Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Overnight Success Story (Part 1)...

“Damn, I forgot my gloves. That’s not going to cut it.”

It’s Saturday. It’s late. Well, late for a semi-impromptu overnighter ride from Northern Virginia to Harpers Ferry and back. I’m in Georgetown along with Donna, who has kindly decided to accompany me on this poorly planned excursion. Our bikes are loaded down with gear; the black, overstuffed panniers droop from the racks like spoiled fruit. Gear, yes...and beer: a bomber of Weyerbacher's Imperial Pumpkin Ale and eight cans of trekker-friendly Dale's Pale Ale ("Pack It In, Pack It Out", indeed!), all of it getting warmer by the minute as, overhead, the sun rolls along its own heavenly trail. But I need gloves, there's no getting around it; the rough terrain of the C&O Canal Towpath can rattle the bones right out of your bare hands over long distances, especially when you're rolling on skinny tires and a rigid frame. This oversight is an omen, a metaphysical message that whispers just above the audible threshold, "hey, you, listen well...it's not gonna be a good weekend for you on the bike, my friend, oh, no...reconsider...you've been warned."

I don't listen well. Ma tête est comme un diamant, mais sans brillant!

It's 1:30 in the afternoon. I had wanted to leave no later than 11:00 a.m. But preparing for an overnighter on the morning of departure demands concession. No matter, the show must roll on, and us along with it.

We dock the bikes outside of Revolution Cycles, and I wander in to check out the merch. I find a pair of Castelli gloves that look nicely padded in all the right places, try on the XLs, and make for the counter, another satisfied customer. The chick who rings me up takes my word that I’m a WABA member and fronts me the 10% discount, despite the absence of my membership card (apparently, "in the system" has multiple meanings). Nice.

Outside again, we hop on the bikes and wobble up the sidewalk to cross over M Street. The pavement is packed with traffic, as the sidewalks are with shoppers—my usual blind luck has placed us smack in the middle of Yuppieville during the 14th Annual Taste of Georgetown festival. We proceed across and up M Street, briefly separating in the colorful ebb and flow of a crowd that seems to mill about on instinct. The throng is a single, undulating organism adrift in the opiatic haze of a shopping stupor. Today Only! Half-Off Synthetic Self-Esteem! Better buy two, just to be sure.

Adding to the natural pandemonium are cops at the street crossings. They direct pedestrians instead of traffic, betraying a pathological preference for the mechanical over the metabolic with commands like, "hurry up, the light has changed!" and "c'mon, c'mon, let's move!" I stare back at one who does his best to stare me down. His face is weathered, and he scowls distastefully at this impudent mutant, this mobile hobo in an overpriced wifebeater who dares to occupy the niche—figuratively and literally—between walker and driver. Justitia omnibus, my ass. Ah well, it's a shitty gig, I'm sure.

I meet up again with Donna on K Street under the Whitehurst Freeway overpass. The steep hill down to K was a test of strength, as the extra weight and the 50x16 gearing had me battling the cranks for cruise control. We roll onto the Capital Crescent Trail, the start of our journey, and take it down to the first "on ramp" to the C&O Canal Towpath. But first, in a rare display of forethought, I stop to leave a cable lock attached to a kiosk, so that the post-ride pub stop tomorrow will be agreeably uneventful. And so that I don't have to pointlessly huck the extra weight.

Once on the towpath, the ride out goes well. We make good time, and though Donna is running a single speed set up with a 42x16 gear and loaded down with panniers (a first for her), she's able to stay with me for the most part over the miles. The weather is more than we could ask for; the temperature is in the low 70s, the sun has kicked every cloud out of the ribbon of blue sky separating the treetops on either side of the trail, and any thought of rain is only a wayward memory. We have 60 miles ahead of us, almost 70 overall, and my plan is to take a break for a few minutes every 15 miles or so.

The trail is surprisingly free of leaves, and we come upon only one downed tree blocking the path. The lack of thunderstorms recently has meant little debris and no puddles to contend with. In some places, the remains of fallen walnuts stain the earth in ragged ring-patterns that morbidly suggest gunpowder tattoos. Those that survive the fall intact are like giant green marbles to the blind tire. We weave through them at speed.

The canal appears as it always does, though obviously much has changed since its forced retirement from the coal business more than 80 years ago. Unemployed and left to fend for itself, the water is still, dark, and mysterious in most places; brackish where it lies completely undisturbed. Hulking willows and black walnut trees huddle like old friends along its banks, and in their solemn shadows a thick, green coating spreads across the water's surface like a rash.

There are times as we roll along when we're tempted to break out a beer. But we resist, knowing how much better they'll taste later, at the random campsight we plan to happen upon near Harpers Ferry. Assuming one is available, that is.

The miles limp by. Though the towpath is flat for the most part (with an elevation change of only 605 feet over nearly 185 miles), distance is surrendered grudgingly, and 60 miles of canal riding in a day can get to you, beautiful scenery notwithstanding. The countless jolts and vibrations add up like língchí, until the thought of more time in the saddle gives way to a crippling malaise.

Just past mile marker 50, we reach the first campsight I had considered, Bald Eagle Island campground (where in June I suffered alone the plaintive howls of CSX trains barreling through the darkness all night long), only to find it occupied. The Indian summer we're experiencing has attracted cyclists and hikers looking to take advantage of the mild temps before winter snows blanket the trail like a funeral pall. We press on.

A short time later, we stop again, certain that a solid 20 miles stands between us and our fuzzy destination. It's late in the evening now, sometime after six, and dusk has snuck into the woods on the feet of a cat burgler1, stealing the daylight. After talking with some cyclists heading in the other direction, we find out we're only 10 miles from the finish—my aforementioned lack of planning had left us relying on my memory that Harpers Ferry was near mile marker 70. Sometimes it's good to be wrong.

Encouraged by the news, we saddle up and lay it down at a good clip, racing the moon, who has arrived early for the nightshift. Somewhere near mile marker 58, we happen upon a large campsite inhabited by a lone tent zipped shut against the coming of nighttime. Not knowing how many other sites lie between us and the town, and weary enough to be done now, we opt for this one. We set up camp as far away from the other traveler as possible, trying to be quiet as we unpack. I begin to assemble my new two-person tent for the first time. It comes together smoothly in no time at all, and we decide to climb back on the now-unburdened bikes and venture a little more than two miles up the trail to visit Harpers Ferry for some grub and a beer.

In no time at all, and guided only by blinker lights, we arrive near the base of the mountains at Maryland Heights. We heft our bikes up the steps of the footbridge that spans the Potomac River, then ride across the bridge and down the ramp on the other side. We climb into town over cobblestone roads, hoping that the Armory Pub has something good on tap. It's just before 9:00.

End, Part 1

1Yes, I've read a little Sandburg in the past and yes, some of it stuck.


crankedmag said...

What a great telling of your adventure. Thanks for bringing fond memories of my homestate and area of Maryland. Looking forward to reading more!


AteMrYeats said...

Keep it coming, Steve. Nice read.

b1umb0y said...

Sounds like a beautiful trip! Can't wait to continue the story.