Early on an autumn morning, we were filling water bottles, checking tire pressure, and ensuring that helmets, gloves and padded shorts were brought along for the day. We had everything we needed for our 30-mile bike ride, but it would be almost 6 hours before we began our push along the trail, alongside the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, from Rockside Station south to the station in Akron, Ohio.
Daylight was just breaking, and we already knew that the day would be about so much more than just a bike ride – we’d have new, unexpected adventures, make new friends, and attempt the challenge of nervously anticipated hill climbs. We’d discover that you can miss the beauty of a Great Blue Heron, if you are focusing your camera on the waterlogged, fallen trees he stands among. And it’s great to have friends to refocus your attention and show you what you’ve been missing.
We’d enjoy the soft, late afternoon sunlight, casting long shadows from our spinning bike tires, and realize that we would have missed out on that experience, had we gotten an earlier start or ridden at a faster pace. The “delays” to get stamps in the National Parks passport, or to seek out hand dipped ice cream, would not seem disruptive at all, but part of the adventure.
The planned route was familiar, but had been turned on its head, and we’d ride it in reverse.
We would spend two hours driving North, from Columbus to Akron, Ohio to meet up with a half dozen of our friends, and their friends, who were making the same drive, with bikes locked into rooftop carriers, strapped to their trunks, or disassembled and stuffed into the back of SUVs.
For the third year, we’d be participating in “Bike your Park Day,” traveling 30 miles by bike, and the same distance by train. The ride takes place the last Saturday in September, and is put on by Adventure Cycling Association, which describes it as the biggest cycling celebration in North America.
What does this require? Ride to or within any park or public lands, while thousands of others do the same, on the same day! (ACA website) Our first adventure would be getting to our starting point!
The Akron marathon was taking place that morning, and we knew we might have to reroute, to get to the start of our Bike-Train adventure. But most of us hadn’t bothered to map the route of the marathon and hadn’t realized just how many road blocks we would encounter. We’d wave to one another from our cars, as we drove in circles, shrugging our shoulders and relying on social media to communicate as a group, and find our way.
Some would eventually get their cars (and bikes) to the train station parking lot. Others would give up about a mile out, in a variety of directions, park their vehicles, and ride their bikes to the station. At least one would miss the train that would be transporting us North, and decide to ride up instead, meeting us for lunch, not long after we’d arrived. (He kept a good pace, and the train made quite a few stops.)
What we remembered as a short train ride, of a bit over an hour, stretched out to almost 2 hours. That meant more time for speculating about what stops we’d make on our ride and taking selfies, while eating chips and drinking $5 bottled beer. $5 a bottle . . . ??? But it was beer on a train! That’s an experience worth having.
The train came alive at one stop, as a group of hikers (at least 25 strong) filled the empty seats in our car. They had started out early, had already completed their hike, and were making their way back to their starting point. Our group had spread out throughout the near empty train car, with open seats taken up by our helmets or our beer. With the arrival of the hikers we had new seatmates.
The volume in the car intensified, as we introduced ourselves, and shared stories of cycling, hiking, visits to other parks and rides along other railways. This was a large group of energized individuals, with common interests, excited to be getting outside on a beautiful fall morning. This is a type of energy that is infectious, the kind you wish you could bottle up, and take with you into the office on Monday morning.
With photos & stories, blog posts and Facebook shares, isn’t that what we’re doing?
Our arrival into the Northern station, at Rockside, would be delayed by yet another event taking place that day – “Steam in the Valley.”
“Experience the magic of the historic Nickel Plate Road steam locomotive no. 765 this September at Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, located in Northeast Ohio! During this two and a half hour round trip, passengers will have the opportunity to deboard the train at a secure location for an exclusive photo opportunity. Coach seating, open air cars and historic luxury first class and dome observation cars available.” (Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad website)
There were crowds of people, busily buying event-themed posters and T-shirts, while tapping their feet to a brass band. Adults and children strained forward to get a better view as we rolled into the station – I suspect they were disappointed that it wasn’t the steam engine arriving. Our train would have to unload both passengers and bikes, and clear the track, before the steam engine would roll into full view.
We decided we’d wait in the area, to see the arrival for ourselves, cameras ready to capture audio, video and photos of the whistle blasts and cloud puffs that would announce its arrival. With my cell phone at the ready, I had to chuckle at the rapid-fire shutter bursts coming from the DSLR cameras nearby. This was a rather slow-moving train . . . but I’m sure it’s tough to get just the right shot, of steam escaping, steel in motion, and wheels turning.
Big grins were plastered across our faces (what kid doesn’t like trains, after all?), as we stood in the warm sunshine, on a chilly morning. We were glad to have sunglasses and long sleeves, and the leisure to take our time getting to lunch, allowing our fellow cyclist to plug along, moving north up the trail. He’d have almost 30 miles under his belt, when he caught up with us, and was likely to arrive hungry, and ready for an extended break.
We ourselves were hungry, and ready to stretch our legs! But we were in no hurry. We were 4 hours into our day, headed into a busy restaurant, filled with all the other passengers who had just disembarked at lunch time. Yours Truly, a classic diner, was abuzz with activity, waitresses running large platters of food to overstuffed booths.
Our group of 9 got cozy out on the patio, at a table meant for 7, accustomed to long days together, and comfortable being elbow-to-elbow. The conversation was upbeat, our friend joined us and told us about the sights he’d seen on his way up the trail. With full bellies we sighed contently, and there was talk of how nice it would be to find a hammock and take a nap.
But weren’t we here to ride our bikes? It’s about so much more than that . . .
It’s about slowing down, chatting with strangers, and taking in the scenery. It’s about spending the whole day together, not needing to be anywhere else. It’s knowing that when you ride the route in the direction we did this year, the last 3 miles is all uphill, instead of the thrilling descent we’d experienced in the past. It’s about taking on the challenge anyway. (The volunteer cautioned us against it, as we boarded the train at the start of our day, but we already had our minds made up. Also, if we reversed plans and rode north we’d be riding south too, as we’d miss the last train back to our start.)
It’s about the beauty of the National Parks, the history of the canal system in Ohio and romance of the railroad. It’s a group of friends coming together to bike or hike or ride a train . . . to collect memories of steam locomotives, chocolate malts, and riding into the sunset.
Join me on my next adventure,
Bike Your Park Day: https://www.adventurecycling.org/resources/bike-your-park-day/
Adventure Cycling Association: https://www.adventurecycling.org/
Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad: https://www.cvsr.com/html/polarexpress/
Steam in the Valley: https://www.cvsr.com/steam/
Yours Truly Restaurant: https://ytr.com/