Cycling the Pine Creek Trail: The Rhetoric of Travel
My wife telling me “You’re too old to go off by yourself like that” was what clinched it for me. I had been discussing with her a plan to go on a four-day camping trip to remote north-central Pennsylvania, alone, and to bike the Pine Creek Trail, which runs about 63 miles from Wellsboro Junction, Tioga County, in the north to Jersey Shore, Lycoming County, in the south. I wanted to do this for several reasons: I had become a cycling junkie and was looking for someplace new to ride; I love tent camping; I wanted to prove something to myself — that I could manage such a solitary trip and come back in one piece, after having undergone a radical prostatectomy about six month earlier. Having this “adventure” experience was part of my LIVESTRONG mentality.
The Pine Creek Trail had caught my eye as I searched Pennsylvania rails-to-trails on the Web. I could get there in one day’s drive from my home in Bethlehem, Pa.; it was reportedly a well maintained and “easy” trail, rising a mere 2 degrees of elevation over its entire length; and it traversed some of the most beautiful scenery in the state.
My wife, Karla, and I had been negotiating back and forth about my going off somewhere alone. She was thinking about what could go wrong; I was thinking about what could go right. She finally relented, and off I went, camping gear, food, and firewood packed into my car and bicycle attached to the roof.
Trail riding is my “hobby,” my primary way of staying fit, and an important way in which I have fun. It started, really, in the first decade of this century. A college friend with whom I had reconnected after many years suggested that when the two of us turned 60 we should cycle across the country. I didn’t know if that would happen, but I did know that I would have to get into some kind of cycling shape in advance of any such trip. The cross-country excursion never did happen, but my “training” for it on my mountain bike consisted of me riding an average of 80 miles a week from March to November on trails close to home. By the summer of 2009, I was 62, recovering from cancer surgery, and a cycling junkie.
But I am also a rhetorician — I write, I teach writing, and I study and teach rhetoric. With that hat on, I had learned the notion that travel is a rhetorical act. This thanks to John Ramage’s book Rhetoric: A User’s Guide. Ramage distinguishes among commuting, touring, and traveling. The first, in the rhetorical theory developed by Kenneth Burke, whom Ramage follows, is motion without action: moving almost automatically, without conscious thought as to purpose or the scene through which one moves. Touring includes purpose, so it is action, not just motion, but the purpose is to see and experience the known. Or the “preformed,” as Walker Percy calls it in his excellent essay “The Loss of the Creature.” Even if you tour a place you have not been to before, the motive is to see what you expect to see: the Grand Canyon, for instance, or the Sistine Chapel ceiling. People go touring, in this sense, to have a prefabricated experience; their expectations are formed by guidebooks, travel brochures, and popular images. (Ironically, though, as Percy says, the tourist doesn’t see the “real” Grand Canyon; he sees a version of it mediated through other agencies: the Park Service, corporate travel agencies, planes and buses.)
Travel is also motion with purpose, but a more open-ended purpose: to have, or to be willing to have, an experience unlike, in some crucial way, any other; to encounter the strange in the sense of that which is out of one’s comfort zone. Travel is also a matter of identity formation. The tourist brings his identity with him and returns with it unchanged. The traveler finds or creates his identity in the process of traveling.
Now here, I have to digress. By “identity” I don’t mean to suggest that the traveler finds or discovers a pre-existing self that is the totality of his being. Rather, the traveler creates an identity as she travels — a partial identity, that is, who she is under these circumstances, not others. This process may be a matter of “bringing out” something within the traveler that he didn’t realize was there, or it may be a matter of “becoming’ someone whom he was not before he traveled. In contrast with touring, travel can be, is, a risky business. Travel seen rhetorically involves what Ramage, following Burke, calls the “Act-Suffer-Learn” pattern. To go somewhere with the intention of encountering something “new” is to act. The action of traveling entails suffering, because, unlike touring, travel is open to contingency. That is, something unplanned and possibly inconvenient is likely to happen. And to recognize that suffering, to act upon it, is to learn, where the learning may be about the scene of one’s travels or the traveler herself.
Digressing a little further, I will add that to “suffer” is not necessarily to have pain. It is closer to “undergo” or “experience.” But the Buddhist notion of samsara is also relevant here: the suffering that is the ongoing condition of being human, not an enlightened being. Or if you prefer, it is existential reality.
So in late June 2009, I take myself up to north-central Pa. to travel the Pine Creek Trail. Much of roughly the northern third of the trail runs through “the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” aka the Pine Creek Gorge, with mountainsides rising some 1,000 feet above the creek. Camped at Leonard Harrison State Park on the east rim of the Gorge, I can hear Pine Creek rushing far below and see the mist rising from the water. But I cannot see the creek itself. For a view of the Gorge with both the creek and the trail that runs beside it, it is necessary to visit the state park on the west rim of the Gorge, Colton Point State Park. Although campsites are available at both parks, I choose Leonard Harrison because it has hot showers and flush toilets, whereas Colton Point does not. In this respect, I am a tourist, not a traveler, because I don’t want any surprises where these kinds of amenities are concerned. On the other hand, I am a traveler because I am responsible for my own shelter and food; I will sleep in the tent I pitch and eat the food I prepare. And if anything “goes wrong” I will have to deal.
My plan is to ride the length of the Pine Creek Trail in three sections, shuttling over each. One day, I will start at or near the northern trailhead and ride approximately 21 miles south and back; the next day, I will drive to the first day’s turnaround point and ride about 21 miles south from there and back; the third day, I will cover the southernmost third of the trail, again by driving to the previous day’s turnaround point and riding from there. This is kind of clumsy, and it has me in my car for some time instead of on my bike, but it means I don’t have to pack my tent and everything with me each day. I will bring a lunch each day, though, and my video camera.
Videoing scenes along the trail may, I realize, move me from an authentic encounter with the trail and the creek to a mediated one. But I think that because I won’t be videoing all the time I’m riding and because I will keep on moving through whatever scene I am recording, I won’t be a mere voyeur or consumer of the scene but a living part of it. And what is most important is what I do, what I undergo each day, rather than what I will show the folks back home when I return.
Act-Suffer-Learn: I act by forgetting to bring my video camera on my first day of riding. There is just so much to be attended to — finding the access point to the trail, packing my lunch and other necessities — and I am not accustomed to videoing my surroundings. So it’s not until I encounter a big, menacing timber rattlesnake coiled up on the train that I realize I can record this experience in memory but not digitally. Not being able to video the rattler is one bit of suffering. Not having a cold beer with my lunch because I had forgotten to pack it is another. So is returning from the day’s ride exhausted because I’m not used to 40+-mile rides. Finally, I suffer because I can’t video the most beautiful wild animal I have ever come across — a porcupine. As I’m nearing the place where my car is parked, I see this roundish, biggish animal trotting along the trail ahead of me. It’s too small for a bear, too big for a groundhog. What is it? As I catch up with it I see the quills and realize it is a porcupine. But one whose quills are silver with bands of gold running across the middle of its back and its tail. I learn that in spite of the trail running through the Pine Creek Gorge and in spite of the railroad that preceded the trail and the human habitation along the way this is wild animal country — their country, not mine.
So these shots — of the trail of the bottom of the Pine Creek Gorge — were made on the third day of my ride, when I returned to the northern section of the trail to cover its northernmost 6 or 7 miles. And that’s another thing: I realize that there is this northernmost stretch of trail only when I see a map at the southern trailhead. I had broken camp the morning of my third day of riding, had everything in my car, and was intending to spend the night in a motel near the southern trailhead before driving home the next day. But once I saw that map I realized that if I were really going to ride the entire trail I would have to backtrack to the point at which I’d begun my first-day ride and go north from there. Act-Suffer-Learn.
But by the end of my first day of riding, I have suffered from the exertion of the ride and from the fact that, cameraless, I have missed recording my encounters with an awesome snake and a beautiful porcupine. Perhaps I have learned, though, not to forget the camera the next day.
Wrong! The second day dawns rainy, and I am uncertain as to what I will do. I finally decide I will ride anyway. I have a rain suit I can put on, and I’ve come here not to sit in my tent for a day but to ride the trail. But worrying about the weather and getting my rain gear together affects my thinking and I again forget to bring the camera. The suffering this day is the rain — which ends after about 20 minutes of riding only to begin again later as I am returning to my car — and the fact that I have no camera when I come upon a black bear beside the trail. It is the first wild bear I’ve ever seen in Pennsylvania, even though I have lived in the state for almost 30 years at this point. Riding along, I sense I am being looked at from aside the trail. I turn to see, and there is this young adult bear standing up under a tree looking at me. I say “a bear!” aloud and stop my bike to watch it. I watch it; it watches me. After a few minutes, it turns to move away and I decide I should do the same before the bear changes its mind. I am thrilled, but I have no visual evidence of this encounter, the lack of which may lead you to think I am making all this up. Anyway, I learn (again) that I should be more mindful before starting out each day and that I should not let worries about the weather hang me up.
But I learn something else too, something I didn’t already know. I reach my turnaround point — the village of Waterville, roughly 20 miles from the southern terminus of the trail — in beautiful sunshine. Even though this section of the trail runs through areas less wild than the northern third, it affords many wonderful view of the creek, which it crosses several times. Because the trail once carried a railroad, the creek crossings are old railroad bridges that are really cool to ride over. I can even video the bridges and the creek as I’m crossing. But as I near my starting/ending point for the day, the village of Cedar Run, a thunderstorm breaks. There is no shelter, really, so I slip into my raingear and ride on. I realize, though, that I have a couple of more miles to go and that riding in a downpour is not only not fun but dangerous. So, passing through a narrow cut closely bounded by trees, I stop, get off my bike, prop it up against the side of the cut, and drape myself over it with the hood of my rain jacket up. And I wait for the rain to abate. I think to myself, “How long can this last? Half an hour at most?” Checking out my own state of mind, I see that I am neither frustrated nor angry nor disappointed. The rain will end; I just have to be patient. My day, my trip is not ruined; it’s just slowed down a little. This is novel: I usually have a very low tolerance for frustration, and I’m often cursing my luck or my mishaps. Here, what can I do except be patient? Arriving back at my campsite later that afternoon, the rain has ended and I am elated over becoming — if just for those few moments — someone other than the person I usually am.
The next morning, my suffering includes a pair of badly singed cycling gloves. I’d put the sopping wet gloves I’d been wearing in the rain on the fire ring at my campsite to dry by the fire. They did more than dry; they melted. But I was going in to Wellsboro that morning for breakfast after breaking camp, and there was a bike shop open there and I was able to buy a replacement pair. Act-Suffer-Learn.
My last day on the trail takes me to the southern trailhead at Jersey Shore. Unlike the northern trailhead at Wellsboro Junction, this one has a paved parking lot and restrooms. It also has a caboose from the old New York Central Railroad that once ran on tracks along the Pine Creek. “Road to the Future” is painted in white on the red caboose. Is that what the N.Y. Central was? If so, did the railroad run itself out of existence? Now, with this caboose in this parking lot, we’re talking bout the road to the past, or the road of the past. But that’s OK: Any rails-to-trails is a palimpsest anyway, the multi-use trail having been built where the railroad once went. And the railroad sometimes went on top of towpaths or footpaths. And later I will find the trail going on top of a state highway and a portion of a state highway going on top of the trail.
I will go back to the Pine Creek Trail two years and a couple of months later, in August 2011. I will still be a traveler, but I will also partake somewhat of touring, which makes the second trip less satisfying in some ways, although worth it nonetheless.
Like a tourist, I will plan this second trip more carefully. I will decide that it was a mistake to set up camp at Leonard Harrison in ’09, close to the northern end of the trail, because of my experience having to drive back up there to cover the northernmost 6 or 7 miles, after I’d already broken camp. I think Litle Pine State Park, near Waterville along the trail’s southern third, is a better place to camp, that I should have gone there the first time. Not that there was anything wrong with Leonard Harrison or my campsite; it’s just that the campsites as a whole there were few, and camping was almost an afterthought, the main function of the park being the overlook into the Grand Canyon of Pa. And so I scrutinize the Pa. state parks website with the idea that I will reserve a campsite at Little Pine. It turns out, though, that while there are plenty of campsites at Little Pine, and the park is handy to the trail, it’s mostly for motorized campers, and that ain’t me. I do not want to be surrounded by camper vehicles and trailers and all that goes with them. So I look a little further and find Ravensburg State Park: tent camping only! It’s less than 10 miles from Jersey Shore, where the southern trailhead is, and even though I don’t know how to get from the park to the trail, I’m interested. No reservations, so I’ll have to take my chances, but a call to an official with the DCNR (Pa. Division of Conservation of Natural Resources, which manages the state parks) assures me that Ravensburg “never fills up.”
So in mid-August 2011 I return to the Pine Creek Trail, this time to ride it south to north, though again in shuttle fashion. I arrive at Ravensburg on a damp Sunday evening. Sure enough, the campsites are not only not full, there are only two occupied sites out of about 20 in the park. With my tent pitched and other things arranged, I get out my old Coleman liquid-fuel-powered camp stove to prepare my evening meal. Trouble, suffering: I can’t pump enough fuel from the tank to the burners to have the burners burn. No pressure will build in the pump. I can have a hot dinner with the FEMA MRE (“Meal, Ready to Eat”) I have packed, but I intend to have a hot breakfast each day before riding and the only way to do that is to cook it. It’s raining when I get up Monday morning, so, hoping it will abate later, I put on my cycling clothes, put the camp stove in my car, and drive in to Jersey Shore. After breakfast at a diner, I seek out a hardware store. I’m thinking if the stove can’t be fixed I’ll try to buy another. In the store parking lot, I say hello to a guy who commiserates with me on the lousy biking weather. I tell him I’ve driven up here from southeast Pennsylvania to ride the trail, but my immediate problem is my camp stove. Turns out he’s the owner of the hardware store and he invites me in and says he’ll have a look at the stove. He lubricates the pump gasket with 30-weight, swelling it up so it will seal, and my pump and stove are back in operation. I ask him how much, and he just waves his hand. From this piece of suffering over my stove, I learn something: that if I don’t panic, if I act rationally, things will probably work out all right. And the experience confirms an idea: that if you travel in the right spirit, agents of help will appear when you need them. Again, neither my day nor my trip is ruined, even if the weather isn’t very pleasant.
I do ride much of the day in rain, at one point holing up in a comfort station trailside for about 20 minutes during the worst downpour. The surprise of the day — how did I not remember this from ’09? –is a commemorative plaque I find mounted to a bench along the trail. I am not a fly fisherman, nor have I ever heard of “Dr. Bamboo,” but his quote on the plaque speaks to me; I feel like I have acted well in pushing on in spite of the day’s obstacles to come upon this tribute.
On the second day of this trip, the palimpsestic dimension of the Pine Creek Trail will become evident in a novel way. Near a place called Rattlesnake Rock, just south of the village of Blackwell, work on state Highway 414 has necessitated the temporary rerouting of a portion of the highway over top of the trail. The stretch is less than a mile, but the prospect of riding with motor vehicle traffic is something less than appealing. Indeed, I do come upon a car going in the opposite direction, but there’s no problem. The trail has been widened here so there’s ample room for bikes and cars. My third day of riding this year will begin and end at Blackwell, so getting to and leaving there will entail traversing this stretch of trail in my car. In doing so, I encounter no bicycles, but I do get a chance to say goodbye to the trail.
It’s been less than a year since my last trip to the Pine Creek Trail, and sometimes I find myself longing to go back again. Maybe I will encounter a bear, a rattler, a porcupine, or who knows what creature when I have my camera at the ready. But the trail will be the same and not the same. If I do return, will I still be a traveler, or will what I have learned and previously experienced — and how I will get it all “right” this time — make me tourist instead of a traveler? I’m afraid it might.