May 11, 2017

There's no such thing as being "over-prepared"

A few years back, when I was young and naive (a nice way to say "stupid"), I wandered into the woods not far from my parents' house. I had no map, compass, food or water. I just felt like exploring because it seemed like an exciting journey. There was no trail, but I figured I didn't need one because I "knew" the area well enough that I couldn't get lost.

As I said before: young and naive.

No big deal.
It took about 10 minutes of aimless strolling to realize that I had no clue where to go or how to return to my original destination. Panic set in fast. I started running, thinking that -- if there were a way out -- I would get there quicker.

Again: young and naive.

I noticed the sky beginning to darken, which only intensified my anxiety. I increased my pace and refused to let up. At one point, I froze because of something I didn't anticipate to see: a dead deer with a gaping bullet hole in its side.

"I'm going to get shot out here," I concluded. That is, if I didn't remain lost and starved to death first.

A picture of my sanity spiraling out of control.
Finally, after about 20 minutes, I found an opening in the forest that, to my luck, led back to the road where my parents' house is located. For a few days afterward, I refused to leave home without having one end of a rope tied around my waist and the other end secured to the front door of the house.

I learned a lesson from that experience: I was young and naive ... and stupid. I was also unprepared for the occasion. In most conflicts, if you have the proper tools at your disposal, you can work your way toward a solution.

This episode of getting lost in the woods occurred several years ago, but the lesson I learned from it is timeless. There's no such thing as being "over-prepared" for a situation. I must've forgotten this, however, when I recently got screwed over not just once, but twice in the same day.

 In early April, the weather made spring feel like summer with temperatures ranging in the 80s. The average temperature in Altoona for that time of year is in the upper-50s, so I wanted to do something special to take advantage of this unseasonable warmth. I chose to head down to Cumberland, Maryland, for the day to ride my bike on a portion of the Chesapeake & Ohio Towpath Trail, the nearly 185-mile-long path that follows the namesake canal from Cumberland to Georgetown near Washington, D.C.

The C&O Towpath Trail is one of the most beautiful paths you can ride on.
Beforehand, I packed an ample amount of food, a few bottles of water, my camera, cellphone and wallet for the occasion. I mounted my bike onto my car and drove an hour south to Cumberland.

When I arrived, I parked in a lot that is designated for bicyclists. Across the street is a bike shop that I've been in before. It's one of the most well-stocked bike businesses I've seen, so if I needed something for my trip, this was the place to visit. As I was preparing my bike, I looked over at the shop and realized I lacked extra tire tubes and patch kits in case I got a flat tire. I stood there considering whether or not I should go in the shop and purchase these additional supplies just in case. I figured that I've been riding since I was 6 years old, and I've never had a flat tire. I planned to ride the trail for only a few hours that day, and I would be returning to Cumberland on the way back. The idea of getting a flat tire in such a short time span seemed ridiculous to me. I shook off my suspicions, climbed onto my bike and made my way onto the trail.

If something bad happened to my bike, I could swim back to Cumberland via the Potomac River.
The first two-and-a-half hours of my trip went smooth. This was my inaugural major bike ride for the year, so I didn't have much physical conditioning beforehand. Despite this, my muscles felt relaxed; my breathing stayed consistent; I didn't feel exhausted, and my bike, although it is beat up and old, was holding together well. I'm doing great, I thought.

At the rate I was traveling, I would complete nearly 60 miles in about five to six hours. My confidence shot up, and I felt determined I would accomplish my goal that day, which was to ride to the Paw Paw Tunnel in West Virginia. The tunnel is 3,118 feet long and allowed both the C&O Canal and boats to pass through the mountain above them. The tunnel is one of the highlights of the trail, so I made it a priority to reach it that day.

At about 1 p.m., I came within a mile of the Paw Paw Tunnel when I saw a sign saying "Paw Paw" with an arrow pointing to the right. The sign directed me off the trail to a highway that I figured would take me to the tunnel, but instead it led me to the West Virginia town of the same name. I glanced at the small town quick and realized that there wasn't much going on there, so I turned around and made my way back to the trail and tunnel.

Fun fact: Paw Paw has more churches than residents.
I reached the Paw Paw Tunnel, and upon seeing it, I grinned with excitement and astonishment. The tunnel is gorgeous, with the bike trail running parallel to the canal all the way through. The tan stone of the entrance seemed to glisten against the dark gray rock surrounding it.

The Paw Paw Tunnel could also function as a terrifying "Tunnel of Love."
I snapped a few quick photos with my cellphone and proceeded to lay my bike down so I could grab my DSLR camera to take better pictures. It was then that I was interrupted by a sound that stopped my heart from beating. It sounded like hissing. My first reaction was a snake. It's common to see snakes basking in the sun on bike trails when the weather is warm. I saw two of them that day and almost ran over one just a few miles before reaching the tunnel.

I spun around and looked but couldn't find anything resembling a snake; however, the sound appeared to be coming from somewhere around the bike. I bent down listening for the source of the noise. It was then I figured it out, and the realization punched me square in the gut -- my front bike tire was leaking air.

To be fair, the snakes I saw that day sounded and looked like a deflating tire.
I'm having a hard time remembering what words I uttered upon discovering my dilemma. I'm confident most of them weren't PG-rated, but in my mind, the phrase "no, no, no" kept playing on repeat. I rotated the tire trying to locate the source of the leak. Sure enough, I found a small tear no more than a half centimeter in length, and I could feel the 70 P.SI. worth of air escaping with each passing second.

I looked around hoping to find someone that could assist me. Before I arrived at the tunnel, I noticed a tour guide lecturing a group of tourists; however, they had already started on a path that ascends the mountain over the tunnel. I began walking with my bike and came across another cyclist. He had panniers (saddlebags) mounted on his bike like I did, and based off the amount of supplies he possessed, I concluded he was traveling long distance. I hoped he had at least a patch kit.

I approached him, introduced myself and told him of my problem. As nice as he was, he also did not have a patch kit. He did lend me a tube of fast-drying glue to try to at least plug the hole in the tire, but it had close to no effect. I tried using it a second time, but it still proved frivolous. I thanked him for attempting to help me, he wished me best of luck, and I decided to start walking my bike in search of a solution.

My best hope was finding a store that sold patch kits somewhere in Paw Paw. When I had looked at the town the first time, though, it didn't appear to be the type of place to have a bike shop. I couldn't see anything resembling a Wal-Mart or a box store, either. Regardless, I had no other options available, as I would later find out from a local that the nearest towns were at least 5 miles away and also lacked bike shops.

If Paw Paw were anything like this mall in Morgantown, West Virginia, it wasn't going to help me find any of the supplies I needed.
Along the way to Paw Paw, I called my dad and my girlfriend, Cassidy, and let them know of my situation. Dad lives too far away to pick me up, but he's wise when it comes to fixing just about anything. If I ever needed a MacGyver, he was the one. He told me of a few probable places that might carry patch kits. He wished me luck, and all the while, he didn't ridicule me for my lack of common sense not to pack extra supplies. I appreciated that, even though I deserved it.

I phoned up Cassidy next. She was working until 6:30 that evening. It was about 1:30 at this point, so if it came down to her picking me up, I either had to wait or she had to bail out of work early. I wasn't feeling keen about choosing either option, so I told her I would try to find a patch kit in the meantime. She told me to keep in touch just in case, and I said I would. I didn't want her to try to drive to Paw Paw. It's a charming town, but it's also in scenic nowhere. Looking at Google Maps, the route from our apartment to Paw Paw is confusing and involves back roads with probably little to no cellphone reception. I didn't see a point in getting us both stuck in West Virginia with no place to go.
With my luck, Google Maps would tell Cassidy to take this road.
I walked into Paw Paw and noticed I had few options to choose from as to where I would find a patch kit. The two immediate choices were a Dollar General and a Liberty gas station. I chose Dollar General first. I chained my bike to a guard rail and walked inside. I spent about 10 minutes walking up and down aisles looking for patch kits. I found everything else, including refrigerated beer (something you don't see in a Dollar General in Pennsylvania), but not what I needed. I went up to the register and asked the cashier if the store carried patch kits. She said no, but she told me about a NAPA-affiliated car shop not far up the road. Both of us figured it would be my best bet. I went to Liberty first just to make sure it didn't have patch kits, and I also asked for directions to the car shop. That cashier pointed me in the right direction, and I made my way to the store.

I arrived at the car shop, set my bike down and walked inside. The store was about the size of a small bedroom and smelled like an ash tray, but it looked like a place that would have patch kits. I approached the man sitting behind the desk and asked if he had any in stock. He did -- at one point. As it turned out, about a week earlier, a farmer came in seeking patch kits to repair a tractor tire. The store had 68 kits in stock, the man said, and the farmer bought all of them. Did this farmer run over a family of porcupines?

I'm sure the man behind the counter could sense my dismay, so he called over another person and asked if he knew where I could find a patch kit. The other man said he knew a woman down the road who rents out her house as a bed and breakfast for bicyclists. He thought she might have extra bike supplies. He left the store and drove to her house. I waited for about 15 minutes until the man returned and said the woman didn't have what I needed. He did bring a spare tube from his own mountain bike, but it was too large for my wheel.

Over the next hour, more people kept walking in, and the man behind the counter asked them all if they had spare patch kits sitting around. My situation seemed helpless until one of the store's mechanics found a small patch kit somewhere in the back. We took the tire off the bike, and the mechanic patched up the tube. He filled it using an air compressor so that it had enough air to get me back to Cumberland. The mechanic helped place the tube back on the wheel and secured the rubber tire over it. Nearly two hours and $14 later, I could start my journey to end this nightmare.

Just before I left, I took a quick glance at the tire and noticed a small portion of it bulging over the metal rim. This made me a bit concerned since I never saw something like this before. I asked the man who had offered his spare tube if this would pose a problem on my ride back. He said it shouldn't -- but you never know what could happen. Those words sounded ominous. I'm the kind of person who only deals in absolutes. Any slight doubt in my mind makes me paranoid beyond belief. I didn't have many other options to choose from, though. Apparently I had the only patch kit in the state of West Virginia, and it was already 3 p.m. I had about three hours to get back to my car in Cumberland. Any lost time meant the possibility that I would be riding in the dark. In addition to not having spare tire supplies, I also failed to bring a flashlight. If there were any plus side to my situation, it was that I had the chance to win a Darwin Award this year.

I just hope they use this flattering photo of me when they present my posthumous award.
I opted to ride and hoped for the best. I thanked the mechanics an uncountable amount of times for their assistance and made my way back to Cumberland.

The return ride started without any significant complications; however, I did notice the front wheel looked as though it had an uneven rotation because of the bulging portion of the tire, but I had confirmed that suspicion before leaving, so it was something I just had to live with.

The first two hours of the trip back were going better than I had anticipated, despite my tire issue. I stopped on occasion to drink water, and I happened to see that the bulge in the front tire almost seemed to be growing in size. I wrote it off as being my paranoia at play and kept trekking on. I was so confident I had resolved my troubles that I text Cassidy to let her know I was only an hour away from Cumberland and would be home soon.

At this point, reaching Cumberland would feel like arriving in paradise.
At about the two-hour mark, however, I became concerned. For some reason, I could feel and hear the front tire rubbing against the brake pads. That seems normal, except I wasn't applying the brakes -- in addition to the fact that I disconnected the front brakes before starting my ride that day because they don't work well. This set off an alarm in my head, so I decided to stop and inspect the tire.

I got off the bike and pushed it forward a bit to see how the tire looked when rotating. Sure enough, the bulge had grown so large that it was making contact with the brakes each time it spun around. I attempted to loosen the brakes more to prevent this from happening, but they were already disconnected as far as they could separate, so I was out of luck. This meant I was going to have to finish my ride fighting the friction of my front tire trying to slow itself down. But hey, I still had a working tire, so it was better than having a flat.

No more than five seconds after that thought ran through my head, I heard what sounded like a gunshot. I knew better, though, because I happened to be looking at the tire when the sound pierced the woods around me. I had just witnessed the tire's tube explode under the immense pressure that had been building up over the past two hours.

Paradise lost.
That was it, I thought. I could ride on a flat tire, but the wheel in front of me was nothing more than the metal rim and the useless rubber of the tire. That same panic that I mentioned earlier in this story during my episode in the woods just came back, except I was nowhere near my house, and I was on a trail that I had seen fewer than a dozen people riding all day.

I looked around to assess my options. On the left was the Potomac River (which despite my earlier joke, I was not going to attempt to swim), and to the right was the canal. On the hillside above the canal was a roadway, but there was no way for me to reach it because of the waterway blocking access to it.

I called Cassidy and Dad to update them on my situation. Both were worried, but there wasn't much they could do. I told them I had to start walking in the hopes I could find someone who could help me. What other option did I have? To my misfortune, my bike broke down about 10 miles from Cumberland, and there was hardly a town between there and my current location. It would take me hours to reach Cumberland by foot, but the alternative was sitting in the woods with no shelter. I grabbed my bike and resumed my journey back.

"After all we've been through, why would you betray me?!?!"
I spent this time walking with my bike to reflect on the horrible mistake I had made to not stock up on tubes and patch kits. The first flat tire was a satisfactory lesson, I thought, but the exploding tube drove the message home -- though it was a bit excessive. I kicked myself for failing to follow my gut and buy the extra supplies I needed while I was staring at a bike shop. I remembered the quote someone used to tell me: "Hindsight is 20/20." I think I might get that tattooed somewhere so I never forget it.

Out of all the misfortunes that occurred that day, I had the luck that my bike broke down just outside of Spring Gap, which has a campground operated by the National Park Service. I passed through it earlier in the day and noticed several people there, so I figured this would be my best chance of finding help.

As I walked into the campground, however, I couldn't see anyone around. Then I came across a sign that had emergency numbers to contact the NPS. I looked at the time and realized it was 4:45 p.m. I wasn't sure if park rangers had a 9 to 5 job like other people, but I figured I shouldn't hesitate to call just in case. I dialed the number and crossed my fingers. The service was spotty, but someone did answer. I told the woman my situation and location and requested assistance. She said she would try to contact someone to help, but suggested I might want to consider getting a cab if the former option didn't pan out. A cab? In the middle of rural Maryland? That option sounded like nonsense.

I had a better chance of tying a bunch of turtles together to form a raft and riding that back to Cumberland than I did finding a cab.
 Regardless, the woman took my cellphone number and said she would try to get back to me. I thanked her and hung up. I happened to notice another woman getting out of her car about 100 yards from where I was standing. It couldn't hurt to ask her for help, I figured. I walked toward her with my sorry excuse for a bike so she could see how desperate my situation was. I started off by asking her where the nearest town was. She responded that it was Cumberland. I had hoped something was closer so I didn't have to inconvenience her, but I told her what happened to my bike and that my car was parked in Cumberland. She then offered to give me a ride there.

"Are you sure?" I asked, trying to be nice, though it was a dumb gesture considering my lack of available options. She said yes, and I thanked her about 40 times. I chained my bike to a nearby post because we had no way to store it in her sedan. I removed the panniers and any other valuables from the bike and placed them in the car's trunk. We got in the car and started to drive toward Cumberland.

Even though she offered to help me, I still felt bad because she had just arrived at the campground to go for a run on the trail. Not only that, but I probably looked and smelled like crap because I was covered in dust and sweat from riding all day. She didn't seem to judge me, though.

During the drive to Cumberland, we chatted about restaurants, jobs, our favorite cities in Maryland, etc. She seemed more like a friend I hadn't seen in a while than a stranger I had just met for the first time. I found out she was from West Virginia, so if I learned anything from this fiasco, it was that West Virginians are amiable and generous folks.

Thank you, glorious state of West Virginia.
On the way to Cumberland, the National Park Service contacted me and said they had a park ranger coming to pick me up. I felt foolish that I was now wasting some ranger's time, but I told the caller that I had found a ride, but I thanked her for her efforts in trying to assist me. I owe a "thank you" to the National Park Service, as well -- and Theodore Roosevelt.

We arrived at the lot in Cumberland where my car was parked. I had no cash on me, but I offered to withdraw money from an ATM so I could at least pay the woman for her generosity. She rebuked my offer and said she was happy to help. I thanked her another 30 times and unloaded my supplies from her trunk, and she drove back to Spring Gap to resume her run. I got into my car and made my way back there, as well, so I could fetch my bike. I saw the woman again and jokingly warned her that she should start her run before my car blew a flat tire. She laughed and went on her way, and I did the same. I had a lot of time to reflect on my mistakes during the hour and 15 minute drive home.

Much like the first story I told, this situation could have been avoided with simple preparation beforehand. For the most part, I had the essentials like food, water, and a phone. What I lacked were some of the most important supplies for a bike such as tubes, patch kits and an air pump in case of an emergency. I still kick myself that I saw the bike shop before starting my ride and didn't take the opportunity to walk in and pick up spare parts. It wasn't so much an issue of stupidity as it was ego. I know I should carry these supplies every time I get on a bike, especially if I'm riding in an area that's far away from people.

The irony is what caused the leak in the first place -- a small shard of glass. Who would think you could run over glass on a bike trail in the woods? I'm guessing my flat didn't occur on the trail, but on the highway when I rode into Paw Paw the first time. It's not uncommon to find broken glass along a roadway. The funny thing is that I didn't originally plan to ride to the town; I was seeking the Paw Paw Tunnel and made a wrong turn. Had I stayed on the trail the whole time, I might not have encountered my tire dilemma. But that's the lesson here: Emergencies are unexpected. With the proper preparation, I wouldn't have avoided getting a flat tire, but at least I would have had the tools necessary to fix my problem. I now know to assume everything and anything can happen, no matter how much confidence you have that it won't.

After my trip, my dad helped me avoid coming across the same issue with my tires in the future by purchasing patch kits, two spare tubes and a pump for my bike. He also outfitted the bike with new tubes and tires, so it's actually in better shape now than before my last ride. It should hold up for a long time, but at least now I feel a bit safer knowing I'll be ready in case something does fail on me. Learn from my mistake: Don't ever tell yourself you are "over-prepared."

The Dad-Approved Bicycle Tire Repair Kit (beer sold separately).
Editor's note: I wrote this post before taking another bike ride on the Great Allegheny Passage trail in May, which also starts in Cumberland. Despite having all the aforementioned supplies this time around, I rode 15 miles to Frostburg, Maryland, where I then broke my bike chain and had to find a way to ride 15 miles back to Cumberland. But that's another story to come. -- Yerms