Washington DC to Pittsburgh – Day 2

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.


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.


Washington DC to Pittsburgh – Day 1


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 trailer

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.