Aren’t you going to jump off the bridge?” inquired a sweet, old lady sitting in a lawn chair on the bank of the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. I looked at my three friends in surprise. “Is it deep enough?” I ventured. “I jumped off when I was 65,” she replied. Grinning, I knew that settled it. My friends and I were, after all, on a four-day bikepacking trip around the Monongahela National Forest to celebrate the summer in which we would all turn 40 years old. We couldn’t be upstaged by a 65-year-old.
The idea for this trip was cooked up a year earlier on a COVID cabin-fever inspired overnight bikepacking trip, a first for my friend Josh and me. We were hooked after our first night out and immediately began plotting a longer trip. We set our sights on the mountains, valleys, and roads of the Mon Forest, keen on including the highlights: Canaan Valley, Dolly Sods, Smoke Hole, and Spruce Knob. We also wanted to link these destinations by pedaling a variety of surfaces: gravel roads, quiet paved roads, gated roads, rail-trail, and mild singletrack. In short, we wanted to go on an epic adventure to celebrate the end of our collective fourth decade around the sun.
As a newcomer to bikepacking, I enjoyed the nuances of learning a new activity and planning for a longer trip. Bikepacking is an interesting amalgamation of activities that are more familiar to me. I’ve been an avid rider since college, so the cycling component was old hat. Carrying weight over long distances for multiple days was also somewhat comparable to my experiences prepping for backpacking trips. I was used to slimming down my packing list with weight, size, and caloric intake in mind.
Bikepacking also bears similarity to backcountry canoeing in that the weight isn’t carried on your back but on your craft for most of the trip. The knowledge that you won’t have the weight tugging at your shoulders gives you the false impression that you won’t feel the weight. Therein lies the trap that I experienced on my first trip, when I learned the hard way that weight added up quickly and the stability and security of my gear wasn’t to be underestimated. I don’t recommend rigging an ill-fitting rack to your bike with zip ties the night before the ride.
The first Category 2 hill (a climb of 1,500 to 3,000 feet) I climbed with excess camping gear hanging from my frame quickly disavowed me of this fallacy. At the same time, bikepacking has elements of a road trip in a car. You can alter course at myriad intersections, stop at a restaurant or shop (Shreve’s Country Store in Smoke Hole is like a mirage in the desert – cold Coke and ice cream!), or spend the night in a hostel.
These travel elements came together beautifully in the process of planning our bikepacking trip to celebrate the big 4-0. We delighted in working through the nuances of the sport in anticipation of our expedition. After all, the joy of a trip need not start with the first pedal stroke. We enjoyed talking about equipment, meal choices, and packing strategies during multiple training rides. The route planning was also a treat, tinged with regret that we couldn’t keep tacking on days to see a little more and go a little bit further into the Mon. Finally, we settled on a route that included both familiar and unfamiliar territory for each of us.
We started our trip in Davis, pedaling out Camp 70 Road along the Blackwater River. It’s hard to describe the feeling of freedom and anticipation at the start of a multi-day trip with close friends and no responsibilities beyond a safe return. Josh and I were joined by our mutual friend Steven, who possessed ample knowledge and experience in the West Virginia wilds. Our party was rounded out by Jared, Josh’s childhood friend from Arizona who was new to the mountainous part of the state and brought a fresh perspective that amplified our vicarious enjoyment of discovering the landscape (if not the hill climbs).
Our gentle gravel climb along the Blackwater River gave way to grassy, muddy singletrack as we crossed the river to climb up to Bearden Knob, which afforded views of Canaan Valley and the mountain town of Davis. Swooping down into Canaan, we pushed across a dilapidated bridge on the Blackwater River in the middle of the Canaan Valley Wildlife Refuge before skirting the bases of the ski resorts. Then we carried on to Dolly Sods, briefly stopping at Laneville for lunch and a dip in the icy Red Creek before our first true hill climb up the Allegheny Front.
After summiting the Front, we roared down the high plateau of the Sods, cruised out of the Cheat River watershed, and biked over the Eastern Continental Divide into the Potomac watershed. We soothed our tired legs with a swim in the North Fork of the South Branch of the mighty river that eventually flows past our nation’s capital. Camped at the head of the North Fork Mountain Trail, we sat on the hillside like tired kings, eating rehydrated food around a campfire.
And so continued our trip. We spent days pedaling down curvy mountain roads with occasional vistas of blue mountains and along nostalgic blacktop ribbons running through lush farm valleys seemingly forgotten by time. We biked into ripe fields of early summer hay concealing yearling whitetail deer that broke for cover upon our approach. And the climbs, oh the climbs. In all, we ascended over 17,000 feet of elevation over the course of our trip. Each rider settled into their own pace, lost among their own thoughts, sweat, and struggle.
Our second and longest day ended in a 2,860-foot climb up Spruce Knob, the highest point in the Mountain State. I endured the grueling climb by letting my mind wander to avoid focusing on the effort I was exerting. Passed only by an occasional car, I was surprised to hear a truck slowing down as it caught up to me. Jared sat smiling in the passenger seat, his bike in the bed of his hitch-hiked ride.
We were rewarded at the summit with a sunset dinner to the backdrop of a fiery sky, followed by a chilly night of camping along Seneca Creek. The cool mountain air and clear night sky dissipated as we pedaled past Spruce Knob Lake the following morning. Then we travelled down the mountain and past the Sinks of Gandy on quiet, shady forest roads that felt as though they hadn’t changed in 50 years.
We cruised onto the street of Glady (yes: street, singular) and over another steep ridge that sent us spinning back in the Cheat watershed and down into the hamlet of Bemis, where we crossed a bridge over the Shavers Fork. Our sweat-stung eyes were greeted by a beautiful swimming hole and sandy riverbank. Here, we met our lawn chair antagonist.
My surprise at her suggestion to jump off the bridge was not at the prospect of the act, but rather that I hadn’t already thought of it. In my childhood, I extoled the virtues of leaping off high objects into the water in the same way that Robert Frost promoted the bending of birches. The irony of a senior citizen throwing down the challenge wasn’t lost on us. In many ways, it serves as a metaphor for our trip.
The adventure of our 40th birthday bikepacking trip was as fulfilling to me as any I’ve undertaken. The trip may have lacked some adrenaline and risk, but it was perhaps more satisfying given the amount of endurance and planning required to complete it, along with the aesthetic beauty of our surroundings. If the next 40 years bring more of this type of adventure, I’m all in (though I hope I’m still up for the occasional bridge jump 25 years from now).
We reluctantly left the swimming hole and our new friends to tackle the surprisingly enjoyable 1,000-foot climb out of Bemis. Then we began a rolling descent down into Elkins, another superb gateway town into the Mon Forest. After two nights under the stars, our third night was spent in a hostel downtown.
Sitting on the rooftop patio, we watched the sun set while sipping Big Timber beers that were brewed just up the street. We reminisced on past adventures and plotted future trips, like our 50th birthday bikepacking trip in France that will coincide with the Tour de France. The next day, we wrapped up our trip with 46 miles of rail-trail and forest road, bringing our journey to just under 200 miles.
We jokingly referred to this trip as the start of our efforts to work through our mid-life crises, but in truth, this experience was the perfect opportunity to celebrate the start of our fifth decade around the sun. We yielded to the youthful impulse to swim in every river we passed. We found ourselves humbled by the physicality of the terrain, while still relishing every climb and descent.
We reveled in the natural beauty of the mountains, sunsets, and rivers, and we embraced the comforts of the mountain town communities we visited. We saw familiar and beloved landscapes through the fresh eyes of a visitor, and we celebrated good friendships that make all travels sweeter. If this is the harbinger of adventures to come, I’m looking forward to what’s next. As Charles Shultz famously said, “Just remember, once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed.”
Nathan Harlan is a committed couch potato and armchair adventurist who suffers the occasional relapse into biking, boating, climbing, and camping – often dragging his wife and three daughters with him.
Feature Photo: The crew taking a well-earned coke and ice cream break at Shreve’s Store, a staple business in the Smoke Hole Canyon. Photo by Josh Johnes