A few hours southwest of Philadelphia is a 185-mile towpath that begins in the heart of D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood and continues through Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland to the small town of Cumberland, on the Pennsylvania border. The C&O Trail runs alongside the shaded banks of the Potomac River, with the terrain ranging from crushed stone to loose gravel to dirty, dusty double-track.
This past week, my long-legged friend Christina and I met in Harpers Ferry, WV, site of the famous John Brown’s raid and Mile 60 of the trail, to test the waters of multi-day cycling.
We had made tentative plans six weeks earlier: she would fly home to North Carolina from Oregon and drive north, I would return from Ecuador and make a mad dash south, and we would tackle an out-and-back loop over roughly five days of biking.
All of the trail guides suggested mountain bikes to cover the rough terrain, and because the carbon-frame Bruce-mobile can’t support a rack and panniers, I had decided that I would carry all of my gear on my back.
It seemed like a good idea until about an hour before I was set to leave, when I tried to stuff food, water, bike and first aid kits, pots, a stove, and a sleeping bag into my pack. At close to 50 pounds, there was no way I could stay upright, let alone cover any distance.
Time for a Plan B.
We met in Harpers Ferry at 2:00 PM, attempted to rent a mountain bike with a rack, and when that didn’t work, began going through all of our collective gear.
By 4:30, we were off – less the pots and stove, which we decided we could do without. We’d live off cliff bars, dried fruit, bagels, pretzels, and luke-warm Thai and Indian dinners. I was still carrying a solid 25-30 pounds on my back, but it was manageable, and Christina hauled a fair bit more in her two panniers.
Over the next few days, we biked past old Civil War buildings, mazes of locks and dams, and big red barns.
We encountered turtles and snakes and deer…
…and even a few creatures that go bump in the night and enjoy Trader Joe’s bagels.
We ate gourmet meals…
Note the nice digs in the photo on the right… after biking in 100 degree days and camping in 90 degree nights, we decided we were sorely in need of an air conditioned bedroom. We spent our third night at a B&B in Williamsport, MD, but stuck with our camp food.
…and drank freshly-pumped well water.
We splashed around in the river.
…and paused to mug for pictures.
We had a few mechanical issues that forced us to turn back half a day early, but neither of us minded too much, given the heat and humidity. We finished at noon on Sunday, pushing the pace for the last 40 miles that morning. We stopped for lunch in Harpers Ferry, biked up the last hill to our cars, and loaded everything inside just in time. Fifteen minutes later, the skies opened, and for the next hour, we watched an amazing thunderstorm from the comfort of the car.
We decided to spend our last night at a cheap motel in a small Maryland town, and capped off the trip with an evening of (cooked) Ethiopian food and dazzling fireworks at the Frederick Keys minor league baseball game.
We even made it onto the jumbo-tron!
What more could you ask?