Monday, June 11, 2007

H.F. or Bust...

Having failed in my last-minute efforts to raise a team (hurriedly dubbed The SSOFT Leftovers) from the remnants of the SSOFT proper to ride Big Bear, but wanting to be a comrade dans la misère, I took advantage of the nice weather this weekend past to ride out to Harpers Ferry and back on the C&O Canal Trail.

Like many of my plans, this was a last-minute decision. This meant I'd be throwing everything together on Saturday morning with the goal of leaving no later than 11:00. I missed the mark by an hour and a half. Classic me.

Because I was rushed, I decided to "run what I brung" and go with the 48x16 city gear already set up on the fixie. Laziness and that same time constraint meant that the new Vittoria Randonneur 28c tires currently on the rims would also stay put, and that my ass would have to compensate accordingly. It was an experiment of sorts, trading comfort for speed and assaying the results with an eye toward future long-distance treks. The fraying bar tape that I'd been meaning to replace for months (now a rudimentary streamer) would have to make at least one more journey. I took along two extra spokes on the likely chance that my aging wheelset might suffer a break and render me hors de combat somewhere beyond the bucolic boundaries of Leesburg, Virginia.

So, around 1:30, under beautiful, sun-soaked skies, I set out from my house, riding the five or six miles through Arlington on the Custis Trail, crossing Key Bridge, then taking the sidewalk down to the footbridge over the canal, where I planned to start the trip. The loaded panniers and waterpack pushed the bike on the early downhills, where I had to resist the pedals' angular momentum with extra vigor to maintain a safe speed. The few short climbs posed no problem, as the added mass meant extra initial momentum at the start that I was able to carry to the top.

Once on the trail, the ride up north (the "uphill" direction) was largely uneventful. The gearing proved ideal for a nice, steady pace and the cushiness of the tires belied their spindly profile, transmitting no more trail input than the comparatively fat 40s I rode several years ago when a group of us traveled the full trail over three days. The small diameter meant lighter weight and lower rotational mass, translating into an easier-than-expected effort at the pedals. I felt strong and sure, and the miles flew by with the ease and grace of the handful of herons I spooked to flight along the early miles. The experiment was proving to be a success.

The plan was to make it to Harpers Ferry, WV (mile post 60.7) with enough daylight to grab a meal and a beer or two at the Armory Pub. After that, I'd ride an additional two miles north to set up camp for the night at the Huckleberry Hill campsite just before the sun plunged into the Potomac.

The first and only real shock of the trip came at White's Ferry, where I stopped to get a drink and some bottled water. The anti-bike graffiti gracing the pavement at the entranceway (classy!) and presumably scrawled by the owner with the delicacy and deliberation of a full-bladdered fratboy should have been an omen: a desperate search for my wallet and cash turned up nothing. Damn! Forty miles from home and flat-out busted! Then I remembered the stash pocket in my waterpack, et voilà! A little rummaging reversed the misfortune and I was back in the black. A Gatorade and a liter of water later I was pedaling westward with another 25 miles to go.

The trail was in good shape; muddy in spots but not unusually so. Several downed trees meant a bit of detouring on short arcs already being etched into the soft earth by the tread of hikers and bikers alike.

I arrived at my destination sometime around 7:30, pausing to chat with a hiker beneath two overhead railroad bridges that disappeared into the maw of a tunnel through the gnarled rock of Maryland Heights. I shouldered my bike and ascended the stairs to the footbridge leading into Harpers Ferry (a sign on the railing—suggesting the possibility of a choice—kindly asks cyclists to dismount before climbing the 20-odd steps to cross over the Potomac).

Once on West Virginian soil, I pedaled up a weak hill, stashed my unlocked bike in plain sight, and headed into the Armory Pub for a little refueling. [The pub is named, presumably, after the federal armory against which John Brown—abolitionist guerrilla whose neck found a noose on a December day five score and eighteen years ago (I salute your spirit, if not your tactics)—breechloader in hand, led a violent if ultimately unsuccessful raid in this now quiet little Appalachian town. The start of the civil war has been attributed in part to Brown's insurrectionary aggression.] I ordered a burger and a Rogue Dead Guy Ale, both served me by a lanky and frenetic college kid whose early career could have benefitted immensely with the simple addition of a few grains of hydrocodone. I noticed then that somewhere along the footbridge I'd managed to misplace the dust cover for the new camera I'd recently bought. At this rate, it would be a fantastic piece of luck if I made it home with the lens intact.

I ate the burger and drank the ale. Then I ordered a porter. The sun slinked west. The evening darkened. The waiter brought my beer. Hemingway's bones settled. In a cramped corner of the second-story outdoor patio on which I sat, an aging troubadour with a permanent squint covered a Hendrix cover of a Dylan tune on an aging acoustic guitar for the pack of mostly aging patrons. The requests from the crowd were banal and predictable, but the burger was good and the beer (Rogue Mocha Porter) nothing short of sublime. I drained my glass, paid my bill, tipped the spastic waiter, and left. I made a last minute decision to eschew the Huckleberry Hill campsite and head back about 10 miles to a campsite I noticed was vacant on my ride out.

Near mile post 50, I found the site (Bald Eagle Island, "subject to noise") and set up camp on the dry, fractured clay. The last rays of the sun bowed to the dusk as I cooked up some freeze-dried spaghetti, the burger and beer having long since dissolved into fuel. Far off, the belly of a train grumbled sympathetically. I ate, doffed my cycling togs, then crawled into my tent to read a little Nabokov by headlamp before getting some much-needed rest. I had the joint all to myself.

I made it through one short chapter before the faraway train was no longer far away, its gastric growling now a tornadic howl that crashed down around the campsite as it rushed past not 40 yards from the head of my tent. Subject to noise...every two hours...all night. I slept in short, unrestorative intervals, troubled by the passing trains and beset by vivid, lurid dreams in which I again unsuccessfully pursued an old unrequited love interest (odd how the unconsious mind out-of-doors draws on the verdant fertility of the surrounding woods like a satyr...okay, for me it does).

On Sunday, in the chilly morning haze, I made oatmeal, packed up, and hit the trail by 8:30. I had 55 miles left to ride.

The ride back went surprisingly well, and the slight downhill grade made for a steady one to two miles-per-hour improvement over the previous day's speed ("there really is a difference!"). Again, the weather was ideal. My legs felt strong (no muscular hangover), my ass wasn't yet dreaming of a chaise lounge, and though a tingling numbness had settled into my palms and fingers, I was enjoying the scenery as it rolled past me all the same.

My goal was to continue on some 15 miles until I hit White's Ferry again, where I would stop to grab some fresh water. My water pack was down to a few precious sips, and I hadn't bothered to fill it or my water bottle with the rust-hued liquid I'd managed to coax from a creaking pump back at the campsite.

At White's Ferry, I bought my water and pounded a Gatorade. I rang up Butch to tell him it would be late afternoon before I was back in the area to ride Rosaryville, a plan I'd proposed during an unlikely bout of optimism on Friday. We decided that the time was getting tight, and after a short debate, I canceled my post-ride ride to be fair to him.

Back on the bike, the miles disappeared under my treads. I stopped every now and then to eat a gel or snap some pix. When I resumed, it was usually only to encounter a lone Great Blue Heron standing like a sentinel on the canal bank, eyes peeled for a tell-tale ripple on the otherwise glassy surface of the canal. Each time as I scrambled for the camera, the regal beast would suddenly stoop and step and launch out over the dusky mirror, gliding in a graceful, silent, slow-motion arc to land on a grassy tuft jutting conveniently from the water.

I stopped after one of these episodes to eat a peanut-butter laden bagel on which I spread an apple-pie flavored energy gel as a sort of jelly. Tasty. It wasn't long before I entered the Great Falls area some 14 miles out, where a gentle rain began to fall. The terrain here turns rocky and lumpy, and the vibrations transmitted up the fork and through the bars instantly become more than just a passing nuisance. The roughness of the trail conspired with the weariness of the rider to imbue the last several miles with a violence it truly didn't deserve.

The rain ended, and an hour later I rolled into Georgetown, pounded up the dirt hill leading to the footbridge, crossed over the canal, and veered left the way I came almost exactly 24 hours ago. I made my way down M Street to the usual post-C&O-Canal-ride watering hole, Pizzeria Paradiso, for a pie (Atomica!) and the usual post-C&O-Canal-ride beverage of choice. I managed to add three notches to my liver before heading out to climb through Rosslyn on my way home: a nicely hopped Brasserie d'Achouffe Houblon Dobbelen IPA Tripel (9%), an old favorite, Unibroue's Trois Pistoles (9%), and Avery's fruity tribute to balance in the beery universe, Karma (5.2%).


Yuri said...

nicely done there sir.
that is my kind of riding.
minus the train thing.

2drunk2shift said...

Isn't Nabokov mentioned in an old Police song? That sounds like an awesome trip. I got a shit load of tatts on M street at jinx proof by Jason Camfiord. Small world.

iconoclasst said...

Yuri, thanks. I need to get a better handle on the new camera, as you seem to have.

Yeah, 2D2S, it's "Don't Stand So Close To Me." The verses are:

its no use, he sees her/
he starts to shake and cough/
just like the old man in/
that book by Nabokov

and are a reference to Humbert Humbert, the witty, intellectual, antihero pederast of the brilliant novel Lolita.

Check out the annotated version some time and see just how goddam complex and vast was the intellect of ol' Vlad.

Hjalti said...

Excellent report! Sorry the trains kept you up.

riderx said...

Nice sub 24 hour overnighter. Been needing that myself.

Spent many nights at Bald Eagle island and it is always noisy. A nice huge site, but it practically sits on the tracks. Earplugs may be the ticket.

AteMrYeats said...

A nice read, Steve. Next time bring me along.

iconoclasst said...

AMrY, thanks, no problem, will do.

BTW, yesterday (6/13), should have particular significance for you, n'est ce pas?

AteMrYeats said...

You got me. What am I missing; and why all the French locutions lately?

Tim Wise said...

Great post Steve, as always. Sounds like a Great time.Good to do a SSolo run every now and again. Been a long time since I have ridden the C&O trail.

iconoclasst said...


Yeats' birthday.

The French phrases? I'm just pretentious. And, I took a class recently.

Indep said...

Oh yeah, Huckleberry Hill is a much quieter place to camp. Smaller site but at least you can sleep through the night.