Thursday, May 25, 2017

Cumberland, MD to Washington, DC: The Towpath, Dragonboats, and the Mall

While the GAP is a rail-to-trail that's your typical unpaved bike path – level, graded, crushed gravel with good drainage -- the C&O towpath was more like a really long dirt driveway from Cumberland to the White House.

Heading out from Cumberland, it was even singletrack at times (for those of you non-cyclists out there, singletrack means just one of the two “tracks” found on a double-track road made for a car, so it can be a bit more weavy and uneven since it doesn't permit a car). But, it was a trail, and I came to like it quite a bit after the first day. I think the GAP had spoiled me and I needed to reset my expectations... also I was hot and still had a little fog brain.

Aside from the surface of the trail, the nature changed, too. Just after crossing the Continental Divide I crossed the Mason-Dixon line and everything became more humid. The amount of wildlife seemed to increase, aided, I am sure, by the old canal.

May as well have a real estate sign up for frogs and turtles.

Let me explain a bit about the towpath, since I didn't understand it at first. Before trains were a thing, people needed a way to get supplies – mostly coal, I think – between Cumberland and DC. It was more efficient to carry heavy goods like coal over water than over land. George Washington started the Potowmack Company and dug a few canals around less navigable parts of the Potomac; eventually, someone had the idea to complete a canal 185 miles long from Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD, complete with 74 locks to raise and lower boats as they went, 11 aqueducts and 240 culverts, a tunnel more than a mile long, and pumps and drains to maintain the water level. It was finished in 1850. Mules were tied to the boats to tow them along the canal, and the path used by the mules was the towpath. Eventually, trains beat out the canal in cost and efficiency.

The canal was then bought by B&O so they could maintain rights to the land, but they only maintained the parallel railway, not the canal or the towpath. In 1938, the US Government bought the land and turned it into a national park, and since then it's been improved upon to be the biking and hiking trail of today. C&O stands for Chesapeake and Ohio, as the canal was supposed to run from the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia to the Ohio River in Pittsburgh, though the section from Cumberland to Pittsburgh was never completed.

Okay. History lesson over (if that sort of thing interests you, the Wikipedia page is full of all sorts of cool information and the Library of Congress has some cool photos).

Library of Congress

So the bicycle path has, on one side, the old canal, sometimes full of stagnant water and sometimes dry, and on the other, the Potomac River. So there are turtles, beavers, snakes, insects, birds, lizards, and all sorts of critters that have made their homes there.

It was a beautiful intersection of nature and engineering, like an old building left to the devices of the outdoors, a building without a roof that runs 180 miles and is bike-able and has free camping along the way, and also the parts needed for travel are pretty well maintained.

Like this aqueduct.

I spent my first night on top of an aqueduct. At first, I was a little worried there wouldn't be any other cyclists along the way – maybe they were all spoiled by the GAP, as I had been. But on the morning of the second day my worries were washed away as I was passed by about ten fully-loaded cyclists going the other way. I also ran into Larry and Vinny again, the two cyclists from Queens with heavy accents that had passed by me in Meyersdale, PA the day before. They regaled me with anecdotes of their travels and time in the big apple. I wish I had recorded every time I ran into them; being around them was like being transported into a film noir where the culprit was a flat tire and the two of them switched seamlessly between detective and comic relief. I'll put what I got on the map as stories when I get a chance, but I don't think any amount of text can replace being in their presence. As I rode off, Larry shouted his characteristic, “Keep the rubber side down, brothah!”

When I stopped in Cumberland the day before I had inadvertently downloaded my e-mail while trying to find a Warmshowers host somewhere along the trail. I opened it that morning to a personal emergency of sorts that required an e-mail to resolve. It was hard to enjoy where I was with that hanging over my head, but I eventually came into a... city? Town? Village? Map marker? There were two bars and one house. One bar was closed and the other didn't have wi-fi. I was desperate, so I approached the house. The dogs alerted the owner, and I explained I had a personal emergency of sorts for which I needed internet. The fellow was very kind and got me set up on his porch. It felt a little sacrilegious, out in the middle of nature trying desperately to find internet, but it needed to be done. I kept asking if I could pay him $5 or do anything to thank him, and he kept turning that around and offering me water and fresh eggs. Eventually he came out of the barn with half a dozen eggs laid that morning and said if I didn't take them they would go to waste. So, I got internet and fresh eggs.

I stopped at the open bar to see what they had and ran into no less than eight other cyclists who had all stopped there for lunch. The timing seemed impeccable – they hadn't been there when I first passed through. I asked to sit with four of them: Lenley and his daughter Haley, who were celebrating Haley's graduation by biking from Pittsburgh to DC, and two brothers whose names I don't recall who were also cycling from Pittsburgh to DC. One of the brothers had a (great?) grandfather who drove a boat up the canal, so that was pretty cool. After lunch and some story telling, we all went down the trail at our own pace.

Also, the ceiling of the bar was plastered in $1 bills.

Later that day I ran into Larry and Vinny again, which was a treat. I also ran into Roger and Betsy, a couple that met on a bike ride more than 30 years ago and rode around the world from 1982-1987. They had stories to tell, and I'll put what I can on the map when I can.

That night as I came into camp, I needed a bath. I hadn't had one since Pittsburgh, four days and more than 200 miles ago. It was hot and humid. So, I dove into the Potomac. Cold and wonderful. I got out to set up a clothesline, and just as I was about to change into dry clothes...

it started to rain.

Refreshing became obnoxious. I waited it out in the portapotty.

The next day was short but beautiful. I had set up a Warmshowers host so I could actually shower, and I wanted to arrive early to blog. I'll let the pictures do the talking.

Blogging became napping. I believe the original cause of fog brain in Cumberland, four days previous, was a sinus infection and lack of sleep; below the Mason-Dixon, it seemed to be allergies. So sleep was needed. You should be aware, dear reader, that there will come times when I will choose my own health over writing a blog post. After all, if I am too ill to ride, there will not be much to blog!

My hosts for that night were Scott and Jen, who were nothing less than lovely. They had an adorable miniature wiener named Cricket, and assorted wiener paraphernalia on the walls throughout the house. I'm not sure if they acquired it for the sole purpose of hosting cyclists, but my accommodation that night was my very own Airstream:

Needless to say, I was very grateful for their generous hospitality. In addition to the company and food, I also got my shower in and was able to do laundry and fully dry my tent.

We're now on Saturday, one night away from my sister in DC!

I took a fairly easy day, stopping just 15 miles down the road from Scott and Jen at Harper's Ferry, a historic town that is basically half museum, half food court. The Appalachian Trail also runs through Harper's Ferry, so every now and then I'd see people with hiking packs (and a few dogs!) pass through town. They had come about 1000 miles from Georgia and had about 1200 more to go until Maine. On foot. I had biked about 1600 from Minneapolis, but I had the luxury of coasting and not carrying my things on my back. I'm not sure one is necessarily better or more impressive than the other. Both the same culture, I think. I also met Amy and her daughter Sadie, who were camping the trail as I was (everybody else I'd met so far was doing Bnbs along the way, which I was jealous of, it's just not in my budget) and had stopped for ice cream. Amy had quite the personality and we geeked out over our bikes and vagabonding in general. I was glad I'd run into them, and it wouldn't be the last time, either.

In any case, after wandering around Harper's Ferry for a few hours, I went another five miles to Brunswick and had dinner in an old church. I wish I had thought to take a picture (the below is from the internet), but I made friends almost instantly, and ended up sitting with two different parties while I was there. None were cyclists, all were just friendly, inquisitive folk who wanted to get to know me, and I them. One of my favorites was Heather, an artist who redesigned outdoor spaces. We spoke of the vision for her next project, pop-up circuses in neighborhood cul-de-sacs. She wants people to be transported from the neighborhood into something else, like the tents in Harry Potter at the quidditch tournament. One moment you're outdoors, but step through the flap and you're... somewhere else.

I then set out to hunt for a place to stay before the storm that was supposed to come in. The first free campsite? Full. It started to rain. The second? Full. The third, full. As I arrived at the forth, containing only two tents, it stopped raining. Funny how life works out like that.

I set up my tent and was eventually greeted by the two other cyclists, Jenny and... Pam? (nuts! I'm sorry if you're reading this, I didn't write it down...) They were taking three weeks to do the trail, so they got to see everything along the way. They had all sorts of questions about my setup, which was flattering, but I guess I am going around the world so... maybe that makes me an expert? I, in exchange, asked them about their Europe tour – what to eat, how the roads were, etcetera. We talked until it was so dark we couldn't see each other, and sadly had to call it a night.

The next day the trail gradually got more and more populated until finally, I arrived in Georgetown, a neighborhood of DC. Along the way, I ran into Amy and Sadie again (or, they passed me as I was fixing a flat), and Larry and Vinny, and made some new friends with a group of five cyclists using a sag wagon (car that carries your stuff so you don't have to). At Great Falls, about 15 miles out of Georgetown, the trail suddenly felt very touristy. Not that it's not for tourists, but I went from seeing cyclists with panniers every now and then to seeing hundreds of people just walking the trail. It was weird to think that I had biked through mostly secluded trail and small towns and was now just 15 miles from DC, with a population of more than half a million. The trail continued through Georgetown, becoming singletrack again as there was little room for it amidst all the buildings.

I could have continued on to the National Mall and my sister's, where I'd be staying, but I had biked all 184 miles of the towpath and I wanted to find mile marker 0. The map I had said it was behind a boat house, so I went to the boat house, and... there was a dragonboat festival and I wasn't allowed back. The staff gave me directions around, which I didn't think would work, but I kindly tried them anyways. I ended up on the wrong side of the canal, and went back and asked them again: “I really think it's back there, could I please just have a look?” I showed them the map of the trail and explained that I'd biked 184 miles and I just wanted to see where the trail started. Reluctantly, they let me walk by the boaters without my bike. Sure enough, it was back there.

When I returned saying I had found it, they were extremely apologetic. They were just doing their job, I knew, and to someone who hadn't biked the trail, it was really just a cement stick in the dirt. But to me it was a landmark, a sense of accomplishment... I made it to DC!

On the way to the mall I ran into somebody else waving their map at a local, trying to find mile marker 0, so I kindly gave them directions and told them what to say to the dragonboat staff.

Past the mall, which I had seen before but not biked to from Minneapolis before...

...towards the White House, and then I ran into Amy and Sadie again! It was nice to catch up with them one last time – they were now headed back up the trail to Pittsburgh, where they had started from. I commended them: I'd definitely like to do the trail again sometime, but I can't say I'm fond of the idea of the 30-mile, 4% grade up from Cumberland to the Divide. But yes, Amy, I really did enjoy talking to you, despite my sarcastic remarks otherwise.

From the White House, it was a short ride past the capitol to my sister's apartment. I'm spending the week her with her, her husband, and their dog, enjoying home cooking, helping around the house, and being accosted by their golden retriever for more pets and cuddles.

Good morning! You may commence petting.

Did I mention the food is good, too?

Idli, next to upma (there's a story about this on the map).

I plan to leave again next Monday, which should give me just enough time to bike to New York for my flight from JFK to London, and then... well, then I'll be in London. I'm nervous, as this will actually be my first time in Europe (I had layovers there on my way to India and Zambia for my service project, but was never able to leave the airport), but also excited, as I get to see Europe! I am sure that things will go wrong... but I'm also pretty sure I can figure them out.

I may or may not do another post between now and then. I have some ideas percolating, just not sure if anything is substantial enough. I'm also prioritizing sleep and time with my family, as who knows how long I'll be gone after this... I'm actually, really, biking around the world, aren't I?


  1. Love this post! Great stories and photos. Enjoy DC!
    Love you, Mom

  2. Oh yeah! I ran into that bird along the GAP as well. Anyone know what it is?

    1. Bird? I didn't mention a bird in this post...

      Hi JT. :)