This is an account of a day spent in search of the perfect curve, or even better, the perfect curve ridden perfectly. It's like looking for a diamond in a pile of coal. None of which exists, of course, but there's something to be said for trying. Spoiler alert
: although obligatory RR bike pictures (starting, gassing up, standing somewhere) are present, there is no food porn in this RR!
Yes, I had lunch, no, I won't show it. I don't know you well enough to do that.
The plan was to get to PA 125, which is reputed to be a fun and challenging road to travel. A little background... Southeastern PA, where I live, is surrounded to the north and west by portion of the Appalachian Mountains called the Blue Ridge. It curves from east-west to northeast-southwest in orientation. The Blue Ridge is a series of ridges going to 1500-1700 feet above sea level. Hardly exciting but... the sides of the ridges are steep, and this is where the fun comes from. There are curves, switch-backs, and even hairpin turns, almost Alpine in flavor (
). Once off PA 125, I thought the challenging parts would be over. Not quite.
This is BaseCamp's idea of where I went.
The day started with... getting ready to leave. Obligatory photo of bike ready to go:
Obligatory photo of bike at gas station (photographer's finger included at no extra charge):
After a brief argument with the GPS (guess who controls the argument by wielding the "RESET" button), I headed north on the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Northeast Extension (AKA I476). Ya seen one Interstate, ya seen 'em all. (Photographer's finger included for the last time - honest)
I turned west onto I78. Ya seen one Interstate, ya seen 'em all. (This could be I78 - it's all the same)
While I was taking these pictures, the music in my headset had the lyric "It's all the same" repeating and repeating. And then I passed a car with a NH plate reading "Realize". I get it, I get it - I realize it's all the same. Moving on...
I left I78 at lovely downtown Bethel, in lovely Bethel Township. It says so on the map. Sorta. The map says really says PA 501. After leaving the Intersate, I thought I'd be done with trucks and into lots of curves. I was only half right.
I think a lot of the truck traffic was coming through here because part of northbound I81 was closed (see above pictures for I81 pictures - it's all the same). Anyway, truck traffic was there, I was there, not much more to be done but ride on. The ridge in the background is part of the Blue Ridge, and gives some sense of the general terrain. Coming north on I476, I crossed the first of the ridges and rode down into Great Valley, a wide plain between the ridge I left and the first of the "true" Blue Ridge ridges. Of course the road north was filled with curves.
Speaking of ridges, this is more of the first ridge:
And the ridge to the south:
Obligatory "yes, my bike was there" photo:
Ignore the phone pole sticking out of the tank bag...
The road begins to get curvy and rolly:
Not great, but it's a start.
Look at the map - the further north I went on PA 125, the tighter the turns became. Going up the south side of the ridge was interesting but fun. Coming down the other side was a mix of steep grades (up to 11%) and the occasional switch-back (moderate radius 180 degree turn) with three real hairpin turns (short radius 180 degree turn). I wasted turns one and two with a miserable line through one, and a scary moment with two. For some reason, leaned into the turn, the bike felt as though it was dropping into a steeper lean even though road was basically flat. I've felt that once or twice before and have no idea what's going on, but it's not fun. Turn three went reasonably well but wanted some work to qualify as being "done right".
The upper end of PA 125 is Shamokin. Shamokin is part of coal country. As this pile of overburden, from open mines, shows. Why it hasn't buried the town escapes me.
No real excitement in Shamokin.
As coal towns go, Shamokin doesn't look too bad. There are closed stores, of course, and not a lot of polish on anything. But it's still not too tired as coal towns go.
The next stop is Centralia. Centralia is a town that doesn't exist except as a spot on the map and in people's memories. It was nice coal small town, according to what I've heard. Until someone set the coal on fire.
The stories vary, but my guess is whoever took the trash to the town dump and burning pit made a mistake. As did whoever was supposed to maintain the dump. The "who's to blame" parts vary with the teller. But the basic facts are simple: A small knob of coal, projecting up, through the ground, from a larger deposit was supposed to be sealed off. Maybe it was supposed to cemented over - who knows. What matters is that didn't happen. Trash was taken to the dump, lit off and... oops, the coal knob was under the bonfire. The coal did what it's expected to do: burn. And it burned down into the seam, which runs under the town. How much further it goes is anyone's guess.
There were attempts to put the fire out, but nothing worked. Nobody really knows how long the fire will burn or smolder. A couple of hundred years isn't unrealistic. The town had problems with some smoke coming out of the ground, but the real nightmare was carbon monoxide from the fire. Filling houses with colorless, odorless gas that suffocates. Ultimately, the town was evacuated, PA 61 re-routed around the part of the road that collapsed, and the town was leveled. Literally. All that's standing is the cemetery, the closed up Russian Orthodox church, and the closed up township building.
PA 61 is closed off with berms at either end. Which hasn't stopped the graffiti crowd from doing their work.
The only place in Centralia with any activity is... St. Ignatius Cemetery.
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church is still standing (and may be re-opened).
Nonetheless, the town is gone.
Yep, this is coal country.
The towns and villages along PA 54 heading east to Mahanoy City are tired. Even Shenandoah, a better off town than some, looks tired. But the church is decidedly not tired.
And over all of the area is a sad irony. Coal is being replaced with wind turbines.
An open pit mine to the right, and its replacement to the left.
Will the last person out of town turn off the lights, please?
If the mines and equipment aren't in sight, the overburden, removed to get to the coal, is.
In the middle of all of this depressing scenery, the roads go on, and the turns keep coming, some open, some more closed, a few turn back on themselves. And I'm beginning to get the feel of the "flow like water" style I saw following Markus in the Alps. It's not a slow pace, although it can be. I'm looking for the turn where I carry my speed through the turn, rolling into the turn so smoothly it's hard to know where the turn began or when it ended. It's a matter of reading the road, moving to the outside of the turn, as much as possible, to look into what's coming, and then "be the bike". It's all rather Zen and, like Zen, when you don't think about it, it's there. Look for it, it's not there.
Not everything is depressing, though. There are the town names... many of them are Indian, of course, but a few aren't: Rough and Ready (too much traffic to shoot the sign) and these two. Is one of the names ironic?
And some names reflect changes. This is the town of Mauch Chunk. Or is it the town of Jim Thorpe? Ironically, the Indian name was replaced by a local boy who became a hero in the Olympics, but had trouble being accepted because... he was an Indian. There's a statue and a park with Thorpe's name, and the town name will probably stay Jim Thorpe (imagine the cost of another name change).
But the land is bigger than the small name squabble.
I'd originally planned, after leaving Jim Thorpe, to wander around in the Great Valley area, in rural Berks County. However, I spent more time taking pictures, and just walking around, than I'd planned for. Instead, I grabbed US 309 for a bit, turned off onto PA 100 (which used to mark a fun ride in Chester County - the run's still there, PA 100 has gone elsewhere - no harm done), got stuck in rush hour traffic, and found one last two mile bit of road with twists, turns, and always descending. And more than one of the those turns was pretty damn good, and I 't think I didn't do too bad with them. Close enough to perfection for now...
Same pump, same bike, eight hours and 247 miles later.