Friday, October 21, 2005

A Tale of Two Trails (Conclusion)...

From the ferry, we pedal up a ramp to a general store. Markings on the storefront indicate that in the summer of '72, flood waters rose as high as the third story—it's a sure bet that the record will stand for the rest of the day. Just past the store lies the C&O Canal Towpath. To the left, the path stretches in a more or less northwestern direction some 150 miles before coming to an end in Cumberland, Maryland. But that segment, along with the lure of less familiar vistas, must wait for another time. Instead, we head right to begin the second half of our loop.

The sun is beginning to drop from the sky, ducking behind treetops and blanketing much of the trail in shadows. I've got my bike light, but the amount of life remaining in the battery is a question mark, since I neglected to recharge it after the last use. My conservative guess for burn time is about an hour and a half at best; unless I'm wrong, we'll be riding the last hour or so in the dark.

No other travelers are in view as we roll past mile marker 35, as in 35 miles to the terminus in Georgetown. The trail is already stippled with fallen leaves. The low rainfall of late has left the surface dry for the most part, though the occasional puddle punctures the dirt like a canker. The grade is slightly downhill, just enough for us to sustain a decent speed without using too much energy. (This minor advantage is amplified considerably over the full length of the towpath; for those looking to ride the entire trail, it is a strong incentive to start the journey in Cumberland, Maryland.)

I'm running 35s on my fixie; my girl is running 32s on her single-speed cross bike. It's her first real ride on the towpath, and I worry that the relatively skinny tires don't have enough meat to adequately buffer the bumps and ruts that seem exaggerated after riding the long ribbon of smooth asphalt that is the W&OD Trail. But she's doing fine, keeping up the pace and managing to dodge the tennis ball-sized black walnuts that turn swatches of the trail into inadvertant minefields.

We are flanked on the left by the canal itself, on the right by the Potomac river, which flickers in and out of view through the stand of trees along the edge of the shore. As the sun sinks closer to the horizon, the strategy becomes obvious: avoid anything darker than the rest of the trail—ruts and fallen branches become indistinguishable from one another in the gloaming, and both can mean bad news for the inattentive rider.

Though the twilight is upon us, we stop occasionally to take in the scenery and snap some pics. Somewhere along the way, on the Potomac side of the path, there appears a small group of houses atop stilts. Their spindly legs are a mute reminder of the dynamic, often destructive power that gathers quickly when rainfall and river join forces. On the other side, the water of the canal lies motionless and undisturbed, its surface covered in a thick layer of primordial algae, like the rind of some unripened fruit.

As we pedal along quietly, the surrounding silence is broken every now and then by deer crashing through the woods. Unlike those that loiter along the W&OD Trail as it passes through the suburbs of Vienna in Virginia, these deer have not yet acquired the unsettling docility that comes with encroaching housing development. Aside from the deer, which we hear more than see, no other wildlife appears.

The miles roll by slowly, and it occurs to me—not without a twinge of guilt—that part of the reason for the ride, the scenery, is quickly disappearing with the fading light. We pass over several locks, whose numbers don't really jibe with the nearest mile markers. The locks can be tricky sections when you're riding blindly, since they veer slightly from straight (straight being a dropoff into the canal) and usually have a short but choppy downward slope on the far side. Somewhere around mile marker 28 we stop long enough for me to attach the light to my girl's bike. Not dark enough yet to turn it on, but I'd rather install it while I can still see.

Back on the bikes, we keep the cranks turning. By the time we reach the bridge at Lock 24, the normally prominent rocks in the Potomac have been swallowed up in the darkness. But luck is on our side. A nearly full moon is cresting the treetops and throwing pale light onto the trail. We turn on the bike light only when the canopy of leaves overhead throws the path into shadows. Sightseeing is no longer an option, and we lay into the pedals with greater resolve.

Near mile 13, we arrive at a detour, a wooden bridge that leads up and over the canal to the opposite side. When I rode the full towpath last year, I skipped the detour and took my chances with the rocky section that lies beyond it. Big mistake, since much of this section is all but impassable, especially when you have to hike a bike with full panniers. So, we carry our bikes up the stairs and ride across the bridge to the other side. We turn on the bike light for the length of this detour, since the surface of the trail seems pitted with hoof prints, and neither of us have ever ridden it before.

Soon we see a detour sign pointing us left and down a rutted hill to cross back over to the towpath proper. Though the nighttime has stolen the colors around us, the moon spills diamonds of light across the surface of the canal; the chiaroscurro effect is by turns beautiful and eerie.

At Lock 6, on the banks of the canal, we see a house owned by the National Park Service. The lights are on inside; as I understand it, the inhabitant is an employee of the NPS who has the benefit of living here rent-free as part of his or her compensation. We don't stop, but instead pedal on to give the family their privacy.

Near Lock 4, we pause to take some pictures of The Georgetown, a canal barge that, with the help of an ambitious mule, ferried tourists along the Georgetown section of the canal until it was retired in 2003. Somewhere, I imagine, there's a mule who doesn't realize how lucky he is.

At some point after Lock 3, we stop to investigate the strange chirping sound that seems to be coming from my front wheel. The hub checks out okay, as does the brake. I squeeze the tire and realize that it's quite a bit low—odd, since I pumped up both tires before we began the ride. I pull out my backup light, a headlamp, switch it on, and begin to fill the tire with air. Satisfied with the volume, I remove the pump, and instantly the valve head explodes like a cannon, rocketing off into the void well beyond the trail's edge. This is the kind of mechanical you don't think about when you forego the spare tube in favor of a patch kit. Fortunately, I have both. I swap the defective tube for a new one, pump it up, and we head off again.

Suddenly the lights and traffic of Key Bridge come into view. We pass under the bridge and it isn't long before we reach the end of the line. We head up and over the canal via a steel truss bridge that lands us amid the lights and bustle of Georgetown. Technically, the end of the towpath is another .4 miles further east at mile marker 0, the Tidewater Lock. But, we rationalize, since we didn't ride the entire trail, this is good enough. Besides, it's late, and cold beer and a hot meal are calling to us. Fortunately, the Hard Times Cafe in Clarendon is open; it fits the bill on both counts. Chili and beer may just be the ultimate recovery meal—if not nutritionally, then certainly spiritually. Especially when the beer on tap is Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA; coincidentally, it's the same beer I celebrated with last year after riding the whole towpath.

By the time we reach the car, we've logged nearly 80 miles. It's been a long and enjoyable day, but now it's time to ride with the likes of Hypnos and Morpheus.


George said...

Nice write up.

The last time I rode our local rail trail up here in York I rode down to Cockeysville and back and had 3 flats.

I had 2 tubes and no patch kit and it was dark when I got the third flat.

Needless to say, I rode the last 10 miles or so on the rim in the dark.

It was still a fun ride though.......

iconoclasst said...


Man, that's tough. I think I had one flat last year for the entire 185 mile ride.

Odd thing about this ride is, earlier in the day I stopped to loan a pump to a guy who had a flat. Turns out his valve was bad as well, and it was a Schraeder type (mine were Presta). Like some kinda reverse karma thing...

Hjalti said...

Wow, what a great ride report. I'd like to try that loop sometime.