Monday, June 3, 2024

Pennsylvania Wilds Almost Got a Bit Too Wild

I laid down in the thorn bushes, needing a second to stop and think. The stars were out, I was halfway up a mountainside, and as the hill got steeper and the thorns got thicker, pushing my bike became more of a challenge. I had no cell service, but a faint line on my Garmin gave me hope there was a trail in the distance above me. How did I find myself in that situation? A combination of stubbornness and optimism, I'd say. Let's start from the beginning.

I've been wanting to do a longer ride recently. What is a longer ride? It isn't well-defined to me, but I figure it's got to be long enough that the daylight hours might not be long enough, in other words, you'll need a light. Unintentionally, a long ride also incorporates often-dramatic highs and lows, which is one of my favorite parts.

For this long ride, it was going to be Zach's first 200-miler. I spent considerable time and effort (but apparently not enough, more on that later) planning a route through the Pennsylvania Wilds, the so-called region in north-central Pennsylvania that is one of the least-densely populated areas in the entire region.

We started just after 7 A.M. in Snowshoe, a little town along Interstate 80 about half-an-hour north of State College. Being early in the morning and heading down to a river meant one thing: fog. As we descended to the town of Karthaus, the fog was thick enough to cover my glasses. A few miles later, we got to our first stretch of gravel and settled into a comfortable pace.

It was a long, gradual climb that led to a not-quite-as-long gradual descent into the town of Benezette, the self-titled "Elk Capital of Pennsylvania". I've been to the town once before, with Will back in 2021 on our cross-Pennsylvania gravel trip, and this time, we stopped at the same store to fill up our bottles.

At the cash register, I noticed an old-looking penny in the take-a-penny tray, and seeing as I got a penny as change, I swapped them out. It was a 1944 Wheat Penny. I've never mentioned it here before, but I'm a bit of coin collector, especially when I was younger, so that was neat little ride bonus.

From Benezette, we fruitlessly rode past the touristy-for-central-Pennsylvania "Elk Viewing Area" before venturing back into forgotten gravel roads. For those wondering, there really are elk in Pennsylvania. A successful reintroduction program gave Pennsylvania the biggest elk herd east of the Mississippi, around 1,400 elk in total. I've seen plenty of elk out west, but they've as of yet eluded me in my home state.

She turned me into a NEWT (Monty Python anyone?)

Forest gravel roads turned to zero-traffic forest pavement roads, and eventually we descended into Emporium. I've also been there once before, on my cross-Pennsylvania gravel ride, and we stopped at the same Sheetz as I did before. Not out of a sense of sentimentality, but for convenience, because Sheetz really is the gold standard for Pennsylvania store stops (get outta here Wawa!).

Perfect cruising road

Out of Emporium was a neat closed gravel road climb, almost 1,000 feet, which led to more winding forest gravel roads. All roads lead to Austin, or was it Rome? Either way, the roads we took led us to the small town of Austin. By small, I mean that the entire Austin Area School District has a K-12 enrollment of 180 students. That's 15 kids per grade!

The surface on these roads is nice and smooth. Sometimes.

The little general store we stopped at in Austin was an embodiment of one of my favorite parts of these long gravel rides. It's hard to say exactly what I mean, but there's something really neat about walking into a general store, far away from cities, clad in biking gear, and buying a mishmash of candy bars and junk food, all the while the clerk asks you again where you started your ride and how many miles you've ridden.

I know it sounds weird, but the smell of those stores, or at least the one in Austin, is oddly comforting to me. Of course, it's probably a mixture of mold and deteriorating wood, but it's still intriguing to me. As I said, it's hard to really explain what I mean, but stopping into those kinds of stores while on a long ride gives me a sense of being a visitor who earned his way there. I know this sounds trite, but I feel like locals respect you more - or at least I respect myself more - when I get somewhere by bicycle rather than by driving. You aren't just another person stopping to get gas.

From Austin, which was mile around mile 100, it was - you guessed it - more winding forest gravel roads. This time, they led to the town of Cross Fork. I don't think I'd eaten enough before this, because when I got to Cross Fork, I was feeling very depleted. I bought two Mountain Dews and two little ice cream sandwiches and ate it all sitting on a little wood bench outside the small rustic-looking store. Even though in the moment it isn't exceptionally pleasant to feel depleted, I recognize it as just a low point and at this point, it's just part of the game.

We also overheard some locals talking outside the store about a drunk driver who crashed their car into a ditch on a gravel road just outside of town. Apparently he refused calling any emergency services - probably because he didn't want to get charged with a DUI - and he tried to just walk away from the scene saying he'd call a tow truck. The story was relevant to us because just before we got to the store, we saw a driver swerving all over and driving toward us entirely in our lane (i.e. going the wrong way!). Thankfully, the driver got over to the other lane before he got to us, but just after passing us, he must've turned off onto a gravel road and had his mishap.
All downhill to Renovo from here

We had more fantastic roads out of Cross Fork, which eventually took us to Renovo. I've never been to Renovo, so it was neat to check out a new town. Renovo is a bit bigger than the other towns we'd been to and it didn't quite have the same charm. Don't get me wrong, the views are amazing, but the town itself seems a lot more 'tired'. 

There was, however, a friendly guy on a bike commuting somewhere on the main road, and when we passed him, he saw our aero bars and said "That's unfair!" Then, when we were leaving the gas station a few minutes later, he rode past us and commented about how he was beating us now.

The climb out of Renovo was a brute. According to Strava, it was 12.2% grade for over 1,100 vertical feet. With some flatter sections mixed in, that meant there were sustained stretches of the climb that were 16-18% grade, at least. It was really hard, but having just eaten some good gas station food, we both had plenty to energy to snag the Strava KOM (out of a grand total of 6 people, including us, who've done the climb).

The climbing wasn't finished with that big one, though. There were several more shorter-but-equally-steep climbs. The views were really nice the whole time, and it seemed a bit more like Rothrock than the other parts of the route, mostly because of the laurels.

The ill-fated Iron Gate Road

After a few more miles of gravel, we turned onto Iron Gate Road, a road, that, according to the DCNR maps, would lead to the town of Orviston. It started out gravel and then it turned rocky and sandy, right as we had to turn our headlights on.

That's when the fun began. We came to a door, and we looked inside, er, that's The Doors The End lyrics. Rather, we came to a gate, and we looked at the no trespassing signs, and we decided to take a detour. 

Well, we started on the detour, then we rode back to the gate to make sure it wasn't something like "No 
Trespassing except Bikers and Hikers". It wasn't, and we didn't feel like getting into an altercation in the dark with a landowner, so detour it was.

The detour started off alright, then it got rockier, and then it pointed downhill. Eh, probably fine. Keep going. Then it made a switchback turn away from where we wanted to go, but still, what other choice did we have?

Keep in mind, if we backtracked and tried to take other gravel roads, it would add at least 15-20 miles. There aren't many roads in those parts.

So, we kept going. As a note, we were now about 175 miles into our ride. The trail got muddy. There was a creek to cross. It was now almost pitch black, my headlight shining the way. I was starting to get a bit concerned, but now, the sunk cost fallacy was really getting to me: I've already gone this far, I should keep going.
The first creek crossing

So, we kept going. More mud. I checked my phone, still no service, but an offline map loaded for me and I saw a trail in the distance. We were technically on private property, and with every turn I was expecting to go face-to-face with an angry landowner. That was probably the tiredness affecting me, because there wasn't a person for several miles in any direction. Eventually, the one trail we were on seemed to get pretty close the mysterious "road" on my phone's offline map. The problem was, there was no trail connecting to the mysterious "road", so I decided to hike straight up the hill. This was probably a mistake, but turning around felt like an even bigger mistake at this point.

So, we kept going. The little "300 foot" hike to the mysterious "road" on my phone's offline map turned into a half-an-hour scramble up a steep hillside covered in thorns. And when I say covered in thorns, I mean so completely covered in thorns that with every footstep my legs and my bike were getting tangled in thorns. Plus, did I mention it was like 30-40% grade the whole way?

Am I sounding dramatic? Possibly. But in the moment, I was genuinely concerned. If there was no road at the top, I had idea what we'd do. I guess we'd turn around. Maybe we'd be stuck in the woods until daybreak. I didn't really know. When I say this area is remote, I mean it. There wasn't a person within a several mile (and several big mountains) radius of us. And no cell service.

This brings me back to the start of this post. It was hard work going up the thorny hillside. At one point, I just laid down in the thorns to think about what a big mistake I'd made. Zach was a bit below me on the hillside, sounding a bit panicked at times.

As I laid in the thorns in my misery, I spotted a log to my side that was cut with a chainsaw years ago. The smooth cut was a great sign, because it means there must be some sort of access point near us that someone could've used.

We kept going up, and with the clear skies and bright stars, we could see the top in the distance. Zach's headlight illuminated a wood structure that we thought was a guardrail. Saved at last! We sped up now, drawn to it like a beacon of light. 

It wasn't a guardrail. It was just a strange wood structure amidst the thorns. But, we were at the top now, and I eagerly ran forward with my bike. I saw a path in the distance, and finally, I burst out of the thorns and onto a trail, where I immediately laid down again. It never felt so good to be on a trail.

We weren't out of the woods yet, literally or figuratively. We kept going up, now on a trail, but still hike-a-bike. There was a random pipe sticking out of the hillside, and seeing as how I had an empty bottle, I filled it up with the mystery water, chugged it all, and filled it up again. Ah, mysterious pipe water, you (hopefully not) dirty devil.

At the top of the climb, the trail got wider. There was even a smidgen of cell service, which allowed me to confirm that the road we wanted was just one more hiking section away. We found a connector trail, long since closed, and started down it toward the road.

At one point, I caught my front wheel on a rock and flipped over the handlebars. I banged up my elbow and cut my knee, but nothing too bad. The thought of a road in the distance was drawing me forward.

At long last, I popped out of the woods like a beast from the jungle and laid down on the road, this time a wide and well-maintained gravel road.

Gravel roads back toward Snowshoe, near Orviston.

Once again, I need to mention that perhaps I'm being dramatic. Although, if you consider that we were almost 15 hours into the ride, 175 miles of riding in, and it was after 10 o'clock at night in a random forest I'd never been in before with very little cell coverage, maybe I wasn't being dramatic. Although, still, at least part of my exasperation was due to tiredness.

From there, it was all gravel back to the car, about 20 miles, to be exact. There were some steep climbs left, but nothing too bad, and under different circumstances, it would've been a really great finish to a ride. Well, it still was, but we were so focused on getting back to the car that it was hard to enjoy the roads as much.

Finally, just after midnight, we got back to our car. The total was 200 miles, over 18,000 feet of climbing, and 17 hours total time (over 14 hours of moving time, not counting a lot of the hiking where our Garmin auto-paused). We loaded our rides onto Strava (the most important part) and then went to sleep in the front seats of the car. Since I was so tired, sleeping in the front seat wasn't too bad, and I slept until almost 6:30 A.M.
Back at the car just after midnight.

We set out to do a hard and adventurous ride, and we certainly checked off both of those boxes. Next time, I could do without the hike-a-bike up a thorny mountain, but it was at least a memorable experience. Until next time.

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