Saturday I planned to head into Lebanon County with Chris for a 40 mile ride on the local rail trail. However, Chris backed out at the last minute, and I found myself thinking of alternatives. I’d not been to the Lehigh Gorge in three years, and so decided to head north instead of west.
Lehigh Gorge State Park consists of the Lehigh Gorge Trail and surrounding land. The trail begins at the town of White Haven, just outside Hickory Run State Park, and heads south along the Lehigh River to just outside Jim Thorpe, Carbon County seat. The 26 mile fine gravel trail uses an old rail line, so its no more than a two per cent grade in spots. You ride or hike between massive railroad cuts into the mountainside and the river, shaded by a canopy of trees. A 130 foot high trestle takes you over the river and the trail ends in the historic district of Jim Thorpe. The park and trail are one of the most visited in the PA DCNR system, and there’s a brisk business for outfitters renting bicycles, leading rafts, and offering shuttle services.
Unfortunately, the drive to the Rockport trailhead was longer than my memories and Google Maps told me it would be. Combined with my late start I didn’t get onto my bike until 3:45 PM. I headed south towards Jim Thorpe, my instincts telling me I should get back to the car by dark. The round trip is thirty miles, and if I arrived back sooner than expected I could head up the trail towards White Haven a few miles to increase my total.
The riding was easy. I felt strong, stronger than I have in a long time. Not fast, but strong. I was especially pleased my legs were moving up and down like pistons, and not side to side as they did before my surgery. The only drawback to the ride was my hands going numb, which meant stopping every couple of miles or so to let blood back into them. I tried experimenting with different hand positions on the bars, seeing if they made a difference. No matter what I tried, I still had to dismount once I could no longer feel the brakes.
Fortunately blood flow returns quickly, and my stops were short. But they were long enough to enjoy the trail, the river, the railroad cuts and the mountain laurel and the trestle and the breeze. And my camera was as always around my neck waiting to be used. the weather was warm but not sweltering, the breeze was cooling, and every run on the trail was a cascade thanks to the recent heavy rains. The trip seemed to speed by.
I arrived at the train station in Jim Thorpe at ten minutes to six. My time doesn’t reflect a couple of extended stops to talk with a rafter about river conditions or the woman with leg cramps I stopped to help. I spent ten minutes in the downtown taking photos, and then as the clock in the courthouse tower struck six I headed back up the trail. I regretted not spending more time in Jim Thorpe, one of the most beautiful towns in Pennsylvania, but I’d visited the town three years before and I had to get back to my car.
At times I’m a prey to my own optimism. Two hours for 15 miles on a slight downhill doesn’t mean I’d take two hours for a slight uphill. While I have metal parts, I am not a machine. I forgot to include the facts that I was fatiguing, I was becoming uncomfortable on my saddle, I’d not had anything other than a candy bar and water since starting, and that the ride WAS uphill.
I started strong as I headed out of Jim Thorpe. However, my shutter finger began itching as I approached the Nesquhoning Bridge over the Lehigh. I stopped for several photos. And again stopped at Glen Onoko tralhead. And again to chat with the woman I’d helped earlier. I covered a little more than two miles in 50 minutes.
I picked up the pace as I left Glen Onoko, but I was slowed by the slight upgrade, my increasing fatigue, and the patches of loose and rutted gravel on the trail. At times I felt like I was riding through sand. It was annoying on the way down but it was especially vexing on the way back. I kept checking my cell phone to see the time, and calculated how many miles I was away from the car.
As I passed a sign warning cyclists and hikers that the stretch I was riding through was known for bear activity, I realized there was another potential problem awaiting me – wildlife. “In the dark, imagining some fear, how easy is a bush assumed a bear.” Theseus’ line from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream flashed through my mind, but it was more than just bear I had to worry about. Deer, skunk, porcupine – these and other creatures are nocturnal. While bear was the only animal I had to be wary of, a deer jumping in front of me was a concern too. But I pedaled on.
The trail runs alongside the rail line for a few miles, and once I left the train behind the grade lessened slightly and surface conditions improved. My pace slowed as fatigue outweighed all. I still was enjoying the trip as the light slowly faded. Waterfalls were still flowing as I rode past. The Lehigh was still crashing on rocks, its sounds only outdone by the crunch of my tires on gravel. I saw deer in the distance, and a porcupine crossed the trail as I stopped. It turned its back to me and its quills went up. I’d never seen a porcupine so close, and I was in awe. But we soon parted, he towards the river, and I towards my car.
By ten after eight I reached Stony Creek, three miles and change from Rockport. I pushed on. I must have gotten a second wind, as I felt as strong as I did at the beginning of the ride. My butt was sore, my hands numbing again and again, but I felt as if I was back riding in 2007 and 2008, when I was 60 pounds lighter and six years younger. Notung was becoming a part of me. “Wanna race?” I said to the gathering darkness. And I took off.
I reached my car at 8:45 PM, five hours after I set out. As the sun set on the Lehigh my only regret was that I hadn’t arrived earlier and gotten in 40 miles. I knew I was capable of it today. Next time. I’ll be back.
Today, Sunday, was a recovery day. Also a day of reflection. I drove nearly six hours round trip to ride 30 miles. Do I regret it? Only that I’d not been prepared to camp or secured a motel room. I could have spent another day in the area, and ridden the trail again. But the long drive was a small price to pay for getting myself back. For the first time since I went into a decline before my surgery I feel I can be the cyclist I was before….. and better.