Sur La Plaque!

Bicycles, beer and other self-indulgent ruminations.

Category: C&O

Prologue VII: Fin, Part I

Miles: 57
Miles so far: 361

The shakedown’s finished. We made it. Mission accomplished. Et cetera. Today started out like every other — wake up, discover everything you own is camp damp (not unlike “business drunk”), put on your best impression of Shaquille O’Neal emerging from a Fiat 500 as you climb out of your tent, trip over guyline,  make instant coffee, curse said instant coffee, drink it anyway, and realize somewhere in the process that life is grand and you’re on an adventure (typically while recalibrating expectations re: coffee’s insipidity).

Today was a lazy day. We weren’t on the road until a little after 9:30 a.m., and stopped for breakfast in Point of Rocks at a deli where the bold exterior color scheme was more interesting than the bagel sandwich. Think used-car lot-cum-moon bounce. Acres of trains passed as we ate, lording their victory over the 90-years-defunct canal.

Down the road we crossed the Monocacy River on the, wait-for-it, Monocacy Aqueduct! Finished in 1833, this 438-foot crossing was built with stone quarried out of nearby Sugarloaf Mountain. It’s a really pretty structure, all the more so when you consider it’s built in the middle of nowhere for utilitarian purposes. During the Civil War, the Union used the canal for troop and supply transport, which made it a common target for Confederate harassment. Intrepid C&O employee Thomas Walter persuaded attacking troops to drain the canal rather than destroy the more difficult to repair (and thus expensive) aqueduct. For this, he was briefly fired for collaborating with the enemy before his neighbors successfully petitioned for reinstatement.

Rather than follow the towpath to its Georgetown conclusion, we crossed the Potomac at White’s Ferry on the Gen. Jubal A. Early, the only still-operational ferry serving the public. Two dollars gets you across the river into Leesburg and the land of Lexus, where roads are paved with glorious asphalt and you rejoin the horseless carriage and traffic signals. Lunch was a nice NY-style pie at La Villa Roma, with pre-Bloomberg monster fountain sodas. Sometimes HFCS is just what the doctor ordered — time to show your pancreas who’s boss. We used the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad trail to transit Leesburg to Vienna, and then took secondary roads home to Suburbia. The W&OD was a shock to my system coming from the canal. It’s very road-like, paved, and with a center stripe down the middle to remind you to keep to yourself. It’s not quantifiable, but the closer to Washington we got, the less gregarious passersby seemed. In Meyersdale, Hancock or Sharpsburg, folks would say hi, or wave, or give you some kind of acknowledgement, whether on bicycle, foot, perched on a tractor or in a vehicle. I admit this is unfair, but the W&OD contained a much greater volume of folks out to simply fill their prescription for exercise — stoic and joyless in their pursuit of an elevated heart rate.

I’m glad to be home for a couple of days to relax and regroup,but I’m definitely not ready to call it quits. I guess that answers segment (a) of my Prologue I query. I have some ideas about (b) and (c), too.


Prologue VI: Local Minima and Maxima

Mileage: 58
Miles so far: 303

Today marked two records: My lowest average speed, 10.2 mph (lots of walking through washed-out and muddy towpath unfit for two-wheel consumption), and highest maximum speed, 32.5 mph (working my way back to the C&O from Antietam Battlefield), which is quite an accomplishment considering my bike’s about as aerodynamic as a chrome toaster. I try to ignore the computer on rides — just using it for total mileage and mileage between map turns (unnecessary when your only directive is southeast for 335 miles) — but I am tracking a few metrics and am curious to see how average speed changes as a function of my fitness and the terrain’s topography. Despite what the computer tells me, I felt faster. A day off, getting in bicycling shape, and dumping a little weight conspire with winning results.

Lots of historical action today. Just down the towpath from Four Locks is Williamsport, Maryland, which very nearly became the capital city when George Washington visited it before selecting D.C., about 100 miles to the east. A Williamsport ranger confirmed the towpath was open downstream, though till recently  it’d been closed with all of the recent rain. Rain and water played an integral role in the C&O’s development and use: damming the Potomac to ensure adequate water for transport, as well as engineering structures to protect from flooding. In fact, during the Civil War, parts of Robert E. Lee’s Northern Virginia Army found themselves isolated by a swollen, impassable Potomac. Only with some clever pontoon-bridge building did they escape to fight another day.

Past Williamsport, you enter Big Slackwater, an area of the Potomac ballooned by Dam No.4. Here, because of escarpments along the river’s edge, dynamite was needed blast the rock face open. Rather than blast enough room for the towpath and canal, architects decided to simply route the boats out of the canal, and into the Potomac here for four miles (MM 88-84), and just cleave a narrow strip for the mules to walk. So here, as in a couple of other places along the 184.5 miles, the canal is the river; the river is the canal. After the C&O closed in 1924, flooding and lack of maintenance destroyed the path, requiring visitors to detour along narrow country roads. In 2012, the park completed a two-year, $19-million project to reopen the original thoroughfare. So now you can ride along the river, which is much more pleasant, not to mention historically correct. The detour terminated (and still does, when the Potomac’s raging) at McMahon’s Mill, an attractive clapboard construction that generated flour via water power.

At Sharpsburg, we left the towpath behind for a while and pedaled up into town for a burger and beer at Captain Bender’s Tavern (Natty Boh!) and Nutter’s ice cream (official sponsor, 2014 Summer of David) before taking a look at Antietam Battlefield. Here, in September 1862, more than 22,000 Americans were killed, wounded or went missing. It’s the single bloodiest day in U.S. history. The park is colossal and somber — there are examples of cannon about — with rolling hills and acres of green grass, surrounded by farmland. The hills allowed for both sides to illustrate how gruesomely effective cannon could be in the field. Scattered throughout the battlefield are monuments to the casualties. Curiously, by state. During the 1860s, military dead and wounded were very much attributed to their home state, and not simply, the U.S. I grant that the Civil War was a special case, but back then people would be more likely to say, “I’m a Virginian,” or “I’m a New Yorker,” than “I’m an American.”

Past Antietam, and my aforementioned land speed record, it was back to pea gravel and mud. We went past Harper’s Ferry, but didn’t explore. I wasn’t keen on climbing a whole bunch of stairs with an 80-lb bike, and the town, while neat, is fairly touristy. So instead of a Harper’s Ferry anecdote, hear this: the Appalachian Trail crosses the Potomac from West Virginia into Maryland at Harper’s, and then follows the towpath for about three miles, before going its own way again, ala Stevie Nicks.

Home for the evening is Brunswick Family Campground. It’s commercial, but $5 a head buys hikers/bikers a hot shower, electricity, wifi and a place to set up a tent. Quite, too, though we stayed on a Sunday night. Dinner was fabulous falafel from Potomac Grill, where the food was excellent, and the service genuine. Tomorrow, home and the suburbs.


Prologue V: A Day of Rest and Butterfat


The digs and view. 1920s style, so electricity, but no running water.

Mileage: 4
Miles so far: 243

I rode my bike all of four miles today. It was fabulous. And I had a double scoop of raspberry ice cream. That was doubly fabulous. Tomorrow my Dad and I will strike out from Big Pool toward home, probably calling it quits in New Brunswick, and stopping by Antietam Battlefield to pay our respects. My Mom will drive home and do in two hours what will take us two days. I’m really looking forward to spending a couple of days on the road with him. We haven’t toured together since I was in high school.

As much as I enjoy being in the saddle, it was good to take a day off to relax and visit with my parents. There was lots of traffic on the towpath today, being a Saturday, including a Coast Guard group participating in a relay race from Cumberland to Washington. Our guy was running the roughly 10 miles from Big Pool to Williamsport, and I imagine they’ll be reaching D.C. about the time I post this, if not a little later.

Prologue IV: A Reservoir of Malaria

Mileage: 62
Miles so far: 239

I ate an apple this morning while pedaling down the C&O at 11 or 12 mph. Not really something to call the folks at Guinness about, but it’s encouraging to learn how the bike handles loaded after a few days aboard. I can feel myself getting into a routine — I know the best way to set up and break down camp, what gear lives in which pannier and what goes in the tent at night vs. what stays on the bike.

Quiet and cool in Oldtown, Maryland, this morning –had my rain jacket on in the dry to keep the chill off and saw few souls on the trail.

Today’s big engineering project is the Paw Paw tunnel, at 3,118′ long. Two 3,000+’ tunnels in two days? I lead a charmed life. The tunnel (originally budgeted at $33,500, actual cost: $600,000!) took 14 years to build (1836-1850) using picks, shovels, immigrant labor and black powder and completed the connection from Georgetown to Cumberland. Portions of the canal had been in use 20 years before Paw Paw opened, but the tunnel was a key element in the canal’s battle against rail. Because path designers chose to cut through Sorrel Ridge, much excavation took place in shale seams, leading to frequent collapses. Injury and death were “commonplace,” according to an informational sign. The same sign states that the tunnel used approximately 6 million bricks in its lining. This delay in opening and massive cost overruns helped the locomotive win the path West.

While Big Savage and Paw Paw are about the same length, they’ve totally different feels. Big Savage is paved, tall, almost airy. You can easily ride through two abreast. Paw Paw is dank, drippy and dark. It’s next to the canal and requires you to walk your bike, single file on a path four feet wide, which really does a number on your average speed for the day.

The towpath was extra sloppy on both sides of the tunnel, probably because of underlying rocky geography combined with recent rain. We traded precipitation for mosquitos. Even dosed with 98.25% DEET, I kept my trailside stops to a minimum, shortening my exposure to the ravenous succubi. The abandoned and feral canal is a great incubator with all its standing water.

At Lock 55 I left the towpath for the Western Maryland Rail Trail, a 20ish-mile-long ribbon that runs along old railroad bed and roughly parallels the C&O. It’s blessedly paved and after 3.5 days on gravel, felt nearly orgasmic. I was able to cruise(slightly uphill!) in the mid to upper teens with the same effort that returned 11 or 12 mph on gravel. A change of scenery was also appreciated: pretty western Maryland farmland on display and daytripping locals enjoying the path. Rolling into the Hamlet of Hancock for lunch, I emerged to blue sky and big sun — it turned into a fabulous afternoon.

Spirits buoyed, I hopped back on the towpath at Little Pool and met my Dad at Ft. Fredrick, a pre-Revolutionary installation. We turned the pedals together to tonight’s stop: Lockhouse 49 in Four Locks, an honest-to-God house with four walls, a roof and mattresses. Finished in March 1839, there’s romance in a nearly 200-year-old house full of history. Sitting on the porch, surveying the locks, staring at the Potomac River, you don’t have to imagine too hard to see this place in its heyday.

Prologue III: There Will Be Mud

Mileage: 63.5
Miles so far: 176

It was a night of light rain and heavy rail — the denizens of Rockwood are saints for putting up with all the traffic. But it was a day full of adventure: the GAP saves its most interesting marvels for the final 25 miles.

Leaving Rockwood behind, I started a slow climb toward Deal, and though I wrote about that last night tongue-in-cheek — after all, what’s 564′ over 15 miles — I was dragging a little this morning right out of the gate. Did pass though two impressive viaducts that allowed trains to cross over valleys and/or water, the Salisbury at 1,908′ long, and the Keystone at 909′.

I stopped in Meyersdale Station (maple syrup capital of the commonwealth!) for lunch and a little shopping. While I failed to locate any light oil or chain lube — the rain and grit have been doing a number on mechanicals — I did find my first honey buns of the trip. God bless corn subsidies, because these little morsels of HFCS work out to 1260 calories/dollar, and I bet there are better deals waiting for me. I also bought some “real” food.

Suitably hopped up on sugar, it was about 10 miles to Deal in light rain. There, you pass though the Eastern Continental Divide, which divvies water into either the Chesapeake Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.

The climb to Deal was well worth it: in addition to having gravity on my side to Cumberland, the views were spectacular and I picked up a great companion in Subu, a fellow Pittsburgher riding a blaze orange Salsa scandium softtail MTB to Washington and staying in hotels or B&Bs along the way. We rode together as far as Cumberland and conversation made the miles fly by. (OK, maybe the 1,785′ descent helped. A little.)

We left the rain behind for 3,294′ traversing the Big Savage tunnel. The hits just kept coming, like the tail end of an Independence Day firework display. With Big Savage still in our rearview (purely a figure of speech, I don’t have one of those little clip-on mirrors. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.), we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into Maryland. Much more romantic than the placard you blast by on I-70, the diagonal demarcation’s made of stone and a nearby plaque tells the story of wealthy British colonialists Penn and Calvert, who disagreed about land ownership, with each claiming some of what the other felt was his territory. So, they hired Mason and Dixon to hand down a verdict — thus the Mason-Dixon Line. Somewhat amusingly, the Revolutionary War started not soon after and both the Penns and Calverts lost their land to the freshly minted US of A.

Just past Frostburg, the GAP’s concurrent with the Western Scenic Railroad to Cumberland. No tourist trains today, but Helmsetter’s Horseshoe Curve caught our eye. It hosts a bend so tight passengers on both ends could see each other as the train negotiated the turn.

In Cumberland I said goodbye to Subu, who was calling it a day. I bought chain lube at a bike shop and set off down the towpath, wanting to get at least a few miles in, considering the weather. While the GAP is crushed limestone and well drained, the C&O is pea gravel, tree roots and mud (dirt if you’re lucky and it’s dry). The GAP’s also newer and in generally better condition. Almost immediately there was copious evidence of heavy rain: ruts, mud wallows and deep puddles. While I would have enjoyed Subu’s wide tires and suspension, my fenders did a decent job of keeping me clean and dry.

Not too far down the towpath a construction crew was hard at work replacing an aging culvert that the last rain had pushed over the edge. I  pulled off to the side as a crane lumbered past.

My overnight halt is Pigmans Ferry, a hiker-biker site at mile marker 169. It’s all mine tonight. Well, me, the bullfrogs and mosquitos. If the trail’s not too mucky and slow tomorrow I’m aiming for Williamsport, where my parents coincidently booked a lock house for the weekend. Hopefully they brought beer.