Many things help make us the people we become and to pursue the things we love. When we look back, we can often pinpoint particular events that are especially noteworthy in shaping our lives. The fortieth anniversary of one such event in my life occurs this weekend and it has an interesting connection to the beautiful landscapes of central Pennsylvania. Nearing the end of my freshman year in college in 1975, I had taken a bicycling class to meet one of my physical education requirements at Penn State Altoona. To get an A in Roddy Gerraughty's class, we had to complete a 100 mile ride from Altoona to beyond State College and back.
The 1975 Ride
Only a half dozen years removed from being one of the worst athletes in my junior high gym class, the bike had transformed me from a skinny, unathletic adolescent into a pretty fair rider. Despite my new found fitness, though, a ride of this length would be a new physiological experience. Like running a marathon, a hundred mile bike ride usually takes one beyond the normal stores of energy manufactured from carbohydrates. When they are exhausted, we start to metabolize fat and it is a much less efficient process. I understood this in theory but did not appreciate its real impact until I experienced it firsthand. The first 75 miles (before glycogen debt kicked in) reinforced why cycling was such an incredible sport. A foggy early morning climb of Brush Mountain to the Kettle Reservoir preceded a thrilling descent into Sinking Valley. It would be twenty miles through woodland and newly plowed farm fields until we'd climb the next notable hill, near the village of Seven Stars.
The morning warmed, turning into one of those spring days sliced from the edge of heaven. The bliss of a brisk descent, perfect weather, and the naivety that it will be all downhill lulled us into the false sense of pleasure that the entire day would be absent of pain or difficulty. We road along Spruce Creek for many miles, the unmistakable early morning smell of humid creek side air dominating our senses. We buzzed along at an uncommonly high speed with a lot less effort than usual thanks to the aerodynamic efficiency of riding in a group.
In the group were two riders, Ken Steel and Gary Kephart, I would ultimately ride with many thousands of miles over the next ten years. They were both incredible riders but I was especially struck by Steel's riding style. His pedal stroke appeared effortless though he seemed to be riding a bigger gear than anyone else in the group. Kephart, much shorter in stature but an incredibly gutsy rider, was the only other person that could really keep up with the elder Steel. The rest of us just hung on for dear life. The last quarter of the ride was, to that point in my cycling career, the toughest stretch I had ever ridden. The final miles were a roller coaster of torture on the hilly back roads that connected Graizerville, Bellwood and Altoona. But that really didn't matter, for I had discovered a most incredible way to see the countryside and the price I paid seemed to be a bargain that was tough to beat.
The 2015 Ride
When I mounted my bike forty years after that original ride I was struck both by how much had changed and how much was still the same. Interstate 99 did not exist in 1975, making a bike ride on any part of Pleasant Valley Boulevard a life-threatening experience in those days. As I climbed the mountain on Kettle Road, I recalled that road, too, was different, as it now crosses over the interstate. It didn't make the climb any easier in case you're wondering, just different. For all that had changed to that point, the rest of the ride up the mountain and down the other side was much as it was forty years ago. Despite a handful of new houses, most of the farms and the wooded mountain sides of the valley looked just like they did when I breezed through the valley at the end of my freshman year of college.
The incredibly scenic corner of Blair County has managed to keep its pastoral character and remain free of shopping plazas, billboards and traffic. The closest thing to gridlock happens when a driver has to slow for a bike or horse and buggy. Blessed with naturally fertile limestone soil, both Sinking Valley and the southern end of Nittany Valley have remained largely agricultural. This preservation has been made possible by the counties' farmland preservation efforts, a growing Mennonite population and the hard work of many traditional family farmers.
Near the village of Spruce Creek, my riding partner Zac Kephart and I road along the mainline of Norfolk Southern. (Conrail was in the midst of being organized when I road through here with Gary in 1975.) One of the most amazing man-made features on our route, the Pennsylvania Railroad's sandstone bridges and culverts, are still carrying trains across the creek more than a century and a half after they were built!
As we neared State College, the changes that had enveloped the region offered a stark contrast to the mostly unchanged landscape of the previous thirty miles. The farm fields south of town are now covered with car dealerships and housing developments. Though cursed by suburban sprawl, these communities have managed to handle much of that sprawl in a sensible way. Sign and billboard regulations prevent the commercial blight that so often plagues many suburbs. Street trees and sidewalks are typically found in front of even newer homes. Dedicated bike lanes took us through the busiest parts of town. But even here, development sometimes goes awry. We started back southward on Route 550 and were overwhelmed by an onslaught of traffic generated by the hundreds of houses built on this side of the valley in recent decades.
The trip gave me a chance to reflect upon the changes that have come to pass since my younger days. It also conjured up a flood of memories of two good friends that left us before their time and recollections of the beautiful places that we enjoyed together. Most importantly, it reminded me how fortunate I've been to experience both.