This is a shameless attempt to save the the most advanced civilization in
history from imminent self destruction by eliminating carbon emission,
dependence on foreign sources of fuel,obesity, hypertension and diabetes.
Cycling accomplishes all those things at once and helps us develop a better
understanding of ourselves, each other and our relationship to the cosmos.

Oh, horse puckey!
I like to ride bikes, have been doing it all my life.
The rest of that crap is just a fringe benefit,
and the blogosphere gives me a chance to share my interior
monologue with virtual rather than imaginary friends.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Part 2 the C&O trail

First I want to thank John Hawrylak for taking the time to e-mail and correct an error.  I had overlooked the fact that the GAP trail is built on an abandoned Western Maryland right of way and originally attributed that to the B&O.  Thanks for keeping me in line John!
 Everything on these two trail systems begins and ends at the Cumberland Trail Connection, a bike shop strategically located at the junction between the two.  A group of other shops and a long term parking lot are adjacent to the junction.  It's an impressive development around the union of these trails.  I stopped at the shop Monday afternoon and they gave me a map of the city with specific directions to the YMCA and laundry.  This is a full service shop which focuses on the trail rider. They also provide shuttle service to Washington, Pittsburgh and points between. When in doubt go here and make arrangements, they know better than anybody.
   I set out on the C&O trail and noticed a singular difference right away.  It is flat, very, very flat and the surface is much like any gravel two track you might find in the country.
Built on the tow path adjacent to the defunct C&O canal, the trail is like a dike between the Potomac river and the canal  built to carry freight.   Right away there was a noticeable change in the scenery and wildlife.
 I sailed along past dozens and dozens of turtles sunning themselves, and frightened deer after deer deeper into woods.  The pace was brisk, the wind at my back and temperatures accommodating.  I sailed through 30 miles in the morning going to Paw Paw WV.
 Although I had passed the Mason Dixon line on the descent from the Big Savage Tunnel, I felt I was just now entering the South and would be meandering back and forth over the borders of West Virginia and Maryland for days.  After having a lunch snack and getting supplies at the Dollar General in Paw Paw I rode to the  tunnel.
   This was one of the great debacles that shut down the canal.  The construction of the tunnel took nearly 3 times estimated and gave the B&O railroad a chance to get ahead  and ultimately allowed them to begin taking shipments to prove themselves before the canal was completed.
   Now the tunnel is a tourist curiosity.  The towpath through the mile of darkness is wide enough for single file traffic.  Two hundred years of condensation and dripping has eroded the concrete into a pattern  of waves 3 inches deep.  The guard rail preventing me from falling in the canal was a 2x4 set at standard 3' height.  I was walking the bike.  I switched the BM dyno against the tire and started into the tunnel all lit up for a stroll with reliable light.  300 feet into the tunnel one of the wires came loose from the dyno and the lights went out.
The most reliable equipment will fail at the most inopportune moments, and the light at the end of the tunnel was not encouraging.  The balance of the distance was negotiated by rubbing my right shoulder against the grimy wet wall and shuffling my feet forward while white knuckling the bike to make sure I still had it at the end.
  After the interesting trauma of the tunnel, I sailed right through another 30 miles and passed Hancock, Md.  Staying at one of the trail side campsites for the evening, I had a pleasant visit with a priest who was angling there.
Rain began to fall as I was fixing dinner and rhythm from the wind and rain put me to sleep quickly. I slept late and Wednesday was not nearly as productive.  Things were seriously slower on the trail after the rain. There were long stretches of muddy trail which was slow going but the park service is determined to change that.
 Some  stretches are repaved with the nicest aggregate I have ever seen on a trail.
This section has been resurfaced  4" deep  and compacted tightly.
    Judging by the debris on the trail, this section was a year or more old and was still as smooth as concrete.  If they continue repairing weak sections with this material, the trail can only get more comfortable and faster.  The rain came and went, there was a small benefit to wearing a rain cape since the wind was westerly and helped me force my way through the soupy portions.
     I began to see some evidence of beaver although I was unaware there was a population.  A couple of other wildlife sightings were significant.  Pileated Woodpeckers are seen routinely.  I was seeing several every day once I was beyond Cumberland.   In Michigan, I might have seen one a year at my house secluded in a forest.   I was also seeing a huge number of Bluebirds.  The beautiful little critters seemed to be everywhere.  Thirteen ways of looking at them occurred to me.   At one point I'd have sworn I rode through a flock.
      I took time to stop and see Fort Frederick, just up the hill from the Potomac flood plain.   I was a bit early in the season and only had access to the outside  to marvel at the size of an 18th century hand built fort.  Despite the fact that this has reverted to a forested national park, the remnants of the canal construction is overwhelming in scope.  Every few miles there's another lock used to raise the boats incrementally to surmount the 600 feet of elevation to be gained over the 184 mile journey.
 The lock houses still stand and many are available as lodging
 to get an idea how the lock attendants would live, for years on end.
    Nearer Georgetown, a rebuilt passenger boat sits in one of the locks.  Now that is probably a bit smaller than the freight barge, but a team of donkeys can only pull so much right?  Despite water shipping being a familiar and proven transportation for the time, you would think those investing in this project would have noticed that railroads were less labor intensive...just a thought.

    At Dam #4 there is an extensive interpretive display which details the mechanics necessary to tap the river, flood the canal and manage the water needed to eliminate the current and navigate with a mule team.  It's overwhelming to imagine this construction with the technology 200 years ago.  One of the people I met on the trail said there is a cemetary in Shepherdstown dedicated to 30 Irish immigrants who died on that portion of the project alone.
   Wednesday I made it as far as mile 76, just short of Shepherdstown.  After pitching camp at the campsite, I made my way into the small college town to get supplies.  Another wind and rain storm passed as I did my shopping at Food Lion.  The bad weather was kind enough to wait until I had finished dinner to start drumming on my tent and driving me to sleep.
      The historical significance of the canal and railway during the Civil War 
is obvious as you get farther down the river.
 Just down from Harper's Ferry was the place where Robert E. Lee was driven to ford the Potomac back to Maryland to escape Yankee Troops.  I doubt that I would enjoy swimming that part of the river, let alone ride a frickin' horse across and certainly not try to supervise a few hundred underpaid soldiers in the process.
Passing Point of Rocks, I ran across Sam.
He was languishing with a flat.  It was Sam's first attempt at an overnight  bike trip.  He is an experienced backpacker which as a breed are interesting because of they demonstrate such imaginative ignorance on a bike.  Most persist on carrying a backpack on their body, Sam, an advanced beginner, had developed a way of strapping the backpack onto the rear rack like a back rest. It'll probably be the last time he tries that.  He had only ridden as from Shepherdstown but was already asking about panniers.   He had one flat earlier on and discarded the damaged tube.  Now he had a second and was dealing with the quandary of patching it.  I was glad to help.  After about thirty minutes, we found the hole and patched the tire.  He was glad for the refresher course.
   Sam and I rode along together most of the day.  His intention was to make it to Georgetown before the end of the day.  I wanted to get within striking distance and camp out. He is a good traveling companion and interesting company.  When I mentioned that he was an experienced backpacker, I was understating the facts.  He had backpacked the entire Appalachian Trail  a few years ago.  Right now he is between jobs and going to a meeting Friday night in DC.  We rode along for about twenty or so miles and I was searching for supplies when we discovered that the Mileage Chart I had been using for reference and had been so reliable, proved to be entirely false from this point on.   Dum-de-dum-dum!
  The ride was nice, brisk enough most of the time with occasional muddy patches.  

I didn't need to be in Washington until 4PM Friday so all I needed was dinner and a snack..  As long as I went to sleep at a regular hour I'd be fine and Sam was planning to be in Washington that night . Whites Ferry was the next stop on my list which had a retail connection.  We planned to stop there. Whites Ferry has nothing.  We weren't worried because Poolesville was right there also, or so we thought.  After realizing White's Ferry is a small collection of dilapidated buildings, we ran across a biker who happened to live in Poolesvillle.  He explained it is, "exactly 9.8 miles" from where the chart listed it.  He also said there were no services there either.  Hmm.
Undeterred, we still had Seneca and a campsite a few miles ahead.

    Reaching the campsite at the 26 mile point we found Al (aka Steve) and Fritz already camped out there.  After some convivial exchange with our new friends from Indianapolis, Sam and I both decided to camp there.  The plan at that point was for me to set up, then ride the remaining 6 miles to Seneca and pick up some food for myself and maybe some beer for the rest.  No problem.  Until I road down the way and found that Seneca is 6 miles officially, I mean the village limits may be there, but nothing else.  It started to rain.  Another 4 miles (total 10 now)  I found a way to cross the canal and get access to the town.  Climbing a mile and a half up a cliff road to reach Seneca, I found absolutely no retail possibilities, only huge, high priced architectural marvels.  I figure these were the families that owned the railroad that drove the canal out of business.  Following the cliff road a bit, I found nothing but more gated neighborhoods with extravagantly huge and expensive homes.  There probably are some retail areas in this town, but not near the canal.  The extra mileage I put in would have put me in Georgetown, but with no place to stay.  After my discovery, I obviously made it back late, the other guys offered some of their stuff and we all went to bed a little wiser than before.
    Sam got up early and left long before the rest of us were motivated.  Al, Fritz and I had coffee together and a chance to inspect and compare gear.  They are petty experienced cylo tourists and backpackers taking a week off work.    I was quicker to break down and pack up.  I figured they would catch up as soon as I saw a place to sit and buy a fresh meal.

  It didn't happen,   The road to Georgetown is all down hill and down wind, the river changes character dramatically as it nears the Chesapeake, but there ain't no place to get nothin' . Despite what the Mileage Chart had told me, once past Brunswick and Point of Rocks area, there is no modern convenience until you reach the visitor center in Potomac and that is just a tourist accommodation.   Just fair warning.  It taught me to hold back an extra freeze dried meal or two.  I have had so much success over the years buying on a daily basis that I set myself up for failure here.  Fortunately, this is an easy part of the trail and I had time, just had  time, to get to Union Station, pack up the bike and catch my train.  Except for the little faux pas at the end, this was one of the best long trips I have had.
The important pleasure,  360 miles-no cars!
I'll wrap this up in a summary when I get some time in the next couple days, the important issue was the trip to retrieve my car outside of Pittsburgh.


  1. Bravo! Great trip and write up. Thanks for sharing all the pictures and story!