I’m sitting in a fairly non-descript RV park in Missouri, stopped over for a night on my way back home at last, and finally cataloguing all the photos from the bike ride. It has taken three days since we got off our bicycles in Georgetown, Washington DC, just to mentally process the events of that wonderful, epic ride from Pittsburgh to DC.
The early joke of the ride was that by the time we completed it, we’d be in shape to start it, and that certainly turned out to be true. By the tenth day and the 350th mile, we weren’t tired and sore and desperate to stop riding. It felt more like we’d just found our groove. If there had been another 100 miles ahead of us I’m sure we would have been happy to just keep pedaling. Our legs were feeling strong and despite 10 days in close proximity we were all still friends.
The C&O Canal trail was monotonously shady and peaceful. “The first day is the hardest” we were advised (and this was true thanks to rough trail conditions) but no one told us that the first day was also the most scenic and varied. Days 2, 3, and 4 flowed by without much excitement. Traces of the canal were always to our left, the North Branch Potomac to our right, locks and lock keeper’s houses dotting the route occasionally, and once in a great while we’d encounter an aqueduct. Over our heads were an ever-present canopy of sycamore and oak, and ahead we always had the trail.
But not much else. Soon we got to the point where we coasted past locks with scarcely a sideways glance, and I found Bert spending more time photographing turtles and signs than structures. Inspired perhaps by the fall-like weather and the early fallen leaves, I felt like getting off my bike and wandering the forest in search of chanterelles.
Distinguishing one day from another was mostly possible by the towns in which we stopped, and the restaurants and motels we patronized each night. Second night was a bit of a low point: a Red Roof Inn that we could only reach after a hilly 3-mile ride along a busy road, and for dinner there was a bad Chinese place (a choice I regretted), a Subway, McDonald’s, and Waffle House. Adam and Susan chose the Subway and I think they made the right call. We saved the Waffle House for breakfast. This, by the way, was their wedding anniversary—a un-memorable night capped off with a few hours of watching HGTV in the motel room.
Still, I can hardly complain. We had almost uniformly excellent weather for the entire trip (no rain while we were cycling), and on the third C&O night we stayed at a unique resort in Shepherdtown WV called the Bavarian. Not only did the resort feature a beautiful infinity pool overlooking the Potomac, but this little college town turned out to have a sweet & historic little downtown that kept us occupied all afternoon. We also had a fine little detour over the railroad bridge to Harper’s Ferry but be warned, taking your bike over the bridge requires carrying it up a couple of flights of stairs and walking it a long way (we left the bikes behind for this one).
On Sept 11 I was also reminded of the privilege we were enjoying. I heard that social media was filled with politicized rants and unpleasant hints of violence or disruption that day, but in our peaceful slice of the world there was nothing to hear but singing birds and friendly banter on the bicycles. It reminded me of the adage, “If you want to hate your country, watch the news, but if you want to love your country, ride across it on a bicycle.” It is very true. Even at points on the trail where the scenery was getting repetitive and I was feeling a bit homesick, I knew that it was a spectacular gift to be able to be out there, healthy enough to do this ride and enjoying the companionship of friends.
The 40-mile legs just kept slipping by more easily each day. Each morning we’d meet for breakfast at 7:30 and be on the bicycles by 8:45 or 9:00. We’d ride 2-4 miles to work out the cobwebs, then do 6-8 mile legs the rest of the ride, stopping primarily for photos opps, water, and “butt breaks” (and we’re not talking about cigarettes here). By 2:00 or 3:00 we’d be at our destination, and we’d find our way to the hotel, take showers, and re-group for dinner around 5:00 or 6:00. If there was laundry to be done, we’d put together a load that combined all our sweaty stuff. Everyone would retreat to their rooms by 8:00 and be asleep around 10:00. I spent most nights splitting a room with Bert, grateful that he does not snore.
I was also grateful that we all get along so well. We ran into other groups along the trail, and some of them were not having as good a time as us. The most common mistake we heard about was groups that planned aggressive itineraries. I thought we were being pretty lazy with the short 40 mile (average) legs each day until I heard from those who were doing 60 to 90 miles a day. They were in shape to ride that far, certainly, but none of them seemed to be having much fun after the second or third day of it. One group of three riders basically dissolved before our eyes after a spirit-breaking nine-hour day of cycling, barely even speaking to each other for the rest of the ride.
On the penultimate day of cycling we ended up crossing the Potomac at the famous White’s Ferry (above), and got a shuttle to Leesburg VA. That’s when the only glitch of the trip cropped up. It turned out that the minivan I’d rented for the return trip from DC to Pitt was at a rental location that closed at 1:00 on Saturday. No other rental car agency in the DC area could help us at that point. We got creative for a few hours and tried everything we could think of that might be able to transport four people and four bicycles: Amtrak, Greyhound, Uber, U-Haul, etc. but we just kept getting the door slammed in our faces.
The only solution we could find required me to rent a van in Leesburg and drive it down to DC while everyone else finished the ride. I did this, and managed to drive into DC, park the van near the trailhead in Georgetown, and ride the opposite direction fast enough to meet the group at the 14 mile mark (at Great Falls Visitor Center). To pull this off required an amazing combination of luck with traffic and some fast cycling, so we were all moderately shocked when it actually worked. Thus, I technically did not ride the entire C&O Canal, but I did the last 14 miles twice and ended up with a total of about 350 miles for the entire GAP/C&O through-trip. I’m quite satisfied with that.
A note to those who might do this ride. The ride technically begins (Mile 0) in Georgetown if you are heading west but the first mile or so is really not rideable since it passes through the urban landscape and is essentially a pedestrian sidewalk. For us, heading eastward, this meant we had to walk our bikes for much of the last mile, which robbed us of the spectacular finish we’d all envisioned, but it was still great no matter how it ended, and we’ve got the photo to prove it.
The final logistical challenge of the trip was to stuff four bicycles and four people, plus luggage, into a Dodge minivan. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure we could do it. It was more a case of “we have to make it all fit” because the alternative was too awful to contemplate, so we did.
We spent a night in Frederick MD (another place with a great downtown), had a celebratory dinner, and drove back to Pittsburgh the next morning, where we dispersed like a group of kids at the end of summer camp. There were sad faces and promises to plan future trips, hugs and quick reminisces, and then we were all headed in our separate directions.
For me the travel was just beginning. I drove two more hours back up to Tidioute PA where the Airstream was waiting for me, unpacked, stored the bike, did a final laundry, caught up on the most critical emails, and had dinner with JJ & Sandy. I still had 2,135 miles of driving ahead to get the Airstream back to home base in Tucson.
I’ve driven a quick 926 miles in the past two days because I really want to get home soon, and I only stopped early in Springfield MO to catch up on emails and this blog. So now you’re caught up, and so am I.
I’ve been out in the Airstream since mid May, and it has been a hell of a summer. In April I made a four month plan that included Alumapalooza, the WBCCI International Rally, visits to half a dozen friends’ homes, a 10 day bike ride, motorcycling, and many other small things. All of those things have been done, and I made many other wonderful stops that weren’t part of my plan as well (New Orleans, Atlanta, Montreal). The funny thing is, the best parts of the summer were the parts I didn’t plan or even see coming. It’s amazing what happens when you just step out the door and wander around. You might even find a chanterelle in the forest.