Andrew and I finally fell asleep and the trains seemed to quit their operations when we were awakened by a severe thunderstorm. It lasted for more than one hour and at times was quite close. The tent held up great and we didn’t get wet. But after the storm and we got back to sleep, another storm hit. And so it went.
Finally, we fell asleep again but by 6:30 a.m. we were up and ready. If we weren’t, the trains next door made us ready to go. We tried to air out the tent and carefully packed everything we needed for the day. Our supply of plastic garbage bags came in handy and we wrapped everything in plastic knowing that the trail ahead would be muddy.
We began the day like we ended the night before — at Mommers Diner in Brunswick, Md.. Once we left Brunswick we headed up the canal towards Harpers Ferry. We were only on the path for a few miles, dodging as many puddles as we could — some we couldn’t — when we came upon a tree across our path. It was felled from a fresh lightning strike from the storm earlier in the morning. We couldn’t move the whole tree but we could move enough to make one lane passable.
Just a few miles further we could see a group of about 40 cyclists stopped ahead. They were men and women, I would guess in their 40s through 70s. They all wore t-shirts with a Biking West Virginia logo. Some of the men were moving a large tree from their path. I told them one mile down the road they had another job to do since they had all the manpower.
During much of this stretch, we were separated from the river by a forest. But as we rode ahead we got closer to the river and eventually could hear the river. We were very near Harpers Ferry. The path was in much better shape. In fact, the two-track trail we had been riding on gave way to a crushed stone path the entire width. It was clear this was a high use tourist area.
When Andrew and I got to Harpers Ferry we stopped on the Maryland (canal) side and decided not to cross the river. To do so would mean carrying our bikes up a high steps on the railroad bridge then walking our bikes across. We could have locked up all our equipment and walked across but didn’t want to do that. We did walk up onto the bridge and took some photos of where the Shenandoah River flowed into the Potomac. But we got back on the bikes and began thinking of our lunch stop.
The next few miles were perhaps the prettiest on the canal. The path is wide and was in good shape. You are next to the river, so close at times that a wrong turn could end up with you in the drink. The C&O towpath tends to be flat as the canal is flat. The canal has 75 locks from D.C. to Cumberland which means as you travel west each time you come to a lock there may be a 50-yard stretch where the canal rises. But basically it is a flat ride and this ride was one of the flattest and nicest.
We stopped briefly to watch a young fawn beside the river. We were about 10 feet high in the path and the fawn seemed to be lost. I can’t imagine that its mother was far behind but we never saw one.
Further up the towpath, we came to a parking area for river fun. We briefly passed the parking lot and I called upon Andrew to stop and come back. It appeared that an outfitter company had just finished giving instructions to a few adults and a bunch of 10-year-olds for their rafting trip on the Potomac. They were just starting to portage their rafts to the river’s edge across the towpath. I asked for their help and when Andrew came back and joined us, perhaps 20 little kids sang Happy Birthday to him. I had felt bad that today was his 13th birthday and there was no one to sing to him. Now I got him.
At milepost 70 (the campground in Brunswick, where we spent the night before was milepost 54) we were talking about getting lunch in Shepherdstown. That was three miles ahead then up a very steep hill to the bridge that crosses Maryland into West Virginia.
We came upon the Antietam Aqueduct. This was just downriver from the infamous Civil War Battle where more men were killed than any other battle. The creek is said to have run red with all the blood on September 17, 1862. We approached the aqueduct and needed to dismount and walk across the structure. Or at least we thought we did.
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Andrew had been wearing and practicing his cleats and pedals more than me. Still, one doesn’t stop quick in the shoes — it is best to see what’s up ahead and undo the shoes ahead of time. Plus mine were new while he had bought some used cleats from a friend and were a little more difficult.
We were almost to the stone pathway that crosses the aqueduct. The path was narrow at this point. A fall to the right meant falling down a hill into the canal (not watered). I was on Andrew’s left coming to a stop and dismount. He was beside me and said, “I can’t get out” (of the cleats).
Andrew’s bike stopped and he fell over onto me. I fell too, and we both dusted ourselves off to continue. We had no injuries – just a little dirt and grass on us. I had to upright my bike and the Bob trailer while Andrew started walking ahead with his bike. I started to roll my bike and noticed something wrong. The rear wheel was bent (taco’d in cycling terms). It was a freak accident and I don’t think it would have occurred without a trailer, but with my weight falling over and the Bob hooked securely to the rear axle, I was pulling the wheel in one direction and the Bob was holding it down. The wheel was bent and there was no way out.
When I saw this I was very disappointed. Not upset or mad, just disappointed. I told Andrew that we were done. But then I remembered the bike shop in Shepherdstown the girls in Brunswick whom we had met yesterday, had told us about. I and thought that perhaps I could buy a new wheel and continue. I removed the rear wheel from my bike and carried it on Andrew’s bike. I left him at the aqueduct, with a full supply of Gatorade. It was 11:20 a.m.
I told Andrew that I wouldn’t be back until at least 1:00 p.m. I rode as fast as I could up the muddy path to the road to Shepherdstown. Once in Shepherdstown, I couldn’t find a bike shop. After asking a few locals, I realized that the girls had actually gone to a general store which merely supplied them with the right hardware and helped them fix their bikes. Shepherdstown did have a store at one point, but no longer.
Now at 12:30 p.m., I decided that my biggest concern was getting Andrew and our equipment off the towpath. I walked into the Shepherdstown police department and told them I needed to get my son off the towpath. Even though that was out of their jurisdiction, it was in another state in fact, they were more than willing to help.
A policewoman got in her car and drove me back to the towpath. We were lucky in that from the Antietam aqueduct up to Shepherdstown a river road paralleled the towpath. We drove right to the aqueduct. We arrived at 1:00 p.m. We carried our equipment (I left Andrew’s bike at the police station) to the car and Stacy then took us to Martinsburg, West Virginia to a bike shop.
It was in Martinsburg, and through a couple of calls to The Bike Lane in Burke, Va., that I learned the truth about bikes. Many things can be fixed and we had all the right tools, but if a rear-wheel needs replaced that is a major undertaking. I had thought that I could buy a new wheel and keep going. But every bike is different and those rear cassettes all seem to be different brands.
Actually, major stores probably would have replacement wheels and my cassette could be moved to a new wheel but this store was too small to carry extra wheels in stock. I was told by the Martinsburg bike store that he could get me a wheel by Tuesday.
Well, a big part of the trip was also getting Andrew to Pittsburgh to go out west with my parents and we wouldn’t have time to continue beginning Tuesday. Our policeman friend took us back to Shepherdstown and we spent the night at the Days Inn. We returned home on Saturday.
When you set out to accomplish something and you don’t do it, there is a real sense of disappointment. For a day and a half it was a perfect world — just pedaling the cares away, enjoying the scenery, and occasionally meeting some nutty people just like you (always going the other direction since the ones in your direction are going about the same speed).
I hope to have my bike fixed by Monday or Tuesday then will DRIVE Andrew to Somerset to meet my parents.
EDIT/EPILOGUE – For a day and a half it really was the perfect time. Just a dad and his son, or a boy and his dad, pedaling away, making progress. A freak mechanical accident stopped this trip. Two years later I had a chance to make this trip again and asked Andrew if he wanted to come with me. Then 15, he just gave me the teenage stare.
Andrew upgraded his Wal-Mart bike to a Trek MTB and we continued to ride some rail trails, including much of the Great Allegheny Passage in Pa. But he never showed any interest in attempting the Pittsburgh-DC trip again.