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Category Archives: Hiking

Man Plans, God Laughs Tour, 2017. C&O Canal Lock 61

Riding the C&O Canal Towpath.

I had forgotten–Maryland  is this reason people don’t go camping. Think of it: make a little list in your mind of all the reasons you, or others of your acquaintance, spurn the out-of-doors. Incessant heat, clouds of mosquitos and black flies, air so humid that nothing ever dries, mud, rain–all of these probably top the list. Well, I am hiding in my tent at 8pm so as to get the bugs out of my ears and skin. It is not so bad while riding, but once you stop, they assault you. I got the tent up I am skipping cooking dinner so I can just hide in here. I did manage to do my comedy routine at the muddy river bank though. Clothes off, slipping, landing on my naked butt, getting up, slipping again–all quite dignified and of course just as I planned it. I got the collected trail dirt off me, but the slip and slide allowed me to collect some new mud. I went up–buck naked–to the water pump to clean up. Of course I had the campsite to myself, so my aggregious lapse of modesty was not seen–at least as far as I know. But just in case a small team of bird watchers were subjected to a rude surprise, or some stealth campers had their view ruined, all I can say is, I hope you enjoyed the tan lines. 

The Canal side campsites all have water pumps–the old style ones that require some vigorous pumping on the long handle before the water flows. These are wonderful, the water is fine (iodine does not bother me) and they are a boon. But they are annoying to work solo. You see, many humans come equipped with only the two arms. That means that if one arm is busy pumping, that leaves only one to take on other tasks. If the goal is only to fill a water bottle, then that is not too bad. But anything more complicated, such as washing a muddy set of riding shorts or cleaning mud from a naked backside can be rather more tricky. Operating the pump gets even trickier if you add to that the need to keep an eye up and down the trail lest a group of nuns come walking down the path or a string of Japanese tourists on all-terrain Segues whizzes past. These are purely hypothetical situations of course, but I share them here just in case the Park Service is considering a new water distribution system that more fully enables the cleansing of objects, appendages, and various fissures.

The towpath is its own special challenge. Whereas the Great Alleghaney Passage (GAP) and the Katy are packed crushed stone, and the various Ohio trails and the Motour are mostly paved, the C&O is nothing of the kind. It is made up mostly of mud, sticks, and bits of dead mules. At intervals, when a pot hole gets particularly deep or one of mules finds its way off, the park service brings in gravel to fill the void. Other sections have packed sand while still others are almost entirely fairly loose gravel. The whole 180 mile long track is prone to deep sticky potholes when wet. All of this means that the run is a constantly changing array of unpleasant surfaces. The rain I hid from in Ohio fell in Maryland and collected in nice deep puddle trap all the way from Cumberland, Maryland to DC.

The GAP was a singularly easy and pleasant ride. I climbed to the peak over about 85 miles and I had made the Divide and gone through the Big Savage Tunnel I loved the 20 mile descent to Cumberland. I won’t confess my speed, but it was fast. Somewhere along the line my rear shifter had rattled loose and stopped working. Nevermind. Speed did not require down shifting and the trail rolls right up to the Cumberland Trail Connection bike shop who have helped me on past tours and in whom I have total unfailing confidence. Once the shifter was back in the game (and I picked up one their pretty cool shop team jerseys) I was back on the road. I had been playing leap frog with a nice group of Ukrainian cyclists and I had just passed their whole line “on your left, on your left, on your left” when my rear inner tube popped like a gun shot. I was worried about possible Midan flashbacks, but only good cheer and humor at my perdicament resulted. Once the spare tube was patched and up and running it was off to hike over the closed Pawpaw tunnel–1.5 miles of what the park service called “steep and strenuous trails.” Don’t sugar coat it guys! 

The towpath ditches were frequent, deep, and flooded. Early on though, I became aware of the small elf sitting on my right shoulder. I don’t recall seeing him there before, but he made a sudden appearance as soon as I hit the C&O. Whatismore, I noticed that everyone else on the path had an elf too. This was new–and I am pretty sure no one really seemed to notice. 

I have never understood the whole elf thing. My sources tell me that people actually shelve these goblins in a ritualized way on some holidays. Now I say this coming from a religious tradition that bans bread for a week each year and has us all buying 100 dollar lemons each fall–so I  am no stranger to odd rituals. In fact, I love them. But housing a bizzare free-loading stocking-capped homunculus to spy on your comings and goings is a bit much. Given my lack of elven experience, I think I took his presence fairly well in my stride. No one else seemed to mind, so when in Rome… It was hard to get a good look at the elf while riding, but when I changed my tire, and the Ukrainians passed me as I had just passed them, each sporting their own elf attired in bright yellow and blue, my own elf just sat on a tree limb grinning at me. It was not a mean grin–it was oddly friendly rather like the look on the face of the Prussian officer right before he busts Barry Lyndon. I got a good look at him there. He was dressed in a green tunic trimmed with red satin. He had little curled toed boots topped with tiny bells on the ends and big green connicle cap topped with a red pompom. “What are you looking at?” I asked him testily. I think the noise of the CSX engine right there drowned me out though. He just sat there watching and smiling. Once was I was moving again, I could feel him on my shoulder though, sitting there, leaning forward a bit with his hand gripping my jersey where he sat. Sometimes his fingernails would scrape my collarbone when he adjusted himself or reached for better purchase. Mostly he was pretty easy to ignore. At one point, we met eyes and he just blinked and kept his silly little grin. I noticed that he had disproportionately large hands–big flat pale meat hooks that sort of dwarfed his already freaskishky small body. 

We rode on this way for a the first miles of the C&O. I had some music in my ear buds and the hitchhiker was not that heavy and seemed to be keeping to himself, so I fell into my hazy riding hypnosis in which I mostly formulate stupid things to write later when I am off the bike. But then the puddles started.

I keep my tire pressure pretty high compared to other touring riders. Many road evils can be mitigated by lower tire pressure giving some cushion to a ride. But I live in fear of pinch flats–when the tire gets squeezed so badly that it bursts. High pressure works against pinch flats, but at the expense of a hard ride. That means when a hard tire rolling at about 14mph and carrying a fully loaded touring bike, rider, and an uncertain weight of humuncullus suddenly drops 10 inches into a puddle and rams into a perpendicular puddle wall, the result is a powerful alarming threatening jolt. What is more, they often came in rapid succession so that the bike bounces, the panniers flap like a Bassett hound’s ears in full gallop, and control is for the moment lost. I felt my teeth clack like Teddy Roosevelt yelling at a moose, and my vision went all rattley. I did not fall, but I have before–I could feel the rear of the bike want to upend and throw me over the bars. The simple weight of panniers at least stopped that, but the jolt to my bouncing head was concerning. Fortunately, I did not lose too much speed and was well set up to repeat the whole procedure a few yards later. I was facing a full 180 miles of C&O at this point, and if a fair percentage of it was going to be killer puddles, I will need to rethink my schedule. 

The same thing happened a few more times–slam, basset hound, Teddy Roosevelt, levitating rear wheel. The main blow, and the most annoying part, was the persistent head wallop. Then it all fell into place. Every time I slammed into a puddle, the elf reached over with his big paddle-like mitt and slammed me on the side of the head. At first I couldn’t believe it, but I paid attention during the next puddle set, and sure enough, as soon as my wheel crashed into the unyielding ground, my green totmentor cracked me on the side of the head. This went on for miles–each time the bike took a hit, my puddle elf swatted me on the head. Sometimes he would smack the back of my head and as it lurched forward, he would quickly slam my face with his other hand. Other times he would crack it left or right. Sometimes he would slam the top of my head, and one time he gave it a gold forehand back hand one two. On and on we went playing this annoying game of elven rope-a-dope. I had no choice but to ride on and hope that I can lose the elf. But as long as I was slamming into puddles, the elf would be there smacking my head each and every time.

I fiannly saw my chance to ditch the goblin  when I got to the Pawpaw Tunnel. The climb over the hill was not his cup of tea–too slow and no good chances to land more blows on my poor head. I changed my shoes for the walk and the elf hopped off my shoulder and sat down by the trail. He mumbled angrily having been thwarted at his metier, and to placate himself picked up a stick and started digging into the ground to make a new puddle hole for the next rider. I set in to pushing my bike up the narrow rocky track the federal government promised would be horrible. It was, but it offered a nice view of Pawpaw and the Potomac, and at least I was able to get away from the elf. 

After the climb, the path smoothed out a bit and I made it to the next campsite with no sign of the elf. I set up my tent at the far end of the clearing behind the trees so I hope he does not see me by the time I leave tomorrow morning. So for now I will hide under canvas and screen and hope for an elf-free tomorrow. 

Man Plans, God Laughs Tour 2017, Carson City.

Riding the ACA Western Express Bike Route, 6-14-17

It got cold. Not too bad–but cold. The tent was on a concrete pad porch under a nice log and tin roof. Huge banks of snow blocked two other sides so that we were pretty well insulated from the wind. The new REI Quarter Dome Plus is a huge improvement over the older model we used last year. The newer one is far less over engineered and goes up fast and easily. 

I had just fallen asleep when the cop’s siren’s “booooeeeep” woke me up. Rami too. We heard the cop say through his bull horn “stop” and we agreed that that was not the command he would have used if our camping on the porch was his concern. “Stop camping there!” “Stop sleeping in the name of the law!” No–it did not make sense. So, instead of suddenly packing and leaving, we lay in our bags and watched the lights and listened to someone get a ticket. We also knew that if the cop left us unmolested, then we were home free, and indeed, and no one cared if we camped on the porch of the Carson Pass Information Center.

No one cared if we camped on the porch of the Carson Pass Information Center, and so we slept on and rose when the sun warmed us up a bit. We packed up the bikes and set off to let gravity do what it does best. At 8550 feet, Carson Pass is part of the annual Death Ride and we met a group of riders training for it. The race covers something like 129 miles, 5 peaks and descents, and something in the range of 15,000 feet of “lung busting climbing.” It is an amazing challenge. Rami later devoted himself to reading up on it am making his plan to ride it. No iPods allowed either. Ok–deal breaker right there!

The descent from Carson Pass was quick, fast, and beautiful. Heavy bikes want to go fast on downhills, but they have huge momentum and so it is wise to not let them do all they want to. I feathered my brakes a lot and really only held off when there was a straight shot down to a clear flat. Even then I easily broke 40 mph and could have gotten into the 50s or more if I wanted to. I did not want to. So much rests on machinery in a descent like that and I was almost too preoccupied with mentally checking every part of the bike and the ride feel to even focus on how beautiful was the place itself. I was listening to every brake hiss, feeling every shudder of the frame, weighing every jolt in the handlebars, constantly thinking about balance. I was not terrified, nor was I stressed–it was all just very technical: awaiting reports from the bike sent through the network of hands and arms and legs and feet. I bet a hang glider or a brain surgeon is pretty focused on the technical for a while before they really settle into enjoying the experience. “Hand me the little dremmel tool skull cutter nurse, I am really going to relish my time in this guy’s head! I am going to sail around his medulla oblongata as if I was hang gliding!”

Rami on the other hand was in adrenaline heaven. He had his music up loud and was imagining he was an eagle flying through the mountains. He has begun his training for the Death Ride. He is the Ringo just having a great time to my George overthinking everything. Dated?

Very quickly we were in Nevada and riding at the base of the range we just came down from. 
The climate was a total change–it felt noticably drier and hotter but nothing bad at all–just a nice change. We rolled over hills up and down until we got to the edges of Carson City. The maps led me to think there was a campsite south of town, but there were only sprawl malls and very unpleasant roads: six lanes many cars. The shoulder was fine though and were in town quickly, The first stop was The Bike Smith at 900 N Carson St. They were getting ready to close up and we were unfocused and a bit brain dead from the road. Nevertheless, I have been throwing my chain over my large chainring every time I gear up. The issue is the limiter screw on the front derailleur, but that is the part of the bike I feel least able to cope with. Carson City was our last chance to have a professional mechanic look at the thing before the desert, so in we stopped. Justin very kindly did a quick and solid fix and also spotted that the cable was fraying and summarily replaced it. Justin has a blog called Justinvelo where he discusses goodies he is seeing come through the shop and other issues in the cycling world. Mountain biking is big here–no surprise–and Justin had a very good discussion of the issues surrounding pedal assist. This is getting to a be quite an issue in competitions and some trails ban assisted bikes of any kind. Justin had some interesting insights into what might make a given rider support or oppose assist and he sees that riders with history are far more critical than new riders. My initial instinct is to think something is amiss with assist. But at the same time–assist would be great on some of these climbs–especially since we are not talking about motors, but rather internal mechanisms that simply add power to your pedal stroke. No stroke, no power. I have to think about this. 

We ended up at a hotel north of town and were fine. Food. I hate travel stuff that focuses on food. There is nothing worse that a travel vid that begins by showing a lovely city street somewhere for about 5 seconds and then cuts to the front of a restaurant. Next thing you know we spend the next ten minutes in a restaurant that could be anywhere looking at plates that could be anywhere laden with food that could be made or eaten anywhere sitting on tables that could be anywhere. Does it even count as a travel vid if all you see is the inside of some mostly generic high priced slop hall? Long and short, my adventures are not culinary. Local delicacies and the dining habits of the natives are things I am fine skipping. Thus, this will probably be all I have to say about food. 

Rami though is 16 and eats like some sort of creature that has to consume his weight in protein every 12 hours to survive. “I’m starving” is how most conversations begin. We don’t have an interesting array of eatables with us. Grits, oatmeal, bike gels, and lots of tuna fish. He is not sick of it yet–but it is only a matter of time. 

Rami says the beef jerky is too dry.  Of course it is–it’s beef jerkey! Dry is its thing, its metier, its ISP! What’s next? This ginger ale is too wet? This oxygen is too “breathy?” I can’t really complain though, I am a very picky eater myself and am the opposite of adventurous. What is that–an arm chair eater? But it is but it is not simply finikiness that makes me that way. It really is more an issue of outright contempt. I just don’t like food very much. That’s not to say that there is not food that I like very much–there is, and I am quite devoted to it. But it all tends to be simple–even elemental. Eggs (chicken ones), pea soup, lentils, white rice, beans, and hot chocolate are sort of the staples. There are extravagances now and then–but they are fairly tame as extravangences go. But I think above all it is the culture of food and food presentation that I can’t stand. Things were better when region and season limited what we could eat. With that said I a going to drink some Florida orange juice and grab a Perrier for later–I find Pellegrino to be just a little too flat for my taste. Maybe Pellegrino needs some fizz assist. 

The C and O Canal and the Great Allegheny Passage

I want to share a report of my June 2015 trip on the C&O Canal path and the Great Alleghany Passage bike trail. Together they make for the longest stretch of car-free trail in the nation and tons of people ride the path, or parts of it, every year. I took me about a year of reading, dreaming, and planning to get everything together for a trip that ended up being close to 400 miles (all told) of riding and took 6 days. My goal here is try to answer some of the questions that I was unable to resolve in my web research before my own trip. So, I am not really going to share any info about the beauty, history, or experience of the trail—that has been covered well elsewhere. I am also assuming that you dear readers have already done some of the basic research for your trip, so I am not going to offer much of a sales pitch for the trails or bicycle touring in general. Instead, I want to focus on the sort of questions I had before I left but for which I could not really find answers, and to share useful information I learned along the way that I had not seen posted elsewhere. I hope what follows helps, and please use comments to ask any arising questions and I will try to answer them.

2015-06-24 15.55.08

My Surly LHT in happy times before the mud set in.

The first thing to cover is gear and condition. I am a daily rider doing about 10 to 15 miles a day with longer rides of up to 40 miles interspersed throughout the week. So any sense of what was physically hard or easy comes from that base vantage point. The bike was my 2009 Surly 700c wheeled, rim brake Long Haul Trucker (LHT) which I use for daily commuting (my Cannondale does the faster stuff). The LHT is more or less stock with two major changes. One was replacing the crankset with a Campignolo Veloce 52/42/30 so I could use the bike for more speed when not loaded up. The other is my fully broken in honey-colored Brooks B17. Bottoms vary, but to me, you are nuts if you try to do distances with anything other than a Brooks or a Selle Anatomica. I had troubles on the path, but not a single one of them were in anyway posterior-related.

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This is the angle of the Axiom Lowrider front pannier rack on the standard LHT front fork.

The rest of the bike gear was:

Continental Touring Plus Tires 700×37

2 yellow Ortlieb Back Rollers

2 yellow Ortlieb Front Rollers

1 Timbuk2 Bike Box

1 Medium Bontrager seat bag

1 set of Bontrager 35mm plastic fenders (their adjustability was a big plus)

1 Topeak Super Tourist rear rack

1 set of Axiom Lowrider front racks

The rest of the gear were things like my regular bike lights and all. Nothing really worth noting. The Topeak rack is great and the Ortiebs hung on the sides with no issues. They bounced a bit on the bumps, but nothing that was worth worrying about. I was a bit less thrilled with the Axiom front racks. The main issue was that they were not level to the ground. I mounted them on to the in-built Surly brazes (after a brief attempt at the provided U bracket harnesses) but no matter how I pushed and pulled, they had to sit so that the rearward edge was lower than the forward edge. It is just an issue of mismatched fittings and makes for a poor match between bike and rack. Some people might not care about this issue, but it bugged me. It just looked off to me (you can tell from the pics whether than would gnaw at you or not) More importantly though, it meant that on the bumpy parts of the trail the panniers wanted to bounce loose, and gravity meant that they wanted to jump over the posts that Axiom placed on the top to hold the pannier in place. No matter what I did they slipped around a lot. It was not a huge issue—I never lost a pannier for example–but it did get to me after a while. And since so much of riding entails staring down at the front end of the bike, I was a bit obsessive about where my panniers were sitting and even reached down a few times to shove them back into place. The movement was never more than an inch, but there it is. I will probably try another make for the next big trip. Apart from that, the racks did their job very well and were problem free.

I was happy with my box and bag, but next time I am planning on putting a larger seat bag on board. I found that I would have benefited more and opened my panniers a bit less with a larger seat post bag. I have never warmed to handlebar bags, but I can see why people like them—map access especially.

I am sensitive to gear hype, so let me be really clear about this. What is said about Ortlieb panniers and Brooks saddles is 100% true–none of it is hype. It was a wet trip and the Ortliebs were everything I could have wanted them to be. Easy to use, easy on and off, and bone dry no matter how wet and muddy they got on the outside. 2015-06-30 19.06.35Other brands are also great, but I am glad I went with the Ortliebs and never gave a worry to my gear in them.

Surlys also are everything everyone says about them. I love my LHT and it does not disappoint. It is a tank, plain and simple. My load was not that heavy, but the bike never flinched, and more over, when I was coming down the hill in Harpers Ferry at 35 mph, the bike felt as calm and steady as it ever does—no wobble or shimmy at all to suggest the load it carried. These are amazing bikes and I loved having it as a partner. I am looking forward to trying out a Cross Check on this same path later in the year, but the LHT is indeed just what it is known for. I saw lots of bikes and curious configurations—from brakeless fixies to heavily shocked leisure bikes. Each one worked, but had a weakness. No one could say that about an LHT—it was made for this and was a dream to ride.

I rode the Continentals for the weight and the price—about 20 bucks less per tire than Schwalbes. I wore out this type of tire once commuting and was disappointed whereas a Schwalbe would not have worn out in the same time and under the same conditions. But the Schwalbes are heavier and even though I am assured they live up to the reputation, I was not compelled to buy in. In the end, that was a wise call. The reason why is that when all was said and done, I regretted going with the 37mms. That is the most recommended tire size on forums and discussions boards, so I went with it. What I found though was that in the mud (of which there was much) 37mm was not wide enough to make a real difference—I skidded where I skidded and it was more skill and luck than equipment that kept me upright.

This is the crazy mud puddle south of the Pawpaw Tunnel. Make sure to walk through this stuff.

This is the crazy mud puddle south of the Pawpaw Tunnel. Make sure to walk through this stuff.

But on the dry and hardpack paths, 37mm was big enough for me to feel that is was holding my speed back. I am used to 23mm for long rides and 25mm for street commuting (both smooth surface tires) so I am happiest on a thinner tire. While the 37mms looked less like mountain bike tires than I thought they would when mounted, they were not really a huge help when things were slippery. My next trip in this trail will feature 32mms which I think will be a better splitting of the difference since the two trails (C&O and GAP) present really different dynamics. I suppose one could change tires along the way in Cumberland, but…yeah. If someone really want to do that, I would suggest using proper cyclocross tires for the C&O and something smoother for the GAP. The riders that are doing the whole C&O all in one day are on good cyclocross bikes and it makes sense. Had I sprung for the comparable Schwalbes I might feel a bit more bothered—or someone would be getting a good deal on ebay.

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The obligatory gear photo. I used a very light sleeping bag on the lower right. I was very glad I brought my Darn Tough short socks on the lower left.

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One of my camps. That is a Warbonnet Blackbird hammock under a Mac Cat tarp with Hennesy snake skins. The hammock is hanging on whoopee slings and tree straps. The guides are all shock cord or Zingit line.

I will skip over sharing too much detail about camping and camping gear. I have been hiking for ever and do long hikes every year. My pack is pretty light and all the gear well-used and tested. All I did was took the same kit I would take on the Appalachian Trail and put it in panniers—with some bike clothes, gear, and tools. I like camping and liked the campsites I stayed at, but it is worth nothing that it is really easy to stay in a hostel, hotel, or B&B every night of the trip if camping was not your thing or you wanted to travel light. Indeed, even though I was fully self-supported, I still found the lure of hotels sitting so close to the path too hard to ignore on a few nights. They really are everywhere and usually costing only between $50 and $75 (less for the hostels like the Teahorse in Harpers Ferry). I waited out one day-long rainstorm in one hotel and was very glad of it. As another trip review said, credit cards are lighter than camping gear. I am pretty confident that a rider could do this same trip with only a good bike, a water bottle, a few Hammer gels, a phone, and a wallet, and have a great time while eating and sleeping well all along the way. Also, there are tour companies out there that have organized trips for people, meeting them along the way at road crossings and parks and there providing them will full meals, any repairs needed, and even lifts to local attractions. I saw a few of these groups, and even though this is not my style, they did seem to be very happy campers. Their bikes were light and they wanted for nothing along the way. If you had the money to spare and did not feel great about self-support or winging it, this could be a great option. Or, just email me and I will just carry your crap in my half-empty panniers!

C&O and GAP Profile Map

C&O (right) and GAP (left) Profile Map.

For logistical reasons I chose to do the trip south to north (S2N). To date, Amtrak has been slow in figuring out that most railroad coaches are larger than bicycles and therefore can fit a few on board. Word is that that lesson may have been learned and that bike-friendly service is coming, but even so, the logistics of which trains can take bikes, which ones cannot, which ones want them in boxes, and so on are daunting—not to say maddening for their short sighted foolishness (that’s what happens when you put funding and overseeing a rail service in the hands of people whose real interest is helping cars and gas producers). Thus, for me, it was easier to start in the DC area and meet up with family in Pittsburgh. That turned out to be a very smart call and the others I met going the same way all arrived at the same sorts of conclusions as I had. In fact, there is a pretty healthy minority who prefer the S2N path—and I am in that camp. My pre-trip research showed me although that N2S (Pittsburgh to DC) is the more commonly taken path. I am pretty sure that the uphill path of the GAP between Cumberland, Maryland and the Continental Divide tunnel near Meyersdale, Pa is pretty big part of reason people prefer to go southbound. The standard profile map makes the incline look pretty daunting—even though your better angels are reminding you that this is rail line and therefore pretty level. It is certainly true that going southward gives you more miles that are technically heading downhill. But consider this. The C&O going S2N gains just under 500 feet in elevation over 185 miles. That makes for a grade so level that you really cannot feel if you are either going up hill or down. Most of the C&O elevation changes happen at the lock sites (no real surprise, right?) and they are very short. Also, about a third of the locks (and all the aqueducts) are made so that riders go though the dry canal bed—meaning that your passage begins with a drop and ends with an incline no matter which direction you are headed. All of this means that the C&O is, in a word, flat—in places, very flat. There may be a psychological benefit to knowing that you are going downhill if you ride southward, but there is no real physical benefit.

The GAP just south of Connellsville, Pa.

The GAP just south of Connellsville, Pa.

On the other hand, the elevation changes on the GAP are indeed noticeable. Again, keep in mind that the whole GAP is railroad grade. Even though a car can scoot up a 9% or 10% grade, a big ol’ freight or coal train would be slipping its steel wheels pretty badly even at a 3% grade. The Pittsburgh side of the Continental Divide is about a 1.3% grade and the Divide to Cumberland side is closer to 2%.

The B&O railroad back in the last days of steam. Engines like this were made specifically to haul cars up grades.

The B&O railroad back in the last days of steam. Engines like this were made specifically to haul cars up grades.

Both are steep enough to be felt in the legs (but I do most of my riding on a vast flat sandy pancake and consider myself a certified hill wimp). So, (and I suspect you can see where I am headed here) I would rather do 20 miles uphill on the slightly steeper grade and be rewarded with 125 of 1.3% downhill miles than do it the other way. Going up from Cumberland I had no real trouble maintaining about 8 or 9 mph fully loaded with a break now and then. That means that the hardest part of the trip took less that 3.5 hours (breaks included) and all the rest was either flat or a noticeable downhill and in my favor. There also was a psychological benefit. The trail conditions of the C&O are considerably poorer than those on the GAP—the former being early nineteenth-century mounded clay and earth with some gravel here and there, and the later being more recently-made packed limestone gravel atop water-draining stone. The C&O was a far harder ride than the GAP and I knew it would be. So, it helped to know that all the hard work up front would eventually be rewarded with a nice 125 mile ride at the far end. Indeed, once I crested the divide and got up to speeds of 17mph and above, I was very happy—not to say self-satisfied.

One counter argument to my S2N thinking though is that once passing Boston, Pa. going S2N, the GAP really changes. Outside of town it has its only stretch where it shares the space with cars—about a half a mile of very poorly marked path that leads to a challenging bridge over the Youghiogheny River (which has the GAP has been following for some time), and then on to the both confusing and powerfully unscenic path through and out of McKeesport, Pa (some nice steep bridge ramps along the way, but even I overtook casual unloaded riders on them). From there it feeds onto urban bike paths or city streets all the way to the fountain at Point State Park in Pittsburgh. The paths are paved and fun, but, after a few days peddling alone in the woods, suddenly being dumped out amid cars, commuters, and the sights and sounds of the city was a bit disorienting. I can see how some riders may want to put all of that behind them as soon as possible. For me, it was fine, and it made for a dramatic end to a long quiet ride. The last mile or so on Pittsburgh streets in rush hour traffic was quite dramatic—a bit a slowed down Lucas Brunelle filmScreen Shot 2015-08-06 at 12.26.21 AM

So for reasons of logistics and strategy, I went S2N. I will be doing the same direction next year as well—although the next plan is to rest a bit in Pittsburgh, strip the bike down, and then turn around and do the GAP N2S in one long day. I began this year’s ride at Mount Vernon (imagine that!) and rode the length of the Mount Vernon Trail (MVT) into DC to scope it out for future reference. The MVT is a nice paved commuter and leisure trail with some short but steep hills and one or two rather sudden turns. I got a bit lost at the edges of Alexandria (where a Starbucks is right on the trail) and making sense of DC signage looking for the crossing to Georgetown and the C&O trail head was no small matter. There is a nice well-stocked bike shop right at the base of the bridge before the steep stairs to the trailhead. I stopped for a sit down and took a pic of my bike at the Ukrainian consulate,

My bike tried to visit Ukraine.

My bike tried to visit Ukraine.

then down the steps by foot and off on the muddy C&O. Once I was on the trails—both trails—I never was lost in the slightest way. The only confusion was at the city ends. I think you would have to work hard to get lost on these paths. One place that was a bit confusing—and that even was just a tiny bit—was just north of the Big Slackwater Causeway near MacMahon’s Mill. Some background (despite the fact that I said I wouldn’t do history herein). When in use, the canal depended on water let in from the Potomac. In a few places you will cross the locks designed to let water in from the river. One stretch of the path though had the boats leave the canal proper and just ride along on a specially dammed section of the Potomac itself. Floods have long since knocked out the narrow towpath that ran along the river, but wise use of Federal funds have replaced those frail paths with more durable concrete causeways. These are a fun treat too after dozens of miles of mud pits. But, they end, and the path in a few places gets a bit funky. I may have been tired or a road zoned, but at one point I rode back to a clear spot to just make sure I had not missed a turn. I had not, the path was just chewed up a bit. That was the closest I came to getting lost on the paths.

Rain. It rained a lot. A lot. Just my luck. I took a day off in Williamsport Maryland partly to hide from a day of downpours. Some people like rain, other do not (I am in the later category). But like it or hate it, rain does some simple empirical things to the ground. On the C&O it made for many many puddles. Closer to DC the path is a dirt and gravel track, but as you get deeper into Maryland, large sections of it become a double track with a grass strip down the middle. These areas in particular seem very susceptible to puddling and pot holes. As always the best thing to do is just hold on and ride right through—trying to swerve to avoid will only lead to trouble. The catch of course is that under that brown water surface may or may not be a big pothole waiting for you. My tires were pumped high—90 psi generally.

There were a few downed trees. This one and I particularly did not get along well.

There were a few downed trees. This one and I particularly did not get along well. Note the puddles though: that is what most of the C&O looked like after rain.

That made a harder ride, yes, but it eliminated the worry about pinch flats as I went in and out of thumping puddles. The storms downed trees and my only real mishap came in try to ride past one and getting bogged down in the muddy grass on the border. There were a few downed trees. This one and I particularly did not get along well. The resulting scrapes from the resulting fall were pretty minor, and since no one was there to see it, it never happened….right? In some places the mud puddles were pretty heavily rutted to the point of trouble. The south side of the Pawpaw Tunnel for example is one hairy spot. The path is a bit narrower there and with a sheer wall on one side and an 8 foot drop into the canal on the other, it pays to walk through ruts. Much of the path was so flooded even before a big rain that I felt it best to just sit out what promised to be a big ugly day. I know others went ahead, but I have no idea how happy they were about that choice.

Just outside of the town of Big Pool, MD is the 20-some-odd miles of the Western Maryland Rail Trail—a paved former rail line that hugs the course of the C&O very closely. Trail wetness made it too tempting to pass up, and so I had a nice ride with paving under my tires for a short while. Rain on the GAP was just as wet, but it did far less damage to the path itself. Rain will dramatically slow you down on the C&O and make the ride harder: on the GAP it was cold and wet, but had little effect on the ride.

One of the working water pumps. Look for water at the base to set your expectations before pumping.

And speaking of water let me say a bit about supplies of it along the way. The C&O is dotted with campsites—the NPS map shows them all. These are usually equipped with a hand pumped well that produced drinkable, if a little bit iodine flavored water. The catch of course is that not every pump works and there so far no regime for marking the ones that are not operational. The whole trail is owned and maintained by the NPS and they do an excellent job. But, the NPS is woefully underfunded and one result is sluggish maintenance on things like Maryland campsite pumps. The fun of course is figuring out if this pump or that one would work! I only found three that were useless. Sadly for me, one was at Pigman’s Ferry where I spent a night. I had sort of counted on that water for the morning (but ignored the pump until then), so instead I had to refill at Spring Gap a few miles along. But therein lies the point—it was very easy to get drinking water on the C&O.

My camp at Pigman's Ferry.

My camp at Pigman’s Ferry.

The GAP was somewhat different. First off, the trail lacks the regular campgrounds like on the C&O. There were small cleared areas at intervals (benches too, many of which bear the names of people to whom they are dedicated). There are also a few covered picnic tables, often near road crossings. But there were not really campgrounds. Mostly the camping sites were in the form of small sidings popping up here and there. I am a hammock camper, and while there were good trees at most (but not all) of the Maryland campsites, the GAP siding campsites were less than ideal for hammocks. The GAP also lacked the regularity of water supplies. There were streams and falls all over—particularly on the more northerly side. I use Aquamira (a bleach additive) to sanitize my water in the woods since it is very light and that was fine. It also was a rainy week and all streams and falls were quite lively. Some of the trailside towns have provided water supplies right on the path. The ones I recall most clearly are (links below) Meyersdale, Ohiopyle, Connellsville, and West Newton. Frostburg Maryland, has a nice little trail side rest area—but sadly no water as of yet. There also are some formal free campgrounds with shelters and water, but there are mostly north of Connellsville. Recently that town has doubled the number of shelters they graciously provide right next to the path. There are essentially AT-style raised leantos and are wonderful. The pump is north of lean-tos. All told though, between public water supplies, streams, and the occasional store close to the trail, it was easy enough to find water even though it came in a less uniform way than on the C&O.

Speaking of towns, they seem to have two different kinds of relationships with the trails and its many cyclists. One is the “pretend none of this is happening” reaction. The town of Boston, Pa is one of these. There are two or three very nice old homes converted into restaurants and pubs right along the trail on the north end. These cater to cyclists and are worth the visit. But if you make the mistake to turn into town itself as I did, the best you will find is some orange juice in a gas station. Other towns like Deal or Fort Hill are just communities with the trail running through—no supplies no lodging, no interest in being more. Other towns have adopted a completely different attitude and see in the trails and the many credit cards riding along them as antidotes the loss of industrial jobs. The Queen City of this renaissance is Ohiopyle, Pa. The trail runs right along it and that fact, plus a good whitewater site has made the town a seasonal outdoor haven.

What my bike looked like most of the time.

What my bike looked like most of the time.

Food, lodging, supplies, bike shops and so on all focus on the path. Cumberland Maryland is in the process of reimagining itself as cyclist town and it was a worthwhile stop. Connellsville, Pa has bed and breakfasts about and of course has built a special free campsite. Meyersville, Pa also is turning its eyes towards the trail and has food, supplies, and lodging. West Newton, Pa has set up a welcome center housed in its old rail station. There is water there, info, souvenirs as well. Sadly no supplies, but that is because they do not want to compete with merchants in town. Those merchants are mostly over a bridge off the trail and I am not one for diversions except when really needed. So I did not see West Newton even though it is clearly working to make itself a trail town. I did pull off into Confluence, Pa for groceries and a stop at the bike shop there. Confluence also is remolding itself to be a trail town and the politics of this is visible in the fact that on at least one dead end street some grouch hung a sign saying “No Bicyclists.” That curmudgeon though is losing the battle as the folks in Confluence are friendly and helpful and the town has a lot to help people on the trail.

The Allegheny Trail Alliance and The Laurel Highlands Visitors’ Bureau have pulled together and printed up a uniform set of brochures featuring maps and info for the towns working hardest to make your GAP trip more pleasant. I found copies of these everywhere—from the Visitor Center in Cumberland Md, to the public notice boards near many road crossings.

This what the brochures were like. They were everywhere and were really helpful.

This what the brochures were like. They were everywhere and were really helpful.

There were great and really helped plan things. I wish I had them before hand, so here are the links to the various town brochures in PDF form: MeyersdaleWest Newton; Confluence; Ohiopyle; Rockwood; Connellsville. The C&O passes through fewer towns than the GAP. Brunswick Md is very close to the trail, but I suspect it gets passed over usually in favor of Harpers Ferry, WVa a few miles along. Getting to Harpers Ferry means crossing the rail bridge over the Potomac, and that means hauling your bike up a twisting set of stairs. But Harpers Ferry is an Appalachian Trail town and has the AT headquarters there. Food, supplies, lodging are all there and it is great town to visit. Williamsport, Hancock, and Cumberland Md. are all easier to reach and both have the expected amenities. The celebrated C&O Bicycle shop is in Hancock and has its large bunkhouse out back for cyclist lodging.

The prized C&O souvenir.

The prized C&O souvenir.

It is worth stopping at all the bike shops you can make since that is where you will meet other riders and get info and needed supplies. And repairs of course! I had chain troubles and got some help at the C&O Bicycle Shop and again at the CTC Bike Shop in Cumberland (thanks Wayne once again for the perfectly timed lift and the chat!).

The bike shops are all ready to help and understand the fact that you are rushing along—so service is fast and efficient. I ran into two women heading south who had blown out a tire just outside of Confluence. We managed to get in a new inner tube and they set off to make it to the next road crossing and once there figure out how and where to get a new tire. By the time I reached the Confluence Cyclery a local trail angel had already arrived there having met the women at their road crossing. He was picking up a new tire to run back to the riders so they could get back on their way. When my chain popped on an uphill (the quick lock link gave out!), I was lucky enough to find Wayne right there starting their own ride who graciously postponed it to load my bike on his rack and drive me into town to get a repair. The point is that there are plenty of wonderful and generous local folks who are happy to help riders out when trouble hits. The network is informal, but the pros at the shops all understand the drill and there are people all over who are on your side. Each year more and more people fall into this camp as the trails become more and more central to local economies.

The lock house at Oldtown, Maryland.

The lock house at Oldtown, Maryland.

Charging my devices was not that difficult. Between hotels and towns with places to sit and have coffee, it was easy to recharge. There were outlets in the mens’ room (and presumably the womens’ as well) at the rest area at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center. There also is a very nice little museum set up (the only of its kind) on the lock house at Lock 71 near Oldtown.

Lock 71 at Oldtown Md was a nice place to rest and tidy up while charging devices.

Lock 71 at Oldtown Md was a nice place to rest and tidy up while charging devices.

As long as it is open there is a fine outlet in there. I sat and dried out a bit on the porch there while the devices recharged. There was nothing quite like this on the GAP, but there more towns as I said before. All in all, the lights and phone were never really low during the trip.

For the most part the ride was fairly easy. My short days were due more to being lazy in town and my longest day—about 75 miles—was pretty easy. In the mud I had no trouble maintaining between 10 ad 12 mph and was faster where it was dry. There is technically a speed limit of 15 mph on the GAP at least, but little enforcement. It was a good ride, but never really that strenuous and as I said before, there were all sorts of riders on all sorts of bikes. It is manageable and a great time.

I hope that this helps you as you plan out your own C&O GAP trip and let me know if I can answer any questions.


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