Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Greenbrier River Trail (GRT): A GReaT Trip

In the past, I've enjoyed long bicycle rides. I like the physical exertion as well as the mental solitude. It also takes some some bicycling skills to avoid any wrecks (especially when gawking at the scenery). I especially like the sense of exploration, not knowing exactly what lies ahead.

I've ridden the entire North Bend Rail Trail in one day (in fact, it was the day in 2007 when Anna was going to her job interview in Morgantown, and she dropped me near Clarksburg that morning to pedal my way home). I've previously written in my Facebook Notes section about my three day trek down the C&O Canal Path along the Potomac River to attend a conference in Washington. I've also explored all the bike trails (along the rivers from Shinnstown to Pt. Marion, the entire Deckers Creek trail, the Youghigheny bike path from Ohiopyle to Confluence, etc.) in the region near Morgantown.

I still had one major bike ride that I wanted to cross off my bucket list—the Greenbrier River Trail (GRT). This nearly 80 mile ride starts at Cass (home of the Cass Scenic Railroad) and finishes near Lewisburg. It is a wild and beautiful section of the state, with mile after mile of nature and little sign of civilization. The length is similar to the North Bend Rail Trail, but my one day North Bend blitz ride was downhill to Parkersburg, over a route that I already had experienced in segments (with lots of experience on the western half). I was not sure that trying a one day trip by myself on a trail I had never experienced was the prudent thing to do.

Fortunately, my Significant Other's Brother (but he's not an S.O.B.!)—who now lives in Columbus, Ohio—expressed an interest in riding the GRT with me. [By the way, I am his Sister's Significant Other, pronounced with an incredulous “Sso?”] Although somewhat new to long distance bicycling, he had met me recently in Athens, Ohio, to ride 36 miles together on the Adena Bikeway to Nelsonville and back. That practice day went well, and it seemed that we would be able to break the GRT into two segments of about 40 miles. Best of all, he is an accomplished outdoorsman, experienced camper, and first aid expert—valuable talents to have on such an epic adventure.

He picked me up after work last Thursday, and we drove to Cass, where we spent the night at the Route 66 Outpost. This general store has some “motel rooms” on the second floor which served our purpose well. We were able to leave his truck there over the weekend and get an early start on Friday morning.

The Route 66 Outpost is directly across the Greenbrier River (which is more like a stream at this northerly point) from the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park depot. I've done the Cass steam engine ride to the top of the mountain in my youth, and hope to do it again sometime. I highly recommend the historic train trip to anyone. Like rafting on the New River or hiking to Blackwater Falls, it is one of those iconic experiences in West Virginia.

The GRT actually begins about a half-mile south of the town of Cass, so we had to pedal on Rt. 66 for a short distance through town. The State Park has fixed up many of the old company houses for visitors to rent, and the town is very quaint. Soon we left the blacktop for the two-track hard-packed dirt and crushed stone bike trail. The first mile marker one sees is “80”, instantly reminding you of just how far you need to pedal!

Bicycle touring is a unique experience. You are always pressing onward, never sure what lies around the next bend, with plenty of nature and wildlife surrounding you at all times. Even when traveling with a partner, it is still a good way to get inside your head and contemplate the universe. The solitude is a wonderful escape from workweeks in my hectic cubicle. Since you are not motorized, things are a lot quieter than motorcycle or car touring. Often we had majestic views of the clear flowing river. Sometimes the sun is blocked by the canopy of trees, while on occasion you may be crossing a cleared pasture field.

It was during one of the few open areas that I heard an unusual noise. I turned around and saw a military C-130 four-engined cargo plane coming down the valley. When I first saw it, the wings were tilted as it had banked through the turn behind us between the ridge tops. It was just leveling out as it bore down on us. Initially I thought maybe it was in trouble, but it was under full power with no smoke, and was just making an exceptionally low pass through the valley. A few seconds later, it was gone. Later that afternoon, we heard another approaching plane, only this time it was a screaming jet fighter. Our vision of this one was obscured by the tree leaves, but it was obviously in a hurry. You might wonder why the military was buzzing us with aircraft? I've heard that the Greenbrier River valley is so sparsely populated that it is used as a training area for pilots to get used to flying low in mountainous terrain. Those two pilots certainly added some spice to our wilderness journey!

Speaking of wilderness, we didn't see any bears—although they likely saw us, hidden away from the trail itself. If the numerous berries along the path had been ripe, we likely would have encountered them. In fact, Beartown State Park is near where we camped Friday night. We did see lots of deer and other wildlife, including two snakes (neither of them dangerous—a garter snake and a black snake) and a couple of feral Collie dogs.

About mid-way the first day, we rolled into Marlinton, the county seat of Pocahontas County. We ventured off the trail to explore the town. After talking with the receptionist at the visitor center, we went to the Greenbrier Grill to eat lunch while sitting on their balcony deck overlooking the river. The view was nice, the food was good, and the neighbor's stereo—playing blues music loud enough for us to enjoy across the street—made it even better.

We covered 40 miles the first day before stopping to camp at one of the nice sites along the trail, complete with raised tent pad and fire ring. At dinner, I had my first M.R.E. (Meals Ready to Eat)--the military's method of providing a warm meal in the field. It uses a chemical reaction with water to heat the food. The chicken tetrazzini I ate wasn't bad, but I'm sure a steady diet of MREs would quickly grow tiresome.

A good fire is a must when camping, and we were able to get one going. There is something mesmerizing about watching the flames while alone in the wilderness. I remember reading an explanation a father made to his son when asked about “Where do flames come from?” The answer (which was far more eloquent than I can recreate) was that a tree spends day after day, year after year, decade after decade soaking up the solar energy of the sun. What one sees when burning a log on the campfire is all that power from the sun being released again. While I cannot tell that story as articulately as I remember reading it, I still enjoy that explanation.

Another great thing about camping is seeing the stars at night. Although the tree canopy precluded much of our view, the segment of the sky we could see was literally polluted with stars. In a city, one would only see a fraction of those stars, but in the wilderness, they are countless. It is no wonder why our ancestors (before the invention of the electric light, television, etc.) were fascinated with the night sky. It is truly amazing!

We packed up and took off the next morning. The weather had been perfect for this trip, with no rain and warm—but not overly hot—daytime temperatures. Again, we thoroughly enjoyed the scenery along the way. The southern half of the trail, as the river grows bigger, resulted in more kayaks and canoes. During one of our stops overlooking the river, the water was so clear I could watch a fisherman's every cast and follow his lure through the water back to him. At another stop, I watched a huge snapping turtle come up to the surface for air, before swimming off again under the surface. Yet another time, I watched a guy in a canoe reel in a nice trout (I assume—or maybe it was a bass). It was a relief to see that the water was crystal clear the entire length of the river. I love being around water of all types, but a flowing river with rocks and rapids can be as mesmerizing as watching a campfire.

We finally counted down the last few miles until arriving at the southern terminus. Anna came to pick us up and take us back to the hotel for the night. It had been a long, hard ride, and the shower sure felt great! Anna's nephew drove over to join us just for the night, and the four of us had a great meal at an authentic Irish pub before exploring Lewisburg, WV. It is a lovely old downtown with lots of history. Lewisburg recently won a contest proclaiming it as the “coolest small town in America.” Fayetteville won this same award several years ago, so West Virginia is fortunate to have two of the recent winners of this national award.

The next day, the three of us drove back north in Anna's car to pick up the truck back where we started at Cass. Along the way home, we passed the Greenbrier Resort as well as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. This major science operation was located at Greenbank (near Cass) because the population was so sparse there would be little domestic electrical interference for these giant dishes to explore black holes, pulsars, and other interesting parts of our universe. Finally, another scientific aspect of our trip was the huge windmill farm on the ridgeline just west of Elkins, WV. I find these power generators to be very interesting, and don't consider them to be visual pollution. I think you can still appreciate nature while appreciating technology as well.

I think the “technology” of a good bicycle is the best way to see the countryside. You can cover more ground than walking, without the environmental impact (noise or pollution) that other forms of transportation entail. Bicycling is an excellent form of locomotion. This trip covered a wide expanse of technology, from the shrill sound of the steam locomotive's whistle at Cass to the quiet whoosh of the modern hi-tech wind turbines at Elkins. The bottom line is the Greenbrier River Trail was a GReaT trip!

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