Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Spinning Wheels (From DC to PGH - Day 1)

            I woke up early Sunday morning as Bob expected it to take ninety minutes to two hours to drive from Shepherdstown to Georgetown and I was supposed to meet Vince at the beginning of the C and O Canal by 8:30. It had rained overnight and a fine mist was in the air as I climbed out of bed. It was also chilly for late May.

            The first thing I did was check the forecast on my cell phone. It was not a good one. The chance of rain had increased to above 50% and the day’s high was not expected to exceed the low 60’s. With the forecast being what it was I decided to wear my wool cycling socks instead of the synthetic ones,  waterproof riding pants over cycling shorts, a long sleeved cycling jersey instead of a short sleeved one, and my Marmot Pre-Cip jacket over my jersey.

            We left Shepherdstown around 6:45 AM and stopped after a while at a red and yellow Sheetz, ubiquitous in the area, to fill up on gas, and at a McDonalds for coffee and breakfast. Bob used his windshield wipers all the way into DC as a light rain was falling the whole time.

            After a while Bob pulled out his I-pad and cradled it between his hands over the steering wheel, using it as a GPS to navigate us to our destination. After I noticed what he was doing I pulled my hand held Garmin GPS out of my pocket, turned it on, entered the address for the C and O Visitors Center in Georgetown, and started giving Bob directions so that he could keep his eyes on the wet road rather than looking between the roadway and his I-pad.

            Bob eventually pulled over to the side of the street near the C and O Canal and Visitors’ Center and parked. I crawled out of the front passenger seat and started unloading my gear from behind the seats. Then I climbed into the bed of the truck, unlocked my bike, and handed it down to Bob. He steadied it for me as I attached two 45 liter panniers to the back rack, two 30 liter panniers to the front rack, and strapped my sleeping pad, tent with poles, and tarp with poles to the top of the back rack and between the tops of the panniers. It was lightly raining the whole time but I was now ready to roll.

            As I walked a few feet uphill to cross over canal, Bob slipped back into his truck, said “good bye” and “good luck”, and drove away, honking as he passed me. I was now alone, in a light rain, needing to find my way along the C and O to its beginning at milepost zero where I was to meet Vince.

            As soon as I mounted my bike and headed down the wet, sloping brick sidewalk next to the canal, the weighted bicycle seemed so unsteady that I thought “Oh My God, How am I going to survive the next eight days?” I persevered, however, and made my way to the Rock Creek Parkway; turned right on the asphalt sidewalk, crossed a couple ramps under K Street, and found my way to the Thompson Boat Center and a throng of people in its parking lot, most of them wearing PFDs.

            I later learned that there was a boat race event going on, explaining the parking lot filled with people with police directing traffic. I slowly stopped my bike, climbed off, and walked it through the plethora of people. As I rounded the boat house I heard someone say “There is no outlet that way” to which another person responded “He is probably looking for the beginning of the trail”, and I was.

            After I rounded the boat center I saw a small wooden pedestrian bridge leading to Milepost Zero. I walked my bike to the cement pillar and leaned my ride against it. The famed Watergate Hotel was behind me and the Thompson Boat Center and C and O Canal was before me.  The time was about 8:30 AM and I expected Vince to show up with his bike at any moment.

            Not long after I arrived I saw a cyclist walking his bike toward me. A plastic milk crate filled with gear was strapped to the back rack. It was not Vince but a rider from Baltimore named Joel. He told me he was planning to ride from DC to Cumberland. We talked a bit and then he rode off on the start of his journey. Soon after Joel left I received a call from Vince. He had just checked out of the Hostel and was on his way. He would be arriving a little late,  but at least he was on his way.

            Knowing it would be at least thirty minutes before Vince arrived and tired of standing in the light rain waiting for him, I left my bike propped against milepost zero and walked over to the boat center where I stood under an awning to stay dry. After a while I noticed a man on a bike with no gear heading past the boat house toward the milepost zero and my bike, I walked that way to keep a watch and we struck up a conversation. I learned that the man’s name was Tom. He was from Boston and was scheduled to meet his son Charlie, from Austin, later that evening. They were planning to begin their DC to Pittsburg ride the following morning and Tom had ridden down this morning just to scout out the area as he and his son had never been there before.

Vince and I at Milepost Zero on the C and O Canal
            As Tom left I walked with him and his bike back to the boathouse and continued to wait for Vince.  I watched teams of eight rowers get into and out of boats and row away as I waited. Eventually, around 9:30 AM, I spotted my former student walking his gear loaded bike through the throng of boaters and approaching me. I greeted him and accompanied him to my bike and the official beginning of our ride. We took a few obligatory photos, walked our bikes back across the narrow bridge and through the mass of people around the boat center until we felt safe riding.

            Since I knew the way back to the Tow Path and Vince did not I led the way back from whence I had come earlier that wet morning. After we passed where Bob had let me off, the next time we stopped to cross a street I invited Vince to take the lead. After all, this was his trip. I was just riding along.

            Not long after Vince took the lead we transitioned from brick sidewalk to a graveled, muddy trail. One section under an overpass was so narrow and muddy that I thought for sure one or both of us would end up in the canal just inches away to our left. Thank heavens no one was coming from the other direction and we managed to emerge from the other side of the overpass unscathed.

            Not long afterward we stopped and climbed off our bikes to walk them across a pedestrian overpass from the city side of the canal to the Potomac side, which would more or less be our orientation all the way to Cumberland, MD – the C and O Canal to our right and the Potomac River to our left.

            After we crossed over the canal we eventually started encountering muddy marathoners running the opposite direction we were peddling. At least the towpath was wide enough for us to miss each other, but still, we had to exercise a little extra caution every time we neared a group of runners. Single runners were not as much a concern.

            With Vince riding in front, we rode at about an 8-9 mph pace, a bit slower than my usual 12-15 mph pace, but my usual pace was on dry paved rail trail without a week’s worth of clothes, food, and camping gear attached to my bike.  Muddy spots really slowed us down, sometimes to 6-7 mph, and occasionally one of our wheels would slip sideways in the mud but we always managed to recover and not wipe out. We could feel the constant light rain and 60° temperatures zapping out strength even early on, but we persevered.

Great Falls of the Potomac
           After about 14 ½ miles we finally reached the Great Falls of the Potomac. We rode in under the roof of the Visitors Center where we stopped to rest and eat some lunch. Even though Vince and I were individually responsible for our meals, we had nearly the same provisions, tortilla wraps and a pouch of tuna. The only difference was that I also had a couple avocados and some grated parmesan cheese. I gladly shared half my avocado and some cheese with Vince.

            The roof of the visitor’s center afforded us the opportunity to enjoy lunch and a break out of the light rain. We might even have dried off a bit but my shoes and socks were still soaked and mud was sticking to my pedals, derailleur, and other parts of my bike. My waterproof riding pants and Pre-Cip jacket were at least keeping my upper body dry and warm.
            Fueled with food and a rest I felt some energy returning as we rode up to the viewing platform overlooking the falls for a better look at the falls. I had heard and read about this sight but never seen them for myself. Brownish water was booming over the falls in white waves, creating almost a deafening sound. Only several weeks later when I saw a photo of the falls someone posted on line would I realize how high the Potomac was and how much more water than usual was flowing over the falls that day.

            During our ride we saw at least three white tail deer and a couple of blue heron.  We also saw Joel as we seemed to be leapfrogging with him.  WE passed him as he was taking a break. He then catch up and passed Vince and I as we were taking a break.  Occasionally we would stop to compare notes and make sure each other was doing okay in such crappy conditions.

            Our  hour late start combined with the muddy tow path, constant light rain, and 60° temperature finally took its toll on us, especially Vince, and we decided to camp at the Turtle Run Hiker Biker Campsite at mile 34.4. Our itinerary had called for us to ride 50.3 miles to the Bald Eagle Island HBC and camp there, so by the end of our first day’s ride we were about sixteen miles behind schedule. We hoped to make up that mileage over the next two or three days and get back on track.

Camping at Turtle Run Hiker Biker Campsite
            As soon as we rolled into the campsite we set my tarp up over the only picnic table. Fortunately the table was far enough away from a huge mud puddle that we could ignore it, but the flat, grassy site was otherwise wet, even close to waterlogged.  There was another tent in the campsite but we had not seen or heard its occupant and were willing to share the table with anyone else who might already be there or show up later.

            After the tarp was erected we set up our individual tents. I was carrying an old Sierra Designs Ultra Flash two person three season tent. It weighed only four pounds and four ounces but was not free standing. Vince was packing the slightly heavier but freestanding Kelty Gunnison 2.3.

            Soon after the trap and our tents were up I changed out of my rain soaked riding shoes and socks into Tevas and out of my sweat damp riding shorts and jersey into dry cotton shorts and a SmartWool long sleeved top. It was actually cold enough for me to also wear a nylon riding jacket as well, not for the rain but for warmth.

            We cooked at the picnic table under the tarp using Vince’s MSR Wisperlite. I also was carrying a Wisperlight but rather than firing up both stoves we decided to take turns. We would use Vince’s stove and fuel for the night’s dinner and the next morning’s breakfast. We would then use my stove and fuel for the next night’s dinner and following breakfast and keep alternating.

            As we were fixing dinner we heard noises from the unknown camper. He emerged, engaged us in a brief conversation, and then started walking to a nearby establishment to get some dinner. I think we were both in our tents and asleep by the time he returned.

            As Vince and I ate we also talked about the day’s ride and our need to revise plans for the next three days. We calculated that if we added about five to six miles a day to our planned ride, covering closer to sixty miles a day rather than fifty, that we could still make it to Frostburg on the day we had reservations at the Trail Inn and meet up the next day with Vince’s aunt and uncle. So we planned to ride 56.5 miles the next day and camp at the Opequon Junction HBC at mile 90.0, stopping for lunch at the Huckleberry Hill HBC at mile 62.9.

            By the time we cleaned up after dinner and stowed our gear, Vince and I were both ready to turn in for the night. We said good night to each other retired to our respective tents. My sleeping pad and sleeping bag never felt so good. As I drifted off to sleep I hoped that the next day would be warmer and dryer and that we could cover more distance as we continued to set our sights on Pittsburgh about three hundred miles away.

Here are links to previous installments in the "Spinning Wheels" series:

From DC to PGH - Day 0 (Sixteenth Installment)

From DC to PGH - Prologue (Fifteenth Installment)
Transitioning (Fourteenth Installment)
Flats (Thirteenth Installment)
Beware Dehydration (Twelfth Installment)
Creams & Powders for your Butt (Eleventh Installment)

Group vs. Solo Rides (Tenth Installment)
Competitiveness (Ninth Installment)
Stats (Eighth Installment)
Accidents Happen (Seventh Installment)
Pedals for Cleats (Sixth Installment)
Riding Shoes with Cleats (Fifth Installment)
Be Kind to Your Behind (Fourth Installment)
Combating Hand and Arm Numbness (Third Installment) 
Reading and Riding (Second Installment)
Starting Over (First Installment) 

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