Cycling the C&O canal path

We are back! The trip was amazing, and I took notes each  afternoon/night so I could do a big recap here. I don’t feel  particularly exhausted, and I had a blast the entire time. We met a lot  of great people, rode a lot of miles, and cruised our way through 200  miles throughout the entire trip.

Day 0: Departure

I woke up (mostly) on time Sunday morning and got to the train  station (mostly) on time! The bike was 100% fully-loaded with everything  mentioned in the previous post, plus a few things I remembered last  minute. Bug spray is something I’m very glad I remembered to bring.

Hanging out at the train station early Sunday morning.

The train ride was mostly uneventful. I spent a lot of time reading  (actually started and finished an entire book on the trip: Vigilant by  James Alan Gardner) and eating food from the cafe car. We switched  trains in DC, and there were a few other bike touring folks on the same  train, so we got some details on what the trail was like over the past  few days.

Once we rolled into Cumberland, we were able to get situated enough  to find some food at Uncle Jack’s Pizzeria & Pub and I threw back a  couple of beers. I took half the pizza home, and the waitress was  oh-so-kind as to wrap it up in foil for me so I could stash it in my  front basket.

First stop: pizza town!

After some navigation issues (protip: practice using your bike  computer navigational system before taking it to an unfamiliar place),  we made it to our Cumberland Riverside YMCA campsite, which was occupied  by another couple of campers already nestled in their tents. Kathryn  and I had a hard time setting up in the dark, but we managed to get it  together well enough for the night, and then we nestled in as well. As  most people know, a two-person tent is very snug for two people. The  good news was that we both slept fairly well, even though we could hear  traffic.

Day 1: A wild puddle appeared!

Kathryn woke up before me on Monday morning, and she was already  showered and talking to our camp-mates before I finally rolled out of  the tent. Once I was on my feet, I gathered my morning things, only then  realizing that a towel would have been a really handy thing to pack. I  brushed my hair and added dry shampoo, changed into my bibs, and started  breaking down camp. The inside of the tent had gotten rather damp with  two people on a hot night, but we were able to get things mostly dry  before we packed up completely.

While things were drying, I ate the second half of my pizza from the  night before and chatted with our camp-mates. It was a dad and his  12-year-old daughter. I can’t remember how much of the trail they were  doing (or where they started), but it was her first big trip. We chatted  about trail conditions, and they eventually helped guide us into town  and onto the trail once we were all ready to go. With our sights set on  Little Orleans (a good 45-50 miles away), we started pedaling.

Our starting point, Cumberland, was a cute little town.

The nicest thing was being out of the hustle and bustle of the city.  Having grown up in one of the more rural parts of the country, it felt  like my childhood all over again. The scenery was lush and green, and we  saw plenty of wildlife the entire trip. Once we were out there, it was  plenty muddy. Puddles everywhere! I had to walk around a few, but  Kathryn’s fat bike handled them like a champ.

Kathryn’s lack of fenders meant her water bottle got pretty dang muddy.

We stopped at several of the locks and lock houses along the way for  pictures and general historical context. At one of the lock houses, a  lady was walking along the path and stopped to talk to me. Her  grandmother used to live right nearby, and she (the grandmother) had  been alive when folks still lived in the lock houses. Presently, none of  them are operational, so that was neat! Her grandmother also told her  the story of a little girl who had dropped money in the canal on her way  to the general store and (sadly) drowned.

Autumn doing a history learn.

At another lock house, Kathryn and I heard two animals playing in a  tiny cave of sorts. They were definitely bigger than squirrels, so our  best guess was either raccoons, possums, or maybe even foxes.

On our way to Paw Paw riding that sweet, sweet pavement after all those gravel miles.

We stopped for lunch in Paw Paw. Or rather, I really wanted there to  be a tavern, but there was no tavern, even though the sign said it was  just up ahead. Once we were off the trail, it got really hot. It’s  amazing what a difference lack of trees and the addition of concrete and  asphalt make. I was really craving a Coca-Cola, but I had to settle for  Dr. Pepper this time around… and it wouldn’t be the last time on the  trip.

Once we refueled ourselves, we got back to the trail and stopped  outside the Paw Paw Tunnel for a quick photo op and I climbed some  slippery steps. Then we got into the tunnel, which is a lot longer than  it looks and very, very bumpy. We both ended up walking the last bit,  figuring we didn’t want to wreck either into the canal water or the  stone walls.

Wild puddles everywhere!

We pushed on, and the last five miles to our dinner spot were the  hardest. Both of us were pretty sapped at that point, so all we could  think about was food and sleep. Rolling up to Bill’s Place was great, and the grilled cheese, fries, and beer I had there was  totally worth it. Unfortunately, we got some bad news. Our campground  was straight up a hill. We waffled on what we wanted to do, especially  since we didn’t foresee any real food at the camp store. For reference,  there is another campground right on the trail (15 Mile Campground), but  it’s by reservation only.

Bill’s Place had ample bike parking across the street.

Eventually, we agreed to go through with our original plan, possibly  coming back down the hill once we’d checked in and unloaded the bikes.  The hill was awful. It was melting chip and tar, making it impossible to  pedal up the steep grade. Groaning, sweating, and tired out of our  gourds, we managed to push our bikes up and up until we made it to the  campsite.

Goofing around at the pool felt great after nearly 50 miles of biking.

The campsite itself was very pleasant! Not only that, but the camp  store had snacks, the pool was open, and we were able to recharge our  electronic bits and bobs inside while we swam and lounged at the pool.  Once we were back at camp, we watched bunnies doing what bunnies do  best. (There’s a common phrase I’ll refrain from using here, but it was  very accurate.) I splurged on a 6-pack of Miller Lite and ended up  reading until dark when all the fireflies came out twinkling in full  force.

Unfortunately, the trees were just a little too far apart, so Kathryn  had to sleep in the tent again. It smelled like farts when I finally  flopped in, hah!

Day 2: Who sh*ts in a urinal?!

Pit stop for snacks.

We woke up Tuesday, and I had Pringles for breakfast like a  reasonable adult. There were fewer puddles, but so many spiderwebs. They  were clinging to both of us all morning like delicate streamers.

Buddy Lou’s was our first destination for an early lunch. Google,  trying to be oh-so-smart, gave us the wrong opening time, so we had to  wait a little while before the kitchen was up and running. I ate some  honest-to-gods vegetables and cheese, drank a lot of water, and then we  went back to our bikes. We met four or five guys who were going the same  way as us, and it sounded like they’d be stopping in the same towns as  us along the way.

There’s nothing a couple of strong, independent woman can’t do!

We found a downed tree which we had to clear, then it was  up-up-up-uphill! The grade wasn’t bad, but the gentle uphill is pretty  rough when you’ve been biking for a day and a half. We stopped at a  beautiful big dam for some pictures and general sightseeing, then we  were off again.

Once, when we stopped at a porta-john, somebody had taken a nasty  not-so-solid dump in the urinal. Note to all you fellow trail-goers: DO  NOT DO THIS. IT’S DISGUSTING. YOU ARE A DISGRACE TO ALL HUMAN KIND.

The last five miles were the worst, and it felt like we were going to  slog on forever and ever. We had to make our way through town, which  took us uphill on asphalt, and boy howdy, was that rough. It’s so much  hotter once we got off the trail, and the steep grades were not treating  me very well.

Just a snack… right?

We found a pizza place and ordered some garlic bread and pizza for  the night and the next morning. What we didn’t realize was that the  garlic bread was more like a garlic boat. I managed to bite mine into a  pig-shaped sculpture, which felt much like a sign from the heavens. What  the sign was saying, I’m still not sure.

Strapping the pizza to the back of the bike was easy. (Why hadn’t we  thought of that earlier?) The route from the pizza shop to the  Jellystone campground was an easy one, and thank goodness for wide  shoulders on busy roads. We rode our bikes around the campground, hung  out by the pool, bought some sweet iron-on patches. The best part was  all the other campers (adults and kids alike) riding their bikes around.  I felt right at home.

Who doesn’t love a good rhyme?

Day 3: Baby’s first flat

It was really, really hard to wake up on Wednesday. I’m not exactly  sure why, but I think it had something to do with biking 100 miles over  the previous two days and knowing I had to do it another two days. We  packed up camp (for the final time this trip), had some pizza for  breakfast, and headed out for the day.

By far some of the most pleasant and enjoyable scenery!

This day had some of the best scenery, with the path going right  alongside the river for a long time (concrete, finally) with a beautiful  view. It was awesome seeing people out on boats. Our friends from Buddy  Lou’s the day before caught up to us, and we chatted with them a bit  more about the night’s destination: Harpers Ferry.

Yeah, I probably should have been checking my tires more regularly.

About five miles away from Shepherdstown, I got a flat after being  dumb and going a little too fast over some bigger rocks. I had never  gotten a flat on the road before, but I had the equipment to fix it!  Kathryn and I struggled trying to take the tire off, but neither of us  could unseat the bead. This is where I put in a good word for the P.E.  teacher who stopped to help us and insisted we don’t call him “sir.” It  made him feel old. Tip: move the bead to the center before using the  tire levers.

Even though we switched out the tube, it was pretty clear that the  distance and weight had taken a massive toll on my tires. Good thing for  us there was a bike shop in Shepherdstown! We stopped there, and the  really awesome people at Pedal & Paddle were able to get me set up  with some new tires and switch me to tubeless. They did all this so  speedily, and the price was less than I expected. Not only that, but the  mechanic told us the best spot in town to eat (Blue Moon Café) and  pointed us to swimming holes we wouldn’t be able to utilize that night  (only because we were too tired). The café had a stream running right  through the middle of the outdoor seating area, and the southwest wrap I  ordered was fantastic.

Once we were done with lunch, I settled up with the bike shop and we  were on our way to the hostel in Harpers Ferry (or rather, just outside  of it). The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful… until we started  climbing the hill to the hostel. I had to get off the bike and walk it  was so steep and I was so tired, and the drivers were anything but  friendly. With barely any shoulder to keep us away from the cars, it was  rough going.

The massive meat platter Kathryn ordered at Guide House Grill.

We checked in, showered, and got ready to find the closest place to  eat. Guide House Grill was delicious and friendly. We met another  cyclist there and a couple who gave us their number in case anything  went horribly wrong and we needed some help. Back at the hostel, we  started laundry, and I fell right to sleep when I sat down just to rest  my eyes. I woke up briefly to hang my laundry up to dry, then it was  right back to sleep.

Day 4: Final day

All loaded up!

Not having to pack up camp on Thursday was the highlight of my  morning. There was some hostel-provided breakfast and coffee, which I  chowed down on rather quickly. The shuttle arrived shortly after to help  us bypass a washout that we didn’t want to deal with, so we loaded our  bikes and bags into the big van and set off. We picked up a father and  son and one other guy along the way.

The other guy took off as soon as the van unloaded, but the other  four of us were looking for food before we started biking for the day.  Unfortunately, the deli never opened. We did some google-fu and managed  to find another deli close by, so we all loaded up and made our way  there. We got some pizza (yes, again) and some simple subs to eat  throughout the day, made our way back to the trail, and started rolling.

Kathryn/I and the father/son took turns passing each other as we  stopped for breaks for much of the morning. After chatting with them a  bit more, Hart (the father) mentioned he was renting one of the lock  houses and we were welcome to come check it out once we got there.  Elated by the chance to see some real-live history, we agreed to catch  up to them later in the day.

Inside the lock house was awesome! We explored that for a  bit, and Kathryn and I agreed we would have to come back to #25 someday  and rent it for ourselves. Apparently it’s only $100/night, and you  could comfortably have up to six people in there (maximum of eight). We  ate more pizza, then we got back on the trail.

We stopped at Great Falls, ate some more garbage food (a pretzel with  cheese for me), did some picture-taking and walking around, then met a  couple of guys who were doing both the GAP and the C&O in just two  days. I can’t imagine that would be any fun, but kudos to them!

The final fifteen miles were definitely the easiest. Half because it  was downhill, half because the thought of being done was very, very  motivating. We rode all the way to the very end of the trail (which  isn’t marked very well), then to the National Mall, then finally to our  hotel. I had to walk up some of those last hills, but it was worth it!  We got some Chipotle, bought some room beers and wine, and slept very,  very well that night.

The very end of the trail. Well, technically the beginning, since we started at the end.
Tourists are awful at taking photos, so we didn’t get a good one of us together.

Yes, I’ll do it again

There’s no doubt in my mind! I’m not sure I’ll ever do the entire  route again, but I’d love to go back. In particular, I’d like to visit  Shepherdstown again, which seemed like such an adorable, great little  town. Kathryn already has plans to rent that lovely little lock house,  and since I have friends in D.C., it makes sense that I’ll be up there  again someday.

Autumn Welles

Autumn Welles