Wednesday, June 29, 2016

New Experiences

It's been over two months since my last blog post.  It seems to me that I'm getting to the point where I'm going over the same ground, writing about rides in the same places, and posting pictures that aren't much different than what I've posted before.  That lack of fresh experiences to talk about has made me feel as if I don't really need to re-write the same stories over and over again, and as a result the blog posts get farther and farther apart.

This seems to be the way that life goes though - as you get older the range of things that you are comfortable doing gets more well defined, and your choices get made from a smaller set of options.  This doesn't have to be totally a bad thing, as the lessons you've learned from past experiences let you rule out re-trying things that didn't live up to your expectations, or even turned out to be truly unpleasant.  But there is a negative aspect as well, since it seems that your 'field of vision' when considering your options becomes narrower and narrower, and truly new experiences become further and further apart.

But sometimes new experiences kind of sneak up on you, and without making an actual decision to try something different you can find yourself in a situation that was totally unexpected - sometimes for the better, and sometimes not.

After a week at work I always look forward to getting out for my customary Friday night bike ride on the Little Beaver Creek Greenway.  It isn't my local trail, but with a 40 minute drive I can be at the Leetonia trail head, and unlike most of the other trails in our area they allow night riding.  The trail only gets light use, and has a few mild grades and curves along the old railroad grade above the creek for 10 miles, so it's perfect for getting in an easy after work ride in an uncrowded wooded & rural setting.  I've been riding here almost every week for a couple of years, and have come to know the trail and it's surroundings pretty well.

Little Beaver Creek Greenway, Ohio

In June there was a full moon on the summer solstice, but I was too busy to get out to see it. However the next evening I was free, so I headed out to the Leetonia trail head in the evening for a night ride under the full moon.  I've been on many full moon rides, including mountain bike rides, and really enjoy being able to ride at night with only the moonlight illuminating the way.  It's amazing how well you can see as your eyes adjust to the lower light levels.

I got to the trail head not long after sunset, as the light was starting to fade from the sky. By the time I was ready to ride the evening dark was setting in, and I mounted my bike light on the handlebars.  I looked around for the moon before setting off, but it wasn't visible.  The sky was still showing enough light that as I rode off there was no problem seeing the trail.  As I rode slowly on down the trail my eyes further adapted to the low light level and I was able to easily move down the empty trail as it left the active rail corridor and headed across a mile of swamp.  I continued along the trail as night fully fell, but the sky still had a soft glow of light illuminating the surroundings.  This is something I've experienced before, but I've always enjoyed being outdoors at night and I was having a great time slowly riding into the developing dark.

The lightning bugs took their cue from the setting of the sun, and as I rode out of the swamp they started to flash, their pale green lights calling out to the others of their kind, sending messages of early summer firefly romance.  What started as a few widely separated flickers started to intensify as more and more joined in.

Coming out of the trailside treeline at a corn field I coasted to a stop.  The treeline and ground around me were now pitch black, with the softer grey of the sky filled with stars above.  And now their were lightning bugs everywhere.  They filled the air with soft flares of light, and clung to the tall grass growing along the edge of the corn field.  Thousands upon thousands of fireflies moved quietly over the corn, sending out their individual patterns of light.  The dark treeline along the edge of the trail was a glittering fabric of pure black and pale green.  Looking further back, along the far edge of the field, I realized that the whole woods as far as I could see was softly glowing with these momentary bursts of light.  In all directions I was surrounded by a pale cloud of flashing light.  Everywhere I looked there were lightning bugs flickering, with hundreds and hundreds lighting up every second.

I stood there astride my bike with my jaw hanging open.  Even though I'd spent a large portion of my life out in the woods and fields, this was something new to me.  I felt total amazement at what I was seeing, and then the realization that it had been a long, long time since I'd seen something new and unexpected enough to give me that feeling. Sweeping my gaze around the surreal landscape I tried to soak it all in, to commit the scene to memory, to try and capture that feeling of stunned surprise.  It was almost overwhelming.

Finally I managed to get my feet back on the pedals and slowly resumed my ride.  Not far ahead the pale grey of the trail disappeared into the dark of the treeline as the trail entered the woods again.  Here the trees blocked out the soft glow of the sky and the view was almost totally black.

But tonight the darkness wasn't quite total.  There were thousands of lightning bugs along the trail, slowly pulsing with light.  And the ones that were within a couple of inches of the ground actually gave off enough light that I could see the trail in brief flashes as I slowly rode along.  It was mesmerizing, watching for the tiny flash and the vague illumination on the trail. My entire field of vision now was black - with a continuous wash of dim green lights sparkling in every direction.

After about a half hour I noticed that there were less and less lightning bugs in the area.  Either they had begun to disperse, or I'd ridden out of the area where they were the densest.  I switched on my light, picked up my speed to normal cruising, and headed on down the trail for the remainder of the ride.  And it turned out that the only time I saw the moon that night was at the area near the parking lot, where the hills to my southeast weren't obscuring it.

Over the next couple of days I thought quite a bit about the experience, and how it felt so unusual to have something new and unexpected like that happen.  When my wife said that she had four days off over the weekend in a couple of weeks to help friends with a big graduation party out of town, I thought that it was time to get out of my comfort zone and try something else new.

Last year I made a pair of bicycle panniers to fit over the racks on the back of my and my son's bikes.  We'd planned on a bike trip in West Virginia last August, but a car accident two days before forced my to cancel the whole trip.  So the gear was packed away, waiting for another opportunity.  And rather than wait for some perfect time I decided it was time to do it now.

So my 15 year old son, Ken, and I decided to take off for a 4 day bike tour along the paved trails of the Allegheny River and surrounding areas.  We'd done a couple of overnighters on the bike before, but this was the first real test of the pannier system and the first multi-day trip where we'd actually travel more than 5 miles.

Ken ready to take off for our first overnighter with the new gear last summer.

Back country camp 1 mile from the trailhead at Kennerdell Tract, Pennsylvania.

As the weekend approached and the weather forecast started to come into focus, there was reason for some concern.  Temps for the trip were forecast to be well above 90 during the day.  That heat would make it a challenge for anyone, with the effort required to pedal a 90 pound loaded bike and to keep hydrated.  But for me it would be an even tougher problem. When I get my metabolism fired up in hot temperatures I 'perspire freely' - that is I sweat like a lawn sprinkler.  I've learned how to deal with it for the most part, but for an extended period in the heat with limited amounts of fluids and limited resupply points I was fairly concerned.  But nothing is without risks, so we decided to deal with it as well as we could and headed out.

Fully loaded bikes resting along the Allegheny River Trail, Pennsylvania.

Our trip was along the Allegheny River Trail in western Pennsylvania, with a side trip planned on Sandy Creek Trail.  With the temperatures peaking above 95 degrees on Saturday and Sunday we didn't try to push for big miles, but instead rode slowly for short distances between breaks in the shade to rehydrate.

Ken resting alongside the trail, waiting for Dad to stop taking pictures.
We had to pass through 2 old tunnels, each over a half mile long.  Feeling the temperatures drop from the mid-90's to the lower 60's in the matter of a few seconds was almost a shock to the system, but once we were inside it was such a treat that we hardly wanted to leave.  We even talked about getting our seats off the bikes and taking a little break inside, but figured we might scare other riders if we started hanging around in the dark.

Ken waits outside the Kennerdell Tunnel.
I'm glad to say that the equipment all worked well, and there were no surprises in that part of the trip.  The racks and panniers worked great for the most part, though there may be a few possible tweaks that would make things a bit easier.  The scenery was great, the trail was mostly in fantastic condition, and we were able to deal with the few unexpected occurrences with no problems.

Old RR culvert visible from the trail.
But the problem that did require some adjustment was the heat.  We ended up riding shorter miles than we had planned, which was just fine with both of us. And we changed from a four day trip to a three day trip as the heat, combined with dehydration, took it's toll on me.  But the good thing was that we were able to recognize the problem and deal with it in a well thought out manner.  Even so I spent the day after we got home laid out, drinking prodigious amounts of water as I recovered from what was guessed to be borderline heat exhaustion.  Ken was fine of course, having the stamina and strength of a young bull.

We both had a good time, and learned quite a bit on how to make it easier next time.  And there will definitely be a next time, when it will be cooler and we can enjoy the riding more.  It was great to try something new, to get out of my comfort zone, and take a few chances.  That is something that I need to keep in mind, and try to bring back to my life in a bigger way.  I may be getting older, but it turns out that isn't a good reason to stop trying new things.

It makes me wonder what it would take to ride across the country.