Return to the C&O Towpath

It was 5:30am on Labor Day weekend in Harpers Ferry. The path was wet from rain from the previous day. The air was warm and damp, almost to the touch. It had been almost a year since I last attempted this trail, and was cut short by an Achilles problem in both of my feet. I had intended to get to DC from Pittsburgh on the GAP and C&O trails, but after five days I had to stop at Harpers Ferry and take the train back home. Now, a year later, I was back to the finish the ride. At 30 minutes from daybreak I couldn’t see a damn thing. I got on the path, turned my lights on, and slowly rode east.

Soon, it was light enough to turn off my lights and pick up my speed. I went for 20 uneventful miles along the canal with few other people out. I rode, mostly alone, along the bends of the lovely, meandering Potomac. On a quiet morning like this one the river was like a sheet of glass, mirroring the breaking clouds of the day.

I started getting tired and out of breath about halfway through the ride, taking more breaks than I normally would. I was out of shape for this trip – which might have been part of what caused me so much trouble last time – but felt like I could handle one day of riding. At 45 miles I was getting into the zone and thought I was making decent time. Then out of nowhere I blew out the rear tire. I had a spare tube in my cargo and spent 20 minutes switching it out. I got back on and rode again. It blew out again. What the fuck?

I flipped the bike over and took the tube out to investigate. The culprit was a tiny wedge shaped pebble that punctured the tire and the tubes along with it. I checked my cargo to get out another tube. Shit, I forgot to bring more. So I was forced to patch the one I had. The problem was that the wheel caused even more pinch holes when it went out. And I had to find and fix those, repeatedly inflating and immersing the tube in the canal water, finding more and more holes that I had missed before. Bubbles came out from under one patch and then another pinhole appeared next to it. What the hell is all this? This tube was shot. I had no choice but to try to fix the other one.

Meanwhile, other cyclists kept going by and offering to help. That was reassuring. But I should know how to do this. I used to patch up my mountain bike all the time as a kid. I found a pinhole, sealed it, waited, and put the tube back in the water. Another leak was next to it. This was really getting aggravating. This was the last tube I had. Would I have to call in a taxi just to get out of here?

I patched the second pinhole, inflated, gently checked the tube in the water. Nothing. I think that’s it. I checked the tire and rim again for sharp objects, put the tube on, blew it up to 70lbs, and did a test ride next to my gear. No blowout. Okay. I loaded my cargo and started on the path. I stopped after a minute and checked again. Still holding up. I think that got it. So I rode on. That ordeal lasted two hours.

I think that the C&O was determined to stop me and failed. It did manage to piss me off, twice, but didn’t keep me from my goal. To celebrate, I went out to see the Great Falls of the Potomac, about three miles from where the blowout happened. What was once a silent, meandering river ten miles ago was now a magnificent series of waterfalls tumbling over multiple canyons.

This was awesome, but the trail was very crowded. I dodged cyclists, families, strollers, and dogs, and continued east past the crowds of people. The canal to the left widened under a large cliff and the calming river cut through Mather Gorge, an impressive canyon just after the falls. There was virtually no topography on this trail whatsoever, save the drops along the canal locks. As I neared the 495 beltway, there were 7 locks, so it finally felt like I had some decent downhill. I was nearing the city at last.

The Capital Crescent Trail parallels the C&O a few miles outside of DC and it is paved. I was done riding on gravel and took that the rest of the way into Georgetown. It was a nice day without any wind, so lots of people were on the river in kayaks and paddleboards. I saw a dude in what looked like a red Alpacka, which was good see out here. I’ve been trying to spread the packrafting gospel for years, especially on the east coast. Hell, I even had mine in my cargo, and would have used it yesterday if the weather were better.

Georgetown, the end of the C&O, was busy in the mid-afternoon. And I was exhausted. I needed to find my hostel and clean up. I loaded up a map. It said that less than a mile away was the Exorcist Steps. Wait, what?

That is fucking awesome. Time to go east.

I’ve always hated the street layout in DC. It’s pretty much a clusterfuck of diagonal streets – many of them one way – integrated into a grid system. On a map it looks like a spiderweb. And as an analogy, I would compare it to what we programmers like to call spaghetti code: It’s complicated and difficult to work with. And the bike lanes aren’t much better. I checked my phone repeatedly to find the right streets, and found my way across the city after some aggravating navigation.

That was yesterday. This morning I went sightseeing in DC for the first time in 20 years. It hasn’t changed very much, only now everybody is taking pictures of the monuments with their phones instead of just looking at them. But of course, I wouldn’t do anything like that..

And now I’m in a Starbucks waiting to leave on the train. I’m fielding a hangover from a rooftop meetup last night. After I finished the ride, I cleaned up at the hostel and then mingled around at a meetup in Adams Morgan because I have endurance. I’ll be back again before long, at least to Harpers Ferry. It has become one of my favorite towns in Appalachia.