Lost in Time
After the second day of our 7-day adventure of cycling the C&O Canal through the GAP (Great Alleghany Passage) from of Washington DC to Pittsburg – I had found that time had become a meaningless blur of green foliage and the endless crunch of tires on gravel. I was lost in time and I felt as if we had been on this gravel path for months.
Perhaps it was the rich history of the C&O Canal pulling me away from reality or perhaps it was the strong and steady pace we maintained through the continuous tunnel of forest. Time moves differently here. To the green tunnel, it was just another summer on planet Earth without a particular year. It could have been 1817 or 2017. However: in 1817 we may have terrified the mules on the C&O Canal towpath.
Our mission was to complete 376 miles of bike trails from Alexandria, VA to Pittsburg, PA in 7 days while bike-packing all of our clothes and necessities to each night’s stay. Essentially: we were completely self-supported while still taking advantage of a nice shower and warm breakfast without bugs. Growing up in Virginia, I was fully aware that the summers came equipped with bugs and excessive humidity.
Camping in the Eastern US in summer was not on my bucket list. Completing this trip, however, definitely was. We picked a reasonable amount of time to complete the journey with most days averaging between 50-60 miles. This sounds fairly easy until you add the fact that 97% of the trip is entirely unpaved.
I learn A LOT on this trip. Mostly about what I was capable of given my dietary restrictions and what would end up being a tougher haul than expected. The scenery was peaceful, beautiful and engaging. As a semi-competitive cyclist (taking the year off from racing) I was fairly confident in my strength to complete the trip. The big unknown was whether I could expect the same performance output while being bombarded with allergens. Clean chemical-free food would be in short supply along the route and I wasn’t dragging a refrigerator behind my bike.
Time for me to jump in with both feet and get wet! My companions were both parts nervous and excited. My hubby: he was all for whatever regardless of weather, bugs, miles or even food. He takes life as it comes and greets it with arms wide open!
Speaking of the bike, I was very happy to be spending some quality time with my new-ish adventure gravel bike (the Grinch). She’s a carbon fiber Diamondback gravel adventure touring bike capable of taking on full racks, front and rear, while handling a variety of tire choices. I chose 650b wheels and knobby tires because that is what I had available. I knew that meant more rolling resistance, but I looked at it as good strength training.
Given the choice: I would have chosen 700c touring capable wheels with a nice set of 35mm tires that could handle mild gravel. Everyone else on the trip was looking forward to enjoying their all-steel construction touring bikes with the wheel choice mentioned above. Naturally, we took spare tubes, one complete compact tool kit (for everyone), frame pumps, spare cables and basic maintenance goodies for the tour. Looking back I wished I had put on mud guards too, but hindsight is 20/20. Fortunately: mud washes off.
We pushed a decent pace between 12-14 mph. Doesn’t sound like much at all until you add in gravel and gear. Weight matters. So does rolling resistance. I was a little disappointed with my tire choice from time to time … until we encountered roots, larger rocks, and mud. While my tires did an excellent job of slinging everything all over everyone (especially me) – they had great traction and were comfy as heck.
Too Much Stuff?
Since I had 4 bags on the bike you might assume that I was guilty of bringing too much stuff. Actually: none of the bags were full. It was all about weight distribution and packing smart. Even though I had found some extra-awesome waterproof Ortieb panniers on sale, I still packed everything in plastic or dry bags inside. It’s also important not to pack too much! After all, you have to haul that weight around for 7 days.
I made sure that I only had a kit to wash, a kit to wear, and one extra just in case. (I never used the extra kit.) I had a very small toiletries bag that would have passed any TSA checkpoint. I was also looking forward to spending 7 days makeup free (not that use much anyway). For off-bike time: I brought one pair of shorts, one skort, and two athletic tops. Everything was quick-dry and easy to wash, even my underwear.
Each person had their own pair of ‘camp’ shoes that were ultra-light and a rain jacket. My favorite purchase for the trip was the running cap that kept the rain out of my face. The big consideration was fuel for the journey and water. My bike was equipped with 3 bottle cages and the scarcity of easy fueling stops made that third bottle very useful. Easy to carry snacks and energy bars were also a MUST.
A definite unnecessary extra was the bottle of kit wash we took with us. Almost every location had some sort of shampoo that is also easily used to wash kits. Our friends brought a handy clothesline with them. Drying the kits was an exercise in strategic placement for optimal airflow. Our rooms looked like a laundry explosion every night.
Long Hours = Lunch Stops
New to me was the need to eat an actual lunch during the ride. Having never toured before or ridden long enough that required a lunch stop: this was uncharted territory for my stomach. As The Canary (allergic to darn near everything) I was woefully underprepared. Thinking a jar of peanut butter, loaf of dietary specific bread and bottle of honey was too much weight: I went without anything on the bike except fuel bars and energy snacks.
That was a really stupid idea.
After the third day, I figured out the routine my body was dealing with. The morning was always the easiest time to push the pace. I’d had my oatmeal (I carried that with me) and a couple of morning energy snacks. After lunch, I was thrown into a performance coma for at least 2 hours while my body dealt with whatever I had to eat, had an allergic reaction, got sick and then got over it. Afternoons weren’t all fun and games. I didn’t say much because there really wasn’t any point. I focused on the scenery!
Don’t Forget the Scenery!
There were so many cool sights to see! I will get into detail later during my daily rundowns. In summary: everything was pretty awesome. If nothing else, we got to enjoy 7 days of car-free riding. Life is better by bike. You see so much more and you can experience the world around you with such clarity. A few times during the trip I slowed down on purpose just because I wanted to absorb everything around me.
Excitement was had during the trip for sure and fortunately in small, bearable doses. The Perils of the Paw Paw Tunnel is a tale worth telling. More fun was had in the form of the 22 mile climb up to the Eastern Continental Divide, spooky train tunnels (Big Savage!), rain storms, and downed trees. Raw nature was present every inch of the way from the plentiful waterfalls that felt like outdoor AC units to raging rivers and wild vistas. More of this detail can be found in The Daily Rundown.
The Daily Rundown
Day 1 – 45 miles: Alexandria VA to Leesburg VA
Leaving Alexandria, VA I was the lucky sucker that got to park the car in long-term parking at the airport and meet the group on the trail. Fortunately, the parking lot was literally right next to the bike path so logistics were easy. I parked, loaded up the bike, said goodbye to my Subaru and headed out. The first couple of miles were a bit energetic to my taste as the ‘boys’ were in front pushing something like 20 mph. I quickly found out that the combination of weight on my bike and knobby tires were going to make that pace a bit unrealistic to maintain.
Once we left the monuments, the humming of early morning traffic, runners, dog walkers and main bike paths of DC behind and hit the first crunch of gravel – I could relax. We were doing this!! FINALLY. I had spent months planning the trip and figuring out the details. It was nice to be underway. We were so excited to see our first Canal Lodge, we even stopped to take pictures. Soon, however, Canal Lodges became a familiar sight (100+ on the entire C&O Canal).
Miles rolled by and I was looking forward the scenery of Great Falls VA! Unfortunately, the walkway to the main viewpoint was under construction (darn!). We still got to experience the unexpectedly rugged terrain laid out before us as the Potomac waters rushed by. Our destination, Leesburg, wasn’t too far away (50 mi) but only obtainable if we crossed White’s Ferry – one of the only remaining operational ferries on the Potomac.
By the time we reached the Ferry: I was starving. New to touring, new to the output it demanded – I was on the verge of a hypoglycemic episode. The rest of the party was anxious to cross the Ferry. I wanted to sit down and eat. I ate a snack and got on with the crossing and the knuckle-whitening ride into town with cars buzzing by at 60+ mph. Leesburg was a bit of an anomaly for the trip as it required a 10-mile detour off the trail. However: two amazing burgers and a very nice hotel stay made everything much better. (Later, we found out that the Comfort Inn in Leesburg will pick up bike travelers from White’s Ferry.)
Day 2 – 50 miles: Leesburg VA to Shepherdstown WV
Already we didn’t know what day it was, but we were happy to be underway again! Today’s highlights are Harper’s Ferry and a destination in Shepherdstown, WV with a lovely evening planned at the Bavarian Inn. The C&O Canal trail alternated between a wide gravel path and two narrow single track lanes of gravel. So far, outside of the occasional root or tree branch, it was fairly uneventful. The never-ending tunnel of green continued seemingly forever.
Having learned a lesson from the day before, we made a point to stop for lunch. Finding a unique coffee shop (Beans in the Belfry) in Brunswick, MA was one of the day’s highlights. I was a bit let down by the famous Harper’s Ferry, which might be just a tad over-hyped. The town has a lot of history and the train tunnel with a bridge over the Potomac is interesting. The steel circular staircase to ascend to the pedestrian bridge across the river to Harper’s Ferry was a serious hurdle with loaded bikes. Obviously, we weren’t schlepping fully loaded bikes up the staircase. A few pictures and we were on our way.
Our arrival in Shepherdstown necessitated a bit of a climb to reach the bridge over the Potomac. Fortunately, the town was not only quite small but the hotel was located right on the bluff overlooking the river. We are now in the Allegany Mountains and the views can be dramatic. Our rooms also overlooked the river and the German dinner fare was excellent! Two desserts for me! (No wonder I didn’t seem to be losing any weight yet.) We enjoyed our balcony view as the sun set and watched the local groundhog find tasty green morsels to nibble on.
Day 3 – 53 miles: Shepherdstown WV to Hancock MD
I stayed in bed getting my beauty sleep while the others investigated the quaint hippy-vibe town for breakfast. I was happy for a few more Z’s, the time to get ready, pull our bikes out of the shed (no bikes were allowed in the rooms here) and get ready to roll. We had a fun-filled day of more green tunnels to explore.
Williamsport was our lunch stop for the day – rich in C&O Canal history. We took a brief tour of the museum dedicated to the Canal, hauled our bikes up the hill into town and landed on the Desert Rose Café. They were super pleasant to us and very accommodating. So far: my dietary restrictions weren’t causing too much of a problem. However, I was fully aware that we would be soon crossing into the food desert of Pennsylvania.
After lunch, the mud began. Not too much – just a bit inconvenient at times. More miles rolled by and just when we thought we would pass out from the sheer overwhelming sameness of it all: we found a Fort!
Fort Franklin is an overlooked historical little gem hiding in the Maryland countryside. I had seen the sign by the side of the trail and figured, “why not?” I’m curious even if I was anxious to get dinner. Late in the day and almost closing time, we rolled up to take a peek. Fort Franklin is a well-preserved star fort and they have reconstructed the barracks with interesting displays. We spent a few minutes speaking with the interpreters and checked out the new bathrooms before we left.
The evening was very pleasant at the 1828 Trail Inn Bed and Breakfast. They had laundry facilities dedicated to guests use and we threw our clothes in before heading to eat. Buddy Lou’s was the best bet for decent food in town and seemed popular to cyclists. Overhearing another cycling group’s discussion about their unpleasant experience at our next day’s hurdle – we decided to investigate and learn what we could about the infamous Paw Paw Tunnel.
The Perils of Paw Paw
The Paw Paw Tunnel is almost 200 years old and the only tunnel on the C&O Canal. Being presented with 5 consecutive narrow horseshoe bends of the Potomac, the C&O Canal Company blasted an existing crease in the landscape into a deeper gully and tunneled through the rock. This tunnel has been closed to hike and bike traffic for over a year in order to “remove loose rock from the exterior walls”. The local gossip indicated that the ‘construction’ wasn’t even being done and there were negotiable barricades on each side of the tunnel.
Being faced with the decision to either find a road that included a significant detour or attempt to hike our fully loaded bikes through a steep rocky trail that circumnavigated the tunnel: we decided to risk a tunnel attempt. After hearing the experiences of the cyclists that had just traversed the sketchy trail around the tunnel on non-loaded bikes; I had decided that the hike-a-bike option wasn’t for me. After all: this is an adventure I’d like to walk away from – not spend in a hospital.
Day 4 – 66 miles: Hancock to Cumberland MD
The day dawned bright and early with breakfast at the Inn. After small talk over coffee, we decided to get a wiggle on. Today was the longest day so far and we had the Paw Paw Tunnel to investigate. The C&O Canal isn’t extremely exciting but one must be careful what type of excitement you wish to have! At about Canal Lock 66, the locks starting climbing by the thirds (67 1/3, 67 2/3 …). I knew we were getting close as the trail turned away from the ever-present Potomac and into the mountains.
About mile 36 we saw the detour trail for the Paw Paw Tunnel. We pedaled determinedly forward towards a chain-link gate across the trail. With teamwork, we managed to get ourselves and our bikes safely around and not in the turgid waters of the old canal. Once sorted we could see the rocky ledge descent in front of us going down towards the tunnel.
As we proceeded cautiously, the signs of disuse were obvious. Shale slides threatened to choke the gorge from time to time. We left the narrow rock ledge for a haphazard boardwalk perched upon the sides of the canal which showed signs of rot. I felt like I was descending towards some dragon’s lair or maybe the Mines of Moira from JR. Tolkien’s novel series. I chalked it up to an overactive imagination and reading too many fiction books as a kid.
Suddenly, the Paw Paw Tunnel was before us. Not a huge opening but solidly constructed. A forlorn single cherry-picker was parked in the shallow water of the canal before the tunnel as if to indicate that construction might happen … maybe. After taking a deep breath I dismounted and began to walk the narrow ledge beside the canal into the tunnel armed with a 750-lumen bike light.
Lined in brick, the tunnel constantly seeped water and I was thankful of my mtn bike shoes. The end of the tunnel was a distant tiny light almost a mile away. The only company we had was the drip, drip of the water, the sound of our shoes on hard-packed dirt and clicking of freewheels. Not too soon we were out on the other side (after a bit of barricade maneuvering) and FREE!
Unfortunately, the rest of the day was adorned with mud and compounded with me being sick because Paw Paw West VA so NOT a great place to find lunch. Greasy gas station food doesn’t sit well. Nevertheless, we made it to Cumberland, climbed the hill to our Bed and Breakfast (The Bruce House Inn) where we proceeded to hose ourselves and the bikes clean. Every day, the bikes got a bath before we did.
The town of Cumberland was an interesting little spot struggling to become a tourist destination in the midst of decline. Unfortunately, the restaurant selection was not very good. We made the best of it and stretched our legs by walking down the rather steep hill into town and back after dinner.
Day 5 – 63 miles: Cumberland to Confluence PA
After a decent night’s sleep, the next morning was greeted with the news of rain. Oh dear! Our trip companions were already calling bike shops in vain, asking for a lift to Confluence to avoid being soaked. I stalked the radar during breakfast and came to the conclusion that (1) we might get wet, but not much and (2) I didn’t want to miss out on today’s ride. Today are starting the Great Allegany Passage (GAP) and it would be one of the best days on the tour and I was anxious to be underway.
Bike Touring Fact: you will get wet.
It wasn’t as if we weren’t prepared for rain. Precipitation is fairly common in this part of the world so I had gone as far as buying a rain hat for the trip. Nothing special about this addition except that it was lightweight and quick-dry with a full brim. Designed for running – it was perfect for keeping the rain out of my eyes (and the sun off my face). For long touring rides, I highly recommend this addition! Usually, you sit up far enough where the full brim doesn’t get in your view. If you are worried about aerodynamics – don’t go touring.
The morning started with a nice climb for 22 miles. I like climbing … within reason. I do not enjoy lugging a touring bike up 10% grade or more. A 3-4% grade over 22 miles was a workout but good fun. We got a nice drizzle to cool us down on the way up to Frostburg. After hauling ourselves up to Frostburg (around 10% or higher) from the trail we were disappointed in the absence of cafes for a nice coffee. We’re such bike snobs.
After refueling at the local gas station, we headed back up the trail towards the Eastern Continental Divide. The views were awesome for the entire ride. I was so thrilled! The trail itself was finely crushed gravel which was almost indecently nice after the C&O Canal trail. I also realized that my chain was toast after getting all that fine sand-like gravel thrown into it. We also had more tunnels to explore, like the Big Savage Tunnel.
The first tunnel we approached that day had fog rolling out from inside it like the mouth of a dragon. While not the longest, it was definitely the most dramatic. Later in the day, we approached the Big Savage Tunnel. About the same length as the Paw Paw Tunnel – you could see the other end like a tiny speck of light. Man – was it cold inside! Mist crawled out from the open mouth of the tunnel opening and I thought to myself: is this the dragon’s lair?
Not as sketchy as the Paw Paw we could ride our bikes with freedom through the opening and into the darkness. There were attempts at keeping the tunnel lit but it was a feeble glow in the fog. Halfway in I started to shiver a bit as my Texas thin blood cooled down. At the end, we paused to celebrate the scenery.
Crossing the Divide
Not too many miles further on we crossed the Divide and I looked forward to a nice coast downhill. There wasn’t much actual coasting to be had but a slight decline towards Confluence could be enjoyed. We stopped in Meyersdale at a little-known café. I was excited that they had food I could eat while the impending rainstorm passed by as we rested.
After the rain, we started again knowing that we had quite a few miles yet to go before dinner. A few showers got us damp but nothing to concern us. We passed multitudes of waterfalls peaked by the recent rains. We didn’t need to worry about getting too warm today! With the rain and the waterfalls, we had natural air-conditioning.
Everything was humming along nicely until we were about 5 miles from Confluence. The rain gods decided that they had been nice enough and let loose. It poured and poured some more. The rain pounded down and I realized (too late) that my vest was actually more windproof but not waterproof. I had a small pond in each shoe. At least I don’t have to worry about sore feet today. The only thing I didn’t have was water in my eyes. My cap was holding firm! We came across several downed trees during the day, and another 2 during the downpour. Whatever. We are already wet anyway.
We trudged on… Finally arriving at our destination as the clouds let up to a mild drip. We slogged into the Smith House Inn in Confluence. To my pleasant surprise, our hosts were waiting for us with dry towels! I almost cried from the sheer sweet thought of that simple gesture. We hosed down our bikes and ourselves. Even though the rain had washed most things clean, it didn’t quite remove all the mud. My hubby, bless him, decided he didn’t need to dodge any mud puddles and got the award for the most dirt on a jersey.
He also got the full brunt of the water hose – much to his dismay and our laughter.
Fortunately, this part of Pennsylvania avoided the food desert and we got the best meal during the whole trip that night. We deserved it – every single bite.
Day 6 – 54 miles: Confluence to West Newton PA
As we chatted over an excellent breakfast, the fact that we were almost done with our epic little tour had not quite sunk in yet. We were sad to leave Confluence because it was a nice quiet town in a pretty part of the world. I had forgotten that small towns in the East still used a siren to call volunteers for the Fire and Rescue Departments. Fortunately, the awful wail of the siren only woke us up once overnight while I laid in bed wondering: “Should I worry about flooding? Did the dam break?” Then I realized what it was and drifted back to sleep as the sound of rescue vehicles faded into the distance.
I opted to get started first while the others went in search of water. I needed to loosen up my legs that were beginning to feel the effects of a challenging diet, no nightly foam roller, and suboptimal sleep. “I’m such a damn Princess”, I thought to myself. Regardless, it was nice to spin along and admire the scenery at my own pace without any consideration to when we needed to be at our destination. The group caught me soon enough and I conformed the best I could to the pace dictated at the front.
I forget how many miles later it happened, but I got stubborn. I slowed down again and went the pace I wanted to go. I felt like I was missing out on being able to just BE. I wanted to absorb the scenery, the dramatic raging river beside us, the misty whimsical (and sometimes robust) waterfalls tumbling down the mountainside and the occasional crazy rafters foolishly braving the river in flood conditions. I had already lost count of the days a long time ago. I knew that I wouldn’t do this again for a long time, if ever. The moment mattered most.
I realized that the trail was much busier today and figured that, since it was Saturday, people were out enjoying the weekend. Then, we bustled into Ohiopyle PA – a touristy destination location for bikers, hikers, rafters, kayaking, and cycling. The source of the additional trail traffic was obvious. We decided that a second breakfast wasn’t a bad idea and people watched as a fascinating cast of characters wandered by in droves. I also stuffed my face with the largest dark chocolate peanut butter cup I’ve ever seen (or eaten).
I pedaled on peanut butter power for about an hour and a half until the sugar crash hit.
We trundled through the depressing town of Connellsville where there wasn’t much of anything to eat. I ate cold leftover sweet potato fries and discovered something else I would add to the list of things not to do again. Many miles later and several stops to rest, take pictures or meet the locals in some unlikely places – we finally arrived at West Newton. Bright Morning Bed & Breakfast is an interesting business right next to the trail. Hugely convenient to trail users and obviously very popular as well, we relaxed on the front porch with 10 other bike riders while waiting for our host to arrive. After taking entirely too long at an overcrowded restaurant we finally collapsed into bed. But – not before we found ice cream and watched the Tour!
Can’t Miss the Tour!
Every night before bed we would catch up on the Tour de France. As long as there was reliable WiFi and we weren’t dog-tired: there would be Tour watching! I wasn’t as thrilled about the Tour this year as my favorite: Peter Sagan got the boot from the Tour early on. However, it was a relatively interesting pastime before we turned out the lights. Even though my husband is a dedicated Tour watcher, I could have happily let go of anything remotely technologically advanced for the entire trip.
Day 7 – 34 miles: West Newton to Pittsburg
Oh my gosh! It’s the last day! I was happy to get to Pittsburg but sad to see it end. As I packed my panniers for the last day I realized that all my life existed in those 4 bags, what I had on me and what I was riding. Nothing else had existed in a week. Interestingly: I wasn’t looking forward to adding complexity back into my life again. Touring is simple. You ride, you eat, you sleep. That’s about it. There’s nothing complex. You cannot control the weather, so you ride. If you are tired, you just pedal more slowly, but you still ride. You cannot worry about what you don’t have on you, so you roll on. It’s a freedom of mind, body, and spirit unlike much else.
Since today would be a short day, we took our time (finally). The green wilderness was left behind as small mining communities took over and then forlorn suburbs harkening back to when Pittsburg was the king of steel. Countless steel bridges crossed the rivers as we followed close to the railway coming into the former Steel Town. Old factories dotted the landscape, some unique in their architecture – still soot stained. We navigated the crisscrossing paths of Pittsburg’s ever-expanding cycle ways. Pittsburg is now known as one of the World’s Most Livable Cities as new hotels have popped up, more foodie-centric restaurants and more walkable neighborhoods. For example: the Southside Flats, where we are staying the night, is one of the most ‘hip’ neighborhoods in town with tons of places to eat, coffee shops and things to do.
Speaking of coffee – we found a nice little shop not too far off of the trail to stop and get a bite to eat (and coffee) before landing on our hotel to dump our stuff. Unfortunately, we didn’t have an unlimited timeline today as we needed to pick up our transportation back to DC by 6:00 pm. Once at the hotel, we shed the pounds of bags on our bikes and experienced newfound weightlessness as we toured the small city of Pittsburg. Coming from the urban sprawl of Houston, Pittsburg was awesome that you could literally bike most everywhere very easily and quickly.
One of the things that really struck me was how open the waterways were to private boating traffic around Pittsburg. Obviously a big draw – especially during game time. Instead of tailgating in the parking lot: boaters were anchored around the stadium enjoying the Ballgame on a Sunday. The Big Screen was angled to open towards the water. I thought it was very cool indeed. We did a brief tour and then got back to the hotel for a shower and change. I had to pick up our truck rental that would carry us back to Washington, DC and back to our regular lives.
That night, we took the Incline up to the Hill (Mt. Washington) above the town that gave you a splendid view of the city. After much walking and picture taking, we sat down for a large dinner as the sun set. We drank cheers to our journey, swapped stories and laughs. We were all sad to see this trip come to an end. It was both parts exhausting and exhilarating. This had been something to remember and fueled a desire to do more touring in the future! That evening we enjoyed our stroll back to the Incline and to our hotel. We knew we would be going back to the rat-race soon, but we would always have these memories in our hearts.