The Watchwoman

Written by an artist who is building her business on The Great Allegheny Passage.
The Great Allegheny Passage passes right by my front door.

I love bikers. They fascinate me. The day trippers and the long trekkers, the senior citizen recumbents and the streamlined, thru-riders looking to eat up the miles; they all share the common denominator of passing by my plot of land.

There are the history buffs who would like nothing better than to stop and hear exactly how my historic house fits into the story of Western PA coal mining. There are the rubber-neckers who I can’t help but eavesdrop on as they comment on my choice of paint colors.

Pittsburgh, PA Mile - marker ‘0’ on the GAP

I think of The Gap as a great thoroughfare of humanity that cuts a narrow swath along, in my case, a very quiet stretch of rural flyover country. As an entrepreneur, it’s my job to get into the head of the bicyclist.

These are things that I know about you: I know that you worry about critical things like the distance between bathrooms and water. You may have made meticulous plans to experience a Bed and Breakfast and a good meal and you are pushing your body to make it there on schedule. You are likely experiencing pain on a specific part of your body and may be worried about getting through the next hour. You may or may not be intrigued by my art studio and the beauty I am working to create on my little patch of land.

But today I am more interested in writing about the particular differences between you as the traveler, and me, as the fixed constant.

People who live on bike trails, I think, in some ways can be described as watchmen and women. We watch the movement go by. We watch your impressive energy, your goal orientation, your colorful uniforms and gear. We hear your laughter and your conversations. I am struck by the dichotomy of motion that defines you and the stillness that defines me in those moments when our paths cross. You will always be passing by. I will always be here, watching. It is your job to pass me by and it is my job to wave you on. These are, of course, metaphors. We can move easily between traveler and watchwoman from day to day and moment to moment.  The trick, I believe, is acknowledging the roles we are playing and to remember that the watchwoman has likely spent her life on this plot of land that you are passing through. She remembers the houses that used to be here, the men who are gone, the babies who grew up. She has stories about this moment in time that you are passing through.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

This confluence that I think on is nothing new or novel of course. Every traveler has passed by every local since The Route to Delphi, The Appian Way and The Great Silk Road.

The transformation from railroad track to bike route may be a newish development across the American landscape but the fleeting intersection of pilgrim and native is, as they say, as old as the hills with plenty of storytelling to back it up. I am reminded of Huck Finn’s adventures with eccentric characters as he navigates the Mississippi, or the Canterbury Tale travelers moving through their medieval-age social constructs.

2018 Great Allegheny Passage Trail Guide

Maybe the most obvious difference between the pilgrims of history and the contemporary cyclist is purpose. The travelers from the past were motivated by commerce, religion or simply survival.  The contemporary biker that I see today is chasing something much different. Phrases like adventure travel and eco-tourism are becoming the norm. There is a sense of curating an environment for  authenticity that so many of us now crave after long stretches of media time.

Whitsett, PA, Mile Marker 104

I consider it a great privilege to be still along what has been dubbed “America’s friendliest trail” and watch you speed or amble by my little piece of paradise. If you find yourself a GAP traveler this year and our paths cross, I will welcome you to the studio and share my stories of art and history. I assure you that I am putting myself in your well-traveled shoes.

If you choose to keep on keepin’ on, I will smile and wave you by.

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