O glorious Day 5!
Sunlight and dry Towpath!
Dawn frightened us. Harper’s Ferry from Hancock is longer even than Hancock from Cumberland, and after the “Long Slog” (that is the name of Day 4) we were exhausted in legs and spirit. Our quads ached. And now we faced another longer day of staring right over our handlebars at the ground, avoiding the deepest puddles and ruts, grinding along at 7 or 8 miles and hour, relieved only by the occasional view of the river or the meadows that surround the occasional lock. Five minute breaks. Squirt a jet of water into the mouth from a muddy water bottle. Back on the bike. Day 5 promised to be long and sore.
Disconsolately, we chomped our meager motel breakfast.
Sipping my styrofoam cup of coffee in the little lobby of kitsch motel, we happened to see a trifold flyer on the coffee table between our oatmeal and cheap bagels. The Western Maryland Rail Trail. What was this? I unfolded the flyer. And hope glimmered. At the end of Day 4, turning left off the Towpath and coming into Hancock, we crossed an old railroad bed. It’s a paved, wheel-chair accessible section of a park on Hancock’s Potomac waterfront. We figured it stretched no further than the park itself. But there it was on a map: a long red line paralleling the C&O Towpath for ten miles above and below town.
We could pedal the first ten of our 65-miles on sweet solid ground! That would leave us only 55 miles of uneven, muddy bike trail. A little less than Day 4, not a little more. That was enough. We felt sure we could do it. We felt sure we could at least attempt to do it.
I folded up the map and put it in the pages of our bible, the Trail Book. Almost with a smile, I finished my gluey, too-sweet Quaker Oats apple & cinnamon porridge.
Pride and Prejudice
We hoisted our aching butts on our saddles, coasted the half-mile winding downhill from the kitsch motel back to the town park, and turned left on the glorious blacktopped rail bed.
Zoom! We flew along, our handlebars and our seats as quiet as can be, never a bump. The wind was at our backs, ushering us along even faster. Our pedaling was nearly effortless. We hit our highest gear on our 24-speed bikes, and that wasn’t high enough. Legs pumping almost without effort. Then we plowed through that barrier–like a supersonic jet breaking through the sound barrier–when you’re going so fast that even with the wind at the back you feel again resistance on your face and front. You’re outpacing the wind. You’re flying swifter than a gliding bird. Your own lightening speed creates drag as you plow through the air.
In less than an hour–less than fifty minutes–the pavement was gone. We swallowed the ten miles like we were going down a steep hill all the way. And it dumped us out in a clearing, a state park, a perfect place to take a break.
A fort from the French and Indian War in the middle of a giant grassy lawn. Its tall stone walls seemed crazy, like a Foreign Legion citadel in the desert. Best of all, as you can see above, it was topped by gorgeous blue skies. Nary a cloud. The sunlight cast shadows sharp enough to carve a turkey.
Sunlight. It banished all puddles. The mud was sucked back into the earth. The C&O was hard-packed, dry, and hardly pitted at all, as smooth as a dirt path can be, as if it were conscious that it was competing with the solid-ground Rail Trail. Proud of the trail they fringed, flowers bloomed in the sunlight.
It seemed we were strolling along the paths of a Jane Austen novel. Maybe some picturesque gipsies would be camping in the woods, smoke from their fire curling up from the gloom and scratching a charcoal line against the blue sky. Maybe Mr. Darcy himself would clop by on a horse and invite us to Pemberly. On this glorious morning it did not seem so far-fetched.
Our prejudice against the C&O vanished.
Breaking through the Wall
Marathoners talk about the wall. It comes somewhere around mile 18 or 20, when the toil and extreme stress catch up with even the best-trained bodies, a mental as much as physical barrier the demands the runner to stop running. To collapse. Depleted muscles tell the brain to give in to exhaustion. We hit our wall on Day 4.
Lying in bed in the kitsch motel, we wondered if we could on. Our legs hurt. The exhilaration of sublime mountain views had given way to the dull repetition of mud puddles. Our psyches were low. Our hearts weren’t in it.
I don’t know if it was the pavement of the Western Maryland Rail Trail or the sunshine or the better maintained stretch of the Towpath itself, but we felt like we broke through a wall. Sure, the pedaling was still hard. Our muscles were still sore. But we felt strong.
We passed through-bikers on the way up the Towpath from D. C., probably on their second day of riding, and we gave them the salute. Only this time we weren’t imposters. We weren’t barely-in-shape, ride-four-miles-to-work-at-the-college professors pretending to be long-distance bikers. We had biked over 200 miles. Four days ago, we mounted our bikes on a chilly morning in Pittsburgh. Now here we were, were less than two days from D. C. And we felt strong.
Runners also talk of a “high,” what Runner’s World calls “[n]ature’s home-brewed opiates.” They are endorphins that explode in the “pre-frontal and limbic” regions of the brain, and they give you the same euphoria that falling in love gives you.
That might be laying it on a bit thick, but we certainly felt good.
We ate lunch in Williamsport, mile 25 for the day, at the Desert Rose Café. I had a side salad and eggs sandwich. Susan had black bean soup and grilled cheese. It was the best food we ever tasted in our lives. We were full of exaggeration.
The people at the Desert Rose were set up for bikers. They proffered trail mix. We gladly accepted. We asked if they had any apples we could buy. They didn’t normally sell them, but they had some in the back they sliced up for us and sprinkled with lemon juice. They refilled our water bottles.
We rolled back down the hill towards the river, full of confidence, full of exaggeration. The world seemed bigger than normal, more in focus, sharper, our senses were alive, our taste buds alive, the world was a wonder to the touch of our fingers. It served up brilliant things for the eyes to see.
We came to Dam #5. What a gorgeous sight. We came to a long stretch where the Potomac runs right up to cliffs, and the Towpath became this wonderful poured-cement shelf, almost like a pier, running just above the water at the cliff’s base.
Sixty-five miles? It turned out to be 71 miles. We came to the bridge to Harper’s Ferry and discovered that the Knight’s Inn was actually on the Maryland side, where there was no town, high up over the cliffs, accessible only by riding past its spot on the map several miles and doubling back on a road that ascended into the woods like we were climbing a mountain. I think we gained a thousand feet in a mile. No matter. We pulled into the Knights Inn, tired, happy, confident we would finish the remaining 45 miles on Day 6.