By Stan Purdum
In the lead during the pouring rain, Dave suddenly swerved his bicycle to a stop. I pulled in behind him. “What’s up?” I asked.
He looked miserable. “My feet are swimming,” he said. With that, he sat down on the metal guard rail at the edge of the highway and began removing his shoes. I stood shivering as the steady hard rain continued to drench us.
The precipitation had started sometime during the night while we were camped at the Buckaloons campground in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Forest. Its patter on my tent woke me only long enough to hope it would end by morning. It didn’t, and it continued to fall – chillingly – as we struck our tents and packed up in the 50-degree daylight. Dave had to be back at work the next morning, and so there was no consideration of staying in camp. We mounted up and rode out, hoping to find a restaurant or store where we could get breakfast and possibly wait out the downpour.
The evening before I’d asked the campground manager, a retiree volunteer, if we’d find any place to eat. He explained that he wasn’t from the area, but was fairly sure there were some places within a very few miles.
From the Buckaloons area southward, U.S. 62 runs on the hem of Allegheny National Forest, slipping between the wooded hillside and the Allegheny River. On a clear day, it would surely be a scenic ride, but on this particular morning, we rode hunkered down against the rain as it soaked through our several layers of clothing and filled our shoes.
Within the first mile, we saw a sign for a restaurant, but it pointed down a side road with no indication of how far off track it lay. Because the campground manager had assured us there were other places to eat not much farther on, I suggested we continue.
When we’d dressed against the rain that morning, Dave had produced a pair of supposedly waterproof socks, which he slipped on over his regular ones. Now at the roadside he pulled them off and upended first one then the other. A tankard of water gushed out of each. “Are they filling from the top?” I asked, thinking the moisture had run down his legs and into the socks.
“Hard to tell,” he said. “I’m soaked everywhere. What about your feet?”
“I’m sloshing too, but at least the water isn’t getting trapped in my socks. It’s running right through.”
Looking distinctly disheartened, Dave pulled his shoes back on, minus the high-tech socks. We remounted and continued on the narrow roadway.
A good bit of the traffic on this stretch consisted of coal trucks, which flew by seemingly heedless that we were on the road – and the spray spewing from their big tires added a lovely layer of grime to our already drenched clothing. A few semis also passed, but they at least seemed willing to wait for assured clear distance before sheeting us with the contents of a puddle.
With each pluvial minute, my regret at not checking out that first restaurant grew. We cycled on forlornly for 14 miles without finding any such establishments, and when we finally did, near Tidioute, we were thoroughly chilled.
Hot coffee in the little restaurant we at last found revived us somewhat, and after placing a breakfast order with the 30-ish waitress with intricate tattoos slithering up both legs, we took turns using the restroom to change into dry clothes … well, drier clothes anyway. By that point, the deluge had seeped deeply into our saddlebags, though the plastic bags with which we routinely lined the packs had offered moderate protection to the contents. Despite the less wet clothing, however, we shivered most of the time we ate.
By the time we emerged, the storm had finally taken a breather, although gray still dominated the sky, and I suspected that the rain was not done with us. Still, it held off long enough for us to pedal the next 13 miles, which brought us to the village of Tionesta.
The town was a nice enough place, but the facility we most appreciated about it that day was its laundromat, where we dried our wet stuff. While we were indoors, rain suddenly hurtled down again with vigor and then, just as suddenly, stopped. We debated whether to continue or halt the day’s ride where we were. Earlier we had set Franklin as our destination, and we both hated to quit that early in the day. I, ever the optimist, urged continuation and Dave, trusting friend of the optimist, agreed. Maybe someday he’ll learn.
Sixteen miles lay between us and Oil City, the next community on 62. Franklin was another eight miles beyond that. We rode bravely out of the shelter Tionesta provided, and began the run to Oil City. The highway continued to follow the river, crossing it twice on bridges. The forest environment continued and 62 rose and fell through it, more or less following the topography of the land.
Then we began another climb. This one, however, did not drop back down quickly as previous ones had done and we continued upward, making our way over a mountain. The ascent was hot, thirsty labor. The chill we’d felt earlier completely dissipated, and we stopped to remove our outer clothing before reaching the top.
That all changed when we finally achieved the summit. As if on cue, rain started and the temperature dropped suddenly as if the floor had been pulled out from under it. The downhill side of the mountain was about as steep as the climb had been, so even though we put our jackets back on and controlled our speed somewhat on the descent, the frigidity from the wind whipping us was bone-chilling.
Oil City lay at the bottom of the mountain. By the time we got there, Dave was shivering.
“Let’s stop here,” I said. “Enough is enough.”
“I agree. I’m not up to eight more miles of this.”
We had ridden just over 50 miles since the Buckaloons.
I had no interest in camping in the unrelenting wet, so I presented myself at the town’s only motel and rented a room for the night. Dave phoned his friend who was to pick him up and changed the rendezvous from Franklin to Oil City. We found a restaurant for supper and waited for Dave’s ride home.
“Pretty miserable day, wasn’t it?” Dave said.
“You can say that again.”
“Would you do it again?”
We both grinned and knew the answer.
In a heartbeat.
This is an excerpt from Stan Purdum’s book, Playing in Traffic, about his ride on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York to El Paso, Texas. His friend, Dave Barnas, joined him for a portion of the trip in New York and Pennsylvania.