“I need to find a post office,” Pat said on the second day we were cycling on the C and O Towpath. Me, in my typical gullible fashion, fell for it. “What do you need to mail?” I asked, a bit irritated by his desire. Pat, has made it a point of lightening what is in his panniers throughout this trip – and we only had two days more of cycling. What could he possibly need to mail now? “My blue jacket that I haven’t worn since the State of Washington,” he responded. And then he cracked a big smile. “Gotcha,” he said.
Last Saturday morning, we steered our bicycles toward the C and O Towpath in Cumberland, MD, which is 184.5 miles in length. Thanks to interpretive signage, we learned that on July 4, 1828, the construction of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad began in Baltimore while at the same time the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal began in Georgetown. It was a race to see who would finish first. The railroad won opening eight years earlier than the canal did. And while the B and O railroad continued on to the Midwest, the canal threw in the towel and ended in Cumberland. According to what we read, it was George Washington who, several years earlier, recognized how valuable linking the Potomac to what eventually became Pittsburgh, would be for the new nation.
Because the canal couldn’t compete with rail in terms of speed or capacity, (after all, it relied on mules), it was nearly obsolete from the time of its opening. Bulk commodities including lumber, wheat and coal were transported on the canal as were passengers. The canal continued to operate until 1924 when a significant flood damaged it beyond repair. Over decade later, the federal government took ownership and this summer, marks the 50th anniversary of the C and O National Historical Park.
Cycling on the towpath has its share of highlights and challenges. Several miles of it are in need of resurfacing and because of this. when it rains, the mud can be overwhelming. It is the one trail wherein we might have purchased more food in advance as there is nothing nearby. There are plenty of primitive camping sites along the way and in many sections, as you ride, you can see the railroad, canal and the Potomac River at the same time. As we cycled we passed by several locks that the canal boats once traveled through
The first night we opted to set up camp and grab a bite of something to eat at the only establishment around – Bill’s Place in Little Orleans, MD. Bill’s Place had a 50th anniversary a few years ago and there’s a For Sale sign in front of it. In spite of the “Welcome Cyclists” banner, we felt very much out of place. We’re not sure if that was because we arrived on bicycles rather than motorcycles or perhaps because we didn’t fit in with their usual clientele.
Back at the campground, we took a quick swim in the Potomac – the only way of showering and then hunkered down to watch the moon rise. The next morning, we were able to change it up and cycle on the 28 paved miles of the Western Maryland Rail Trail, which is right next to the towpath, through the town of Hancock to Fort Fredrick where it ends because of an active rail line.
We stopped for the night in Williamsport, MD and then on Monday, we made our way to Shepherdstown, WV, crossing over a bridge into the historic village. Shepherdstown is the home of Shepherd University and Monday was the first day of classes there. Returning to the towpath, we cycled to the bicycle parking area at the Harper’s Ferry intersection, which offers another bridge crossing, but instead of a bicycle ramp leading up to that bridge, one has to either carry their bicycle up and down multiple steps or lock it up in the provided rack.
It was fairly hot by the time we arrived, but we did our best to meander through some of the National Historic Park and spent the majority of our time inside the John Brown museum. Neither Pat nor I had ever really spent time at Harper’s Ferry and after reading everything in the museum, the question for us remains – Did John Brown truly precipitate the beginning of the Civil War?
On our last night on the towpath, we pitched our tent at the Indian Flats Hiker-Biker Campsie, about 42 miles outside of Washington, DC. This was our first experience at this type of campsite, and they are very primitive. – just a water spigot and a porta-let. Appropriately enough, we were serenaded a few times by train whistles from the nearby railroad. In the morning, we had cold coffee in the tent and headed out on our bicycles for breakfast seven miles downstream at the historic White’s Ferry.
The next stop after breakfast was the Potomac Great Falls, where the river cascades through flumes over a series of rocks. The falls area is quite scenic and kayakers like to shoot the rapids here. An old barge boat is also docked at the lock house, which in non-pandemic times offers rides in the canal.
Three miles from the end of the C&O Canal Towpath, we cut over onto Washington DC’s Capital Crescent Trail, to stay on the Great American Rail Trail. At that trail junction, we stopped for a soda at The Boathouse at Fletcher’s Cove. A local cyclist/banjo player gave us some tips on cycling in the area and shared stories about his life.
In Georgetown, we had the pleasure of meeting up with Kevin Belanger, the Manager of Trail Planning for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. This is the non-profit organization spearheading the development of the Great American Rail Trail. We had a very nice chat with Kevin and provided him with our frank assessment of the various portions of the existing segments of the trail and how the conservancy might better communicate the status of the planned nationwide rail trail.
After meeting Kevin, we had a mere four miles to go to finish our “journey of a lifetime.” Just a quick ride down the Water Street Bike Lane to the Rock Creek Trail and then the National Mall Trails. How appropriate and fitting it was that a portion of the Rock Creek Trail is being reconstructed and we had to follow yet another detour for about a mile on the city streets of DC! This included going through an intersection on Constitution Avenue with a malfunctioning traffic signal. Nobody said this would be easy.
With the detour behind us, we pushed on for the last three miles. The Rock Creek Trail fed us into the National Mall. In front of the Lincoln Memorial, we stopped to take in the view of the Washington Monument, the Reflecting Pool and the US Capitol in the distance.
The very last chapter of our journey involved cycling through the National Mall, past the Washington Monument to the United States Capitol. It was very thrilling to ride through this historic site where so many significant events have occurred over the past 200+ years. After dodging several pedestrians, crossing what seemed to be multiple intersecting streets and turning down offers from water vendors, we came to the pool in front of the United States Capitol. It was an incredibly emotional moment. We had finished our 77-day journey across the United States, all the way from Seattle! We succeeded!
Pat asked the first person he saw to take the final photo of our journey, in front of the US Capitol. How ironic was it that this individual was a Russian tourist visiting from Moscow! As stated before, we have definitely come to “expect the unexpected.”
Shevonne and Patrick
Stay tuned for our reflections of this epic trip after we return to Vermont