Wednesday, December 22, 2021

5 days of December bikepacking, in Pennsylvania!

It's sort of a funny feeling: you're in an apartment with perfectly functioning heat, plumbing, and electricity, and yet for some reason, you pack up your bike and live outside for the next several days in the cold. 

I'm not really sure what it is; maybe it's adventure seeking, or maybe it's some deep-seated rejection of society and a strange longing for homelessness that a psychiatrist would prescribe medication for. I kid, I kid. I'm not [that] messed up in the head. 

It's sort of hard to describe what's so great to me about bikepacking. Normally the feeling comes to me when riding along a doubletrack road in a state forest I've never been to, or in the evening when I'm hanging out with my friend around a campfire after riding all day to a campsite. Either way, it's fun enough for me that I'm willing to trade a warm apartment for a cold tent and gas station food.

This particular trip was sort of thrown together last minute. Some changes with Will's goat wrangling schedule came up, and we decided to start Thursday - instead of Friday - from my apartment in State College and do a 5 day trip.

So Sunday night before the trip, I hurriedly packed up my bikepacking gear in lieu of studying for my final, then drove up to State College Monday morning for finals. Originally, I intended on coming home Wednesday night and packing up Thursday, but since we were starting a day early, I had to pack up earlier as well.

I spent Monday afternoon jamming to Leonard Cohen and cramming an entire semester of 400-level math into 3 hours of studying. That's the ugly side to skipping so many classes to do awesome bike trips instead. Don't try that at home, kids. But it actually turned out very well with my final, so lesson learned: you CAN blow off college to go biking and still do well in class. Actually that's probably a bad lesson, but whatever.

Did the same thing again Wednesday with another final with similar results, and then Will got to my apartment in the evening and we put the finishing touches on our bike setups.

Thursday morning comes around, we get out of our WARM beds (or couch, whatever), and we head outside into the cold. We roll out of State College into Rothrock to start the route. It's some awesome gravel on a perfect morning, and eventually we make our way into some farm country in the valleys. It's more terrific riding, and eventually we stop somewhere for lunch/dinner, and stock up with more food for the campsite at a gas station.

The first night's campsite was planned to be in Tuscarora State Forest, but we did not know exactly where. We just sort of cruised along the gravel road looking for good spots to put up a tent. Eventually, we found a nice little doubletrack road off the main road that had a nice spot for tents. It also had a picnic bench and fire pit a little closer to the road, maybe 100 yards from our tents, which would be nice for hanging out later.

This was the first time using my new tent, a Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2-person bikepacking tent. What is a bikepacking tent, exactly? It's basically an ultra-light tent with short poles that make it easier to carry on a bike.

The tent setup was easy, and I hung up my riding clothes to dry out a little bit before putting them in the tent at night to prevent dew from falling on them. 

We got a fire going after getting camp set up, which was nice because it gave us something to do rather than just stare blankly at each other. There was a decent bit of dry firewood around, so it was easy to keep a fire going for a few hours. There was also no cell service at the campsite, which to me is great. I wish there was never cell service at the campsites.

That night the temperature was very mild - in the 50s in the evening and only dropping to the 40s at night. Still, in my 60 degree sleeping bag, I was a little bit cold. Particularly, my feet got cold, which did not bode well for the next few nights with temperatures getting much lower.

Next morning, wake up, pack up, and start riding to a place to get some supplies.

Nothing like a Dr. Pepper at some unholy hour in the morning. In general, I find that when bikepacking, the relationship between food/drink and time of day sort of goes out the window. 

Snickers for breakfast? Yes. A Mountain Dew at 7am? Most certainly. An apple at dinner? Well, actually, no, but that's because I have a strict rule against eating fruit or anything else healthy. This engine runs entirely on clean-burning, EPA approved candy bars. Of course I'm kidding (mainly), but typically calorie-dense foods are valued over more healthy foods.

The second night, the forecast was calling for a lot of rain and wind, so instead of soaking our gear and being miserable, we got a somewhat sketchy (read: cheap) motel and lived the life of luxury. We even got to finish watching Die Hard on TV, which we had on pause since July in Park City.

The next day, we started off from the motel in some light rain. This meant we put on all our rain gear, but after only a few miles, we both got overheated and took off some layers.

Later in the day, we got to a restaurant for lunch and a quick respite from the cold. 

As we were getting ready to leave the restaurant, I ask Will, "You ready to go? Should I go outside to the bikes now?"

"Yep, I'll be out in a second", he responds.

One second turns to five minutes, and I'm just standing outside by the bikes with Will nowhere in sight. The combination of being sweaty and just being somewhere warm meant my entire body was shivering.

I thought my teeth were gonna crack from chattering so much, I was absolutely freezing. I couldn't imagine sleeping in a tent for the next two nights at that moment.

Finally, Will comes outside and is ready to go. I was basically catatonic, mere seconds away from freezing to death. Curse that Will kid. Of course I'm joking, but I was pretty cold.

But in case Will is one of the five (count 'em, yes, that's a full FIVE) people that read this blergh, it's all good Brah. I'm kidding. Actually, now that I mention it, I'm sort of curious if you actually do read this blergh. If you read this sentence, send me a text just saying "I read it". Consider it part of a readership study.

After just a couple minutes of riding, I was once again fully warmed up. We climbed up a gradual grade on the main road for a while before turning into a state park. I forget the name, but it reminded us both of the Carvins Cove climb at the end of the Rockstar Gravel 250 route we both did earlier this year.

The climb in the state park was awesome; perfect doubletrack that had a nice vista halfway up. I love climbing up rocky doubletrack. After we reached the top, the downhill was more of the same: perfect grassy doubletrack that weaved down the mountain before going past a gate and popping out on a main road again.

Later that third day, we made it to a notable part of the journey: the abandoned PA Turnpike.

This roughly 10 mile stretch of the PA Turnpike was closed in 1968 because the two-lane tunnels caused too much traffic. The turnpike was re-routed, and this section was closed. It's still open for bikers and recreational use, however, and both tunnels are still safe to go through.

The first tunnel is about 1.3 miles long, complete with graffiti, creepy control rooms, and voices. Yes, voices. We both heard some voices at the end of the tunnel, but I'm writing it off as some kids in the woods. Or at least I tell myself that so I can sleep.

The picture above of the bikes next to the graffiti is one of my favorites of all-time. For some reason the combination of everything in the picture - and the angle of the bike - really does it for me.

There's also a picture of me in the tunnel, and I thought I put it in, but I must've accidentally added Will's picture instead. I don't really feel like going through the process of switching the pictures, so just imagine a taller, more handsome person in the tunnel, and that's basically the picture of me.

To find a camp spot, we looked at a satellite map and found a grass clearing somewhere along the abandoned road. We got the second tunnel's entrance, and we found that spot nearby. 

Since it was a light rain at the time, we just sat down on the ledge in the tunnel and waited for the rain to pass. It was a little bit of a mental battle to set up our tents and sleep outside rather than ride just 3 more miles to Breezewood and get a cheap motel. But in the end, camping was worth it.

We pitched the tents maybe 50 yards off the old road and just sort of stood around in a gravel patch and talked. The moon was bright, and since we didn't really know if we were trespassing, we didn't want to start a fire. I ate my Little Debbie's chocolate cakes for dinner, Will had his cold can of raviolis, and then we got to bed a reasonable time. This night, my feet got pretty cold in my tent. So cold, in fact, that I got a little worried, but alas, I woke up unscathed in the morning.

Surprisingly, a car drove by at one point while we were hanging out, and we crouched down by the tents to avoid being seen. I assume it was a cop, but it could also have been a local out for a joy ride through the tunnel. Either way, it was a good decision to not camp inside the tunnel, because I doubt many drivers would expect a person in a sleeping bag in the middle of an abounded tunnel.

Next morning, we packed up the tents and rode the 3 miles into Breezewood for breakfast at McDonald's. Inside the restaurant (if you can call it that), a disheveled older man came up to us and asked if we were "sleeping out" (camping outside, for those of you who don't habla).

We replied "yes", to which he let out a hearty, "That's the way to be!"

After leaving, Will pointed out that the man was almost certainly homeless, which sort of added a little bit of sadz to the encounter.

The riding on day 4 was pretty brutal, mainly thanks to a stiff headwind and temperatures that hovered around 34 degrees all day. Long stretches of open road were quite cold, so some hilly doubletrack along Raystown Lake was a welcome change.

Eventually, we made it to a little Italian restaurant along Route 22 in Alexandria, PA for a mid-afternoon dinner. After some very good (and affordable) spaghetti and a 2-liter of Dr. Pepper, we set off for Rothrock.

As we left the restaurant, I was once again cold, so I put on all my layers of coats. Will looked at me and knew I was going to overheat, but didn't say anything. Sure enough, after just a few minutes, I wanted to stop and take off the extra coats.

We got into Rothrock and checked the map to look for trails to camp on. We decided to continue up Tram Road to see some of those trails. The first few trails we saw were no good - either cabins nearby or the trails were nonexistent in real life. Finally, we got impatient and found a little clearing into the woods, so we biked/hiked into the woods a few hundred yards and set up camp.

After getting the tents set up, we tried to get a fire going. Unfortunately, the combination of wet/frozen wood, a lighter that was near the end of its life, and lets be honest - maybe poor skills on the part of me and Will, we couldn't get a fire going.

Instead, we sort of stood around in the cold for a while before deciding to get into our respective tents to try and stay warm.

For Will, going into his tent and sleeping bag was likely much warmer than being outside, after all, a 30 degree bag would be somewhat decent for 16 degree temperatures.

Me, on the other hand, had a 60 degree sleeping bag and feet that were already freezing. I was sort of thinking that going into my tent could be a death sentence, but I also didn't really feel like standing around outside by myself in the dark and cold. So I went into my tent.

It sort of felt like Game of Thrones, the night was long and full of terror. I'l say it again, it was cold. Right from the start, I was chilled in my sleeping bag. I tried to sleep on my back like I always do, but it left my chest too exposed and it made me cold. Plus my feet were cold.

I feel like I should point something out so that people don't think Will is a terrible friend for making me sleep in the cold. On multiple occasions, Will offered to either get a hotel or just push on to my apartment so I wouldn't have to sleep in the freezing cold in my 60 degree sleeping bag. But, I was adamant: no hotel for me, I would tough it out.

He also said if I got too cold during the night, we could pack up and just leave at 1 AM or something. It was certainly something I considered throughout the night.

Alas, I resorted to sleeping on my side and wrapping my feet in my biking jacket (which was slightly too sweaty to wear) and biking jerseys.

I remember waking up around 11pm (after "going to sleep" around 6:30pm) and being frozen, and yet knowing I still had 8 hours until it got light.

Eventually, I stuffed my feet inside my handlebar bag dry bag, which helped, and I made it through the night relatively unharmed.

The next morning, we both decided to just ride in our camp clothes instead of changing into bike clothes. It was the last day, so getting the clothes sweaty didn't matter, and neither of us really wanted to have to expose bare skin to 16 degree air to change into biking clothes.

Rather than go through Rothrock to Route 26, I decided to just take PA Furnace Road out to Route 45, and then shoot back on Whitehall to my apartment. The road names are probably meaningless to people, but just know that this way was slightly shorter, but also more scenic.

We were both completely bundled in all the clothes we had - long underwear, rain gear, puffy jackets, base layers - and as soon as we started climbing the massive 1,000 foot climb on PA Furnace, we both overheated. 

We were overheated except for Will's feet, that is. I think they were ded like singlespeed. Apparently, the little plastic wrappers they put on cups in hotel rooms aren't as warm as my shoe covers after all.

Halfway up PA Furnace, we stopped to shed some layers. Instead of opening up the bags to put stuff away, I sort of just tied clothes to my aero bars. It looked pretty funny, but it got the job done.

Finally, we made it to the top of PA Furnace and took some pictures from the lookout up there, which I think is the best view in all of Rothrock. We then descended down the chunky road to Route 45, and cruised on Whitehall back to my apartment.

Getting back into my apartment was certainly nice, but it wasn't as much of a massive "moment of relief" as you might expect. I guess because the trip was really fun, and even though we were cold, it was still sort of mixed feelings to get back to reality. 

That being said, a hot shower did feel nice. I'd say we also both very much enjoyed an IHOP brunch after warming up.


1 comment:

  1. I read it! Great write up, enjoyed reading about your adventure.