There is something about a big forest, the insulation of giant trees, ferns and boulders, the ground soft from layers of decomposing foliage from seasons past. The sound of only the wind and birds, no cars, no sirens, perhaps the occasional plane overhead, there is an overwhelming comfort in the simpleness of just being somewhere so still. On Fridays as school let out and we sat on a bus that seemed to be deliberately driving ten miles an hour under the speed limit, my brother and I would wonder and hope to see our Pap packing the cooler, fishing rods and sleeping bags into the back ofthe station wagon. As kids we would often spend the weekend at a family hunting camp, deep in the Allegheny National Forest known affectionately as Iron Tree. It was there, under the big canopy of beech and pines that I developed a love for the outdoors, not aware of just how much it meant to me. We would spend our days there hiking, shooting guns, bow and arrows, fishing the creek behind the camp for native trout. At night we would build fires in the front yard and our uncle would tell us stories of his hunting efforts and the follies of his friend Mark falling into waist deep puddles while hiking to secret spots under the guidance of a full moon. Stories about bears and rattle snakes, coyotes, and fox. As I grew older I began to join my uncle on some these hunting outings, waking at 5 am to chase wild turkey through the forest in eerie spring fogs, or sitting 30 feet up in a tree waiting for a deer to come walking through, all the while wondering what was on the other side of the hill or where my Pap was hanging out.
As the years passed I found skateboarding and punk rock and I spent less andless time heading to Iron Tree. The time I spent wandering around the big forest had been replaced with empty parking lots and overcrowded rock clubs. From time to time Iwould tag along with my uncle in the summer when he went to camp to take care ofsome seasonal chores and I would remember how much I enjoyed that place. High school ended and some friends and I had began going hiking on the local trails of Western Pennsylvania. We started to push out a little further each hike, leaving the suburbs for the country side and the remoteness I fell in love with as a kid while visiting the Allegheny National Forest came flooding back.
It wasn’t long after our little hiking excursions started that a regular hiking friend had bought a road bike and convinced me to take my tax return check down to the localbike shop and do the same. Cycling quickly became an obsession. It was difficult and I liked it, the same way 5 hours of hiking would leave you tired and hungry with sense of accomplishment cycling did the same but having covered way more ground. We rode when we could to where we could, getting lost almost every ride we would discover new roads, new routes, and new levels to our abilities to pedal bikes. My friend who introduced me to cycling moved away for a short while and in that time I began racing my bike on the road, meeting new people riding more new roads.
In my first year of road racing I was introduced by my new friend Greg to an energetic bike courier known simply as Steevo. Steevo and I were introduced at the local weekly training race and didn’t take long before I was meeting both Steevo and Greg on the weekends for long rides out into the country sides and traveling to races inand around the east coast. We would eventually find ourselves staying at Iron Tree to attend a race that took place on roads that snaked through the national forest surrounding the Kinzua Dam. We fell in love with that race course, the long climbs the twisting descents through the forest made for not only a challenging race but a beautiful one. We would talk about making plans to go to camp and just ride all the roads we could find that worked there way through the forest. Steevo and I would have that conversation over and over again for the better part of a decade.
As the fire crackled just as the suns last glowing effort faded away I remarked to Steevo and our friend Ryan “well, it only took us ten years to make this ride happen”we had a laugh, made jokes about bears and what the next day had in store for us and looked over the map one last time before crawling into our tents under the same giant hemlocks I had played under as child. Morning came in what seemed like an instant but not before sleep was interrupted by intervals of loud hoots from an owl that had seemed to perch himself just above my tent. After a quick round of coffee and bagels we made some last minute gear checks and then it was off. The first few pedal strokes felt awkward as they do when contemplating a long day out on the bike, the brain sensing every strand of muscle fiber and wondering if it will show up to work in hours to follow.The silence of the morning broken by the popping and crackling of pebbles and dirt under our tires, as we made our first turn the sun greeted us along with a steady incline and the chill that we carried from the shade of the opening stretches of forest road vanished.
Our goal was to follow the Allegheny National Forest snow mobile route, ahundred or so miles of dirt roads and paths that worked their way through the expanse of the forest. With maps and GPS to assist us the route seemed clear, but it was’t long before we were chasing ghost through the dense forest. A road that was meant to be was no longer even though the GPS unit said it was there. We portaged our bikes over downed trees and through thick brush to find remnants of roads that once offered a way through. There was silence between the three of us we stood amongst the large hemlocks wondering if this is how the day was going to look and how, at this rate it will take us until the next day to finish the whole route. We would stumble upon the faint tracings of tire tracks indicating that a road once existed only to follow it to another dead end. Eventually after much walking and searching we found our way back on proper forest roads and back on the intended route.
For the better part of 8 hours we rolled through the forest on what can only be described as perfect roads. We would ride for spells of 30 to 50 miles with out touching pavement, and with out seeing cars or people. We would find ourselves pedaling onto the same roads that we raced for the Kinzua Classic, the same roads that inspired us years ago to come back and see what the area really had to offer for cycling. Passing roadside campsites kept the smell of campfire in the air and the canopy of large trees protected us with their shade from the days hot sun.
After hours of pedaling and a soaking from a thunderstorm we made the final turn off of route 66 to finish on the same 7 mile section of dirt road my grandfather would drive us down on friday evenings. It was late afternoon by this point and the sun dappled the road the same way it did 30 years ago, the ferns danced the same way under the summer breeze and the woods still felt as magical as they ever did. I thought about the day and all the things we had seen, the old oil rigs rusting away, the small towns and there markets that seemed to be frozen in time. I thought about the forest and how it must have looked before modern man arrived, wild with wolves, mountain lions, elk, and eagles. The streams rich with clear water and trout. I thought about the hunting stories my uncle would tell us around the campfire and how now we were creating our own stories to tell.