By Felicia A. Petro/Senior Reporter
A local magistrate recently put down his gavel to hit the open road.
With some snacks, liquids, clothes and tools, Neil McEwen pedaled more than 335 miles last week on his Specialized Carve Pro mountain bike along the Great Allegheny Passage, which joins up with the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath, from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.
"I love riding," he said. "There are friends I ride with here, but it was nice to do something different."
McEwen, 42, is in his fourth year as district judge in Pine Township.
His biking partner, Shawn Elder - who owns Ultimate Rentals & Sales in Pine Township, which houses a bike shop - contracted pneumonia before the trip and McEwen decided to pedal it alone June 12 to 16 after planning it for several months.
The bike trail was recently completed from Homestead to Point Park in Pittsburgh - which was celebrated by the city the day before McEwen finished his journey.
McEwen began his trip in the UPMC parking lot next to the Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh. However, as he enjoyed four days of adventure on the trail, tendinitis completely inflamed his right knee during his final miles before reaching D.C.
"It was so severe, my leg wouldn't actually pedal," he said. "I had to take the right pedal off the bike so my leg could dangle and I had to pedal the last 43 miles with my left leg."
In high school at Grove City, McEwen ran cross country and played basketball, but those 40-plus miles "turned out to be the most difficult challenge physically in my life," he explained.
His pace slowed from around 13 mph to about 6 mph with one leg, causing him to miss his train in D.C. to return to Pittsburgh that Sunday, which was Father's Day.
Earlier that day, he called his father, Lewis McEwen, who drove his son's wife, Kristi McEwen, and their boys, Connor, 11, and Cael, 10, to pick him up in D.C. from Grove City.
"They arrived at the end of the trail about 25 minutes after I did, close to 5 p.m. on Sunday," McEwen said.
When he's away from home for more than two days, McEwen said he starts to miss his family. However, realizing his kids would be at the finish line waiting for their wounded dad on Father's Day "kept me going when it was hard to keep going," he said.
"The thought of my kids being at the finish line is something that made me extremely emotional the last day. We were all emotional and extremely relieved when we got together in D.C.," he said, believing the Father's Day reunion will be symbolic for his kids to "appreciate when they get older."
McEwen thinks the tendinitis settled in after biking with Matt Whitby, a 23-year-old competitive cyclist from Tucson, Ariz., whom he met along the trail his second day.
"I was probably biking a little more aggressive than I should," he said.
McEwen developed symptoms the following day, which continued to worsen by his final day on the trail.
He typically began biking around 7 to 8 a.m. and finished mid- afternoon "with plenty of daylight left," he noted.
"You're on the bike seven to eight hours in a day. It certainly helps to put in adequate training. Your butt can get pretty sore."
His only weather delay was a storm that came through during his stay in Confluence, which held up his journey the following day by about 45 minutes, and it rained his last 20 miles into Cumberland, Md., he said.
The gravel trail varied; sometimes it was muddy and dirty, however, "I was surprised at how well the trail was maintained from start to finish," McEwen said.
Also, most of the trail was flat. "If there were any hills at all that last day, I wouldn't have been able to finish," he said.
Many bikers sightsee during the trip, with places like Ohiopyle (Pa.) State Park and Harpers Ferry, W.Va. along the way.
Although McEwen didn't stop for the sights, there were many trail bridges, a few tunnels and a lot of green and water - including still lakes, rapids and waterfalls.
"There's a number of benches in front of waterfalls along the trail," he said.
There is primitive camping along the trail, but McEwen spent his evenings at bed and breakfasts, including River's Edge Cafe and Bed & Breakfast in Confluence, Pa.; Cumberland (Md.) Inn and Spa, where he got a massage; 1828 Trail Inn in Hancock, Md.; and Stonehouse Bed & Breakfast in Harpers Ferry.
"In a lot of these little towns next to the trail, the bikers provide a lot of business to the community," McEwen said.
He and his young cycling friend stopped at one business in Little Orleans, Md. with "fabulous burgers" called Bill's Place, "run by a guy named Jack," he said.
McEwen saw other travelers on the trail as well.
"Anytime you stop, you exchange stories," he said.
McEwen experienced no mechanical problems with his bike but other bikers were always willing to lend a hand.
Breaking from Whitby and biking alone with the tendinitis, McEwen came across the path of Chris Earl, a middle-aged venture capitalist from D.C., who rode with him about five miles, offered him a place to stay in D.C. if need be and texted him when they parted to see how well his knee was holding up.
A bike patrolman later met McEwen and, like the investor, "Was very helpful in offering aid and texting me throughout the day," he said.
Parts of the trail had good cell phone reception; other parts didn't, he said. Some areas "were extremely remote and you don't hear cars or see people. It's a little eerie," McEwen said. "Your mind creates scenarios but I didn't feel I was in any danger."
He only saw animals in the backwoods, including a small, black bear between Rockwood and Meyersdale, Pa.
"It was probably on the downhill side of the trail, 20 feet away, staring at me," he said. "I entertained thoughts of getting a picture but just kept going."
He did take pictures of slower moving snakes and a snapping turtle. "The one and only poisonous snake I saw on the trail was a copperhead," McEwen stated.
"For the most part, the entire trip was really beautiful," he said. "I like being in nature. Most of the ride was shaded. If it wasn't, it would have been brutal. The bugs were only a problem when you stopped."
He plans to take his friend Elder -- and whoever else would like to join them -- on the 335-mile trip in the fall. "It was interesting to do it myself but I wouldn't want to do it alone again," he said.
McEwen would also like to do some camping next time.
"I won't push myself as much. I was a little careless with what my body was telling me," he said. "If it caused me not to finish, it would have been a disappointment."
McEwen will be 43 in July, he said.
"When you get my age, there's not a lot of opportunities to challenge myself with something I love to do. There aren't too many times you get to test your limits and see what your mind is willing to overcome. This was just one of those opportunities to see what I had."
The trip showed McEwen he had "a lot of heart, a drive not to fail, and a desire to set a good example for my kids to complete what ended up being the greatest challenge of my life," he said.
Published June 29, 2013, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.