’Cross vs. Mountain Bike; or, A Proper Weekend Getaway

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In the Spring a cyclist’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of bikepacking.
At last, the leaves are unfolding a green canopy over road and trail, prompting thoughts of where best to go to truly enjoy the season. Of course, we’ll go by bike.
As I dream and make vague plans I look at photos of past trips. This set mirrors the ideal scene in my mind: brown dirt tracks snaking between jungle-like growth, cool rushing water in the warm air; it was a long weekend in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania. Following the K.I.S.S principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid), we planned short-to-medium mileage on a meandering route among state parks and forests not far from home, so it didn’t take much time in the car to get there.

A very nice campsite to start things off, if a little wet…fortunately I had my hammock setup.

It had rained heavily all that spring and early summer—nearly every day for the six weeks before we set out. We drove to the area and optimistically set up camp near the first part of our route (a dirt road masquerading as a creek), listening to the trickle and rush of water everywhere and the patter of more rain falling that night. It was going to be squishy.
Left: the gleam of water on the ‘road’. Right: Tricia on her fat bike, followed by Dan on his mountain bike.

But the sun came up the next morning, cheerfully starting the business of drying things by burning off the fog. We set off squishing and splashing down the ‘road’ and quickly fell into a rhythm: don’t push too hard. Stop and smell the flowers, or yield for horses, or look at the maps for the 17th time to make sure of the route while eating yet more snacks.
My companions and I were unintentionally fueling one of the great debates in cycle touring by each riding a different style of bike. Patricia was on her Salsa fat bike, Dan on a Nikolai hardtail, and I had my trusty Mountain Cycle ’cross/commuting/all-purpose rig. A bit of friendly competition developed between us to see who could best navigate the terrain, the squishiness of which was punctuated by the signature feature of the area—rocks, lots of them.
This little guy helped keep the flying insects at bay. (I try to make friends with spiders so they don’t bother me.)

The plant life loved all the water. Everything was blooming and growing right before our eyes. It made for a good distraction on the first real climb, a nasty, deep gravel thing with shifting clay mud underneath, devilishly designed to suck the power out of your legs. Some playful skirmishing for the lead (score one for the lightweight ’cross bike) didn’t last long and then it was time to take it easy again. The downhill proved tricky for my rig, the shifting gravel squirming out from under my front tire. Dan and Tricia flew by. Minus one for the ’cross bike.
Dan and Tricia, filtering fresh stream water. We might not have needed the filter but better safe than sorry.

The route was a little confusing—honestly, I like it that way. Not knowing where we were going forced us to stop often to ponder the maps and what GPS info we could get. There were dirt and gravel roads and some greenways that looked like mown avenues going nowhere. Snowmobile trails? There might have been one or two in the mix, hard to tell. Decrepit signs showed cryptic numbers that sometimes matched the maps, sometimes didn’t.
But there were blackberries near the top of the steepest climb. Lots of them! We had to stop and gorge ourselves, stepping off the road to get entangled in a mass of prickly canes. Tricia explained that her mom had brought her up to always take advantage of foraging opportunities; we were happy to follow her example. No better trail food than ripe blackberries. (Some of them were apparently black raspberries…? I never did learn the difference.)
Berries, nature’s trail food.

Then back to the road. All along, Dan had a goal to include some singletrack trails on this trip, and did his best to influence us in that direction. His influencing at times began to resemble whinging. It seemed the trip so far had held not enough mountain-bike-ness for him. So we aimed to get ourselves within striking distance on the second day, which proved somewhat difficult, as the route seemed to get more obscure as we got closer to the promised land of camp and singletrack. More cryptic signs, then a construction site above a major highway. Somewhere, there was a hiking trail that skipped over the highway on a nice, safe pedestrian bridge. We passed by an interesting camping spot atop a plateau (too close to highway noise, too far from singletrack) and pushed on.
But then: blueberries! We had to pause again and eat like that girl from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. We stopped just short of turning blue.
Sadly, most of the blueberries were not yet ripe. Must come back in August.

At last we found the bridge, then got semi-lost on the gravel roads of the next state park in the dusk. But our wild campsite was sweet—beside another rushing stream, surrounded by waving ferns. A small fire and whiskey with dinner completed the scene.
I used this photo once before, but it bears repeating. All the ingredients for a good campsite.

The next day’s quest was to sample the promised trails before finishing the route. We stashed the majority of our baggage in the deep ferns, thinking we could easily find it again (we almost didn’t) and headed out to a trail system known as Wolf Rocks. It is—you might have guessed—
quite rocky. My ’cross rig might have been a disadvantage here, but I like to ride rocks, no matter the rig, and I was determined to keep up with Dan after all his whinging. I lowered my saddle and did my best, following just behind him like a pesky little sister (though I’m older), bouncing and dodging and heaving. It was challenging and fun but not something I’d recommend doing regularly…though my chiropractor appreciates the business.
Trust me, this was the smoothest bit.

At the midpoint of the trail was a vantage point infamous for being home to rattlesnakes that sun themselves on the exposed rocks. We climbed out and, sure enough, saw some fat rattlers on rocks below, out on the edge away from us tourists clambering about. They looked lazy and uninterested, which was just fine with us.
The photographer was not interested in getting up-close photos of poisonous snakes, thank you; the vista would do.

More rocky pseudo-competition, and then it was time to head back to the car. Flying down one of the last hills, almost there…except, where was the turn-off to the parking spot? All we saw was what might once have been a narrow road, since drowned in fast-flowing water. Check the maps—oops, they had escaped Tricia’s pocket on the descent. A last opportunity for adventure. Some backtracking, some futile cellphone navigating, a stop to explore a refrigerator-cold swimming hole, and then we found it, the way back. We were almost disappointed. But we were also hungry.
The car ride home was, as it always is, a culture shock and a letdown. We used the dull downtime to talk about the next chance for a bikepacking trip.
Fat, ’cross, mountain: all fun. L-R: Tricia, your author, and Dan.

Imagine being lulled to sleep by the sound of this…

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