Perhaps I had an excuse for not biking in 2004. I really didn’t for 2005. Recovery from the Keck and Kelly procedure was long and biking probably would have been the best recovery but the bike sat idle.
I was slow and was taking my time recovering from the surgery. I went to Sidney, Ohio in may to referee in the Mayfest Tournament and was not my normal self. Recovery was taking a lot longer than I wanted it to and the secret was getting on the bike.
But it’s the Catch-22. You feel slow so you don’t want to ride. You don’t ride because you feel slow. And so I didn’t much. Rarely did I pull my bike out to ride.
In August 2003, I was off the bike for an extended period of time. My trip from Pittsburgh to D.C. left me with ulnar neuropathy and I had numbness in both hands. Riding my bike aggravated this so I parked it for a while. A long while.
But the hands were the least of my worries. My Achilles tendon had been aching and was swollen pretty badly most of the time. Getting out of bed in the morning and to the shower was a chore. I had had this problem for most of 13 years and it was time to have it corrected.
In December 2003, I had surgery to remove bone spurs although the doctors found I had a broken piece of bone embedded in my Achilles. They wondered how I could walk.
The year 2004 should have been a year of recovery. Or six months. Or six weeks.
I put the bike back after we returned from Michigan. In early Fall I made the decision to have more surgery. On October 13, 2004 I had a “Keck and Kelly” procedure in which a wedge was removed from the back of the heel and the heel was rotated upward to relive pressure on the Achilles. It was reassembled using a 3″ titanium screw which remains.
Riding was one thing I probably should have been doing but my total in 2004 was less than 200 miles. Actually, even riding aggravated the Achilles. Surgery was the one thing I should have been doing – sooner.
I was up around 7:00 a.m. and was prepared to leave by 8:00. I wanted to be quiet and went about filling my Camelbak with the ice and water that Bethany had filtered the night before. Bethany got up and saw me off. I rode off to Sheetz and bought a Gatorade and breakfast sandwich. After eating, I rode again by Bethany’s apartment and Ashley’s dorm at Shepherd University.
I crossed the bridge on Rte 65 from Shepherdstown into Maryland then descended the steep hill back to the canal. This time I rode the brakes careful not to outride them. I safely descended the hill and turned on the access road that parallels the canal for three miles. I came to the Antietam Creek aqueduct, one of the best preserved water crossings on the canal. This was the point that Andrew and I reached two years ago before breaking my rear wheel. I could rest in the knowledge that at this point I had ridden from Pittsburgh to D.C., at least in parts.
A band of heavy thunderstorms had moved through late yesterday and the canal was showing it. Much of the canal has returned to its natural forested state, albeit in the canal depression. Where the canal contains water is a little more out in the open than the forested sections. Heavier than normal spring rains followed by a somewhat rainy summer had left the canal tow path in wet shape.
Because of miles of forest cover, the canal has not had a chance to dry out. The first section to Harpers Ferry wasn’t too bad. As I approached Harpers Ferry I expected that I would see more people as this section is very popular with tourists. I did.
I stopped briefly at Harpers Ferry and climbed up the railroad bridge that crosses the Potomac to town. Here two tracks exit the railroad tunnel and one has a great view of the river and the Shenandoah River entering the Potomac at this location. I went back to my bike and headed south again. I was still having problems sitting in the saddle but I knew it would be my last day.
I started hitting stretches of good trail for 200-300 yards then had to ride through a 15 foot puddle. It was a killer to try to gain any speed. One shouldn’t need to brake on a path but I was constantly applying the brakes so as not to get too muddy.
Just south of Brunswick about 15 girls came running up the tow path. This was the girls’ cross country team from Brunswick high school. A few minutes later an adult running group came through as well.
It was getting muddier as I approached Point of Rocks. This location is always neat to view. Here the river and a sheer rock cliff are almost side by side. The railroad was in a legal battle with the canal for this piece of land. The canal won and built next to the river and the railroad tunneled through it. After the canal shut down the railroad acquired the right of way, filled in the canal and put a railroad track around the mountain. Here you really do have one track around the mountain and one through it.
It was getting muddier and I was not making good time. I had forgotten where the Monacacy River Aqueduct was and was surprised when I came upon it. I walked my bike across the aqueduct (required) and continued south. Around 12:30 I reached White’s Ferry where an important decision would be made. Ride to Virginia or continue on in to D.C?White’s Ferry has operated for years and is the only operating ferry north of D.C. on the Potomac River. To cross into Virginia would be to pay the $1 toll and then ride about three miles into Leesburg. At Leesburg one can pick up the paved Washington and Old Dominion Rail Trail which runs slightly downhill to Shirlington, about four miles from D.C. So here was the situation. The paved road would be easier riding, much easier riding, but is also out in the open and hotter. Plus there are a lot of users on the W&OD including roadies who fly by, heads down, checking their cadence.
This may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and there would be some who would suggest that I really didn’t ride Pittsburgh to D.C. if I didn’t continue to Washington. Having talked with some other riders at Whites Ferry, I decided to continue on the towpath. I refreshed by grabbing a quick bite at the store then headed south again.
Some riders here were pretty muddy. I figured they must have been ahead of me coming down from Harpers Ferry. I told them I hoped they came from the north but they said they actually came from the south and were going back. They asked how far I had ridden this day and I told them almost 40 miles from Shepherdstown. We were at MP 35 so I was more than halfway home on this day. They were impressed and even more so when I told them I started out from Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
As they started riding I decided to tag along. They waited for me and allowed me to ride with them. It was a welcome invitation. We chatted along the way but we rode fast. Where I had been struggling, and indeed had yet to settle into a rhythm in the saddle down to Whites Ferry, I sat up on my saddle and matched their quick pace. And it felt good. The two riders were probably in their mid 40s and mid 50s. The younger one was named “Trace” and he set a great pace. But he didn’t lead right away. His friend did and they took turns setting the pace for me. Our second rider crashed in one of the muddy spots. The trail was treacherous.
When you approached a mud hole there were two choices. Ride through it or ride around it. Riding around it was preferred but on either side were trees. It wasn’t as simple as riding on level ground to traverse the mud hole. If you went around it often the path went on an angle next to the trees and one could not ride just sitting up. If you did the back wheel would slide off the hill and you could crash. That’s what happened to our first rider. He wasn’t hurt, just a covered with mud.
Trace took over the pace setting and picked some wicked lines through the mud. Sometimes in 15 yards we would swing wide right, then swing all the way through the mud to the extreme left. I had to follow their line. Only occasionally did I choose to ignore the line Trace had selected and chose my own. When I did I was right.
We rode together for most of 15 miles to Seneca. At the end I thanked them so much and regret that I did not get their names. They were the George Hincapie to my Lance Armstrong, and I’m no Lance Armstrong. But what a difference riding with a pace setter means where I didn’t have to do the work. One doesn’t have to be traveling 30 mph into a head wind to appreciate someone riding in front of you. Even on this day with no wind just riding behind someone made a world of difference. It really lifted my spirits and I now had 50 miles behind me and was looking forward to the last 20.
After my pace setters left it wasn’t far before I saw a woman pedaling slowly ahead of me. The tow path was getting very crowded as there were many entrance points from here to D.C. So it was not unusual to see other riders and there were bike rental locations nearby. But I recognized the two bags hanging off her bike. I came up behind her and said “You need to pedal faster than that if you’re going to get home today, DIANNE.” She looked was completely surprised. She thought I was headed home on the W&OD. And she was tired.
But we both picked up our pace. We passed Swains Lock and Seven Locks. We took a detour around a rocky section. Near the end of our trips we came to the Capital Crescent Trail. Here Dianne was headed home to Chevy Chase and I was headed into D.C. We said goodbye and went our separate ways.
I thought about how to handle my last two miles. Should I go slow and savor the moment that I had completed this journey or should I ride quickly to the finish? I decided to ride it fast.
I had ridden 350 miles over rail trails and back country roads in Pennsylvania and the entire length of the C&O Canal. I had seen many types of animals inlcuding numerous turtles and deer, otters, turkeys and herons. But one thing I hadn’t seen was a snake. That was about to change.
Just in front of me on the trail was a snake. Not any snake but a poisonous copperhead. In D.C. no less. For the couple of miles I had switched to the Capital Crescent trail which is right beside the Potomac River. Just beside the trail was the C&O. The snake was crossing the trail and another cyclist stopped to protect it and other riders. He made sure no one accidentally hit the snake and it moved on safely in the weeds next to the river.
I rode the last mile and then all-too quickly came to Georgetown. That was it. I wanted to scream because the trip was over. I did ask someone if this was it (the end of the route). They said it was.
There was a great sense of accomplishment having just completed the route but part of me wondered if there was more. Wanted there to be more. It really was all about the journey and not the destination.
I meandered over to the river area near the Kennedy Center and asked a man to take my picture. I rode about six blocks over to the Foggy Bottom Metro stop. There was a street vendor and I was looking for food. But they were sold out so I just bought a celebratory Mountain Dew. This was it. I put my bike on the Metro and headed to Virginia.
Very tired and very smelly
Mistakes – I made a Few
Training, training, training.
I made a few mistakes on this ride but none more critical than not training.
I did not ride enough before the trip. The summer of 2003 was not one in which I had done much bike riding. My business trip to Pittsburgh came without much advance notice and it was only then that I decided I would ride back home on a bike. I did not prepare my body for the rigors of being on a saddle more than six hours a day.
This ride should be within any cyclist’s capability but in 2003 I would not be considered a cyclist. Just an average guy determined to ride from Pittsburgh to D.C.
I gutted it out the entire trip and was suffering greatly. I could barely walk my legs and butt hurt so bad. When I went to sign the receipt in Somerset after the first day I noticed I could barely hold a pen in my hands. Both hands went numb on this trip.
The numbness in my hands (ulnar neuropathy) perhaps would not have occurred or I would have noticed it before the trip and got better fitted on my bike to prevent it. But I think it occured because my butt hurt so bad I ended up out of the saddle way too much. The result was my weight was more on my hands than on my butt. It would be many months before the numbness eventually went away.
My second major mistake was dealing with food and water. I thought I would be able to get enough water and food along the route but that was harder than I thought.
On the first day out of Pittsburgh my Camelbak was full of clothes so I did not have room for water. That was a major mistake. There simply wasn’t enough places along the route to Ohiopyle to get water. Eating properly the night and even days before is important. Wings and fries are not a long distance food.
On the first day I was “in difficulty” but did not feel hungry. Yet I knew to stop at Cedar Creek Park for a quick bite.
Generally, I never had a chance to eat on the trail. After the first day I added Granola bars to my pack which helped. On Day 2 I ate at a Subway in Meyersdale, a stop I had preplanned. On Day 3 I hoped to eat at Bills in Orleans but his store was closed. I missed the exit to go into Paw Paw, WV. On Day 4 I missed the opportunity to stop at Williamsport and hoped to eat before Shepherdstown but that store on the towpath was closed as well.
I didn’t plan as well as I could have because I had ridden many of these sections before and I thought I knew them. My weekend rides in which these stores were open were the extent of my planning for food. On Day 5 I did grab a very bad hot dog at Whites Ferry. And a cold Gatorade.
If there was a third mistake it was riding solo. I found it was so much easier to ride with someone, especially when someone else was setting a faster pace. Even if not pace setting, just being with another person takes one mind off the suffering. Plus, in case of accident, and I barely saved one on the canal on Day 4, there would be a person to help or summon help.
Finally, I did like my distance, an average of 70 miles per day. But I would want to ride from D.C. to Pittsburgh instead of Pittsburgh to D.C. It’s just more difficult the first two days to ride uphill from Pittsburgh to Frostburg. The uphill from D.C. to Cumberland is on the canal, one mile of flat followed by a a 10 foot uphill. The section from Cumberland to Frostburg is a climb but is relatively short.
It was great to complete the trip and afterwards said “never again.” But after a summer of riding more than 2,000 miles recovering from knee surgery, I am now in bike shape. And the trail calls to me again…
Probably the hardest thing about this trip is doing it alone. With each day in the saddle comes more soreness and one questions why I am doing this and the necessity of finishing it. If I was riding with a companion or group we would all be sharing the stories of our soreness but rally together. Riding alone I had no such support.
I left Hancock at 8:45 a.m., first stopping at Sheetz and taking on a Gatorade. I swung by the bike shop in town but noticed they did not open until 10:00. I decided to depart and not wait for the store to open. I left on the Western Maryland rail trail which parallels the canal for 9 miles. The advantage is that it is a paved trail — a good respite for a tired butt.
I had ridden this section of the canal before so I didn’t feel the need to stay on the path to accomplish anything. The paved path of the rail trail was welcomed although a number of tree roots were coming up under the trail in this section so it had its own series of speed bumps. When I reached the end of the trail I did not heed the sign warning of the end of the trail. I was hoping instead to follow a local road to Fort Frederick State Park. After riding on the road for 1.5 miles and seeing hills ahead I doubled back to the sign directing trail users back to the C&O.
Had I planned ahead, I could have stayed on the road into the park and reconnected with the trail. But I didn’t want to risk missing it and adding more miles to a sore body.
For the first 10 miles on this day I could not get comfortable in the saddle. It was easier to ride out of the saddle than siting down simply because of the pain. I became determined to ride the final 120 miles to D.C. out of the saddle if I had to. Once back on the trail I alternated a mile in the saddle and a mile out of the saddle.
For most cyclists, this trip is not a problem. I was suffering only because I did not training on the bike and only on a whim decided to ride home from Pittsburgh to D.C.
The first, and only, town I came to was Williamsport. I passed the one entrance point thinking there would be another. There wasn’t. I missed my opportunity to get lunch. Bad decsisions as to eating would continue to haunt me on this ride.
I knew somewhere south of Williamsport was a detour where the canal has washed away years ago. I kept riding waiting for the detour. As I moved south there was more activity on the river. As I approached Dam #4 the river became slow and deep. This was also a point where the canal disappeared although a path was in place, presumably not the original tow path. At a couple of points there were sheer rock cliffs on the left and the river on the right. The trail narrowed to one lane.
C&O Canal Towpath Near Williamsport, MD Yes, here it has been reduced to a ledge I came to the trail detour sign and had mixed feelings. Riding on the canal wasn’t easy with mile after mile of packed dirt. A paved road seemed like a great diversion. The tow path is at river level and the surrounding roads are much higher. One needs to climb out of the river valley. I started a climb up a 100 yard hill. I saw a German Shepherd waiting to greet this cyclist so I called to the grandma in the yard and asked if he was friendly. She said the dog was and he came over and greeted me. So did her four year old granddaughter. Then the woman asked if I was riding with a woman because a woman had just ridden by a few minutes earlier. That was all I needed to hear. A person!
I crested the hill and looked out ahead to see if I could find other riders. I couldn’t. I picked up my pace and within a mile I could see a single rider ahead. Like a predator chasing his prey, I sat up in the saddle and effortlessly pedaled until I caught her. She was surprised anyone was out on this road and I was more surprised to discover a woman riding solo out here. We talked and rode together for the rest of the day.
Dianne Rennackhad planned to ride the C&O Canal with two other friends. Just before the trip her friends dropped out so she was faced to quit or got it alone. She choose to ride it alone. On Thursday she started in Cumberland, a few hours behind me. She rode into Hancock in the evening and stayed at the same Super 8 Motel as me. On this day she left Hancock at 8:00 a.m. so she had a 45 minute lead on me. She was not managing a good pace and told me to ride ahead. I didn’t. I needed someone to ride with and the ride became much easier. We rode together for just one mile before we reached the hill descending back to the canal.
On Tuesday when I left Pittsburgh I wore my helmet. When I started cramping at mile 40 I knew I was dehydrating. Since I was on a trail and the helmet added to my heat, I removed my helmet and attached it to the back of my bike. I didn’t wear it the rest of the Allegheny Highlands Trail to Meyersdale but did put it on to ride in and from Meyersdale to Cumberland as I was sharing the road with cars. Or they were sharing with me and not always too kindly either. But once I reached the C&O Canal in Cumberland I removed the helmet again. On this day it was hot on the road but for the five mile detour I decided not to ride with my helmet.
We approached the top of the hill and were greeted by a sign warning of a steep descent and for bicyclists to dismount. There was no way I was going to dismount. I had ridden 150 miles from Pittsburgh to Frostburg, all uphill. And every chance to descend for free was going to be enjoyed. I was going to descend quickly even if for just 100 yards. I looked at Dianne and she said “go ahead.”
I let ‘er rip. I quickly was up to 32 mph and was looking at the bottom of the hill. A 90 degree right turn was staring me straight ahead with a guard rail protecting me from the forested canal. I applied the brakes and realized instantly that I was outriding my brakes. (I could not slow down quick enough to make the turn.) In what must have been just 1-2 seconds it seemed everything went before my eyes. I knew I was going to crash into the guard rail and I knew I was without a helmet. I was going to do my best to protect my head and I thought that my trip would end simply because I was enjoying my speed down the hill. There was gravel on the asphalt and my wheels locked up on the pavement. It sounded horrible — tires screeching and it was surprsingly loud.
I thought about Joseba Beloki crashing a few weeks earlier in the Tour de France. When he tried to turn on a hairpin curve his wheel slid on melting tar. In an instant his rear tire overheated and popped off the rim, leading to his horrific crash and leading to Lance Armstrong’s memorable detour. My tires were not as inflated as a road bikers and they did not explode. They screeched and I wobbled on my bike but somehow I saved it. I don’t know how I didn’t crash.
Beloki and Armstrong Source: Velonews Right before I was to crash into over the guard rail I slowed it down enough that I could turn. I was scared but had saved me and the bike. After 60 seconds later Dianne came creeping down the hill and looked at me. She said she heard my bike crash and asked if I was okay. I told her I didn’t know how I saved it but that I was okay.
Note to any and all who attempt this ride: If you don’t walk your bike down the hill as the signs suggest at least ride your brakes.
With the scare over for the day, we rode together to Shepherdstown. We both looked forward to a general store on the tow path where we could get a drink and something to eat. When we reached it we started down and across the canal. Then I looked up and saw the CLOSED sign in the window. Just like the store in Orleans, Md., this store was closed too. We were both disappointed but had no choice but to move on. At MP 72, Shepherdstown, we said goodbye, each glad that we had someone to ride with and both happy for we knew that we each rode together faster than we would have had we been riding alone. Dianne was headed on to Harpers Ferry while I was stopping to see my daughters, Ashley and Bethany, both living in Shepherdstown.
I had seen the typical wildlife along the canal that day but while riding together we did see one turkey on the trail. There’s something special about seeing a wild turkey, almost the symbol of our country.
To get to Shepherdstown, I had to climb the access road up to the bridge on Rte 65 that crossed the Potomac river. This is as steep as hill that I would encounter, worse than climbing Big Savage Mountain. But it wasn’t too long, maybe 300 yards at most. I put the bike in the granny gear and methodically climbed until I reached the top. A tractor, a tractor!, passed me on the way up and I was desperately thinking about grabbing on. But I didn’t.
At the top of the hill I stopped and pulled out my cell phone and called Ashley. I told her that I was in Maryland but would see her in five minutes. I crossed the bridge into West Virginia, passing the Shepherd College football stadium on the left immediately as I entered the state. A few hundred yards later I was at her dorm.
Ashley’s friend Beth came out to greet me with a pitcher of water. Beth said I stunk, and I did, so I asked her to arrange a shower for me. She did. I was able to shower in the men’s wing of the dorm and visited with Ashley and her friends until Bethany and Andy returned from working that day. The four of us then went to Ruby Tuesday in Martinsburg (Andy drove — I was done biking for the day). I spent the night at Bethany and Andy’s apartment. I told them that I would be up at daylight and gone.
This was to be the “over the hump day.” Yesterday I descended from Frostburg on U.S. 40 way too fast. It just isn’t fair after two days of continuous climbing that the payout is to coast for seven or 10 miles. Then pedal again. It wasn’t too fast — it just went by too quickly.
About two thirds of the way between Frostburg and Cumberland is the small town of La Vale, Maryland. Along U.S. 40 are many motels and I needed a good night’s rest. The Comfort Inn and Suites was the best looking property available so I checked in. Every muscle hurt but I went to the pool and whirlpool. I thought the whirlpool would help but I don’t think it did. But it didn’t hurt.
I was in bed by 9:00 p.m. and had great difficulty falling asleep. Moving was very painful and if I rolled over in bed while sleeping the pain would wake me up. I tried to lie as still as I could.
At 3:00 a.m. I had a wake up call from the “front desk” asking me to come down to the desk. I ventured up front and, of course, they knew nothing about it. It was a prank call from inside the hotel. I could not get back to sleep after that.
By 6:00 a.m. I was in the lobby trying to find breakfast and looked forward to getting out of there. I was very sore and very tired. And very grumpy at this point. I’m not sure who I was more angry at though. The idiots who were prank calling guests in the hotel at 3:00 a.m. or the hotel staff who seemed not at all concerned by the fact that they did not provide this guest with a restful night’s sleep. No apology was given at checkout and a letter to the general manager later produced a 50% voucher off my next stay. There won’t be a next stay.
I was on the road at dawn. It was chilly when I headed out and that sure felt good. I rode through Cumberland and stopped at the trail head of the C&O Canal (MP 184.5). It was cool in the mountains and a little bit foggy. I had hoped the fog would stay but it soon lifted.
I had read that near Cumberland the towpath was reduced to one path through people’s back yards but I saw nothing like that. The ride was mostly uneventful. The canal is at many times a depression in the earth, now filled in by trees and shrubs. At other locations the canal remains filled with water and is easily to visualize canal boats floating through those stretches today.
Not too far from Cumberland there is a long stretch of water full of life. As I was riding I was watching for the wildlife in the canal. I spotted something swimming and slowed down to watch. When the creature spotted me he dove deep and I could see the outline of an otter headed for safety.
Some of the canal was damned by many trees, the work of those crafty beavers. I saw some trees that were still standing but would not be for long as the beavers had been gnawing on them for a while. There were turtles sunning themselves on logs everywhere. I started to count but suffice it to say there were more than 100 turtles. The turtle would be the most often spotted animal along the canal.
I was in pain but determined to finish the ride. The canal tow path was bumpy in parts and not as smooth as the rail trail in Pennsylvania. Because of my saddle sores, I started spending more time out of the saddle and it was nearly impossible to get into a good riding rhythm and keep it.
I had driven near this stretch of the canal and wasn’t surprised by too much. But approaching the tunnel at Paw Paw was amazing. This structure was completed in 1850 and carried the water through the mountain. It is water-filled today and the tunnel remains safe to navigate.
I started to ride through it but soon dismounted for fear I would crash. It is dark in there and without a light one can’t see the wet path. Or what lurks in the dark. The warning was to bring a light but I did not have room to carry one with me. A wooden railing was to my left and the wall to the right making the path about three feet wide. I made a lot of noise as I walked though the tunnel. I needed to alert whatever creatures waited for me. It turns out there were none.
On this day I thought I might meet some through hikers or bikers but I met none. Around MP 150 I met a family of four who had come down from a summer cabin to fill up some water jugs. They had two small girls and a Labrador Retriever. The Lab was wearing a glow stick around his neck which they put on him at night for him to hunt frogs.
When I asked what was ahead they told me that there was a store in Orleans and I remembered the trail maps mentioning a store called “Bills.” Although they told me it was a “mile or two” I thought I had missed it when I rode further. But after five or six miles I did come to an opening in the trail and saw that painted on the concrete wall was the word “store.” I left the trail and rode up a hill for about 50 yards and saw Bills. On the left was a Pepsi machine which would not take bills (ironic for a place called Bills). I had no coins. I looked at the store and saw a sign “Gone Fishin’.” What a disappointment. For a hungry traveler this was my mirage in the desert.
At MP 140 I met a man on a recumbent bike and we rode most of the way to Hancock. He was an interesting man about 60 years of age. I had passed him as I was headed east and he was headed west. When I had stopped for water at a pump and he had turned around and caught up with me. We talked the rest of the way to Hancock. It was here that I rediscovered how much easier it is to ride with someone. We rode to MP 135 then switched to the paved Western Maryland rail trail. The trail climbed above the Potomac River higher than the canal but we maintained a nice pace. And then after about 10 miles we came to an intersection and my new partner said he was going to stop. Cigarette break.
I rode the rest of the way to Hancock by myself. I didn’t realize it was so hot until I reached town and saw the temperature on the bank sign. A sultry 97 degrees. I went to the low budget Super-8 motel and checked in. I then rode back to the bike shop in town and had my gears and chain cleaned form the miles of limestone dust. Hanging out there was my new friend Joe, smoking a cigarette. I went to dinner at the Lockhouse Restaurant. Ordered pasta. After dinner I returned to the motel and called it a night.
There’s a saying that the Tour de France is not won during the day but at night. The point is how well one can sleep and recover after 100-150 miles of racing. I would have lost the Tour.
Sleeping was very difficult. It seemed that every muscle in my body ached and I already developed saddle sores. This is something a rider who is fit would not have to worry about. I simply did not prepare for such an endeavor and I was paying for it.
I began the day with a breakfast at my parents then loaded my Camelbak correctly this time. I left my dress clothes and figured to pick those up later. I filled the bladder with as much ice as I could then poured in the water. It holds 100 oz. of water.
My dad said to me “You’re riding your bike home? I can drive you home.” He didn’t understand the journey; my goal of riding from Pittsburgh to D.C. “Do you want me to drive you to Frostburg or Cumberland?,” he asked. I told him that I wanted to go back to where I left off at Ohiopyle.
My route on this day would take me to Meyersdale where the trail would end. There was a 30 mile gap between Meyersdale and Cumberland that was uncompleted. I had studied the overland route but wasn’t feeling certain, especially since I messed up something so simple as getting out of Pittsburgh yesterday.
I asked my sister, Betsy, who also lives in Somerset, to go to the atatrail.org website and print my detour instructions for my final review. I had printed many cue sheets but for some reason these were missing. Betsy handed them to me and said “you know, there’s one route in there that says ‘we wouldn’t want to ride this on a bike’. That’s the one you’re riding today.” Well, thanks Betsy!
We drove over the hills to Confluence on our way to Ohiopyle. It was very foggy and a little cool. I thought it was a perfect day for riding and hoped the fog would stay on the hills for much of the morning.
We reached Ohiopyle and I began to unload my bike. There was a couple who had just unloaded their bikes and the man said to my dad “hey, I know you.” Just two and a half weeks earlier we had attended the “States” Family reunion near Punxsutawney, Pa. This was my second cousin Alyson Reitz (nee Spicher) and her husband. They had driven down from the Punxsutawney area for the day and wanted to ride the Ohiopyle area. They were contemplating riding “down” to Connellsville and back or “up” to Confluence and back. I told them to definitely ride up to Confluence (with me) because the second part of their trip would be downhil. So for the first 12 miles of my second day I had some company.
Ken and Alyson Reitz
Alyson is the author’s second cousin
Riding with someone is so much easier than riding alone. Although they told me to ride ahead so I didn’t slow them down I wasn’t about to. First of all, I needed their company to keep going. Second, while I was riding back to Washington, D.C., riders mistakingly thought I was in a hurry and would want to ride faster than their pace. They forget, they may be in a sprint while I am in a marathon.
We rode together. When we reached Confluence, which is at the confluence of the Casselman and Youghiogheny Rivers and Laurel Run, we parted company and I continued on to Markleton and crossed the high and low trestles at Pinkerton.
From here it was a matter of just keeping my speed up as best I could. I had ridden this stretch twice before so there wasn’t a lot new to see. When I rode it before it was Meyersdale to Ohiopyle so I usually averaged 14-15 mph since it was slightly downhill. Even downhill on the Allegheny Highlands Trail one has to pedal to keep up speed. This is not an asphalt trail but consists of crushed limestone. But now I was going uphill so I needed to work even harder.
I should have made much faster speed. The 42 miles from Ohiopyle to Meyersdale should have rolled away in three hours or so but it was more like four. I was tired but also relieved, in part, when I came to Meyersdale. I stopped to admire and photograph the Salisbury Trestle.
Crossing the valley 100 feet bleow is enjoyable not only in the view but also because the deck is concrete and I was finally off the limestone trail, never to see it again on this trip. I really enjoyed riding across the 1900 foot long trestle. At the Meyersdale end one has to navigate the vehicle barricades that allow only bikes to get through. Here I didn’t do so well. At first I thought I could stay clipped in and zig zag ride through the posts but then realized I had to stop. Quickly.
I hadn’t unclipped from the pedals and that always spells disaster. The bike stopped. The feet were stuck to the pedals. When that happens, the rider falls and this rider did but it was a soft fall. The gloves protected the hands and the bike, thankfully, was okay. It was stupid and was one of those things that happens when the body and mind gets tired.
At the Salisbury Trestle the improved trail ended although one can continue riding for another mile or so to the old Western Maryland train station. But here the trail is just an old road bed and is very rough. I was riding a Trek Navigator which is a hybrid, neither road bike nor true mountain bike. But it has fatter tires like a mountain bike and lacks the high gears of the road bikes so it is much closer to a mountain bike. When I reached the station I turned down the street and rode it downhill until I came to a Subway sandwich shop. I had driven through Meyersdale one month earlier and scouted this location for food.
Here I was able to wash up my hands and face and ordered a 6 inch sandwich. I drank some soda but before leaving filled my Camelbak with ice and topped it off with water again. I had depleted the 100 oz that I started with. I had ridden almost 45 miles uphill from Confluence and the big mountain climb was ahead.
The thought of climbing the mountain was not a pleasant one. The unimproved trail may have continued another five miles past Meyersdale but no one seemed to know for sure. Least of all was the girl at Subway. I had calculated the distance to Frostburg as 18 miles. When I told her that I was headed to Frostburg on a bike, she couldn’t believe it. I asked her how far away it was, not entirely trusting my memory. She said, “in a car traveling 60 mph, probably one hour.” I said oh no, that would be 60 miles and I know better than that.
Really Off the Beaten Path
I wasn’t sure how to leave Meyersdale. I could climb the hill in town back up to the WM Station and try to head out the unimproved road which was to be the new rail trail. But I didn’t want to head out on an unimproved rail bed for a couple of miles only to find a gated or closed trestle. So I headed out on the road which I knew would cross the mountain. I started down in the valley and in a couple of miles passed under the trestle which would be the next to open on this trail. It looked finished but may not have yet been open.
The stretch from Meyersdale to Cumberland was the “missing link” in a completed trail from Pittsburgh to D.C., if you ignore the 20 miles coming out of Pittsburgh. A couple of trestles remained to be finished and most importantly, the Big Savage mountain tunnel was yet to open. But in August 2003 there was one way over the mountain. Back country roads up and over the mountain.
I started the climb. I had yet to use my granny gear and part of me said to save it for when you really need it. But I decided that climbing Savage Mountain qualified and I dropped down into granny gear. Well, I didn’t. I had a lot of clanking and grinding but my front sprocket would not drop down into first. I decided to stop and manually move the chain which worked. The climb was steep in places but also offered a brief downhill or two. They weren’t for long and while it was nice to coast and catch my breath every downhill also meant that I had to climb that much again.
I was taking on fluids as much as I could and did not cramp up. In fact, in Confluence I took on two bananas which I would do every day. One to begin the day and one as a snack. At one time I was thinking if it was 18 miles to Frostburg and if I had to walk it, at 2 mph, it would be nine hours so I would still make it by midnight. The mind plays tricks when the body is so tired. My dad had said to call if I wanted to spend another night with them. For all the hard riding I had done today, Meyersdale and even Cumberland still weren’t that far from my parents in Somerset.
Had I been able to get a cell signal I would have ended the day. I was in a lot of pain. But I had to keep going as there was no signal out here in the mountain wilderness.
I kept my pace, keeping it going at a steady 3 mph. I started thinking six hours or 9:00 p.m. But as the grade lessoned I was able to start thinking more rationally. I had another 24 oz Gatorade on my bike and decided that the Gatorade would be my champagne when I reached the Mason-Dixon Line (otherwise known as the Pennsylvania-Maryland border).
There was very little traffic but when one car with Maryland plate passed me I was able to sit a little higher and work a little harder. I knew I was close to leaving Pennsylvania. I came to the top of the road, but not the mountain, but was almost there. For the first time I could see towers on the mountain over near Interstate 68 in Maryland. It was about 4:30 p.m. and I called my dad and told him I was out of Meyersdale. (He wanted me to call him at Meyersdale but there was no cell signal there.)
I saw the sign that said “Frostburg 7” (miles) and knew that it wouldn’t be midnight. I rode another mile then reached the Maryland border and drank my Gatorade. I still had work to do. I climbed higher though Finzel then reached U.S. Rte 40. Here I began a fast descend down a hill in preparation for climbing the summit of Savage Mountain. I kept working to get up the mountain and then stopped at the top to look around.
I was 100 feet above I-68 watching trucks struggle to climb this hill. I crossed the summit at 5:30 p.m. and descended quickly into Frostburg not worrying that I was doing 39 mph in a 25 mile zone. Descending down the mountain I didn’t brake nor did I pedal. I simply coasted and enjoyed the couple minutes of satisfying ride that came after 12 hours of hard riding from Pittsburgh. The day was almost over but would you believe that one must make a final climb to get into Frostburg?
I rode through Frostburg and descended down the mountain on US 40. The temperature on top of the mountain was 86 degrees so it had been a warm day for riding. When I came to Lavale, Md., I decided to call it a day at the Comfort Inn. But the night was not so comfortable.
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 immensely. 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.
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.
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.
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 pleasant 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.
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 Pa. 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.
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 they 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 the 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 Rte. 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 cyclists but at Boston (Pa.) came to a park where some locals were riding. 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 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 to Connellsville 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 had a camera and as I approach I said, “no smiles here.” She handed me a power bar and I bought another drink. The end of a long day.
We drove back to 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.
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.
THE ACCIDENT (THE FALL OF ANDREW)
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.
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.
It was hot and sunny. Even as we left the building shortly before 9:00 a.m. it was already pushing 80°, 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 carries 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 blocks to find the entrance to the Washington & Old Dominion Trail (W&OD).
The W&OD was a short line electric railroad that 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 trackbed as a rail trail.
The W&OD is a nine-foot wide paved trail from Shirlington to Purcellville. Because it mostly follows a former train right of way, the grades are gradual. But from Shirlington to Purcellville, it is a gradual grade uphill when it’s 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 pedaling, but it’s pedaling 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 had 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 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. In Herndon, Andrew couldn’t get his shoes off the pedals quick enough (he 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 Switch Station 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 a 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 Purcellville. But we needed to follow U.S. Route 15 North. It was only three miles but it could have 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 water’s 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 trailhead. 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 were 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 Monocacy 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 built a stone aqueduct to carry the C&O over the Monocacy 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 Monocacy 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 p.m. 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 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 Monocacy 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 $9 for the campsite 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 of 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.