Trails Through the Woods

OHIOPYLE, Pa.—When we started this ridiculously long bike trail, I had no idea what the heck I was getting myself into.

A guy learns how out-of-shape he is when he’s riding a silly trike in the Appalachian Mountains.

That’s the ironic thing about doing trails. By the time you finish the trail you’re finally in-shape. But by then it doesn’t matter. Because the trail is finished and it’s time to eat Hostess products again.

My wife and I have been biking for two days in the Allegheny region of the Appalachians. Our route follows the roaring Youghiogheny River and it led us here, to the tiny town of Ohiopyle. Population 56.

My body hurts. And I mean all over. If it’s attached to me, it hurts. No matter how small the body part.

My fingernail? Hurts. Hair cuticles? Hurt. My nose? Totally sunburned.

Yesterday, my wife and I were the only people on a long stretch of trail that cut through the prettiest hill country known to mankind. We shuffled through miles of loveliness that became so overwhelming you half wished the scenery would stop.

But the trail doesn’t stop. It goes on and on. And all you can do is pedal.

That’s what we do now. We pedal. We pedal until we forget we’re pedaling. We’re just existing. Breathing. Zombies. Two pieces of meat with legs.

Why are we pedaling? How did we start? It’s as though we’ve always been doing this. I came out of the womb pedaling. I will pedal until I die. And when they put me in the ground they will notice that my feet are still twitching.

My wife and I mostly ride in silence. It’s an odd thing, being on a trail from sunrise to sunset. You don’t talk much. In fact, you don’t have anything important to say. And you realize you never had anything important to say. Ninety percent of all words you ever said were filler words.

So you don’t waste your calories talking. Your trail communication consists primarily of grunts. Then, almost as if on cue, you and your wife both get quiet again.

You ride the next 12 miles without saying anything other than: “How much farther to Ohiopyle?”

Or you talk about food. Talking food is a favorite pastime on the trail. You discuss the perfect hamburger, how you like your steaks, and what kinds of petty crimes you’d be willing to commit for a cold beer.

Once visions of food are in your head, you ride beneath the chlorophyll-rich canopy of leaves, two-story volcanic rocks, and the eerie dim forest, and you’re stuck on mute.

You’re always moving slower than you think. Sometimes you look at the map and it discourages you. Because on paper you’re not making much progress. You’ve been pedaling all day, but you’ve only traveled 0.02 millimeters on the map.

Still, each mile is worth it. The beauty is so arresting that you start to wonder how anything could be so pretty. How can this virgin wilderness even be allowed to exist in a modern techno world?

Where are all the Bed Bath & Beyonds? How about the Old Navys, the Targets, or the godless strip malls?

After a while your brain starts to adjust to all the natural beauty, and it no longer seems exceptional. Heartstopping grandeur becomes your new normal. Trees are trees. Rocks are rocks. The Youghiogheny is just another river.

Two mountains form a monstrous valley, and a river runs through it. Rapids flow past the gauntlet of jagged granite into the backyard of the Jolly Green Giant. The colors get so vivid they make Walt Disney look like a clown.

Somehow, deep inside, you know that you will never see this again. Not in this manner. There’s no earthly way to experience the same scenery the same way two times in a row.

As it happens, my grandfather used to have a phrase for this. He’d say, “No man can stand in the same river twice.”

I used to wonder what he meant by this. I’m still not fully sure what it means, but I think I’m starting to understand.

I think it means that life keeps changing.

I know this, of course, it’s common sense. But I’ve wasted a lot of time acting like life shouldn’t change. I resist change. I hate change.

But time does go forward, with or without you. You can’t go back, and you can’t stand still. Whatever was behind you doesn’t exist anymore. It’s not real anymore. It lives only in your head now.

I don’t mean to sound like an amateur-hour poet, but life is moving at a breakneck current.

It flies through mountain valleys, cutting through time, and you’re floating in it whether you like it or not. It changes the rules every few moments, and it is not always kind. But it is pretty, even the ugly parts.

By the time you’re at the end of your ride you’ll be in the best shape of your life. You’ll be able to handle almost anything. But by then it won’t matter anymore. Because you’re at the end of your trail, and there are no miles left to cover.

Maybe on that final day we will understand it better. Maybe we’ll realize that life wasn’t a riddle to figure out. It wasn’t a game to win. It was supposed to be fun.

And the thrill of it was not having any idea what the heck you’d gotten yourself into.

37 comments

  1. Tom - September 10, 2020 8:30 am

    Great write. Your granddad was a wise man. Wished I’d had learned that when I was much younger. As an engineer, I always tried to make sense out of everything and nail down solutions. But as I’ve grown old, I now understand that one just needs to enjoy the ride because it is very short.

    Reply
  2. Susan Parker - September 10, 2020 8:58 am

    ….And we’ll understand it better, by and by…<3

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  3. Naomi Storey - September 10, 2020 9:41 am

    This reminds me of the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans theme song, “Happy Trails To You”.

    Reply
  4. Brenda - September 10, 2020 10:13 am

    I lived most of my life in the West Chester, Chester County area of Pennsylvania. I was an avid hiker for many years. One of my favorite
    shade hikes in the spring and fall was Hawk Mountain to see the birds of prey soar high above. The view was spectacular never the same always very special. I now live in New Smyrna Beach Florida and quite often dream of all my hiking and spectal trails I enjoyed in Pennsylvania. A beautiful breathtaking state to explore. Missing it and you’re trips have brought back many precious memories. Thank you and enjoy every new wonderful moment. Perhaps park your bikes and do a short hike along a running stream under the tall green trees getting ready to burst with colors of fall, my favorite season.. 🍁🤗

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  5. Bill Jones - September 10, 2020 10:20 am

    Absolutely fantastic writing, Sean. Love it

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  6. Suzanne - September 10, 2020 10:22 am

    All true! Thank you Sean.
    I remember my father saying “yesterday I was 21, today I am 73, tomorrow I’ll be gone 10 years.”
    He left us in 1993. Now, I tell my kids the same thing.
    Just enjoy the moment.

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  7. Betty - September 10, 2020 10:29 am

    When you get the calf muscles developed you need to do a backpacking trip. The Smokies will be perfect for the fall and Cumberland Island GA is a great choice for winter. We could loan you packs, a tent and cook stove.

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  8. Harriet - Atlanta - September 10, 2020 10:41 am

    Great writing. I feel like I’m right there with on the trail. Beautiful scenery. I hope to go there one day.

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  9. Mickey - September 10, 2020 11:15 am

    Love Ohiopyle.
    Attended the falls fest several times.
    Give the pegs a rest and take the ride back in a kayak.
    Give the upper body the work out and then you will be completely sore inside and out along with wet.
    Thanks for your writing.
    Peace.

    Reply
  10. Jean - September 10, 2020 11:47 am

    I admire you for your courage to take this on. Congratulations…..and I do think you have seen some of the beautiful scenery here in these United States. You have done well and I have enjoyed reading about every minute.

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  11. Ann - September 10, 2020 12:07 pm

    Beautiful and very thought provoking…..🤔

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  12. Steve - September 10, 2020 12:31 pm

    Man o man. That is so good and causes me such introspection. Particularly on 9/10/20. Excellent

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  13. Jan - September 10, 2020 12:49 pm

    Oh what grand ideas you have presented us with today! One of your most thought provoking and memorable lessons yet. Thank you for taking us along on your trip both the physical trip and the mental exploration …
    Absolutely stunning!!

    Reply
  14. Richard Gethers - September 10, 2020 1:09 pm

    There’s a song about “3 crosses on the right side of the highway” and it ends with “It’s not what you take with you when you leave this world behind you, It’s what you leave behind you when you go. We all will reach the end of the trail one day.

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  15. Jane sparacio - September 10, 2020 1:27 pm

    PROFOUND!

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  16. Judy Waldrop - September 10, 2020 1:48 pm

    There are lots of other trails. Natches Trace for example.

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  17. Jenn - September 10, 2020 1:53 pm

    Sir-

    Sounds wonderful! I biked the first bit of that- and camped outside- in my teens one weekend. On highways most of the time. Now you have me thinking of planning the same trip as yours, only with distances half as long as you seem to be covering each day!

    The river metaphor struck me the hardest a few years back when I went to my grandfather’s old SD farm, drove in and showed my child the “D- M- and son” on the old silo, with the son being my dad, though he never took over since the space race covered his math degree in the 1960s, I also slowed down past his sister’s old dairy farm down the road, turned into a hunting resort. I reported to my cousin about her childhood home and grandpa’s old farm and she, having been within 50 miles of the place all her life, said she never got over there (and it was clear she didn’t care too much about it, either). I realised then that I had come back to the river bank expecting it to be the same as 40 years earlier, while she had seen the river flowing for all those decades and no longer really even carried the same image I had in my mind of that river bank (and had more, and some unhappy, memories of the place).

    All the best and let us know if ‘liniment’ for sore muscles actually works- if so I’ll pack some if I ever make that trip.

    Jen from PA, SD, and now AL

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  18. Laura - September 10, 2020 1:54 pm

    “After a while your brain starts to adjust to all the natural beauty, and it no longer seems exceptional. Heartstopping grandeur becomes your new normal.” Thanks for putting into words some of my experience rafting on the Colorado through the Grand Canyon.It was just impossible to fully appreciate it all. But it was still glorious! Blessings as you keep pedaling. I’ll enjoy journeying with you through your words.

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  19. Tammy S. - September 10, 2020 1:55 pm

    LOVE this post!! Happy 🚴🏻‍♀️🚴🏻‍♂️ adventuring to you & Jamie!!

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  20. Jim Springfield - September 10, 2020 2:07 pm

    One of your best, Sean

    Reply
  21. Lanni Fish - September 10, 2020 2:10 pm

    I am so glad,and so forever grateful, that a friend shared this link with me. This is just my third daily entry to read, and I think I will be reading these daily for a very long time. Thank you, G.F. –Lanni (Romeena)

    Reply
  22. Hazel Barber - September 10, 2020 3:16 pm

    Very deep today. Thanks Sean for letting us see the world through your eyes.

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  23. John - September 10, 2020 3:55 pm

    We soldier on, Sean!!

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  24. Christina - September 10, 2020 4:00 pm

    I’m breathing in some of that fresh air (we just had wildfires 10 miles away) and taking in all the beauty you shared. And think about your reflections. Thanks for the sobering perspective Sean!

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  25. Becky Souders - September 10, 2020 7:32 pm

    One of your best!

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  26. MAM - September 10, 2020 7:33 pm

    You’re mute much of the time, because of the overwhelming beauty. But I’m so glad to experience it through your written words. Thanks from all of us at home. Nature is simply grand!

    Reply
  27. Jim Thornton - September 10, 2020 10:55 pm

    Speaking as someone who lives in the country, outside the hurly-burly of Houston, I know something of living in beautiful surrounding and having the occasional need to go to the man-made hell we call our cities. It is a shock to your senses, particularly to your hearing and sense of smell to be in city after being out of it for so long.

    I envy you your ride, including all the aches and pains. I’ve been on the Blue Ridge Parkway and there aren’t too many places to compare. It will be something you will remember the rest of your life.

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  28. Marinan Brewer - September 10, 2020 11:36 pm

    Msrnanhjb

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  29. Linda Moon - September 10, 2020 11:51 pm

    First of all, how the heck does one pronounce OHIOPYLE and especially, Youghioghiogheny? But I do know how to say LIFE, and that it keeps changing. I’m shouting out to all my Health Care Heroes who’ve ridden with me in LIFE today, yesterday, and many days since 2005. If they read posts from Sean of the South (and who doesn’t?) they’ll know that Linda Moon appreciates Sean’s words about biking and all their kind efforts to keep me on the trail ’til it ends………

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  30. Ann Schaum - September 11, 2020 1:12 am

    Oh Sean… the last five paragraphs! Unforgettably wise and profound. I’ll reread this many times. Thank you.

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  31. DeLois Gainey - September 11, 2020 4:31 am

    Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher born 544 BC. You cannot step in the same river twice. So glad you included the quote in your journal. Have you ever read Dr. Fred Birchmore’s “Around The World On A Bicycle” which he did after graduating from The University of Georgia? He was a dear friend, visited my classroom member of same church in Athens and lived to be 100. The book is recently republished and you will thoroughly enjoy it. His bike is in the Smithsonian. Mercy travels. DeLois Gainey

    Reply
  32. Jane Elder - September 12, 2020 10:09 am

    Visited this place several years ago. We were visiting the Frank Lloyd Wright house. The scenery is magnificent. We are history bluffs and love visiting new areas. A yard sale was going on nearby. We found an authentic rope bed from the 1800’s or before. Wouldn’t fit in the ’05 Taurus so we had to leave it there.

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  33. Robert Chiles - September 12, 2020 12:33 pm

    Superb

    Reply
  34. Maggie Kruger - September 12, 2020 1:19 pm

    Perfect just perfect

    Reply
  35. Carol Connell - September 16, 2020 1:39 am

    This was wonderful!

    Reply
  36. Peggy - September 22, 2020 6:38 pm

    In our old stompin’ grounds now!

    Reply
  37. Marinan Brewer - September 24, 2020 1:38 am

    Seañ,
    Since I know I will never even see it TRAIL. I FOR ONE REALLY Appreciated ur writing s , TKS bunches, MARiNAN brewer Dothan,Al.

    Reply

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