All the struggle I experienced relating to knowing when to set off (as lucidly and manically demonstrated in my previous post), was for naught. I had that today’s the day feeling on Wednesday morning the 23rd as I popped my yellow Ortlieb panniers onto Whitey Jackson’s rear rack. Said goodbye to the family, took pics, evidenced below, and pedaled into the misty mugginess.
Funny how my experience on Day 1, runs counter to my OMIGAD post. For every day of obsessive information gathering, there’s a parallel-universe day of blithely ignoring information that’s provided. My symptoms of illness aside, what really mattered was the weather and the impact that the storms had on the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal Towpath. As Scott (one half of the warmshowers.org host couple whom I’d be staying with that night) had texted me, parts of the canal had flooded and there were closures. Scott provided a link to the National Park Service’s website. I had read this information a few days before, and at that point I barely understood what a ‘towpath’ even was(like, was the towpath the ‘trail’ or was that something else?), let alone had the brain space to absorb where the closures were, the specific mile markers, detours, cautions vs closures vs detours, repairs, washed-out bridges, locks, tidewater, boat ramps, points of interest, aqueducts, etc. And was Paw Paw Tunnel open or closed? *insert the emoji with exploding brain*
Before we pedal any further, let’s reverse, take geo-/topographic stock. Okay, so the week before when John Natalie’s Friend said to me that I could cycle pretty much all the way from D.C. to Pittsburgh on car-less bike paths, that didn’t quite register. How is that even possible? Well, it is, and it’s engineering magic. Briefly, the 184.5-mile C&O Canal was built starting in the 1820s along the Potomac River from Washington, DC to Cumberland, Maryland to allow for transport of coal, lumber and agricultural goods. These goodies were shipped on boats helmed by boatmen (and sometimes boatwomen). The boats were powered by mules on the ground above (towpath!). Eventually railroads and the Civil War (many battles were fought in this area of Maryland) overshadowed the C&O Canal, and it fell into disrepair until Eisenhower declared it a National Park. In 2013, the towpath officially became the first segment of US Bicycle Route 50, which is planned to span all the way to San Francisco (though currently it ends in Terre Haute, Indiana). One aspect of the C&O that I did absorb from John is that it’s flat. Which, when you are the mule towing an added 60% of your body weight along the riverbanks, is almost as important as whether the trail is open or closed. Which is why you might blithely ignore closure alerts.
Flat is where it’s at, yo!
So, for Day 1’s route, I knew that I eventually would hit some sort of detour but figured that keeping my head in the mud was the best way forward. I put Scott and Jen’s address in Shepherdstown, West Virginia (have I not mentioned that I’ve never been to WV and am extremely excited to have a state line crossing on the very first day?) into Google Maps, using the bicycle option – yes, this exists, and my previous experiences with it in LA have been pretty good. The Lady Who Directs You in Google Maps – let’s call her ‘Joan’ because that is the preferred given name for all Ladies Who Direct You in Navigation Apps – gave me two choices a 60-miler and a 65-miler. This not being a training ride, I chose the shorter route. It put me through the Maryland/D.C. suburbs on roads for a while longer before cycling down toward the Potomac and the muddy C&O. And, of course without looking, I was hoping that I’d be skipping any confusing stuff, like closures with clearly marked detours.
I was in the burbs for a while. Bethesda, Rockville, Gaithersberg, Germantown all seem quite big. But then I entered the little town of Boyds, MD at just 20 miles or so in, and the bucolic carpet and backdrop were rolled out in the blink of a sweaty eye. Welcome to the country – stay a spell, then git! It also began to get quite hilly and I consulted Joan as to when we’d be dropping down to the promised flatlands of the C&O Towpath along the river. I was cursing myself a little at this point for not training with anything resembling the full load of stuff. For my 2009 ride, I was super-prepared and followed practically every suggestion proffered by the online touring/adventure cycling community (except my refusal to acquire pepper spray to ward off Kentucky’s fearsome canines which you can read about here). One of the best pieces of training advice I’d read back then was to complete some longer training rides with the bike fully loaded. Because of life and work responsibilities and plain old lack of time, I’d forgone that advice this time, only managing a short trip to Orange County to see Susannah who was there from NYC doing a play at South Coast Rep. But that was mostly the train, anyway. The advice I did follow in spades this time was that the training really occurs during the ride. You build your capacity on the road. Besides, I’m not a car owner, so I ride a bicycle pretty much everywhere.
The point is: I was already getting inaugural-day tired with my heavy load going up and down the hills on country roads. I was sick only yesterday! ¡Pobrecito!
Okay, so where’s this flat towpath? I pulled into the parking lot of a Catholic church in Barnesville where I ate a Clif Bar and drank some Nuun-infused (electrolytes!) water. I needed to use the bathroom in a, er, umm, not insignificant way. A van pulled up and a man climbed out. To ask or not to ask? Aargh, these situations are exactly what I am (or say I am!) striving to court. I am striving to push the boundaries of my comfort zone. Asking for help is really difficult for me, for a lot of us, asking for water, for directions – and more difficult is accepting that help or water or directions or a place to sleep or shower or poo. Even speaking to strangers, saying hello, and allowing myself to be curious about other people, can be a challenge. But the choice right now is really stark. I write a blog post about: 1) Being strong enough to be vulnerable to another human and reach my hand out, or 2) Shitting myself.
Admittedly, the latter is the more darkly comic, but it’s DAY ONE.
So I approach Greg (I think that’s his name, I did make a note of it, but where?) and he tells me that someone is coming in a few minutes who has keys and will let me in. Greg tells me some of his story. He’s a father of nine kids (most of whom are already out of the house) and has been underemployed in the years since the economy crashed and Citicorp majorly downsized its operations nearby. He and his wife, whom he met in middle school, have been struggling, and this church has been a source of solace, some work and assistance with resources. This is not what he’d imagined his life to be at 53. It’s hard to ask for help, he admits, but people have been willing and kind and supportive. Ah. And I’m worried about asking to use the bathroom. Greg has a job interview this week. I really hope he gets it. The others arrived quickly, were amenable to letting me use the facilities, and I was able to write version 1 of this tidbit. Here’s a pic of the first people who were kind to me after I asked for help.
A few miles later, in the town of Dickerson, I enter onto the C&O Towpath at the Monocacy River aqueduct. I’d been seeing the word ‘Monocacy’ for several miles by that point and was misreading it disgustedly as Monocracy. I guess the dread and distaste of ‘rule by one person’ runs through my veins these days. The C&O is a tunnel of green and mud and gravel that travels alongside of the Potomac, which is sometimes visible on my left, sometimes not. On my right is the canal, murky, dank. I get my first taste of fauna. Rabbits and squirrels cross the path, which is indeed slick with gunk from the rain. Turtles! It’s impossible to traverse the path at a speed greater than 10mph, so I dig in, calling for turtle-infused patience and concentration, so I can keep the front panniers steady and the rear tire from skidding. That I know to turn the handlebars in the opposite direction of a skid to avoid a crash is something I attribute to Donny.
I’m loving it. Stopping to take pics along the way. Bridges and tunnels and waterfalls. At an old-timey water pump, I make a video that I think is very Little House on the Prairie, but it really evokes Helen Keller more. See here now:
Fun fact: I was so enthralled with Helen Keller’s story as a kid. When I was in second grade and looking for more material about her, Mrs. Ryan, the librarian at my elementary school, shared with me that her daughter, who was in college, was also obsessed with Helen Keller. (Note: Mrs. Ryan did not use the 2010s vernacular of ‘obsessed’ when describing her daughter’s interest in Ms. Keller.) Without a word, Mrs. Ryan led me into the back of the library, behind the checkout desk. In the bowels of the library, where you were only allowed to go if you were in 4thor 5thgrade and needed to consult the encyclopedias for a report – Ha! Encyclopedias. Dead! – Mrs. Ryan presented to me a crudely painted papier-mâché bust of a woman’s head. Though unrecognizable to me, this was her daughter’s creation. It was Helen Keller. Yes, in answer to your inevitable question, I was absolutely confused about why the bust was back there – and wondered if Mrs. Ryan was fucking with me somehow. … Hmm. Seriously, my memory of this excursion is dim. Maybe it’s a dream that I’m remembering as reality. Anyway, Helen Keller and Harriet Tubman were my heroes. I’ve even written a play that was produced in LA a while back in which the Catholic saints-obsessed main character harangues the church for not canonizing Ms. Tubman. This play was also about dreams and how people hate when you recount your dreams to them, which is as good a reason to go to therapy, because the person then has to listen, or at least pretend to…
Down this rabbit hole, for example, is where the mind goes during a long bike ride.
So, la, la, la, pedaling over the Towpath, everything’s great. I pass Point of Rocks, which is a very cool name for a town, right? I get about 10 miles further to mile 38 as per my Garmin watch, well passing the day’s halfway mark. And then – WTF???????
A sawhorse blocks the path with no posted alternate route. I contemplate going forward anyway. I mean, how bad can it be? But then I flash on having heard someone say “bridge washed out” or maybe reading that on the website. Despite the confidence I’d been feeling, I don’t think I can get across a washed-out bridge. I’d shut Joan off to preserve my iPhone battery, and now got her back on the line to get me out of this mess. Fuck, how much was I going to have to backtrack? Not that much as it turns out, only 0.6 of a mile. As I climbed out from the flatness of the riverside, Joan was stubbornly trying to get me back down to the C&O. Because I am stubborn myself and also because I had no idea what I was doing (not having looked at the closures), I decided to figure out how to get to Shepherdsville and Scott and Jen’s pad without using the towpath at all. I did not want to climb out from the river again. Come what may. I made my way to Burkittsville and to the foot of a crazy-ass hill, or rather, as Scott and Jen verified later, a bona fide mountain. Climbing was not the plan for Day 1! But what other choice did I have? Joan was tapping her foot and sighing belaboredly, waiting for me to get on with it. Well. It was really, really difficult (the steepest part was 500 ft. within a half-mile, hard even without the load – for me, anyway). I did feel a bit of pride through the pain as I cranked it up there, all the while trying to come up with a title for my first-day blog entry. Examples: Be Careful What You Wish For, or Me So Stupid: Lettuce Count the Ways, or Punishing, Just Punishing. At the top was Gathland State Park fit with a stunning monument to Civil War correspondents. I ambled over to the plaque to read about Civil War journalists and amused myself by declaring “fake news!” I had a familiar moment of wanting to be more interested in this and other Civil War monuments I’d passed, but I can’t get it up for Civil War monuments, especially this side of the Mason Dixon Line.
Although I was fearful of another climb like Gathland every time the road rose the slightest bit, the ride was mostly downhill for the next 10 miles to Sharpsburg, a sweet little town of about 700. People were out on their porches along Main Street, and I received several friendly waves. I rolled over the Potomac, this time all the way to the other side, entering West Virginia and Shepherdsville.
I stopped at Food Lion to get some supplies, but was so out of it, I only managed to get stuff that wouldn’t keep well (a bag of baby kale, some blackberries, sliced turkey) and cut watermelon (for having right there and then) and a banana and an orange. Not really dinner, per se.
I’d been texting Scott to let him know my arrival time. Both he and Jen were out on separate bike rides with friends. Scott was very clear that I should make myself at home in the Airstream and the outdoor shower.
[Speaking of showers, let’s get all the “warm showers” snickering out of our system, shall we? Yes, let’s quickly disabuse ourselves of any untoward notions that the name “warm showers” might conjure up in anybody’s dirty mind. Clearly, the people who coined the name were not thinking about what you’re thinking about, or are now thinking about, thanks to me. Side note: personally, I’d rather have a hot or a cool shower. Warm sounds kinda tepid. Someday maybe I’ll learn the specifics of the origin of the name. According to their website, warmshowers.org is a ‘free worldwide hospitality exchange for touring cyclists.’ Basically, you sign up as a host/cyclist, write a ditty about yourself and what you have to offer (e.g., bed, lawn to camp on, food, laundry), and you can search for and contact hosts who list themselves as available. As you might imagine, the site is more popular in Europe than here. When I did my 2009 H-bar C-fess, I heard about warmshowers very late in the game and had my first experience in Santa Cruz, toward the end of my trip. (Read all about it.) Between 2009 and 2017, the number of active members has skyrocketed from about 1,400 to 30,000.]
Back to the outdoor shower taking place…
Jen and Scott’s backyard is a tired cyclist’s paradise. There’s the Airstream which resembles a giant silver pill or a missile. It’s hippieish but also military…and I guess pharmaceutical. I parked Whitey Jackson and leaned him against the Airstream being careful not to scratch the silver bullet. On the third try (third out of four panniers, I mean) I finally located my 3-in-1 face soap/body wash/shampoo and staggered to the outdoor shower. (BTW, there was duct tape on the hot and cold knobs. Just yesterday, Scott had texted that they were opposite as labeled…so which was it? Gaslighting?? Nope, they were now labeled correctly). I called my sponsor and texted a few people, including Natalie, to report that I made it through Day 1. Happy to be clean and dry, I toyed around with my various devices contemplating writing a blog post but marveling at how I was (hopefully temporarily) short of words and devoid of capacity to do anything but stare at the screen. Jolting me out of Jen came home and invited me inside. While making a salad for us, she asked me questions about the ride, and because I was so out of it, I rambled my responses more than usual. Scott came a bit later and we ate together out on the patio, with their sweet little dachshund, Cricket, beside us waiting for chicken to fall from the sky.
Shepherdstown is a university town (Shepherd University, a liberal arts school of about 4,000 students). Jen and Scott met at as students at Shepherd and, after living other places, eventually moved back there (though they didn’t like the town as students). They are a couple who are clearly meant for each other and are happy as hell, it seems, to be at the threshold of retirement as educators (Jen this year, Scott the next). They are the sort you’d love to have as neighbors, easygoing, helpful, open. And they are committed to Colbert’s nightly show taping it on the nights they’re out. They listened to my patter as I tried to stay awake and eat and converse. Later, we mapped out (in mapmyfitness) how tomorrow I’d bypass the rest of the C&O Towpath detours, ending up at the 100-mile marker of the canal at Williamsport. Scott reassured me multiple times that where they were sending me was not the mountainous mess of a route that Joan had sent me on.