Great Allegheny Passage, Day 2 (West Newton to Ohiopyle)

On April 26, 2015 · 0 Comments

The second day of biking on the Great Allegheny Passage may have been my favorite. The rain lifted overnight and conditions improved with lightly cloudy skies, neither too hot nor too cool. Scenery changed from rust belt chic to thick forest hugging a scenic whitewater river. It was our first complete day of biking without any time pressures on either end, with ample opportunity to explore every obscure corner before arriving at our destination for the night.


Banning No. 1 Mine Processing Plant; Perryopolis

We left behind the hulking factories that once forged iron sheets and pressed farther into mining country. Much of the easily-accessible coal along the banks of the Youghiogheny River had already been extracted. We’d encountered signs of mining pollution the previous day. Now we began to experience the discarded remnants of the mines themselves: the forgotten railroad spurs; the abandoned coke ovens; the dilapidated processing plants and other hulking artifacts discarded along the valley reclaimed slowly by natural forces.

One such facility served the Banning No. 1 Mine (map). An interpretive sign (photo) on the site explained that it once "processed coal for the steel mills." Coal came down from the mountain on tracks directly into a plant that washed, sorted, processed and shipped it from the 1890’s until 1956. "In 1951 Banning No. 1 employed 500 men and produced 500,000 tons of coal." Now all that stood on the spot were a few decrepit, spooky concrete rooms that offered little more than refuge to gangs of underage drinkers and graffiti artists.

Coalmines brought jobs and wealth to mountain communities. They sometimes brought tragedy. We biked past a memorial (photo) to the victims of the Darr Mine Disaster of 1907. Some 239 miners died on that spot when an open flame lamp ignited mine gasses and triggered a massive explosion that rocked the valley. Only a couple of miners survived. Many of them were entombed permanently within the mountain. A century later, the Darr Mine continues to be one of the worst industrial disasters in Pennsylvania history although it was largely forgotten. Life was cheap in the mines and Darr was worked by Hungarian immigrants who didn’t have much of a voice.

Fifty Miles Done

Mile 100; Perryopolis

Fifty miles down the trail — one-third complete — and another hundred miles to go (map). The miles melted away almost effortlessly as I fell into a groove and barely noticed my legs moving anymore. I felt great, physically and spiritually.

I’d been more than a bit dubious when my friend suggested the Great Allegheny Passage for our trip. I couldn’t imagine riding that distance on a gravel path. I was pleasantly surprised. The GAP consisted of a finely-crushed limestone gravel that made for an exceptionally smooth ride. The trail itself was abundantly wide with excellent drainage. Certainly the tires created a little more noise than they would have made on asphalt road, and maybe rolled a tad slower, however it was quite manageable and comfortable otherwise. Seven distinct groups maintained different sections of the trail so that the entire 150 mile length remained in great shape. Their efforts should be commended.

A Trail to Ourselves

Quiet Trail Scenery

The time of year also concerned me. We left in early April and conditions could be perfectly wonderful, or they could be miserably wet or horribly cold, or any combination hour-to-hour. Early Spring dates were always a crap shoot, a simple roll of the dice between lovely and wretched. Nevertheless, one takes what one can get, and these were the only dates that worked for all of us so we didn’t have an option. We’d already experienced the rain on Day 1 and managed just fine. The rain passed and remaining days only improved. It was a bit chilly each morning although it never truly got cold. We considered ourselves fortunate.

Taking that risk, not that we’d been give a choice, created perfect timing in one regard: we’d hit the Great Allegheny Passage at the very beginning of thru-rider season. I didn’t expect to see anyone else on Day 1 in the rain. Anyone with flexibility or common sense avoided the trail. However on Day 2, even with nicer weather, we encountered no more than a dozen people biking in either direction throughout the entire day. That included a leisurely lunch at the Round Bottom Camping Area (photo) on the banks of the Youghiogheny. Nobody. We remarked several times how it seemed like the trail had been constructed solely for our enjoyment.


Evidence of Beavers; Fayette Co., PA

I didn’t see any bears and I can live with that. Well, there was that one fake bear (photo) at the miniature golf course in Ohiopyle although that hardly mattered. Neither did I see the nest of rattlesnakes reputed to live near Mile Marker 20, not did I look for it. There were plenty of other more benign creatures along the path that greeted me as I biked through the woods. I spotted a couple of wild turkeys one morning and also a fox. There was also an amazing array of birds in the underbrush and along the river. One of our travel companions was a bit of an amateur naturalist who could describer all manner of flora and fauna to kept us entertained while we pedaled through the forest.

Where was the beaver? I saw the stumps (map). Those trees hadn’t fallen by chainsaw or axe. An entire patch of stumps stood aside the river and yet I couldn’t see any downed trees or a dam or a beaver. Goodness knows I looked.

The Wild Youghiogheny

Youghiogheny Rapids
Youghiogheny Rapids; Ohiopyle

The Youghiogheny began to increase in turbulence as we approached Ohiopyle (map). This also marked a change in terrain. The path would continue slightly uphill for the next sixty-five miles into the Laurel Highlands. This gradual elevation rise also created some of the best whitewater rafting in the eastern United States although we wouldn’t get a chance to experience it on our trip. There weren’t too many people riding the Youghiogheny rapids on a chilly April afternoon although we spotted a few brave souls. We pulled into Ohiopyle for the evening, a perfect finish to a rewarding second day.

Great Allegheny Passage, Day 1 (Pittsburgh to West Newton)

On April 22, 2015 · 0 Comments

I’d fretted about my upcoming bicycle trek along the Great Allegheny Passage trail, my attitude stuck somewhere between nervousness and fear. I’d never attempted anything like it before, a 150 mile (240 kilometre) rails-to-trails ride between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Cumberland, Maryland.

Every time I conquered a fear I created a new one to replace it. I wasn’t "experienced enough" so I rode all through the winter in the cold and the wind getting into shape. I wasn’t used to extra baggage so I loaded my panniers with 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of dead weight and rode around like that for several weeks. I didn’t have the right equipment so I had the bike overhauled, packed for every roadside repair imaginable and scoured the Intertubes for suggestions from riders who’d finished the trail successfully. It might rain a lot in early Spring so I packed waterproof everything. I even threw in a couple of bungee cords because — well why not — bungee cords might be useful. How did I ever get to this? A younger version of me with some friends took a 28-day roadtrip with barely a map and a vague idea of wanting to visit national parks. Now much older and supposedly more experienced, I was afraid I might get wet.

Eventually I eliminated every rational and even some irrational fears with the exception of possible attack by hillbilly meth addicts hiding along the trail. Roving feral methamphetamine gangs were one tick above sassquatch sightings on the probability scale so I knew I’d finally arrived at the proper mental state. I was ready. Besides, we were spending four days on the trail, an easy pace that one website described as a classic for "recreational cyclists with some experience." That seemed to fit my demographic.

We parked in Cumberland, Maryland and hitched a shuttle ride along with our equipment to Pittsburgh through a local bicycle shop. We would need to finish the trail if we wanted to see our cars ever again and return home. We burned the bridge behind us, figuratively.

The Journey Began

Point State Park; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Mile 150 began in Pittsburgh. We planned to ride all the way back down to Mile 0 in Cumberland. The shuttle dropped us off at Point State Park at the joining of the city’s famed Three Rivers, where the Monongahela and Allegheny formed the Ohio (map). I wished we’d been able to spend a little more time exploring the history at the park, the place where Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne stood at the river confluence during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). However it was already approaching 2:00 pm and we needed to get moving even though it was a light ride, 35 miles (56 km) on relatively flat terrain.

We posed for the obligatory photos at the fountain in a cold, steady rain. We were all thoroughly waterproofed, warm and ready to roll so the weather didn’t bother us. The route followed city streets for a about a mile before turning onto a dedicated path that would last for the remainder of the trip.


CSX Railroad Train; near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The GAP Trail followed decommissioned railroad rights-of-way primarily along riverbeds, first the Monongahela as we began the adventure and later the Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers, each growing progressively smaller as we pushed farther back into the watershed. Trains became our constant companions for the entire route. While some lines had been decommissioned and turned into trails, others continued to haul coal from the mountains in an unending stream. All day, all night, along every mile of pathway and in every sleepy hamlet the train whistles and the clackety-clack burst into waking hours and even seeped into my dreams. I saw the first train just outside of Pittsburgh (map) and then came hundreds more.


The Homestead Works; Homestead, Pennsylvania

The trail leaving Pittsburgh displayed an unusual mix of post-apocalyptic ruin and suburban sprawl, and reminded me why the local football team became the Pittsburgh Steelers. The steep decline of the Rust Belt loomed everywhere though, in remnants large and small. Entire factories of broken windows stood abandoned along the banks of the Monongahela. Concrete blocks and iron trusses poked from the earth in unexpected places, crumbling, rusting, decaying. Every once in a while an actual working mill continued to belch pillows of steam over the valley, a remnant clawing its way into the 21st Century. Perhaps some might find this industrial backdrop a bit grim for riding. It rather fascinated me though. I imagined the prosperity that old robber barons brought to the area only to see a way of life collapse decades later, emptying towns and scattering people as economic winds shifted to other parts of the world.

Not everything I saw reflected a tale of decline. Modern suburbs grew into many of the vacant spaces once filled by factories. We peddled past an odd array of well-preserved smokestacks (map) in front of a shopping center known as The Waterfront. Those were remains of Homestead Steel Works, once the world’s largest steel-producing plant.

The poles are the 12 towering smokestacks that used to vent heat from red-hot steel ingots waiting to be reshaped in the 45-inch slab mill. They now stand like lonely sentinels at the edge of the Loews Theater parking lot.

Homestead Steel Works dated to the 1880’s, once owned by industrialist Andrew Carnegie who later sold it to U.S. Steel where it became the company’s flagship factory. It was also the site of the infamous Homestead Strike of 1892 that lasted for several months with significant violence and loss of life.

The Works closed in 1986. Almost thirty years later I rode across the place where molten metal rivers once poured.

Scars Upon the Landscape

Red Waterfall
Red Waterfall; Buena Vista, Pennsylvania

We began to leave city behind and pushed past McKeesport, now switching from the bank of the Monongahela River to the Youghiogheny. The trail’s paved surface turned to gravel and would remain that way for the remainder of the ride. City gave way to suburb and finally to countryside as the miles slipped away. Next came smaller towns like Boston and Sutersville and historic sites such as the old Dravo Cemetery.

Nature reclaimed many of the old industrial sites although a toxic legacy remained behind. A red waterfall (map) hid a dark secret. The rich color came from iron. The acidity killed aquatic life and poisoned the waters. Toxins seeped from abandoned mines, an environmentally harmful condition called Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). The waterfall reminded me that even something ugly could appear somewhat beautiful on its surface.

We arrived in West Newton for the night, wet and layered with ashen grime from the crushed limestone used on the trail. We hosed-off our bikes and congratulated ourselves on a successful first day.

How Tautological

On April 15, 2015 · 6 Comments

I noted the inherent redundancy of places named River Ouse in England. The literal translation worked out to something like Water River or even River River. Similar repetitions occurred likewise wherever one language overlapped another as new settlers migrated into territory occupied and named previously by earlier cultures. I found a discussion of the Ouse situation specifically on the Stack Exchange English Language & Usage website, including one particularly fascinating comment that illustrated a similar point using a different English location:

Steam Under Pendle Hill
Steam Under Pendle Hill by Andrew, on Flickr (cc)

There are other similar anomalies in place names in the British Isles. One of my favourites is Pendle Hill. The word ‘pen’ means hill. Later, the next incomers changed the hill’s name to ‘Pendle’, meaning ‘hill hill’. And then the next incomers, not knowing the etymology (and sadly lacking an internet) called it Pendle Hill or ‘hill hill hill’, so Pendle Hill really, really, really is a hill, because anything said three times is the truth.

In Pendle Hill’s case (map), it came from the Cumbric pen in its earliest form, then combined with Old English hyll to form Pendle, then later appended with the modern English hill. Pen, Hyll and Hill all meant the same thing essentially. There was another place in England, Torpenhow Hill, that was alleged to translate to Hill, Hill, Hill, Hill, however its etymology was debunked. What a pity.

Wikipedia contained a long list of similar tautological place names; "A place name is tautological if two differently sounding parts of it are synonymous. This often occurs when a name from one language is imported into another and a standard descriptor is added on from the second language." Dictionaries described tautology as a logical or rhetorical redundancy that applied broadly; much more widely than just geography.

The frequency of tautological place names surprised me. They included familiar names like Mississippi River (Mississippi being Algonquian for Big River, making it Big River River) and Lake Michigan (Michigan coming from Ojibwa via French mispronunciation as Large Lake, making it Lake Large Lake).

I stole a handful of examples from the very expansive list and ruminated upon them further.

Dodecanese Islands

Chora, Astypalaia
Chora, Astypalaia by Henrik Berger Jørgensen, on Flickr (cc)

The Dodecanese Islands (map) in the Aegean Sea formed Greece’s southeastern extreme. The largest and most well know was probably Rhodes, famed since ancient times for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. The island of Kos also had a lengthy pedigree and was even mentioned by name in Homer’s Iliad. Still another, Patmos, was where the apostle John wrote the biblical Book of Revelations. Clearly there were renowned places amongst the Dodecanese Islands. The major islands within the group numbered twelve in total plus numerous smaller island.

Dodecanese was Greek (Δωδεκάνησα) for Twelve Islands, so the commonly Anglicized place name was equivalent to Twelve Islands Islands.

Lake Hayq

Lake Hayq by Manogamos, Algunas veces Mujeres Violentas, on Flickr (cc)

I selected the next example in Ethiopia because, frankly, I wanted to put a push-pin on Ethiopia on my Complete Index map. Africa had been sadly underrepresented on 12MC. I need to add more. Lake Hayq (map) offered an excellent opportunity. Plus it gave me an excuse to write Hayq in that funky Ge’ez script used by Ethiopians: ሐይቅ

Hayq had an interesting creation myth:

According to a local legend, the lake was created to avenge a pregnant woman who was wronged by a princess. God was greatly angered by this injustice, and in his wrath turned all of the land surrounding the woman (except the ground she was sitting on) into water forming a lake, destroying the princess along with her friends and family in the process. Where the pregnant woman was sitting became an island (now a peninsula) where Istifanos Monastery, founded in the middle of the 13th century by Iyasus Mo’a, is located.

Hayq was Amharic for lake, so calling it Lake Hayq was equivalent to calling it Lake Lake.

La Brea Tar Pits

La Brea Tar Pits - Los Angeles, California (3)
La Brea Tar Pits – Los Angeles, California by ashabot, on Flickr (cc)

I visited La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California a number of years ago (map). It made the list for that simple reason. I found it oddly wonderful that I was able to visit an important paleontological site in such a completely urban environment. Natural deposits of tar oozed up to the surface over thousands of years. Sometimes leaves or dust would blow across the surface making it appear solid and indistinguishable from surrounding terrain. Along would wander some Ice Age critter stumbling into the tar, unable to extricate itself, and die. Repeat that innumerable times and scientists are still removing their bones for study today.

The Rancho La Brea biota is one of the world’s richest and most diverse late Pleistocene terrestrial assemblages. At the last census, in 1992, the collection exceeded 3.5 million specimens. The diversity of species (~ 600), the quality of preservation, and the large numbers of specimens makes this collection invaluable for the study and understanding of the end of the last Ice Age in North America. Rancho La Brea is perhaps best known for its extensive holdings of carnivorans, of which dire wolves (Canis dirus), saber-toothed cats (Smilodon fatalis), and coyotes (Canis latrans) predominate among the 60 plus species of mammals.

La Brea was Spanish for The Tar, so La Brea Tar Pits meant The Tar Tar Pits. Oftentimes, compounding this, sources referred to the site as The La Brea Tar Pits (even the museum located on the site called itself "Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits." on one of its pages). That would make it The The Tar Tar Pits.

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