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.
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.