How old is the first federally funded highway? Thomas Jefferson approved funds for the construction of the National Road, which by 1818 reached Wheeling, a major center of industry.
The Wheeling Suspension Bridge, finished in 1849, linked Ohio to Virginia, which became West Virginia when secessionist northwestern counties broke away from Virginia during conventions in Wheeling in 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War.
One of the reasons I choose to bike the National Road (Route 40) is historical significance as I see America by bicycle. Instead of covered wagons and fanciful images of western pioneer travel, I’m greeted into Ohio by a honking pickup truck clearing me out of the way so he can make an illegal left on red from the wrong lane to jump on the interstate towards Columbus. This annoyance and the lack of an Ohio welcome sign photo op become the least of my concerns as I discover the hard way that Route 40 is terrible for bikes.
The National Road
I have three equally bad options: the road itself, which has potholes dating back to the Martin Van Buren administration. The shoulder, which if it exists is blocked by orange and white construction barrels or littered with gravel. And the sidewalk, where it exists, is cracked into oblivion or impassible from assorted debris (although in the photo below it's fine). To add to the dilemma, the pavement’s white end line is rutted with rumble strips that give Countri Bike the cobblestone shakes.
However, the worst feature of Route 40 is not surface conditions—it’s the hills exiting Appalachia. Getting out of the Ohio River valley has a memorable low point, which is actually a high point: walking the bike up the Blaine Hill Viaduct. Built in the early 1930s, the debris-covered viaduct’s shoulder probably hasn’t been swept since its reconstruction in 1982.
A sun shower cools me down as I walk more than a mile uphill. Traffic swishes past. At times the pavement edge drops six inches, making it difficult for my Travoy trailer to stay balanced as we cling to the roadside with the determination of a mountain goat. As for animals, I’ve already seen more roadkill on Route 40 than on my entire trip combined.
Except for a freshly paved section through the attractive town of St. Clairsville, the National Road is a total disappointment—the worst road I’ve encountered since Route 30 heading into Atlantic City, NJ.
You’re almost (not) there
Route 40 closely parallels I-70 where signs point to Columbus 120 miles away. By car that’s an easy two hours. By shared bicycle it’s a grueling three days. If Western-bound pioneers could do it without the luxuries of synthetic fabrics, wi-fi and Dairy Queen shakes, then dammit so can I.
After splurging on a hotel last night, I’m cutting expenses by camping outside the West Pike Inn & Campground right on Route 40. I call ahead and speak to Brian who agrees to let me camp for $5, but warns there are no bathroom facilities. The only time people camp here is during Jamboree in the Hills every July, and the outdoor shower has been turned off for the season.
Speaking of hills, they are slowing me down so much that I’m worried about arriving after Brian’s 7 PM deadline. I pull in with 30 minutes to spare and set up camp in a comfortable grassy area behind the motel and out of sight of the road.
Where leather meets skin
Chapz Bar & Grill is my only option for food. I would be worried if this were the West Side of Manhattan, but here in Belmont, Ohio I’m not expecting a fetish bar. Brian tells me that with the Labor Day holiday it’s going to be packed with fracking guys, but the steakwich is really good. Come what may, I’m exhausted and need nourishment.
Chapz turns out to be surprisingly quiet. I sit at a table next to a wall outlet to recharge my devices, and dive into a steakwich and five tall glasses of ice water to recharge my body.
It’s a slow night, which is frustrating one patron at the bar.
“Show us your titties! C’mon, show us your titties,” he implores the waitress behind the bar.
She flicks her wrist at him like batting away a fly and continues to chat with me. I’m on my way out, but the staff saw me ride into the parking lot and are curious about Countri Bike. They start giving me advice on route planning.
“Hey, you’re not paying any attention to me… I need another beer,” he whines.
“That’s because you’re here everyday and this guy isn’t. He’s riding across America on a bicycle!” the waitress shoots back.
“C’mmmon, show us your titties. Everybody’s doing it.”
Actually nobody is doing much of anything. There are only three patrons at this point. Me, the guy who thinks it’s Mardis Gras, and another guy engrossed in a football game. It’s almost 10 PM and Chapz is getting ready to close.
“Hey, do you collect anything along your way?” the waitress asks.
“Unless it’s the weight and thinness of a sticker, I don’t,” I say. “That bike is heavy enough.”
She hands me a round orange token stamped with Chapz’s logo and motto: where leather meets skin. It’s good for a beer on my next visit.
“We open back up at 11 tomorrow,” she says promisingly.
I would gladly have another meal here, but I’ll be on my way to Cambridge, Ohio by then. Another long day of riding is planned and I’m hopeful the hills are behind me.