CONFLUENCE, Pa.—We are in an itty-bitty town that is dotted with old houses. The low mountains slope downward into three giant converging rivers. There are herculean oaks everywhere. Lots of wildflowers. If they were going to remake “Sound of Music,” they would shoot it in Confluence.
And I’m scribbling notes about it all in my little notebook. Because this is what I do. I have carried a notebook for years now, it goes everywhere with me, and I write everything down. You never know when inspiration will hit you with a two-by-four.
Today the little Pennsylvania community is overrun with cyclists who are biking the Great Allegheny Passage through the Appalachian Mountains. Which is what my wife and I have been doing for the last five days.
We ride for hours until our butts have lost all sensation. Then we pull over and cheerfully pop handfuls of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication.
Out on the trail you get to know your fellow trail-riders because you pass each other a lot. You’re following the same bike route. You sleep in the same towns, shelters, hostels, or roadside ditches. You eat at the same spots. You steal the same canteen water from the same unsuspecting residential homes.
I meet an older couple from Manhattan, New York. They are doing the trail together with two top-of-the-line mountain bikes. He’s 67, and recently recovering from a stroke. She is 63 and his lifeline.
He has a voice like a guy who might own a pizza joint in Brooklyn. She sounds like Edith Bunker. I love these people.
He’s fallen off his bike twice on the trail due to muscle weakness from the stroke. But he’s not discouraged.
He says, “Listen, I got no broken bones—knock on wood—and no cuts. I’m making it to the end, or so help me.”
I meet a young man from California. He’s doing the trail entirely on foot. Sometimes he hikes 20 miles per day. He’s trying to quit smoking. He allows himself one cigarette in the morning and one at night. I ask which one is his favorite smoke of the day.
He looks at me with a serious face, “They all are.”
And I can’t forget the guy from Canada who has been biking this trail—you’re not going to believe this—with a parrot on his shoulder. The parrot’s name is Jim. Jim just sits there.
“Me and Jim talk a lot,” says the man. “He’s a very smart boy.”
Jim turns 33 this month.
So my notebook has been getting a lot of action lately. There seems to be a story around every tree. I have taken so many notes that I already need a new notebook.
Which is what I am doing right now. I’m walking to the little hardware store to buy a new notebook.
When I reach Confluence proper the town square is filled with maybe 70 bikes. There are people from every state represented here. Most are on the trail because biking is pandemic-style entertainment. Others are trying to lose body fat.
Either way, Main Street is alive with cyclists. They are seated on curbs, eating impromptu breakfasts, airing up tires, sipping Gatorade, repacking their tent bags, or doing calisthenics in the downtown park.
I meet an elderly woman in workout gear, sitting on a park bench, stretching her hamstrings. Her bike is beside her.
She’s from Kansas. She and her friend took a train to Pittsburgh, then started riding the trail several days ago. They have been camping in tents, eating food cooked on miniature stoves, and pedaling slow.
“I’ve never seen anything so pretty,” she says in a prairie drawl. “When we first saw the sun come up over them mountains, I said, ‘Okay, God, I get it, this is incredible.’”
Her husband passed away five years ago from pancreatic cancer. It killed him fast. The couple had a Mexican cruise planned that same year. They had been building up to it. He was gone before the boat ever left port.
“Life goes on,” she tells me, stretching her lower back. “You can’t stop living because someone dies. My husband wouldn’t want that for me. And I’m trying to honor his wishes by doing this.
“He always told me to get married again, but, nah, I don’t wanna. I ain’t got room in my heart for nobody else. He was my everything. He still is.”
There are no tears in her eyes when she says it. Only a distant smile. Although I, myself, am about to have drippage issues.
Her friend comes wheeling down the street on her bike. Her friend is older too. “You ready?” the friend aks.
The woman says, “Meet my new friend, this young man is a writer.”
We exchange pleasantries. Commiserate with each other. Then after a few moments they both hop onto bicycles and they’re gone, pedaling down a serpentine mountain trail. The same trail my wife and I will be pedaling for the next 124 years, unless we expire first.
When the lady bikers are almost out of sight, I open my new notebook and write a few things in sloppy handwriting. That’s when I see the older woman turn around. She comes pedaling back to me. Big helmet. Legs churning. It’s like she has something important to tell me.
She brakes in front of me. She is already out of breath and can’t speak for several seconds.
She says, “His name was Martin. I thought you’d wanna know my husband’s name. For your notebook.”
So I wrote it down.