2018 C&O / Gap Tour : Epilogue

A little over a week ago, we finished up our tour from DC to Washington on the C&O Canal and Great Allegheny Passage.  I’m just adding a few parting thoughts about our adventure.

Some stats:

  • 372.61 Miles, mostly off-road
  • Total Time on the bike (moving time):  32 hours, 15 Minutes, 44 Seconds
  • 155,083 complete pedal rotations, give or take a few. (310,166 left/right pedal steps)
  • Meals with french fries: 2.  Meals with bacon: 3.

 

This is the fifth trip that Joe and I have made together.  Usually we’ve found a new route to try, but this time we decided to go back and do the C&O/GAP again.  We rode it together 3 years ago going from west to east (Pittsburgh to DC).  That time, we did it in 6 days, which didn’t leave much time for sight seeing or side trips.  It also made for three very long days on the C&O.

When we picked our trip for this year, we considered a few different bike routes.  There are some on our bucket list that would take longer to ride, or are farther from home.  We narrowed the list down to trips we could get to/from in a day and complete in a week or less.  Looking back, we both really enjoyed the 2015 trip, but we wanted to see a little more of the history along the C&O.  Given that we were very familiar with the course, it also made the planning easy.  So… we chose to do this course again, but start from the DC end.

Every time we do one of these trips, people ask me some common questions.  Here are some answers:

  1. How much did you train?  I recommend at least 500+ miles of training, with at least 2 or 3 back-to-back 50 mile rides.  Build up slowly if you’re not already a cyclist.  I had about 700 miles under me this season, and I stayed in shape over the winter using a spin bike.  Last year, I had about 1,000 miles before our trip and it really helped.
  2. What do you do if it rains?  We put on raincoats and keep going.  We’ve never been caught in a torrential storm.  I suppose it could happen, and we carry enough clothing to keep us safe in the event that we need to seek temporary shelter.
  3. Why do you like this?  It doesn’t sound fun to me! Some people like to run, camp, hike, lay on a beach, or take a cruise.  I really enjoy seeing the outdoors and I enjoy cycling.  When we are riding, there is a lot of time just to let the mind and spirit unwind.  It is like a rolling retreat for me.
  4. What kind of bike is that you’re riding?  I use a converted cyclocross bike because it is a bit more heavy duty than a road bike.  I strongly suggest 34mm or wider tires and fenders.  When dealing with mud, you’ll want them.  The GAP is more forgiving, but the C&O definitely requires at least some decent tread on the tires.  This is certainly not a trail for a road bike.  You might get away with it on the GAP, but definitely not on the C&O.

 

My thoughts on the overall trip: I enjoyed this trip very much.  We had a great time together, and we saw some neat places.  I enjoy the people we meet the most.  We had a few people we crossed paths with several times throughout the trip.  It was fun to compare notes.

The C&O is not high on my list of good trails.  The surface is very muddy and bumpy.  There are some neat places along the trail: Harpers Ferry, Shepherdstown, and so on.  But it is pretty sparse.  The Potomac is a beautiful complement to the trip since you’re next to it for almost the entire ride.  This year the conditions were very muddy, especially the area between Hancock MD and Cumberland MD.  That 60 miles was really rough.  That made for a very long day with not much to break up the hours in the saddle.

We also saw that the National Parks District had several shutdowns on the C&O just one day after we went through.  The rains caused a lot of damage on the path and washouts.  Back when the C&O was in operation, some flooding is what ultimately brought it to a halt by breaching the canal.  I can see how that would happen.

The GAP was in great shape, though.  We had more rain on that section, but the trail surface drains well.  We didn’t see much of any mud and our equipment stayed relatively clean.  The GAP trail town alliance does a very good job of building up the micro economies in the towns, providing food and shelter along the GAP.

I don’t know if I’ll ride the C&O again any time soon.  If you like trail riding, it should be on your bucket list.  After riding it 3 times now, I can say it doesn’t rate in my top 5 trails I’ve been on by itself.  Combined with the GAP, it does make for a very nice week-long bike trip.

If you’re interested in learning more about either the C&O or GAP, feel free to drop me a note and I’d be happy to talk you about it.  You can also find more information here:

Great Allegheny Passage trail: Web Site
C&O Canal from the National Parks: Web Site

We’re not sure where we’ll go in 2019.  If you have any good suggestions, let me know!

 

Peace,

Deacon Matt

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2018 C&O / Gap Tour Day 7: West Newton PA to Pittsburgh – We Made It!

37.9 miles.

Plus a 6 hour drive home.

Today was a much shorter day. We planned it this way so we could drive home to Lexington after we finished up today.

We left the rectory at Holy Family and started our trip out of town from West Newton. It was a little sad to say goodbye because we felt so at home there.

This last part of the trail is one of my favorites. There are lots of neat things to see and there is enough change going on to hold your interest. In 30 miles you go from small towns, past lots of little water falls, some old coal mining history, industrial areas, the outskirts of of the city, a bunch of nice bridges over the rivers and train tracks, and finally down into the heart of Pittsburgh. That’s a lot to see in such a short distance.

Here’s a neat example of one of the water falls. This particular one is full of iron so it runs red.

This one, a little farther down runs white due to some sort of aluminum runoff. I made a very short video so you can see it. In a picture, it looks like a regular waterfall. But in the video you can see that it looks more like a milky color.

We also passed this really neat little cemetery that is where two small railroad towns used to be.

As we pedaled along, we came through McKeesport. About this point, you start to see more of the industrial beginnings of Pittsburgh. Lots of old steel bridges and structures.

The Great Allegheny Passage has some really nice bridges across the river. I’d love to know the history of some of them – I’m sure some were former railroad bridges, and some of them appear to be new structures built specifically for the GAP.

We stopped mid-bridge to take in the view of the Monongahela River with some barges being pushed along.

You can see how overcast it was early this morning. We had chilly temperatures and some light rain for about the first half of the ride.

We reached Homestead, the sight of the famous strike clashes between the union and the steel mill owners.

We were getting hungry – we had just a very light breakfast of pocket food before leaving. We cycled past the Eat ‘n Park. Joe had never seen one before, so we went in and had a good breakfast. When we went in, it was raining. When we came out, the skies were blue and the sun was shining. It was an amazing change in such a short time. The nice weather stuck with us for the rest of our trip today.

The Hot Metal bridge is just on the south-east side of the city. It gets is name from its original purpose: it used to carry molten metal across the Mon river to be processed. Now it is a bridge for cars and a separate deck for bikes & pedestrians. The bridge also gives some great views of downtown.

Here’s the first real view of downtown we were treated to. It was a beautiful day once the rain stopped!

A few more miles took us down on a few city streets and to The Point State Park. This is at the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio rivers. It also is the historical location of Fort Pitt.

Inside the park is an iconic fountain that you will often see in pictures of Pittsburgh. There is a large marker in the concrete to show the confluence, as well as the official end of the Great Allegheny Passage.

Although it had been pretty chilly earlier in the day, it was getting a bit warm, especially in the direct sun. The water of the fountain looked very tempting. I’m quite sure the parks people would frown on our behavior, but we decided to take off our shoes and soak our feet in the fountain for a few minutes. It was delightfully cold and felt great. It was nice just to soak up the end of our trip. We talked for a few minutes and just enjoyed the accomplishment.

We did it! 373 miles in 7 days. 4 states + Washington DC.

We still had to get back to our car and drive home. We took a bike path up the eastern side of the Allegheny that took us very close to St. Stanislaus parish and our car. We quickly changed our clothes and did a quick bird bath with some wet wipes before driving home.

It has been a great trip, but I was awfully glad to get home and be greeted by my wife and our two schnauzers. If you ever really want a great greeting committee, it is hard to beat a happy dog – or two.

I’ll follow up with a couple more notes for the trip in my next posting. I’m really looking forward to my own bed tonight!

Peace,

Dcn. Matt

2018 C&O / Gap Tour Day 6: Confluence PA to West Newton PA

54.3 Miles.

Our day started with a quick breakfast of “pocket food” (energy bars and a pop-tart) before leaving the hostel. It wasn’t enough for our day, but we just needed enough to get us to Ohiopyle – about 12 miles away. The Yough river was running pretty high as we crossed the bridges back to the GAP.

The weather today was cool and overcast, with a few gentle sprinkles throughout the day.

We arrived in Ohiopyle about an hour ahead of schedule, which allowed us to get a decent breakfast.

Today we were able to do something that has been on my bucket list since I was 16 years old: I visited Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright house here in Ohiopyle.

Originally we thought we would cycle the 4 miles from the trail out to Fallingwater. But when I called for tickets, the person at the desk said that it was a dangerous ride. Then Joe called a place in Ohiopyle that could give us a ride. They said the same thing. So … we paid for a shuttle out. After seeing it for ourselves during the shuttle, I am very glad we took their advice. The grade was very steep, very long, and had a narrow shoulder.

We arrived a few minutes before our scheduled tour.

Fallingwater was designed by Wright for the Kaufman family – the family who owned the Kaufman department stores in Pittsburgh. Eventually their son donated the property to a conservancy which now cares for the property and maintains it as a museum.

Fallingwater was designed to be Organic Architecture, meaning that it takes its form from its surroundings. This area is full of rocks and water falls. These were the inspirations used for the home. The rocks used for the structure were all quarried from just a few feet away from the structure.

The Kaufmans liked to vacation in the Laurel Highlands. They had Fallingwater designed to be their vacation home. There are many interesting features of the home, but perhaps the two most distinctive features are that it is built over a waterfall, and that it is cantilevered so that it is suspended over the surroundings. Even the furniture inside has been designed to be cantilevered to carry the motif throughout the structure.

I had studied this house for a project in high school and although I had forgotten many of the details, the tour was really fun for me. I’m not sure Joe had quite the same level of enthusiasm as I did, but he seemed to enjoy it as well.

We were not allowed to take pictures inside the structure.

This picture from the outside is where the stairway from their great-room descends down to the water. Just beyond the stairs (left side of the picture) the water turns into a waterfall to the forest below.

After our tour, we made quick progress back on the trail. We had some good distance to cover to arrive at West Newton.

Along the way, our next stop was Connellsville. On the East edge of town, we are greeted by these interesting silos. I’ve seen them before. The murals seem to be fading a bit with time.

We needed a good lunch before leaving town. We took a random chance at a pizza & pasta place. We both got some pasta and it was definitely a good choice. Yum.

As we left town, we passed through a park. I’ve been through here before and this sign always motivates me… we’re most of the way to the ‘burg!

We had about 26 more miles to go. Lots of miles passed uneventfully. Both of us are starting to have some tired legs, so I’m glad tomorrow is a shorter ride.

We finally made it to our home for the evening: Holy Family Parish in West Newton. We were greeted by Paula – she has been a phenomenal host.

Tomorrow we will finish out with about 35 miles to get to The Point state park – the end of the Great Allegheny Passage, at the 3-rivers confluence in Pittsburgh.

It has been a good trip, but I’m looking forward to being done and getting home.

Peace!

– Dcn. Matt

2018 C&O / Gap Tour Day 5: Cumberland MD to Confluence PA

63.4 miles today.

We started the Great Allegheny Passage today, leaving the mud of the C&O canal behind.

It was a very rainy day, but the GAP drains very well. Not very many puddles and very little mud. Glad to have the worst of the mud behind us.

As we left the Fairfield inn, the rain started and just kept with us for about the first three hours of our ride today. It was a chilly rain, but with a nice raincoat and the ride going on, we stayed plenty warm.

The first 22 miles of the GAP are a constant climb. It is not a terribly steep grade, but you climb and climb and climb. We paced around 10 MPH so it took a little over 2 hours to reach the top. The ride up is beautiful and you pass a lot of great views. Today had its own beauty because of the very low clouds in the trees and valleys. But because of the weather, we couldn’t see some of the long distance views.

Along the way up we passed Frostburg. It is a neat little town to see, but with the rain pelting down on us and a few more miles to go, we decided to keep going up to the top.

The next stop along the way is the Mason & Dixon line separating Maryland from Pennsylvania.

We met this nice couple at the Mason & Dixon line. They’re on their way to Cumberland.

This is usually one of my favorite views anywhere I’ve been on bike. On a clear day, you can see 4 states from here. Today, you could see a few trees. It was actually more beautiful than it looks in the picture, but you don’t get any feel for how high you are above the valleys below.

The next few miles of the GAP are loaded with great bridges and tunnels. This is the Big Savage Tunnel – about 3,200 feet long. It is really neat.

Eventually we reached the top: The Eastern Continental Divide.

Inside this overpass is an elevation map – you get an idea of the elevation change. We came from Cumberland, just below my hand, and went up to the top, where my finger points. In 22 miles.

Some cyclists really enjoy climbs. Joe isn’t known to be one of those kind of cyclists… but he did well today.

We were getting pretty hungry so after crossing the divide, we went into Meyersdale to the G.I. Dayroom. Yum. We stopped here once before and it was worth coming back.

A BLT with some macaroni salad, home made french fries, and pie for dessert. Got some calories, for sure.

This is John. We met John in the Pittsburgh Amtrak station. He’s riding the same general direction as we are. We’ve crossed paths with him about 10 times since we left him in DC. He’s been camping on his way across. We invited him to join us for lunch.

John’s from Cincinnati, so I gave him my contact info and perhaps we’ll meet for some riding later in the season.

Leaving Meyersdale, we made our way west. The next highlight is one of my favorite rail-trail things anywhere: the Keystone Viaduct. A former railroad bridge that has been converted for bike traffic. It is really high and really long. The views from up here are awesome.

We stopped in Rockwood to get something to drink. I love this mural they have celebrating their town’s history as a railroad town.

A couple more bridges and tunnels, including the newly opened Pinkerton Tunnel.

Eventually we arrived in Confluence PA and we’re staying at a hostel. It is very clean and pretty comfortable, but meager. Fortunately, Joe and I are the only two staying here tonight so we spread out and took over. Hoping most of our clothes dry out overnight.

Here’s the route for today. It’s all downhill from here into Pittsburgh.

Tomorrow we’ll begin by heading to Ohiopyle and then onto West Newton for the evening.

It is supposed to be very rainy and cool tomorrow again. It would be nice if the rain could hold off until evening… but we’ll take whatever we can get. It sure beats 94° from last year on the KATY!

Peace,

Dcn. Matt

2018 C&O / Gap Tour Day 4: Hancock MD to Cumberland MD

61.1 Miles.

Our day started with a modest breakfast at the B&B before heading out. We finished out a few more miles on the Western Maryland Rail Trail. I didn’t realize this, but the WMRT is being extended many more miles. It’s too bad that the C&O can’t be paved like the WMRT.

Between Hancock and Cumberland is pretty sparse. It is about 60 miles with no food choices and only water from the C&O campsite pumps. The only real place to stop is a place called “Bill’s Place” in Little Orleans. Little Orleans is a very tiny little town and Bill’s is the only place there. One fun tradition is to go to Bill’s place and sign a dollar bill. They then put them up on the ceiling and you can try to find your dollar bill next time you come through.

Last time Joe and I did the C&O we gave them dollars. Unfortunately, Bill’s was closed until 11AM and we didn’t have the time to wait. So we couldn’t take the time to find them today.

One of the neatest things on the entire C&O canal is the Paw Paw tunnel. It is a mile-long tunnel that was carved through the mountain over 14 years. The National Parks had closed the access to the tunnel last year to clear the rock walls of falling rock and repair some of the decking on the approach. The alternate route involves hiking your bike about 2 miles I’ve an old logging route with 11-14% grade (yikes!).

I had called the project office and they said that it would not be open for a while longer. I talked to some riders who have come through in the last few days and they indicated that you could squeeze past the fences and go through. I like to follow the rules, so I was pretty excited to hear that they opened the tunnel TODAY! As we approached the tunnel, I thought the news was too good to be true, so we were going to check things out. For sure, we were allowed to ride up to the tunnel and walk through, saving us about 2 hours of hiking with our bikes. Yay!

The approach to the tunnel was really beautiful this time. I’ve never seen water falls here in my previous two trips here. There has been enough rainfall to feed some amazing water falls around the entrance to the tunnel.

Approaching the tunnel there was a nice lady taking pictures. She was a photographer and offered to take our picture. You can see the waterfalls on the right and left (next to the steps).

You have to walk your bike through and you really need to have a good headlight because it is pitch dark in there. (Please do not try to ride it, the surface inside is very very rough and choppy!). This is what it looks like about 100 feet from the exit.

The next 20 miles from Paw Paw to Cumberland were just a plain ‘ol slog. Lots of mud and puddles. It was very slow going and made for very tired legs. Joe explained it best: it was like when you are driving your car in a snowstorm or rain storm. You have to be always be alert and your muscles are tense waiting for any unexpected movement of the bike. The mud makes the rear tire lose traction very easily and the bike gets out of control easily.

A few miles away from Cumberland there was a large tree down across the path. It was far too big to move and we couldn’t get around.

There were several cyclists gathered around and there was a team of people helping to lift bikes through the large branches and across to the other side. Many hands made for light work.

A few more miles of slugging through brought us into Cumberland. Tradition is that you kiss the mule’s behind when you arrive. So we did.

Cumberland is the end of the C&O canal path. This is also the start of the Great Allegheny Passage, which we will start riding tomorrow. Over the next 3 days we will climb over the continental divide and then cycle our way to Pittsburgh.

It is good to leave the C&O behind. The Potomac is a beautiful backdrop for the trail, but the surface is bumpy and muddy. After 4 days, I’m ready to move on. The GAP is a much better trail surface.

The C&O is a national park, which means it takes an act of congress (literally) to make any changes or improvements. It is too bad, because if they would resurface with crushed limestone like the GAP or even, gasp, pave it like other high-use trails, it would be a fantastic path. But as it stands, the surface makes an otherwise great trail, less than ideal.

When we arrived at the Fairfield, first business was to rinse the C&O off of our bikes and gear. My bike was so caked with mud and muck that my lowest gear didn’t work anymore and shifting wasn’t reliable. I rinsed down my legs, shoes, socks, and panniers, too. Here is the before and after:

After washing up and showering, it was time for dinner. Some steamed clams and a rack of ribs, plus the obligatory blue moon rounded out the dinner. Yum.

Time for sleep soon. I’m exhausted.

We start tomorrow morning by climbing for about 2 hours up to the continental divide. We have about 60-65 miles ahead of us tomorrow on the GAP.

Weather forecast is looking like rain all day from sunrise to sunset. I’d appreciate some prayers for weather again – they’ve been working so far!

Peace,

Dcn. Matt

2018 C&O / Gap Tour Day 3: Shepherdstown WV to Hancock MD

50.1 Miles

We started our day early. We went to bed expecting the worst: lots of rain making the trail into mud, with rain chances towards the end of our ride. We had a very pleasant ride today with only a little mud and muck. Our bikes were still pretty messy, but not nearly as bad as we had expected. The temperatures were pretty warm. It was about 91° when we finished today.

We didn’t have much sight seeing today because there really isn’t much between Shepherdstown and Hancock. We did make a side trip to see Fort Frederick, but that was about it.

The C&O parallels the Potomac and is usually only a few yards from the river. If you can afford the moments to look up, you are treated to some beautiful views.

There are two major dams that are on the Potomac in this area – Dam 4 and 5. Huge slackwater areas are behind them and the roar of water over the dams is very impressive. The dams used to support water-wheel power generation for mills, but have been converted to hydro-electric power with small generating plants. You can see the regenerating station in the top-left of the picture:

There is a really neat part of the trail that is on a concrete platform along the edge of the river. The rock walls to the right are beautiful and the water on the left is peaceful.

When we were leaving Pittsburgh, there was a young guy who was heading to DC that had just completed his trek. He warned us about a section just west of this where there was a washout with about 10″ of water to wade through. When we arrived at one of the trailheads, the parks district had put up a barricade and “trail closed” sign. No detour posted.

I have made very good use of my Garmin’s built in GPS routing. This time I told it to take me to Williamsport. We took a ~5 mile detour on surface streets to get us into downtown Williamsport. It was a good detour and actually felt pretty good to get out on the roads and away from the mud.

We stopped at the Desert Rose Cafe for a quick lunch. We’ve stopped here once before and decided to do it again because the food was good. I picked up a PB&J, chips, and a coke.

The staff here is really fun. We remembered one guy, Alex, from the last trip. We made a comment that we had been there before. Alex said “yeah, you are the guys who were here on bikes, who were not from around here and were wearing spandex, right?”… He didn’t remember us. Joe made some small retort and Alex came back with “I’m sure your wife is glad you’re on vacation this week”. Game, set, match. We laughed and laughed.

But then, he saw Joe’s ring and asked if we were clergy and the light began to flicker on. After a brief discussion about our ride mascots, he did remember us. It was a fun conversation.

After our detour around Williamsport, we were back on the canal and making our way to Fort Frederick. We saw several black snakes like this one. He watched me very intently as I cycled around him. Sit, stay… good boy.

Dam #5:

Eventually we arrived at Fort Frederick. I’ve never found it open before. No tour guides inside the park, but we did watch a 10 minute video at the visitors’ center. I hadn’t realized that the fort had fallen into complete disuse and disrepair. It was restored, or should I say reconstructed to what you see today.

Leaving the fort, we picked up the Western Maryland Rail Trail. This is a paved path that parallels the C&O for 22 miles. Glorious! This took us all the way into Hancock for the night.

Our bikes were pretty filthy by now and I couldn’t shift my front derailleur. But the B&B had a hose to clean up our gear. Here’s what a day on the C&O canal does to your bike. Just imagine if it had rained, too!

We stayed at the River Run B&B again. It’s very clean and comfortable. Susan didn’t remember us at first. She meets hundreds of new people each year, I’d guess. But after a little conversation and mentioning our ride mascots, she said “I do remember you guys – you guys are fun!”

Dinner was at a local place: Buddy & Lou’s – named after the restaurant owner’s two dogs. I had Ahi Tuna steak … and a beer of course. You have to trust me that it looked nice before I ate it. It was deeeeelicious.

Happiness is clean laundry. Yay!

It’s time for bed. Ms. Bug thinks so, too.

Tomorrow is supposed to be a very rainy day on the mushiest part of the trail. Prayers for the rain to hold off would be greatly appreciated!

Peace!

– Deacon Matt

2018 C&O / Gap Tour Day 2: Leesburg VA to Shepherdstown WV and out to Antietam

56 miles today.

Last night we got in much later than we had planned. Instead of arriving in Leesburg around dinner time, we arrived after dark. We both had our headlights and bright taillights working as we crossed the Potomac on White’s Ferry. We made our way up to route 15 and followed it in towards Leesburg. There was a very wide shoulder so it felt pretty safe … but then the shoulder disappeared! The traffic was going about 60+ MPH and I said to Joe “No way!” We needed to find another route.

Living in the digital age is pretty handy some days. We pulled out our phones and researched the streets. Joe noted that if we backtracked, there was a route that took a couple of extra miles, but looked OK. I put our AirBNB address into my Garmin Edge cycling GPS and like magic, it routed us back and roughly the same way Joe was pointing out.

As we turned onto the quiet country roads, the sun went down. Thank goodness for a strong headlight and a trusty GPS. The GPS brought us to a gate of Morven Park. It was locked. We were stressed, it was dark. We decided that trespassing was warranted. We took our bikes around the gates and cycled through the park streets. We had to exit the other side around another set of locked gates. But our little, um, maneuver took us to a very safe set of roads right to the door of our B&B. Whew. Felt good to be off the roads.

Here’s the very cute B&B we stayed in right as we left this morning. I really liked it. It was like the original Tiny House, built in 1841.

Breakfast was a good omelette. Fuel for the ride.

We returned via the same Morven Park route today. Only the park was open this time, so we didn’t break any laws getting through. Morven Park is some sort of equestrian park, like the Kentucky Horse Park. It was very pretty and made for an awesome start to the day’s ride.

Then, back over the ferry from VA to WV:

The C&O is a pretty rough trail. It varies a little in condition, but most of it looks like this:

There is a lot of mud, many puddles, ruts, and squishy sections. On an normal road ride, I average around 16-17 MPH. On the C&O, I average around 11-12 MPH for the same physical effort. The surface just sucks the energy out of you.

In several places along the canal there are Lock Houses. These are the original residences of the families that would operate the locks. Some of them can be rented for staying over. They are primitive – no water or electric.

We crossed a number of aqueducts. These are bridges that used to carry the canal water over the creeks that feed the Potomac. Several have been restored, but none of them carry water any more. You can ride through the trough of the aqueduct or walk your bike along the old mule path on the side.

I had a mishap today. When we were riding along there was a short wooden bridge. The front edge was above the trail by about an inch or two. When my front wheel hit the edge, it popped up. The deck of the bridge was very slick and when my tire came down, it slid out from under me and I went down hard. I only have a couple of bruises to show for it, but my rear fender snapped in two and my front fender got pretty banged up too. It could have been much worse.

For lunch we decided to pop into the town of Brunswick MD. We found Beans in the Belfry and got a little to eat. I wasn’t hungry yet, so I just had some really yummy hummus and warm pitas.

When we got to Harpers Ferry WV, we decided to walk over the bridge and take a few pictures. We didn’t spend any time in the town this time – we’ve stayed here before. Instead, we wanted to save our time to spend at Antietam battle field.

Harpers Ferry is at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. You have to cross over on a foot bridge from the C&O to the town. It’s a really neat walk over the bridge. But note that if you want to bring your bike across, you have to climb 50+ stairs with your equipment before crossing! We did that before, but this time we decided just to leave our bikes behind.

Back on the trail, we kept on pedaling along.

We still wanted to get to Antietam. Joe is a Civil War buff and this was high on his list. But there was one catch: my GPS unit kept warning me about severe thunder storms approaching. We decided to get to the bridge to Shepherdstown and then decide whether to visit tonight or try in the morning tomorrow.

To get to Shepherdstown, you have to climb a set of switchbacks up to the bridge level. To go to Antietam, you go about 6 miles NW. We looked at the weather and it said we had about 2 hours before the storms would hit. So… we made paces to get to the battlefield.

I have not studied much about the Civil War in the past, but I knew a bit about Antietam. It was powerful to think about the thousands of men who died that day and realize that I was standing where so many people died.

It is also kind of surreal: it is so beautiful and peaceful up here. But the amount of death unleashed that day was incredible.

This is the restored Dunker Church, a focal point of the battle. It was destroyed by wind in the 1920s but was reconstructed in the same place. The place where I am standing is where Abraham Lincoln stood at one point.

Right after that picture, we started to hear thunder. It was time to go. It is too bad, there were a couple of more places I’d have liked to see… but when the GPS keeps saying “SEVERE THUNDER STORM WARNING”, you have to pay attention.

We made very good time heading about 6.5 miles back to the bridge and up to our hotel in Shepherdstown WV. As we pulled into the hotel, a couple of raindrops hit. Then as we were under the carport by the front door, the skies opened and the rains came down in buckets. Wow. Perfect timing! I credit my wife who was watching our progress on the internet and praying hard for us to be safe from the weather. Thanks, Steph!

Even though we didn’t get rained on during the ride, the C&O provides a lot of opportunity to get wet, muddy, and dirty. Here’s what my legs looked like when I took my sock off. Yuck.

After a shower with LOTS of soap and water, we went in search of dinner. Both Joe and I have been hankering for Chinese food. During a break in the rain, we walked next door to the shopping plaza to pick up some Chinese food and brought it back to the hotel. Shrimp with mixed vegetables and rice. Mmmmm….

Tomorrow we head to Hancock MD. We only have one side-trip planned to Fort Frederick. Other than that, it should be a straightforward day of 55 miles. We’re hoping that the rain stops and that the path isn’t too muddy from the rains tonight. I’m expecting to be very muddy tomorrow.

Time for bed. Peace!

2018 C&O / Gap Tour Day 1: We finally got here…

I’ll put a short blog together tonight and hopefully get some time to put an addendum together tomorrow. It is about 10:30PM here in Leesburg, VA. I need sleep.

Quick summary of the day:

  • Left St. Stanislaus at 4:30AM for Amtrak
  • Amtrak train delayed. And Delayed.
  • Had a really nice trip on the train. Food was very expensive…
  • Got to DC very late. Had a nasty lunch at McDonalds because we needed food for fuel. Yuck.
  • Had a little bit of trouble getting on the C&O and a couple of mid-cues due to detours.
  • Got to the ferry across the Potomac as it was getting dark. Headlights are good.
  • Found out that route 15 into Leesburg is NO PLACE for a bicycle! Backtracked and had to go through a horse park (shhh, don’t tell them we went around the locked gates!)
  • Arrived at about 8:45, showered and had dinner.
  • Time for bed.
  • The End.

Today’s stats: 48.6 miles

Peace!

2018 Cycling Trip Prelude – Familiar Territory

This year, we thought about several different trips and decided we would go back to a familiar route, but do it a bit differently. Joe and I will be cycling the C&O Canal + Great Allegheny Passage. We will be cycling from Washington DC to Pittsburgh on these two great off-road trails.

This will be my third trip on the C&O and fourth on the GAP. Joe and I did this route a few years ago, but in the other direction (we started in Pittsburgh last time). Our total trip will end up being somewhere between 375 and 400 miles probably.

This time, we will do it in 7 days instead of 6. This way we will have a little more time to do some sight seeing. We hope to stop by some civil war battlefields, and see the Frank Lloyd Wright house “Fallingwater” as well.

Today we drove up to Pittsburgh and were greeted at St. Stanislaus parish by Father Nichols. We’re staying overnight here and then catching a 5:00AM train to DC. We’ll then cycle back over the next 7 days to the ‘burg.

This church is gorgeous. We caught 4PM mass and then after a little conversation with Father Nichols, we went and grabbed dinner in one of the Mexican restaurants here in the Strip District of downtown Pittsburgh.

It is really raining here, and the forecast for the next few days looks wet along our ride. I don’t mind a little rain when riding, but the C&O will get really muddy and slow us down. So, prayers for good weather would be greatly appreciated! 7 days of rain could make this a long ride.

One small change this year: my traveling mascot, Mr. Hamster, won’t be with me for the first time ever on a trip. He’s still at Rose-Hulman with my daughter. So instead, Ms. Bug (a ladybug, of course) is coming along. She’s also one of my daughter’s crochet creations that she gave me a few years ago. Somehow, it seems quite odd not to have Mr. Hamster with me … but Ms. Bug will settle in nicely, I think.

Time to turn in soon. That 4AM wake up alarm will be coming far too soon. I’m going to get some reading done and hit the sack. Next Stop: Washington DC and off to Leesburg VA.

Peace!

Israel Pilgrimage: Final Thoughts

Many years ago, I was visiting Gethsemani abbey in Kentucky for a few days of retreat.  One of the monks commented that there are people who come and then don’t want to leave because it is so peaceful.  He made the point that visitors can’t stay – they are there for only a period of time.  Visitors are supposed to take the peace they found at the abbey and carry it out into the world.  We need to take our encounter with God back to the rest of the world.  Ite, missa est. The same is true for our pilgrimage.

Pilgrimages come in different shapes and sizes, and of course, no two people will experience the same pilgrimage even if they are walking together.  We bring different experiences into the pilgrimage, and we leave with a unique encounter with the Living God.  In some way, we’ve been transformed.  Some may have a large transformation, and others may not see transformation because the seeds have not yet sprouted.

In this particular trip, I had several profound moments of encounter – “close moments with Christ” as we would say in Cursillo.  Most of them had to do with physical contact.  I had not expected this before the trip.  I expected to see and hear new things things that would be impactful for me.  And I did – I heard a lot of really amazing things and saw some beautiful things.  However the deepest moments for me had to do with things I would not have been able to experience in a video or book.

I was pleasantly surprised at how touching the water in the Sea of Galilee felt.  I had a sense of commissioning when touching the rock where Jesus fed the Apostles at the end of John’s Gospel.  I was flooded with emotion when I kissed the spot where Jesus laid in the tomb.  I felt a sense of joy and sadness when I stared into the baby’s eyes at the orphanage in Bethlehem and received a tiny smile in return.  I enjoyed relaxing while floating in the Dead Sea.  I felt pain as I knelt down and my knee struck the edge of the rock where Jesus prayed in Gethsemane.  And I had overwhelming peace when I walked amidst the ruins of the monastery at the top of Mt. Tabor where the monks had all been slaughtered.  That’s not something you can get from a book.

I suspect that I will return to Israel again.  As we left, I didn’t feel like it was goodbye forever.  Instead, I felt that I was being sent home to carry my pilgrimage experience home for others.  I am considering getting together another group for another similar trip in the not-too-distant future.  I know that others need to see, hear, and touch the Holy Land.

When I was looking for pilgrims to come along, I had a lot of interested people, but only a handful of people who made the trip.  There were three major concerns: Cost, Timing, and Safety.

Cost: this was not the cheapest trip to Israel.  I found several cheaper itineraries.  However, I wanted to make sure this was truly a pilgrimage with great leadership.  That’s how I chose to work with The Crossroads Initiative for this trip.  Dr. D’Ambrosio and his team did an exceptional job of making a great faith-focused itinerary, with strong scholarship, and top-notch tour guide in Israel.  I don’t think you can do much better than what we received.  So if cost is your concern, perhaps start setting aside a little money each month and prepare for a trip 18-24 months out.  It will be well worth it.

Timing: we chose an itinerary that left between Christmas and New Years.  For some people, that was a difficulty because of their holiday plans.  If I bring another group of pilgrims, we probably will look at an itinerary in late spring.  From a weather perspective, our timing was very good.  The temperatures were cool and comfortable.  You probably do not want to go during the summer – it would be very hot in Israel.

Safety: The news we get in the US about Israel seems to delight in showing conflict.  What we encountered in Jerusalem and Palestine was quite friendly and peaceful.  Every Palestinian person I encountered was friendly.  At no time did I feel the least bit uncomfortable or unsafe.  Having lived in Chicago I can tell you that I felt safer in Jerusalem than I did in Chicago.  Crime statistics for both cities would back me up on that as well.  Sadly, I know of at least one person who was going to join us until their adult children sternly told them not to go because of safety.  From what we saw, I would have absolutely no qualms about sending my loved ones to Israel.

One last tidbit. I often get asked about the little stuffed-animal buddy that shows up in many of my pictures.  His name is “Mr. Hamster”.  Mr. Hamster was created by my youngest daughter many years ago.  She taught herself to crochet and this was her first project.  When I used to travel a lot for work, she would send him with me so that I would have a little bit of her along for the trip.  I would then take pictures of him in interesting places and send them back to her, sort of like Flat Stanley.  It was our way of keeping in touch.  Mr. Hamster has been all around the world with me.  I’ve lost track of his full passport, but I know he has sent home pictures from Canada, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, China, The Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Spain, Italy, The Vatican, Israel, Switzerland, France, and Portugal.  He’s also been on every one of my bicycle adventures all over the US.  Even though my daughter is in college now, I keep up the tradition of taking Mr. Hamster with me and sending her pictures.

As I wrap up my final thoughts, I am grateful for the opportunity to have visited the Holy Land, and I hope you are able to do it as well some day.  My special thanks to Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio for his passion and guidance on our trip.

I’ve put a link to the blog entries for each day below so that you can find them all in one place.  I have found quite a few typos in the blog entries – I guess that’s what happens when you blog half-awake… I’ll try to go clean them up some time.

If you’re interested in talking more to me about my trip, drop me a note.  I’d be happy to share some thoughts with you.

Peace,
Deacon Matt

Pilgrimage to Israel – No bikes this time…

Israel day 1: “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?”

Israel Day 2 – The Old City of Jerusalem.

Israel Day 3: The Mountains of Jerusalem

Israel Day 4 – Bethlehem: About The God Child and Children of God

Israel Day 5: Jerusalem Old City – the Via Dolorosa and the Holy Sepulchre

Israel Day 6: Into the Wilderness

Israel Day 7: A Mountain Top Experience Beyond Words

Israel Day 8: Capernaum, Rocks, Fish, and Loaves

Israel Day 9: A Windy Day with Carmelites, Elijah, and Caesarea

Israel: Room At The Inn in Bethlehem … PA

Israel: Room At The Inn in Bethlehem … PA

I wasn’t planning on blogging about our trip home, but this was not an ordinary trip home. It was an adventure all in its own, a pilgrim postscript of sorts.

Our Saturday started off normally enough with a 1:15AM wakeup call at the hotel in Natanya so that we could be ready for a 2:00AM bus ride to the Tel Aviv airport.  Due to the strict security protocols at the airport, they require that you arrive about 3 hours before departure.  Normally, I arrive about 60-90 minutes before a flight with plenty of time to spare.  Not in Tel Aviv.  I think the 3 hour recommendation is about right.

We checked in at the Swiss Air desk and the first wrinkle in the plan came out: the check-in agent decided that my carry-on and my mom’s carry-on were too big to carry on.  So we were forced to check them through to JFK airport.  I generally just roll with things when traveling – if I can’t control it, just accept it, adapt, and move on.  Not a big deal, but there are two things worth noting here: I’ve traveled around the world with this roller board at least 40 international flights before.  I have been told only three times that it needed checked – two of them on this trip by Swiss Air people.  This small decision had big implications later in our trip.

We boarded our flight and took off for Zurich, then for New York.  The flights were pretty uneventful.  I was able to catch a few hours of sleep and then I binge watched the entire season 2 of Stranger Things on my iPad.  (If you happen to be a ST fan, perhaps someone can clue me in on why MadMax and her brother have any value to the storyline…)

The real adventure began when we touched down in New York City at JFK airport.  It isn’t clear what chaos had already arrived before us.  Was it the snow storm from the day before, was it the collision of two planes earlier in the day, or did someone at JFK just forget to show up to do their job?  Whatever combination of events and/or acts of God that had taken place, one thing was abundantly clear: JFK was one seriously messed up operation yesterday when we arrived.

After landing, our captain informed us that although we had arrived on time, there was not a gate available for our plane to pull into.  We would have to wait somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes to have a gate open.  Here’s what a planeload full of tired people looks like shortly after hearing that bad news.

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For the most part, my entire group of pilgrims were OK with the 60-90 minute delay.  We all had pretty long layovers in NYC before catching our flights home.  My Delta flight was at 5:10PM.  That gave me just under four hours before the boarding time.  No problem.

The next update added another 60-90 minutes of delay.  Then another delay.  And another.  Soon enough, I was becoming a little concerned about my flight, and two of my other Lexington people had missed their flights.

A little over 4 hours after our landing, we were finally allowed to deplane.  I had a very short amount of time to make my next flight to get me home.  It would be tight but we could make it if the bags were waiting on the carousel.  My normal international travel routine is to always carry my luggage onboard so it is with me, make a rapid move to immigration, get through, and get to my next flight.  However this time, my bag was under the plane.  If I’d had my bags with me, we might have had a chance.

When we got to the baggage claim, no bags came out for quite some time.  By the time our bags showed up, everyone in my group had missed their flights.  We all maintained very good humor about it.  It is what it is.  I used the Delta app to find another set of flights that would get us home later the same day.  I couldn’t get booked on the app, and the call-in line had a 2+ hour delay.  So we needed to head to the Delta desk to get rebooked.

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After finally getting our bags we quickly wandered over to the Delta counter.  There was a very long line that didn’t move much at all.  Only two Delta agents at the counter.  I thought I had taken a panorama shot with my camera, but I don’t have it – so you’ll have to trust me.  The line was really really long.

It is what it is.  10 minutes passed.  30 minutes passed.  Not much movement in the line at all.  Assessing the situation, it was clear that all of the people ahead of me were in the same boat: we all had missed our flights and needed reassigned.  I wasn’t going to get home today, and probably not even tomorrow.  One other thing was certain: I didn’t want to sleep in JFK airport and neither did anyone in my group.

Side note: After hearing that JFK Terminal 4 had a pipe burst today right where we were waiting yesterday, I’m beginning to think JFK airport might be under the ban and subject to herem next. See: NY Post Article

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We needed to get home on Sunday and my plan needed quick action before others had the same idea.  I proposed my plan to the group and it was unanimously accepted.  It was time to phone a friend, or spouse to give them an assignment.  Amy’s husband did a great job of locating us two minivans at JFK and reserving them.  I plotted a route home using Apple Maps and then called my wife.  She did a great job of locating 3 hotel rooms about 90 minutes west of JFK … just outside of Bethlehem PA.  It could have just been sleep deprivation, but at that time, it was chuckle-worthy that we would be sleeping in Bethlehem after just leaving Israel.

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We arrived around 10PM at the Springhill Suites and I was asleep within 5 minutes of entering the room.  I slept wonderfully.  We got up to finish our trip home.  Sadly I somehow left a very important thing behind in the hotel room.  I had a small vial of water from the Jordan river that I took out of my backpack.  It didn’t make it back to Lexington with me.  I must have left it at the hotel.

After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we were underway.  It was really a pretty fun road trip.  All of us had smiles on our faces and a joyful time.  We talked and a few naps were had.  I didn’t hear any complaining.  Amy found a Coke Zero and I treated everyone to their favorite road trip snack.  Overall, aside from taking an extra day to get home, it was really a nice way to end the pilgrimage.

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We arrived home around 6PM and I was greeted by my family and happily received by our two schnauzers.

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Stephanie had a great dinner ready for us.  After dinner and a warm shower, it is time to head to bed.  Tomorrow’s another day – I’ll see if Delta’s customer service is ready to handle my complaint yet and help me get credit for my unused flights.

There’s plenty to be thankful about: a great pilgrimage, safe arrival home, and good friends.  But unlike Jesus, there was a place for us to sleep in Bethlehem.  Life is good.

Peace,

– Deacon Matt

Israel Day 9: A Windy Day with Carmelites, Elijah, and Caesarea

We packed up last night so we could make a quick departure from our hotel this morning. Our first stop was a set of ruins just above the valley known as Armageddon. The tel at Megiddo contains 25 different strata, indicating how many different civilizations have been at this site. This location is located on a very important ancient trade route across the Mediterranean, known as the Via Maris. As different world powers came and went, this area was prime territory for conflict.

We watched a short film about the site and then were going to climb to the top of the tel to see it. Unfortunately, the rains and winds picked up strongly and we had to turn back. So the closest we came to seeing the ruins was to look at the film and the model of the ancient city in the visitors center.

One particularly interesting part of this city. The Canaanites built walls around the city to protect it from seiges. However, their water supply was outside of the walls, which would make it impossible to get water during a siege. So their solution was to make a fairly sophisticated tunnel from inside the city down to the nearby spring. This would allow the city to get water without having to exit the safety of the walls. We were supposed to tour this tunnel, but because of the rain we had to turn back.

From near the top of the tel, you could see the valley below. Armageddon is the place where the final battle between good and bad will take place.

This is a model of what the city would have looked like:

Our next stop was the top of Mount Carmel. Along the way we drove through Haifa. This is a beautiful city at the base of the mountain. It is Israel’s third largest city.

Mount Carmel is famous for being where the Carmelite order started from in the 13th century. But it is also famous for being the place where Elijah challenges the Canaanite prophets of Baal. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah proposes a challenge: both he and the prophets of Baal would set up a sacrifice and see who can set it aflame. For good measure, Elijah pours water over the altar sacrifice to the God of the Israelites to emphasize that it is not likely to burn. After the prophets of Baal fail to induce their god (Baal), Elijah calls on God who consumes the sacrifice with fire. Then Elijah kills all of the prophets of Baal.

We had mass in a small side-chapel of the monastery.

There is a cave on Mount Carmel where Elijah resides for a while. Today, there is a church built over that cave located within the Carmelite monastery. This monastery was built and destroyed several times. The current church is quite beautiful and the altar is located directly over the cave of Elijah. I went into the cave and touched the walls and floor. I love seeing these places I’ve read about and imagining what it was like back in the time of Elijah.

The dome of the church is really beautiful, too.

Here’s Elijah’s cave:

From outside of the monastery, the view out to the sea is wonderful. Today is pretty overcast and very windy, but it was still a nice view.

Our last stop of this trip was the ancient town of Caesarea. This is where the Apostle Paul was held in house arrest before being sent to Rome for his execution.

This city was a man-made port city and was the Roman capital of Judea during Jesus’ time. It was an important trade port. Herod the Great began construction of this town around 25 B.C. and named it Caesarea in honor of Caesar Augustus. It was destroyed by the Romans and rebuilt by the Crusaders, before being totally destroyed by the Ottomans.

A few years ago, a wealthy man funded the excavation of the ancient city to remove the many feet of sand that had buried it. In addition to the palace of Herod, there is also a hippodrome and a large 4000 person amphitheater.

This amphitheater is the place where Paul professes that Jesus is the messiah and pleads his case since he is under arrest. The amphitheater has been brought back to life and is used for concerts today.

The seas were very rough and windy, and it rained very hard today. In fact the winds were so strong that you had to lean into them to move. Our tour guide said that this is very unusual weather. It did make for some beautiful waves!

Just outside Caesarea is an aqueduct that was built to carry fresh water from several miles away into Caesarea.  It is actually two separate aqueducts – one from Roman times and one added later right along side.

We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon and checked in for a very short night. We have to be at the airport around 2:30AM to check in for our flight home. We are staying in Netanya at The Seasons hotel. We’re up on the 12th floor and the winds are really powerful up here. I stood out on the balcony and took in the views before sunset. This is the last daylight view of Israel that I will have.

I hope to return some time – hopefully soon. I was pretty excited about this trip, but it has far exceeded my expectations. I came as a pilgrimage. I was also hoping to learn some new things to help my scripture understanding and see some neat things. But God had more great things in store for me as I encountered Him in several places. My heart was touched and I come away with a deeper faith.

In a few days, I’ll write a final installment about this pilgrimage.

Until then,

May the Peace of our God draw you to know Him, love Him, and serve Him.

– Deacon Matt

Israel Day 8: Capernaum, Rocks, Fish, and Loaves

Today was focused on the area around the Sea of Galilee. I am once again surprised by how close everything is. When looking at the map, we know that the majority of Jesus’ ministry was performed in the west and north-west area around the Sea of Galilee. On a map, that seems like a big area. In person, it is very close. I usually ride further than this on my bike on a nice Saturday ride. Suddenly, the world feels much smaller. I have a renewed sense of awe at our God and His providence. How can such a small, seemingly insignificant part of the world, with 12 fishermen, change the entire world? This is not a new thought for me, but I have a new perspective on that thought and a renewed delight in God’s love for humankind. Wow.

Between the time we left this morning and the time we returned, we had circumnavigated the entire Sea of Galilee by bus. I’ve laid my eyes on the same sea where the first Apostles were called. I walked the shores where Jesus called out to them after the resurrection. I touched the rock where He gave them breakfast. I stood and listened to the Word in the place where He fed the multitudes. It was a great day.

We stayed at the Gai Beach resort over night here on the shores of the sea. Last night we were treated to a beautiful moon rise. This morning, we were treated to a glorious sunrise.

Our first stop this morning was to the town of Magdala. This was an amazing part of the itinerary. Just a few years ago, a priest had an idea to build a retreat-like place for the various pilgrims that come through. Shortly after breaking ground, they discovered the remains of the ancient town of Magdala only 2-3 feet beneath the surface. Since that time, they have performed quite a bit of archaeological excavation and unearthed some great things.

One of the major finds is the synagogue in Magdala. Magdala is very close to Capernaum, Jesus’ center of ministry. The scriptures tell us that He went about the towns along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and into their synagogues. We were standing right at this synagogue today. These are the ruins of it in the next two pictures.

One particular find in the synagogue is called the Magdala Stone. It is a stone that was carved to look like the Temple, with significant attention to details. The stone in this picture is a reproduction – the original is with the Israel Antiquities agency until the Magdala Center’s museum is completed.

Also pictured here is the tour guide for the Magdala Center. She was nothing short of amazing. She did a fabulous job of teaching about the site and drawing us into a spiritual encounter with Christ. Wonderful.

Here is a picture of the ruins of the Synagogue.

There are quite a few more ruins that have been unearthed around the synagogue as well. This area is a marketplace. They found fish holding tanks where people could buy fresh live fish.

At the shoreline edge of this property is a church. The building says “Duc In Altum” which means “Into the Deep”. This is a reference to the apostles who were fishermen but called to be “Fishers of Men” by Jesus.

This church is quite beautiful inside. The narthex has four small chapels off of it, each with a gorgeous mosaic. The main sanctuary overlooks the Sea of Galilee. The main altar area is designed to look like a fisherman’s boat. If someone had described building an altar area that looked like a boat, I’d have told them they were crazy… but it worked. I think it also worked because the rest of the sanctuary was so reverently designed that you couldn’t really misconstrue it as a showy piece.

Along the walls of the sanctuary are 11 icons and one painting for the 12 apostles. If you are not familiar with icons, they are not painted, they are “written”. The writer (the artist) fasts and prays while creating the icon. It is a work of prayer and is a visual prayer meant to convey something sacred. So the 12th apostle is Judas. Although he has a painting, and maybe to the untrained eye it looks like an icon, it is not an icon. It doesn’t have any halo, the lettering is not done in gold, and so on. There’s also an interesting story with Judas’ painting. When they unloaded it from the truck to bring it into the church, a dog came up and attacked it. It did some damage to the foot of Judas. They decided it was meant to be that way.

I had my picture taken next to Matthew.

Here’s the picture of Judas. It is hard to see, but you can notice some of the differences in how the person is portrayed if you compare the icon of Matthew with the painting of Judas.

Our next stop was the Church of the Heptapegon in Tabgha, where the first multiplication of the fishes and loaves takes place. This is a fairly new church, built on the ruins of an ancient church. Like we’ve seen in other churches like this, the new church uses some of the walls and foundation of the prior church.

Outside of the church is an olive press from the time of Christ. Olives would be put into the basin, then the big stone on top would be put onto an axle and rolled around the track that is full of olives, crushing them. The mashed olives would be put into baskets where the first part, the extra virgin oil, would seep out and be collected. Then weights would be put on top of the baskets to compress and squeeze out the remaining oil in stages and grades of oil.

Next stop was only a very short distance up the hill to the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus taught the famous “Sermon on the Mount”. We had mass up on top of this hill outside under a covered area. During mass, it poured rain. We were gifted with a rainbow as well.

This is a very dry and desert area, so the rain was unusual and quite a blessing for the area. The Sea of Galilee is quite low, so the water is welcomed. Sadly, this also meant that our boat ride out into the Sea of Galilee had to be canceled due to winds and waves.

Lunch was down along the shore at “St. Peter’s Restaurant”. Several of us got a whole fish, bones and head and all. It was pretty good. I’m not sure my mom really appreciated the authentic dining experience – I think she would have probably preferred a fillet. But she was a very good sport about it.

Before and after:

Then came the deepest experience of my day in a somewhat unexpected place. We went down the shore a bit to the “Church of the Primacy”. This is the place where Jesus appears to the apostles after the resurrection. In John 21, Jesus cooks fish over a charcoal fire. The apostles are out on the water and don’t realize it is Jesus on the shore for a while. When they finally figure out who it is, Peter comes into shore and Jesus undoes the three-fold denial of Peter by asking him three times if he loves Him. If you are not familiar with that scripture, I highly recommend reading it. It is one of my favorite pieces of scripture.

This church is built over the rock where Jesus fed the apostles. We went inside and read John 21. Then we had a few minutes. I reached over to touch the rock and was unexpectedly moved to tears. I bent down and kissed the rock before departing. That was quite a gift.

Here is the shoreline right outside of the church. It was a beautiful day and the overcast skies seemed to be the perfect conditions for such a solemn encounter with the Living God.

We then moved on to Capernaum, Jesus central area of ministry. This city was destroyed by earthquakes at least twice. The picture below is the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus taught.  In Mark’s Gospel, this is where Jesus begins His ministry by casting out a demon (Mark 1).

The black basalt rock is native to the area and is the original walls of the sanctuary. The upper stones are not native and would have been from a later Byzantine church built upon the ruins of the ancient synagogue. There have been significant excavations that have revealed the town from the time of Christ.

There is a rather strange looking church here now. It is suspended above the ruins as though it is floating. What we found out is that it is located directly above a very early church that you can see through the floor of the new church. In the second picture, you can see an octagonal wall with a circular building in the middle. These two are ancient churches with the focus being the center section.

Jesus cursed three towns late in His ministry: Bethsaida, Chorazin and Capernaum. See Luke 10:13-20. He cursed them because they did not believe in Him even after they had seen so many signs and heard Him preach in their synagogue. Capernaum was one of these towns. When they built this new church, they did not want it to be upon cursed ground, so it is above the ground.

The tall tree in the middle of this picture is right next to the room where Jesus and His apostles would have stayed when they were in Capernaum.

Our last stop for the day was by the Jordan river. We stood on the side of the river and renewed our baptismal promises, like we would at the Easter Vigil. I got a small vial of water to bring home with me to bless my children with before they return to college in s a few days.

Tomorrow is our last day in Israel. It has been an amazing trip and it is hard to believe it is almost over. Tomorrow night we head to the airport for a flight in the early hours of the following morning.

May God bless you and keep you.

Peace,
Deacon Matt

Israel Day 7: A Mountain Top Experience Beyond Words

Today we said goodbye to Jerusalem … I hope to return some day with my wife, children, and other pilgrims. I have found this to be a very powerful experience to help build upon my faith. I have learned a lot that fills my head, and I have had many moments that stirred my heart.

We left Jerusalem early this morning. We had a very early wakeup call so we could board the bus for our ride north. Nothing in Israel is very far away, so even our “long” day on the bus wasn’t too bad. Just a couple of hours that passed very fast. Our tour guide and Marcellino did a great job of filling the time with information and commentary about the places we were passing.

Along our way, we entered the Palestinian territory. Our tour guide is named Bader. He is a Palestinian Christian who now lives in Jerusalem with his wife. He is absolutely wonderful. He is incredibly knowledgeable about the faith, scripture, history, the entire area we’ve traveled in, and the sites we have visited. Having him along has been a blessing.

Bader shared with us a lot of background and history on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, how it has impacted the people, and so on. It is very eye opening. As with any issue, it is much more complex than you’ll ever hear on the news.

As we entered Palestine, we had to stop and the Israeli border security team boarded our bus and had a quick look around. A few of us were asked to produce our passports. I was one of the chosen few.

Just a little ways into Palestine, we stopped at a little roadside market for a bathroom break. There was this tank was sitting there. It is a remnant from one of the wars, but I’m not sure which one.

Our first pilgrimage stop for today was up on Mount Tabor. In Luke 9:28-36, we hear about the Transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain. There, they are joined bye Elijah and Moses. If you don’t know the story, you should read it. It is a great story! That happened on Mt. Tabor. We were there!

Mt. Tabor is about 1900 feet high, and stands all alone jutting up above the Jezreel Valley. It is quite beautiful. The top of the mount is not huge, so wherever the encounter with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah happened, I was pretty close to it.

Our tour bus took us part of the way up, then we had to transfer to smaller passenger vans to go up the switchbacks to the top. Dramamine was a good idea today.

Once you get to the top, there is an Orthodox church and a Catholic church: the Church of the Transfiguration. Right in front of the church are the ruins of an old Byzantine monastery from the 4-6th century. This monetary was destroyed and all of its monks were killed. As I approached the church and walked through these ruins, I was struck by both the beauty and the solemnity of this place. Although there were clearly horrific days, I felt a sense of peace walking through.

We had mass in the lower chapel of this magnificent church. This was the highlight of my day today. Although this is a fairly new church, it is classic in design and really beautiful. It may be the most beautiful church I’ve seen so far in Israel.

I also had the great privilege of assisting at mass at this very Holy place.

Here is a panoramic view from the top of Mount Tabor. Just gorgeous!

I tried to get a picture from the other side as well, but couldn’t find a good vantage point. This shot is from about half-way down the mountain from inside the van.

The van ride down was actually kind of fun, as long as you really trust the driver not to run off the road. I saw a couple of cyclists making their way up to the top, too. I was thinking this would be a really great mountain to climb by bike! Oh well, no bicycling on this trip.

After safely returning to the bottom, we made our way to Nazareth. Again, I was expecting some quiet town before I came to Israel. It is not a little country town any more. We ate lunch and then walked our way up to the Basilica of the Annunciation.

Along the walk, I ran across this very cute little girl playing among the pigeons. We need to be like Children to truly understand the love that God has for us. This little one was toddling around having a great time, just being with the birds. I sure wish we were all so easily entertained. It also made me miss my children. My two daughters are college aged now, but I could imagine both of them when I watched this little one.

We had another simple pita sandwich for lunch. Filling and tasty.

The annunciation is the term used to describe when Mary was told by the Angel Gabriel that she would conceive Jesus. You can read that story in Luke 1:26-56. This Basilica was built over the place where the Annunciation occurred at Mary’s house in Nazareth.

The Basilica of the Annunciation is huge. Back in Jesus’ day, Nazareth was a very small little town. This Basilica is large enough to enclose the ruins of the entire town from that time. The architecture is modern. I liked some aspects of it, and I was not quite as sure about others.

The part I liked the most was that the lower chapel altar sanctuary is built inside Mary’s house. I found that to be quite moving.

One other interesting feature: the dome of this church is a Lilly, upside down, facing down into the sanctuary space. The architect wanted you to realize that the roots would be up in heaven. All things originate with God.

Several countries contributed murals of Mary to the side walls of the church. Here is the one from Mexico and the one from Japan. The Japanese one is a mosaic and the shawl is made of pearls. It was the most expensive one in the church. I was very disappointed with the image created by the United States. Frankly, it was ugly and looked like something from The Transformers. In fact, it was so ugly, I forgot to take a picture of the United States one.

You can see more runis of Nazareth under the protection of a roof here:

Our last stop for today was at Cana. This church is built on top of ruins that are believed to be the location of the Wedding Feast in John 2 where Jesus turns water into wine. Although it can not be absolutely proven that this is that location, it is likely the right place and it has been Tradition since about 400 AD.

We had a very nice blessing of married couples from our group. It was beautiful. Tony and Debbie from our parish were one of those couples. They were really cute together and I really enjoyed being part of their blessing.

Below this church, you can see the ruins of ancient Cana and one of the jars that was used for ceremonial washings. This is the kind of jar that was used by Jesus in His miracle, and could possibly be one of them. Most people probably think of a big pottery jar. This is more like a basin or tank.

Today was a great day. I’m looking forward to our day tomorrow. Time for bed.

Peace!
– Deacon Matt

Israel Day 6: Into the Wilderness

Tonight’s blog will be pretty short. If I get more time later I may come and fill in more details, but I have to be up early tomorrow morning to leave our hotel in Jerusalem and travel to Galilee. I’ve enjoyed Jerusalem and will be a little sad to be leaving so soon.

We started out by traveling out to Bethany in Palestine, to the tomb of Lazarus. This is where Jesus resurrects Lazarus. We had mass in a chapel a few feet from the burial cave. We had a small group of pilgrims from Zimbabwe join us for mass and they were so beautiful and friendly. It was one of the highlights of our day. In fact, they met up with us at lunch as well so it was a joy to see them again. We’ve exchanged email addresses to swap some pictures with each other.

After mass, we took turns climbing down deep into a cave to get to Lazarus’ burial site. Pretty interesting and a little tough for some of the pilgrims to climb up and down the steep and slick stairs. Some of us joked that the reason Jesus called out to Lazarus is because He didn’t want to climb down in person.

Next stop was the ancient town of Jericho. Among all of the desert nearby, you can see why Jericho was overrun by 25 different factions over the years. It is an oasis of green lush vegetation surrounded by desert wilderness.

Below is a sycamore tree like the one that Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus.

We arrived in Jericho and stopped by the Elisha fountain which he gave to them. We went up on the “tel” – which is the name given to an archaeological dig. Several things impressed me about this site.

It was really interesting to see how small the biblical Jericho was. I’ve seen bigger yards back home in Lexington Kentucky than the footprint of the archeology space. I’d guess we were talking about 4-5 acres at most. I had in my mind that it was a decent sized city. It does have walls around it that have been revealed in the excavations.

It is, however, the oldest known city at this time. It is the first place where an organized set of roads and a protective wall have been found. There is also a tower that has been unearthed in the rubble that was built 10,000 years ago. The tower was used for their protection – they’d climb into the top and close the top. You can see the tower here in the middle right of the picture. The top has a grate put over it.

It may not look like much of a tower, but it was built 10,000 years ago without any tools but stone. Also, you have to look at it from ground level below. The current ground level I’m standing on is from 25 different rebuilding efforts of Jericho from when it has been conquered in the past.

Another interesting thing you can see in Jericho: the Mountain of Temptation. This is where Jesus is taken and tempted by Satan with power over all the earth. It is amazing how desolate this mountain area is.

We ate lunch at a little place in Jericho. Outside, most of us took a turn riding a camel around the parking lot. Yup, that’s me on a camel.

Our next stop was the Qumran community. I’d love to write a very long blog about this … but I need to get some sleep. Perhaps more later. This is the area where the Essenes lived. These were a sect of Jews who lived a very monastic-like life. Part of their life was to copy the ancient scriptures onto new scrolls. Near the end of their time in Qumran, with the Romans pressing in, they took many of their scrolls and put them into jars in the nearby caves in which many of them lived. They likely expected to return and have the scrolls available to them. They never returned, and the scrolls were found in 1947. Below is a picture of “cave 4” where the first important discovery of scrolls was found.

In the next picture, you can see the hillside with its many caves all over it. It was a very beautiful wilderness place.

Next, we took a short drive down to the Dead Sea. Again, I’d love to write more about it, but time is short tonight. The salt content in the water right now is about 30%. You can literally sit on the water and float. It was pretty fun. Lots of garbage along the shores, though.

The Dead Sea is decreasing at an alarming rate. It has dropped many hundreds of feet since the time of Christ. It looks like at least 100 feet of its drop has happened in the last 40 years. The sea is fed by the Jordan River. But the Jordan is now tapped for water by all of the communities in the area for irrigation and drinking water. So the Jordan is now only a small trickle by the time it gets to the Dead Sea.

This is a picture of my mom and I outside the tomb of Lazarus. I like this one because in this picture, she looks just like her brother, Bill, whom she loves dearly. Bill died a few years ago. May God grant him eternal rest. Very fitting place to recall his life as we all anticipate “the Resurrection of the Dead and the Life of the World to Come! Amen.”

More tomorrow!

Peace,

Deacon Matt