Monday, July 18, 2022, Day 48: C&O Canal Towpath
Since our hotel was right on the C&O (Chesapeake and Ohio) Canal Towpath, lots of trail riders stay here. I met ten or more of them at the hotel breakfast. They were all riding towards Pittsburgh, so I asked about trail conditions ahead of me. They informed me of two detours coming up, one at the PawPaw tunnel.
Google Maps was confusing me here, as it didn’t route me on the trail the entire way. There are sections that go out onto the roads. Maybe this is to make the ride shorter, as the trail is quite circuitous. I decided to just finish out the ride on this trail, as it would be traffic-free, obviously. I did expect the mud that Lawrence and Louise warned me about, but hopefully it wouldn’t be a deal breaker.
More rain that morning had me putting off the start until after 10 a.m. I rolled out onto muddy trails, peppered with pools of water everywhere. Within two miles my shoes were completely covered in mud and after ten miles I had a layer of mud on me from the shins down, plus splattering all over my jersey. Mud all over my hands would bother me, but I didn’t really mind it all over my legs. My feet were soaked with water and mud, but they weren’t cold as the temperature was above 70 degrees. But it was such a mess that I sent Sheri a text not to ride towards me from the PawPaw tunnel, as I knew she would not like to be covered in mud.
The riding for the first twenty miles was more like mountain biking than gravel riding, complete with sections of single track riding. It was slow, muddy work and I only rode 17 miles in the first two hours. After that the trail became a bit smoother and a bit drier. I’d learn later that this section was the worst of the entire C&O, so that was good to have behind me.
After 24 miles or so, I caught up to three ladies. The front two were riding two abreast on the double track trail and the third trailed behind one of the lead riders. I didn’t have a bell on my gravel bike and didn’t call out from way back. Instead, I just eased up behind the other lead rider and said quietly, “Hello.” The lady next to me shrieked, startling the front two riders. I apologized for scaring her and it was immediately forgotten.
The ladies singled up to let me by, but when I pulled even with the lead rider, I just matched her speed to chat. They all live in Cumberland and were riding to DC over the next few days, averaging just 45 miles or so a day. They were taking it easy and just enjoying themselves. The lead rider must have been around 45 years old. Her name was Sherry and I had to ask how she spelled it because of my wife Sheri. She responded by asking my wife’s middle name and it turned out that both her and Sheri’s middle was Lynn. She was a P.E. teacher that taught in West Virginia. The second lady was older and retired, maybe in her 60s, and the third lady was quite a bit younger, probably in her late 20s. I love seeing such a wide age range, as I have climbing partners that range from 24 years old to nearly 80 years old.
I rode with these ladies until just before PawPaw tunnel, after I’d ridden 28 miles. Sheri was on the trail waiting for me and we all stopped to chat. The ladies noticed Sheri’s tennis shirt and all three of the ladies were in a tennis group together. They mainly got into riding because Covid shut down all their other activities. Since Sheri already had plans to ride on this trail and now seeing these ladies, she was really motivated to do some riding. We modified our plan a bit and decided to cut the day short and stop in Hancock, as there was a motel there. Hancock (population 1,500) is located in the thinnest section of Maryland. Here Maryland is only 1.8 miles, north to south. So, 1.8 miles to go from Pennsylvania through Maryland to West Virginia. I wanted a motel since I was a muddy mess. I was so muddy that during my lunch break in Paw Paw, we used a pump water station and I basically showered from the knees down, including my shoes and socks, and washed off my bike. I was still soaked from the knees down, but I was a lot less muddy.
I ate two sandwiches and we waited out 15 more minutes of rain before moving on. Sheri would drive to Hancock, book us into the hotel, and then start riding back towards me. The ladies told us about the Western Maryland Rail Trail, which is a paved bike trail that parallels the C&O. Sheri and I would hopefully meet on that trail.
Immediately after I left Sheri, I had to do the steep tunnel bypass (the PawPaw tunnel was closed due to construction). I heard from all the other riders that they just push their bike up the 0.4-mile hill and then ride down the other side. The entire bypass is about 1.4 miles and Sheri read on the website that riders should be prepared to take 90 minutes to do this. 90 minutes?! I wondered what was ahead of me.
The bypass climb was all single track and indeed it was steep, with roots across the trail that were slippery, but it wasn’t that bad and I could ride it on my gravel bike, though I was huffing and puffing, nearly at my limit. But before I did that climb, I had to cross a small 4-foot-wide wood bridge. There was a 90-degree turn to get on this bridge and I carefully negotiated that. Thinking it was cruiser now, I relaxed a bit and immediately my tires slid out from under me. The bridge had no railing on it and was only about thirty feet long, but the wood was soaked and incredibly slippery. As soon as my tires slipped, I knew it was over. I was going off the bridge and below me were lots of logs. I was only maybe four feet above them, but I knew this was going to hurt and most likely injure me. Maybe even damage my bike. In that moment, I feared I wouldn’t be able to finish the ride. I’d screwed up so badly. One moment of recklessness and now I was going to ruin my day, my ride, my entire trip. I tumbled over the edge.
And I landed in mud! I somehow missed all the logs through no agility on my part. It was pure luck. I was cringed and braced for a horrible impact and instead just sunk into ooze. I couldn’t believe my luck. I extricated myself and my bike and was surprised to have no injuries at all. The bike seemed fine as well. The only damage was having my feet and lower legs covered in mud.
Descending the bypass, I caught up to my three lady friends. They were walking their bikes gingerly down the steep, wet, rocky double track. I stopped to chat briefly before moving on, carefully. I passed a tandem lower down that was creeping down even more carefully. Once down and back on the C&O, things smoothed out nicely and I was able to move along at 12-15 mph.
The canal was full of water and the surface varied from being completely coated in green algae to clear water. When the water was clear, I saw a lot of ducks. When the water was covered in algae, I saw turtles. During one half-mile section I saw hundreds of turtles sunning themselves on every log that protruded from the water. Previously on this ride, I’d occasionally get a glimpse of a turtle and stop to try and photograph it. But turtles have excellent eye sight and as soon as they spotted me, they’d leap off their logs and disappear beneath the water. I learned to stop early, well away from the turtle, and zoom in with my phone before trying to get closer. I mostly failed to photograph them. But now I had so many to photograph. I used my same technique and photographed a bunch before becoming overwhelmed with how many there were. To locals, turtles are like prairie dogs are to us: nothing unusual. But it’s rare to see a turtle in Colorado. I have, but there aren’t many. In this small section of the canal there are probably more turtles than in the state of Colorado.
I got a text from Sheri that she had booked us a room and that she was riding towards me on the West Maryland Rail Trail. I wasn’t on it yet, but once I put Hancock into Google Maps as my destination, it showed me a slight jog to the north to get on that trail. It was just like the ladies had said: smooth, paved trail just above the C&O. I could now move a couple of miles per hour faster and cruised towards Sheri. I had no cell connection here, so I couldn’t inform her that I was on the trail, but we couldn’t miss each other.
I ran into Sheri about 7 miles from Hancock and she turned around and rode with me to the hotel. Once there, I got into the shower fully dressed, bike shoes and all. With my shell, which had been in my back pocket. For the next thirty minutes I tried to get all the mud off my shoes, socks, clothes, and me. I was mostly successful, though my jersey will need an industrial-strength cleaning and my socks might not be salvageable. Sheri took a shower next. She wasn’t muddy since she rode on the paved trail, but it was hot and humid and she was wet with sweat.
For dinner we went to a local chain convenience store called Sheetz, which basically is a combination gas station/convenience store/fast-food restaurant all in one. We ordered dinner off a touch screen where you can customize your food to quite an extent. We both got burgers and this was the first time I’d ever seen the option of putting fries on a burger. I’ve been doing that for twenty years, but this is the first time I’d seen it as an option when ordering. Cool.
We ate back at the motel while we got caught up on the Tour and watched an episode of “Alone”.
Two nights in a row in a hotel. Such decadence, but it was warranted. We should be done in two days. It’s getting pretty exciting.
Tuesday, July 19, 2022, Day 49:
Our Super 8 hotel didn’t have much of a free breakfast, so I didn’t gorge myself quite like I’ve become accustomed. I started riding a bit before 8 a.m. with the mindset that I’d likely be putting in over 100 miles today. We had at least 165 miles to reach Annapolis. Why Annapolis? Well, we started with my bike tire in the Pacific Ocean and so thought it was appropriate to end with my front tire in the Atlantic Ocean. Yes, technically, my tire will be in the Chesapeake Bay, but that’s salt water and connected to the Atlantic Ocean, so good enough for us.
Anyway, 165 miles meant that I needed to average 82.5 miles in the next two days and I wanted to be more than halfway after today. But the biggest reason was finding a place to stay. The C&O is a great trail, but it is surprisingly remote. It proved quite a challenge for Sheri to even find the trailheads adjacent to the trail where we could meet. Hotels or even campgrounds were at least ten miles off the trail.
Always looking to chat, I pulled up alongside a rider. His name was Joseph Kannarkat (he ended up sending me a text message). He was riding from Pittsburgh to D.C., where he lives. He’d never done a long ride before but had heard about this trail and tried to recruit friends. Only Gabe would join him, though he wasn’t an experienced rider either. They were having a grand adventure. I love that spirit and I suspect they will build upon this one. They were staying at B&B’s along the route and had planned ahead. Unlike us.
I met Sheri at Williamsport at a nice park after 32 miles. I took a nice break there. Afterwards, I had to do a 3-mile detour with some significant hills. When I got back on the trail, I was directly against the Potomac River. I’d been following this river for a long time.
Next, I met Sheri at a trailhead parking lot at mile marker 64.9. I’d now done 65 miles. It was hot and buggy. Three ladies arrived and starting inflating their stand-up paddle boards. I ate and drank, but it was bugs that prompted me to move on.
I last met Sheri at the Edward’s Ferry trailhead parking. I’d ridden 97 miles to this point and knew I was going comfortably over one hundred today. Here we made our final plan. We decided on the Hilton Garden Inn in Bethesda and I plotted my route there. It was 25 miles away and I’d have to leave the trail for the last 11 miles and ride on likely busy roads.
I switched over to listening to music and just cruised along down the C&O. The trail was pretty smooth here and I moved along at a good pace. I exited the trail, following Google Maps, and got onto roads. It had been awhile since I’d ridden on roads, but I was eased into it via some quiet roads and then a bike path alongside the road. But the party ended abruptly. Not only did I have to deal with rush-hour traffic, but the road was coned and singled-lane in spots. So, no shoulder at all.
Sheri texted me that she had checked in and gave me the room number. It was on the ninth floor. It was the first building with over four floors that we’d been in for the entire trip. We even had to pay to park. Sheri sent: ‘We aren’t in North Dakota any longer.” Indeed, we had finally hit the expected east coast density, though a lot later than I thought we would.
Sheri had some traffic trouble herself and was happy to be in a comfy hotel, doing her exercises and watching the Track and Field World Championships. It was always reassuring to get Sheri’s text that she had secured the night’s lodging, whether a campsite or a hotel room.
Google directed me onto the Capitol Crescent Bike Path and that took me to within a mile of the hotel. I rode city streets to the hotel and Sheri was outside waiting for me. I was tired, having ridden 122 miles that day. She ushered me into the hotel and up to our room. After a shower, I walked a quarter mile to Chipotle and Sheri went to Panera. We ate dinner in our room and watched something on TV.
Wednesday, July 20, 2022, Day 50:
The last day. Finally. We’d been looking forward to this for the last week. I waited until rush hour traffic subsided and started around 10 a.m. I needn’t have waited that long as I was on bike paths all the way into D.C. I was taking a circuitous route to make sure I rode directly through D.C. on my way to the coast.
While I had just fifty miles to ride, the weather was challenging. It was headed over 90 degrees and would get there less than halfway to my destination. Add in the humidity and, according to our weather app, it “felt” like 99 degrees. I do not perform well in heat. Or cold come to think of it… I’m an absolute beast if the temperature is between 64 and 68 degrees, though.
I quickly gained the Capitol Crest Trail and rode that until it dumped me onto the National Mall, ten miles away. I saw the Washington Monument from a good distance away and grew excited to be finally arriving in D.C. I snapped a few photos, but I forced myself to move on expeditiously, as Sheri would be waiting for me out at the coast and we’d be touring the city together the next day. First, I needed to finish the ride.
Why even bother going to the coast? Because I started with my back tire in the Pacific Ocean and if I wanted to claim that I rode across America, I felt I needed to go ocean to ocean, despite the name of my adventure. It was only forty miles further, which should be no problem for me, right? After all, I’d been averaging 75 miles a day. Well, it all depends on conditions and the weather and traffic for those next miles conspired to sap me. It was over 90 degrees and the humidity was brutal.
I rode through residential Washington and then onto the Martin Luther King, Jr. Highway. I was headed for Annapolis. Google directed me through a complicated route to pick up a couple of bike trails. I rode the South Shore Trail for a bit and then the Poplar Trail. Just as I got on the South Shore trail, I saw a heavier lady in front of me. She was riding a bike with panniers. I increased my speed to chat her up, but before I could make any headway, she turned the throttle on her e-bike and sped away. Those bikes are cool. I probably have one in my future.
Actually, a good part of the blame for being sapped was my own stubbornness. I only had two bottles with me and I was bone dry with ten miles to go. I decided to just press on, without stopping to take on more liquids, despite passing a convenience store. I didn’t think ten miles without water would be too hard. I was wrong. I made it, but I suffered the last few miles. I was just so dehydrated.
At the last signal, I could no longer hold my head up and it hung down as I slumped over my handlebars. Little did I know that Sheri was watching me from the corner of my next turn, into the park. If I had seen her, I’d have held my head up. The light turned green and I pedaled on and was surprised to see Sheri. She was on her bike and we rode together.
I thought the finish was just a mile away, but it was more like three miles. That was disappointing in my weakened state, but the car was just two miles away and I had to stop there for hydration. We sat in the air-conditioned car while I recovered a bit and downed a liter of liquid. We didn’t linger that long, though, as I wanted to put this ride to bed.
We hopped on our bikes and Sheri led me down to the beach. A few people were there, none of whom spoke English. There were a couple of short, rock jetties. I posed for some photos on the beach, with my front tire in the water, and on the jetties. It felt anticlimactic, but we were both excited to have completed the project. It was time to put the bike in the car.
Over 50 days, I rode 48 of them, for a total of 3824 miles — an average of over 75 miles per day. I also climbed 115,665 vertical feet. The two days I didn’t ride weren’t for rest, but for weather: wind and rain. In addition, we hit four state highpoints along our route.
Did I see America? I saw a part of it. I saw farms everywhere, small family farms, mostly. I saw F*** Biden, Let’s Go Brandon, and Trump 2024 signs aplenty. I saw silos of grain and acres and acres of peas, soybeans, and corn. I saw amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesty.
I have seen a lot more of America, but it was a thin slice. From my ride, you’d think that American was made up of mostly conservative, god-fearing farmers. While conservatives do amount for nearly half the country, only about 3% of Americans make their living farming. More than half of the US live in urban centers. So, while I’ve seen a lot, I learned much about Americans in general.
If you look at a map of all the counties in the USA and color the country red if Trump won it in 2020 and blue if Biden won it, you’ll see the US as almost entirely red, with blotches of blue, mostly concentrated on the coasts. That map is surprising and misleading, but the take away is that so much of the US is rural, even in these midwest and eastern states. I thought we’d see more pavement here but am gratified to learn that you need to get very close to the coast before you enter the megapolis.
I did gain even more appreciation for Colorado, with views and vistas everywhere. They are so prevalent in Colorado, that we hardly notice them, but other places don’t have them. There are no vistas in the forest. Heck, even the turnout on 36, at the top of the Davidson Mesa, is a dramatic view if you are from the midwest.
It had been a great trip, but it has just confirmed what I already knew: I’m a mountain man. Not in the sense that I’m tough and live in the cold, snowy mountains, but that I like looking at mountains and I like hiking and climbing up them, where I can see so far and get a sense of the area. In the east, it’s hard to even tell which direction is west. We have forests, but we can rise above them. We have canyons and deserts and not just open spaces but open views and skies.
While we have space in the west, we don’t have much water. The east, especially the midwest is awash in water, which probably explains why it is the nation’s breadbasket. People have yards that are gigantic and there and no sprinkler system keeping them green. Water isn’t an issue there, like it is in the west. Yet, more and more people want to live in the west. It’s a conundrum that will plague us for decades, I imagine. At least until we can cut a canal from Lake Superior and pump it 1500 miles west and 5000 feet higher.
Drivers were almost universally nice to me, moving way to the left when they passed me. I probably had had less than ten unpleasant car interactions, with at least one being my fault.
After visiting the memorials and museums of our nation’s capitol, we packed up the car one last time and headed west, into the night. Home to the Disneyland of Boulder, Colorado.
Actually, we left DC at noon, but I resist stealing that line from Dada. We headed west to Backbone Mountain, Maryland’s highpoint. The summit is called Hoye Crest, in honor of a famous Marylander. My guidebook described the area as one of the wildest in the eastern states, stating that the brush can be so thick that finding the sign identifying the highest point can be difficult. It wasn’t. I think highpoints have become a lot more popular, as all the ones we visited were clearly marked with signage directing us.
We parked at a turnout in West Virginia and almost the entire hike (of only 1.1 miles) was in West Virginia. We crossed into Maryland just before reaching the summit.
After Hoye Crest, we headed south, still in West Virginia, to bag Spruce Knob, that state’s highest point. Driving US 48 through West Virginia, we were surprised to be on a nice four-lane highway. Above us, all along a ridge, towered huge windmills, all turning in the steady winds. Apparently, coal-centric West Virginia was embracing green energy.
We found a campsite very close to Seneca Rocks and erected our tent before driving another 15 miles to nearly the summit of Spruce Knob. We hiked a half mile, roundtrip, bagging this highpoint. It was cool up there and we hiked through a spruce forest (big surprise, right?). It felt alpine for the first time since we left Montana. It was great to breathe some crisp air.
Back at the campground, we went to a ranger presentation where she told us a true ghost story and we had s’mores. The next morning we hiked 4.5 miles up to the summit of Seneca Rocks. It was hot and humid. We saw some climbers approaching the crag on our way down. I was shocked that they would start so late. I’d have been going two hours earlier in an attempt to beat the heat. They are probably more habituated to this weather.
We took the climbers’ trail over to the base of the crag, but I found nothing that interesting or inspiring to climb. I’d find out later that doing the approach is not sufficient to find the goods. Others assured me that there were gems to be found.
We resumed our trip home at 9:30 a.m. First, we headed to Campbell Hill, Ohio’s highpoint, and then Hoosier High Point, Indiana’s highpoint. Both were…silly. Thankfully neither was that far out of the way. We probably spent an extra 90 minutes to bag these two. Over a 30-hour drive home, that seemed pretty cheap to me. Once she saw them, Sheri wasn’t so sure. She enjoyed the two highpoints of the previous day, but these were in another category. Just a hundred yards away from the Indiana highpoint, I was pretty sure I found a higher point in a cornfield. It was only twenty feet into the field, but this field was packed with corn plants and there was no way to get there without hurting the plants. But in this case, getting to the official highpoint was enough for me, just like in Pennsylvania.
In total, Sheri and I bagged eight new state highpoints. That gave me 27. I’m more than halfway done. Sheri now has 18, but she is only mildly interested in these points because she doesn’t plan on ever getting Denali.
Would I do this again? No. At least not in this style. Not because it wasn’t worthwhile, but because it wasn’t a pure journey of discovery. To really know places, you have to spend more time there. I didn’t tour around towns enough, as I was tired from my riding. I experienced these places by riding through them. While much slower than driving by on a highway, it still wasn’t slow enough.
I was extremely lucky to have Sheri with me for this trip, but I think it was too heavy a burden for her to do again. Nor would I want her to do it again. But it has turned me on to the idea of supported bike touring. Now, I just want to ride with Sheri and have a tour company support us. And to move through a smaller area at an even slower pace. I see the appeal of Ride the Rockies. Touring around one state seems to be a perfect size for a bike adventure. Or a smaller country. The United States is huge.
So, what’s next? We are thinking about supported hiking tours in Europe. Like the Tour de Mt. Blanc or the Alta Via routes in the Dolomites. Back into the mountains, with their endless vistas.