Cyclist urges others to hit the roads and trails for biking adventures
By David Freeze
Special to the Post
I love riding long distance mountain bike rides. They are very similar to running marathons, which have developed as the biggest physical challenge of my lifetime. Both are totally exhausting and time consuming, and they take lots of training.
Yet the differences make certain aspects of the mountain biking more appealing to a 56-year-old worn-out athlete.
I go alone, so I don’t really have to set a certain pace. No one cares if I go this weekend or next.
I can plan till I am ready, then load the bike and go have an adventure.
It’s OK to stop and look, and yes, even take pictures. I can watch deer cross the road and stop to watch them run up a mountain, white tails flying.
So the stage was set for a trip to the Greenbrier Trail, a 77-mile rail trail that runs from Caldwell, W.Va., to the northern terminus at Cass, W.Va.
The trail is reclaimed from an old rail bed for use by cyclists, hikers, runners and equestrians. The surface is mostly packed gravel. There are just enough large rocks and holes that you have to watch out, or they can make for a rough ride. All the timbers have been removed and many remain by the side of the old Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.
My anticipation for the ride had been building for more than a year and finally the last weekend in March seemed to be a good time to ride hard for three days and do a round trip on the trail.
The week before, I watched the weather for Marlinton, W.Va., which is the spot where I hoped to spend both nights. The big factor was impending heavy rain, cold and wind. I didn’t want to spend seven or eight hours a day on the trail in tough weather, though I could stand part of the time in inclement conditions.I could dress for anything, and this proved correct. Still, I didn’t want to make the ride in miserable conditions.
On Thursday night, I read a story in a favorite magazine that included this advice: “Adventures are not best postponed. Just go. There will always be an excuse!”
I knew then that I had to go, and hope for the best.
4 a.m. Saturday: With a light rain falling, I headed north. The rain intensified, and I thought how great it would be back at home in the bed. But as light filled the horizon, I became more confident.
The rain lessened, yet the clouds still looked threatening. The forecast was for an 80 percent chance of rain, but mostly in the afternoon. My plan was to ride hard going north once I got to the trail and arrive in Marlinton before the heavy 1-2 inch rain forecast for that evening.
The ride through the West Virginia farmland on Highway 219, dubbed the Farm Heritage Byway, was spectacular. Remove the vehicles and farm equipment, and these farms looked just like they could have existed during the Civil War. Many of them had done just that.
My cell phone lost service about 80 miles from my destination. Cell service never returned throughout the rest of the trip until I was close to I-77 on the way back. I called that a blessing, though I worried that family and friends couldn’t know for sure that I was safe.
9:15 a.m.: In Caldwell, I had the bike loaded with a pack and I had another one on my back, so I was finally ready to go. The weight of the bike pack made getting on the bike a little trickier than usual, and I proceeded to fall off before I pedaled the first stroke. Undaunted, and quickly realizing that no one saw me, I was back on the seat, rolling north.
There had been recent flooding in the area, and the trail was soft, which made for heavier pedaling. I was told to watch for bears, so I immediately scanned the area. The river was flowing fast and muddy, with lots of flotsam.
For about five miles, I rode easily, but then realized this soft trail was going to be harder than I expected. Light drizzle fell from the sky, and the temperature was in the upper 40s and lower 50s all day. These are perfect temperatures for endurance riding.
The Greenbrier Trail crosses through five state and national parks. Throughout the ride, I continued looking up at mountains that form a deep valley for the river. The scenery got even more beautiful as I went north.
My goal for Day 1 was mile marker 56 in downtown Marlinton, but the trail was long and grueling. I had plenty of energy bars but began to crave something more substantial.
My next important goal was to arrive in Marlinton by 5 p.m., just in time to watch NCAA basketball. But the trail map showed a small town named Seebert ahead with a hot spot called Jack’s Corner Market. Jack’s advertises pizza, and I had become fixated on this reward at mile 45.8.
I was like the mule with a carrot dangling in front while plowing the family garden.
The miles passed by, and finally I rolled into town. I looked for Jack’s and knew that I was close to a great carbohydrate snack to fuel the rest of the day’s ride. But for whatever reason, Jack chose to close his store and no one printed new trail maps.
Another energy bar was my only reward, and a new goal of finishing the last 10 miles in less than an hour.
The rain was intensifying, but I was heating up as I rode, so the cool moisture was welcome. My raincoat stayed in the backpack.
Finally in Marlinton, I had a huge surprise: The last two trail miles entering town are paved. My legs only had to work half as hard, and I knew I was close to food. I knew Marlinton had a Godfather’s Pizza and a Subway, plus a small grocery store. I would be OK.
I checked into the Greenbrier Lodge and Grill, my abode for the next two nights. I had a nice room, with a view of the river and a restaurant right below my window. I got my footlong sub, two slices of pizza, some cookies, and more. I went to the room, ate, stretched out on the bed, tuned the TV to the games and promptly fell asleep. When I woke up, I saw Carolina had won. End of Day 1.
Day two dawns with a warm morning, well above the prediction at 68 degrees. I was hot on the initial ride north. My goal for the day was a ride to the northern terminus of the trail, about 24 miles, and then a return by 4 p.m. to the same room for another night of rest.
The trail was still just slightly uphill as I rode upstream on the river. For some reason the wildlife I didn’t see on Day 1 was out today. I saw deer, beavers, turkeys and possibly an eagle.
The end of the trail was at Cass, a town that was a company sawmill village in the early 1900s. It is now a West Virginia State Park. Many houses, all looking very similar, have been restored for summer vacationers. Many original buildings are also kept up well, such as the Cass Company Store. The mill provided everything for the families of the employees, even wedding rings, medical services and housing. A family, no matter how large, paid $1 per month for any medical services required, including births.
On my ride, the trains were not yet running for the tourist season, though I could see that the town would be lots of fun in the summer. The only store open in town was The Outpost, and I stopped for a snack before heading back to Marlinton.
I noticed the wind was building slightly and it was quickly getting cooler. The ride was half over, but I had another game to watch back in Marlinton, so best to get moving.
The ride back was uneventful, yet I continued to be amazed by the beautiful scenery. The muddy look to the river is almost gone, and it is returning to its normal color of green. Yes, the water is green, somewhat affected by the heavy limestone content in the area.
Back to Marlinton and I realized how tired and sore I was becoming. The temperature has fallen to 52 degrees, the wind continued to increase, and once again the moderate forecast for Monday seems to be in doubt.
I took the bike up to the room, went across the river bridge for a medium Godfather’s pizza and returned for the game. I watched it, a little more TV, listened to the wind howling outside and fell asleep.
Day three dawned with a cold wind, snow on the roof outside my window and a long ride back to my truck in Caldwell. I loaded up on snacks at the convenience store, bundled up in my cold weather gear and hit the trail.
There was snow in the air and a brutal headwind at times, but the miles continued to pass.
Gradually the snow melted off the mountains, the sun warmed the air, and I dressed down and got ready for the serious work of covering the miles.
I promised myself to stop and take pictures on the way back, and I did. A deer leaped in front of me, house after ancient house dotted the hillsides, and the beautifully green river had settled down.
It was much more relaxing to ride downstream and race the river. As I got closer to the end, it was hard to accept that this wonderful experience was coming to an end much more quickly than I wanted.
I stopped a couple of times to reflect, before easily finishing the last few miles. Back at the trail head, I took a few more pictures. I took some time to get back on the bike and ride into Caldwell and take a few more. I went back to the truck, took a few minutes to load up and headed home.
The trip yielded 162 total miles ridden, 23 hours on the bike, 19 energy bars consumed, but surprisingly only a total of 15 people seen on the trail.
The ride home was full of more reflection, a physical sense of accomplishment and a growing tiredness.
My memories of the wonderful three days will linger for the rest of my life. This area of West Virginia is full of history with many opportunities for a quiet riverside or mountain vacation. The trail can be covered at a much more leisurely pace. Take time to enjoy the tunnels and bridges built on trestles. You’ll find the locals will welcome you at restaurants and lodging that cater to those who use the trail.
But if given the chance for an adventure, no matter where it is, “Just go!”
There will always be an excuse. Just go!
For more information go to www.greenbrierrivertrail.com.