Ed note. This is the second installment of this summer’s epic bike trip.
I had vague knowledge of the C&O towpath as a Washington DC resident and sometimes urban hiker but I had never ventured beyond Georgetown. I keep peppering Kerry with random DC and personal trivia. “Did you see those stairs, those were the ones that the priest fell down in the Exorcist.” I think I remember this movie because of a combination of my Catholic upbringing where I was frequently reminded that I seemed to be possessed by evil spirits. “You look like that boy, Damien.” As a parent of two teenage girls I now have new found appreciation for the analogy.
This section of the canal attracts a fair share of urban cyclists, from the lycra-clad Fred, cyclocross set, to retirees on hybrids wearing brightly colored helmets. There are also a fair share of walkers. There’s stagnant, green, algae tinged soupy water. We spy a large blue heron up ahead that’s fishing the canal. As we draw close he flies away, only to land about 30 or so feet up the road, non-plussed by our passage. This scene repeats again and again. Kerry muses that animals really don’t have an understanding of the road. This bird keeps on fishing and is kind enough to linger long enough so I can get a few pictures. The first of many creatures we encounter along the way. The turtles sunning themselves on logs on rocks don’t seem to mind the heat or humidity. Comparatively, I’ve already emptied almost two of my water bottles and am wondering where we might refill them. There are no bodegas, delis or 7-11s in these parts.
However, there are locks where the water rushes through, and lock houses, which are now available to rent. These quaint small cottages are available for rent for about $150 / night from CanalTrust.org. We did not book and have to be content with stealing glances from outside. Most are unoccupied. During the canal’s bustling times these were supposedly busy places, where the lock master would emerge to oversee the barge’s passage. I am wondering if these also served as stations to water and feed the mules that would pull the barges.
We set a modest goal of 20 miles on the path for day one, and pull into the first campground, which has something of a party atmosphere–divided into sections for day trippers and overnighters. The official sites are full but a fellow bike camper invites us to share his site. All of them are right on the Potomac. There’s a large family with a few younger kids that I spot pulling small fish from the river. Barbecues are starting to smoke. A radio plays what may be a top 40 station–its loud enough to hear but too far to make out the songs. Several campers have slung hammocks between the trees in lieu of tents. I have rain tarp envy. Kerry and I start pitching our tents. He has the REI Backpacker Two–one I considered picking up but decided to go without in lieu of the one I got from my friendly neighbor, Chris. Kerry’s tent goes up more quickly and seems sturdy. I am planting stakes and running guy wires. “Oh, your tent still has those.” I keep setting up and Kerry’s making his way around the camp. I start putting out the non-perishables for dinner. Kerry approaches the table with a furrowed brow.
“I threw their bag of fish back in the river. I just saw it laying there with fish in it. It seemed abandoned.”
Kerry retells the story of what he thought was a cleanup and rescue mission that turned out to be releasing part of a family’s supper back into the Potomac.
“Oh? Maybe offer a tin of tuna for the ones that got away?”
He goes over and apologizes again. No can for bag exchange takes place.
At home, I am the chief cook, quartermaster and the person who for better, or worse, knows the location of everything in our compact Brooklyn kitchen. My river view dinner tonight consists of Ritz crackers, hard cheeses, two varieties of beef jerky, and tinned fish. I saw this trip as an opportunity to lighten our pantry of shelf stable foods, so I add crunchy peanut butter, dried cherries, and marshmallow Fluff to the mix. Later these are combined with Graham crackers and chocolate chips into what I dub a deconstructed S’more. I know, no marshmallows roasting on the campfire.
After dinner, we wander down a bit and find a spot where it is possible to get into the river. Kerry is more excited about this idea than I am and goes for a swim. We talk until the sun goes down. The day campers pack it in. Another couple arrives late and makes a fire. I am surprised by how tired I am.
Kerry’s allowed himself a few camping niceties–an inflatable pillow, for one, and an insect proof hoodie. I notice that apart from the swim he keeps long pants on to ward off mosquitoes. I spritz myself with bug spray and hope for the best. There aren’t many mosquitoes but enough so that I do find myself scratching the next day. I did think to throw a pocket camp sheet in that I bought in my 20s when backpacking. This was an excellent idea because the sleeping bag would have been way too warm. I eventually fall asleep. A few hours later I hear thunder and it starts to rain. Then it starts to pour. I enjoy the sound of the rain hitting the tent’s fly for about 10 minutes or so, and then I start to feel the rain come through into the tent.
I imagine for a good part of humanity, a leaky roof was just something that was part of life. I have a different imperative, that is something like “shit! everything is going to get wet. I have to stay dry or I am going to be miserable.” I turn on the lights and start re-arranging camp away from the puddle. I am not sure quite what to do. Do I try and go out in the rain and fix the fly?Do I put my rain gear over it? Do I put my rain gear on? This scenario never came up in the 3 or so years I was a boy scout. The leak seems to be confined to one spot, and it is not raining as hard. I settle for moving stuff so it stays dry. Kerry asks if I am alright. I say yes, but the truth is more complicated than my declaration of “I’m fine.” I am tired. I am wet. I am cranky. I have a stiff neck. I am wondering why I thought I could do this trip, and thinking that I would be more comfortable in my bed. I do what I always do when I can’t sleep–listen to a book I’ve read before. Neville Jason, narrates Tolstoy’s War and Peace and before long I’m hearing about Kutuzov’s audience with Napoleon. I fall asleep again and awake dry and a little disoriented.
Breakfast? Much like last night’s meal. We make a loose plan to get some on the trail. While we are getting our food together, which Kerry insisted we hang in a tree to ward off bears, we notice that another animal has gnawed a hole in his identical bright yellow Ortleib panniers. Kerry is wandering around camp. I sit down on the wet picnic table bench and am confronted by a brave gray squirrel who has no fear of me. I am amused and annoyed by its antics. My mental model for squirrels is that they see us and dart away. This squirrel, which I nickname Sassy, a tribute to her style, has no such ideas. So far as she is concerned breakfast is behind schedule. I snap a few pictures of her return to the scene of the crime for Kerry. After a cursory review, he embarks on a squirrel re-education project, which consists of him shouting and clapping at Sassy until she climbs up the tree.
“They need to have some fear of humans,” Kerry intones.
“I suppose,” I say agreeably but I bet Sassy is back at table 1 for breakfast tomorrow with a new crop of campers.
We are on the road by 10, with a loose agreement that we’ll seek more substantive fair at some point on the path. About 5 miles up, we’re in Edward’s Ferry and stop at the kind of campground I thought we would be at—one that’s home to RV’s, campers, complete with a boat launch, Coleman cookstoves with families preparing full camp breakfasts. I settle for an ice-cold water, my supplies low from the dry campground. Kerry downs a Gatorade and we watch the river go by.
Over four days, there is a lot of real and conversational ground to cover. Anyone who knows me knows that I like a rambling conversation. On the other hand, when it comes to riding a bike, my default mode is to get from A to B as quickly as possible. I don’t quite know the origin of the maximum speed program. It could have been those first commutes by bike and trying to get to work on time, or trying not to get dropped by the Atlantic Bicycle Club. Pace wise, it’s not quite like going all out in a race—but it’s close. Kerry has a different set of assumptions, which could best be described as meander and enjoy. Stop when you feel like it. This approach is well suited to me taking pictures—but I am also happy to snap a selfie or capture the motion. Unlike riding on the road where you are an obstacle for cars, or you’re dodging pedestrians, fellow cyclists, or cars, here there is just the hard pack blue stone gravel, the steady crackling of the tires going over it, interrupted only by our voices or other riders. Some are clearly of the A to B set, others, even more leisurely than us.
Generally, we pull off when something looks interesting, or if say there is a large black snake in the path, which definitely merits a picture. We ride through what seems like an endless canopy of trees. The canal looks like a pond in some places, complete with a thick, bright green algae skin, to a ditch in others, where just an outline remains.The lock houses and campgrounds are constants. As we go further down the path the water at the campsites is drawn by a hand crank pump—and there’s an advisory from the National Park Service that it’s been treated with iodine. It’s cool, but I can’t say it’s too my taste.
At Seneca Landing Park, a stop with falls, speedboats, and loud kayakers, we refill and are told that burgers and beers are a mere 10 miles up ahead in Whites Ferry. This is ideally timed for lunch. We walk our bikes over the crossing and pedal for what seem like an interminable 10 miles. The Ritz crackers I had for breakfast left my stomach grumbling and the headache had me wondering if there was enough caffeine in Starbucks Nitro brew. Did I mention that I had never ridden the mountain bike more than 15 or so miles around Brooklyn? I find myself longing for my Brompton’s well broken in B-17 leather saddle, the greasy-spoon ham and cheese omelette with toast and home-fries I thought I’d be getting for breakfast, and maybe a nap.
Historic Whites Ferry
We pull into Historic Whites Ferry, which seems like nothing more than a boat launch and a small house with a few picnic tables. The signs warn against parking bikes. We find the rack out back and step into the air-conditioning. There are 4 different kinds of beef burgers and a nod to vegetarians with Beyond making the list. We both opt for the traditional with an order of fries and are told to return in 20 minutes. Wikipedia tells me that White’s Ferry was the site of a cable ferry that took folks from Maryland to Virginia for many years. It is no longer there, but there are remnants of such a service—50 cents to cross is visible on the Virginia side, but we see no boats crossing, just kayakers and small pleasure boats.
Picnic tables with umbrellas offer a reprieve from the sun. I crack open my Diet Coke, an indulgence now limited to a post-workout ritual. We’ve ticked that box. Kerry fetches the burgers which are giant, well seared, and tasty. The fries are generously portioned and have just the right crisp. I use this as an opportunity to ask Kerry if he’s read Russ Parson’s fine “How to Read a French Fry.” I share Parson’s explanation on how the fry oil can’t be too new or two old. These hit the spot. This spot has a buzz about it for leisurely, hot afternoon—a mix of families in cars and cyclists. I notice a particularly well-heeled cycling couple that have matching socks with images of mountains emblazoned on them. I wonder who bought the socks, and how the outfits were coordinated but stop short of making conversation. I pitch Kerry on what seems like a popular ice cream place about another 10 or so miles up the road, reasoning that we’ve earned it and it would make for good pictures. It was an easy yes.
More gravel, tree-canopy, locks, and pedal strokes. We pull off at Point of Rocks. There’s a brand new small park. I find a tap for water and refill my bottles and douse my head. Kerry wonders if its potable. I reason that I can’t imagine a gray water system here—just seems like too much work for Point of Rocks and I take my chances. After refilling, we pedal uphill to the Rocky Point Creamery, a massive red barn complete with silo, an oversized parking lot that’s brimming with cars and motorcycles. This is a popular spot on Father’s Day. We rest the bikes near an oversized cow-shaped molded plastic bench and step inside where the line wraps to the door. Kerry and I call out flavors that look interesting. We realize that we are ice-cream opposites.
“Bananas foster! Yum!” I exclaim.
“What? That’s the least appealing thing here…but they have mint-chocolate Oreo.”
Of all the ice cream flavors out there, I abhor mint. I love thin-mint girl scout cookies, and can appreciate a York Peppermint Patty, but think the sea green concoction is akin to toothpaste.
Instead, I settle for coffee—which never disappoints, and has the added benefit of making up for my imagined caffeine deficit.
By now it’s 4pm and we’re back on the road. I’m wondering where we might be able to eat a fruit of vegetable that hasn’t been dried, processed and packaged. I am wondering what would make for an acceptable camp supper. The pizza place sells wings. Generally, I believe in getting the dish that a restaurant specializes in, but I don’t want bread and cheese. What I really want is a salad—and what would go well with a salad, well, wings. A soccer match booms in Spanish on the television while my salad and wings are made to order. I smile when I see that the greens are fresh and there are plenty of olives, tomato, and feta.
Point of Rocks
The train tracks run parallel the canal path at this point. The campsite is just a couple miles down the path—a steep incline down toward the river. The campground is quiet and empty. Unlike the other campsite, only a modest muddy embankment stands between us and the Potomac. We pitch our tents close to the water, the sun still high enough that the water sparkles. The trees offer plenty of shade for the tents. There is no rain in the forecast. We dig into the salad and wings. Kerry pops open a tin of stuffed grape leaves.
After dinner, we wade through the silty, muddy soil into the Potomac. There are signs along the river which warn against this practice but it’s too warm and inviting to resist. The current is brisk, but not too strong. I am guessing the river is about half-a-mile wide at this point, and wonder how hard it would be to swim to the other side. Hard enough that I’m content to play at a few pushes into the current and then just to glide back. We hear the occasional cyclist stopping to make use of the creaky hand pump. Kerry goes to help a passerby. We learn it takes a tremendous amount of effort for a bit of iodine flavored water. I am glad I filled up at Point of Rocks. A bunch of CSX freight trains toddle trough to break the quiet of the woods—one has over 100 cars. There are a few that make their way through the night. The next morning at dawn, the first MARC commuter rail train barrels through, whisking people to work. I am glad I am not on the train.
We eat a light camp breakfast. I note that the forecast calls for rain later in the day and into the evening and propose that we make alternate arrangements for camping. Kerry agrees. We settle on ending at Shepherdstown, which is just across the river in West Virginia, but there’s a day’s worth of riding ahead of us, starting with “breakfast” in Harper’s Ferry.
We pack up and head back onto the path. I am feeling much fresher than the night before, emboldened by my last can of Nitro not so cold brew. This part of the path is less isolated. We can see towns and pass working rail yards. Still, there is little traffic. Eventually, we come upon the rail bridge that goes straight into a mountain. There are a set of winding stairs that go up to the top. After watching a group of cyclists shuttle their bags and bikes separately up and down, Kerry and I opt to carry one fully loaded bike at a time up the stairs. It’s cumbersome, but manageable, and before long we are walking the bikes over the narrow walkway.
Harper’s Ferry looks like a dream. Rows of painted houses zig-zag up the mountainside. We pedal through Civil War memorials that tell of the battles fought here. It’s also where the Baltimore and Ohio railroad bested the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, by blasting a hole into that mountain. The rail would bring far more goods westward than the mules and the boats. There are many restaurants just on the block by the train station, but I am curious about what may be just a bit further uphill. I spin with some effort to find a pre-school up at the top. Kerry asks politely if I noticed the barbecue that someone was selling out of their house. Uh, no. In my singleminded spin quest and solitary demonstration of my cycling prowess, I missed exactly what we were trying to find.
It’s about 85 degrees and the sun is almost directly overhead, a late breakfast, or an early lunch. It turns out that the proprietor has been smoking brisket, ribs and pork all night long. They’re wearing what looks like hand-made period garb. They have twin boys who in addition to knight like outfits are sporting convincing play swords. We’re offered samples, which are delicious and I start peppering the pit-master about his craft. How long have they been smoking? (About 12 hours? What temperature? (175) What are you basting it with (a mix of apple cider vinegar and water.) I learn his name is Richard and that he hasn’t slept so that we can eat. In addition to generous portions of every item, we get sides of beans and coleslaw to accompany the homemade iced tea and lemonade. “We like to keep our hikers and bikers well fed,” the tired mom tells us. We find a shady spot in the back to savor what I think may be the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten.
Energized by that lunch, getting the bike’s down the winding staircase seems much easier. There’s a man in his mid-30s with long hair, and a kid’s bike loaded with bags who asks if it’s worth the trip over the river, to which we offer a resounding yes, but I am stuck on what is this guy doing with kids bike and all this gear. We return to the road. Shepherdstown awaits.
The sun is streaming down and it’s warm, but cool in the shade from the canopy of trees and the light breeze that comes with pedaling. We pass a duet of cyclists on cruisers who seem to be live-streaming or FaceTiming. I compliment them on the home-made paper flags that herald their trip. We see the bridge for Shepherdstown overhead. The climb up the narrow road is steep enough that I resort to cutting back and forth to spin up it. Eventually I make it to the top, winded and tired. Kerry is not far behind. We cross over the river into West Virginia. I can’t help but think of John Denver crooning about country roads. There’s a massive Black Forest style resort off to our right, with a beer garden over looking the valley. We pedal on through the university and pull up to the Thomas Shepherd’s Inn—a full hour before our 3pm check in. No one responds to the bell, so we pedal into town for a drink.