The John Bartram Trail is a segment of the unfinished Schuylkill River Trail. The six mile pea-gravel trail runs from just outside the borough of Hamburg to a dead end at the Schuylkill River. One day the falling and failing railroad bridge will be refurbished and the trail will push on, but until then riders and hikers have a gorgeous path cut into the side of the mountain.
“Cut” is the right word. The Bartram uses an old rail line and much of the trail is cut out of the rock. The path has the usual markers for miles, interpretative panels with the history of the railroad, and an abundance of green. After it passes the last trailhead before the dead end the forest gives way to field, and you ride in sunlight instead of shade. At the dead end are a couple of picnic tables if you decide to have lunch overlooking the drop to the river on the other side of the fence.
I consider the Bartram the best segment of the Schuylkill River Trail. Its long enough to be a ride – 16 miles if you ride the two mile connecting trail into Hamburg and back, or 18 if you take the potholed access road down to the Kernsville Dam. But its short and easy enough for the novice rider, or for the family. Aside from the access road and the parking area at the Kernsville Dam it has no road crossings between the dead end and downtown Hamburg. And its scenic, as I’ve mentioned. With the railroad cuts, the forest, the river, and the old trestle a mile into the ride, the Bartram reminds me of the best parts of the Great Allegheny Passage. Its just fun to ride.
Its also fun to hike, and if you want a challenge one connects with it. As the Bartram passes Port Clinton it intersects the Appalachian Trail. The AT descends a set of stone steps from the trail to the Reading, Blue Mountain, and Northern train station. Port Clinton Station is also the corporate headquarters of the short line, and the station is designed as an imitation of a Reading Railroad stop of a century before. The ride I’m writing about took place in August, but I’ve reproduced a photo from October 2010 to show the station. The photo was taken from the trail, so you have an idea how many steps there are to get to down there.
Back to August 2012. I met my friend Sayre, his wife, child, and another friend for a ride on the Bartram. This was Sayre’s last ride with me before he moved his family to Florida. I’d just returned from Western PA a few days before, and I was trying to increase my riding and hiking. However, my stamina was still very low despite my surgery having been five months before. I completed the dozen miles but I was very slow and very weak. Physical therapy got me walking again, but I still had the “Frankenstein gait” and sometimes I’d put down my right foot and be surprised where it landed. I struggled to swing my leg over the saddle when dismounting the bike.
But the stiffness, clumsiness, and lack of stamina weren’t the worst problem. Being sedentary and frustrated for being sedentary left me little to do aside from eat. Combine that with nausea from a drug I was taking, nausea that I treated with masses of starches in my belly, and the expected happened. I didn’t weight myself at this time but based on my photos and weigh ins of a few months later I estimate I was tipping 350 pounds. I cringe when I see this photo. That’s not the real me; I’m the active man trapped in the balloon next to Sayre. That’s why I’ll always remember this day. This was the Fat Ride.
Fast forward a half-year to my next meeting with Sayre. Its now 2013, I’m off all drugs, I’m getting active, and I’ve gotten my diet back in better control. And I’m 40 pounds lighter, with promise of being lighter still. While I’ll ride the Bartram Trail again and again, I’ll never go back to the Fat Ride. Just as my friend Sayre will never go back to being a 400 some pound man, I’ll never be back to where I was.