By Giles Snyder.
I had hoped that a nice, sunny day and cool spring temperatures would combine to help make my first-ever bike overnight memorable. While my companions and I did get a remarkable trip up the C&O Canal Towpath from Washington, D.C., the weather we got was far less than remarkable.
It started raining the moment we left our starting point in downtown D.C. It rained as we cycled through trendy Georgetown, got a little lost, and almost got mowed down by a big delivery truck in rush-hour traffic. And it rained long past the time we shivered ourselves to sleep. Sometimes it came down as a bearable drizzle. Other times, it splashed down on our heads in big pregnant drops. It rained despite assurances from one of my companions that the day we planned to go is always “a beautiful day.”
Except, apparently, when you plan to spend it on a bike. I often cycle portions of the C&O Canal Towpath. It’s easily accessed from where I live in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. But, like many who make their homes in this region, I work in D.C. From my driveway to where I park my car downtown, it’s about 90 miles. That’s a lot of ground to cover each workday. I wanted to slow down and see what I’d been missing.
The towpath snakes its way alongside the Potomac River for more than 184 miles from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland. If you have time, you can go on for another 141 miles via The Great Alleghany Passage Rail-Trail all the way to Pittsburgh. (Read about our trip along the GAP and C&O. – Ed.)
The idea for the canal dates back to the earliest days of our nation. George Washington himself championed it as a way to connect the western frontier with the more populated east. Workers started building the C&O in the 1820s and canal boats used it to bring lumber and coal to market into the early 20th century. The canal was a lifeline for communities up and down the river, but it couldn’t compete with railroads. It would have fallen into obscurity if not for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who led efforts to convince Congress to turn the canal into a National Park. Today it’s a haven, not only for cyclists, but for hikers and others who want to take in its natural beauty and gaze at history first-hand.
On our trip up the towpath, though, we had to work hard to find the bright future that Douglas saw. It was not only wet; all that rain made it seem much colder than it was. When we stopped from time to time my teeth started to chatter. One fellow who briefly rode along with us suggested he just might spend the night in one of the towpath’s port-a-johns. From then on, every time we passed a port-a-john, I seriously considered curling up in it, but I couldn’t get past the heat source. Besides, our goal was a lockhouse near Point of Rocks, Maryland.
According to the C&O Canal Trust’s website, there used to be 57 such houses. Lockmasters lived in them with their families, helping boats deal with the elevation change as the canal made its way into the Maryland mountains. Less than half remain, but the Trust has made a few available for overnight stays. They’ve been restored to reflect separate time periods in the life of the canal.
The lockhouses are rustic by modern standards. Ours had no heat, no electricity, and no running water. But it was well-appointed with period furniture, and a welcome sight after a full day of cycling in the rain. If you are looking to unplug from the hustle and bustle of city life, this is it. It’s also a great way to experience how life was lived along the canal in bygone days.
After spending the night snug in period beds, we got up the next day in relatively good humor. The morning sunshine renewed us and it wasn’t long before we were back on our bikes.
Two of my companions went back the way we’d come, leaving me and another to move on to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, where abolitionist John Brown staged his famous raid aimed at sparking a slave revolt. My remaining companion lives there, so that’s where we parted ways and I cycled the final dozen miles or so by myself, ending my trip at Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Confederate forces retreated through there after the nearby Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle in American history.
While the second day’s sunshine was reinvigorating, the constant rain of the previous day should have made my first overnight cycling trip a miserable failure.
In fact, the adversity only whetted my appetite for more, if only to see what a cycling trip is like in a dry pair of shorts.
We left more than 100 miles of the towpath undone. I’m hoping to tackle the Shepherdstown to Cumberland stretch later this summer. Once our plans come together, it’s a good bet I’ll be keeping an eye on the weather. But since I’ve already cycled through one deluge, a little more rain won’t be enough to scare me off.
Check out Adventure Cycling Association’s new website, Bike Overnights, aimed at providing inspiration, resources, and tools for short bicycle tours (one to two nights). You’ll find stories, tips, and how-tos about embarking on short overnight cycling adventures, whether you’re traveling to a beautiful state park solo, lounging at a B&B with friends and family, taking your child on their first overnight bike adventure, or anything in between. Plus, you can submit your own trip report for possible publication; Adventure Cycling hopes to collect bike overnight tales from all 50 states!