Pedaling along the Potomac

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At the start of our 185-mile bicycle ride, I carried a whistle, pepper spray, walkie-talkie, cellphone, tools, water, food, a guidebook and a big piece of chalk. I'd accidentally become the tour guide for a group of 14 riders — some of whom hadn't been on bicycles for decades.

Obsessing about the problems we might encounter, I'd held a flat-tire clinic and distributed laminated cards with phone numbers of park rangers and a list of stopping points. I'd found my inner scout leader.

My daughter Mercedes, 16, and I had decided to take a fall bicycle trip and ride the length of the towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park. This premier trail, maintained by the National Park Service, is inviting to cyclists, with mile after mile of uninterrupted, flat terrain along the canal, which follows the Potomac River.

As Mercedes and I trained for the journey in August and September, a group was born. Friends and family learned of our plan and said they had "always wanted to ride the towpath."

"Of course," we said, "you are welcome." We didn't do background checks on fitness levels or bicycling experience, assuming the joiners were capable. It was a faulty assumption.

I took calls early and often. How do I train? How do I carry water? What kind of bike should I ride? It turned out that those calls were from the people who would be prepared. There were others who wouldn't be.

Still, most members of our group of 14, who ranged in age from 12 to 60, made it the whole way.

The canal and towpath are a result of George Washington's efforts to establish a trade route to the Ohio Valley. But it was half a century after Washington's death before the canal reached Cumberland, Md. — 185 miles from Georgetown — a point far short of the Ohio goal. The canal operated as a transportation route until 1924, primarily for hauling coal from western Maryland to the port of Georgetown in Washington, D.C.

The canal opened for business along its full route in October 1850. Five boats left Cumberland on that first journey to Washington. Coincidentally, 154 years later to the day, our group gathered on bikes at the same point, hoping to get to the Georgetown section of Washington in three days.

Of the five 1850 boats, two made the journey in a week and two got stuck and turned back. One, named Elizabeth, my name, stopped in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., two-thirds of the way. I didn't like knowing that.

My husband, who had volunteered to drive the group's "support-and-gear car," or sag wagon, ferrying our luggage from point to point, saw us off at 8:30 a.m. and went back to bed at the inn.

As we started to ride, we all wondered who would drop by the wayside and who would gut it out. My brother Daniel hadn't been on a bicycle since boyhood and called from a Manhattan bike store the day before meeting us to ask for advice on which bike to buy. My sister Linda said, "Don't worry. I know what I'm getting into: I brought a large bottle of Advil."

On our first day, I eyed friends and siblings with the kind of look that must have been cast among members of the Donner Party. The first sign of weakening was when someone lagging behind said, "I really like to ride by myself."

Besides a few clearly out-of-shape adults, there were the kids — potential victims of broken bones. They could handle the distance, but during training rides, Katrin, 13, had shown a propensity for plowing into other riders, running off the trail and falling off her bike. On Day 3, Katrin, predictably, fell off her bike, slid down the riverbank and stopped herself just short of the water. She sprained her ankle but finished the ride, bandaged.

We separated into small groups and met at designated stops. Most members of the group enjoyed riding side by side in twosomes for long spells, talking. The only sound besides our conversations was the crunch of dry twigs and the few leaves that had fallen prematurely under our tires.

Although many sections of the canal are now dry — water can be seen only in a few places in the western section and in a 22-mile section close to Washington — it is a beautiful ruin. In some places, full-grown trees are rooted in its bottom and erosion has nearly erased its banks.

But the past was all around us. The aqueducts, culverts, locks (19th century "elevators" to lift or lower boats) and lock houses, built 200 years ago, remain. The canal and path comprise the richest collection of historic structures in the national park system, said park historian James Perry, who added that many structures "approach works of art in the attention to detail in masonry."

We got off our bikes and walked down to the side of some culverts to look at beautiful stonework done in the early 1800s by Irish and German immigrants. At lock houses, long abandoned by the families who once tended them, we could see remnants of vegetable gardens and chicken coops. In our minds, we could picture the mules that powered the canal boats through the wilderness. Two of them would tow — thus the word towpath.

The path is a combination of clay and gravel, and we stirred up clouds of dust and grit as we rode. We were glad we had chosen hot showers and decent beds at the end of each day's ride instead of the primitive campsites set every few miles for those who prefer to rough it.

The first night on the trail, in Hancock, Md., we stayed at Cohill Manor B&B, a house that dates to the 1760s and at which George Washington dined.

We started each morning in cycling pants, jackets and gloves but stripped down to shorts and T-shirts by afternoon as the sun and our exercise warmed us. The best times of year to ride the trail are in early fall or May through July. Heavy rain can turn the path into mud during the August and September hurricane season.

I rode with Maya, 17, whose pace was like mine. We saw few other cyclists or hikers and the terrain was so easy, I could have ridden with no gears or brakes. But riders who like a paved, smooth path should be forewarned: There are rocky sections, and as a park spokesman said, "Potholes appear."

I knew the area where we rode was home to poisonous snakes, black bears, foxes and an occasional coyote. But the most interesting wildlife I saw on the trip was a swift squirrel that went through Maya's wheel, entering the spokes at ground level and exiting just before imminent decapitation.

We carried lunch each day because there are few restaurants along the towpath. But in Little Orleans, Md., at mile marker 141, we stopped at Bill's Place, a notable landmark along the route. A combination grocery store, billiard parlor and tavern, Bill's, or a predecessor, has served canal boats from the earliest days. We walked in to find old-timers pushed up to the bar, a Confederate flag draped from the ceiling and an advertisement posted for an "indoor shooting contest."

Lee Baihly, an outfitter in the area, said that when he took a British hiking group to Bill's, "They thought they had finally discovered the real America." Despite my misgivings, no bullets flew, and the service was friendly.

Our final overnight stop was in Harpers Ferry, W. Va., a town that overlooks the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. The rush of the waters was breathtaking. At the approach to Harpers Ferry from the west, the Potomac widens, and jutting rocks create whitewater.

By now three of our group had quit riding, and there were signs that my sister Linda would be the next dropout. She had started early and stayed ahead to take "planned stretching breaks" — a variation of "I really like riding by myself." Tired and sore, she overshot our stopping point by a few miles.

We rounded her up and headed her back to Harpers Ferry. That night, trains startled us out of our sleep as they shot out of a mountain, "Polar Express"-style. Their presence reminded me how the canal had met its demise.

*

Demise of the canalThe railroad had bedeviled the canal builders from the start, tying up land in legal disputes. Once, both modes operated, almost touching in places, and train engineers would blow their whistles to spook the mules on the towpath. In the end, trains could reach Cumberland well before a boat could, and by 1924, the railroad had taken the boatmen's livelihood. The Canal Co. was bankrupt. A flood tore through the canal, washing away all hope for its continued use. The federal government bought the land.

In the 1950s, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas editorialized against proposals to turn the canal into a road. He defended this "long stretch of quiet and peace at the capital's back door" and challenged newsmen to hike the towpath with him. Douglas' publicity stunt conserved the canal. We toasted the judge heartily each dinnertime.

On Day 3 of our journey, no one dropped out. We biked into Georgetown buoyed by spectacular autumn weather and by the mile markers the park service posted along the route. Their ever-lower numbers reminded us we were nearing civilization and the desk chairs that most of us usually inhabit.

I hadn't needed the whistle, pepper spray or walkie-talkie after all. As for our group, we had all enjoyed the countryside and were proud to have made it back to Washington two days faster than the average mule would have.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Potholes but no glitches

GETTING THERE:

From LAX to Washington Dulles Airport, nonstop flights are available on American and United; connecting flights (change of planes) can be found on Delta, Continental, America West, US Airways and AirTran. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $198.

From LAX to Ronald Reagan National Airport, nonstop service is available on Alaska; connecting flights are on America West, Delta, United, American, Northwest, Continental, AirTran and US Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $198.

Shuttles are available from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Md., including Jackie's Shuttle Service, 4302 Newton St., Brentwood, MD 20722; (301) 707-6097.

OUTFITTERS:

River Riders, 408 Alstadts Hill Road, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425; (800) 326-7238, http://www.riverriders.comv .

River & Trail Outfitters, 604 Valley Road, Knoxville, MD 21758; (888) 446-7529, http://www.rivertrail.com .

WHERE TO STAY:

Inn at Walnut Bottom, 120 Greene St., Cumberland, MD 21502; (800) 286-9718, http://www.iwbinfo.com . Comfortable, pretty rooms and elegant breakfasts. Doubles from $97, including breakfast.

Cohill Manor B&B, 5102 Western Pike, Hancock, MD 21750; (301) 678-7573, http://www.nfis.com/tildecohill . Historic home with extensive grounds. One mile from trail but offers pickup. Doubles $65.

Hilltop House Hotel, 400 E. Ridge St., Harpers Ferry, WV 25425; (800) 338-8319,www.hilltophousehotel.com. Simply furnished. Ask for a room with a river view. Doubles from $70.

Key Bridge Marriott, 1401 Lee Highway, Arlington, VA 22209; (800) 228-9290, http://www.keybridgemarriott.com . Close to Georgetown and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park. Doubles from $169.

WHERE TO EAT:

Rib Joint at Crab Alley, 14 Howard St., Cumberland, MD 21502; (301) 724-7472, http://www.craballeyseafood.comv . Ribs, seafood. Lunches start at $5.99.

Lockhouse Restaurant, 11 E. Main St., Hancock, MD 21750; (301) 678-6991, http://www.hancockmd.com/Lockhouse.html . Steak, chicken, pasta and seafood. Entrees from $11.95.

Iron Horse, 201 Potomac St., Harpers Ferry, WV 25425; (304) 535-2168. Barbecue sandwiches.

Vietnam Georgetown, 2934 M St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20007; (202) 337-4536. Popular neighborhood spot. Entrees $8- $15.

TO LEARN MORE:

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, 1850 Dual Highway, Suite 100, Hagerstown, MD 21740; (301) 739-4200, http://www.nps.gov/choh .

Other sources: For a $1 guide to food and lodging along the towpath, see http://www.candocanal.org/store.htmlv . Mile-by-mile trail guides are available at http://www.eparks.com . Information on biking the trail can be found at http://www.bikewashington.org/canal .

— Elizabeth Kelleher

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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