from the locals, who’d probably never seen a grungier bunch of bikers. And I’m sure we all smelled delightful, coated in a mixture of stagnant canal water, mud, sewage, and bug spray.
Bon appetit, everyone!
After woofing down an Italian sub and pausing briefly to admire the Paw Paw Memorial Day parade (fire trucks, John Deere tractor, livestock, etc.), I returned to the C&O beneath the unforgiving midday sun. I was glad when I finally reached the cool shelter of the 3118-foot Paw Paw Tunnel. Since the tunnel has no lights and is nearly pitch dark inside, you have to get off your bike and push it the nearly ½-mile to the other side, hoping that you don't stumble across a water moccasin as you focus on the light at the other end. (Photo: RoMo outside the Paw Paw Tunnel)
By the time I’d reached mile 40, I was really hurting. My legs, worn out from the previous day's never-ending climb, felt like Jell-O, my back ached from hours of crouching over my handlebars, and let's just say my bicycle seat and I weren't getting along. I was also feeling sick—a combination of allergies and a lingering sinus infection. And since I had run out of water, I was forced to drink the "treated" well water along the trail, which had a lovely, metallic, slightly rusty flavor to it.
It was around this time when the other riders, seeing that I was near death, took pity on me and selected someone – Todd’s dad, Ed, – to stay back and ride along with me. He’d never admit to it, of course, but I knew what was going on. And I appreciated it greatly.
A little further on down the trail, we stopped at a local establishment known as Bill’s Place, one of the few watering holes along this section of the C&O. Jeff Foxworthy would have a field day with this joint. It’s the kind of place where you wouldn’t look out of place walking in shirtless, wearing a pair of oil-covered bib-and-brace overalls, a golf-ball-sized wad of tobacco in your cheek, and a "Git-R-Done!" hat on your head. We, on the other hand, clad in our skin-tight biker shorts and over-sized helmets, stuck out like a bunch of sore thumbs.
The only real charm of the place is in the ceiling, which is covered with dollar bills that people have signed and left there over the years (Bill's and bills…get it?). We even located the one Todd left there the last time he and his dad rode through. (Photo: Hamer’s bill at Bill’s)
Since Billy Bob and his cousins weren’t exactly giving us that warm-and-fuzzy feeling from over by the bar, we just ordered a few waters and skedaddled whilst we still had the chance.
With about 13 miles to go until Hancock, I found myself riding alone again amidst the jungle-like vegetation of the C&O. Every pedal was agonizing by this point, and the mud and slop had caked both me and my bike in a layer of thick, heavy, smelly filth. Somehow I missed the turn-off to the paved Western Maryland Rail Trail, which would have provided a smooth, almost effortless ride for the last 10 miles of the trip. Instead I continued on down the muddy trail, past the ruins of the Round Top Cement Plant and something with the charming name of the Devil’s Eyebrow. (Photo: Ruins of the old Round Top Cement Plant)
When I finally rolled into town, hungry, thirsty, muddy, and somewhat delirious, I came upon some of the other riders relaxing in the shade enjoying some ice cream. Seeing that I was in no mood for joviality, they hopped on their bikes and led me directly to the hotel, which, of course, sat atop a punishing hill about a half mile down the road. When I stumbled into the lobby looking like the Swamp Thing, they said they couldn't find my reservation and that there were no vacancies either.
I ended up having to get a room over at another hotel—at the top of ANOTHER HILL!—and it was one of the filthiest, least inviting hotels I’d ever stayed in. The lock on the door was broken, so before I went to sleep I jammed my mud-caked bike between the door and the wall, hoping that it would buy me some time should someone try to break in. Which, after the day I had, seemed totally plausible. (Photo: My filth-covered shirt right, before I threw it in the garbage)
It was an appropriate ending to one of the most physically and emotionally taxing days of my life, and I couldn’t bear to think that I still had two more days and over 120 miles to go.
Monday, June 6, 2011
DAY TWO – Ohiopyle (Pa.) to Cumberland (Md.)
I dragged myself out of bed at 6 a.m. on Friday, feeling sore but refreshed following the best sleep I’ve had since before my kids were born. I think my body put itself into some sort of comatose state in order to recover from the previous day’s abnormal physical exertion. Today was to be the toughest day in our itinerary: 72 miles, over 40 of them uphill, to Cumberland, Md., where we’d leave the G.A.P. and begin along the C&O Canal Towpath.
You may have been awakened by a horrific scream around 6:30 that morning. It was just me sitting down on my bike seat.
After an 11-mile, taking-it-easy ride to Confluence, we stopped for breakfast at the Lucky Dog Café, which had graciously agreed to open its doors early for our group and provide some much-needed nourishment for our long ride ahead. One of the people I ate with was Steve, an Oracle database guru for Highmark, who’s pursuing his M.S. in Computer Information Systems from RMU. He and Garrett, an associate consultant and researcher for RMU’s Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management, were our group’s speed demons, and they usually finished the day’s journey hours before the next closest rider. For Steve, who rides his bike 45 minutes to and from the office every day, this journey was all in a day’s work.
It started to sprinkle as we left the café and began our ascent towards the Eastern Continental Divide, forty-some miles away. An ominous sign greeted us as we hit the trail: no cell phone service for the next 30 miles. I felt like we were entering into the dreaded land of Mordor.
Fueled by a hearty meal of eggs, bacon, home fries, and coffee, I managed to keep up with a few of the riders for a little while as we rode through the light morning drizzle. However, by the time we reached the now closed Pinkerton Tunnel, about a mile south of Markleton, Pa., I was ready for a break. From that point on, until I made it to our lunchtime stopping point at Meyersdale, thirty-plus miles away, I’d be on my own. (Photo: Taking a break at the old Pinkerton Tunnel)
When you’re out on the trail alone, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a million things run through your mind:
Boy, it must have been something when the trains used to run here…
Look at the beautiful wildflowers!
I wonder if there are any bears out here?
God, my rear-end is killing me.
Was that a banjo!?!?
HOW MUCH FARTHER DOES THIS HILL GO, FOR CRYIN’ OUT LOUD!!
A little before Rockwood, I caught up with the Eschenfelder crew at one of the trail’s rest points. As I chit-chatted with Mike and Jonathan, I noticed Mark was staring directly down at the ground. For a moment I thought he might be praying, which is something I found myself doing many times out along the trail. But then I noticed he was staring at some sort of beetle/caterpillar/crustacean-like creature slinking along the trail’s rocky surface. I have no idea what it was, but let’s just call it the Black Scorpion Monster Thingy From Hell. (Photo: Black Scorpion Monster Thingy From Hell)
After a quick pause to stretch my legs and refuel with one of those cardboard-esque energy bars, I was back on the trail. Bypassing Rockwood, I decided to push on to Meyersdale, where the promise of a downhill trail lay just beyond the horizon at the Eastern Continental Divide. Along the way I paused in Garrett where, coincidently I ran into Garrett, who had just finished his lunch. After making sure that I was OK, he popped in his ear buds and was again on his way. In a flash he was gone, like some sort of bicycle-riding superhero.
From there to Meyersdale I encountered a variety of wildlife including a copperhead, two turtles, and dozens of suicidal grinnies (i.e., chipmunks) who, inexplicably, kept darting out in front of me, narrowly evading the knobby tires of my mountain bike. (Photo: Copperhead, I think)
Arriving at Meyersdale I felt a renewed sense of positivity as I joined up with others for a short lunch break in town at the Java Café. We were getting close now. It was a mere 11-12 miles to the Divide. From there we’d be able to relax and glide downhill for the next 25 miles to Cumberland. Meyersdale, a.k.a., The Maple City,seemed like an inviting town, unless, that is, you were drunk. (Photo: Not-so-subtle warning to drunks) I even met a woman in the café who hailed from my hometown of Beaver—a coincidence I took as a sign of good things to come.
But then, as I enjoyed an iced coffee, it began to drizzle again. Off to the west a line of seriously dark clouds was moving in. I decided it was time to get moving and get to the Divide before the real heavy stuff started coming down. So I pushed my bike back up the long hill to Meyersdale Station to rejoin the trail. (Photo: RMU bikers at Meyersdale Station)
Before I had embarked on this journey, when people asked what I would do if it rained, I scoffed at their concern. It would be fun to ride in a storm, I said. It would only add to the adventure.
Then the rain came. And the thunder. And the lightning.
Should I take cover under the canopy of trees off to the sides? No, they tell you not to do that. Then again, if I stay out here, I’m the highest point on the trail…
FLASH!. . . BOOM!
Great. They’re going to find me dead out here. Fried to a crisp by a bolt of lightning! And just as the trail was about to get easy…
More lightning and thunder...
I want my mommy.
The rain was relentless, and the condition of the trail quickly deteriorated. For 10 miles or so, It was like riding through oatmeal.
Then, finally, I saw it—the Eastern Continental Divide, just a few hundred yards ahead inside a small tunnel! After one final and, in my opinion, highly unnecessary incline, I pedaled my bike into the beautiful, lovely, dry concrete shelter. Todd was only a hundred yards or so behind me, and when he reached the tunnel I felt like hugging him. However, I make a strict policy of mine never to hug a co-worker. So we just high-fived. (Photo: Todd, after the high five, holding RoMo in front of the map at the Eastern Continental Divide)
Soon the rest of the group from the café joined us as we celebrated the official end of the climbing. From here on out, it would be nothing but an effortless downhill ride into Cumberland…and then on to D.C.!
When you're out on the trail, you can't get your hopes up. The minute you think you must have ridden for three or four miles, you pass a marker and see that you’ve only gone one. The minute you think there just can’t be another hill, you turn the corner and see another mile-long rise ahead of you. And the minute you think the ride is going to be easy, another monstrous, hail-producing storm blows in.
Riding through the Big Savage Tunnel, we reached Frostburg and began what should have been a relaxing 16 miles into Cumberland. But then Storm #2 struck, complete with hail, lightning, and a stiff wind that was trying to blow us back up the hill. Instead of coasting down the trail, I had to pedal with all my might, all the while beseeching the Almighty to protect me from being scorched by a fiery bolt of electricity. (Photo: RoMo at Frostburg before Storm #2)
By the time I reached Cumberland, my entire body was a giant prune and there was an inch of water in my saddlebags. I’ve been dryer swimming pools. At the Holiday Inn, I took a shower and then, since I wanted to remain in the shower but no longer had the strength to stand, I took a bath for the first time in around 20 years.
I couldn’t believe we’d only made it through two days. We still had three more to go along the C&O Canal Towpath, which, I’d been told, was basically a narrow, bumpy, 185-mile dirt path.
But surely things couldn’t get any worse…right?
From May 26-31, a group of Robert Morris University staff members, students, alumni, and friends embarked on a group bike ride from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., with stops in Ohio Pyle (Pa.), Cumberland (Md.), Hancock (Md.), and Harpers Ferry (W. Va.). Over the next five days, RMU Senior Writer Valentine J. Brkich will be sharing his first-hand account of the journey. SPOILER ALERT: Val survived. Barely.
DAY ONE – Boston (Pa.) to Ohiopyle (Pa.)
Ride my bike to D.C. It sounded doable.
Sure, I may just be your average
desk jockey, but I try to keep in shape, going for the occasional jog and walking instead of driving to the bank or the grocery store when I can. I even stand up at my desk while working. Surely I was fit enough to ride 60 miles a day at a leisurely pace over a span of five-days.
During the first two days of the trip, the 22 of us would be riding along the Great Allegheny Passage (G.A.P.), an old rail bed covered with a layer of packed, crushed limestone, which snakes its way through southwestern Pennsylvania down to Cumberland, Md. The average grade is only 1% until you reach the Eastern Continental Divide. After that, I was told, it would be “all downhill” as we continued on the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal Towpath to D.C.
Heck, this was going to be more like a vacation than anything.
We hit the trail at 9:20 a.m. on May 26 in Boston, Pa. It was the perfect morning. Partly sunny. Temperature in the mid-60s. We were abuzz with anticipation as we mounted our pedal-powered steeds and shoved off for our nation’s capital, a mere 300 or so miles down the trail.
If you’ve never ridden along an old rail trail, it triggers an awakening of the senses. A spring trickles down the rock face to your right. A butterfly flutters through the air to your left. The perfume of spring flowers. The crackle of rubber tire on crushed stone. It’s peaceful and exhilarating, and you feel as if you could ride forever.
Then you hit the 5-mile mark.
Five miles! Is that all the farther we’ve ridden? How many more do we have? FIFTY-FIVE?!?!
I just need to get warmed up, I told myself, as fatigue began to set in. Then my allergies kicked in, and soon my eyes felt like they were filled with sand (Photo: My feeling-like-they're-filled-with-sand eyes). Then my left knee began to throb. My upper back ached. My lower back began to spasm.
Maybe I should have trained for this.
This first day of our adventure saw a series of bad omens. At Boston, before he had even put foot to pedal, Todd Hamer, the ride’s organizer and RMU’s strength and conditioning coach, got a flat tire and immediately fell behind the pack. Bill Joyce, RMU's director of planning and design, busted the crank on his bike and had to backtrack for a lost bolt. Further down the trail, Ethan, a sophomore finance major, clipped a wooden post and tore a gash in his right arm. Later on, his father, Mark, collided with an oncoming rider, flipped over his handlebars, and bent his front fork. Jamie, a sophomore psychology major, had a bad spill and suffered a painful cut on her left arm and a bruise on her hip. All along the trail there were landslides and signs of recently downed trees, giving you the eerie feeling that, at any moment, you could be pedaling your little heart out to avoid being crushed by a falling sycamore or an avalanche of mud and rock. And did I mention the unforgiving headwind?
So much for a leisurely ride along the trail.
We persevered, however, and continued on down the dusty trail, past the Old Dravo Cemetery (est. 1824); past secluded hamlets like Buena Vista, Van Meter, and Whitsett; and past the ghosts of former industry, like old trestles and the site of the once bustling Banning No. 1 Coal Mine.
Somewhere along the trail I caught up with Jamie, who was struggling mightily under the mid-day sun. Luckily Mark J. Eschenfelder, Ph.D., associate professor of economics at RMU, his brother Michael, and their friend Jonathan were already there helping. After a brief stop to rest and rehydrate, we decided to walk a ways down the trail before hopping back on our bikes. Jamie recovered and was soon chugging along again.
After a brief stop in Connellsville for lunch at the local Sheetz (Gatorade and a pre-wrapped mystery-meat sandwich), we continued on down the trail. By this time I had learned to hate milepost markers. You try to ignore them, so as not to see what little distance you’ve covered, but it’s impossible. They stick out from the foliage along the side of the trail like signposts of your physical inadequacy, mocking you as you huff and puff your way along the path.
Finally in mid-afternoon we began to trickle into our day-one destination: Ohiopyle. Around 3:50 p.m. I slowly rolled across the town’s familiar arched bridge, which spans the white waters of the Youghiogheny River. Ethan and Mark were already there, so I had them pose for a photo with RoMo, who I'd brought along for the ride (Photo: Ethan and Mark with RoMo).
Famished and fatigued, I stumbled passed Armand Buzzelli, RMU’s director of campus recreation, and Mike Yuhas, RMU event manager, sitting at the local ice cream shop enjoying milkshakes and looking way too composed.
“Don’t worry,” said Armand. “You’ll feel better after a shower.”
I hope I can stand up long enough to take a shower.
An hour later, just as we were about to head off to dinner at Falls City Pub, a freak squall blew through, knocking out all power in town. Clearly the gods were against us. Fortunately there was enough cold beer to hold us off while Seth, an online MBA student, ordered pizzas from the next town over. When the pies finally arrived nearly an hour later, we tore into them like ravenous piranha. I managed to grab just two pieces in the frenzy, as the pub’s menu of mouthwatering specials stood nearby, reminding us of what we could have been eating (Photo: What we could have been eating).
And so, still hungry and getting stiffer by the minute, I staggered back to my room to hit the sack early (8:30 p.m.) and prepare for the next day—the mostly uphill, 72-mile jaunt to Cumberland.