Thursday, May 24, 2018.
On May 24 (aka Day 2), I woke up with muck-encrusted eyes and a desiccated maw after not sleeping so well. I still had the cough I’d cultivated over the past weekend. Aside from the heels of my hands and the ends of toes, I wasn’t sore from the ride. Yet. I knew that tomorrow would be worse in terms of the aches and pains. I’m fine for my body to procrastinate – who am I to judge? I drank last night’s lukewarm water from my as yet unwashed bike water bottle and surveyed my surroundings on somewhat wobbly legs. As I’d left him last night, Whitey Jackson was leaned up against the Airstream slick from the thick coat of dew. The birds welcomed me. Many, many, many birds.
Jen and Scott were gone to work at their respective schools by the time I got up. I took advantage of their offer to use the bathroom and kitchen and found a warm note from them wishing me luck on my journey and encouraging me to eat whatever food was there. I put peanut butter on some toast, ate a handful of the blackberries I’d bought, and made a sandwich (for lunch) out of the rest of the turkey and some baby kale mix, leaving the rest of the berries and greens for Jen and Scott. Remembering my experience of extremely limited fruit and veg from 2009, that was a huge risk! But I had faith that more produce would be in my future (and while kale and berries are wonderful, they are far less appetizing after hours of stewing in their own juices under the weight of heat and humidity). Also, it’s nine years later and healthier foods are more accessible, right? And if I passed a supermarket yesterday, then why not today?
As I set off on Day 2, I realized that I didn’t save and upload the map in mapmyfitness that I created with Scott and Jen for the first 17 or so miles of today’s ride. Aaargh. I was already setting off later than I wanted to, so I just took a screenshot of the directions and texted it to myself. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for one thing, I don’t have a particularly well-developed sense of direction. Inevitably, whenever I go for a run in an unfamiliar place, I get lost. I just figure, oh, I’ll just do out-and-back, no prob,but it never quite works out that way. In addition to this shortcoming, I also find it really, REALLY hard to listen AND remember instructions as they are provided to me. It’s not that I actively choose not to pay attention; it’s more that I’ve been blessed with an abnormally minute attention span. …wait, what were we just talking about? Hmmm…I can’t quite… See what I mean? And then I incorporate the oh, I’ll just figure it out later, it’ll be fine attitude. And then adding the inauspicious resource of tiny printed directions on a screenshot on my iPhone which I can’t really see cuz I can’t, um, read tiny printed directions without glasses, AND a glitch in mapmyfitness’s (and ridewithGPS’s and the rest I’ve never tried, I’m sure) route creation that often leads to tiny printed directions not being correct in the first place. So then, my friends, where am I?
Making a wrong turn almost immediately, that’s where. After about 1.5 miles of disquiet (Is this right? I hope it’s right. Please let it be right. It can’t be right. But maybe it is. If it’s not obvious in another quarter-mile, I will ask someone I swear!), I wake up Joan (who, I swear, has a look-what-the-cat-dragged-inpitch to her instructions) and turn around to head, umm…east? Still not 100% sure where the fuck I’m going.
I figured it out eventually. Joan did help, albeit with an air of self-satisfied vindication, and I was off. I had to backtrack a bit crossing the Potomac back into Maryland, but I was finally on my way. Again. As I bypassed the entrance to the C&O, now dutifully following Scott’s instructions, I ran into a quartet of young women on loaded bicycles. They were across the bridge from me headed in the opposite direction, stopped and looking at a map. I called out to them. As it turns out, Brittany (the leader of the pack), Erin (firmly in the co-pilot position on the C&O Canal’s Facebook page trying to figure out the closures), and Abby and Angel (self-described “Third” and “Caboose,” respectively) were also headed to Pittsburgh. After some discussion, the group and I were satisfied with our intended routes. They were going to head down to the C&O path and follow the posted detours (in large part because they weren’t into cycling on the roads), and I was continuing on my road-based route to Williamsport and hopping on the C&O from there. Brittany and I exchanged numbers and have subsequently texted/friended/followed each other. (She and Erin made it to PGH but Abby and Angel had enough and thew in the towel a couple more days in.) Already an ultramarathoner, Brittany is planning on doing an Olympic distance triathlon this year and working her way up toward ironman distance. Get it, Brittany!
The ride to Williamsport was pretty relaxing. As Scott promised, it wasn’t too hilly. He’d also mentioned Desert Rose Café as a cyclist-friendly place to grab a coffee and lunch. I was still full from breakfast (it had only been 20 miles) but decided to stop anyway. It ended up being one of those times when following another’s advice – letting someone local be the expert instead of me muscling onward – proved fruitful. While at Desert Rose, I spoke to one of the workers there who told me that starting around Big Pool was the 22-mile Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMRT) that runs alongside of the C&O and is paved! I probably would have missed that, or seen it/overthunk it, had I not stopped in there.
From Williamsport I flew down to the river again and onto the C&O Towpath. It was another day away from the storms but still quite muddy. Fifteen miles later I shifted onto the paved WMRT, giving myself a break from the slippery, gravely muck of the Towpath, and stopped next in Hancock. The C&O Bike Shop is in a structure divided between the shop and a general store, with live bait! I got some different Nuun electrolyte tablets (having discovered that the type I’d brought from LA had caffeine in it, which explained why it was so hard to fall and stay asleep the night before, despite being exhausted from the first day’s ride). My goal was to make it to Paw Paw, West Virginia and maybe camp at one of the free campsites along the canal. I scanned the display of maps and tourist adventure brochures and found one for a bike hostel/B&B-type deal for $25. Hell yes! I called the number to see if there was room and spoke to Dan who was immediately warm and helpful, said he’d be getting on his bike in a while and would ride in my direction to meet me. Of course, I wanted to say, “Don’t bother, it’s fine, I don’t need that” or whatever, but I am practicing saying YES on this trip.
It was a relief to know where I was going to end up that night, but I was still about 30 miles away. I pretty much rode for those miles.
Ow, my butt is starting to get sore.
Cough. Cough drop.
I wonder how bad I smell.
Let the thoughts go.
The canal continues along the Potomac as it serpentines toward Paw Paw and its tunnel. Paw Paw Tunnel took fifteen years to complete and, in its time, proved to be a financial boon to nearly Cumberland, Maryland (at the end of the C&O Canal which I’d reach tomorrow). A few miles from the tunnel I spied a guy on a bike who I assumed would be Dan (he said he’d be wearing a C&O Canal Volunteer neon vest and there it was).
“You made good time.” Dan seemed impressed. “I thought I’d be having a longer ride out to meet you.” Aww, stop!
Dan is from somewhere nearby in Virginia and retired to the small town of Paw Paw, pedaling on the C&O 30 to 40 miles per day, because he loves it – impressive. He’s an expert on the trail, Paw Paw Tunnel and its history, and through his description of the environment, and the boats and beasts of burden, I was able to focus enough to visualize the purpose of the C&O Canal and towpath for the first time, to actually get what it was that I’d been riding alongside of for 100 or so miles. Also a birder, Dan asked me if I’d seen this bird or that along the trail, and I was stumped. Birds. I don’t really know anything about them. I tried to play along a bit and not sound like a complete city boy twit (wait, Twitus Urbani, that’s a bird species, right?) but then gave up. Just teach me. Dan understood and said he’d show me his bird posters when we got back to his pad. They were right there on the wall, he promised.
Alas, we didn’t do any avian research upon arrival, but again, the rub’s the same: you meet people, you listen to what makes them cuckoo, and it sticks. I’ve been certainly more aware of birds since that day and have picked out some obvious ones (cardinals, blue jays, wild turkeys) and even looked a few up that I kept seeing everywhere: mourning dove (until the other day, I thought it was morning dove…more like morning DUH), the red-winged blackbird, and the American robin. Yes, it’s true. I did not know the American robin. #epicbirdfail #newlyreformedbirdfailure
As we approached the tunnel, Dan suggested I might walk my bike through. It’s 0.6 miles of darkness, and hard to maneuver with a load such as mine/Whitey’s. Of course, initially I wanted to bro it out, but, fuck, who even cares? It was Day 2. I’d ridden 76 miles already. Did I want to be the guy who careens over the (pretty low) rail into the canal below and snaps his neck? Nope. We walked. It was nice and cool in there, compared to what I’d been experiencing all day. Dan waxed historical and local, and I wish I remembered everything he said.
After the tunnel, we crossed the river into Paw Paw. (Welcome back to WV, BTW!) Dan lives in a small two-bedroom house across from the post office, only a few hundred feet from the trail. He has ample room for a few people. It’s a great thing he’s got going. A way to get to know other cyclists and get out on the trail to meet them, make a little cash, share his home. He excused himself to walk Moxie, sweet dachshund #2 of the trip. I jumped in the shower and then headed to the convenience store to get some chips or something to go along with the soggy turkey and baby kale sandwich I’d made at Jen and Scott’s early that morning. And ooh, a yogurt! Forgot about that. At least the towpath is shady, so both the sandwich and yogurt were deemed edible.
On my way out, I ran into Jacob, a dude from Indiana who is on a 5,000-mile trek all around the country on an electronic bicycle, which certainly helps, but he still does 70% of the work and more than that on hills. And he’s carrying batteries which are incredibly heavy. Jacob is raising funds for ScholarShop Africa a nonprofit organization that he started with two other former Peace Corps volunteers in Cameroon. According to their website, ScholarShop Africa ‘is an innovative new program that rewards civic engagement and hard work with the school supplies that students need to succeed. Armed with textbooks, confidence, purpose, and practical entrepreneurial skills, participants are empowered to drive their communities forward.’ Donate here! You can also follow his blog at https://jakesjourney.online. Jacob is on his way to D.C. for a birthday party and then Florida to see his sister’s new baby, just rolled off the trail to find a place to camp and saw Dan’s sign.
It was kismet (?), a blessing (?), luck (?) to meet someone so likeminded and inspiring after a long day. My first (of a few already, believe it or not) conversations about grant writing occurred that evening – something I thought I wouldn’t think about until August when I get back to work! I briefly flashed on a feeling of fuck, I should be doing this ride for a cause,but then reminded myself that so much of my life is driven by (nonprofit) causes. I am also reminded that I should write a post about why I am doing this. Truthfully, there are many reasons (because it’s there, because I need a break from “real life”, because I’m turning 50 soon, because I love to ride my bike, because I want to become more intimate with this country and its people, etc.). But there are other reasons, too, the ones that I am trying to figure out through sharing these words with you.
After sharing photos and blogs and Instagrams, Jacob and I got to bed pretty late. Hard to fall asleep. Stupid caffeinated Nuun tablets. Dan said he’d make breakfast for 6am. Jacob aimed to get all the way (150-ish miles) to D.C. the next day, and I didn’t know where I’d end up.