Autumn on the C&O Towpath

“Autumn has a beautiful way of substantiating these lower moods and reflecting them in the environment as something vital and true. Darkness is as crucial to us as light—we can’t appreciate the sun without the shadow, or spring without the fall. Remember that and embrace your inner autumn and the feelings it encourages.” – Andrew WK

I’m becoming a big advocate for train supported adventures, especially since Chicago is a major hub for railroad transportation. Last year, Amtrak added a bike car to its Capitol Limited line, enabling cyclists to access the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Towpath, a big rail to trail system between Pittsburgh and DC. I got my first chance this fall to try it out, and boarded a Pittsburgh bound line out of Chicago early Friday night. If things went as planned, I would get to the trail’s end at Georgetown, six days and 330 miles later.

Day 1: Pittsburgh to Connelsville

The train got into Pittsburgh at 6am. The days were getting shorter and it was still an hour before dawn. A huge rain system just blew over the area and was 20 miles to the east, steadily getting pushed away by a cold front that promised a week of brisk, clear autumn weather. I rode out of the city on a wet paved bike path that followed along the Monongahela River past several large steel factories. I crossed a bridge looking back at the city, which was still shrouded in fog. The air was damp and warm, and crickets echoed along the riversides, perhaps for the last time of the year. It was October in the mountains, and the bite of the cold season was imminent. I continued, holding onto the last fleeting moments of warmth and comfort. Onward, I cycled into hundreds of miles of foliage and cold mountain air.

I hit gravel in the next town and followed the path along the Youghiogheny through a hundred muddy puddles, throwing dirt all over my bike. Clouds lifted and brightened throughout the day, lightening the sky and its reflection on the river’s surface. The water was muddy and brown from unrelenting rainstorms. That was a good sign. I was going to paddle it tomorrow, and high water is good water.

I reached a KOA campground near the town of Connelsville and set up camp. From here, the track goes right through the middle of the range.

Day 2: Connelsville to Confluence

Morning fog shrouded the trail and I was freezing as I broke down the campsite in the dark. Normally, I would wait until the warmth of sunrise, but I had to get to Ohiopyle by 10:30. Dawn was breaking as I got on the trail at 7. As the sun met the mountains, fog lifted, revealing a million colors of foliage on the mountainsides. Every possible shade you could imagine of red, orange, yellow, and an occasional evergreen speckled the deciduous landscape. My dad told me once that although the alpine mountains out west are huge and majestic, he prefers the warmth of the forested Appalachians. I would agree. This feels like home.

I rode hard, trying to beat the clock to sign up for a river trip down the Lower Yough. As I neared the town, the roar of the river below and an occasional glimpse of rocky rapids between the trees promised a good river trip. I made it to the check in at 10, and bombed through some great rapids that day. You can read all about it here.

That afternoon, I rode on for 10 miles, drying off as I made for the town of Confluence. I got to a public campground an hour before sunset, hoping to find a bar to watch the second presidential debate. The bombshell video about pussy came out on Friday, two days ago as I was leaving on the train. A video of Donald Trump bragging to Billy Bush about how he’s a star who can get away with anything, which apparently includes treating women like shit. And here I was, in Confluence, Pennsylvania, trying to find somewhere to watch the second debate, two days after my Facebook feed turned into a circus. Strap on your clown shoes and let’s fucking do this.

I never did find a place to watch it, but the night was still eventful. I met an old veteran who was walking a huge push cart across the country, DC bound from Astoria, Oregon. He looked like an older Middle Eastern man with a full, dark beard and even darker eyes, and the wear of life and travel in his face. His cart was decorated with an array of stickers and signs reflecting his journey and message protesting our country’s thirst for oil. If I didn’t know better, I would guess he’s not fond of orange billionaires either. He pushed onward into the night.

Day 3: Confluence to Cumberland

I got going at sunrise because it was too cold to leave any sooner. It definitely got into the 30s last night. The gradient increased and the river to my left narrowed as I made for the heart of the pass. A town would appear around a bend every five miles and disappear a second later. I caught up with the veteran again at a bridge crossing the Casselman. He had already gone 8 miles since I met him late yesterday. This guy was a machine.

The trail came out of the river canyon at the town of Garrett, and from there I made a couple valley crossings toward the high ridge of the Eastern Continental Divide. Windmills lined the top of the ridge, slowly turning about on this quiet day as I set a hard pace for the top of the pass. I’m used to bigger, steeper hills. But since this is a rail to trail, the grade is always steady, never going over 2% at its worst. It was an easy push to the top, marked by the entrance to the Big Savage Tunnel.

Immediately on the other side was a fantastic view of the eastern mountains. Cumberland was just past the gap ahead. I made a hard descent for it and got into town right before sunset. From there, I would follow the Potomac all the way to DC.

Day 4: Cumberland to Hancock

After Cumberland, the C&O goes along the long, sweeping bends of the Potomac for 180 miles until it reaches DC. Though technically downhill, you don’t really notice on the nearly flat gravel terrain. Pools lingered along the trail from the recent showers, and I was trying to dodge them – mostly succeeding, sometimes splashing mud all over.

I passed a few ridges uneventfully until I reached the Paw Paw tunnel, an old cut into the mountain that is 3,200ft long. Unlike the others, this one was unlit, allowing a small passageway just wide enough for a person to walk their bike.

Halfway through the afternoon, I stopped for a break and noticed that my Achilles heels were starting to get sore. This could be a problem. Well, fuck it, I’m going to keep going.

I pushed into the late day, trying to ignore it. At 10 miles outside of Hancock, the pain was starting to get worse. This is all in my head, I thought. I have beaten pain problems before with the power of positive thinking, AKA, this shit isn’t real, I’m getting on with my life and don’t care what my doctors have to say about it. Nonetheless, each pedal stroke was met with mild pain.

I set up camp at a biker/hiker site 5 miles after Hancock. Disgusted with myself, I got on my phone and consulted the black hole of Google for medical advice. One of the first search results I got for Achilles pain was WebMD. In my experience, no matter what is wrong with you, WebMD will always narrow your situation down to one of two things: tendonitis or cancer. Fuck off. Then I found what I was looking for: cycling forums addressing the issue. My problem was definitely because of a bad fitting, likely that the seat was too high and needed to come down a half an inch. Okay. I’ll lower it and try again tomorrow.

Day 5: Hancock to Harpers Ferry

The pain backed off that night and I felt okay for the first 20 miles of the next day. It fired up again after I stopped in Williamsport. But as long as I rode steadily, it wasn’t that bad. Well, maybe I can just ignore the soreness and sing Weird Al Yankovic songs to myself to calm the monkey fight in my head. Cause I’m trigger happy, trigger happy every day (happy every day)! I did this over the next few hours as I rode along the peaceful bends of the Potomac.

When I stopped for a break at Shepherdstown, I looked at my feet. Shit! They’re getting swollen!

Well, I’m not going to positive think myself out of this one. Each Achilles was mildly swollen with limited range of walking motion. It wasn’t bad, but it could be if I didn’t back off. I called Amtrak and changed my ticket from DC to Harpers Ferry, the next stop 12 miles out. If I could get there, I could ice up and rest for an extra day before going home.

I got back on my bike and made for the hostel. This is a bad idea. But if I can get there, I can get the rest I need in the company of other travelers. Cause they’re my people.

I pushed for 12 miles, checking periodically to see if the swelling got any worse. It didn’t. The orange sunlight of the late day broke through the trees and the rapids of a steep gradient on the Potomac came into earshot. The town was getting close. I finally went up one last hill to the Harpers Ferry Hostel. I was glad to be done, 60 miles short of my goal and feeling like shit.

Day 6-7: Harpers Ferry

I rested, iced up my feet, and chatted with transient guests, mostly other cyclists on the C&O or hikers on the AT. This late in the season, I only met one guy still on the AT, who was making a hard push to get to Georgia before the bite of winter really hits the mountains.

Emily, a sweet backpacker from Britain was on a roadtrip in the states. I chatted with her about our adventures, our mutual love for Whitefish, Montana, and my crazy ideas of being a world traveler. And how it just might be closer to reality than I think. She had spent a few days in Harpers Ferry, hiking and horseback riding. If there’s one thing I know about equestrians – and this is because I have two of them in my family – it’s that they are serious about their horses. Tomorrow, she planned to drive north to see the autumn peak in Vermont.

She dropped me off at the depot in downtown the next day, maybe to be seen again, maybe not. It’s always sad to lose a fellow traveler, especially somebody as full of kindness and love for adventure as she was. But I suppose the loss of somebody is what gives worth to your memory of them. Perhaps in the same way that Andrew WK believes that the darkness of autumn is what allows us to appreciate the warmth and light of the spring. Perhaps the connections that I build with people couldn’t really exist unless there are times when they don’t. Perhaps I just need to “embrace my inner autumn and the feelings it encourages”.

My feet were still sore, but well enough to walk around. I explored the streets of Harpers Ferry, since I didn’t get to do that last time. Finally, I wheeled my bike onto the train, had an attendant rack it in the bike car, and slept into night.

“The bitter winds are coming in and I’m already missing the summer.” – First Aid Kit