A Cold Ride from Cumberland Valley to Happy Valley
As we climbed what would be the final summit of the day, my brother John says, "You are going to kill me."
"Yes," I respond. "I just have not found a location remote enough yet."
"How remote do you need?"
"I think it gets a little darker and deeper in a few more miles."
Our ride to State College started in my hometown of Etters, Pennsylvania, a suburb south of Harrisburg and a few short miles from the Susquehanna River. The goal for day one was to ride from the Susquehanna through the Cumberland Valley to the base of the Appalachian Mountains, some 45 miles total.
We left the house with bright excitement, following gently rolling roads along Yellow Breeches Creek and across the Cumberland Valley toward our first campground. It was mid-September in central Pennsylvania, with temperatures in the high 70s. Along its way, Yellow Breeches Creek passes through Grantham, Boiling Springs, and Mt Holly Springs. Grantham is a college town with a restored covered bridge crossing the creek. Used today for students to access ball fields, it provides a nice place to rest. Popular with local riders, Boiling Springs seems to be included in a lot of the local club rides. It gets its name from an underground spring which feeds a small lake in the center of town. Mt. Holly Springs, which marked our departure from the creek, is a great place to stop to take in the many 19th-century brick homes. The Cumberland Valley is known for its rich farmland and provides plenty of back roads for riding.
Dogwood Acres Campground, our destination for the night, sits at the base of the Appalachian Mountains. It would be our resting place before the first major climb the next morning.
The author sitting with Ronald McDonald at Dogwood Acres Campground after the first day of riding, and before the cold front pushed in.
Shortly after our arrival, the sunny blue skies turned dark. Intense lightning was accompanied by a 30-degree drop in temperature.
It was a cold, hard rain for the next day of riding. Our route took us over the first mountain at Doubling Gap, and through Colonel Denning State Park to Tuscarora State Forest. We stopped at the Loysville Country Restaurant for a hot breakfast before starting the climb up Conococheague Mountain. Each of these mountain ridges stretches for roughly fifty miles, and are broken only by the Juniata River, a tributary of the Susquehanna. Our final climb of the day would take us into heart of the Tuscarora State Forest, composed of a collection of broken ridges not suitable for farming.
By late afternoon, we felt like our lives hinged on one final summit and a steep, frigid descent into the town of McVeytown, some 10 miles away. Despite having rain jackets, both of us had been soaked for hours; with the temperature dropping to 40 degrees, we were ripe for hypothermia. I had asked myself two days earlier: "Should I pack my warm riding coat?" -- a thought that stuck in my mind as I descended behind John ... who was now wearing it. I was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, with a rain jacket that did little to stop the driving rain. I had lost feeling in my fingers from pulling the brakes so hard to keep the speed below 20 miles per hour. This was not to make the journey last longer, but to keep from flying off one of the many gravel switchbacks and falling to near-certain death.
Leaving the state forest behind, we finally reached Idle Acres Campground, where a lukewarm shower and two hours in a wet sleeping bag were enough to bring us back from the brink. Then we rode into McVeytown and found a pizzeria on the town square. Exhausted from the three mountain crossings, we ordered so much food that the cook came out to make sure we were serious. "The stromboli typically feeds an entire family," he said.
Our last day on the road, which would be 45 miles, began with the temperature below freezing. Nothing had dried from the day before, so we used leftover Ziploc bags to protect our wet feet from the elements. We set off for the first climb over the mountains. By the time we reach the top, we were again soaked to the bone. At each dirt-road mountain pass, we entered an area more remote than the previous. So remote that the cell phone we had with us -- "We can use it in case of an emergency" -- would have been more useful to fend off the mountain lions, or the black bears no doubt attracted by John's never-ending supply of peanut-butter bars.
The rain finally stopped to reveal sunny blue skies. It was still early when we crossed Jack's Mountain and entered the decidedly Amish valley below. In Allensville, horse-drawn buggies lined up in front of the sawmill, and kids on big-wheel scooters kicked their way to school. Bikes are too fancy for their beliefs, but scooters outfitted with racks get the job done.
Leaving that valley behind, we pedaled toward Happy Valley, a moniker State College was allegedly given during the Great Depression, when it did not suffer the great hardship many communities did, due to income from Penn State University. We rolled through town as students pedaled to class, and soon ended our journey.
We had originally planned to get an ice cream from the famous campus creamery, but for some reason we had lost interest in ice cream. Maybe next time!
Tip for this adventure: The crossing of Jack's Mountain, looking down on the largely Amish community of Allensville, is spectacular.
Favorite local bike shop: Holmes Cycling & Fitness in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.