In the Minds of Men"Where in DC can I drop it off?" I ask. The woman on the other line is really nice. Evelyn. A little older...and bit of that twangy Southern Virginian accent going on, too. She's working really hard to put a stranger in an Avis rental car. I'm getting a lot of "dears" and "hons" in this conversation, and I think I like it. I feel bad though, knowing she's about to confirm what I already read on their website. "Is your location open 24 hours? No? Okay, thanks."
I hang up. Sorry, Evelyn. You sounded like someone I'd probably like to get to know better if I were older. I think for a minute...I wonder where an Evelyn might like to go to dinner. Maybe a vegetarian? Nah...I settle on seafood. Maybe we wouldn't work out then. I sigh and head back downstairs.
It's Wednesday morning, and I'm at work. Early June. Ian and I decided a couple days prior that we were going to ride DC to Pittsburgh. We'd done it before with a few others in three days, having stayed in bed & breakfasts along the way. This time, we're going to attempt it self-supported and try to finish in less than two days.
The trip is very much emotional as it is taxing. It's exciting to plan for and even more-so to talk about when you're finished. As you're riding, you wish all your friends and family were right there with you. Climbing out of Cumberland and feeling the cold air on Savage Mountain. Exiting the Paw Paw tunnel and having your half-dilated eyes flooded with colorful nature and God rays. Seeing the lock houses and thinking about all the people they sheltered, so long ago. Experiences you wish you could live for someone else.
Although, some times you want to be by yourself. Traveling at night. Hearing nothing but a humming chain and your steady breathing for miles on end. You stop pedaling and there's silence. Your light out front; nothing behind. It fills your heart and drains your legs. Your lungs remind you what exhausted feels like. Take nothing for granted. The path is flat but won't let you coast. Keep pedaling if you want to get home.
The only certainty of this adventure is that we're going to drive to Washington, drop off the rental, then start the return trip. The idea is to leave tomorrow after work, so I've less than a day to find a vehicle and get my stuff together.
"A compact is probably going to be too small. Any vans or SUVs? Okay...Hertz, you said? I'll try them."
Struck out again. I learn there are about ten places to drop off rental vehicles in DC. Two of them are open 24 hours. Most others close at 8:00. The all-day joints are at the airports, far from where we need to be and dangerously not accessible on bicycle. I tell Ian we're probably going to need to cut out of work early to get down there on time. He agrees, and I'm suddenly one less problem away from having to pedal 330 miles this weekend.
That night, I pack my things. I have my frame bag to hold food, tools and my phone. My viscacha holds a Hennessy Hammock, sleeping bag liner and some wool clothing. I pull my Surly Cross-Check off the wall. Whether we're riding twenty-five miles to work or tackling something more momentous, I know it's ready. I spin the dynamo hub and my light ignites, drawing the shadows of other hanging adventure machines on the wall. My total pack time is less than fifteen minutes. Good sleep is more important now.
The Calm and UneasyIt's Thursday afternoon, and I drive the rented Ford over to Ian's. His bike's outside, and he's messing with the fenders. I laugh and ask him if his derailleur pulley is going to fall apart this time through. "No mechanicals." he says seriously. I can tell he's thinking hard. He knows that small problems can be detrimental on a self-supported trip. He bends the fender stays into elegant curves. "There." He seems content with his work.
"Anything of value in this vehicle has to make the trip back with us." he reminds me as he stands back up. My biggest concern is whether I'll need to haul back all the paperwork for the rental once we return it. We go through a quick checklist of items we're taking, before folding down the back seats and covering them with a disposable plastic drop cloth. We lay our bicycles on top and jump in.
"This radio sucks." Ian's complaining about the music selection, and we're not on even I-79, yet. He starts to fumble with the radio. "We should have just burned some CDs and thrown them away when we got there." I compliment his suggestion, as he continues to simultaneously change stations and switch lanes...and send text messages.
We hold a good conversation the whole way down to the beltway on I-495. We decide we're going to ride about forty miles tonight, set up camp, then tackle the rest of the 184 mile C&O Towpath on Friday morning and afternoon. Ambitious, but doable. The terrain the C&O presents is a little more challenging than the relatively tame Great Allegheny Passage, which makes up the second half of our route home. Portions of the C&O are not unlike a beat up jeep trail, rutted out and riddled with pot holes. It has a slight grade up the entire way to Cumberland, where it shakes hands with The Passage.
We hit heavy traffic on the beltway. Ian's still playing with the radio, having not settled on one station for more than ten minutes. The local news comes on, and I stop the scan. Advertisements. There's a pig roast some place in the city on Saturday night. I jokingly ask if he wants to go. He says he hopes to be far from DC come Saturday. As for me, I hope I'm on my couch eating pizza and sleeping at the same time. The newscaster comes back on, and I'm barely listening. I'm getting more entertainment from the middle-aged man in the car next to us who's weaving between lanes at five miles per hour. Right lane. Now left. Right again. All that effort, and he's back to where he started. Now we're stopped.
I look back at the dashboard and pay more attention to the speakers. The newscaster's telling the story of a man in the early nineties who attacked and assaulted men and women along the towpath. The Potomac River Rapist was his moniker, and he was never caught. Unfortunately. He announces that new evidence has been found that may help police catch him, but until then he remains at large and without a preference in gender. I stare straight ahead, and out of the corner of my eye I see Ian staring straight ahead, too. Silence.
... .... ....
A long ten seconds later..."Are you fucking kidding me?" he finally blurts out. "Twenty years and they can't catch some piece of shit that runs up and down a path?" I continue listening to other impressively-original choice words and sentences exit my brother's mouth. Well, if there was ever a motivation for getting through the C&O quickly, this was it. I sarcastically thank him for having the radio on in the first place. He reminds me that I picked the station. I slump down and look out the window, feeling like foreshadowing has just slapped me in the face. I should have done more people-stuck-in-traffic watching.
As the congestion finally thins out, we make our way toward Union Station. Prepping our rented ride for the quick ditch, we manage to find one of the few gas stations in the District of Columbia to fuel up. Ian buys the gas, and I buy the gallon of water to fill up our bottles. I also snag a few Snickers for my inevitable late-night caloric needs. Ian denies my offer of wrapped nougat, caramel and peanuts in favor of his family-size package of Dark Chocolate Fudge Stripe Cookies. Already strapped to his viscacha, of course.
We pull up to a curb near Union Station and get to work. The bicycles come out, and I'm in the SUV getting naked on the plastic drop cloth, à la an episode of Dexter. I pull up my bib shorts as onlookers pass by, looking on in confusion. Did they just pass on an opportunity to stop a hideous murder in the back of a Ford Escape? Not quite. But I hope I've given them a story to tell someone.
I leave Ian on the side of the street as he continues to ready his gear. The gas pedal feels the weight of my bike shoes, and I steer the rental in the direction of the parking garage. I'm eager to get it returned, but the station is further away than I anticipated. Once I make my way through the front garage, I drive down a few more blocks to a second garage where its destination awaits.
Checkout is painless. I stuff the carbon copies in the back of my bibs and pull up the GPS on my phone to try to figure out where I am. The banging of cleats on concrete echoes through the hollow parking garage, as I run to the exit. The blue blip on my phone updates my location and tells me I just ran a quarter mile in the wrong direction. I turn around and run to the other side of the garage then down a side alley. Damn it. Wrong way again. I cut around the next block over and start jogging down a straight-away. Three library parking lots, a bad neighborhood and two miles later, I'm back where I left Ian...and he's already gotten into his cookies.
Free of the vehicle, our only concern now is getting back home. We take off toward Georgetown, and the moon's at our backs. After a few miles of city streets and some welcomed bike lanes, we stop to take photos of the Capitol Building and its surrounding scenery. Constitution Avenue leads us past the Reflecting Pond and straight to the Lincoln Memorial. We park our bikes against a fence and join the hundreds of people milling up and down the steps of the impressive structure.
Now full of all sorts of patriotic feelings, we head into Georgetown and go to the most American restaurant we can find - Chipotle. They close in fifteen minutes, so we best stuff our faces and get moving. I order the biggest burrito they offer and have it filled with everything behind the counter. Extra guac, please.
With minutes to spare, we're back on our bicycles and descending closer to the Potomac River. The bright lights and nightlife of Georgetown fade behind us, as we near the ominous waterway. I ring my bell while our bicycles weave around the few brave walkers that are trying to get in some late-night exercise on the shadowy path.
It's 10:00. I start to think about the day before me. My morning at work feels like ages ago. The five hour drive was fairly painless, although I'm not too thrilled about having to run a couple miles downtown to reach the mechanical salvation that I'm trusting to get me home. We continue to pedal down a prologue trail, not yet putting distance into the behemoth that lies ahead of us. Our cadence is steady, and I try to slow my mind down and relax. No more worrying about vehicle return times, beltway traffic or problems at work. However, I soon realize that my time for stoicism will have to wait, as the first little milepost marker flashes in and out of view.
ZeroThe springs in my rear dérailleur click-clack, and the still-clean device swings back to tension the extra slack in my chain. I continue to up-shift. My chainring whirls and passes links to my cassette faster and faster. I start building speed, and Ian's light gets further behind me. I laugh and slow down. I can't bait him into chasing me, if even for a few seconds. Probably smart on his part, though. I yell back, "You didn't want to sprint forty miles tonight?" No response. I must still be too far away.
We start to take advantage of the Capital Crescent Trail. It runs parallel to the C&O for about four miles, before intersecting. We're a mile in, and the towpath is twenty feet downhill from us. Every few minutes, I look down at it. The light of the moon reflects off the canal and casts a warm glow on the rough trail. Its presence is known, and it's waiting for us.
Our lights come upon a set of old wooden steps that wind under a stone bridge. We quickly jump off and hike down the slope to get to the path. A short while later, we hit the first lock in the canal and grunt up the quick thirty foot steep in the trail.
The towpath is in good shape. This section is fast and dusty. My light glares heavily on all the debris Ian is stirring up, so we ride side-by-side for a while. Another lock house coming up in the distance - some light being cast out the window. Must be some campers inside with a lantern, seeking shelter from the night. We approach the historical structure and see warm shadows moving about.
There's a detour around the path by the Great Falls. It's a beautiful scene during the day. The Potomac crashes through rocks and drops over multiple falls. Its colors more white than greenish-blue, the Category 6 rapids would be a nightmare for any rafter attempting to navigate it. But at night, all we can do is listen to the sounds and imagine the chaos just below the ridge we're on. Before long, it's quiet again.
The day is starting to wear on me. Ian's five feet out front, dodging dry ruts and floating over cracked, dusty roots. I wonder how tired he is. Freshly spun spiderwebs and ferns dot the side of the trail, illuminated for a few seconds only to be thrown back into the obscurity of night as our two-man train navigates the towpath northward.
My trusty second-gen iPod nano sits in my pocket. Old, abused, and many times covered in creek water, I always wonder if it has enough life left to shuffle out another track. Operation Ivy fades, and I'm hoping for something that reflects the smooth terrain I see coming ahead.
Okay...Band of Horses. It's a peaceful song. The path mellows out a bit, and our cadence steadies. "What mile marker was that?" Ian asks. "Thirty." I take the opportunity to stretch out and look around. On my right, the overgrowth in the canal looks familiar. Murky water, beyond still, covered in a semi-transparent layer of healthy moss. Fallen branches neatly penetrate the green film and lie partially submerged in the abyss. To my left, darkness on the Potomac.
The path starts to get choppy again. We continue pedaling hard and stick close. Only a few more miles until sleep. We work through the torn-up section where Jim flipped over the bars last year. Every rut is a reminder to not get rail trail comfortable on this part of the route. I fall back and suck in a few inches off Ian's rear wheel. The path starts to narrow. We're hugging the right side and riding along a slight ridge. The canal's now only a few feet away, downhill.
The sound of breaking brush interrupts our quiet caravan. I look down at Ian's drive-train. "You're fine." I don't know what it is, but it's getting louder. It sounds like something running between us and the canal, so I look off to my right but see nothing. Ian turns back and asks if it's the Potomac River Rapist. I up-shift and accelerate past him, putting my brother between me and the possibility of my worst nightmare becoming a reality. My heart rate calms seconds later, when I see the outline of a deer flickering between the trees, running through the shallow embankment of the canal. I down-shift and resign my lead position.
The path begins to widen. For the first time in a couple dozen miles, there are no gradual bends in front of us. The linear trail outlasts our lumens, and we continue toward the black unknown. Fourteen months ago, we were heading down the same stretch, only much earlier in the day. The river was high from the freeze-thaw, and it had flooded over the path. We hiked our bicycles about a half mile, knee-deep in dark water, fish and other critters swimming alongside our Sidi's. Tonight, though, it let us pass.
The Day's FuneralOn the southern end of the towpath, there are hike and bike campsites every four to five miles. Reservations aren't required, and you can find water pumps at most of them. We stop at one around mile forty. "What do you think?" Ian asks. His eyes look wide. He's getting tired, too. I remind him that a good breakfast stop is at forty-eight, so this would be a good place to set up camp. We'll have an easy eight miles in the morning, eat a good meal, then spend the day working our way through the rest of the Chesapeake & Ohio.
The standlight on my Supernova is still burning hot. I turn my wheel into the large camping area, and my light shines on a lone tent in the back corner. My bottles are gritty from the path, and they're dry inside. I approach the tall oxidized pump along the side of the trail. I wish I didn't have to use it now, but if I don't drink another bottle tonight, I'll be useless tomorrow. I pull down on the old mechanism, and the squelching iron tears through the night. Ian cringes. The tent's occupant stirs. A few more pumps and the high water table is reached.
I walk my bike to the far end of the site. My dynamo stopped spinning minutes ago, and the light begins to fade. I reach into my frame bag and strap my camp-light around my head. We spot some trees along the side of the towpath that seem suitable for our hammocks. The weather is perfect for sleeping outside. No clouds and a slight breeze is what we're dealt. I wish I had my bag and pad to sleep on the ground.
Ian's trees are spread a little further apart than mine. My only options are to set up my hammock at more of an angle or scout some trees closer to the river, about 300 feet away. I opt to stay close and tie it up. The last knot in place, I stand back and take a look. Not bad.
The stars shining through the trees above remind me why I'm riding my bicycle in the middle of nowhere, halfway through the night. I take a breath of fresh air, then climb into the underside of my hanging shelter. The angle seems a little more aggressive now that I'm inside. I squirm about and elevate my legs. Much better. I check my phone. It's just after 2:00. I plug it and my GPS into my cache battery then hang it all up over my feet.
I attempt to unwind my mind, just as I tried at the beginning of the route. Thoughts of the day pass through my head, and twenty-feet away, the sounds of bullfrogs in the canal become more apparent. A few tosses and turns later, their calls go quiet.
From Bleary to BreakfastMorning comes fast. I wipe the thin layer of cold dew off my phone. The screen looks bleary through my tired eyes. It's 6:00. I hear some shuffling from far off. It must be our camp-mate I woke up several hours earlier. There's no way Ian's up yet. I can try to get a little more rest, but I know it's not going to happen. Eyes closed...eyes open. A little less bleary this time...6:15.
My feet hit the cool ground as I crawl out of my cocoon-like sleeping space. I walk over to a lone picnic table in the middle of the campsite and see a tall older man hanging clothes out to dry. He seems to be on a more lax schedule than us. I apologize for the noise last night. He lets out a gruff laugh, as if he hasn't spoken in days. He clears his throat then tells me good morning.
I stretch myself out on the picnic table. It's comfortable, and I wish I had slept on it instead. Lying on my side, I see the Potomac over the slight hillside. It's still running high, but calm. There's a hazy cloud over top, but I can still see the dense wilderness on the other side. The wood of the table is old and rough. The side of my face presses into the cracks, but I'm too complacent to move. The water is peaceful; moving steady and uninterrupted. My face presses in deeper. The bullfrogs in the canal now silent. My eyes look north and south, then across and down. Moments later, I'm out.
The sound of ripping velcro tears my face out of the old planks. Ian drops out of his hammock and onto the ground. I roll off the table and check my phone. It's a little before 7:00. I look over and wonder if five hours was enough rest for him. I'm optimistic, but only time will tell.
We have our things packed and clothes changed within twenty minutes. I look back at our fellow adventurer and wave goodbye. He tips his hat and wishes us luck.
The early morning miles tick past. 44...45...46...
"What mile marker was breakfast supposed to be at?" Ian asks. I tell him I thought it was at forty-eight. He doesn't answer...50...51...I break the silence and tell him it must be at fifty-five in Brunswick, not Point of Rocks where I originally thought. I can tell he is miffed, and I'm worried I may have set the tone for the day.
As the conversation drys up, the trail gets muddier. My 35's are still rolling well, but this section's getting sketchy. I veer left around a long puddle. A quick right around another. They look deep, and I have no interest in finding out. I choose a rutted line between two others, and I come out moving slower than before. It's too thick for my fenders.
I'm just over the half century mark, and my bike's upside down. Ian and his empty stomach ride off in the distance. I don't blame him. My front wheel comes off, and I run a stick through the fender pulling all the accumulated gunk out. It plops to the ground, as I tighten the quick release back up.
I right my bicycle and remind myself of the challenge ahead. We have a long distance to go, and our bikes aren't packed for speed. It's realistic to arrive in Cumberland before nightfall, but there isn't any room for poor decisions. I take a few quick strides and hop onto my saddle. "Ugh." Last night's effort reverberates through my lower half. I stand up to work out my legs, optimistic for the miles ahead - especially knowing breakfast is just a few mileposts away.
Sure enough, at fifty-five we make it to town. We roll over familiar railroad tracks and climb a short road before parking our bicycles in front of Mommer's Diner. I walk into the small five-table restaurant and sit down in the closest booth. Photos of men working the railroad from the 1920's and 30's adorn the walls. The faded green paint barely noticeable behind all the dusty and crooked black and whites.
I set my chargers on the floor and start juicing up my iPod and GPS. A young woman comes out to give us menus and go over their breakfast specials. We're the only diners there, and she looks happy to see us. I decide it's not the place to ask for an egg-white omelet, so I get a little bit of everything. French toast, bacon and all the scrambled eggs they could offer.
She walks to the back room and calls the order over to a very thin older lady who we quickly learn is Mommer, herself. After hearing the order, she gets up out of her rickety rocking chair and goes straight to the stove. Half a carton of brown eggs comes out of the refrigerator, and an old piece of cast iron comes into play. Its seasoned-black bottom is soon filled golden yellow.
Ian seems a little more relaxed now. I'm glad we were able to find a good breakfast stop, albeit a little further away from camp than I thought. If this ends up being the only downside to our day, we'll be very fortunate. For now, I can at least enjoy the nice meal that's being laid out in front of me. I smile at Mommer. She winks back and says thanks.
Colors of a New DayMy bell rattles as we bounce over the railroad tracks to make our exit. The small town behind us holds so much history, and soon...it will be history to us. We turn onto the towpath, and the real work begins. I feel prepared for the day's challenge. My bicycle is shifting smooth, and my legs are starting to loosen after being squeezed-up in a booth that could only comfortably fit Mommer's small frame. I have full bottles and solid food, including a couple strapped-down green bananas. They'll ripen in the warm sun and fresh air within an hour.
The trail is in good shape here, and our speed picks up. The sky is cloudless and vivid blue. I take my sunglasses off and hang them on the back of my viscacha. They dangle and bounce about with each bump. I reach into my pocket and pull out my iPod to get a long shuffle started. I push play, and Ian presses down on his shifter. My chain finds a harder home on the spinning cassette, and my hands find the bottom of my drop bars.
Music fills my body and provokes my thoughts in the day's early hours. Indie rock and melodic instrumentals bring about various memories of my friends back home. My mind opens to let them out....A large group gathered at night - some sitting around a bed of glowing red coals, the others eating potluck on a deck. One friend singing along with The Jezabels, only to interrupt himself to express his love for the lead singer's buck teeth. Another friend singeing his beard, blowing into the coals to reignite all the spirits in attendance.
The miles tick by, and my iPod continues to shuffle...
Fast and raw punk rock sets fire to recollections of my teenage-self touring the country with band-mates, including my now riding companion. I look at him pedaling his bicycle in front of me and think about how he's stuck by my side through these varying chapters of my life. I'm thankful.
My playlist ends, and we're approaching the century mark. Ian calls up, "Do you know if the trail into Williamsport is still closed?" I'm reminded of the several mile detour around this section of trail. The bypass climbs out of the valley, just south of Willamsport. Sure enough, we see bright orange signs ahead.
We make a turn onto an old back road that we're all-too familiar with. The only route to Williamsport is in front of us, so we gear down and start working our way up the long and steep winding ascent. Every ounce of our gear is felt with each pedal stroke. My hamstrings pull the weight of the hammock, and my Snickers-fueled quadriceps push everything else. We make jokes and watch dogs bark at us to pass the time as we spin higher and higher. A couple kids are playing kickball in their back yard as we turn around the last bend. A moment later, the ball's over the neighbor's fence.
The peak is close, and I stand up to finish the last stretch. We crest the hill, and our shadows fall back to the valley as the bright yellow sun greets us on the other side. One-hundred miles into our journey, and we have finally emerged from under the canopy. Two incredibly colorful fields flank the uninhabited road out front. They're freckled with tall greens and carpeted with bold, freshly mowed grass. We take it all in as we tuck in for a quick descent. My eyes are locked onto the jet-black road straight ahead, and the saturated hues in my peripheries become a blur.
We churn through the detour. The hard effort of our climb washed away with the sights and smells of the faultless land around us. I pull the wool cap off my head and tuck it in behind me. The wind blows through the grassy fields and between a couple farm silos before reaching my face. We duck into the final descent and curve around the last bend in the road. I'm begging for more.
Making our way into the small town, we stop at the first gas station to grab some supplies. I take my bottles into the one-man bathroom and set them on the dated and dirty counter top. The morning's effort swirls into the steamy drain below, as I blindly scramble my hands in search of a cooler temperature. My face still dripping, I fill my bottles and make my exit.
I buy a Coke and some dark chocolate then check the time on my receipt. It's almost 11:30. The two bars I downed about fifteen minutes prior are still fresh in my stomach. They'll digest slow, so it's energy that should come in about three hours when I'm sure I'll really need it. I wash some salty cacao down with my fizzy beverage then strap the half-full bottle to my viscacha.
We're only twenty-five miles from Hancock, which is the last major town and easily-accessible place to get food before Cumberland. Our plan is to get there with a fast pace, eat some food that doesn't come in a package and stock up for the last sixty miles.
In less than an hour and a few lock houses later, we see the turn for the Western Maryland Trail. It's a ten mile paved trail that runs parallel to the towpath. Its only advantage is reducing the monotony of the C&O, as the terrain in this area is about as smooth as it gets.
We make the sharp turn and cross a grated iron bridge, passing over the canal. We come out on a dirt road and take note of some 1940's Fords. A bearded old man mowing grass around one of the dilapidated vehicles tips his hat to us. We wave back and make the quick turn onto the paved trail. Knowing real food is close, a fresh sense of excitement comes our way. We tuck in and pick up our cadence. Every mile we switch places. As foot traffic on the trail begins to pick-up, we know we're closing in. Soon enough, we're in Hancock.
The town of Hancock is as I remember it. Small. Quaint. There are many bed and breakfasts to choose from, as we did the first time we made the trip south to north. It's 130 miles from DC to Hancock, so when planning a three day trip, it's a good place to stop after a solid first day of riding.
I still feel pretty fresh from our last stop in Williamsport. I'm nervous about being off the bike for too long and getting comfortable. The last thing I want is my body thinking its work for the day is done. We stop at a Sheetz and park our bicycles outside. I order a chicken sandwich, two slices of pizza, a Snickers and another Coke. I eat a banana while waiting to pay, then stand by the donuts and wait for my number to be called. A minute later, I'm back in line with a chocolate cruller.
My number called, I hit the cool concrete and lean against the building with my legs stretched across the sidewalk. Ian walks out the door and sits down beside me. He leans his head back against an out of order Blockbuster machine, and I look across the road at the towpath; it waiting for us to come back.
DesolationWe're 124 in. Sixty to go. We're stocked up and ready to hit the last big section; both carrying an extra Gatorade and Coke. Unless we go several miles off route, there is nearly nothing in the way of fresh water along the rest of the towpath.
We travel down Main Street, then hit the connector to the trail. "This last sixty is going to be tough." I say. My brother responds by smiling and slapping the extra bottles of fluid on the back of his bike. "Riders back. Coming around on your left." I ring my bell and call out to a small group in front of us. The bicycle traffic is a little heavy in the early afternoon, and we're still not too far out of town.
There's a really cool graveyard on the right. All the headstones are neatly placed, and they don't look very beat up, despite being over 100 years-old. "Riders back." Another group. There is a mountain far ahead that we'll pass alongside on a steep ridge. Once off the ridge, the towpath drops deeper into the forest and is usually very insect-ridden this time of year. I expect the excess traffic to be thinned out by then. "Riders back!"
We enjoy the incredible views looking down the side of the mountain. Old buildings and water wheels capture my eyes. More landmarks to see. More signs to read. More history to appreciate. I wish I had more time.
Bright colors darken as we enter the thick forest, and it isn't long before we're alone again. Every few miles, we see a single soul braving the desolation.
When we rode DC to Pittsburgh the previous year, we had ridden to Hancock on the first day. The constant pedaling, combined with not standing, inflamed my right hamstring as bad as I could ever imagine. Before starting on the second day, I tried stretching my IT band and every other muscle in my leg. It didn't work. I was far into this very forest and told Ian to ride ahead without me. I couldn't keep up any longer, and it was everyone for themselves. Our three riding companions were a few miles back, and I waited for them to catch up and blow by me.
I got off my bicycle and tried walking a little. The pain was excruciating. The long swamp next to me was filled with mosquitoes and black flies, and it wasn't long before they caught the scent of my carbon dioxide. I really felt like I could have just laid down and died at that point. Such a miserable feeling...the result of a rookie mistake - getting too comfortable and ignoring my contact points on a long-distance rail to trail. After discovering the cause of my problem, I lowered the saddle and the inflammation went down as my speed built back up. A dangerously close call with failure. One of my worst moments on a bicycle.
The thoughts of my past slip out of mind as I pass by the swamp and leave it behind for a second time, in this moment feeling much better than I had a year ago.
Miles later, we emerge from the tree cover. We're back out in the open, and the heat is becoming more noticeable. It's hard to take the rising temperature, so my hat goes to its second home behind me, under the bananas.
There is a group of three riders ahead of us. They're barely moving, and their bicycles are packed full. We roll up beside them to say hi. They decide to stop and take photos of a dam in the river, so we follow suit to continue our conversation. We can tell they're young. It turns out they're all fifteen. Their plan is to ride as far as they can from Hancock, set up camp, then ride back home in the morning. Sounds fun.
Their gear is large and heavy. Much more suited for car camping than bikepacking, but I commend them. There are a lot of dumb things a fifteen year-old from Hancock can do with their time. To round up a bunch of old gear and pack it on their bikes is pretty damn rad. They ask us a bunch of questions about our bicycles and other bikepacking trips we've done. We tell them we were just in Maine a couple months ago and spent most of the time camping there. If they don't mind wind and cold mornings, they'd love it.
They ask where we're coming from. We tell them we left DC last night at 10:00, and we're hoping to be in Cumberland for dinner tonight. One of them asks, "Do you guys live in Cumberland?" I tell him we live just north of Pittsburgh. He sort of stands there for a while not saying anything, so we tell him we're riding home tomorrow. "Are you guys fucking crazy? That shit is crazy!" We laugh with them, and Ian jokes if their sleeping pads weren't the size of his bed mattress at home, they'd be able to do the same thing.
As we climb back over our top tubes, they surprisingly ask us for advice. I quickly remind them, "Didn't you just say we were fucking crazy? You really want advice from us?" They start laughing. So before bidding them farewell, we suggest taking some time off after high school or college to tour the country or other parts of the world. We suggest riding their bikes or doing whatever they can to get around. Legally, of course. Travel cheap and make a lot of friends. They'll have a greater appreciation for life and the people around them. We start to pull away from them, and they yell out, "Is that what you guys did? Did you take time off?" I laugh and shout back "No! I went straight to college. Not only am I fucking crazy, I'm fucking normal." At least I used to be, I think to myself.
"Mile marker 150. That's a good milestone. We're about five miles out from the tunnel." I let out a long exhale. I'm starting to feel some fatigue. I'm down to a bottle of water and some Gatorade. The sun is really beating down on us, but I'm confident we'll have enough fluid to finish comfortably. My Coke is flat, and I drink the last half of it. It helps, but counting milepost after milepost is really starting to get to me. Getting through the tunnel should give me the boost I need.
The Paw Paw tunnel is over half a mile long and rests near the town of Paw Paw, West Virginia. It was finished just before 1850, after suffering many setbacks and difficulties during its construction. When you're traveling south to north, you enter it through the eastern side.
We start our approach to the massive landmark and begin the short, more-elevated climb up the side of the mountain. The trail isn't smooth here, but it is still easily navigable. We see onlookers standing on the wooden bridge that runs along the side of the mountain. They wave and smile and question our destination, then continue to nervously take photos of the amazing view down into the canal.
The sun falls out of view as we close in on the entrance. The temperature drops fifteen degrees and my spinning dynamo furnishes the tunnel with light, revealing the course ahead. Porous rock seeps water to our left, and an old wooden rail on the right protects us from a twenty-foot fall into the canal below. We have about three and a half feet to work with, and the trail is every bit potted and imperfect. Cold water hits my face, dripping from the ceiling above. I call out the rough spots to my now semi-blind brother, he saving his battery power for something more treacherous. My drop bars shed some tape, but natural light has come closer.
We say goodbye to the darkness and come in full view of the sun. The giant orange mass shines through the leaves and wards off our cold tunnel chill. For the moment, I feel reinvigorated. The trail ahead is wide and groomed. Our journey through 155 miles; what seems to be the underworld of the C&O - now finished.
Paradiso"The last sixty really is a tough section, huh?" Ian jokes. I know he's trying to help. It's almost 4:00, and we're stopped ten miles from Cumberland. My body feels worn. It quit sweating hours ago. Just open pores gasping out through the chalky mess of sodium and dirt. I'm eager to finish, but I need some time.
I lay my trusty machine to the ground. Its mechanical components cruddy and coal-colored like its owner. The steel frame wears the colors of its journey...a variety of browns, baked in the sun and dotted with the history of perspiration that drove it. As it lies in the grass, beaten-down and dirty, I know it'll take me to Cumberland tonight, and it's going to take me home tomorrow. And when I hang it back on my wall, I'll know that it's still soulless inside, but a little part of me will say otherwise. And friends will see the dust it carries, and I'll wish they could've shared the experience with me, no matter how tired and empty I feel at the moment.
I walk over to the pump and douse myself in water. My muscles start to tighten up. The cold water reducing 175 miles of inflammation. My hands still soaked, I grab a few cookies from the near-empty pack and sit down on a stone slab. I laugh, and my riding companion echoes.
A few minutes pass. The water on my face has dried, and there's silence on the towpath. When I close my eyes, there's nothing to remind me that I'm still alive but the light air moving across my skin. The moment is savored. It's my peaceful, penultimate reward.
I turn and look northward down the trail. The path is straight, and stone markers lead it into the forest ahead. Goldenrod and wild flowers hug the canal to the right. The familiar sight of the Potomac on my left long-since replaced with grassy knolls and swaying trees. Nature's soft shadows drawn to the scene...an artist's last details. It's a beautiful illustration of the unexplainable. An unframed photo to be wiped clean when the sun concedes time to the moon. I wonder who will be sitting here tomorrow when it's redrawn.
We continue on, and the last ten miles fade behind us, a short epilogue to the chapters we wrote in the nineteen hours since starting at "0". As we approach the city limits, my iPod whirls and ticks...the day's final track being pushed out of its old body and into my ears...
... ... ...nothing.
I reach into my pocket and glance down. I smile then put it away. The battery's dead. I look up; our destination now in view and in this moment feeling very much alive.