Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. – Day 1

PROLOGUE

It was August 1999 that I read an article in the Washington Post’s Travel section about a trail that would connect Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. I live in northern Virginia but am from western Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh to D.C. route passed through many locations of which I am very familiar.


Although I never lived there, my parents retired to Somerset Co., Pennsylvania. My daughter, Bethany, was attending Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, WV. Going “home” meant traveling, by car, roughly the same direction as the trail, of which I am sure I have done more than 100 times in my life.

By 2001 the seed had grown and this weed took root. Andrew was young (12) and his mind was not mature enough to know not to say no. He was big for his age and was going to ride with me. We borrowed a one-wheel trailer and attached it to my bike, loaded it with supplies, and headed out of Washington, D.C. We took a longer route, the W&OD out of Alexandria to Leesburg before crossing Whites Ferry and over to the C&O Canal. We rode 70 miles the first day before pulling into a campground. Our second day was Andrew’s 13th birthday. We were both sore but continued on. But we had an accident at Antietam Creek. My rear wheel was bent beyond repair. We had to abandon the trip.

Two years later I had a business trip to Pittsburgh. A smarter Andrew, then 15, was wise enough not to want to take this venture again. To him, mile after mile of forest and river views along the Potomac River was just “boring.” After ensuring that he did not want to ride with me I decided that I would finish the trip we started two years earlier. However, it would be west to east instead of east to west.

I rented a car and drove one way, taking my bike with me. I would bike home — Pittsburgh to D.C. I did little training for this ride. Actually, I did none. I was barely on my bike. I had foot problems that were bothering me immensly. I never rode more than 10 miles at one time. I never thought about doing this ride until the business trip came up just a few days before I left. This lack of preparation would turn out to be a very critical mistake.

The Journey Begins

I printed out my cue sheet and thought I knew my way out of Pittsburgh. I left the Hilton at Point State Park and took a picture of downtown. This was a great beginning.

Downtown Pittsburgh near Point State Park

I started off on the Pittsburgh streets where my ride would be a short six blocks up to Grant and First streets. When I reached the beginning of the river trail I stopped again to take a picture of my “official” start. Within minutes I was pedaling the paved rail trail from downtown next to the Parkway East. I was enjoying myself. The temperature at 9:30 a.m. was in the low 70s and there wasn’t much humidity. It was a perfect day for riding.
Grant and First Streets

This time I wanted to take just the minimum. I had a small bag mostly with bike supplies (pump, extra tubes, wrenches) on the back of my bike and wore a Camelbak with my personal items. I had just taught a day at our arbitration advocacy course in Pittsburgh and had my “business casual” clothes with me as well. I rolled them as tight as I could and stuffed them in my backpack. Having filled my pack with clothes I had no room to fill the bladder with water. It was a calculated decision based on the weather and the presumed availability of water along the route I was riding. It was also a critical mistake.

I was taking in everything by riding this section of the trail next to the old J&L property. As a kid I remember driving into Pittsburgh from the Parkway East and seeing this gigantic steel complex belching out fire and smoke from its stacks. Now it’s gone and an industrial park is in its place.

I was following the Monongahela River. The trail featured a slight upgrade. While the grade was manageable, that would also be a theme for the next two days; continuous climbing.

I soon caught a young lady in her mid 20s who was roller blading. We talked briefly. She was just out exercising and I was riding from Pittsburgh to Washington. She wished me luck and I was gone. I can only imagine what she thought when I told her I was on my way to D.C.

On my bike I thought I had everything I needed. Unlike two years ago when Andrew and I started out going from D.C. to Pittsburgh, we had tried to carry everything we needed. I towed a one-wheel trailer (“Bob”) and we had our tent and sleeping bags with us. We even had a cooler loaded with food. We probably had too much.


How to travel light on a bike.
Small pack on bike. Small water bottle in cage.
Wear a Camelbak filled with clothes, not water.
Dehydrate. Bonk.
This method is not recommended.

Cruising along the “Mon” and feeling good I was surprised to discover the trail ended just 2.5 miles outside of Pittsburgh. I was on the Eliza Furnace Trail aka “Jail Trail” but it quickly went away from the river which told me that I did not want to ride there. I looked at my black and white map I had printed and was unable to discern river from trail. I had thought that staying on the north side of the river was the correct choice but then thought of Route 837 which I remembered was one of the detours to the trail. I realized that I had followed the wrong trail out of Pittsburgh and needed to cross the river.

Fifteen minutes into the trip to D.C. and already I had selected the wrong route!

I rode down to an industrial road and rode back towards Pittsburgh to the Hot Metal Bridge. The Hot Metal Bridge is now decked to carry cars on part but had been a railroad bridge at J&L built in 1904. While on the bridge I had my best view of downtown Pittsburgh and wanted to stop and take a picture. But there were no shoulders or bike lanes, only a jersey barrier and 5 inches of white paint. And not the most bicycle friendly population either.

At the end of the bridge I did stop to take a picture of downtown. It would be the last time I saw the tall buildings of the Golden Triangle. There was a trail here and I jumped on it. I never looked back.This was on the south side of Pittsburgh and it just felt right, that after the tactical mistake of following the wrong trail, I finally picked up the right one. I would state that most of the trails around Pittsburgh are virtual trails, that is, they exist in the future but aren’t yet developed.

Grafitti along the Eliza Trail

I think had I left Station Square I would have ridden on a trail for a couple of miles but may have also been forced to ride on Carson Street. But now I was on a trail and immediately was beside the huge UMPC Sports Complex, which is where the Pittsburgh Steelers practice. I saw some Steelers in the far corner of one field but were too far away to identify any of them.

As I rode the trail a huge CSX train passed me and the engineer waved to me. I waved back. After about three miles on this trail I came to a sign which stated “trail ends.” My only legal option was a U-turn. Getting out of Pittsburgh was proving to be extremely challenging. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.

I stopped and surveyed my location. River to the left. Industrial plant or steel mill straight ahead. Two busy railroad tracks to the right. Sign marking the busy railroad tracks. “No trespassing.” I thought about backtracking again on this day and decided that was not in order. I needed to cross the tracks. I picked up my bike and carried it across the tracks where I had to cross a guard rail to get on Pa. 837. Once on that road I thought I could ride to Sandcastle, a Pittsburgh water park on the river where I was hopeful the trail would continue.

Pa. Rte 837 featured “modern” Pennsylvania road building techniques. Jersey barriers on both sides and no shoulders. This road carried lots of industrial traffic and sometimes one thought the tractor-trailer drivers just wanted to see how close they could get to this cyclist. I came to a ramp and had to navigate the ramp like any traffic. This was essentially a limited access highway except there were no signs prohibiting bikes. Or pedestrians. Or farm vehicles and the like.

I came to the Glenwood bridge and pulled into a small gas station which carried some snack items. Having exhausted the water on my bike already, I stopped and invoked one rule that would guide me along my journey. Never pass up a chance to take on more fluids. I stopped and bought a Gatorade and asked about the trail. Neither worker knew anything about the trail and told me I would have to ride to McKeesport on this road. I believed they were right.

For all the talk about a rail trail to Pittsburgh, the reality of it is that the last 20 miles to Pittsburgh (or first 20 miles out of Pittsburgh) consisted of some finished trails and many road detours. I was resigned to staying on the road. I left the station and climbed a steep hill into Homestead and saw no trails. I rode past a roadside sign commemorating the Homestead Grays, the Negro League team that played here featuring Josh Gibson among others. I stayed on 837 and came to Kennywood Park. It wasn’t quite 11:00 a.m. and the smells of 100 years of amusements came over the highway. Or maybe it was just creosote. I wanted to go into the park and grab some funnel cakes but had to keep going.

Passing Kennywood I crossed a bridge over a rail yard and began a descent to the Mon river valley. This was a four lane road which I would not recommend for most cyclists, especially youths. But I came to McKeesport and crossed the bridge over the Monongahela into town. I rode through McKeesport and came to the last bridge on the Youghiogheny River. This was where the Youghiogheny flowed into the Monongahela. Try spelling that in Scrabble!

I found a sign marking the Steel Heritage Trail so I thought I had finally had found my path. I crossed the bridge and descended into a poor section of town. I started to follow the Steel Heritage signs but soon discovered that they, quite literally, led one in a continual loop. There was no way out of this section and I headed back to the base of the bridge. I saw a two lane road which paralleled the “Yough” and decided I would follow it upstream because it surely would lead to the trail.

The road continued for a mile or two and then came to an industrial plant. I wasn’t sure what I would do next but decided to ride another 50 yards. There, on a traffic sign, I could see a blue sign marking the YRT (Yough River Trail). I no sooner left the road and hit the asphalt of the YRT that I saw spray painted on the trail sign “Trail Closed.”

I didn’t know what to do. My experience is that even when a trail is marked closed that you ride it as far as you can and deal with the consequences later. It was especially true here because I saw no other options other than backtracking and riding the roads — roads which weren’t clearly marked and for which I had no map. I started up the trail and had an immediate climb. As I reached the summit of my climb I saw orange barrier mesh that had been placed over a section of trail that looked like it had succumbed to a hill slide where the trail simply gave way and was gone. However, there was enough repaired to continue through. My hopes of a paved rail trail soon ended as the trail turned to the crushed limestone base which makes up all these trails in this section.

I had an on-board computer tracking my speed and miles (sounds impressive, doesn’t it? — it’s just a $25 speedometer) and my odometer told me that I had gone 26 miles when I saw my first mile marker — 20. I assume that the mile markers are right and that when the trails are finally completed that will be the accurate distance back to Pittsburgh. But starting in the Golden Triangle, going up the wrong trail and having to backtrack, plus taking a road overland certainly added to the starting distance. There was a trail map and I could see that Connellsville was at milepost (MP) 58.

A boat went flying by upstream and I was a little surprised that this section of the Yough was navigatable. I wasn’t sure if there were dams on it or the white water was just further upstream. I hadn’t seen any bikers but at Boston (Pa.) came to a park where some locals were biking. You can also tell the locals by the lack of equipment they carry. I was feeling pretty good but getting a little tired. I was sitting in the saddle most of the time.

Near West Newton I came to an intersection and saw an ice cream stand about 100 yards off road. I bought a vanilla-raspberry cone and continued on. I never rode a bike before while eating a cone and thought it was a stupid idea. Not because of safety but because of bugs. Who wants bugs in their cone? But I don’t believe I ate any bugs so it worked out.

At MP 40 I started cramping in my right thigh. Cramping is a sign of dehydration and I was suffering. The temperature wasn’t too bad, mid to high 80s, but I hadn’t been taken on enough fluid either this day or in preparation the day or days before. I was most unprepared for the mental agony of a continual uphill climb from the moment I left Pittsburgh.

Along the route I tried using my cell phone and was able to connect with my dad. My plan for Day 1 was to get to Confluence, Pa., where my parents would pick me up. I made four or five calls throughout the afternoon, each one pushing the time back. First from an ETA of 4:00 p.m. to 4:30 then to 5:00 and eventually to 6:00 p.m. The last call would not only push the time back but also the pickup point from Confluence to Ohiopyle. I was “in difficulty” and my speed was dropping.

I did stop at a Cedar Creek State Park and bought a snack and drink. I wasn’t hungry but forced myself to eat. I can’t say that it tasted good but I ate to get some energy. When you exercise hard you typically do not get hungry but you need to keep the body fueled so I knew that much.

Just a couple of miles outside of Connellsville the trail passed a campground where all trail users were welcome. I went into the camp store and asked for a banana. They didn’t have any. I did buy a new water (they didn’t have Gatorade either) and drank most of it on the spot.

In Connellsville I rode through a small downtown area which had a curbed lane especially for bikes. That was pretty neat. In front of a bike shop there was a drink machine with juices but it didn’t work. I reached the waterfront park and stopped to take a picture of the sign: Washington 280, Pittsburgh 58. It wasn’t much but it was a sign of progress. My 58 miles had been 64 and I still had 18 to go. Just as I entered Ohiopyle State Park two women leisurely rode by me from Ohiopyle. They said “isn’t it a gorgeous day for riding?” and I responded “too hot.”

It is in Connellsville that the trail starts its increase in grade. From Ohiopyle the river drops the most and I knew it would be a difficult climb to end the ride. I had ridden about five miles and it was here that I was passed for the only time. A teen pedaled by me and I wanted to yell “but you haven’t just ridden 70 miles.”

I continued on, alternating between being in and out of the saddle. Often I broke pace and sprinted then coasted, sprinting and coasting, just to change the pace up this last climb. The one redeeming feature was the beauty of the river. I tried to watch the river as much as possible and saw a blue heron which completely surprised me. I did not know that there were herons in southwestern Pennsylvania.

It was nearing 6:00 p.m. and I hadn’t reached the top yet. I knew I was getting close when I saw a sign on the trail warning users not to descend to the river far below for swimming in the rapids was prohibited. That was an ominous warning that Dimple Rock was waiting. Twenty people have lost their lives in the last 20 years, most of them at Dimple Rock, including one man earlier this summer.

In the 1970s I had purchased my own four-man inflatable raft and we had ridden these rapids many times. In 1975 while at Dimple Rock we capsized and in the ensuing struggle to remain afloat while being thrown through the turbulent rapids, my sister Brenda met one of the rocks in this section. She ended up in the hospital and had to have her spleen removed.

By the late 1970s the State Park began to limit access to the river pushing off private rafts like ours. I eventually sold the raft but riding this section brought back memories. However, I had never been on this rail trail before because when we rafted the river in the valley below this had been the right of way for the Western Maryland Railway. We always marveled at the trains that passed through those woods high above us.

About 6:10 p.m. I reached the trestle at Ohiopyle. I could look down 100 feet below and see the end of “the Loop” a place I rafted many times in my life. On this day those memories did not come streaming by. I just wanted to finish the day. Even more than finish I knew that only about 400 meters separated the first trestle with the second one that crosses above the falls and ends at the train station in Ohiopyle. And I knew that half way between the two trestles was a Powerade machine. I crossed the trestle and even though my parents were waiting, I stopped and got a drink. There were no trash cans present and my empty water bottle was already on the bike so after drinking half I mounted the bike again for the final 200 meters, carrying my drink.

Here stands one of the prettiest trestles anywhere. Following the old Western Maryland Railway it crosses the deep water right about the falls at Ohiopyle. One hundred years ago this line carried wealthy passengers from Pittsburgh to Ohiopyle for summer vacations. But the automobile changed that and passenger service stopped by the mid 20th century. Freight ran on these lines until 1975 when the WM was merged with B&O. Since the B&O has better rights on the opposite side of the river the WM was abandoned. Now this old trestle was rebuilt with a wooden road bed for carried bikers and walkers.

I crossed the bridge to see my parents sitting the bench at the station. My mother has a camera and I approach and say “no smiles here.” She handed me a power bar and I bought another drink. The end of a long day.

The end of a very long day

We drove back through Somerset and I took my parents out to the Grapevine Italian Restaurant to thank them and to celebrate their 53rd anniversary. Another tactical mistake before this day was eating wings and fries the night before. They are good but are not a high energy food. This night I went right for the pasta.

The check came and I got out my credit card to pay . When I went to sign the receipt I found that I could not grip the pen. Strange.

This graphic represents the route that I took but was not from a GPS unit.

Washington DC to Pittsburgh – Day 2

SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV
We 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 in 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 path gave way to a crushed stone path the entire width. It was clear this was a high use area.
When we 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 stairway 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 are perhaps the prettiest on the canal. The path is wide and is in good shape. You are next to the river, so close at times that a wrong turn would 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 path 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 so I guess he decided how he would get me.
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 Anteitam Aqueduct. This was just down river 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. We approached the aqueduct and needed to dismount and walk across the structure. Or at least we thought we did.
THE ACCIDENT
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.
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).
His bike stopped and he fell over onto me. I fell too, and we both dusted ourselves off to continue. I had to upright my bike and the Bob trailer and Andrew started walking ahead with his bike. I started to move my bike and noticed something wrong. The rear wheel was bent. 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 looked at 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 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 him 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 it wasn’t profitable and went out of business.
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 police department and told them I needed to get my son of the towpath. Even though that was out of their jurisdiction, it was in another state at that, 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 aqueduct up to Shepherdstown a road paralleled the towpath. We drove the road 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, 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 sprockets all seem to be different brands. 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.
EPILOGUE
When you set out to accomplish something you don’t do it, there is a real sense of disappointment. For a day and one 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 one’s 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.

Washington DC to Pittsburgh – Day 1

WASHINGTON, DC
Andrew and I went into work with my vanpool and loaded our gear for our departure from L’Enfant Plaza in southwest Washington. We each had a rack on the back of our bikes to carry one sleeping bag. I was pulling a “Bob” — a one wheel trailer behind my bike. The Bob was fully loaded with six days supplies for each of us, camping gear, and every bike tool that one could think of.

A Bob – Similar to the one I pulled
It was hot and sunny. Even as we left the building shortly before 9:00 a.m. it was already pushing 80 degrees, going up to a high of 90. And humid. We rode out the building and got on the sidewalk to cross the Case Bridge which carried I-395 over the Washington Channel. At the end of the Case Bridge, we went under it, and rode the 200 yards to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. There I took a picture of Andrew to commemorate our official starting point.
We then rode on the 14th Street Bridge on its sidewalk/bike lane and crossed the Potomac River into Virginia. At the bridge’s end we got on the Mt. Vernon Trail and within the first half mile saw our first wildlife of the trip — a blue heron standing passively on the banks of the Potomac.

We rode through Gravelly Point, the excellent plane-watching park where we have been many times watching the flights in and out of Reagan National Airport. We continued past the airport down to Four Mile Run Trail and picked it up to ride to Shirlington.

Four Mile Run where it enters the Potomac appears to be a straight stagnant pool of water which was channeled out years ago for flood control. But within a couple of miles that would change. We followed the trail to Shirlington, crossing the pedestrian Bridge over the very busy I-395. Once in Shirlington, we rode about two block to find the entrance to the Washington & Old Dominion Trail (W&OD).
The W&OD was a short line electric railroad which ran from northern Virginia to Bluemont, some 60 miles away, until the 1960s. When it ceased operating, the Virginia Electric and Power Company bought the right away for its power poles then later the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority negotiated with VEPCO to use the old track bed as a rail trail. 
The W&OD is a nine-foot wide paved trail from Shirlington to Purcelville. Because it mostly follows a former train right of way, the grades are gradual. But from Shirlington to Purcelville, it is a gradual grade uphill when its not flat. Except for a couple of overpasses to cross busy highways or go through neighborhoods, there are no downhills headed west. It’s basically easy pedalling, but it’s pedalling all the way to Leesburg, our destination on the W&OD.
The first mile on the W&OD the trail parallels a busy street. There is no shade and plenty of road noise. Only three miles from Shirlington, the trail follows Four Mile Run and diverts through a wooded area. I didn’t know such a beautiful area existed inside the Beltway. I thought everything has been developed but this trail, while uphill, is worth a trip in itself. Four Mile Run at this point is a narrow stream, with lots of water cascading over the rocks on its way to the Potomac.
I was surprised when all of a sudden we were in Bluemont Park at a Frisbee Golf Course. I had played the course once before but never noticed the rail trail cut through it. We exited Bluemont only to be dumped into a residential neighborhood without good directions as to where the trail headed. It is poorly marked at this point. We waited until a cyclist passed through and followed him up about two blocks past a Metro Station where we rejoined the trail.
We were the parallel to I-66 and rode through the city of Falls Church. We later crossed over I-66 then made our first milestone for the day, the crossing of I-495 — the Beltway. Here the trail was flat and we entered the town of Vienna. We stopped for our first break of the day and ate lunch. After refilling our stomachs and water bottles we started out the trail once again.
The difficult part of this section of the trail is that it crosses many busy streets at grade. For each crossing we would lose our momentum as we had to come to a stop and wait for traffic. At one crossing, Andrew couldn’t get his shoes off the pedals quick enough (we had borrowed cleats that clipped in) and he had his first spill of the trip. He had to stop short of crossing the roadway but his shoes were locked firmly on the pedals and Isaac Newton’s law won here. Andrew was scraped up a little but we continued without needing the first aid kit.
Our first deer was spotted in Vienna, not in the residential section but here the trail goes through a wooded area. It was surprising to see a deer so close to where thousands of people live.
We continued on the trail and crossed busy Route 28 via a flyover. We knew this marked the end of the residential section, and also the end of any shade at all. I had set my watch so that every hour we would stop and rest/stretch if we hadn’t already done so. It was coming up on an hour since our last stop and there was a “bike rest area” at Smith’s Junction on the trail about one mile past Route 28. Picture a pretty straight section of trail and no other roads or houses around, then picture a rest area for bikes. We stopped and bought our first drinks of the day to supplement what we were carrying.
The rest area is just north of Dulles Airport so we watched a few big planes on their approach to Dulles. If the trail had been mostly flat to this point, it now became a definite uphill, but gradual, ride to Leesburg. The sun was beating down on us and we were quite thirsty but kept riding, stopping once to view some quarry operations that were beside the trail.

Once we entered Leesburg we stopped for a drink at 7-11 then took our lives in our hands as we left the W&OD. We had traveled 35 miles on this trail and the trail continues another 10 miles out to Purcelville. But we needed to follow U.S. Route 15 North. It was only three miles but it could had been 30.

We had to ride on the gravel shoulder as the cars and trucks flew past us. I let Andrew lead so I could direct him and also I would be the first “target” seen from the rear.
We reached White’s Ferry Road and pedaled that back road 1.3 miles to the waters edge. This is the only crossing point on the Potomac between the Beltway and Point of Rocks, Maryland. White’s Ferry shuttles vehicles across the river and we walked our bikes on and paid the one dollar fare.

Once across into Maryland, we were a little disheartened to see that we were only at Milepost 35 of the C&O canal. We had ridden 35 on the W&OD, plus 3-4 from Leesburg, and 4-5 from D.C. to the trail head. It was now 4:00 and we were pretty tired.

We started up the towpath which in this section was two dirt tracks separated by a grass median. This is why a one wheel trailer was required. We saw more deer but rabbits and turtles were spotted mostly. The canal has sections where it is fully watered and there were stretches covered with green duckweed, but much of the canal’s bed has been overgrown by forest. We met no one coming in either direction for the next hour or so.
The serenity of the forest was broken by noise ahead which sounded like white water. Indeed it was. We we crossing the grounds of Dickerson power plant and in 1992 they had built a kayak whitewater slalom run for use by the U.S. Olympic Team to train. There was no one training on this day but the course is still there including the slalom gates.
It was just a few miles further that we came upon the crossing on the Monacacy River. The C&O paralleled the Potomac River although much of this section you couldn’t see the river. But here, where river flowed into river, the engineers had build a stone aqueduct to carry the C&O over the Monacacy River so that the canal would not be prone to flooding like the rivers were. There is a beautiful stone arch bridge which carried the canal over the Monacacy River here.
Unfortunately, with the flooding in 1972 from Hurricane Agnes, the aqueduct was damaged and for the past 30 years has been shored up with additional supports. We could walk across the structure though and after a few minutes rest and some pictures, we did.
We continued up the canal to Point of Rocks, Maryland. While we were getting hungry, we didn’t see anything here and decided to push on. The time was 6:00 and we were hoping that Brunswick, Maryland would hold promise for us. We rode ahead to Brunswick and passed an RV campground between the trail and the river. The owner rented us a site for the night so we went ahead and rode into town to eat at Mommer’s Diner.
It was in this diner that we met a couple of girls traveling through from Cumberland to D.C. We talked about conditions in both directions and they talked about how they loved Shepherdstown. Of course, we have spent many a day and dollar in Shepherdstown since Bethany goes to school there. One thing I remembered them talking about was the great bike shop. The one girl had problems with a rack and her duct tape was beginning to fail so they made the necessary stop in Shepherdstown for the repairs.
After the dinner at Mommers, we headed back to our campsite to learn a most disturbing fact. The campground is nestled between the river and the canal — a beautiful location. The canal here is grown up with trees but it wasn’t always that way. While at Mommer’s we met an older couple. The man had worked for the U.S. Park Service and maintained the canal in this area. As a boy, I would guess in the 1940s, he said the canal here was watered and they would ice skate for miles on the canal in the winter. We also learned that the Park Service does plan to restore the Monacacy Aqueduct. But on the other side of the campground through those trees hides a railroad yard.
We had been thinking of staying at one of the many Hiker/Biker campsites along the towpath but the thought of hot showers was too much to ignore. We paid our $9 and took our showers, probably spending more than twice that money standing in the shower. Once we pitched the tent and tried to sleep the trains came alive. It seemed like it would last all night with cars being coupled and uncoupled. Then, of course, there’s always that pleasant sound of the air brakes being released.
The humidity if the day kept it from cooling off so it was still in the low 80s when we turned in for the night. No breeze, it was miserable.
Still, we had survived 70 miles the first day with no problems. The legs were in good shape and the butt didn’t hurt too bad either. It looked like it would be a good trip.