Our shuttle driver threw the gearshift of the minivan into park.
“We’re here,” he said. “Welcome to Pittsburgh, backbone of America. Now everybody get outta my van.”
His name was Bob. He was a local. Bob was a portly, talkative guy, covered in white whiskers, with a staccato Eastern accent and a deep affection for unfiltered Camels. He’d driven four hours south from the ’Burgh to Washington, DC, to pick us up and drove another four hours north to Pittsburgh’s trailhead at Point State Park downtown.
It was a cold September morning in America’s Spinal Column, and we were running dangerously low on sleep. Not the way you want to start a four-state bike trip. We crawled out of the tobacco-fogged Chrysler Town & Country to find ourselves standing beneath the towering skyscrapers and smokestacks of an old steel town. We couldn’t have been more disoriented if we’d woken up with our heads sewn to the carpet. My truck was parked three states away in Virginia in a public parking area. We were 1,014.19 miles from our Florida home. To say we felt naked only hints at what we were experiencing.
“Welcome to paradise,” said Bob, gesturing at the maddening cityscape. “The nation’s Pitt’.”
An emergency vehicle shot by us with sirens blaring and blue lights flashing. Then came two more. Also nearby we saw a homeless man vomiting into a storm sewer.
“Be it ever so humble,” said Bob.
We looked at Point State Park. It is not a park, at least not like we’d expected. You hear the word park, and you envision greenery, maybe a few elms, picnic tables, and kids playing Frisbee. That’s not what we saw before us. Point State Park is a tribute to the Age of Concrete, with all the subtle charm of a Soviet bunker.
And bridges. Pittsburgh loves its bridges. There were suspension bridges, arch bridges, beam bridges, and through-truss bridges everywhere. Bob told us that Pittsburgh has 446 bridges—that’s more than Venice, Rome, or any other city in the world. Bob had been doling out tidbits like this all morning. He happily shared every hometown fact he’d ever learned since third grade.
“Pittsburgh has more annual days of rain and snow than Seattle.” “Lewis and Clark started their journey right here in Pittsburgh.” “Pittsburgh held the first World Series.” “Pittsburgh has more Catholic relics than anywhere else in the world except the Vatican.”
“Huh,” we kept answering, silently praying that he’d run out of Camels.
But now we were deposited on a cold sidewalk with nothing but our cycles and our tonnage of gear scattered around us.
“Nice hat,” Bob said to me. “Never seen anyone ride a bike in a cowboy hat. Looks kinda dumb, you ask me.”
We were off to a great start.
“He’s not riding a bike,” said the math teacher. “It’s a trike.”
Bob scratched his thinning hair. “But why?”
“Because he’s afraid of bikes,” said Jamie.
Bob stared at my odd-shaped tricycle. “You’re afraid of bikes?”
“Also clowns,” added my wife.
Bob touched my side mirror. “Ain’t never seen a bike with three wheels before. It’s so . . . low to the ground.”
“It’s very safe,” said the math teacher.
Bob seemed concerned.
I ignored them and kept loading my saddlebags. Although I must admit, my recumbent trike was a little silly looking beneath the soaring cityscape of Pittsburgh. The thing looked faintly reminiscent of a motorcycle sidecar, minus the dignity. The math teacher bought the trike used for a few hundred bucks, which solved the problem of my bicycle phobia, but it brought me new problems. Namely, it looked like I was riding a Barcalounger.
Bob tilted his head. “You don’t actually plan on taking that thing on the C&O trail, do you?”
“I do. Why do you ask?”
“You’ll never make it on that thing.”
“There’s a lotta rough trail out there. I don’t think your toy is up to it.”
My wife and I exchanged looks.
“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” said my wife.
Bob handed me a business card. “You just keep my number, case you have any problems. ’Kay?” Then he pumped my hand and looked at me the same way you’d look into the casket of a loved one. “And, hey, promise me you’ll call me when you finish the trail. Just so I know you’re safe.”
Bob then crawled into his Chrysler, gave a solemn wave, and left us standing on the sidewalk.
It took exactly eleven minutes to nearly get killed in Pittsburgh. I’m not being metaphorical.
Picture, if you will, two uncoordinated average Americans, sitting on cycling seats the size of Altoids containers, cycling through the heart of a major American city, on the shoulder of a wildly busy highway. Now imagine that it’s rush hour. And pretend, for the sake of this illustration, that your hot-tempered wife is pedaling ahead of you, making your unpromising situation worse by screaming aggressively at speeding vehicles.
Urban life eddied around us. Taxi cabs. Police vehicles. Sirens. Enormous trucks. Eighteen-wheelers traveling at breakneck speeds. A BMW honked, swerving around me with a loud squeal, and I nearly quit breathing when I realized how close the vehicles came to swiping me. We had not only slipped out of our comfort zone. We had found Dante’s Inferno.
It took a full fifteen minutes to pedal across our first bridge, and I was struggling to keep up with my wife’s gladiatorial pace. We were on a busy three-lane highway arching over a river, cycling on a thoroughfare alongside an onslaught of speeding cars, transfer trucks, emergency vehicles, SUVs, and infuriated drivers who periodically rolled down windows and shouted mid-Atlantic obscenities at us. These vocal motorists were in for a real treat when my wife introduced all well-wishers to the Florida state bird.
Finally, we pulled over. My heart was about to pump right through my ribs and flop on the sidewalk while the math teacher consulted our pathetic paper map ($12.99). A map that should have been turned into toilet paper long ago. This was not the experience I imagined having on the GAP. I’m not sure what I expected, but this wasn’t it.
The din of rush hour was too loud for my voice to be heard. But I tried anyway.
“Where are we?” I shouted.
My wife shook her head. “Can’t hear you!”
“Which way are we going?”
She tapped her ear and shook her helmet.
I could tell by the way she was looking at the map that our situation was bleak. We were lost.
Meanwhile, traffic was whizzing by with wind gusts strong enough to blow off my facial features. We had no idea what exactly we were supposed to be looking for trail-wise. Where were the woods? Where was the sanctuary of nature? What about all those pictures from the guidebooks of happy people in tents, strumming Martins around campfires? How were we supposed to get to untamed wilderness from here? The only wilderness I saw within the citified hellscape was a single tree being watered by a wirehaired terrier.
Finally, my wife spotted a cop strolling by. “Oh, thank God!” she shouted, already leaping from her bike and jogging toward the man with the badge.
I pedaled behind her.
“Excuse me, Officer?” she said. “Do you know where the GAP trail starts?”
The officer started to speak, but his eyebrows rose when he saw me riding the flagship for all geriatric persons.
“What kinda bike is that?” he said.
My wife shoved the map at the officer. “Can you show me where exactly we are on this map?”
“Never seen a bike like that,” he said, chuckling.
“It’s not a bike,” I said. “It’s a trike.”
To his credit, the officer did try to help us, but it was clear that he didn’t know anything about the trail. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I really can’t help you. They’ve been rerouting the trail entrance this year, everybody keeps getting lost, and nobody seems to know where it is. I’m afraid you’re on your own, guys.”
“On our own?” said my wife.
And with that, Pittsburgh’s Finest removed a phone from his pocket and took my picture. As he walked away, I overheard him say to his partner, “I’ve gotta get one of those for my little girl.”
Jamie and I pushed our cycles to a nearby crosswalk. At the traffic light, we met a group of young men carrying large backpacks and wearing bandanas. There were four of them, and the looks on their faces were as helpless as ours. They said they had been looking for the trail for hours, consulting their maps to no avail. And I learned my first trail lesson in the bush. When you’re on a pilgrimage, it is possible to build meaningful relationships based on mutual disgust. We were immediate friends.
“This is ridiculous,” said one young man between gulps from a water bottle. “See that bridge over there? Some guy told us to go under that bridge, but Jack’s maps say go over it. We can’t figure out whether to go over or under or backwards.”
“We coulda been halfway to DC by now,” said another.
One kid tilted his map sideways. “This stupid map got four stars on Amazon.”
Since my wife has always thrived during situations wherein a leader is needed, she craned her head over the young man’s shoulder to observe his large atlas. Then without asking permission she commandeered his map and traced a finger over it. I could see her mind at work. She was already fitting the pieces together in her mathematical computer. Her eyes looked wild and unruly.
Somehow, being males, we all instinctively knew it would be best to remain silent and let the woman alone.
One kid leaned in and whispered to me, “Is she, like, really smart or something?”
“She has three degrees,” I said.
I held up three fingers.
“Why?” he said.
“You’re preaching to the choir, buddy.”
We all remained unmoving for several minutes, watching Jamie translate markings on paper as though solving the Riemann hypothesis. Then her face suddenly brightened.
I knew that look.
She pointed forward. “Follow me,” she said.
And then we were six.
The sun was setting. We had wasted an entire day looking for the trailhead. A half dozen strangers wandered through Pittsburgh on a quest to find the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, which leads to the GAP trail, with a lone math teacher leading the way. In some ways, our caravan looked downright biblical as we pedaled through the busy side streets. The map kept taking us off course, but Jamie seemed to be able to translate the map somehow, so we kept pace behind her because, truthfully, who else were we going to follow?
At times we found ourselves wandering through vacant parking lots where a single Ford Escalade would be idling, windows tinted with roofing tar. The driver would smile at us and reveal twenty-four-carat teeth. We’d all avoid eye contact because these weren’t exactly the areas of Pittsburgh where you wanted to find yourself while wearing extremely tight, asset-displaying bike shorts.
On our journey across America’s sixty-eighth-largest city, more cyclists joined us. Cyclists, I discovered, tend to gravitate toward each other, especially when they’re lost. Our first companion was a slender woman named Sandy on an expensive bike. She came pedaling toward us, no hands on the handlebars, carnation-white hair, and an emaciated frame.
“You guys as lost as I am?” she said.
Everyone answered in grumbling, mob-like tones.
“I’ve been looking all afternoon,” she said, “but I can’t find the trailhead. I’m so mad I could punch someone in the mouth.”
She fit right in.
We had yet a few more recruits join our ranks. One was a young Russian-American man from Florida who knew exactly 4.3 words of English. Three of these words, apparently, were swear words. Another was a young guy from Nebraska on a Schwinn he bought from Walmart, which made me feel better about my own machine, which I was growing certain had been probably purchased from Toys “R” Us.
The math teacher was now leading nine people through Pittsburgh like a gaggle of confused steer, weaving through frightening mazes of skyscrapers, intersections, and sidewalks. The general consensus was, “Let’s trust Jamie.” I was proud of this woman, who led perfect strangers toward their destination. I only prayed she actually knew where she was going, otherwise these people might try to lynch us.
I headed up the rear of our cavalcade on my trike, riding a full three feet below everyone else’s rear ends. Sidewalks led to crosswalks. Crosswalks led to empty asphalt lots, which led to detours weaving around condemned buildings and back alleys. The alleys led to more intersections, which led us beneath more behemoth bridges. We doubled back. Reoriented ourselves. Retraced our steps. Once. Twice. Three times. After hours of this, we were no closer to the trailhead than when we’d started. We picked up four more people who were also looking for the trail.
And then we were thirteen.
I have read about sailors adrift at sea, suffering the effects of malnutrition and scurvy. When they first see land, many grizzled seamen have emotional breakdowns. Some get so excited they tear off their clothing and jump right into the water, naked, swimming toward a distant shoreline. This was like that. When we found the temporary plywood ramp with a spray-painted sign reading:
I felt like either cheering or collapsing. Or both.
The entrance to the trail couldn’t have been any uglier if it had been designed by Jackson Pollock. The on-ramp was part of a construction zone, leading beneath an overpass. The trailhead was trimmed in neon cones, chain link, and orange barrels. A ramp shot downward beneath a frighteningly loud interstate where, supposedly, the wilderness began.
You could have lit the city with the looks on our faces.
We cheered loudly.
Before we parted ways, everyone paused to congratulate Jamie and slap her back. Without her, we might have ended up dead, or worse, stuck in Pittsburgh.
“Well,” said Sandy, pulling on a long-sleeve racing shirt over her skeletal frame. “It’s all uphill from here—literally.”
“Uphill?” I said. “Really?”
“Didn’t you know?” she said. “ʼBout a two-thousand-foot climb uphill altogether.”
“Straight up. Ain’t too bad though, if you take it slow.”
“Slow. You mean like six or seven years?”
She smiled. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” She nodded to my wife. “You got a good one there. We’d all be sleeping under a bridge if it weren’t for her.”
“You have no idea.”
We shook hands.
“Godspeed,” Sandy said before releasing my hand.
Once we finished all our congratulatory remarks, we went our own ways. The last sliver of sunlight sank beneath the Pittsburgh horizon, and it was time to ride an American trail that is roughly the distance of an average Midwestern state.
The math teacher and I stood at the apex of the ramp, staring at a tiny sign that read:
WASHINGTON, DC, 350 MILES
“Here we go,” said Jamie. She stepped onto her pedals and shot ahead of me, her right hand was extended in a familiar sign language gesture.
Taken from YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE: A Story of Love, Promises, and a Really Long Bike Ride by Sean Dietrich. Copyright © October 12, 2022 by Sean Dietrich. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.
Purchase the book here.