October 7, 2007

The annual pilgrimage, 2007

I've let two weeks go by before making time to write about this year's annual pilgimage out to western Md. Life is freaking busy these days.

So, anyway, the pilgrimage. I first vacationed in western Md roughly ten years ago. I had moved into my grandmother's basement apartment as a 6-year relationship was in the process of crumbling (he wanted kids, I didn't), only to find that Grandma had just been diagnosed with cancer. So, at some point during that chaotic period, I picked up a brochure advertising "The Mountain Side of Maryland". Sounded damned good to me, so I booked a room at the Cumberland Holiday Inn and mapped a route of back roads through Va and WV up into Md. I've been in love with that area ever since and have spread my exploration over into Garrett County and up into Fayette County, Pa. Cumberland remains "home base", and I head in a different direction each day for exploration and adventure via car, bike and foot.

With so many great options, I usually cross my fingers for good weather and go for 4-5 days. This year's been another chaotic one, though, and I was only able to arrange a 3-day pilgrimage. Ma Nature blessed me with good weather, though, so while short, it was definitely sweet.

Thursday's adventure was a ride along the C&O Canal towpath from Little Orleans to the Paw Paw Tunnel. I've been riding the towpath in sections for the last several years, and there was one little stretch between these two locations that had been eluding me. I'd been needing to do this ride to finally link everything up and be able to say I've ridden the entire length from Great Falls to Cumberland (I have no interest in riding the section between D.C. and Great Falls, I'd rather head away from the city). This is a beautiful, solitary section, and the half-mile long, pitch-black tunnel is a real highlight.

Heading into the tunnel at the downstream end:

Within the tunnel (taken with flash):

Coming back out, heading downstream:

Further downstream:

And even further downstream:

Headed from there into Cumberland, checked into the hotel, then up to LaVale for dinner at the Texas Grillhouse. The place is a cowboy-themed chain and I wouldn't bother to mention it except that they consistently have the absolute best snowcrab legs I've ever eaten. Full of dense, sweet meat, and perfectly cooked so that you're able to pull out nice big chunks of meat to dip in the melted butter. After a good long bike ride, it's a decadently luxurious meal (yet somewhat healthy when combined with a baked sweet potato and applesauce) and I truly look forward to it each year.

The second day's ride was along the last completed stretch of the Great Allegheny Passage trail from Cumberland to Frostburg. I've ridden this trail west of Frostburg (my blog of that ride) and up in Fayette County, Pa, but this last 15 or so miles was just completed over the winter of 2006. It turned out to be a steeper grade than I expected, though, (I'd estimate 2-3%, more in some spots) and I ended up pooping out and turning around just 3 miles from Frostburg. Took me 2 hours and a whole lot of breaks to pedal 12 miles uphill, but only a bit over a half-hour to head back down.

In the mountains, along the tracks:

My trusty steed:

The evening consisted of a wander around Cumberland at dusk, then ordering room service and watching Spiderman III on pay-per-view.

Historic downtown Cumberland at dusk:

After cycling two days in a row, I weenied out of a third and headed back east a ways to Berkely Springs, WV. For the past several years, my Cumberland trips have begun with a massage at The Bath House (These pilgrimages may be solitary, but they are most definitely not ascetic). This year, though, all the time and money spent with the chiropractor made me feel I couldn't justify this particular luxury at this time. When my thighs turned to lead on the uphill to Frostburg, though, I changed my mind and decided to have myself kneaded into a lump of blissed-out clay after all.

After that, another indulgence-- Warm Brie, apple and almond salad at Tari's Cafe. And after that, I chose to partake in a bit of my favorite drug: Adrenaline, induced by high speed on smooth pavement. Instead of driving the highway back to Cumberland, I turned off to take a run up and down mountainous rural route 9 through WV. My trusty little Honda Civic flowed through the repeated 'S' curves like water, while Incubus cranked through the stereo. Brandon Boyd's no Chris Cornell (Edit 11/11/07: I've since changed that opinion), but he's got a sweet, fresh set of pipes nonetheless. A few choruses of "Nice to Know You", along with a couple of high-speed passes of slower pick-up trucks, and I was quite high.

After coming down, I spent the rest of the afternoon reading Rudyard Kipling at a table in front of the Mountain City Coffehouse in Frostburg (with Jasmine tea and Belgian waffle with chocolate chips for dinner). When I first began these trips, it was the Tombstone Cafe, a funky little coffee joint geared towards the local college kids. The tiny little building, next door to St. Michael's church, originally housed the town's headstone carver. It's been through a few incarnations over the last decade, ending up as Mountain City, which seems to cater less to the funky college crowd and more to their yuppie parents.

Funny how the definition of "Yuppie" has expanded, at least in my mind. Originally coined to describe "Young Urban Professionals", it now encompasses, for me at least, a decidedly vaster age and geographic range. I find myself appying the term to 40- & 50-somethings piloting mini-vans and Hummers through the suburbs. What acronym would be more accurate? M.A.S.T.-ies (Middle-Aged Surburban Twits)? And how about the SUV-driving, born-again hippies who guzzle gas on their way to Whole Foods? That bunch makes me feel almost affectionate towards the born'n'bred country locals rumbling around in their pickup trucks. They seem somehow less hypocritical and disingenuous.

And yet, where do I get off judging the people around me in this way? Me, who dodges group identification as if it were a plague and fastidiously avoids labeling myself in any way, how can I so easily classify individuals about whom I know nothing but what I imagine I see in a quick glimpse? Like Camus' "judge-penitent", I'm cynical enough to exercise hypocrisy with impunity (and tongue firmly in cheek).

"[My words] have the purpose of...avoiding judgement personally, though there is apparently no escape. Is not the great thing that stands in the way of escaping it the fact that we are the first to condemn ourselves? Therefore it is essential to begin by extending the condemnation to all, without distinction..." (Albert Camus, The Fall)

To shake off the bitter direction my thoughts were taking, I headed out for an evening drive before my last night in Cumberland. In addition to being a great high, driving's also a meditative and relaxing activity for me. I often think that if I could just keep driving, all the need for judgement and condemnation would just fall away somewhere around the next bend...

"Nice to Know You"

Better than watching Gellar bending silver spoons
Better than witnessing newborn nebulaes in bloom
She who sees from up high smiles and surely sings
Perspective pries your once weighty eyes
And it gives you wings

I haven't felt the way I feel today in so long
It's hard for me to specify
I'm beginning to notice
How much this feels like a waking limb
Pins and needles, nice to know you

Goodbye, nice to know you

Deeper than the deepest Cousteau would ever go
And higher than the heights of what we often think we know
Blessed she who clearly sees the wood for the trees
To obtain a birds eye is to turn a blizzard to a breeze

I haven't felt the way I feel today in so long
It's hard for me to specify
I'm beginning to notice
How much this feels like a waking limb
Pins and needles, nice to know you

Goodbye, nice to know you

So could it be that it has been there all along?

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