Follow the Trail
September 2022 trip from Ashburn, VA to DC to Pittsburgh, PA on the WO&D, C&O and GAP rail trails.
It was almost 9:30 in the morning, a crisp late September day in Northern Virginia very near to the Potomac River. We were standing alone on an empty street lined with townhomes, our bicycles packed and ready. We will follow the Potomac for several days to the northwest, but first we had to get across it into Maryland. It had been years since we last followed this route, and we were about to rediscover the people who travel the slow way, stopping to see their surroundings and share stories and experiences. The end of this trail is 311 miles and many people away. The more I thought about it, the beginning was many years and thousands of miles in the past, cycling through Chicago’s Lincoln Park, Michigan, Switzerland, and our first date.
Sue made me wear my helmet, so we both put ours on and followed the empty streets to the east before turning south on a trail paralleling the parkway. No one paid much attention to two obvious long-distance bikers. We carried clothing, rain gear, tools to repair bikes, and trail food for the long stretches devoid of civilization. Bikers around D.C. are sophisticated and used to that sort of thing, however, and ignored us.
Traveling east on the W&OD rail trail from Virginia to DC, we reached Georgetown. It took us four and one-half hours , and now quite tired, we were faced with hordes of students, office workers, and tourists all vying for space. After stopping at every traffic light, Sue just got off her bike and walked in frustration. Finally, we made our way to Union Station on the other side of the city where we expected to catch a commuter train to Brunswick, Maryland. Whites Ferry, the only remaining ferry across the Potomac, had been closed for months because of a dispute between property owners. Had we kept riding our bikes to Brunswick, we would have to have done almost 100 miles for the day. If we spent the night in Georgetown, it would have cost us over $300. Instead, the MARC commuter train seemed like a better option. The stretch from Georgetown to Brunswick is devoid of much in the way of amenities and the first place to get a room is Brunswick.
We hadn’t been in Union Station in quite a while. It was bustling with people reading the arrival and departure boards and hurrying to trains. Others were enjoying pizza and other delicacies under the vaulted ceiling. We found our train anyway and it was easy to board the bikes.
Sue was exhausted by this time. She had two major surgeries in the previous twelve months, and her oncologist was already amazed that she was biking and hiking long distances. He would be astounded at 311 miles if she/we made it. She leaned her head on the wall of the train as it began the trip through suburban Maryland and took a catnap.
We left the train at Brunswick, its last stop, with the help of a passerby. Our heavy, electric assist bikes are only 38 pounds when not carrying baggage for the trail, but now they had to go down three steps from the train to the platform. I had needed help and luckily a kind guy who seemed to understand the dilemma we were in obliged. Electric assist, by the way, means that there is power if you need it to go up a steep hill or into the wind. The motor does not run all the time, and it was described by someone on the trail as, “if you stop pedaling, the bike stops”. I just wanted to clear that up.
We quickly learned the bikes’ limitations, and ours. Sue had planned the trip and used Google Maps to route us to our accommodations. Did I mention that Brunswick is also very hilly? Though located on the Potomac River, is takes a steep climb upright from the train tracks Our motel was about a mile up that hill. After Sue saw it, she compared favorably to Mount Everest. I managed to push my bike up the mountain, one or two hundred feet at a time, stopping to catch my breath each time. In the meantime, Sue struggled to make only a little progress, and was offered a place to sit and rest on a neighbor’s porch. I went back down to retrieve her.
Safely at the motel, we were trapped at the top of the mountain. If we went back down, we faced having to get crampons and pitons to get back up. Dinner was at Penny’s diner on the mountain top.
The next morning, we began the ride on the C&O Towpath to Cumberland, MD and where we would meet with the Great Allegheny Passage, the GAP. The trip down the mountain was easy and at the bottom we turned right towards Pittsburgh and the many towns between us and the Steel City. It was a ride we knew well, though from the other direction. Sue and I had ridden these trails together three times, and I had done it twice more alone. Our fascination with the trails had begun when we saw an article in the travel section of the Washington Post in 2007 that described and celebrated the GAP rail trail on the opening of the last of several tunnels, the Savage Tunnel, that had been carved through the mountains at the beginning of the 20th century. At just over a mile long, and the last tunnel on the 150 mile, off-road trail from Pittsburgh to DC, we knew immediately that the ride was something we had to do and planned the trip for the following year.
That first ride was lonely. We encountered a few people walking on the trail and a handful of cyclists near the parking areas. We stopped at the visitors’ center at West Newton, a restored train station staffed by two volunteers. They were amazed that they had two through bikers and had us sign their guest book. We signed it again on this trip, but we were anything but lonely. While there were long stretches devoid of people, mostly there were hikers and bikers everywhere.
It was cold when we left Brunswick, and before long it started to rain, and rain, and rain. The U.S. Weather Service had promised a week of sunshine and moderate temperatures. They lied just because of hurricane Ian.
The C&O trail hadn’t changed much since the first time we rode it. Dirt, sometimes a single, narrow track, it can be hard to ride in good weather. A constant rain creates continuous lakes on the trail that hide rocks and branches just below. The mud is slippery and the rocks are jarring. Add to that wet clothes and constant cold wind, and the effect is demoralizing. Sue almost quit a couple of times, though there really wasn’t anywhere to go if she did. On one of my earlier solo trips, I rode through several days of rain and when I reached our home in Virginia Sue would not let me into the house. Laughing evilly, she hosed me down in the driveway.
The going was slow, but we started to meet through bikers, invariably greeting each other as we passed. Bikers share a passion for traveling slowly, seeing the world up close, and meeting the people who live there and the people who ride through it like themselves. I had forgotten what that’s like, though Sue and I both began to value the conversations we had along the trail. Sometimes it was sharing advice about the trail ahead, and other times it was sharing life stories and dreams. We knew there were a couple of problem areas on the C&O. A recent flood had damaged a retaining wall at mile post 88 and the Paw Paw Tunnel was closed for repairs. At Mile Post 88 just before Williamsport, we had to climb up a steep embankment with our loaded bikes, which was covered with mulch for about 100 ft to reach some country road detours.
At Williamsport, we paused at a Red Roof Inn, one we had stayed at before, and then continued on after having Chinese takeout from across the street. What had been a sporadic, light drizzle, turned into a downpour just as we reached Hancock, Maryland and a trailside restaurant and antique store. Being antiques ourselves, we didn’t need any more, but we did seek shelter and some snacks. We sat under the restaurant’s overhang alone in the cold, and then we rode back out into the muddy lake of a trail.
It was around this time that we gave up on trying to ride around lakes and puddles and just rode through them. Why bother? We were wet, muddy, and cold, and no longer cared. We couldn’t get any wetter or much muddier, and we certainly were not going to get warm. Riders going the other way were also warning us that it was going to get worse.
The Paw Paw Tunnel, a unique experience on the C&O trail near Cumberland, was closed for repairs. Some riders said that the construction workers were offering rides around the mountain the tunnel went through for a fee. Others said the Park Service had a sometimes-running bus service. Others said we would have to walk over the mountain on a mulch covered trail. An entrepreneur was advertising shuttles as far as Paw Paw, WV where we had lodging reservations. We seemed to have choices or maybe not. The only certainty was that we couldn’t walk through the tunnel.
We had been through the tunnel on earlier trips and knew that going over or around the mountain would be lengthy and very strenuous. We elected to call the entrepreneur.
We met him next to the trail at Little Orleans. He was driving an older car with a bike rack on it, not classy but functional. He loaded our bikes on to the rack on the back of the car and off we went down gravel roads. It was an hour’s drive on gravel roads. This part of Maryland is very rural. Along the way we got a running commentary about the region’s flora and fauna, and it was clear that he loved the mountains and rivers. He gave us a tour of Paw Paw (it takes less than ten minutes), made sure we knew how to cycle back to the C&O, and deposited us at our cabin for the night.
Four cabins sat along side a bath house behind an older, frame multi family building on a gravel drive. They were new and comfortable, and our neighbors were retired cyclists like us. We shared stories of trails and other rides and then went in search of food.
At the end of the rutted gravel drive was the state route and a Liberty gas station. On the porch, we were offered a paw paw, the local fruit. Inside there was a deli counter where they made sandwiches and isles of chips, sweets, and soaps. There was little that a Vegan could eat, so we walked across the road to the Dollar store, the business found in every town in America regardless of size. Sue found something to nuke in the microwave back at the cabin and I picked on a sandwich at the gas station/deli. We took our dinners back to our cabin and enjoyed our feast.
The next day both of us began to notice things we had passed on past trips but had never seen. We were now traveling more slowly and looking at our surroundings as we passed. A small town, a trailside shelter, large and small pieces of the landscape went by at cycling pace. We both also noticed the soft smell of wet trees, leaves, and the sweet, grape like smell of the Paw Paw fruit that was in season. They had been there all along, but we just didn’t notice.
At Cumberland, Maryland we walked along the river to a small strip of shops where we found European Deserts, a small café run by a man from Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina. He wanted to talk about the politics of the area, a place we knew from our travels. We all hoped for peace and enjoyed vegan and non-vegan dishes from the region.
At Cumberland the trail leads north on the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail to Frostburg. We were anticipating an excruciating climb up based on having taken the same route in the other direction. You feel like you are flying down toward Cumberland, so it must be a steep climb going up. It wasn’t. At the stop at Frostburg, we met another rider heading in our direction who shared his stories. He was a cancer survivor and Sue and he bonded. As he said, “no one really understands this disease unless they have been through it.” The three of us paused at the Eastern Continental Divide and the trailside museum at Meyersdale, where we talked to a group of friends from Iowa who were stopping there for the night and were interested in a recommendation for dinner.
We and our new cyclist friend stopped for the night many more miles down the trail and met at Rockwood’s only open restaurant, a brew pub just off the trail. It had nothing Sue could eat, so we walked next door to the Dollar General store, our new dining place of choice.
The next day we passed group after group of riders, dozens of them, heading towards Meyersdale. All riders on this trail greet each other as they pass. It’s a friendly, Midwestern thing to do. We later learned that many of these riders were probably on an annual ride to raise funds for vets.
Riding in a cold rain, Sue had lost all feeling in her hands and was becoming dangerously cold and her fingers were numb (a side effect of the cancer drug she is on). At West Newton, we stopped to get warm at the same trail visitor center we had visited years before. The cheery woman behind the counter asked how our day was going as we entered. Sue, looking pathetic, said something like not well, I’m very cold. Another woman in an adjacent office immediately stood and walked to the back of the station. She reappeared in a minute or two with an electric space heater and called Sue over. The first woman who said she used to be a meter reader, went out to her car and returned with a hand warmer that was lying unused in the car’s debris. The two took pity on a nearly drowned, frozen rider as people on the trail do.
Our last night on the trail we talked to a couple who had ridden across the country, seemingly to find the meaning of life. They were restoring an old building, just as we had done back in Illinois decades earlier. We shared restoration stories, compared notes, and reminded ourselves of the need to do good, to preserve the heritage, to wave to fellow travelers, and to slow down and enjoy life.
I was reminded of my first date with Sue in 1980. She asked me if I would like to go on the Apple Cider Century with her. I had to turn down the overnight trip and bike ride because I would be in D.C. at a conference that weekend over forty years ago now. Instead, I asked if she would like to ride to the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival with me a couple of weeks later. We rode the Apple Cider in other years, and now, talking to this young couple just starting their lives together, reminded us of how we found each other on a trail, saw America in slow motion, and shared dreams for a lifetime, often perched above two wheels.