Avalon to Frostburg - The woman who sat on the toilet too long (and other odd American tales) - CycleBlaze

May 9, 2014

Avalon to Frostburg

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I DIDN'T run away like the others," the tall man said meaningfully in a dusky accent, one of those you can't immediately place. "I fought for my country. Others ran away. I didn't. I fought for my country."

We were in a café in Cumberland, a town which once mined coal but now makes the most of the Great Allegheny trail.

The tall man was athletically built and maybe in his late 40s, with a kind, tanned face and short hair. For all his bonhomie, he looked a man with whom you wouldn't rush to start an argument. He walked over and pulled back his collar and showed a slight scar.

Cumberland remembers the old days
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"A sniper's bullet," he said with a serious tone but without drama. "It just touched me." He ran his hand down his side and the top of his right leg. "And I have three bullets inside me here. I prefer being in America!"

I never did ask his name. But I know, because he said, that he was in several units during the Yugoslavian civil war and that he had ended up "in the Bosnian special police." I wasn't sure how ominous that ought to sound but decided that it was very ominous indeed. It wasn't the moment to ask for explanations.

A blue but unmarked map of Bosnia was painted on the wall. You had to know it to recognise it.

We'd stopped there, Chris Ogden and I, after riding the last kilometres of the C and O bikeway, which ends in the town and immediately becomes the Great Allegheny Passage. Chris had written out of the blue to offer me a bed for the night and had ridden back the way I was heading to collect me. We crossed where the bike path stumbles across a road and vanishes off at a slight dogleg on the other side.

"Straight on for Cumberland?", I shouted, taking care to pronounce the syllables evenly in the American way, only to find that locally they half-swallow the land just as they do in the original Cumberland in northern England.

Chris smiled, nodded and rode on, only to reappear at my side.

"You've solved your poison ivy problem, then," he said, referring to my conviction that I will one day wander into a batch and itch for the rest of my life.

I asked how he knew.

"I've been following your blog on Crazyguy."

And so the conversation continued for a while as Chris assumed I knew he was. And, a friendship made, we stopped at the European Desserts café and then rode the light gravel of the constantly rising path as it followed the tourist railway and its daily steam train.

That morning, the C and O from Paw-Paw was prettier than ever.

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"The path had dried and I had it to myself, an occasional angler, and several dozen black turtles sunbathing on logs. They plopped into the water as I neared them, otherwise I'd be showing you a picture.

I stopped at a tiny Confederate cemetery,

Confederate flags for a fallen hero
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exchanged a wave with a picnicking hiker and watched the long white trail of a silvery airliner making its way to Washington. In business class, five diplomats were discussing the stewardess's breasts in a language she couldn't understand.

The sun shone on wide pools and on trees that admired their reflection in the water and on dogs which snuffled in bushes. On little roads that crossed the trail with warnings of traffic that never came, on men with mowers who trimmed the hiker-biker campgrounds (far better at this end of the trail than the other), and on balding men who polished their cars in long driveways in Cumberland.

But it all changed as we left. The clouds gathered and the air grew heavy and occasional rain fell as we crunched up beside the railway, pausing at a curve to watch the preserved black and immensely mechanical steam engine thunder towards us on its return from Frostburg (named, Chris told me, not after mountain weather but an old mining family).

I should have drunk more. I was dry and my riding showed it. A day in the sun yesterday had shrivelled me and I hadn't caught up today. There are water pumps along the C and O but none on this stretch of the Great Allegheny. And I suffered accordingly.

But, a helping hand brings happiness in both directions and that's what happened as we neared Chris's home in Frostburg. Three guys riding the trail downhill with light panniers had stopped while one struggled to mend a puncture for the first time. We watched from the corner of our eye as we chatted with the other two but finally the time came for a gentle "Do you mind if we made a suggestion?" After which we conducted a class on tyre repairs and got them back on the road with much happiness all round.

Tonight, an early sleep and tomorrow on up the mountain for another dozen kilometres before descending to Confluence and a night of camping.

Real steam, beside the Great Allegheny Passage
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Real steam... up close
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Today's ride: 87 km (54 miles)
Total: 429 km (266 miles)

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