Ditch the Office for the C&O Trail
A three-day bike trip along one of America's oldest commercial trade routes.
The Christian Science Monitor
July 20, 1999
We felt like Huck Finn lighting out for the Western territory. Here we were, the four of us myself, Josef, Lee, and Kris all youngish urban professionals, ditching our ties and desks for mountain bikes and the open trail.
"You've got to admit," Josef quipped as we rolled along, "this is a pretty strange form of entertainment."
I grinned at him as our wheels spat gravel and dirt, and we rounded the next bend, squinting from the morning sun's rays bouncing off the Potomac River.
It was going to be a great autumn bike trip.
The towpath beside the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is a 184.5-mile swath of clay and crushed stone stretching from Washington to Cumberland, Md.
Like many other mountain-biking residents of the nation's capital, I'd come to know and love the towpath's first few miles: its proximity to the picturesque Potomac, its mercifully gentle upward slopes, and its historic locks and horses towing barges down the canal, mimicking for tourists the days when the waterway was used for commerce. (The horses are tethered to and tow the barges: hence the name, towpath.)
But when Josef and Lee, who'd biked the whole thing one long, hot weekend in June, suggested that we all repeat their trip in October, I thought: "Why not?" I needed a break from work, from Washington, from presidential scandals. I was daunted by the length: Before this trip, 50 miles was the longest ride I'd ever done. But after a few training rides, I was ready to go and see the historic sites, the 75 canal locks, and the changing leaves.
Georgetown to Harper's Ferry
"Aw, man," we hear Lee groan. He jams on his brakes and skids off to the side and looks at his slowly deflating tire. It is the first of four flats for Lee, and a great example of why C&O travel guides instruct trekkers to take extra tubes.
Flats (and one wreck) aside, the first day is nearly flawless.
Temperatures warm from early-morning lows in the 40s and 50s to a comfortable 60 or so as we spin past Great Falls, Md., on toward Harper's Ferry, W.Va., the site of John Brown's abolitionist raid 139 years ago.
At times, the towpath resembles the driveway of a country estate: it is two-lanes, wide enough for a car, and its upkeep by the National Park Service (the C&O has been a national park since 1971) lends it an air of dignified country regality.
But the miles ahead present a challenge: just 30 more to go, I keep telling myself. Just 20 more, just 10 more.... At an average speed of 12.5 miles per hour and 60-plus miles per day, biking the whole C&O is an exercise in endurance. I think of the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, whose hikes on the canal in the 1950s were the catalyst for its designation as a national park.
If it can be walked, I reason, it can be biked.
Besides, what a spectacle the canal is. During the trip we often see deer jump across the path in front of us, a curious raccoon develops a fondness for Kris's camera and poses for an extended photo session, and a hawk drops from its perch to snare a squirrel from a tree, only feet from where we ride.
On the first day, by the time we roll into the Harper's Ferry Youth Hostel (actually in Maryland), we have logged 62 miles, stopped countless times for water, and dined along the banks of the Potomac, while resting and tinkering with our bikes.
Harper's Ferry to Hancock
Day 2 is to be our longest, more than 70 miles, including one unscheduled seven-mile detour. Storms have felled trees across the towpath, making parts impassable. We've had no choice but to get off and onto the road.
I am glad for the break - pavement affords a smoother ride - but I soon long for the towpath. We stop for lunch at a dam overlooking the Potomac. Under the soothing sun, Kris and I dangle our legs from atop the dam and peer straight down to the bottom of the shallow river.
Overlooks like these are the treats of the trip. I am happiest when the next turn offers scenic views, and when we whiz by the locks and abandoned homes and maintenance facilities.
Though I love the sense of rural isolation, signs of civilization every now and then remind me I am traveling on what was, until 1924, a busy commercial route. Cyclists, hikers, joggers, horses, and even llamas all share the C&O.
Throughout the trip, we keep a steady pace, breathing hard on the 6- to 8-foot inclines on the locks, exhaling at the top and forcing ourselves westward. I look at the canal on the right and the Potomac on the left.
We speed all the way to Hancock and our room at the Hancock Motel, where the proprietor greets us with: "I think you boys are gluttons for punishment!"
Hancock to Cumberland
Part of Day 3 is spent in the dark - literally.
We are inside the Paw Paw tunnel, just outside Paw Paw, W.Va., at about mile 156 on the towpath. People's accents are changing. We are getting further and further away from our big-city lives.
The tunnel extends for 3,100 feet and is damp and cold inside. We ride single file and listen to the drips of water kerplunking in the canal beside us.
I laugh nervously more than once when Lee gets a bit too far ahead of me.
"Sorry, man," he says. He is the one with the light.
But we make it and speed on, sensing victory and a dinner waiting for us, along with Kris's wife, Susan, who had graciously driven a nine-passenger van from Washington to meet us.
At the towpath's terminus - tired, hungry, and dusty, but smiling - we hoist our bikes above our heads for a victory shot and cruise leisurely toward the parking lot, where we find Susan.
Josef was right: Three days on a bike is a strange form of entertainment.
We'd become exhausted, and punished our bikes and ourselves. But we'd seen all of what must be one of the mid-Atlantic's premier trails.
Now when I think of whirring along under the C&O's sun-soaked trees and sniffing its country air, I often wish I was back on my bike, breathing hard.