What a magnificent reminder of history and the achievements of 19th century man is the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The Paw Paw tunnel, carved through a mountain, the old cement mill that operated through the Civil War, Harper's Ferry, the mosquitos.
Mosquitos? They never mention mosquitos when they talk about the C&O. But that's what Scott and Paul Saltzman and I best remember from our "idyllic" summer bicycle tour of the famous towpath.
It was Scott's idea, as I remind him constantly. I think he wanted to get back at me for our Washington-Annapolis journey of several years ago, when he had about 10 flats and had to get a ride back. He rubbed it in by bringing along his 15-year-old brother Paul. There's nothing wrong with Paul, except that he enjoyed the canal trip.
"You've got cramps? Wow, I feel great," he was always saying.
I imagine a trip down the canal can be fun, if you have five days, clincher (conventional) tires, and cool weather to do the 180 miles. Scott an I figured we could do it in three days on our lightweight 10-speed bikes with tubular (high pressure) tires. But tubular tires don't cut it on rocks, ruts, gravel and dirt. Paul's bike had clinchers.
The C&O drops 605 feet from Cumberland to Washington, so the obvious thing to do was to ride downhill.
We'd planned to camp out the first night at Evitts Creek, also known as Hiker-Biker Overnighter No. 1. Others are located about every five miles along the towpath. Each appointed with a Johnny-on-the-Spot plus a water pump that usually works, Hiker-Bikers provide the ideal stopover for the rough-and-ready bicycle camper. We stayed at the Cumberland Holiday Inn.
Our first-day aiming point was Hancock, Maryland. Heck, the towpath is flat, and we figured 60 miles a day would be easy.
We weren't far wrong -- at first. The path was reasonably smooth, trees kept the sun off our backs, and the bugs couldn't keep up. Ten miles along, exhilarated, I started a sprint. At 11 miles I had my first flat.
Still, things weren't going too badly. We had the tire replaced (tubular tires usually take over an hour) and were on our way within minutes. Five miles later, it started to rain. No problem: put on ponchos. Check the time. Two o'clock! And only 15 miles into the trip. Oh well, push on. Ten miles to Paw Paw Tunnel. Forty-five minutes and we're there. And the rain is stopping.
The Paw Paw was closed for repairs. We would have to climb. But first I wanted to take pictures. Hmm, I thought there were only 24 shots on this roll. Must be a 36er.
There's only a footpath up the mountain, and with 40 pounds of gear on our bikes, the going wasn't easy. The highest ridge of the mountain, however, was a treat. The mountains of West Virginia in the distance, Potomac River winding its way beneath us . . . I had to get a picture.
"Great shots, guys. Just one more, one more . . . Oh no!"
The film hadn't caught on the takeup side, accounting for the seemingly endless roll.
Four o'clock, 20 miles from Little Orleans, the nearest town and nearest source of food. We'd been eating marshmellows all day. Four hours of tree-lined muddy washboard later, we got there.
Little Orleans had a general store that sold food. We ate, swam in the Potomac, we talked to the old man parked in a huge motor home next to our tent. He had one ear and no teeth.
Reasonably rested, we got off early next morning, almost without breakfast. We caught the store owner just as he was leaving for church.
"Ouch, eeck, ooch, darnit my knee," was about all I said for the next 30 miles -- when I wasn't changing a tire. I had three flats in those 30 miles. The first leak was a "no problem" change. Another mile and the brand-new tire was flat.
Changing a tire on the canal is hell. The canal mosquito is a thirsty creature, and the sight of their noses buried deep in my arms reminded me of Humphrey Bogart and the leeches in the "African Queen."
Midafternoon, 30 miles into the day, 75 into the trip, we hit McCoy's Ferry. There were people there. Which was nice because while the towpath scenery is pleasant, it also is monotonous. There are towns along the way, but you have to leave the path to reach them and we hadn't the time. Mileage became our motivation. As we passed each milepost we celebrated with war whoops.
After McCoy's Ferry the terrain became generally more hospitable.
The main exception was a short stretch east of Williamsport, where we stopped to grab a pizza. Dark was falling but we decided to make a dash for the hotel in Falling Waters, five miles down the path. Ignoring a sign warning that the area was under repair, we entered a section that can only be described as a jungle.
This part of the canal breeds the fastest mosquitos known to man; they stabbed us even as we rode. Stopping was out of the question, until a stick fouled my rear spokes. Scott, riding ahead, ignored my cries and disappeared into the distance. Paul stopped for a second, slapped 20 mosquitos off his arm, and rode off. Fifty bites and two minutes later, I got the stick out. Steaming mad, I chased my "buddies."
Falling Waters Hotel is no Holiday Inn. It's better. We spent a couple of hours in the living room fixing tires and talking to housemother Pam Parrot. In the next room, Don Leuchs, the housefather and Chuck Fisher, "a semipermanent guest," were having a guitar and recorder jam session.
Pam's breakfast French toast was made with homemade bread, eggs right out of the chicken and goat's milk.
Since our trip, I understand Pam, Don, and Chuck have moved on. The new house parents are Richard and Cathy Bean, who say the hotel is basically the same.
After breakfast we bade goodbye to our hosts and headed onto a five-mile detour around Big Slackwater, an area where no canal was built because the river was deep enough to float the barges. The towpath in the area is to far gone to ride.
The detour had hills. Usually this would have been all right by me. I like a change of pace. But I had stuffed myself at breakfast. Again, I complained about the pain. When we returned to the towpath though, I was ready to ride a hundred miles. Must've been that fresh maple syrup.
We hit Harpers Ferry, 30 miles down the road, by one o'clock. The restored Civil War town was to be our first and last sightseeing stop. We left town at three o'clock headed for Whites Ferry, 20 miles away. We never made it. One mile past Harpers Ferry, I had a flat. Two miles later, Scott had one. He used the last spare, but my tire, repaired the night before, was going flat.
We were out of tires. We had to quit. Brunswick, Maryland, was a mile down the road, and we decided to call for help there.
As our crew came to this sad realization, I said, "Doggone, I was hoping to finish."
Scott and Paul broke up.
"That's the first time you haven't complained the whole way," Paul said, laughing.