After last year’s epic bike journey in Spain, along with our various other large outlays of cash in 2014, Emma and decided to keep our adventures a bit more simple in 2015. Our first big adventure was re-doing the bike ride between Pittsburgh and DC, but this time doing it westward instead of eastward. We did this trip in 2012. The truth is, we never actually did all 100% of the trip at once. When we did it in 2012, we had a friend drop us off in Connellsville to skip a day’s worth of riding, so we could be sure to have enough time to hang out in DC when we got there. So this would be our first time doing the full length of the two trails.
This time around we worked it out that we would drive down in our car, bringing our friend Deanna along. We would stay in DC and bike back. She would drive our car back. We arranged to spend a few days in the city hanging out with some of Emma’s college buds and her Aunt Barb. We had a few great days in DC, hanging out, eating great food, steaming in 90+ degree days, riding around via a combination of bus/metro/taxi/bike, checking out museums and having a lovely time. Our plan was to leave DC tuesday morning. Monday night we got a heavy rain. The next few days weather looked promising but starting out on a soaked C&O trail wasn’t ideal. We went to bed early to prepare for the day ahead.
DAY ONE – TUESDAY
We got more heavy rains overnight. We awoke early to take one last shower before hitting the trails, got breakfast at Tryst in Adams Morgan, stopped by the Post Office to ship some extra clothes and other stuff back to Pittsburgh and then made our way towards the trail. The day was already hot and humid but by the time we made it to the trail, the temperature dropped a good 10 degrees since we were by the river and under the tree canopy.
You can skip the beginning of the C&O by taking the paved Capital Crescent Trail out of Georgetown. A few miles out of town you hop onto the C&O. Despite the massive storms the trail wasn’t too bad. At first it was just a bit puddle-y here and there. Then it did get a bit muddier for a while but still nothing that got too messy. When we got around Mile 43, the surface got really spongey for about 5 miles or so and that really was about the point that it started to get to me. I felt deflated but the trail eventually improved. The last time we did this section of trail it was our last day out and we were burnt out – so overall it was nice to see it in a fresher light. We actually got more of a chance to enjoy the scenery this time around (instead of just furiously pedaling in the hopes of reaching our destination) including a stop at Great Falls.
Eventually we made our way to our camp at Mile 62 (Huckleberry Hill) after a brief foray into Harpers Ferry (This time things were closed again because we rolled in after 5. Last time we were there too early in the morning. Will we ever get to see Harpers Ferry during normal business hours?) Set up camp and cooked a dinner that consisted of a couple Thai noodle packets and a small head of broccoli that we brought along. Made some tea and read for awhile before spending some time talking with our campmate Hollis, an older gentleman from DC riding in the opposite direction who was on a folding bike. He had ridden the length of the trail multiple times so we talked a lot about his impressions of the trail, best way to do it, etc.
Notable wildlife breakdown for the day:
– 5 herons
– 2 turtles on the trail (saw several more in the canal itself)
– 3 snakes (once again, just chillin’ on the trail)
– 1 rabbit (we would see many more rabbits in the following days)
– 1 bluejay
– 1 unidentified feral cat/dog animal
– lots of deer
DAY TWO – WEDNESDAY
Had a mixed night of sleep. Things started off kinda hot, so left the rainfly open and only used my sleeping bag liner as a sheet. As the night went on it cooled off pretty well, so hopped inside my liner. Finally cooled off too much so I closed up the rainfly and hopped all the way into the sleeping bag. Managed some decent sleep.
In the morning we got our first 10 miles or so in and hopped off the trail to ride over to Shepherdstown, WV to load up on water and groceries. Got some lunch and dinner supplies at the grocery and opted not to stop in town for hot beverages. Back on the trail we got in another 10 miles before stopping at Dam 4 to sit and eat lunch. Made sandwiches with avocado, hummus, green pepper and Tofurky slices. Absolutely messy but wonderfully delicious.
Made our way to Williamsport and got off the trail again, climbing up the hill to The Desert Rose cafe. We can’t say enough great things about this place. They know their demographic and have all the things that a biker might want – not just cafe food, but also drinks and snacks to take along with you and more. They’ll wash up and fill your water bottles. Overall they just take care of you. Definitely stop in, especially if you need a little boost. They’ll supply.
We figured shortly after Williamsport we could hop on the Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMRT) to get off the C&O and onto some paved trail again. We weren’t really sure where you could make the transition on that end and we were planning on camping along that section of the C&O, so we just ended up staying on the C&O and made our way to the Little Pool Campsite around Mile 120. Dinner tonight was boiled potatoes with fried up green peppers, portabella mushroom and green beans. Another successful dinner.
While we ate, another young man came and set up his tent and then disappeared down to the riverfront for awhile. When he came back up, we invited him over to talk. Turns out he had ridden the full 120 miles from DC that day. The most that he had ever ridden previously was 30-some miles. He was on his way to Cumberland for the bluegrass festival. He was hurting and he wasn’t convinced he’d make it, especially since it was set to rain the next day and he didn’t really have any rain gear. We wished him the best and headed to bed. They were calling for some possible light rain in the morning, theoretically not to start until around 9am, so we thought we’d get up early and try to get camp cleaned up before the rain came.
DAY THREE – THURSDAY
No such luck. I woke up while it was still dark, probably around 5:30 or so and the rain had already begun. We tried waiting out a break in the rain but there didn’t seem to be anything forthcoming. We did our best to pack up without getting everything soaked and then rode the few miles into Hancock, MD. In Hancock we stopped at the Park N Dine diner and got breakfast. Breaking vegan-edge, I got blueberry pancakes and homefries and Emma got french toast. While we ate breakfast, the rain seemed to stop. We headed out and had a lovely 12 mile stretch of paved trail on the WMRT before hopping back on the C&O.
Our original plan was to only do about 40 miles this day and camp out along one of the last campsites on the C&O. Because of the cool wet day, we called ahead and planned for a stay at the Ramada in Cumberland. It meant an extra 15 miles but it also meant we would have a hot shower and warm bed that night instead of a damp tent and sleeping bag. The day was a little bit chilly and occasionally wet. It never full-on rained but frequently misted and drizzled on us. The wet weeds along the trail leaned heavily over the trail so they smacked you as you rode by.
As the day wore on, I developed a bad case of hiccups. I’ve occasionally gotten this on longer bike rides. Some combination of long rides, a runny nose, colder temperatures, etc have cause me to get these frequently occurring hiccups while riding my bike. Because of the frequency and the fact that i’m leaning over my handlebars, the hiccups end up making me feel nauseous. This led to us needing to stop regularly so I wouldn’t vomit. At one point when the canal was right on one side of the trail and the river was right on the other, I had to stop and lay down in the middle of the trail in the hope of calming my stomach. Luckily no other riders came along at that moment. A bit later we came upon one of the Lockhouses that are along the trail and were able to sit on the porch of the house, make some hot tea and chill for awhile. This helped me feel much better and gave me the strength to power out the last miles into Cumberland.
Cumberland Ramada was wonderfully accommodating, allowing us to bring our bikes into our rooms with us. We got showers and I crawled into bed to let myself feel better. Emma took the time to hang up and layout all of our wet tent gear and damp clothes and whatnot. After awhile we hunted down some portabella sandwiches at the Queen City Creamery (passable but not notable) and then went to the Save-A-Lot to load up on some groceries for the next day. We did a little walk around the city and then headed back to our king-size bed.
DAY FOUR – FRIDAY
Woke up at 7am in the morning. Set the alarm on my phone and went back to sleep for another hour. Got up and hit the hotel breakfast buffet at the hotel. Skipping out on vegan-edge again and ate some weird french toast sticks, potatoes and toast.
This day would be our biggest challenge. 20+ miles from Cumberland to the Eastern Continental Divide would be a constant climb. It was a beautiful, sunny day but a bit windy. Despite the climb, the previous day’s rumbly belly uneasiness, and a right knee that was beginning to hurt a little, we made good time. We stopped in Frostburg for a mid-morning snack where Emma made small talk with a couple older couples who were out for rides on the trail.
Onward we went. As we passed the Mason-Dixon line, I yelled “Fuck you, Maryland” and gave it the finger, but really, Maryland had been kind to us, but I was pleased to be back in PA. Only a few miles later we were at the Big Savage overlook where you can look out over PA, MD and WV. We sat for a bit soaking in some sun and enjoying the view before plunging into the cold of the Big Savage Tunnel. Only a few more miles and we were at the Eastern Continental Divide. On the other side of the little tunnel at the divide, we stopped and talked to a couple middle-aged guys who were from Butler and knew Emma’s uncles. From there we enjoyed the slight downhill for the next couple miles and then stopped for lunch, making PB&J sandwiches with jelly stolen from the hotel, pita bread and with slices of apple in them. Really good.
Even though we were now technically losing altitude on the other side of the divide, the headwinds continued to make riding a bit tough. We cranked out the remaining miles, enjoying our time crossing over the Salisbury Viaduct and several other smaller bridges. A lovely stretch.
Got to Confluence around 6pm, set up camp and then made dinner. Cooked up a can of black beans, chopped up a couple tomatoes we picked up earlier in the day to make some salsa, fried up some green pepper and onions fajita-style and used them all to make tacos. Pretty damn good tacos if I must say so. By the time we got cleaned up from dinner it was already getting really cold, especially since the wind continued to blow. We made some tea and tried going for a short walk but it was just too chilly. We headed back to camp and decided to call it an early day and climbed into the tent around 7:30 to read and write and stay warm.
DAY FIVE – SATURDAY
It was cooooold when we woke up the following morning. Everything was very wet with dew so sitting down anywhere was out of the question, so we stood around and made up our morning oatmeal and tea. Slowly broke down camp, successfully hanging the rainfly up on the nearby fence to dry out in the sun before needing to pack it up for the day’s ride. Roger, one of the fellow bike campers, came over to talk and asked me about the book I was reading, “Zealot” by Reza Aslan. I was a little worried that he was going to be offended by it (it’s a book about the historical Jesus), but he had read another Aslan book and was just interested in hearing more about this newer book. He then started talking about a book about John Brown that he picked up in Harpers Ferry. He began saying “Everybody knows John Brown lead the anti-slavery revolt…” and it made me think he was going to say something like the character Eli Cash talking about his book in Royal Tenenbaums — “Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t.”, but no such luck.
Rode the stretch to Ohiopyle, one of our favorite sections, and stopped there for our mid-morning snack. Apple dumplings and hot beverages at the Ohiopyle Bakery and then we were off again. By this point the temperatures had begun rising again, so we ditched our pants and switched back over to shorts and made our way to Connellsville. In Connellsville we stopped at the grocery store and loaded up on items for dinner. Before hitting the trail again, we sat at the Adirondack shelters right there and made up another batch of PB&J’s on bagels for lunch. Got a message from our friend Rebecca who was going to be meeting us at our final night’s campsite saying she was already there scouting out the best location. Feeling strong, Emma and I hammered out the final 20 miles and rolled into Cedar Creek campsite where we found Rebecca and her husband David waiting for us.
A nice thing about the Cedar Creek campsite is that it is accessible by the trail and also by car, so you can meet up with non-biking friends there. So Rebecca drove out, picking up some Giant Eagle brand firewood along the way, while David biked out on the GAP to meet up with us all. A bit later Sara and Marco also joined us via car. It was nice to have friends meet us for the last night on the trail. We didn’t plan really well to make one big meal as I thought we might. Instead each couple had their own campstove situation going on and we all made our own meals. Emma and I managed to make a lentil coconut curry that was delicious but a bit rich (you really don’t need a full can of coconut milk for a small camp-size meal). After dinner, David made a fire and we spent the evening hanging around a fire – our first for the trip.
DAY SIX – SUNDAY
Got up pretty early, around 7:30 and David and Rebecca were already up and David was re-stoking the fire. We spent the morning sitting around the fire again, where Emma and I enjoyed our morning oatmeal and tea. Marco brought along a coffeemaker so Emma also got to enjoy a small shot of coffee. Things warmed up as we had our slowpoke morning. We slowly broke down camp and laid things out to dry up before finally packing up and rolling out. Sara and Marco brought bikes along, so they joined Emma, David and I for the first few miles of the ride before turning around to head back to their car.
I was feeling a bit anxious to get back home and I think mixed with a bit of sleepiness, felt the need to pedal fast to stay awake. Emma and David seemed to be in the opposite camp, so I found myself frequently riding way ahead of them and needing to stop and wait up for them. We stopped at the Dravo Cemetery site and got to talking to several older folks out for a bike ride. There was this 50-something guy who had apparently just started biking. He started asking us all types of questions. He seemed to be stoked on biking but also a bit confused about some stuff. Then, regarding bike seats, he asked how we rode on such skinny seats and proceeded to say “I don’t understand why they make it so it has a thing jammed between your privates and your asshole.” He had one of those seats that is a double-butt pad.
We rode into Homestead and stopped at Burgatory where we stuffed ourselves on burgers and sugary drinks — Cherry Coke for me, Lemonade for Emma and Coffee & Donuts milkshake for David. From there we slowly made our way back into the city with our full bellies. We bid farewell to David in the Strip District and climbed our way up Liberty Ave to Bloomfield and back home. Overall a successful trip!
THOUGHTS ON EASTWARD VERSUS WESTWARD
Emma and I had several conversations towards the end of the trip regarding which way we think is better to do this trip. Do you start in Pittsburgh and go east? Or start in DC and head west? Going eastward you are less likely to have a headwind and you get to enjoy a greater downhill from the Eastern Continental Divide, but then you have to finish the trip up on the C&O trail, which depending on weather conditions can provide a bit of a challenge and make the end of your trip fairly miserable. If you go westward, you get the C&O out of the way first (though if the weather is bad, you risk being a muddy mess for your whole trip) and get to do it while you are still energetic and alert (beneficial when having to dodge holes, roots, etc) and for us Pittsburgh residents, it means getting to just finish the ride at your house; but you have the more serious climb up to the Eastern Continental Divide and have to deal with the prevailing winds. I’d say in general I’d recommend for a first trip you should do it Eastward, but if you’ve never down it Westward, it’s a whole new set of challenges that should keep the ride interesting. Not convinced either way is definitively better. If you’ve done it both ways, what do you think?
We didn’t take too many photos and I didn’t post many here, but to see some more photos from the trip, go here.