#coffeeneuring the GAP (3&4)

3: Joe Greens, Meyersdale, PA; 62.3 miles (Cumberland, MD—Confluence, PA); house coffee with cream (& Turkey/Bacon/Swiss/[unlisted avocado] sandwich with locally made plum lemonade)

4: Ohiopyle Bakery, Ohiopyle, PA; 54.7 miles (Confluence—West Newton, PA); hot chocolate (& pumpkin cookie & apple dumpling & Roast Beast sandwich)

Not Coffee/Not Visited this time: Queen City Creamery, Cumberland, MD (butter pecan peanut butter sundae in homemade waffle bowl); Mountain City Coffeehouse and Creamery, Frostburg, MD (hey, it was good two years ago!); Milroy Farms, Salsbury, PA (Maple Deliciousness!); Sweetie’s Bakery and Cafe, Confluence, PA (sure, pizza, but local maple/walnut ice cream, pumpkin bars that are actually made with actual pumpkin, and Other Sorts of Pastries…); Trailside Restaurant, West Newton, PA (Megalodon fish sandwich and local English IPA…oh, and pierogi pizza); OTB Bicycle Cafe, Pittsburgh (Buck Snort Stout, good hummus, and enough bike puns on their menu to last you a while); Burgatory, Homestead (hey, they’ll grind bacon INTO the burger—and their local draft selection’s pretty good, especially that Blackstrap Stout)

IMG_3091So a three-day trek may be a tad long to ride for a couple cups of coffee and a can of beer, but if I can bike to Annapolis for my Amsterdam fix, then trekking to the Forks of the Ohio for a stout makes total sense.

Plus, I have this totally awesome ‘cross bike that needs to be ridden, and fall foliage is cool.

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You feel the weight of history riding the C&O and GAP. George Washington surveyed the route, accidentally started the French and Indian War (and lost its first battle) not far from the path, and lived a short ride from the eastern end. The Civil War crossed the Canal towpath repeatedly, with Sharpsburg a few miles up from the Antietam Aqueduct. America’s industrial history can be read in the towpath and rail trail, passing from quarries and lime kilns to coal mines and steel mills, mule paths to railroads to highways to…well, bike lanes. Memorials and markers dot the route, to battles and retreats, lines in the sand and lines between nations, mine disasters and union organizers, fossil cliffs and abandoned towns.

IMG_3201There’s also the story of humans and their habitat, of how we’ve changed and used the natural world. None of the forest you pass through, no matter how lovely, is pristine; before the arrival of humans, wood bison and wolves would have lived there, and the chestnut blight changed it forever. The railroad grade that’s now a bike path cut through mountains and left gashes and cuts on their faces, like the strip mines that followed. Springs run orange with mine runoff, coal slag heaps dot the landscape near Pittsburgh, and the fields and maple farms near Cumberland are in some ways as unnatural as the dark Satanic mills of the Monongahela. The beauty of the Alleghenies and Laurel Highlands has been affected by our presence as much as the trail towns and urban centers; whether we exploit the land for tourism, agriculture, or minerals, we still exploit it.

IMG_3222And what of those towns? Company towns without companies, railroad towns without a railroad, centers of American manufacturing when American manufacturing is thought good as dead? What is our post-industrial future? How have these places reinvented or rethought, used the path less pedaled to bring new life and new people, or changed after mills were closed? What is the legacy of the Homestead Riots, of union halls and vows that another mine or mill disaster would never happen again, of the toil along the River of Sweat, now that organized labor is demonized and the workers once more denied their rights? Is there a place for rural, small-town America, with quirky characters at the local cafe, in an urbanizing society? Is there a place for urban centers when technology has removed the need for proximity, allowing Manhattan to meet with Myersdale?

The death of small town and industrial America is about the most common trope in Americana writing, next to “big city gal returns to small hometown and saves it.” Heck, even Harper Lee indulged in that last one, before her editor saved her from it. True, there’s no shortage of people along the trail returning or moving to small towns from the cities, opening shop, and making a life of it. Sometimes, it is hard for an outsider to tell whether these rural places along old rail lines and mule paths are surviving off the strange new traffic passing along them, or fading into supposedly inevitable obscurity. “Ghost towns happen when you don’t shop local,” reads a sign along the trail.

IMG_3101So, of course, we visitors do just that—not that we need much prompting. Reading restaurant menus or walking into the local drugstore reminds you that you don’t have to get that far out of Maryland (if you leave it at all) to find a whole different culture, in case the change in Algonquin place names didn’t clue you in. Maple syrup, ice cream, and candy, plum lemonade, pierogi pizza, birch beer, half a bakery of filled donuts—the legacy landscape and people who lived in it are just a coffee break away.

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IMG_3200“You can get decent coffee in (podunk town)” is kind of a lazy shorthand for how “civilization” has spread to even the most Godforsaken corners of America. I guess I’ve never quite understood this—it may just be that I’m young enough to never have known a time when you couldn’t find good coffee about anywhere, or that some of my favorite second-wave coffee joints are in smallish towns out in New Mexico—but it’s a cliché. And yes, you can get a properly made macchiato in Frostburg—though I’d really suggest combining two bikebreak excuses into one mug and going affogato.
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The coffee at Joe Greens was good, mild, and bottomless—nothing fancy, but not pretending to be, and good with lunch. Plum lemondade, however, was better—nice and tart, effervescent and refreshing. It’s just off the trail with bike racks out front, down The Hill from the old train station, and up The Hill from the drugstore.

IMG_3110The drugstore’s where you find Milroy Farms’ maple candy. It’s worth climbing The Hill with a pound bag in hand.

I can’t imagine that a bakery like Sweetie’s would serve bad coffee, but birch beer isn’t something you can count on seeing everywhere. Pizza’s good, pastries are better (yes, something with the word “pumpkin” in it, like their trail snack worthy pumpkin bars, that actually involves some squash, rather than just “pumpkin spice”), and that maple walnut ice cream…have I mentioned it a couple times already? Can I mention it again?

IMG_3182After Fallingwater (“Was that a real Diego Rivera in the hallway?” “Yes, the Kaufmann’s were collectors of Mexican art” “And the Picasso in the guesthouse?”), all the fall foliage had me in cidermode. Yes, cliché, but so what? Maybe everyone else drank it, but there’s none in Confluence. Okay, make do with hot chocolate and apple fritters. Oh Darn. The bakery is full of places to park a bike—it’s an outdoor tourist center, after all—the sandwiches are good, and the trail’s just down the steps.

Special mention to the doubtlessly well-known Trailside Restaurant, home of the Megalodon fish sandwich my mom was telling fish stories about last summer (yes, it’s that big), freshly cooked potato chips, and Western PA comfort foods. Worth stopping in at the West Newton Bicycle Shop underneith, if only to gawk at all the BMX accessories you don’t see every day.

IMG_3220In Pittsburgh, I had three goals: get to Point State Park, grab a Bike PGH! map, and grab a beer at OTB. So those didn’t happen in that order (stopped in at the REI next to the Hot Metal Bridge to get the map first), but Dad and I made it to the Forks just as the clouds moved in and the wind came up. Riding back (boy that map came in handy!), the wind was behind us as we rode the Steel Valley trail—think Pittsburgh’s answer to the Mount Vernon Trail between Roosevelt Island and the 14th Street Bridge. Over the Bar’s a bike-centric cafe—the menu is composed of bike puns and organization shoutouts, the beer’s good, and the two parking spaces in front of the window are filled with bike racks.

IMG_3231I ask the bartender if there are any local stouts or porters on their can list. “Well, it’s brewed near (town I’ve never heard of).”

“Where’s that?”

“Oh, it’s about an hour away from (other town I’ve never heard of), past (mountain bike park I have no clue about)”

“No idea where that is at all” sounds close enough to “local” sounds close to “not finding that at home ever” for me.

“Okay, I’ll have that.”

Yup. Pretty durn good.

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