Sunday, August 08, 2010

Trail trial

As reported previously, I set out last week to bike the C&O Canal National Historical Park towpath and the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail from Washington, DC, to Pittsburgh. And so I did!
I first spent a few days in Washington, seeing friends and riding around the city. I was anxious to see the beautiful Bikestation bike parking facility/bike shop by Union Station, and then I explored Rock Creek Park for the first time, taking a "training ride" up to the Maryland-DC border. This was a Saturday and there were a lot of other cyclists out riding, and I'm pleased to say that I passed or kept up with them all, except one guy who a aero bars and a special aerodynamic helmet, who was cruising just a few miles per hour faster than I could comfortably manage. But--I decided that I'm OK with that.

Of great amusement to me was this bicycle wheel quick release skewer which was embedded into the pavement in Columbus Circle, in front of Union Station. One of the more surreal things I've ever seen.

I left Washington last Sunday, August 1, making sure to stop at the "Mile Zero" marker by Georgetown's Thompson Boat Center for a photo op.

From there, I rode, rode, and rode some more. The C&O Canal towpath, maintained by the National Parks Service in a pseudo-primitive condition, is fairly bumpy, as it would have been in the days of canal boats and mules pulling--towing--goods and people between Cumberland, Maryland, and the port at Georgetown. There are free hiker/biker campsites every five to ten miles for most of the route, and I camped around miles 26, 101, and 154.

My first full day of the trip was quite pleasant. I made Point of Rocks, Maryland, at mile 47, my "Point of Breakfast." I asked a passing motorist for a recommendation, and she told me to go to Kerrigan's to get something to eat. When I got there, the owner said "Are you the one they left money for?"

"Absolutely, I'll take any money that's coming my way," I jokingly replied, not expecting that the driver, who had said her son had recently biked much of the towpath with his Boy Scout troop, had stopped in before I arrived, leaving ten dollars "for the biker in the blue shirt who's about to come in." That was a great way to start my trip--with a $15 meal for only $5!

I locked up my trailer at mile 60 and crossed the railroad bridge's pedestrian span over to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Famous for being the site of John Brown's abortive abolitionist raid on the armory in 1859, I was expecting it to be as consequential a commercial center as it was historically, but that was not the case. There are a few tourist-oriented shops and the National Parks Service has a number of worthwhile exhibits, but it was always a small town, even in its industrial heyday, and its population today is about 300.

The Appalachian Trail is routed onto the C&O Canal towpath for about three miles near Harpers Ferry, and crosses on the same rail/pedestrian bridge, and I was quite amused to see the sign directing hikers north and south, with the respective Maine and Georgia termini each over 1,000 miles distant. It's not often that you see directions to a destination that far away. (A ranger also told me that part of the reason bicycles must be walked over the bridge is that no bike riding is allowed on the Appalachian Trail. Any faint flickers of desire I might have had to travel more than those three miles of the joint C&O/AT quickly disappeared when learning that tidbit of regulatory policy.)

The canal towpath has a gap around mile 85, so through-riders have to detour in any case, but I took a more extended detour than absolutely necessary, visiting Antietam National Battlefield, the site of the bloodiest single-day battle in American military history. There are monuments in different locations around the battlefield commemorating the positions of various units, but almost 150 years later, it's hard to envision anything other than open fields and rolling hills. The park visitor center had exhibits and a presentation that better helped illuminate the scene. Abraham Lincoln, it seems, came to visit wounded soldiers after the battle, and in the video, at least, he traveled by carriage along the very same C&O Canal towpath I was riding on, riding not much faster than I myself was going.

Pennsylvania had a number of excellent monuments.

I paid a quick visit to Williamsport, Maryland, where before rejoining the towpath trail, I bumped into the town's mayor on my way to find some dinner. I guess I just can't stay away from local elected officials. He asked me why I had chosen to stop and patronize businesses in Williamsport, and I had to confess that the geography just worked out--it was getting dark, I was hungry, and there I was. Geography, now as when the canal was being built, is king!

Leaving the Jordan Junction campsite near Williamsport, I next stopped at Hancock, Maryland, for food, air for my tires, and to take advantage of more geography. Maryland is only two miles wide at Hancock, and I wasn't about to leave the region without biking up to the Mason-Dixon line, going six inches into Pennsylvania, and then hurrying south, over the Potomac, into West Virginia, and then back into Maryland, where I was very pleased to sign the credit card receipt for lunch--that is, to put my "John Hancock" on it in Hancock. Har har har.

The Western Maryland Rail Trail parallels the C&O Canal towpath for about fifteen miles around Hancock, and I was glad to take advantage of it. I think it's kind of crazy to have a fully paved trail run for just fifteen miles only 100 yards away from the C&O Canal National Historic Park towpath, but on the other hand, I was tired of hitting every tree root, tree branch and rock that lay in the towpath. The blacktop was quite welcome, but I dropped back down to the towpath to see the "Devil's Eyebrow," an anticline located right along the trail.

The next morning, I crossed through the Paw Paw Tunnel, an engineering marvel of its day, over half a mile long. Bring a flashlight.

I saw a good amount of wildlife along the ride. I was particularly impressed with the great blue herons flying over the canal in the first 50 miles from Washington. There were a lot of deer who I must have startled--I alternately tried to scare them off, ringing my bell, or tried to get as close as possible before they ran away--and assorted rabbits and other small critters. There were also mosquitoes. And turtles:

I tried not to get too delirious, and I only hallucinated a little bit. I mean, after three days in the woods, those trees do look an awful lot like a person. And things that maybe aren't funny seem really funny, like "Pigmans Ferry Campsite." Pig man--get it? Like in Seinfeld.

And then I reached Cumberland! This is getting long but suffice it to say it was time for another couple photo ops: end of the C&O Canal, Mile Zero on the Great Allegheny Passage, the Mason-Dixon Line, and the Eastern Continental Divide. It was all downhill from there!

The ascent into Frostburg is the longest, slowest fifteen miles I have ever ridden. The trail has a deceptively steep grade, and I stopped a number of times to make sure I didn't have a flat tire--I was sure that something was wrong with my bike to be slowing me down so much. Nope, just an uphill grade, topped with a windy light rain for much of it. But after the storm blew over, I had an amazing vision as the golden sunset illuminated the trail. I'm pretty sure the trail to heaven's pearly gates looks basically like this. I guess I'd rather have an uphill to my final destination than a downhill...

The last two days, from Frostburg to Connellsville, and then on to Pittsburgh, were really long but rewarding. It was really wonderful biking through Ohiopyle State Park, right along the Youghiogheny River, and I had a great time exploring Connellsville, which has more than its fair share of wonderful old buildings, beautiful even when despoiled with gaudy signage.

The roughest stretch of the trip was probably around McKeesport, Pennsylvania--I was in Allegheny County, but was still miles (and hours) away from my destination. When the official trail ends (one of the "gaps" in the "GAP," you might say) there is a sign saying that biking on PA-837 around Kennywood can be hazardous, but I was having none of it. I had come that far and wasn't about to "arrange for a ride to my destination in Pittsburgh" as it suggested. Since the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, I rode on, through Homestead and at length entered the city limits.

I prevailed upon a passer-by to take my picture on the Hot Metal Bridge. This is my favorite view over the city, especially at the "golden hour" right before sunset.

I went home to ditch my cargo--I weighed it, and it was at least 72 pounds I was hauling around--and headed downtown to complete my trip. Bike lift on the Mall--bike lift at the Point. Total elapsed time: 5 days, 2 hours, 15 minutes.

I was then happy to attend the Bike Pittsburgh BikeFest kickoff party, where it was all I could do to refrain from continually shouting "Hey everyone, I just rode here from DC!" Talking to people there, it became clear that the next step is a round trip version of this ride, or maybe something even more extreme... and also that it's a rookie mistake to pack as much heavy stuff as I did. (Falling into the talismanic category of "brought and therefore not needed:" rain jacket, umbrella, hoodie sweatshirt, three spare tubes, patch kit, mini pump, two sets each of brake pads, hex key sets, and imitation Leatherman tools.)

Finally--in a most excellent coda, I went into Whole Foods when I saw someone I knew, who told me to check out the latest issue of the Pittsburgh City Paper. It seems that on page 34 of the August 5, 2010, edition, I am featured prominently in their preview of BikeFest events! And so it was!

I have in the past described myself as occupying a "no man's land" of either being the least serious "serious biker" or the most serious "joke biker." With this long trip, and being taken as the representation of all cyclists in Pittsburgh, I think I have to move myself unequivocally into the category of "serious biker."

What a week!

Labels: , , , , , ,


Blogger Executive Hippie said...

So, I think you can take the Peace Corp disclaimer off of your blog now.

10:28 PM  
Anonymous Stephanie Leedom said...

Of course you managed a free breakfast! Congrats Ian! Looks like a fabulous adventure...better than 2 years in San Manuel?

11:42 AM  
Blogger Ian Everhart said...

@ Drew - Uh, you go first.

@ Stephanie - Let's just say I could get NPR for most of the time, never went more than 24 hours without Internet access, and had a lot less diarrhea on this trip.

11:51 AM  
Blogger Tricia said...

dude, nice blog about your GAPCANDO trip! I went the other direction the year previous. One of my top 3 experiences in LIFE so far! :)

2:38 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home