High on my 2013 list of adventures was a bike overnight – my first since our 2008 three day trek from Boston to Provincetown, MA. Though I was longing for an extended trip, an overnight was much more manageable with our schedule. The Adventure Cycling Association’s Bike Overnights page really pushed the point further with the tagline “Don’t wait to go cross country. Go overnight”.
Selection of the type of overnight was tough, as I would prefer to start directly from home – but home is also in the dead center of the city, meaning many of our first miles would be less than peaceful. Thankfully some local cyclists stepped in with some inspiration – Crystal and Adam recently completed a cross-country journey, and Lisa led a group of friends on an overnight. Each of these treks started on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C&O) towpath in Georgetown, a route that quickly evacuates you into nature. The 50 mile route out to Lock House 28 at Point of Rocks was ambitious – loaded touring can make 50 miles feel like 150 depending on the road surface, frequency of stops and elevation changes – but the flat and uninterrupted C&O seemed manageable. It also overlapped nicely with our segmental approach to the canal. It also overlapped nicely with our segmental approach to the canal. Reservations were made with the C&O Canal Trust and invites were sent.
Our planned group of 7 whittled away to only Kate and myself - and as the day arrived we realized we had gotten ourselves quite nervous about the mileage and trail conditions. I had just put in a 45 mile commute the day before, and would be carrying all of our gear for the trip – so when within minutes of our departure both my shoelace snapped and the valve stem on my front wheel crumbled in my fingers, I was not put at ease. Nevertheless, we made it out the door with spare tubes and a backup set of shoes/cleats – our padded gloves however remained in the closet. Ooops.
We wound our way through town for a stop at Baked & Wired in Georgetown (all good bike trips begin with caffeine and sugar) – then were off on our way using the paved Capital Crescent Trail to avoid the bumpy C&O for the first few miles.
We passed numerous Lock Houses, and the Great Falls Visitor center – making excellent time despite the crowds enjoying the beautiful weather. There aren’t many designated scenic overlooks on the C&O – but there sure is enough to see. Whether it is passing hikers or cyclists, turtles and fish in the Canal, ruins of historic structures, or glimpses of the river below you. As a result, time passes equally fast and slow. The trail is straight and relatively level, and you can lose track of the trail conditions very quickly while admiring the sights – a perfect example of tunnel vision. We had to constantly remind ourselves to stop and eat, drink and stretch – and also to stay back from riding partners. If you’re staring at their back wheel the occasional large pothole in the trail, or slow moving walker can be obscured leading to emergency maneuvers. At one point I got too close to Kate as she barely nipped the tail of a large snake laying on the trail. As it recoiled only feet in front of me, my heart nearly leaped out of my chest at the unexpected nature!
We ate a small lunch at around Mile 30, and continued on for more snacks and cool beverages at Whites Ferry (Mile 35). Unfortunately, at Mile 34.5 Kate pulled up with a flat – her 700×25 tires had performed well (and continued to perform well later on), but a snakebite puncture due to low tire pressure/volume was inevitable. Had she been loaded, I bet there would have been many more flats. I still stick with a 700×28 tire as a minimum recommendation for the trail.
During the stop we met some great touring cyclists, many from DC, who were also passing through. One couple on a tandem were on a shake-down ride in preparation for a month-long tour in Europe next month! We leapfrogged each other a few times, and enjoyed some great conversations and company. Before we knew it, and with ample daylight remaining we reached our destination and began scoping it out. No electricity or water were found, but ample bedding, a porta-john, firewood and secure bike storage would do.
Even though we had planned on checking out the food situation in Point of Rocks (1 mile south on the trail), where there is a pizza joint, a gas station, and a creamery – a flurry of text messages revealed one of our friends who couldn’t make the bike portion was on her way by car with dinner! Chips and fresh guacamole, hot dogs, corn and a few bottles of Port City Brewing Optimal Wit. Honestly I don’t think there could have been a tastier dinner to be had that night!
After unpacking, we quickly became aware of why the canal is no longer operating – the CSX freight tracks run parallel to the canal, only a few hundred feet from the lock house – and they are well used. During the day these interruptions don’t amount to much, maybe an interrupted conversation. But at night, on the rock hard beds in the lock house, the additional noise would interrupt much needed sleep. We found that with proper bed selection and strategic closing of windows and shutters the noise could be kept to a minimum.
The next morning we awoke and began to change into clean cycling clothes, but were interrupted frequently by passers by, who wanted a peek inside the house. Happy to oblige, we answered their questions and shooed them away so we could finish packing up. We were out the door at 9:30 and ready to hit the trail! But first, coffee and breakfast at the newly opened Deli on the Rocks.
Once again we met a couple of touring cyclists from DC, and again we leapfrogged back and forth until they split off at Whites Ferry. I hope they had a good ride!
The ride home was mostly uneventful, save for the snake encounter. We did realize (too late) that we were setting a fast pace and not eating or drinking nearly enough – despite our attempts to remember this the day before. A few rest stops were taken, but our big mistake was to not have a list of “attractions” handy with their respective mile markers. On the verge of bonk we pushed onwards thinking the visitor center at Great Falls was around each bend, for over 7 miles! By the time we arrived we were cooked. Lots of PB&J, plus some salty snacks and ice cream from the concession stand helped revive mind and body. And we got to see the lock in operation.
After missing some great opportunities this past summer – I also made sure to purchase my own copy of the National Park Service Passport. There is even a stamp for Lock House 28, which I had to paste into my book.
In no time we were back in familiar territory, and the mostly smooth paved CCT. In Georgetown, we stopped for iced coffee (and the air conditioning) and a rest along the banks of the Potomac. By this time we had put in 101 miles, and had about 3.5 left before home. It was so nice to be back on paved roads that I barely noticed the horrible noises coming from my dust and grit encrusted drivetrain. A full cleaning is scheduled soon, along with a handful of other maintenance items.
Ravenously hungry, we cleaned up and headed out to dinner on H Street NE, and enjoyed a few brews from the new local brewery – Atlas Brew Works. The topic of conversation… our next bike adventure – only 2 weeks away in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France!