As the coronavirus pandemic ravages the United States, a west Kentucky father/daughter duo spent time together while practicing social distancing through a nearly 400-mile bicycle trip spanning from the nation’s capital to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Aspen Carrigan is a music teacher at Sharpe Elementary School in Marshall County. Her father, Jerry Carrigan, is a lifetime sportsman who instilled a love for the outdoors in his daughter from an early age. Both have previously completed the TransAmerica bicycle route, established in 1976 to commemorate America’s bicentennial. The path runs from Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia. The elder Carrigan completed the route in 1981, with Aspen making the cross country trek in 2018.
Aspen said she originally intended to complete a bicycle tour of the Pacific Coast with her father this summer. After months of planning, the 1,800-mile itinerary was canceled as closures forced by COVID-19 began to shut down the cities along the route. Carrigan said she felt it was both unsafe and unethical to make the journey with the ongoing public health crisis. Later in the year, as the nation underwent an economic thaw to reopen businesses, the pair chose to complete a popular “rail trail” (former railway tracks repurposed for safe bicycle travel) in order to accommodate social distancing.
“This is kind of last minute and with all the pandemic stuff going on, we weren’t really sure what to do,” Aspen said. “We figured doing a rail trail would be awesome and easy because it’s kind of off the beaten path, you’re kind of in the woods and it just seems a lot safer than being out on the road.”
The Carrigans chose The C&O Canal Towpath Trail and Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) as their route for cycling from Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh. The two trails connect in Maryland, allowing for a smooth transition. The C&O largely follows the Potomac River, with the GAP running through the heart of Pennsylvania.
The duo began their journey with a nearly nine hour drive to Pittsburgh (pushed to 11.5 hours due to traffic), followed by an Amtrak ride from the Steel City to the capital city. Aspen said the first major hiccup in the plan came after the cancellation of their Amtrak train, forcing them to take a longer connecting train through Philadelphia.
"Amtrak is great. I was amazed at how nice and helpful all the workers were. But, our train broke down. We had to take a longer train that went through Philadelphia into Washington, D.C. Originally, we were supposed to be on the train for eight hours, but it ended up being 12 or 13,” Carrigan explained.
“Everybody at the station was nice,” Jerry said. “They would pretty much lead you wherever you wanted to go without even asking. On the train, the conductor would come back every now and then and tell us our bikes were safe.”
After arriving in Washington, the Carrigans rode the first miles of their route by cycling through the monuments and federal buildings on the National Mall. Aspen said she was surprised by the lack of traffic and overall accommodating nature in the city.
“We were actually really surprised in Washington, D.C. riding through the Mall area. I don’t know if it has to do with the virus but there was hardly any traffic. There were cyclists all over the roads. It was like a free for all,” she said.
After leaving the federal district, the Carrigans over the next six days traveled a total of 358.4 miles through some of the most notable heritage sites in the United States. They crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, slept by the Antietam Civil War battlefield, made their way through the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park and traversed the eastern continental divide.
Despite the C&O and GAP routes being among the most popular passageways in the nation for cyclists, COVID-19 still complicated the journey. The Carrigans said a primary concern was the availability of food and water due to public health restrictions in place to fight the virus.
“There’s a lot of towns along the route. We were worried about the restaurants being closed. The different states have the different restrictions, so we had to make sure that we were carrying food to cook just in case restaurants were closed,” Aspen said.
On a normal ride through the rail trails, cyclists could freely access water pumps spaced at intervals along the route to provide drinking water. To limit the potential spread of coronavirus through touching the pumps, many of the installations were inaccessible. This forced the pair to be more strategic in how they stockpiled and used their water resources.
“Some of the pump handles were off because of the coronavirus,” Jerry explained. “There were a few of them that were off but a lot of them that were on also.”
A common theme among bicycle tours is partial reliance on the kindness of strangers for assistance with needs including shelter, directions, food and bicycle maintenance. In the era of social distancing, contact with strangers for any reason can prove problematic. Aspen said people still stepped up to help them, while simultaneously protecting public health.
“There were a few little diners that would refill our water bottles. We were kind of worried about them wanting to do that because of the pandemic and for sanitary reasons. There’s just a lot of people along the route that ask you about what you’re doing. We stayed at a couple of little beds and breakfasts that were really accommodating,” Aspen said.
Both Carrigans agree the most special part of the trip was sharing a hobby they love.
“I thought it was awesome. I feel really thankful for the opportunity to do the trip with him because we were supposed to go on the big ride from Vancouver to San Diego. That kind of fell through so I was really disappointed that wasn’t going to happen. I’ve always thought it would be really cool to do a trip with my Dad. He did his first cross country trip which inspired me to do mine. So I thought it would be super cool to do one together,” Aspen said.
The Carrigans plan to complete the Pacific Coast bicycle tour in the summer of 2021. Until then, they expect packing lists for cycling trips to include face masks and hand sanitizer.
Read more about the trip (and other trips taken by Aspen Carrigan) at her blog.