Local man introduces others to riding the rails
Amy Smith and Bill Deegan ham it up on the C&O Canal trail.
Bill Deegan and a fellow rider navigate a set of metal stairs near a bike path.
Bill Deegan and a friend take a break on a ride.
WAYNESBURG – Traveling on a bicycle allows the rider to take in the surrounding sights, smells and sounds from an entirely different perspective, and for nearly two decades retired coal miner Bill Deegan of Holbrook has shared that experience with family, friends and the occasional stranger.
On a break from volunteering at the St. Ann’s soup kitchen in Waynesburg, Deegan shared his journey.
It all started in 1994 with one mountain bike that Deegan bought for exercise and because as a little boy he always loved to ride. He started riding the roads around his farm and then the trail from Connellsville to Ohiopyle.
Two years later he rode the Greenbrier River Trail through West Virginia and he has continued to ride the trails ever since. Today, he has ridden the C&O Canal Bike Trail 16 times. It is the ride from Connellsville to Ohiopyle that he says is his favorite because it was the trail ride he first took.
“That trip introduced me to riding (trails),” he said. To make the trek make a little longer Deegan said there is another section that goes all the way to Confluence. That piece takes the journey from a 34-mile ride to a 50-mile ride, something a lot of people don’t want to tackle, he said.
Before many of the rails to trails even existed, Deegan and his friend, Bob MtJoy, began blazing their own paths. Deegan credited ATV riders for creating a track that helped them bike the railroad right of way all the way to Frostburg, Md.
“We heard a couple of guys talking. They said they had ridden a dozer from Pennsylvania into Maryland, driving on the old rails,” Deegan said.
It was an adventure that Deegan will never forget. The Big Savage Tunnel, now part of the Great Allegheny Passage, was still just an abandoned railroad tunnel. Instead of going all the way around the tunnel on the road, Deegan and MtJoy, based on what they’d heard of the dozer making it, made their way through.
Registered nurse Amy Smith is one of the more recent friends who have joined the Deegan bike excursions. She met Deegan through his wife, Rosanna, who she worked with in the emergency room at Greene County Memorial Hospital.
“Doing the bike trip I met all of the fabulous people who are Bill and Rosie’s friends, now they are my fabulous friends,” Smith said. “It is really not that hard to do one of these trips. Bill plans it months in advance, where we are stopping and all. All I do is go wherever he tells me to go.”
Smith was part of a trip from Pittsburgh at the Point where the group rode the entire Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal to Washington, D.C. For a long trip like that one, the group has a support vehicle that meets them each night.
“I am really, really glad I did this. It was the longest bike ride I’ve ever done,” Smith said. “There is nothing really to think about but pedaling and getting to the next mile marker.”
Deegan and Smith prefer to listen to the sounds of nature as they ride. MtJoy rides to his favorite music, Deegan said. There are even some who listen to books on tape. The experience is different for everyone in some way.
“I’ve kind of perfected a system over the years. This year was the grand opening of the Point to Washington, D.C., in June,” he said. “There were 28 different groups involved when they started working on it.” The trail took a lot of cooperation among landowners, governments and others to make it a reality.
On most trips Deegan and his crew average about 40 miles per day. Some days it is a little more or a little less, depending on the terrain and how everyone is feeling, he said. No one gets left behind.
The interesting parts of the ride for Smith were the little restaurants and shops along the way.
“Every place you go has its own unique story,” Deegan said.
There is the old school cafeteria that was converted into a restaurant in Town Hill, Md., Bill’s Place in Little Orleans, Md. “It was a longtime ritual to stop and talk to Bill and have a shot with him,” Deegan said.
“The towns closest to the trail really reap the benefits of the bicyclists. Bike shops, little cafes, and various bed and breakfasts and motels have sprung up,” Smith said.
A personal favorite of hers is the Beans in the Belfry coffee shop in a 100-year-old restored church in Brunswick, Md.
Smith said she learned that it isn’t as physically difficult to do one of these long trips as she expected. A couple of days the initial aches subside, sleep comes easily and beer never tasted so good.
“I get to be with these fabulous people. We don’t all have the exact same points of view but we’re OK with that,” she said. “They introduce me to these ideas and different ways of thinking about things. They are just so fascinating and good people.”
“I’ve introduced a lot of people to biking. My philosophy is we ride, stop to look at the wildlife, and arrive in time to have dinner and enjoy ourselves and explore the area,” Deegan said.
Deegan said that is why he goes at his own pace and allows others who join him to do the same. Deegan’s riders from teens to those in their 70s bring something unique to the experience and take something equally special away from it with them.
“When I finally did it I was so glad that I did and I can’t wait to do it again,” Smith said. “It blows the cobwebs out of my mind.”